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Slice of Life

J West Hardin

Street Life at Central © J West Hardin Baldwin Beach © J West Hardin

As I was walking down Kameole 2 Beach on Maui's placid leeward shore one day I overheard a conversation between two ladies. One was saying, “This is what I thought heaven would look like when I pass.” This place brings out that type of emotion. The scenic beauty is simply breathtaking. Over the years many purist traveller friends have gagged when I brought up the subject of Maui. “Too commercialized,” they say. “Overrun with tourists.” From a purely travel purist perspective I can agree to an extent. I know people who would sleep in a ditch on the side of a highway before they would set foot in a five-star hotel on principal alone. I used to be one of them, at times mayor of that community, a proud veteran of many a “ditch party.” “But,” I remind them time and again, “You can do both on Maui.”

I have spent a lot of time on The Islands and love each and every one from intimate personal experience. I lived there for three years between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. I've been at intervals an Oahu North Shore surf punk. I've camped in the Makaha sand, trekked the stunning national parks, and circumnavigated both mellow Maui and jungle-scented Kauai on a bicycle. I returned years later as a blissed-out tourist to marry on the cliffs above Kaanapali on Maui's windward shore.

My wife Patricia and I travel back on a regular basis to share what we know about the islands with our son. It's a great place to vacation with a family – it's safe and peaceful. Our family has spent months-long school holidays on Maui to refresh. We refer to those times as “The Perfect Summers.” If that sounds like a fantasy come true, it was.

In the center of tourist-heavy areas of Kihei and Lahaina there are hidden beauties such as little-used beaches and ancient Banyan trees. These are what attract the tourists in the first place. In the regions the locals call “upcountry,” in Makawao and Kula, nature has been left unspoiled. There are no “dead zones” on Maui where commercialization has despoiled the environment to the point where it has become wasteland. The ocean is the great equalizer between the disparate groups – tourists and locals. Like with a religion, they meet at the water in peace.

Hawaiians respect their homeland and fight for the environment. This is entirely respected by a tourist industry that realizes their future relies on the preservation of nature's bounty. There is something special about being on the islands, even for a short time. Hawaii brings out the eco-warrior in everyone. Your soul tells you that this place is special within minutes of landing at Kahului Airport. A few minutes past Kahalui towards scenic Paia development is replaced by waving sugar cane fields. The heavenly Haleakala volcano on one side of the road and a dreamy coastline of blue water breaking on the other can fit anyone's description of island paradise.

Most people come to Maui for the perfect beaches and year-round weather. Days without sunshine are rare. The sun sets between 6:30 PM and 6:50 PM every day of the year. The sand and water are in pristine condition. There are strict laws against the discharge of any pollutants. There is no beach hawking. Littering is forbidden and enforced rigorously by beach patrols, lifeguards, police and the general public. Locals use the beaches as an extension of their living rooms. The absence of pollution keeps the water crystal clear. It's common to snorkel with green tortoises and to watch whales right off the beach.

“It's all old people,” the purists say. “It's too expensive.” That is not necessarily true. There is an established community of retirees from the mainland living in Kihei. The upside to this is that their need of creature comforts has attracted many conveniences for the benefit of the casual visitor. These include modern supermarkets, excellent shops, highly professional medical clinics, restaurants and dive rental outlets.

Like anywhere, you can always pay too much if you're unprepared. I stick to a budget on the islands and find it easy to hold the line against costs by being schooled in the local scene before departing my home base. (Information about Maui is easily accessible on the Internet.) One of my favourite Maui things is a visit to Longs Drugs on S. Kihei Road. It is a one-of-a-kind place where smooth Polynesian ladies wearing tropical flowers in their long black hair shop in their floral moo-moos to the lilting sounds of heavenly Hawaiian music piped into this unique slice of paradise. It's otherworldly, especially compared to other South Pacific destinations where no such affluence exists. I let the simplest things entertain me.

Many part-time residents have invested in rental condominium stock and make it available as holiday condos at reasonable rates. I prefer to stay in a condo rather than a hotel for the convenience of having a kitchen and added privacy. One website, vrbo.com, puts you in direct touch with individual owners, many of whom will negotiate rates depending on the season and availability. These condo complexes are fully equipped with swimming pools, tennis courts, BBQ pits, Internet, cable TV, telephones and great free parking for the rental car which you'll want to have to visit the many attractions on the islands.

In order to fully appreciate the simple beauty of Maui you have to look beyond the grey forest of aged tourists and the tourist infrastructure that, by the way, disappears if you choose not to look. I can rent a water-view one-bedroom condo metres from the beautiful beaches in Kihei on a monthly rate for as little as $35 per day, including all utilities and charges, net of state taxes.

Having established a home base we're ready to “go Hawaiian.” The first thing we like to do is get a tan started. Then we hit an ABC. This chain of stores is like 7-Eleven, only with tropical flare. The clerks will say “aloha” instead of “hello.” I bring nothing with me when I come to the islands, except the clothes on my back and electronic gear. I know I can buy everything I need for my time on the islands at the ABC. Flights from Vancouver generally land in Maui at 9 PM; I can be through customs, rent a car and be at out of my Kihei ABC before they close at 11PM with everything I need.

My initial checklist of island essentials includes a pound of dark and delicious Kona coffee and a few breakfast items (we cook most meals while in Maui). I load up on 70-SPF sunblock for protection during my first days of sun exposure. T-shirts and shorts are under $5. Flip flops, cheap sunglasses and a big hat all go into the basket. Beach mats, lounge chairs and towels are generously supplied by condo owners in most cases. That's it; we're ready. My garish rig has a Hunter Thompsonesque look about it as I bash away at my laptop while sitting in the sand.

There are three perfect beaches across the street from the two-mile-long condo strip in Kihei. The Kamaeole Beaches 1, 2 and 3 are like a string of pearls along the strip. Crossing the street loaded down with folding chairs and beach mats is not a problem; drivers have time to stop for tourists as the speed limit through town is set to “island speed” at 20 miles per hour. Choosing between the three perfect beaches is personal; they're all unique. Take your time. The scene in front of you hasn't changed for thousands of years.

The beaches are classic postcard visions of tropical splendour – golden sand and swaying palm trees against a backdrop of pure blue ocean. Lifeguards staffing yellow lookout towers are a fixture on every public beach in the county. The guards are a goldmine of information about the ocean and beach. They can tell you where on the island the conditions are exactly right for whatever you want to do. Between placid Kamaeole 3 and big wave Makenna Beach to the east of Kihei there is a beach for nudists called Little Beach. It's easily accessed from the same road to Big Beach, which is the local name for Makenna, a national preserve famous for the big pounding surf and long arc of golden sand.

