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Home / Asia / China / Travel China | Uncover a secret Great Wall of China near Beijing

Travel China | Uncover a secret Great Wall of China near Beijing

Updated: February 8, 2018
By: Ian Yacobucci
Arrow Nock Jiankou

Huairou Beijing, CN – View of “Arrow Nock” along the Great Wall of China Jiankou (Ian YacobucciBorderless Travels)

As an untouched section of the Great Wall of China, Jiankou offers an authentic and remote experience that is unparalleled.  Easily accessible from Beijing, it is by far the most authentic and exceptional testimony of ancient China’s civilization making it the best place to experience the Great Wall.

Jiankou is not easy to get to on your own, but finding a way to this exotic location offers a truly genuine journey to the most historically significant destinations in China, and winter is the best time to do it.

A telephone rang;  black and antique, with a bronze rotating dial from another era, it vibrated violently on the bedside table waking me from a deep late morning sleep after a 6 am arrival in Beijing.  “Aie an? This is Sonja,” spoke the female voice with a Chinese accent on the other end of the line.  It was our tour guide checking in before our Christmas day journey to one of the most rugged and beautiful sections of the Great Wall of China.

We chatted about how I was able to email her from my google account, nefariously circumventing what is known here as the “Great Firewall”.  A massive government operation that monitors and blocks the general public from access to an open and free Internet; there’s no Google or Facebook beyond China’s Great Firewall.  Holding the phone to my ear, semi conscious with my eyes closed, I confirmed our meeting time, “don’t forget to bring gloves” Sonja reminded before hanging up.

Jiankou Stairs

Huairou Beijing, CN – Hiking a stair like section of the Great Wall of China Jiankou (Ian YacobucciBorderless Travels)

Wild and unrestored, Jiankou is the most exotic sections of the Great Wall of China that is accessible from just outside Beijing.  There’s a good chance that if you’ve come across a remarkable photograph of the Great Wall snaking its way along forested mountain ridges and sharp cliffs, it’s probably been taken somewhere along the Jiankou’s three sections.

East, west, and middle sections of Jiankou often appear to defy logic when you try to fathom that this part of the Great Wall was constructed roughly 600 years ago and stands more than six meters high and five across, excluding the base that’s dug two meters into the mountainous rocky surface.  In that time there were no motorized vehicles, no highways and no modern technology, yet somehow the subjects of China’s ancient dynasties worked this seemingly inaccessible and rugged landscape to protect their empires from outside intruders.

My previous visit to Jiankou was back in the summer 2010 when my roommate at a Korean summer camp told me that Jiankou was by far the best section of the Great Wall to explore.  Back then there wasn’t much information about it on the Internet so, banking on a post from on an old forum thread, I ended up adventuring there on public transportation with a Canadian couple I had met on my solo travels.  Our visit then was abruptly shortened when I slipped on a cliff-like section of the wall we were climbing and took a large coin size chunk of skin out of my shin.

This time around was a little different. Instead of trying to figure out the public transportation system, use sign language for taxi negotiations, wonder if we were going to the right place for the right price, and realizing that the trip only offers the possibility of visiting a small section of the Great Wall before having to rush back to the taxi just to catch a glimpse of an ancient, untouched, and obscure section of the Great Wall; I organized a private tour to Jiankou.

My wife and I met our guide Sonja from China Travellers at Dongsishitiao station.  Quickly firing off some Mandarin she helped us order a couple of egg sandwiches from a street side vendor outside the station before heading to the car.   Waiting for us in the parking lot of the Swiss Hotel Beijing was a white Malibu with tinted black windows, our modern chariot to the Great Wall, and with a few quick introductions to our driver we were off.

The ride from downtown Beijing to Jiankou takes around two and a half hours and meanders into the mountains of Beijing’s Huairou District. From passenger windows, a country in transition is exposed as the city slowly becomes rural farmland contrasting old and new. Along the highway the lumbering overpasses of the future bullet train, being build for the 2022 winter Olympics, sit in the middle of fields that have been cultivated for generations.

As the traffic dissipates the highway gradually becomes country-roads, the flat fields turn to rolling hills and in no time you’re driving through the valleys between towering mountains.  In winter here, the forest sleeps in a deadened grey slumber.  Driving through the mountains elderly men and women, hired by the state to watch for fire, sit along the roadside wearing bright orange vest like pylons marking a drought ridden region.

Eventually, we turned off the paved road and parked next to a barren dirt field where we stepped out of the car to meet our hiking guide Lin.  Lin was a spryly 60-year-old local with weathered skin, a gentle demeanour and a long face.  To shield him from the winter weather he dawned a faded blue military style winter hat along with with a worn navy winter coat that almost reached his knees, and black Air Jordans with bright red accents on the sole.

As a local farmer Lin shared stories through our guide Sonya about life growing up in the area before revealing his energy with a smooth stride and spring in his step as we started our hike. Struggling to keep up on the first leg of our hike, we watched Lin effortlessly navigate the inclined hiking trails to “Arrow Nock,” one of the steepest and most picturesque sections of Jiankou and the Great Wall of China. Breathlessly we trailed from behind as we followed him through the forest where he was raised. After around 30 minutes of hiking, we broke out of the  and trees climbed onto the most scenic location of the Great Wall of China. The impressive view was intensified by wintery blue skies, whisping clouds, and a clear view to the horizon; this was only our introduction to China’s ancient Great Wall.

Jiankou from above

Huairou Beijing, CN -Looking out across
Jiankou’s Arrow Nock Great Wall of China from above (Ian YacobucciBorderless Travels)

After our warm up hike, a walk along the cliff like structures of the Arrow Nock section of the Great Wall and four dozen photos, we headed back to the car to start our official hiking tour.  As we drove to our next hiking spot we mentioned to Sonya our surprise by Lin’s athleticism and learned that he had been living near the Jiankou section of the Great Wall since the time before the regional roads existed, which meant that walking up and over the wall was the only way to visit the larger neighbouring town nearest his village.

