Gauging travel experiences

Our polar blogger Brendan van Son is currently somewhere south of the Antarctic Circle. Before he set sail from Ushuaia, he gave us the lowdown on some of his favourite travel experiences. Next week, keep an eye out for Brendan’s thoughts on his Antarctic adventure.

After Antarctica I will have been to 6 of the 7 continents.  I have crossed deserts, hiked mountains, kayaked coastlines and trudged through rainforests.  I’ve seen famous sights such as the Great Pyramids of Giza, Machu Picchu and the Grand Canyon.  Someone asked me recently which was my favourite of all – I couldn’t answer.  It’s like asking a father of 10 boys who is his favourite son; it’s just not a fair question.  However, if someone was to ask me for my favourite travel experiences I think I would have an easier time explaining. You see, the mistake many people make in travel is that they become overly-focussed on the destination. Slow down a little, look around and take in the moment, because you may never be there again. These are my favourite travel experiences.

Sneaking into Machu Picchu, Peru

I’ve been to Machu Picchu three times (don’t be jealous), arriving via train, the classic Inca trail, and the Lares trek. The first time I visited I arrived via the Lares trek. On this trek you spend the night before Machu Picchu sleeping in Aguas Calientes, just below the travel Mecca itself.  My guide had told myself and two friends that we should start the hike to the gates at about 4am.  The gates open at 6am and the hike is about 45 minutes.  “The line,” he warned us “usually starts at about 4am, but you don’t need to be first.”  Obviously he had underestimated my competitiveness, and at 2.30am we started the climb to Machu Picchu.  As we arrived at the gates around 3am, coated in an interesting combination of sweat and dust, there was not a soul around.  The gates to Machu Picchu, it seems, do not hold you back at all.  So due to some confusion regarding the lack of both other people and a strong barrier, we walked in – entering the great ruins unwittingly and alone.  We spent the next three hours wandering in the early morning light with the company of only the few llamas that work as lawnmowers.  Being alone in one of the wonders of the world is an unbeatable experience.

Sleeping on top of the Tikal Ruins, Guatemala

I know that there seems to be a theme developing as I describe my second experience.  I arrived at the Tikal ruins alongside a fellow traveller I had met earlier in the week.  We set out together with the plan of exploring the ruins for the afternoon then flinging a hammock up on a couple of posts in one of the lodges that sit outside the park, we would then re-enter in the morning.  However, as the day drew to an end we realised that being in Tikal for sunrise was nearly impossible due to the park hours.  My Australian friend had a solution: hiding.  However, I wasn’t about to go into the middle of the Guatemalan Jungle alone at night to hide, so we took option number two: bribery.  We approached a security guard with the idea of sleeping on top of one of the large pyramids.  His immediate reply was laughter, until he realised the sincerity of our proposition when a 20 dollar bill was plucked from the wallet.  He took the bill and nodded his head in agreement. 

That afternoon, we climbed the rickety ladder to the top, hid out around the corner until the light was low enough before setting out our sleeping bags and rested our heads on our backpack pillows.  There is no sufficient way to describe the feel of the jungle at night, as it seems to wake up in the dark hours.  So as howler monkeys chanted, toucans chirped and insects squeaked we pretended we could sleep as we regretted the decision we had made.  However, as the morning light began and the fog of the forest began to lift, it was all made worth it.

Being chased through a high school by legions of girls in Japan

When I was 13-years old I spent a summer in Japan on an exchange.  I lived on the northern island of Hokkaido in the small town of Kamikawa.  On a visit to the school one day a fellow exchange student and I walked into a class which for some reason resulted in the utter loss of minds of all the female members of the class.  They all ran into one corner of the classroom screaming, jumping up and down and snapping photos.  In confusion, and terror, we decided that it was best for our safety to leave the room and make our way through the hallways.  However, the shrill screams echoed through the halls and as we left the room other classes opened their doors to see what all the commotion was about.  And rather than having one class, we had the entire school shrieking at our presence.  I’m sure they had only mistaken us for members of the Backstreet Boys, but whatever it was we immediately realised our lives were in danger so we made a sprint out of the school, female students in hot pursuit all the way to the limits of the schoolyard.

Getting robbed in Egypt

I know that the title doesn’t make it seem like a good experience, but stick with me.  I travelled to Egypt to visit one of my best friends who was from Cairo.  We decided one day to do the classic tourist activity of riding camels around the pyramids.  Our mistake, however, was that we rented our camels from a less than reputable spot on the outskirts of the ruins.  We had to walk our camels 20 minutes before getting into the pyramids themselves.

As we bumped and bounced along, kids lined the streets with whips laughing as they whipped towards the camel to make it jump or sprint with a terrified tourist aboard.  Little did they know that I was a cowboy yearning to be able to see how fast a camel really can run; I was about to find out.  We made our way through a large crowd near the gate as vendors yelled and kids played, but suddenly I felt a pinch at my backside, and realised that my wallet had been swiped.  I let our guide know and we turned quickly and set off in a sprint trying to find the thief.  We did not find the thief, nor did we recover the 3 dollars in my wallet, but I have never had so much fun in my life.  Imagine racing a camel at top speed around the hectic streets of Cairo.  When the guide asked me how much money was in the wallet, and I gave him the honest reply, he looked at me asking why we chased after 3 dollars.  It was my favourite wallet, a bright blue plastic Toronto Blue Jays kids wallet.

Playing Basketball in Belize

I have a sports addiction. When I travel, I do so with two essential items: basketball shoes and my ball.  When I arrived to the tiny beach island of Belize known as Caye Caulker I was thrilled to find a beautiful basketball court in the town centre.  Although Caye Caulker is known for its diving and snorkelling, I found myself playing basketball.  During the day legions of kids would fight for their chance to play and at night the local basketball stars would come out to play under the bright street lights.  In that moment I found a way to use sport to dive deeper into the local culture, and on top of it there is not a better location in the world to play.  On my last night one of the regulars invited me to his house for a barbeque.  As we gathered to eat huge lobsters, grilled shrimp and fried chicken I realised that I was having an experience that few, if any, travellers have ever had the chance to experience.

You can follow Brendan on Twitter @BrendanVanSon or join his community on Facebook.

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