There are always tourists on these Maui beaches. The numbers are dependent on the time of year, but there are never so many as in Waikiki during high season. Ninety percent of Maui tourists in the summer come from California and Texas and are looking to beat the summer heat in those regions. By mid-afternoon 90% of tourists have headed indoors for drinks and lunch. It's wonderful to feel like you've got the whole place to yourself. There are no Euro-style beach chairs stacked side by side. You can still have plenty of space to call your own – and people respect that. After a week on the Kamaeole beaches getting bronzed up with coffee-laced Maui Babe and Hawaiian Tropic lotions, I'm ready for the outlying beaches that are among the best you'll find anywhere in the world. I speak as an opinionated beach connoisseur but please hear me out.

A few miles north and east of Kihei, after a right turn off North Kihei Road and left on Highway 31, take the shortcut by-passing Kahalui through Puunene. Past the plantation-style post office behind the sugar plant, you'll find yourself on the Highway to Heaven, also known as the Hana Highway. By the way, when it's time for processing sugarcane you'll know it: the whole island smells like sweet molasses. It makes for pleasant dreams when the trade winds bring it through the bedroom windows.

Street Life at Central © J West Hardin Baldwin Shoreline © J West Hardin

Driving the snaking Hana Highway should be listed as one of the world's great driving experiences. It's a two-handed experience. We'll navigate a few miles of it before we get to our destination. Let me set this up: I have been to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, many before development, and have experienced them wild and raw as nature intended. But one of the most breathtaking beaches I have ever visited is right here on Maui in the Baldwin Beach Park, halfway between Kahalui and Paia. It's absolutely stunning! The perfect curving white sand beach has been a protected site from the time the first plantation colonialist governor, Baldwin, set foot on the island and proclaimed Maui County as a holding of the United States. Since that time development on Baldwin has never been allowed. There are no high-rise towers to block the view of the jagged volcanic peaks in the background. Again: stunning, out of a movie. It's all natural – not even coconut palms were planted to enhance the look where the trees didn't grow themselves. There are kaavi trees that grow wild in the dry soils of Maui's windward side. Baldwin Beach is as it was found by the Polynesians when they landed in Hawaii thousands of years ago – untouched and magical.

Look out into the ocean and you'll see a fringing reef wall formed out of lava flow from the omnipresent Haleakala volcano. The protective reef kicks up constant sets of big waves that can be surfed all year round. The consistent east-to-west current allows for some of the best and safest drift diving and shoreline swimming anywhere. The inner reef is a wonderland for snorkelers. Natural formations in the reef create perfectly sheltered swimming pools for little kids to safely play in at the west end of the beach. The beach park is largely ignored by mainstream tourists. From their rental cars they head to Hana, some 52 miles west, not seeing what they're missing in their haste.

Baldwin Beach remains a mainly locals' beach. Maui residents picnic and spend family time around the Polynesian-style community building, whose sweeping roofline is reminiscent of the prow of a historical sailing canoe. The public area is surrounded by swaying coconut palms planted in deference to the tropical dream of some past park boards. There is a big open field for sports and recreation, all under the watchful eye of the massive volcano that dominates the inland skyline. As with all serviced public beaches there is a prominent day-glow-yellow lifeguard tower with on-guard life-saving services from 8 AM until 4:30 PM. The body surfing is excellent in the shore breaks.

Once I've deeply tanned on Kihei beaches I make Baldwin Beach my home away from home. I come back every day. With a dark tan the locals will accept you as “Kamaena,” which means “long term resident.” There is a never-ending game of horseshoes that has played out on the beach for generations. The locals back their pick-ups against the beach logs and pour out smooth reggae music, a staple on the island. There are quaint full-service restaurants within walking distance in the village of Paia. There are also shops for everything from more suntan lotion to box lunches to take back to the beach. If you want the Hawaii experience without the tourist feel, come to Maui.




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Street Life at Central © J West Hardin Street Life at Central © J West Hardin

Many travellers overlook the benefits of stop over options while en route to their final destination. Quite often stop over privileges are either free or granted at very low cost by the carrier. I have no such hesitation and make it a point to take advantage of every opportunity to discover a new city or to revisit one I have already fallen in love with in order to rekindle a quickie romance. Recently I had the opportunity to take a 24-hour stop over in Hong Kong and jumped at the chance. I have been visiting Hong Kong for thirty plus years. I have an endless love affair with this city.

Rapid change has always been the hallmark of Hong Kong's famous harbour skyline. It makes the city seem fresh every time I visit. New buildings stand where old haunts used to be, forcing me to take new directions and discover entirely new markets and streets that had eluded me on previous trips. Hong Kong and I are on a constant voyage of discovery. It's like a marriage; the more we change, the more we love one another.

From the purely selfish perspective of an old Asia hand I would have preferred they had kept Kai Tak airport as the port of arrival in Hong Kong. Now that airport had an entrance like no other. The runway was constructed from reclaimed land and the flight path ran straight between the high towers of Tsim Tsa Tsui. On approach descending aircraft would literally fly so close to the buildings that passengers could see people at their kitchen tables reading a paper. Once the plane was clear of the buildings the pilot would bank fiercely as if to roll the craft over onto its side. From the position of what seemed like a 30-per-cent angle all you could see was either sky or water, depending on what side of the plane you were seated.

The runway of the old Kai Tak airport was an extremely short strip of asphalt surrounded by water which made the landings seem like a dangerous thrillride. When the plane touched down the pilot would jam on the brakes to skid it to a stop. Welcome to Hong Kong. It was a thrilling way to arrive at this exotic destination. Leaving the airport's front entrance was to step directly into downtown Kowloon; you could walk to your hotel in those days. Some did – to make peace after the fearful flying they had just experienced. For many newbie arrivals into HK at the time, Kai Tak was also their first near death experience. I count myself as one of those. Old hands rarely spilled a drink knowing what was coming when the plane cleared the last two towers.

Modern Chep Lap Kok airport is boring by comparison. It is much more modern, much larger, and is situated on Lantau Island, a place removed from the city by a forty-minute taxi ride on an ultra modern freeway and a bridge connection. The current fare, which is negotiable depending on the number of bags you carry, is around 240 Hong Kong dollars for any number of people. I stay in downtown Kowloon at an old favorite, the Nathan Hotel, appropriately named as it is situated on Nathan Road, the main street of Kowloon running from Yau Mei Tai to Tsim Tsa Tsui.

This street is on the subway line, the closest station to the hotel being Jordan Station; a connection to every part of Kowloon, New Territories or Hong Kong Island can be made from here. The Nathan Hotel and I are old friends. The hotel has undergone a modern renovation and, in my opinion, it is one of the most comfortable hotels in Kowloon. I was very fortunate this time to be granted an upgrade to the Nathans Grand Room suite for being a loyal repeat customer. The Bali Room restaurant on the 15th floor was a welcome inclusion to my holiday. I was able to have bacon for breakfast, along with many other western delights, included in the room price. If you wonder why I mention this it is because I hadn't had a western-style breakfast for exactly six months, and this was a real treat.