Our hike with Lin spanned roughly ten kilometers of the Great Wall and took us from Jiankou’s abandoned and unrestored east section to Mutanyu (one of the most famous and recently restored sections of the Great Wall).  This meant that we could explore and feel the deep connection that comes with hiking along Jiankou’s rugged and untouched beauty, followed by a more touristy visit to Mutanyu before finishing the adventure off with a toboggan ride down the mountainside, lunch, and dozing drive back Beijing.

Our hike took us about three and a half hours and filled our day with clear blue skies, visibility that reached the horizon, new friends, and an epic trek along the Great Wall of China’s most spectacular locations.  We also got to experience the less visited and wild Jiankou with the opportunity to contrast it with the official tourist highlight of the Mutanyu section of the Great Wall.

Great Wall Tower Jiankou

Huairou Beijing, CN – A watch tower along the Jiankou hiking section of the Great Wall of China Jiankou (Ian YacobucciBorderless Travels)

Typically, especially in the more popular summer months, visibility can often be quite limited and the bloated tourist numbers can take away from an authentic experience.  We found that winter was the best time of the year to visit the Great Wall of China because tourist numbers are low and visibility is high (a contrast to the humid summer).  During our hike from Jiankou to Mutanyu we did not see a single tourist until we reached Mutanyu, and since it was winter even a popular section like Mutanyu had only a few dozen people.

Planning a guided tour was the best decisions we could have made for our visit to the Great Wall of China.  Although it can be more expensive than other alternatives, our experience with a local guide who helped us explore the less visited sections of the wall safely with a unique knowledge of the area coupled with the comfort of an organized ride that dropped us off in one section of the Great Wall and picked up at another, the addition of an English speaking guide like Sonja to organize it all, and the ease of booking online made our unique experience safe, effortless, and fulfilling.

We can’t wait to come back and explore another section of the Great Wall upon our next visit to Beijing and hope that you too will find the joys of exploring the Great Wall of China by adventuring off the beaten path and hiking along it the way it was meant to be explored.

For more information about how to book a trip like this visit www.chinatravellers.com

Been to the Great Wall!! Tell us about your recent visit to the Great Wall of China by  sharing your experience and advice with our readers in our comments below.

Home / Europe / Spain / Nativity Poop | Who is Barcelona’s Poo Figurine?

Nativity Poop | Who is Barcelona’s Poo Figurine?

Updated: December 21, 2016
By: Chris Kosmopoulos
The shitter

A typical display at a random Barcelona souvenir shop. OK Apartment Flickr CCL

Anyone who’s walked along Las Ramblas or the winding streets of the Gothic neighborhood has undoubtedly had to take a double take at what they thought they saw but had to check again, just to make sure.

To their surprise, what they’re confronted with is a series of smiling figurines with pants around their ankles, taking a dump.

This is the beloved El Caganer, which translates to the Shitter in English.

Normally reserved as a cultural prop in Catalonian nativity scenes at Christmas, the Shitter is on display year-round in Barcelona gift shops, usually in the form of various celebrities that send tourists into fits of giggles and tug at their purse strings to take the perfect gifts for friends and coworkers back home: a defecating figurine that offers both a cultural artifact from their visit, and something quirky that the recipient will never use and keep in the bowels of their desk drawer until they quit or get fired.

The Shitter

Typical pooing figurines at a random Barcelona gift shop. OK Apartment Flickr CCL

El Caganer’s story

Manneken

Manneken Pis (the peeing boy) statue in Brussels that usually dressed up in something festive or like this; naked, holding his weenie. Jose Antonio Nava Flickr CCL

Originating as early as the 16th century, many theories regarding the Shitter have emerged to explain the prominent rise of something so bizarre and how it found its way to the nativity scene, but they all sound made up.

They range from a depiction of feeding the earth with fertility, to a leveling device through its use of famous persons as the Shitter, all lacking any kind of historical evidence or substance.

Whatever it is, it’s weird, but then again so is a glorified and celebrated fountain of a boy taking a pee in Belgium, but people flock to see the Manneken Pis without really questioning it.

So maybe the only thing to take away from this is that people are weird. That seems fitting, no?

Home / Africa / Morocco / Discover Morocco’s Blue City Chefchaouen

Discover Morocco’s Blue City Chefchaouen

Updated: April 22, 2015
By: Graeme Billinghurst
Morocco's blue city Chefchaouen from a distance

Morocco’s blue city Chefchaouen from a distance (Graeme Billinghurst/Borderless Travels)

 

For world travellers, there are few destinations that stand out as places that are unlike any other on the globe. The northern Moroccan city of Chefchaouen, however can legitimately stake the claim as a travel destination like none other.

Having visited this beautiful blue city in the height of the Moroccan summer and at the tail end of Ramadan, we were unsure of what to expect. Upon arriving via a Grand Taxi from the port city of Tangier, we were dropped off near the bus terminal and after orienting ourselves for a few minutes and adjusting to the sights and sounds of our new destination, we immersed ourselves in the blue maze that is the town’s medina with the goal of finding our hostel.

Navigating a medina can be an arduous task, but one that is a necessary skill to master when spending any extended amount of time in a Moroccan city. Once we found our bearings, we were able to locate Casa Amina, a centrally located hostel which was to be our home for the next few evenings.

An olive tree growing in the Medina (Graeme Billinghurst/Borderless Travels)

An olive tree growing in the Medina (Graeme Billinghurst/Borderless Travels)

Chefchaouen is a wonderful escape from the hustle and bustle of Morocco’s major cities. The laid back atmosphere of the blue medina coupled with the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape creates a peaceful and relaxed vibe that is contradictory to busier Moroccan cities such as Marrakech, Tangier and Fes. This laid back feel also allows tourists to wander the medina without feeling like they are about to be swindled or tricked by locals as can be the case in the aforementioned locations.  Chefchaeouen does have it’s own unique form of harassment as locals will offer you hashish as often as several times a day, which if to be believed, is readily available, albeit officially illegal.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner can all be found at very reasonably priced restaurants that make up and surround the Grand Place. Meals are experiences in themselves as local delights such as tajines and pastillas can be enjoyed while listening to the evening prayers. Following meals, people-watching while drinking mint tea, locally referred to as Moroccan whiskey, is a favourite past time.

For the more adventurous traveller, the Rif Mountains provide a taste of the natural beauty that can be seen from the town square. Within a short, thirty minute ride, you can get to a commonly used hiking trail that provides a full day of exercise and some spectacular views. As a reward, the end of the trail results in the Cascade d’Akchour, a beautiful and exceptionally cold waterfall that is a well earned culmination of the day’s efforts.

Overall, Chefchaouen is a traveller’s dream. It offers something for everyone and at a very affordable price. Even during the heat of the summer and at the tail end of Ramadan, a memorable experience awaits you in northern Morocco’s blue oasis.

Home / South America / Ecuador / Ecuador dentist disaster a lesson in medical tourism dangers

Ecuador dentist disaster a lesson in medical tourism dangers

Updated: November 25, 2014
By: Ian Yacobucci
Eucador Dentist

GUAYAQUIL, ECUADOR – MARCH 2014 – CNA Dental office where I experienced what it’s like to visit a dentist in Ecuador (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

Lying back in the faded green 1970’s dentist chair I looked right and smiled at Laura and her mother, la signora, who were sitting across the room.   Next to them was an old green desk cluttered with a mini city of disorganized paper piles.   The dentists stood up from his desk and walked past them across length of the room. Watching him from my chair I decided there was no freaking way I was going to get any dental work done in this place, but it was already too late.

It all started during a dinner conversation the night before when the cost of medical work came up. Somehow it was mentioned that getting your teeth cleaned in Ecuador costs about thirty American dollars, and filling cavities ranges from twenty to forty dollar per filling.

Now, I’m not a medical tourist and I don’t travel to save money on medical procedures, but to save $200 for a teeth cleaning (the average cost in Canada) I decided to give it a try. It would be my second cleaning overseas, the first being a professional yet disappointing dental cleaning experience in Tokyo, Japan.

Guayaquil is Ecuador’s largest city with a busy population of about four million people. On the day we set out for the dentist, an early morning rainfall turned to light drizzle leaving the Sunday morning streets quiet and traffic free. Visiting the dentist and barber seemed like a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon so my Couchsurfing host family booked two appointments and brought me to the city centre.

Parked on a street lined with shops and low-rise apartments we walked towards the dentist office. As we walked, I pictured a modern dental office with snazzy new chairs, LCD screens, marble floors, and lavishly decorated with tropical office ferns. But soon after we started walking my pre-conceptions of a first class dentist in Ecuador were shattered when we turned left down a dark alleyway.

As the rain dripped from the decrepit and rusting tin awning above, I tried not to slip on the shadowed alleyway’s rust stained tile we walked along. After a few meters cautiously walking like a high beam acrobat we arrived at a stairwell, buzzed up, and entered the building.

The wooden stairs that lead to the main landing were poorly lit and the light at the top blinked like a dying star’s last flickers of life.   As we walked up I noticed the old brow paint that covered the stairwell walls was peeling to reveal blotches of lime green hues beneath. Optimistically, with a traveler’s spirit, I resolved to at least follow through with the teeth cleaning and consider the cavities after. I mean, la Signora went to a lot of trouble to book my appointment and I didn’t want to be rude.

Dr. Boris met us at the top of the first floor, greeted me with a handshake, and guided us into the waiting room before gesturing us to sit. The tiny waiting area seemed normal with a small mahogany coffee table topped with a few magazines in the centre, and four leather sitting chairs lining the walls. Perhaps I was wrong to judge the alleyway.

As we flipped through the magazines la signora showed me pictures of things I should see in Ecuador by pointing at the images of volcanoes, mountains, and pristine beaches she recognized in a local travel magazine. In no time I was up. Dr. Boris led us from the waiting room and into the dental office as he said goodbye to his last client. Once we entered and the old wooden door closed behind us I finally confirmed my worst fears, this wasn’t Canada and I was not prepared for this.

The first thing I noticed was that there was no visible sterilization equipment. On the right side of the room were two worn out and faded dental chairs that looked like they belonged on episode of the walking dead rather than a dental office. Wishing I could turn around and walk out, Dr. Boris ushered me over to the far right corner of the room and into one of the decrepit dental chairs located next to to a large window that overlooked the street.

Once I was seated and comfortable, Dr. Boris sat down between the chair and the window then looked over at Laura and la signora who were sitting across the room. Not being able to communicate, Laura translated that I was interested in getting my teeth cleaned. Spinning his chair to face the window, underneath which his dental tools were located, I freaked! The lady who finished just before me had left the tooth gunk from her recent work sitting in a little bowl beside the chair I was sitting in. Not only that, but I noticed Dr. Boris had only one set of tools and there was no sterilization equipment in sight.

Calming myself, I realized that I was probably over thinking the situation so I gave Dr. Boris benefit of the doubt and tried to relax in the chair. Turning back around, Dr. Boris laid a piece of brown paper towel across my chest, picked up a water pic, and without any protective eye wear or that suction tube dentists use to get rid of access mouth water, pulled the overhead lamp above my face and started spraying.

Water and plaque sprayed in all directions as he cleaned. Like an innocent bystander standing too close to a street puddle, as an unaware car drives by, I got soaked. Every few minutes the water boarding would stop and I’d get a chance to spit into the bowl beside the chair with everyone’s tooth gunk looking back at me like frog eyes in a swamp..