Mong Kok Night Market © J West Hardin Mong Kok Night Market © J West Hardin

My wife Patricia and I were on a mission to see as much of Hong Kong in the 24 hours we had allotted ourselves. A requested late checkout privilege at the hotel was a big help in our quest. The evening of our arrival began at the airport, where we were whisked through immigration by some travel miracle. In about 45 minutes we had taken a cab, driven into the city, checked into the hotel with an amazing level of efficiency, dropped our bags, donned comfortable shoes and hit the street for our night's itinerary. First stop, Mong Kok, the Ladies Market, so called for its collection of women's traditional clothing stores. But it is so much more today. Mong Kok is a microcosm of everything Hong Kong. Times Square has nothing on the neon lights of Mong Kok.

The streets are packed with people. There are street hawkers and buskers playing music. New Mong Kok is a great market for electronics and photo equipment. The famous lanes are still excitingly filled with a tremendous variety of clothing, accessories and tourist must-haves. Young people by the thousands come to Mong Kok to revel at night; the atmosphere is very lively. I love the snack carts and kiosks that line the streets here in Asia; Hong Kong does this as well as anyone. The food is clean and delicious. This time we found the seafood on a stick to be most to our liking and ate while we ambled along the streets to enjoy the general ambiance.

The evening was greatly enhanced by the Hong Kong transit system. For less that CAD $1 (HKD $4), we jumped on the train and headed to our next destination, after we were sure that we'd had as good a time in Mong Kok as anyone could. Next stop, Yau Mei Tai, the Jade Market street which at night becomes an open-air market of an older Hong Kong style that represents the commerce of an era long past. People come out of their high-rise homes and eat in the streets below when it's too hot to cook.

Neon Street Lights © J West Hardin Neon Street Lights © J West Hardin

The subway stop at Yau Mei Tai let us come up into the Temple Street North Market (aka The Jade Market) and walk straight into this delightful neighbourhood. This is an area where at night restaurants place tables out into the pedestrian-only street. It's very gay and bright. Several beer bars and entertainment complexes pour music out in the open air. People by the hundreds dine alfresco under the warm night sky. This is as romantic a destination as any I have found on my travels around the world. Patricia and I always come here whenever in Hong Kong.

However our destination was several blocks away, past the Taoist temple park where fortunetellers have tents all along the sidewalks for those who seek an insight into their destiny from the gods. We would walk through the gauntlet of hawker stands along the way. These vendors can be selling anything from hardware and appliances to sex toys and antique watches or communist party memorabilia. It's quite pleasant to be able to walk at night through this uber-urban setting and meet with such amicable surroundings. I have never felt anything but safe while walking in Hong Kong and do so without restraint. We were headed to the other Temple Street Market, the really big one, on Temple Street South in the Jordan District. This street is a unique market in Hong Kong in that it offers a walk through an amazing assortment of goods for sale – good and bad. But at every cross street corner there are restaurants set up for you to sit down and indulge yourself in a variety of favourites.

My tastes are fairly simple and I had a hankering for a really good bowl of melt-in-your-mouth beef brisket in noodle soup, with a side dish of steamed vegetables in oyster sauce. The atmosphere is electric; there are people from around the world enjoying themselves. The locals are dominant, by the way, and this is an authentic Hong Kong experience like no other. If you are like me and collect such experiences like others collect stamps, you'll likely find yourself in conversation with complete strangers interested in your travel story. Hong Kong people like visitors. Learn a few words of Cantonese and you're going to find that new friends are easily made.

A little after midnight Pat and I agreed to have an early evening so that we could get up for breakfast at 7AM and do the rest of the town as we saw fit. I had two things on my agenda, the first being the early morning bakery offerings. Hong Kong bakers make the best Dan Tat (Chinese egg custard) in the world. When it's hot and fresh from the oven there are few food experiences that can surpass the flavour of a Dan Tat fresh and eaten on the streets of the busy city that invented gourmet street food.

Star Ferry © J West Hardin Star Ferry © J West Hardin

I'm also a creature of habit and like to revisit old memories when in Hong Kong. I have to take a ride across the harbour on the ancient Star Ferry. The ferry terminal on Kowloon's waterfront hasn't changed since built in an earlier century when HK was still an outpost of the British Empire; it's a veritable time capsule of old Hong Kong. There is no better way to get the full Hong Kong experience than from the wooden deck of the Star Ferry. The views of the imposing cityscape are among of the best in the world. This time I rode The Twinkling Star; she's a venerable original in the fleet.




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bug kit © J West Hardin

Bug Kit © J West Hardin

Insects are an equal opportunity annoyance: they bug everyone – some more than others. Every place has its particular species of pests and rodents. Wherever I am, I am at war with the insect world. If you spend as much of your time travelling as I do, then you're well aware that cockroaches, rats, bedbugs, lice and mosquitoes are an everyday issue. I come prepared whenever I enter into the “battle zone” of the traveller's world. When it comes to bugs, I am the death dealer. I take no prisoners. I do not negotiate terms. There is no coexistence. I don't like getting bitten or contaminated for reasons of health and comfort. I certainly don't want to bring any critters home to begin an infestation that will surely cost me thousands of dollars to treat with an uncertain efficacy.

When I am planning a trip away from home I research the type of insect adversaries I will face in the field of operation. Repellants and repellant technologies are at the top of my preparation list and the first thing that goes into my bag.

Mosquitoes

First are the mosquito lotions, front line and rearguard. I search out any product that has at least 30% DEET content. Anything less, in my experience, is simply ineffective for the time you are exposed. DEET can have negative effects on poly-fibre clothing and plastics such as those in your camera face and cell phone, so be careful to wash your hands after application. Read the directions if you are applying DEET to children's skin. If your ballpoint pen starts to feel a little “melty” while you are writing, it's probably because you haven't cleaned your hands well enough or you have been in contact with someone with DEET on their skin.

When applying mosquito repellant or protecting yourself in any other way, it is best to know your adversary. Mosquitoes like twilight, the coolness of the evening, green and wet grass, and shade, wherever it may be found. The aggressive, biting Asian tiger variety is particularly ravenous at dusk and dawn. This most common Asian species is appropriately named because of its stealthy hunting skills. Asian tigers are low flying; they bounce along the ground, so take special care to guard your feet, ankles and the backs of your legs and arms. They are attracted to dark clothing. They are small, and almost invisible, but they can pack a nasty punch, as they carry diseases such as Malaria and Dengue fever. Malaria and Dengue fever are two of the biggest threats to your health while you are travelling. Encephalitis is the third major concern. Anyone who has had malaria will tell you that it's very unpleasant, not something that goes away quickly when you return home.

I am not a user of the anti-malarial drugs that are prescribed by most doctors at Western travel medical clinics. That's my choice; you make yours. I do, however, use lotions, herbal and chemical, nets and coils. It is sometimes not a bad idea to wear socks if you're going to be sitting out where the little buggers drift. Citronella works temporarily, but don't make that your first line of defense. Lemon grass and herbal concoctions are temporarily effective but nothing as good as the big guns, as described. You can counter the bugs' strategies by going on vacation prepared. Mosquito nets, easy to purchase in a camping/outdoor shop, are invaluable if you're in the tropics. Nets weigh nothing and space-wise are far more important in your bag than the extra-cool T-shirts you may want to bring.