Finally the torture ended as Dr. Boris walked across the room, giving me a chance to catch my breath and clean myself with the brown elementary school paper towel that absorbed the water like tree bark. Staring at the ceiling I wondered what the heck I had gotten myself into. Now that the he was done with the water pic I figured Dr. Boris was going to get sterilized dental equipment to finish cleaning the hard plaque that the water pic missed. Wrong! Instead he opened a black cabinet located across the room, bent over, and took out a tattered shoe-sized box that looked like it hadn’t been sitting untouched for a decade. Sitting back beside me he opened it and pulled out a giant silver gun that looked like the mini laser weapon Will Smith used in Men in Black.

“Don’t worry, it’s for teeth cleaning,” Laura translated in a thick Spanish accent. Comforting as those kind words were supposed to be I was not at ease. What was I thinking getting strangers to set up a dentist appointment in a country where I couldn’t communicate because I didn’t speak the language or had any idea of the medical standards. But it was to late, loading the gun from beneath he inserted a CO2 cartridge, handed me another paper towel, leaned over, aimed the weapon at my face and pressed the trigger.

A fine dust blasted my teeth dispersing a cloud of particles like a military flashbang into my mouth, nose, and eyes. I closed my eyes tight and held my breath hoping that whatever I was getting a dose of was good for my teeth and free of any long-term side effects.   Eventually, I cracked as the seconds passed and I took in a big breath of the powder that was suffocating me. There was no way of stopping Dr. Boris because I couldn’t communicate with the dust like chemical choking me, so I kept my eyes closed tight, tried to breathe as little as possible, and accepted it.

When it was all over he gave me a chance to brush the scratchy fine particles off my face before grabbing a dental mirror to check my mouth for cavities. When he finished searching Laura translated that I had I had four cavities and that two of them should be addressed immediately. After my traumatic cleaning experience I decided to politely decline any further dental work, paid my thirty dollars for services rendered, and headed off to a wonderfully uneventful haircut.

Back in Canada, first thing I did when I got home was visit the dentist where I paid the $200 for a professional cleaning, had x-rays of my mouth taken, found out that I actually had 10 cavities (5 of which needed to be filled) and that the four cavities Dr. Boris suggested I get filled were just stains.

In the end, I paid $1100 to get everything taken care of in Canada by a professionally licensed Canadian doctor and came out with an important lesson in medical tourism. If you’re planning on going overseas for medical procedures you should probably do some research, know whom you’re working with, and be able to speak the language.

Happy Travels,

Yak

Have you had any crazy medical experiences while overseas??

 

Home / South America / Ecuador / Counterfeit money how I schemed my way back to zero

Counterfeit money how I schemed my way back to zero

Updated: November 6, 2014
By: Ian Yacobucci
Counterfeit American money

MONTANITA, ECUADOR – MARCH 2014 – Back of a counterfeit American twenty-dollar bill I received at a currency exchange (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

To tell you the truth, it wasn’t for lack of trying that I couldn’t get rid of the counterfeit twenty-dollar bill I found amongst my real American cash while traveling in Ecuador. A feat that would consume a good deal of time, and several battles with my conscience, while surfing and partying in Montanita on Ecuador’s Pacific coast.

The quaint surf-town that transforms into the biggest party on the Ecuadorian coast was the last place I thought I’d find a couple fake twenty-dollar bills amongst the American currency tucked secretly away in the dark crevices of my backpack.  Then again, I was a foreigner in a fantasyland of dark clubs and cheap drinks where thousands of people flock when the weekend hits.

It all started on one of those frenetic nights out in the party capital of Ecuador.  Carlos, one of Montanita’s infamous mixologists, spends most nights fancifully flipping out colourful alcohol ridden fruit drinks and snapping picks with visitors along Montanita’s cocktail alley.

Cocktail alley naturally attracts flocks of people who come to start untamed nights out sitting in red and white lawn chairs as they share drinks and conversation with tourists, Ecuadorians, and locals alike.  It’s here that I started my night with Carlos and his devilishly tasty rum saturated fruit bombs.

“Falsa,” he said as he handed back the crisp new twenty-dollar bill I had just given him in exchange for the two drinks my friend and I had consumed.  It’s real I assured him as I handed it back reaffirming that it was a new one from Canada.

Montanita Cocktail Alley

MONTANITA, ECUADOR – MARCH 2014 – Out for a drink on Montanita’s cocktail alley with Carlo’s the mixologist and Columbian friend Jorge (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

I could have sworn I had brought the money directly from my Canadian bank to Ecuador.  That’s when then I remembered that businesses in Ecuador don’t accept fifty-dollar bills and I was forced to change some of it at an exchange booth in Guayaquil.  Guayaquil, being the largest city in Ecuador, is where I figure I unassumingly got duped into taking two freshly minted, incredibly fake, counterfeit twenty-dollar American bills along with a half-dozen real tens.

Counterfeit money is not something new in Ecuador.  In fact, shortly after the Ecuador switched from the sucre to the American dollar in 2000, illegitimate currency started percolating into the country via Columbia.As the story goes, Columbian taxi drivers were bringing in thousands of dollars in fake currency and exchanging it with the real thing through daily transactions and other illegal practices.

The night I discovered I had come by forty-dollars in counterfeits was no big deal, since the club I went to cost $15 and the attendant was collecting money as fast as she could get people in.  By slipping a fake twenty under a real one I was able reinsert the currency back into the system and out of my wallet.  To be honest, the club was absolutely horrible and completely empty, so ironically, I still felt like I had been ripped off.

Happy that I wasn’t completely at a loss over my recently acquired counterfeit money, I realized that there was one problem; I still had another twenty to get rid of. You’d think it’d be easy to get rid of a fake currency when there are hundreds of places to do it. However, in Ecuador this isn’t the case because people know what to look for and no one wants to get ripped off.

Realizing this, my first job was to make the bill look well used and more realistic, since it was in pristine condition and noticeably fake under good light.  With some advice from a friend of mine I decided to take the bill for a swim in the ocean.  When I took the mashed up twenty out of my board short pocket, it certainly looked like the idea had worked.  The bill had gained years of use from just five minutes in the water, but since it was made out of paper (not currency paper) it ripped and looked even more fake than before.

Luckily, a little tape fixed the bill, but making it look real wasn’t the only problem to getting rid of the money.  The other problem was my conscience.  Montanita is a small seaside village, and in a few short weeks I had already begun establishing relationships with the shopkeepers, restaurant staff, and bar owners.  The longer I stayed in Montanita the harder it was to justify tricking one the wonderful people I was meeting into taking the counterfeit money, and so I resolved to hold onto the bill as a souvenir.

Montanita

MONTANITA, ECUADOR – MARCH 2014 – Main street in Montanita at night where artists selling crafts, restaurants, bars, and clubs are located (Ian Yacobucci/Borderless Travels)

Finally, it was time to leave Montanita and head back to Quito before returning home to Canada.  Realizing that I would be taking a late evening taxi from the airport in Quito to my hotel downtown, I resolved to give it one last try and finally rid myself of my last fake twenty-dollar bill.

Duping the taxi was the perfect plan.  It was dark and late, the driver had probably been on the road for a while, and there was a good chance that I could just hand over the money, grab my bags, and head into the hotel without any trouble.  I even planned to get dropped off around the corner so the driver wouldn’t find me and harass the hotel staff.

When the driver picked me up at the airport he quoted my cab fare at twenty-seven dollars, which was perfect amount to go through with my plan.  By placing a real ten-dollar bill over the counterfeit twenty I was hoping that I’d leave right after handing over the money, and that the tip incentive would be enough to distract the driver.  I didn’t feel good about it, but neither did I want to be the one who got ripped off.

Sitting in the front seat of the taxi I went over the scenario in my head and resolved to hand over the money and be done with it.  Why should I be the one that gets screwed, I thought.  The reality was that the money was a real thing, looked relatively realistic, and would probably find its way through the system somehow.

As my conniving came to an end I determined to just do it and move on.  That’s when the taxi driver looked over and started a conversation with me.  After a few minutes of conversation, I noticed that he was a kind looking man and spoke with a gentle voice in his maroon sweater vest and grey tie.

He garnered respect with his outfit and demeanor, liked his job, loved his family, and was genuinely interested in me. On that hour-long ride from the airport to Quito central we became friends.  We talked family, life, sports, love, and politics all in broken Spanish, Italian, and English.  We laughed, we philosophized, we reflected on the world, and when I arrived at the hotel I reached in my wallet and handed him all real American bills (no counterfeit).

In the end, I returned home with my counterfeit twenty-dollars and learned that the kindness and generosity of people is worth more than a few dollars.  Honesty, respect, and loving your neighbors no matter where you are in the world is far more important than ripping someone off for your own benefit.  Ultimately, I learned to always check your change no matter where you are in the world, and that corporations like McDonalds are considered individual people according to law so giving them your fake money is okay in my books.

Lets just say the American McDonalds coffee I had the other day tasted amazing!

Happy Travels,

Yak

Home / South America / Ecuador / Ecuador’s Amazon: life in the world’s lungs

Ecuador’s Amazon: life in the world’s lungs

Updated: May 1, 2014
By: Ian Yacobucci
Rio Napo

Sunset over Rio Napo – Napo Province, Ecuador

There’s no TV, cellphones, or internet in the Amazon; only satellite phones (if you’re near a lodge).  Stores here  are usually in the form of markets or a small room in a local persons house where you can get a few essentials.  Life is different in the jungle, slower, and for those who live here the Amazon presents it’s own challenges.

From all my travel experiences the Amazon is the noisiest place on earth! At night and through the early morning hours you hear a thousand and one animals and insects communicating at the same time. And the humidity, oh the humidity! In the Amazon it feels like you are never dry, between light or heavy rainfall, the heat, and the dense humid atmosphere the Amazon is a forest like none I’ve ever experienced.

It’s alive and when you kill part of it, it comes back with a vengeance and speed that is incomprehensible. Primary forest (original Amazon forest hundreds of years old) is so dense that it’s hard to imagine anyone navigating their way through it, secondary forest (abandoned farms or cut down areas that have started to grow back within the last 1oo years), and tertiary forest (where cacao and other plants are farmed and harvested in pockets within the jungle) make up the region of the Amazon where I was visiting.

Sumaco Volcano

Sumaco volcano Amazon Rainforest Napo Province, Ecuador

Napo province is a few hours south east of the Ecuador’s capital, Quito. Tena, the region’s largest city of 30 000, is about three hours away from where I was visiting with an all-boys school from Los Angeles, California. To get to the lodge and community we were staying with you had to take a 20 minute boat ride down the Rio Napo.

The Rio Napo is special because it never looks the same twice no matter where you are. Day by day it rises and falls from the highland rainfall as if breathing. Some days you’ll see an island in the middle of the river and the next it’s gone.

Along the river banks of the Amazon you’d never be able to find peoples communities, farms, or markets unless you lived along places like the Rio Napo. Walls of jungle line the riverbank as exotic colourful birds flutter from tree to tree while the turgid muddy waters of the Rio Napo flow towards the ocean fiercely, a speed that would scare even the most experienced swimmer.

Our time in this region of the Amazon was spent on the boarder of the Amazon Rainforest just past the Andes. My job during our visit was to lead a service learning trip in a community known as Mondana where the organization Free the Children was helping develop an alternative income project for the community.

Between days of building a Chosa (traditional palm leaf roof building) and exploring the region we had opportunities to see how local agriculture worked in the Amazon as well as explore some of the jungle.