You might be surprised that many Western doctors have little to no training in tropical medicine. The approach to your cure may be long and drawn out as they sift through the possibilities like you're a science experiment. The best defense is a good offense. If you are bitten, try not to scratch the bites – the bites, once opened, can become infected and go septic. In the tropics, disease can go “steroids” on you in a shockingly short period of time. Instead use the “after itch lotion” you've brought. Barring that, you can use menthol toothpaste or baking soda.

No matter where you are headed, make sure you know what the mosquito issues are in that location and go prepared to defend yourself. I have befriended a gecko couple that have taken up residence behind the curtains. Now, before you say “yuk,” remember that a gecko can eat his or her own body weight in mozzies every day. The geckos are welcome in my home as honoured guests. I named them both “Chirpy,” as I can't tell them apart.

Cockroaches

There has never been a time in human history when cockroaches were venerated, and there's a good reason for that: they spread disease. The cockroach is ubiquitous. In the West the one common variety is small but during infestation they can count in the zillions. In the tropics there are many different species of roaches, all of them dirty but varying in size. It is not uncommon to confront several varieties in the same space; they are not territorial. Some have even evolved wings and can fly.

This morning I encountered a large roach that must have come out of the drain, lying upside down in my shower stall. When I went to pick it up with a wad of paper it was as if I had merely woken it up, as it scampered away. I thought it may have been having a comfortable sleep and had rolled over onto its back like a happy puppy having a dream. I chased it, of course, and brought it down with a pinch of tissue for the ceremonial flush. My building in Bangkok is on top of the roach problem; the building management bombs the drains every two weeks. But it's not a perfect system and bugs still resurface occasionally.

My strategy is to only bring food into my apartment that will be immediately consumed; anything left is disposed of at a remote location. Roaches have amazing sensory ability and will pick up on single molecules floating through the air to follow back to your house, kitchen, bedroom. Isn't that nice: new friends… not! My approach does limit the number I see to one or two a week, but you can never completely eliminate the buggers.

My experience in Australia was different in that the Aussies seem to express complete indifference to the roach problem they have. I lived in several apartment buildings of various ages in Queensland towns like Tugun and Coolingata. I found every building – new and old – was overrun with roaches. The big Asian cockroach is rampant there. I remember putting heavy tea mugs over the bathroom tub and kitchen sink drains to stop the roaches from coming up at night, and then listening to the porcelain rattle and scrape as they moved the weight around to try to gain access to the suite. My partner and I always said that if we heard one of the teacups fall over it was time to run!

The main reason that roaches are such a problem is that they are extremely dirty creatures. They defecate at the same time as they eat. It's a continual cycle of infestation and evacuation. They are crapping machines. Any type of food they have touched is likely contaminated with feces laden with sickness-bearing bacteria. Similarly roaches crawl over everything and leave a trail of poo behind them as they go, resulting in everything being a potential biohazard.

I was disappointed that the Aussies have let this issue go under the radar, but the country is a special place and they do have their ways, God love 'em. Of the twelve most venomous snakes on the planet, eleven of them call Queensland home, so maybe the Australians have other issues bigger than cockroaches. I've decided not to live there as my best line of defense against death from the animal/insect world. Did I mention their spiders? Brrrrrrrrr; shudder!

Rats

Like roach infestations, if you have rats in your rental room at your hotel or guesthouse, leave immediately. There are rats aplenty in most parts of the world, but there are simple strategies to deal with them that should be your landlord's responsibility. Rats are not cute; they are disease-bearing rodents. Currently there is a soft-sell argument that rats can be a good source of protein. This may be the case in the fields and villages of the world where sewage is of the septic percolation variety and the rats' primary food source is grain, but not in an urban environment. In the worst case scenarios some deadly building fires have been attributed to rats chewing through electrical wiring, causing short circuits to explode into conflagration.

Bedbugs

I have a real issue with bedbugs. Not only will they bite you, they'll follow you home and bite you again. North America and Europe have a fairly effective bed bug registry so that travellers can make informed decisions on where they want to stay. Trip Advisor is a “real time” lookout for your safety because it collects anecdotal information from other travellers. Yes, the hotel associations hate Trip Advisor and cite many reasons as to why they think it's unfair for travellers to ”out” the issues that hotels and guesthouses experience. Too bad for them; we're important too.

Beg bugs are primarily a big-city issue. Not because travellers can't pick up beg bugs in smaller locations but because so many travellers visit big city venues. The problem has spread for two reasons: the ban of chemicals that have been traditionally effective against infestation and the increase in international travel to multiple locations by unwitting travellers whose luggage and clothing may have become infested and who then check into a new hotel in another city. Voila, second-city infestation; in some circles they call that a “pandemic.”

Bed bugs have also become a huge residential problem in the affluent Western cities that attract a lot of travellers. Travellers are bringing the critters home in luggage and infesting their apartments, the rest of the building, then the dry cleaner, the movie theater down the block, restaurants, offices; the list goes on. Bed bug registry sites such as bedbugregistry.com show cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and New York on fire with outbreak circles, like a plague spreading exponentially. If you are travelling to a major city, look at the registry, check out the hotels you may want to stay in. You can read how they are dealing with or have dealt with the issue; the age of the premises does not matter. This is what I do, and I hope to remain “Bug Free in 2012.” There should be a T-shirt for that accomplishment.

I take a multi-pronged approach to dealing with my horror of bed bugs. I use the bed bug registry religiously. I take a sheet of synthetic fabric that acts as a mattress cover. You can buy these bed bug sheets on the Internet and in some travel stores. Bed bugs come from behind fixtures and under mattresses and pillows, so check under and behind everything before dropping your bags. Look for dry bed bug casings from a recent molt and look for pencil-point-sized droppings.

Remove the bottom sheet and look for bloodstains. Check the seams of the mattress. Any reputable hotel will immediately offer you a different room if any sign of bugs is noted. In the case of infestation, they have to clean from room to room, as the bugs travel behind the walls after a room is sprayed and disinfected. Your next room may be bug free… for now. Bed bugs can smell your blood, and they come during the night when they sense your presence. A masking of body lotion has proven effective in some reported cases. In particular, lotions laced or based with lavender seem effective in blocking your smell.

Head and Body Lice In Asia it is common to see friends and work mates picking nits out of each other's hair. It is just that common. In the West people freak out at the threat of lice and head to the drug store; having lice is the ultimate embarrassment. Although there are plenty of lice-lethal products available on the market in Asia, the time honoured “pick” seems to have deep social implications. We groom each other to stay friends. And you thought we were so far removed from our primate brothers and sisters? The close quarters of Asian society and the huge number of children crammed into primary schools ensure there are breeding grounds for the ubiquitous louse. Lice are common, annoying but not deadly, and they are easily dealt with.