Farming in the Amazon is not easy. Before you can even start planting you need to find a plot of land near a clean spring water source (for drinking) and clear the jungle as thick as butter. Once that’s done you have to fight back the jungle that is constantly trying to take back your land and watch that crops like corn don’t rot in the high humidity.

For many who farm in the Amazon, subsistence farming with small crops that are sold at local markets provides families with what they need to survive. It’s not an easy life and the work that goes into farming organically without modern technology (because petrol is expensive and not easily accessible and the high humidity destroys pretty much all metals) is hard work.

Some of what locals grow includes corn, cacao, citrus fruits, palm hearts, grubs (an Amazonian delicacy). Most communities in the region of the Amazon I was working in speak an indigenous language called Kichwa. They also speak Spanish which they learn in school.

Amazon Corn

Picking corn in the Amazon Rainforest Napo, Ecuador

Most people in Ecuador are Roman Catholic a result of the extensive evangelization by the Franciscans during the Spanish colonization of the country. Arriving on Easter weekend our group (coming from a Jesuit high school) were invited to spend the Easter Sunday mass with the community of Mondana.

During the celebration a few things stood out to me. First was the congregation, which was composed primarily of women and children from Mondana (since the men were off working far from their families). The second was that during communion (when the congregation goes up to receive the “body of Christ”) no one from the local community went up.

Later I discovered that the priest services up to 60 communities in the region and hadn’t been to Mondana in more than 3 months. This meant that parishioners could not go to confession and as a result weren’t able to receive communion as that would be a sin.

As the mass was going on I couldn’t help but attempt to put my feet in the shoes of the indigenous people who probably stood listening to the foreign sounds, and looking at deities they didn’t recognize, hundreds of years before me.

Amazon Flower

Insects on a flower Amazon Rainforest Napo Province, Ecuador

Life in the Amazon is slower; probably because it’s too hot to move fast. Yet there’s a rhythm to it, a pace that the people, plants and animals move to. For those who live in the Amazon they can tell the time by the sounds that the insects and animals make, they can find insects and plants that seem camouflaged to the naked eye, and they know how to use the jungle for everything from health to hunger.

Though my time in the Amazon was short there’s no doubt in my mind that I will one day return to explore it more deeply. To be honest, there’s probably no end to the things you can learn in the Amazon and each day brings new insights and experiences.

A friend once told me that if you look at a spot in the Amazon once you’ll see something new, look twice and you’ll see something you didn’t see the first time, look three times and you’ll find something you missed, look four times and you realize there’s no end to what you’ll see. This lesson, like the Amazon itself, will say with me forever.

Happy Travels,

Yak

 

 

Home / Asia / India / Lost in India unforgettable Agra adventure

Lost in India unforgettable Agra adventure

Updated: January 8, 2014
By: Ian Yacobucci

<pTaj-Mahal-Agra-India/p>

I didn’t check the map before I booked my flight. I didn’t care, I just wanted the cheapest flight from Bangkok to India, and Delhi is what I found. How hard could it be to get around India anyway, Paul Thoroux did it in the 1970’s and look how far technology’s come since then. No matter what, I’d be able to figure something out.

After I booked my flight and researched the location of the Taj Mahal, I was ecstatic; only four hours away! I had always dreamed of visiting the Taj Mahal, but discovering that it was so close to Delhi made visiting it an actual possibility. Even better was the fact that I hadn’t made any plans. All I knew what that I needed to be in Darjeeling for a mountaineering course two days from my arrival in Delhi.

When I arrived in Delhi all I had planned was a visit to the train station so I could book a train to Agra. With my backpack slung over my shoulders I headed straight to the Delhi airport train. Before I knew it I was in Central Delhi dressed in my finest beachwear, a bright green set of boarding shorts and a t-shirt.

As I walked off the new and comfortable airport train out onto the dusty platform near the New Delhi Railway Station I finally realized I was in India, and I wasn’t prepared.

The tropical lush green climate of sunny warm Thailand was gone, everyone was wearing drab dark coloured pants and sweaters and the cool dry mid April weather was so dusty I felt like I was walking busy streets more suited for the desert setting of a Starwars movie.

There was so much going on that I couldn’t even process what I needed to do or where I needed to go. All I saw was people, cars, tuk tuks, animals, beggars, children, dust, and chaos. I was totally lost, and no one I knew had a clue where in the world I was.

Scared, excited, taking everything in, trying to problem solve and figure out my next move is what I love about traveling, and the moment I walked down the stairs of the airport train platform that’s exactly how I felt.

With no guidebooks, smart phone, or research, all I knew was that I was in New Delhi, India and needed to get to Agra. Thinking back to my trip across Asia on the Trans-Siberian, taking the train was my best bet for a smooth ride there.

I was wrong. As I walked through the pandemonium of the train station, where it seemed entire families were living, I wasn’t very optimistic. Stepping over sleeping mothers wrapped like corn husks in colourful shawls their children snugged in tight, I headed towards the ticket booth as it neared 5 o’clock.

I stood in what appeared to be a line listening to the sounds of the people that hung over the room like rain cloud, their voices filling the station like the pitter patter of a light rain on a warm summer day.

“No train to Agra,” the ticket attendant reasoned in his thick Indian accent, “tomorrow is better for you”. Problem was I didn’t have until tomorrow, I needed to get to Agra that night. As I stepped out of line wondering what to do next I saw an English sign leading English tourists to a small room at the side of the station.

Inside, an English couple sat in front of a solid wood desk talking to an attendant. Turns out they were in the same predicament as me. After some discussion they decided to take the train the following day where, to my disappointment, I could only opt in for the 7:30pm bus.

A few minutes after discussing the bus option, armed with a set price to offer a tuk tuk driver, I set out to find my ride and was soon on my way to somewhere. As the sun started to set over the city the tuk tuk rumbled through the streets of Delhi. Freezing in the back I managed to throw on a sweater and sometime later, as the dust and darkness crept closer, I arrived at the bus station.