The less romantic sights I would rather forget, but what I can't forget are scenes around tourist hotel swimming pools where visiting “trekkers” coming back from the hill towns and beach resorts are lazing beside the pool picking nits and tossing them into the water. People, please don't do that! Nasty personal habits should be restricted to your own domain and kept out of sight. But this is also why hotel rooms become infested with lice: It isn't 100% guaranteed that any hotel is going to spray mattresses and delouse the carpets after every use.

On the horrific side of cleanliness, a recent multiple death by accidental exposure to toxic chemicals was reported in a hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand when an overzealous manager ordered the cleaning staff to spray mattresses with a deadly toxin, resulting in the death by suffocation of several foreign tourists.

Travel smart, travel safe and stay travel informed. And by all means travel bug free and have fun.

 


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helsinki © J West Hardin

Stoic Helsinki © J West Hardin

When Patricia suggested that we visit Helsinki, I think my first reaction was, “Why? ” With her inimitable smile she simply said, “It looks charming.” I can attest to Patricia's instinctive appreciation of everything charming. After all, she married me. I answered, “Let's take a look?” As it turns out, her instincts were correct. Finland is charming; Helsinki is underrated, under visited, a northern gem.

What I liked most about Finland and Finnish people was the experience of visiting a country and interacting with a people who are both so absolutely understated. Finland is a place for experienced and sophisticated travellers to enjoy. The fact that none of the usual tourist hype is evident is truly refreshing. There is no Disneyland atmosphere. There are no crowds, no streets lined with multinational food franchises. There is no mind-numbing list of must-see-before-you-die hot spots with hours-long line-ups of desperate bucketeers. Helsinki has its own distinct vibe, is self-assured. (You're not going to go to Helsinki to suntan. There is only a brief summer in late July, but it's generally chilly and windblown. Pack sweaters and windbreakers. I've had enough beach vacations to appreciate the weather in Scandinavia as equally inviting.)

Arriving in Helsinki airport was my first introduction to a people who are referred to as “silent Finns.” The immigration officers were stereotypically stoic, but that's where it ended. We weren't met with any attitude after hopping into our taxi or checking into our hotel. The stereotype of the “silent Finnis a myth. Everyone we met was delighted we'd chosen Finland as a tourist destination. We're a rare breed, apparently. Most visitors fall into the category of commercial travelers. People we met were proud to regale us with stories about the homeland. Fins are proud in the quintessentially understated Finnish way. I found it charming that conversation was about home and family rather than possessions and positions.

I was an instant fan of the Finnish breakfast. I woke up to tables laden with fresh and prepared fish – all salted, smoked, baked, fried, pickled, rolled, pasted and marinated. It must be the Scandinavian in me but I love fish for breakfast. There were baskets of fresh breads and rolls, pastries and crackers. The kitchen at our hotel presented a fantastic selection of gluten-free breads. I loved the offerings of cheeses, yogurt and nuts. The pièce de résistance was the wild berries and forest mushrooms, an obsession in Finland. Where else could someone breakfast of “cloud berries”? I found I had to cut back on the Finnish coffee they brew it strong; a caffeine-sensitive novice wouldn't sleep for days after two cups.

helsinki © J West Hardin

Helsinki's Reputation is Escalating © J West Hardin

After we had fortified ourselves, Patricia and I walked out of our ex-dairy hotel on the lower harbour and headed uptown. A stiff wind was in our face; we muffled into scarves and pushed uphill towards the Esplanadi. “Kave” or coffee shops dotted each block as we progressed through the quaint city. People have developed the custom of “popping in” to warm nooks during the coldest months “to count their fingers and toes.” Helsinki's Russian designers chose to lay out the city streets on a grid, so we were able to walk across town in twenty minutes, from the lower commercial harbour to the older harbour on which the city was originally founded. Boulevardi Street takes a walker through the Design District where city fathers group businesses that display art, clothing, furniture, photography and other artistic endeavors in one area. There are plenty of hair dressing salons, ubiquitous throughout the city. Finns enjoy having their hair cut by the look of it.

We came across a flea market and couldn't resist joining the crowd. Tables and chairs snugged around a wooden building called a Kaupahalli, a covered market place to shop during the bitter days of winter. Trinkets, baubles, dishes, clothing and Soviet-era posters were in abundance – souvenirs unique to this part of the world. Polite bargaining was allowed, and we purchased keepsakes fit for carry-on luggage. Finns, by the way, are fluent in English. It's easy to interact with people, though Finnish is a challenge. Learn to say good morning (päivä) and thank you (kiitos) and people will love you. We engaged in conversation, mostly about the weather. Finns have a thousand expressions for “inclement“.

It began to get chilly after a couple of hours, so we decided to do the Finnish thing and “pop inside to count our fingers and toes.” By good fortune we chose the most interesting cafe in Helsinki – the Fazer Cafe, flagship shop of the Fazer Company, makers of the delicious chocolate Finland is famous for. The interior was dreamy, stacked with chocolate boxes, pastries under glass and cakes on revolving pedestals. I thought I had taken a step into the Willie Wonka Factory. We were welcomed with impeccable manners and service. The hot chocolate was to die for. European cafés have an understated vibe about them. They are places of ambient calm, conversation and are unhurried and homey.

Out the door we spied the imposing Lutheran Cathedral, a vision in white atop the highest point in the city. Helsinki is not a city of skyscrapers. The tallest building is the Torni Hotel at fourteen stories, built in 1931 and never bested. Later, we chanced upon several small museums and galleries that caught our interest, free to enter. Craft furniture galleries show a creative drive among Fins. The picture galleries present interpretive art and express a love of colour that one doesn't immediately match with the inconstant weather.

The war history of Finland is represented in stark terms at the National History Museum. Historically, the territory was coveted by two competing peoples – autocratic Swedes and czarist Russians. Finnish life was unenviable in the early days. The villages and towns were sacked and burned, crops razed, people slaughtered or enslaved. The history of the country's Medieval period was wiped out by bitter rivalry. That does not mean that Finland is devoid of Finnish architecture; you just won't find it in Helsinki. The capital more resembles St. Petersburg than Espoo, Tempere, Turku or Oulu, cities too far removed from trade routes and the Baltic to have been of any interest to the imperialists. An interesting legacy of all this is the polyglot nature of Finnish people. No matter which store you go into, clerks wear flag pins identifying which languages they speak. Russian and Swedish figure prominently.

Helsinki harbour is steps away from the shopping concourse of Esplanadi, which ends at the entrance to the Lutheran Cathedral Square, the nexus of tourism, such as it is, in Helsinki. This intimate pocket of water is large enough for only one cruise ship at a time. Cruise lines stop in Helsinki as part of the Scandinavian tour which includes Tallinn and St. Petersburg. While I was there the National Geographic research vessel was docked. Had I been younger I may have stowed away for an adventure.

helsinki © J West Hardin

Helsinki Impression © J West Hardin

The weather is challenging in Helsinki, and few cruise tourists venture far from the dock. The icy wind can set you back on your heels unless you're dressed for the assault. A group of hardy dockside vendors waited patiently for trade, local and foreign, in the cold and rain, along the seawall. They sold uniquely Finnish handicrafts of woven wool and leather, fresh fruits, vegetables and fish of great variety. Salt herring is popular. A short walk away there were masted wooden sailing vessels tied to the dock that work the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea.

I took a seat under a tarpaulin fitted with gas heaters for a cup of thick steaming coffee (to heck with sleep; the arctic sun doesn't set this time of year) and to get out of the incessant wind. On the other side of the pier, I spied another antique Kaupahalli and realized it might be more comfortable to go inside. The Finns may be weatherproof and hardy but I am not. We made a dash.

This Kaupahalli was different from the last. This was a cornucopia of fabulous foods. I compare it to a deli counter with eighty individual vendors selling unique Finnish favourites and specialty regional foods. These Kaupahallis are reminiscent of a time in Finland before supermarkets; they have a boutique atmosphere. People crowd under the turn-of-the-century arches to get in touch with themselves. The seating in a Kaupahalli is quite un-Finnish, as Finns can be sticklers for line-ups and appointment times; instead the festival seating of egalitarianism predominates. (This is something I observed traveling around the country. Rules pertaining to personal time are different from those of the workplace. When it's time to relax, Finn's relax.) As I entered the market through the heavy ironclad double doors I was met with thick slabs of fresh and cured Atlantic salmon prominently on display.

Cheese, coffee, candy, pickles, baked breads, cafeteria nooks, charcuterie-style meats, canned or jarred, were all in a line on two parallel concourses of this foodies' paradise. I sat for a delicious bowl of hearty soup with thick dark bread smothered in creamy butter – just the thing after hours in the cold. For dessert I tried a piece of Finland's famous black liquorish, Salmiakki, actually not candy but salt ammonium chloride coloured with liquorice syrup for a “tougher image.“ Salmiakki is an acquired taste and is a hard acidic agent on tooth enamel. It is popular among Scandinavians. The heartland of this bitter-tasting cult is Finland.

Once warmed, Patricia and I performed what we call a “wander.“ We walked the city, found little lanes leading to surprises and nothing. We “popped in“ and engaged in conversation with locals and immigrants, asked their stories, told them ours. In department stores we discovered blondering, the Finnish word for colouring one's hair blonde. Finnish women are fanatic about it. We chanced on a bookshop giving away pieces of poster art to passers-by. The more we wandered, the more we were intrigued by this underrated city and its inhabitants. I enjoyed the sedate security implied by people's active stoicism towards the quirks of living in this northern latitude and rugged geography.

My last night in Helsinki was spent in a local restaurant where we were assured we would find Lappi foods. Lappi are the indigenous peoples of Finland's arctic. We took a “when in Rome“ approach to the new cuisine and ordered reindeer steak prepared with red onion and blueberry sauce settled on a mountain of mashed potatoes. The flavours were unique, unexpected, delicious. During our meal a delightfully inebriated older gentleman insisted on telling us a story in Finnish, of which we couldn't understand a word. I surmised that the sudden appearance of foreigners in a local establishment inspired him. He spoke sincerely, as if we were long lost friends. The Finns are famous for their love of drinking vodka. This man was far from objectionable. I'm a storyteller myself; I've listened to stories in tongues and gestures I didn't understand. Sometimes it's the presentation of a story where the true impart of the tale is projected. I saw the waiter coming over, perhaps to shoo the old man away. I waved him off and let the guy speak. He was certainly animated while in full flight.

When I thought it appropriate I applauded the tipsy man's efforts. I broke his alcoholic trance, as I knew I could, with a simple gesture. He laughed and winked, then sauntered back to his seat and plate of herring. He'd given me a glimpse into the heart of Finnish people. I caught the eye of several patrons; they nodded and smiled, I suppose for the respectful patience shown to an old man out for a lonely meal. I felt as if I had done something a Finn would do. The storyteller had become lost in his plate of fish.

Helsinki is quiet and reserved. It doesn't bombast with bellicose jingoism. People go about their busy lives with a sense of self-confidence. I found Helsinki to be worth the effort it took to get there. The city of Helsinki is charming. It took patience to unlock a few of the hidden secrets of this pleasant city. Patricia and I were convinced by this first trip to Helsinki to revisit and travel inland to discover more of the country. We have subsequently returned to Finland several times.




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Amsterdam Bridge in Morning © J West Hardin

Amsterdam Bridge in Morning © J West Hardin

I spent my early life admiring picture books. The place where I grew up had no museum, nor did the closest city. The only library access we had was an itinerant mobile unit that came by our rural outpost depending on the weather. There was, we had heard, a magnificent building for books in the city. It had been granted free to the people by the largesse of famous railway billionaire Andrew Carnegie, but I could never have imagined visiting that place, nor could have Mr. Carnegie, who had donated enough money to build a library in every city on the continent that had a railroad.

Our school was a poor learning centre where teachers gave off the sulking impression that they had been banished to a distant gulag. I don't recall ever hearing a discussion about art. Our society had other things on its mind. My family's black and white television received the one channel available; it was dedicated to the political ideology of a national broadcaster whose fanatical appreciation of the sport of ice hockey as a tool of nation building I did not share. My people were too poor to build a rink and too isolated to know what they were missing.

When the mobile library would wend its down the winding roads and cross the river to my village in the forest I became transcendent at its approach. Books on art were not included on the list of the most popular items brought by that vehicle. As one of the youngest and smallest attendees to the rare event I was left with what was left over. As it turns out, I was able to borrow the finest books of all. The art books had rarely been opened; they shone with the iridescent luster of fresh binding. Inside, the colours of the pristine pages were lustrous and other worldly. Even today I love the inky smell of a new book; the odour takes me back to my childhood and that roadside carnival of the mind.

Art books in my community were considered trash compared to a recent edition of Readers Digest, whose recipe pages drove the Native women into a frenzy of competition for "dibs." Popular Mechanics came next in popularity, but art books never figured. I had my pick. There were repercussions to my anti-social choices. After all, rural Canada in the 1950s was a place where art was considered “gay”. I wasn't sure what that meant, except that it was undesirable. Many men had returned from the last world war with a code of violence against anything aside from booze and a package of “coffin nails. ” I made sure I was last in line at the check out so I could smuggle out my forbidden texts under my jacket or beneath other works deemed more socially acceptable.

Canal Cruise © J West Hardin 
 Hardin

Canal Cruise © J West Hardin

Jack London would have been a permissible choice: there was liquor and wolves – manly stuff. Recordings by the Limelighters or the Four Lads were “in like Flint,” a sly reference to the tilted Hollywood star famous for his green tights and philandering, a popular role model of the time. The contraindications of Canadian culture were a dreary reality of the era. However, my black and white world burst to life when I released the power and imagery held within those sacred books of light. The magnificent representations of the South Pacific, Provence and Paris were a gateway to an undiscovered world.