New Delhi Bus Station India

Appartments next to the New Delhi bus station in New Delhi, Inda

There was nothing there. The bus station was a big empty parking lot with a few overhangs and a small building with toilets. It sat next to an apartment building, and between the two was a garbage dump where the shanties of India’s poorest stood.

After paying the tuk tuk driver I asked for the bus to Agra, and was sent to a platform at the back of the parking lot. Thankfully, I was early, and had time to change out of my summer clothes into something more appropriate for the early spring weather.

After some time, a man came to sell tickets from a small box on the platform where the Agra bus was slated to depart. Unfortunately I ended up being ripped off, first paying double the price of a single ticket, then having to return to him several times because he gave me the wrong change. It took me several attempts to get most of my money back, and in the end the attendant kept 2 rupees and I cut my losses.

When the bus finally arrived it was well past dark. On the nearly four hour drive we stopped for a snack and coffee at a roadside eatery before we arrived in Agra nearing midnight.

Stepping off the bus onto the dirt parking lot in a strange dark city at night isn’t the best first impression. Seemingly left to fate, I asked a tuk tuk driver to take me to the hotel area near the Taj Mahal. For all I knew, during the drive, he could have been taking me anywhere.

Thankfully, we arrived where I had asked and I managed to find a room for $2 a night. As I walked up the rickety red stairs that squeaked and squawked with every step, I new I wasn’t in for a night of luxury.

When I finally dropped face down on the double bed in my room I was pleasantly surprised when the sheets moved to reveal that the entire bed was covered in mouse droppings. Yeah, the entire bed was covered in mouse sh*t. So I did what any normal traveler would do with a $2 room in an unkown city at 1am in the morning, I rolled onto my back, closed my eyes, and slept until 5 am.

When I woke up, I washed my face in the communal sink located in the hallway and headed to the Taj Mahal for sunrise. Recalling the night before I realized I had made it, and what an adventure to get there!

In the end I would see the Taj Mahal, meet an incredible artist, and see several of Agra’s most important sites. It was the beginning of the most epic month of my life, and as I walked back from the Taj, I realized I was in for another travel adventure. Mission two: get to Darjeeling, a city located on the complete opposite side of the country 1, 427km away, and the location of the Himalayan mountaineering course I was traveling to India for.

Live life, travel like a local, and learn about the world; you wont regret it.

Happy Travels,

Yak

Have you ever had an adventurous travel experience that opened your eyes to a new country?

 

Home / Travel Photography / Beyond the lens / Travel Photo| Saved by mountain children of San Juan, Philippines

Travel Photo| Saved by mountain children of San Juan, Philippines

Updated: December 11, 2013
By: Ian Yacobucci
Mountain children of San Juan, Philippines

Mountain children of San Juan, Philippines

Little helpers of San Juan Philippines:

There weren’t may times on my travels around the world were I prayed that I’d live, but this was one of them.  On an adventure to explore the volcanic lakes of San Juan, Philippines I ran into a bit of trouble.  With a consumer scooter and flip flops I found myself trying to navigate dirt and tree obstacles created by the 2009 landslides on the Filipino island of  Negros Oriental.

Things wouldn’t have been so bad if there weren’t 500 foot cliffs beside each of these seemingly insurmountable blockades.  Covered in a slick layer of mud I also broke a flip flop and had to hull the bike up each obstruction in bare feet as I pictured myself slipping to my death with every step.

Thankfully, these children from a village nearby saw my distress and came to give a lending hand.  With the little ones at the top leading the way and one or two giving me an extra little push I was able to make it over the top of what you see pictured and to the safety of the paved road beyond.

Before I rode off into the distance and down the mountainous hillside, where I ended up getting invited to a wedding celebration (a story for another day), I asked my little saviours if they’d like to take a picture.  When I checked my camera, upon arriving safe to my hostel safe and sound, this is what I found.

Happy travels,

Yak

 

Home / Travel Talk / Ian's Travel Thoughts / Life lessons learned visiting Barcelona with expat friends

Life lessons learned visiting Barcelona with expat friends

Updated: November 19, 2013
By: Ian Yacobucci
Sister and friends in Barcelona, Spain

Me with my sister and friends at a neighbourhood bar in Barcelona, Spain. Now a memory on my refrigerator at home

There were a few reasons my sister and I decided to go to Barcelona to finish off our recent exploration of Europe’s greatest cities. One of them was to visit my good friend Chris who I had the pleasure of studying and living with during my undergraduate degree. The other being that we had only heard amazing things about the city.

So, what did we do while hanging out in Barcelona? To be honest, based on the 5 pictures I took while we were there a whole lot of chilling!

Our days in Barcelona weren’t filled with running around in an attempt to snap pictures of cityscapes and architectural wonders. Instead it was filled with personal connections and having fun just hanging out in a great city.

Mornings for us started late as we headed out from our hostel late afternoon each day. Usually we met my friend Chris for a café con lecce (coffee with milk) before we started days of wandering the city and hanging out.

Some days we headed to the beach for some October sun (since it was still 25 degrees). While on other days we’d explore the alleyways of the Gothic district.

Nights out in the city were fantastic with small tapas and bars hidden away just waiting to be discovered. The food in some of these places was incredible and the only way to find one you really like is to wander in and hope they speak a little English.

We found a great place near the Picasso Museum, an area that I’d highly recommend visiting. Not only was the museum really cool, but the tapas and restaurants surrounding it were phenomenal.

There were so many great museums in the city we found it hard to choose just one, but in this area every doorway and courtyard was filled with people, and the smells of delicious food just called out for us to step in, so Picasso it was.

Gothic district Barcelona, Spain

Gothic district Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona also had some pretty good shopping. I’d recommend checking out Massimo Dutti. It’s a little bit on the pricier side, but if you want to buy some good quality clothing to spice up your wardrobe (and get your friends at home asking were then can get that) go there.  I managed to pick up a sweet blazer.