I was immediately imbued with a love of colour after being exposed to the work of Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh. I would harbour a desire to see these paintings throughout my entire youth. When I did, I needed to see them again and again, as if to assure myself from time to time that such beauty existed in the world and that I wasn't living in a dream. The fluid nature and colour of the Impressionists affected me deeply. Portraiture hadn't the same appeal and the mechanical architecture of the modern artists was incomprehensible to my mind as I had been afflicted from birth with dyslexia.

The complicated patterns presented by cubism and abstract works of Miro, Picasso and Kandinsky made few synaptic connections to me intellectually. Even as a youthful ruin-bagger, my world-wide pilgrimage to the shrines of art would take me to any city large enough to house any of the great masters. I would camp out on the concourse bench at the foot of a great piece and meditate until asked politely to “move along.” They don't appreciate it when you lay on the floor for hours on end to take in the Sistine Chapel mural by Michelangelo. The single marble bench that sits under the direct centre of the painting is always fully occupied with the bums of admirers, and the scene resembles a gaggle of geese in a crate with their necks craning uncomfortably to and fro from between the slats.

At long last I found myself standing on the platform of the historic St. Pancras railway station in London. I was about to embark on an odyssey to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I felt like a reverential mendicant starting out on an exalted purpose to a holy place. I was filling with veneration and the anticipation of a desire fulfilled as I waited for the Euro Star line to announce our departure. This was one of many journeys to the cathedrals of high art I made. I always experience a feeling of trepidation mixed with excitement when I am about to capture the essence of a long-sought-after quest. Some people have their “bucket list”; my personal requirements are more simplistic: to be in the presence of great art. In exactly five hours and thirty minutes I would set foot on the native soil of one the greatest masters of all time, Vincent van Gogh.

There would be a short stop in Brussels to change trains from Euro Star to Thalys, we were told. It was so much easier than flying now that airports have become militarized gauntlets. I loathe the requirements of security to have me arrive at the airport hours ahead of my flight; it seems like such a waste of my precious and expensive travel time. London's Heathrow airport is so far away from downtown London that it is faster, easier and cheaper to take the train from one of the downtown railway stations for short hops like Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris “on the continent.” The cost of a taxi from downtown London to Heathrow is now as expensive as the air ticket, adding insult to prohibitive injury.

Parking Amsterdam Style © J West Hardin

 Hardin

Parking Amsterdam Style © J West Hardin

Amsterdam's Centraal station is an attraction in itself. The massive waterfront building is like a small town, only busier. I had chosen to stay at the Park Plaza Victoria Hotel directly across the street from the Centraal Station where I could drop my bags and get going. I wanted to follow the usual circuitous route I enjoy along the central Keizersgracht canal. One of the novels I wrote, The Bloody Oath, has a sequence based on the geography of this famous canal. If you are an appreciateur of scenery, then this will stick in your mind forever. The leafy shade, cobblestones, awesome bridges and quaint canal boats are for avid photographers and amateurs alike an endless reel of subject matter

I was headed towards the Albert Cuyp open market where hundreds of vendors set up open stalls to sell their eclectic merchandise. One stall in particular has been selling mouthwatering herring and sweetbread sandwiches with delicious pickles on the side for decades. I had to have one of those right away. I've had dreams about these pockets of Heaven in times of drought. I eschewed the speedy urban tram and walked through the city; there is just too much sensory pleasure to enjoy on a canal walk and bridge trek across central Amsterdam. To wander the quiet streets of Old Amsterdam is to be transported back in time.

The inconstant weather of Holland was cooperating – it was a gorgeous day to stroll through four hundred years of historical architecture. The uniquely thin, tall houses lining the canals have been occupied continually since the founding of the city. The steep stairs tell you a bit about the Dutch people's frugal nature. The houses were taxed on the front foot, so they kept their lots narrow and built up, necessitating fifty-degree climbs up flights of stairs. Ancient elm trees line the waterways while colourfully painted klinker-built wooden boats ply the placid water.

When I arrived in the Albert Cuyp lane I had one of those déjà vu experiences, remembering past times we had visited this familiar place. I sought out my favourite café mid block and sat outside on a sofa pillow that the owner had thoughtfully brought out into the auto-free pedestrian mall so that his patrons could enjoy the rare sunshine. We ordered hot chocolate as only the Dutch can make it – with a stick of dark chocolate melting in the milky water for Pat and a North African-style fresh mint leaf tea for me.

Amsterdam is a truly enlightened city in so many ways; the ambiance is not to be missed, passed by or taken for granted. There are so many North American cities that have never developed the “cafe culture” of European cities, much to our regrettable loss in urban lifestyle. When our second round of drinks arrived we were offered a plate of pastries free of charge; apparently our friendly banter and boisterous laughter had won us some friends behind the bar. I have often said this in my travel articles: be nice to the people who serve you and sometimes wonderful things happen. The time we spent here cemented our love of this great city; we never miss an opportunity to return.

The Van Gogh museum was only a few blocks away, so of course we walked. The central districts of Amsterdam are primarily footpaths and bicycle lanes designed for people in the time before the automobile. Brick buildings decorated with ornate wrought iron are endlessly fascinating to me. By the way, watch out for the cyclists, as they take no prisoners if you accidentally step across an imaginary line between the sidewalk and the domain of the bikers. They expect you to know the rules even though the game is played without any. Cyclists can be quite fanatical about their rights.

Amsterdam Café Culture © J West Hardin


Amsterdam Café Culture © J West Hardin

My heart was beating; it wasn't the adrenalin of the bike race; it wasn't the high potency sugar of the chocolate dregs I'd drained from Patricia's cup. We were nearing the high church of Vincent van Gogh. This museum holds the most complete collection of the master's work of any in the world. After a few short blocks, there it was, situated at the end of a long green concourse, as if struck on a landscape designed to enforce its dignity and stature above the surroundings. The enormous red sign announcing we'd arrived was probably visible on Google Earth. The big block letters spelled his name out across an entire concrete plaza. I neared the entrance and actually experienced breathlessness, as if I were entering a shrine. It was the second and third floors that held the treasure we sought, so that was where we headed without stopping at the coat check.

We were most interested in “The Starry Night. ” Van Gogh had produced this while in an asylum in Saint-Remy in 1889. This one painting is an inspiration for me. I have always admired man's seeking of perfection with either his body or mind. This painting captures a primordial spirit inside me. I have the same feelings about ballet, so delicate in its quest to perfect of our soul. I was politely asked to refrain as I raised my camera for a shot. In my zeal I had forgotten that photography of this delicate canvas is restricted due to the negative effects of flash intensity light over a period of time. I would have to take the memory home, burned into my brain like a holy vision.

I was high on Van Gogh the rest of my time in Amsterdam and walked on a cloud. I wanted to drink in the convivial atmosphere of Amsterdam's café culture for another day before heading back to Brussels, where we planned to continue our playful meandering. Pat and I gorged ourselves on brilliant chocolat chaud and more mint teas. We walked to discover the quiet doorways of unheralded cafés that exist to service particular clientele whether they be jazz aficionados or blues enthusiasts, poetry readers or political activists; everyone has his or her place here, it seems.