I think that when you’re traveling, if you can meet friends along the way, you’ll get a truly fulfilling experience. Meeting up with my friend Chris was one of the best parts of our trip. Hanging out, shooting the sh*t, and reminiscing about old times was great.

More than that getting to learn about what his life was like in Spain, meeting his girlfriend, and visiting spots across the city that only locals know made the trip a lot more interesting.

Being a tourist in a city is fantastic, but getting to talk with someone about what it’s like to live there, and learn from someone else’s experience, helps you to gain a new perspective.

Lucky for me, I also got to meet up with a girl I was spending time with before I left Canada for several months in Europe. Having something to look forward to, like meeting a pretty girl in a romantic city like Barcelona, completed my visit to the city. And having it happen spontaneously and unplanned made it that much better.

Seeing old friends and flames in Barcelona made me appreciate everything that gets missed when you’re traveling long term. Sometimes I wonder if a life of endless travel is the most fulfilling lifestyle one can have. It’s easy to forget about everyone back home when you’re out experiencing incredible cultures, foods, and sites.

The world is a big place but the more you travel the more you see that what’s important to most people is the same; family, friends, and love.

I can’t wait for my next adventure but I’m happy to be home relaxing with friends and family. Barcelona will be a city I’ll remember forever because it taught me that no matter where in the world you are love and friendship are always present.

Happy Travels,

Yac

Home / Travel Talk / Ian's Travel Thoughts / What it’s like to visit family in Italy

What it’s like to visit family in Italy

Updated: October 8, 2013
By: Ian Yacobucci
Visiting family

Visiting family in Vieste, Italy

No matter where you’ve traveled, how many countries you’ve been to, or what you’ve done around the world, there’s one experience that impossible to have unless you’ve got family in another country.  Lucky for me and my sister our family origins start in Italy, and we still have family there today.

After taking an overnight Montenegro Lines ferry from Bar, in Montenegro, to Bari, in Italy, (a Montenegran boat that will no longer be running after December due to financing) we began a two week adventure visiting our relatives across Italy.

The first stop on our Italy trip that did not include famous cities like Rome or Florence, world class museums, famous art stops, or the best gelato in the world, was a small town on the Adriatic called Vieste.

A growing tourist town Vieste is surrounded by a national park and home to about 14, 000 people. It’s located in the province of Foggia in a region known as Gargano (perhaps my future dog’s name?). It’s also the place where my grandmother (nonna) was raised nearly 100 years ago.

So, what’s it like spending a week with your distant relatives who only speak Italian and live in a small town on the Adriatic coast that can only be reached by bus or car, bearing in mind that I don’t speak Italian. Hint: it’s incredible!

Let’s start with the lifestyle here. Everything in Vieste closes from around 1/2 o’clock till about 4 or 5 in the afternoon. That means you can’t get gas, you can’t go to a restaurant, you can’t visit the post office, and you can’t go shopping. During this time the town is a virtual zombie land, almost no one is outside but a just a few stray dogs who are napping away on the street corners.

You’re probably wondering what my day in Vieste is like. Well, every morning I wake up to the smell of fresh brewed Italian espresso which I drink with 3 quarters of a glass of milk and a few biscuits; a traditional Italian breakfast.

Family, dinner

Enjoying a family lunch in Vieste, Italy

After breakfast our cousin, who’s 80 years old and used to be a life guard in the city, drives us around to all the best beaches and views in the city. At around 1 o’clock, our entire family (plus or minus 6-10 people) gets together for a 2-3 hour lunch, which includes a minimum of 3 courses.

Let me enlighten you with a typical lunch menu. Usually, lunch starts with a light snack like taralle (a type of twisted Italian cracker) and an espresso. This is followed by a plate of pasta, then a fish (stuffed whole cuddle fish was one such delicacy).

Afterwards bread with fresh cold cuts and cheese finds its way onto the table. Finally, we enjoy a fruit desert of fresh grapes, and when it’s all over we nap.

During the day everyone watches Italian television (mostly junk news – owned by the politician/ex-Italian primeminister Berlusconi – and soaps). It’s so much fun watching these shows with our cousins because they get so into it!

One of our Zia’s favourite is Beautiful, an American soap completely dubbed in Italian. A viewing of every episode ends in a deep discussion about what’s next, or ends with a gasp followed by a whispered, “Madonna” (referring to the Christian holy mother).

In the afternoon, my sister and I will usually head to the beach or into town to run errands and sight see. When we get back around 5 or 6 the city is just starting to pick up again and the streets are filled with people.

For us, this is time to chill out and prepare for the upcoming 3 hour dinner. At around 8:30 dinner is served and usually consists of several more courses of food over television and conversations. After we eat, I’m usually a zombie and struggle to make it past 10:30 pm, “la dolce vita” as the Italians say.

Vieste, Italy

Old town Vieste, Italy

During my time in Vieste, one of the coolest things I was able to do was visit the one room house my nonna was raised in. One of our distant cousins still lives in the house and showed us a picture of our deceased great grandfather, in the house surrounded by our relatives (some of whom are still alive today).

Even more amazing is the fact that my nonna raised her 10 step brothers and sisters while she lived in the one room house, and her legacy still lives on in the hearts and minds of our family that was raised by her. As we looked through old photos and chatted in Italian I couldn’t believe how unique it was to connect with relatives here because we’re family!

To be honest, my days were just what you’d expect. I ate amazing Italian food, slept, napped, listened to and practiced Italian, explored the ancient town my grandmother was raised in, and loved every minute of it.

You can travel everywhere in the world, but to have a family experience like this is something truly special.

Have you ever had an experience visiting family overseas? If so share it with Borderless Travels readers because these experiences are great to learn about!

Happy travels,

Yak