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J West HardingDancing in the Streets © J West Hardin

Patricia and I have relocated to Bangkok, Thailand from Vancouver, Canada. We live in the pleasant suburb of Bangna that hugs the southeast corner of Bangkok. If you were to travel to Pattaya, Rayong, Trat or Cambodia overland you would pass directly past my front driveway, which abuts the Bangna Trat Highway. We chose this area to live after many reconnoitering trips to Thailand to find the place that suited us best. We refer to this area of Thailand as being “home, but with better weather. ”

Because of our personal interests we require stability, technology and convenience. We like easy access to shopping facilities and we're twenty minutes from the airport by taxi. Our two-bedroom condo supplies us with comfort and security. Being in one place for a long time allows us to spread out and get some perspective on what we are doing and how we fit into the local scene. Pat is chasing a second degree from a Canadian university that offers an on-line program in her area. I am a novelist-poet-blogger-travel writer; both of us need our “focus time. ” As an artist I find this region extremely inspiring and it has lead me to fantastic productivity.

Migrating away from the Canadian winter is a lifestyle choice. Our love of travel has preceded many other considerations, but that's just us. We have been traveling together for twenty-three years. Our first trip to S.E. Asia together included our eighteen-month-old son. West is now a graduate of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. In the early years of our travels we decided to home school West so that we could continue our devotion to travel. We were pleasantly surprised at how easy and fun the whole process was.

The Fraser Valley Distance Education School was extremely generous and helpful. Don Nichols, who was our mentor and contact throughout the process, was always ecstatic that we were using the program for what it was designed for and were not another set of parents who had become dissatisfied with the public school system. We equipped ourselves with a rudimentary modem Internet hook up and a recently invented laptop. Things worked out well, leaving us with a great deal of independence to be inventive and to create our own directions when the curriculum didn't match our geographical circumstance. Streaming video would have been helpful but we got by fine without it. Our classrooms were jungles, parks and pristine beaches, wherever we happened to find ourselves.

If you're wondering, we accomplished all this by selling our house on a whim after returning from a summer-long trip to Fiji. After a quick “completion” we stored everything in a commercial facility, including our car, and took a taxi to the airport to catch our flight back to Fiji's Coral Coast town of Sigatoka, where we had been inducted as honorary members of the Melevu tribe with a fiery “Sevu Sevu” ceremony on an earlier visit. Traveling the world turned out to be the best decision I ever made, for all of us. OK, you get the picture: we're crazy about travel.

We have chosen Thailand as a base not only because the economic miracle that has overtaken this country has colluded to provide a modern and accessible infrastructure for us to live comfortably, but because we also have a deep love for the Buddhist culture. In addition, the Thai people have always been extremely generous with us. The geography of Thailand presents the traveler with a set of very accessible destinations within easy reach, not to mention that we are budget conscious. The country is situated in the middle of S.E. Asia, surrounded by Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia, making overland travel a breeze.

Inexpensive air travel gives us access to every other destination within one to two hours of flying time. The airlines often have competitive price offerings, and we have seen prices from Bangkok to Singapore for as little as one dollar during “seat wars” season! Normally we can fly to Bali, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Vietnam for under one hundred dollars return when tickets are booked in advance. Air Asia is our carrier of choice for the number of flights they schedule, but there are many other regional and international carriers such as Jet Star, Silk Air, Lufthansa, Nok Air, Thai Air, etc., using Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur as a hub. Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, and China are also cheap and popular destinations that are discounted from both Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. It is often advantageous to book online rather than buy from a ticket broker. Sometimes flying out of Kuala Lumpur will give you the lowest cost advantage. This is due to the increased numbers of flights originating from the headquarters and central hub of Air Asia. If you need to use a ticket broker here in Thailand, the best are situated along busy Khao San Road in the tourist friendly Banglamphu District of Bangkok.

You might be asking how much it costs to spend the winter in Thailand. Given that winter in Canada is at its worst over a six month period, let's make that time frame a baseline for our projections. From Vancouver via Hong Kong to Bangkok, return airfare on Cathay Pacific cost $1296.64 (tax included) each. You will need a visa to enter the “Hip Kingdom” at a cost of $105.00. I suggest the multiple-entry six-month option with re-entry options at sixty days. You will have to leave the country every sixty days to renew your visa. The visa runs average cost to us is usually $600.00 for two for any Asian destination. A forced holiday to some exotic destination every two months. I know, nice problem to have.

We've splashed out on a 160m2 condo at $700.00 p/m in a high rise. The electric and the water are billed separately and cost on average $40.00 p/m. Cable TV is free with the apartment. We have concierge and security. The pool is enormous. Public transport is very inexpensive. It costs eight baht to ride a local bus – that's three Canadian cents! Bangkok's air-conditioned Skytrain for longer journeys is sixty-five cents. Food costs here are so cheap that you will cry when you have to return to Canada. An average meal of fried rice with veg and meat or seafood costs one dollar. Ice coffee is fifty cents, but can be had for less if you look. Our ADSL line is $12 p/m for streaming video capability. Our total cost (including laundry soap and mosquito coils) with airfare averaged monthly, as well as all costs, runs around $1750 p/m. I looked at the weather report for Vancouver this morning. Apparently they have extended the snowfall warning. My $1700 per month is money well spent in my opinion.



I am a conversationalist by nature, predisposed to wandering the world like a breath of homeless air. I appreciate every second I have this blessing in hand. I live as an artist, occupying an evolving dreamscape, making it up as I go, imagining my future to life. I have a loving wife of twenty-three years who indulges my eccentricities, while keeping me grounded and sometimes focused. I have produced and published five novels and am currently writing a sixth. I am a published travel writer, active blogger, poet, you tuber and regular columnist for the travel itch. I have also produced and published a text on parenting. Apparently, by some ersatz miracle of fate, things are working out.

As a child of the 1950s my life was defined by glossy periodicals that captured the world outside my rural existence with shocking imagery. My family and I were landlocked and mind-trapped by post war colonialism and the politics of poverty. No one I knew had travelled, had become educated or had come in different colors. The library at the time was an itinerant mobile unit that traveled from backwater to backwater, trolling for dreamers. My literary heroes were Joseph Conrad and Robert Heinlein. I read voraciously and fussed when it was time to give the books back. I spent my formative years plotting to make real what I'd seen on the pages of LIFE magazine and National Geographic.

At an indefinite point I was living my childhood fantasy of global travel and storytelling. I achieved what I had imagined out of that dismal prairie, without knowing how I'd provoked the event of my temporal enlightenment, nor remembering the laborious and mundane journey between times of struggle and rare glory. It all just sort of happened.

My novels are a legacy of my personal journey and search for deeper meaning. They are stories that describe my time on Earth, my conversation with the universe. It is my belief that every author leaves a little blood on every page. How could it be otherwise?