Around the World in Eighty Couches

16 01 2012

We’ve heard it all: backpacking Asia, roadtrip around America, hitchhiking Ireland, cruising the Amazon, jeep safari in Africa, sailing the Carribean to trekking the Himalayas one way or another we knew a friend of a friend whose uncle’s neighbour’s daughter’s bestfriend whose dentist’s assistant’s niece did this. But Fleur had something different in mind: to experience Central Asia not by mode of transportation, but through mode of hospitality.

It’s one way to sleep with 20 other people in one room in a hostel, but it’s another thing to walk in to a total stranger’s house and sleep on their couch. We’d do it for friends if they need to crash for the night, right? Why not to strangers?
It’s a bit crazy.

“Fleur is about to lose her couchsurfing virginty as she travels through China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, joining the burgeoning couchsurfing community. Fleur is on a mission to discover what motivates people to intive total strangers to sleep on their sofa and what it is that has made couchsurfing such a global phenomenon. “

As Fleur experiences the global phenomenon of couchsurfing we are introduced to a world where the place is about the peoples’ homes. From mats to cots, on the floor or on a bed that seemed half consumed already by bed bugs to a close encounter of sharing a bed with a couple, a new breed of hospitality is born. When doors are open wide and beds made for Fleur, a sultry ensemble of characters will deliver a story to tell worth reading for.
Maybe in the comfort of your own couch.


15 11 2011

A twenty minute twelve dollar ride from Panama City lay Isla Taboga, a destination for locals to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and a quick way to get back to nature, get a tan on the beach or even enjoy a quiet walk in the small town of San Pedro. In the middle of this quaint town, like any Spanish colonized town, was the Iglesia de San Pedro dubbed as the second oldest church in the Western Hemisphere.

The exterior of the church itself was less impressive. For a church that is apparently the second oldest in the Americas it was a little boring on the outside. No frescos, no intricate carvings nor gargoyles that stick out. It was just white. Plain. Dull. However, serving as its purpose the church has served as the house of god to the people of Taboga. I quietly walked inside to a couple of women having a discreet conversation and a few children running amock only to be sent outside by the women. Another woman knelt nearby the altar and another lady walked towards a stairwell at the corner.

I asked her “Que es?

Por la campana” she said, for the church bell.

Ah. Up she walked the stairwell and I asked her if I could come up and see, I felt privileged that she even said yes. Halfway upon walking up the claustrophobic winding stairwell a booming of sound surrounded me almost knocking me to the ground. I grabbed ahold of the handles and waited until the booming ceased.

I scrambled up the stairwell, I didn’t want to wait for a second booming of the bells I needed to get out of this trap. As I reached the top my eyes were blinded by the sun and waited for them to adjust. Seconds later the silhouette of the bell ringer came into formation, and then the bell, and then the window, but what stunned me the most was the view that was presented in front of me. The small houses, the boats, and the ocean all in a breathtaking view. The church of San Pedro may not be the prettiest church anyone would ever see, but the iglesia itself is lucky to have a view that it has admired for centuries.

To Count My Montecristo

3 06 2011

“I was somehow convinced by a total stranger that it was necessary for me to purchase a box of Montecristo. Foolish feelings aside, I thought it’d would’ve been a great story to tell when I get home. “

It was definitely one of the most intense moment I have ever had. Sitting alone under a gazebo in the middle of some plaza in Habana, I felt like a fool. Another feeling was that I was a fool for feeling like a fool, but the worst was feeling that somebody had taken me for a fool; either choices, in my gut feeling whatever I did was a tad foolish. Every now and then we hear stories of tourists getting themselves into scams and we shake our heads thinking “Boy, how did they not see that coming???” And then we often think that we will not be that dumb tourist.

That was until I handed a total stranger $100.

Perhaps getting me a good deal on a furniture was a better idea. Maybe even hitchhike around town, or an invite to a private event? But no, I was able to get me a deal on something I didn’t need. It was all peculiar to begin with – it wasn’t just about trusting a stranger in a foreign land, it was that I didn’t want nor need the box of cigar! However, I was somehow convinced by a total stranger that it was necessary for me to purchase a box of Montecristo. Foolish feelings aside, I thought it’d would’ve been a great story to tell when I get home.

Most country have their signature souvenir; whether a bottle of tequila from Mexico to a box of chocolate from Belgium, perhaps a carpet from Morocco or coffee from Colombia, there are certain souvenirs travelers just have to bring back home as a piece of something authentic taken from that culture, and in Cuba’s case it would undoubtedly be the cigar.

You need not be reminded about this piece of Cuba’s culture, it was practically everywhere. From bus shelters to cafes, out on the street or just hanging out on their balconies, over a heated argument or conversation, in midday or just before going to bed, it is a vice shared by everyone in Havana. Sometimes it gets too disturbing to see little children taking a bit of tobacco, but in no time yours truly jumped in the band wagon.

It was in Calle Neptuno when I met Evelio. He was about in his mid 40s, a well dressed man with gray hair and sporting some 6 o’clock shadow. He had kind eyes and did not have an intimidating persona. When he approached me he asked “Tienes fuego?” asking if I could light his cigarette. “No tengo,” I said.
“Ah! Where are you from?” he then spoke in English.
“From Canada”
It was from Evelio that I learned my education about Cuba; the history, the system, and the economy. It took me until that day to understand why I paid $1 for a slice of pizza while the locals paid a tenth of that? It seemed a bit unfair to me. We walked around a few blocks and bought Cafe Cubano, he paid ten cents. If I were to buy coffee it would cost me two dollars. Certain things did not make sense to me that I just tried to ignore. After further more discussion of my introduction to Cuban culture Evelio remembered that he was after lighting his cigarette.
“Have you tried our cigar?”
“Not really. I don’t smoke”
“Ah. If you buy a cigar, you will pay more than what I pay”. I believed him after witnessing the coffee purchase, I would believe that I could pay more as a tourist. Amid the blazing heat Evelio has invited me back to his home to have some refreshments and talk further – getting to know more of him and about his country. In his living room, we spread the map and discussed which part of Habana I have visited and still should visit. “Habana Vieja is expensive. If you want to get cheap things and eat cheap food you have to go where Habañeros go. It’s good that you are staying in Vedado, that is where real Habañeros live. Centro Habana is what we call…you say ‘downtown’? It is also cheap there”

“Now look here,” he pointed to an area on the map. “This is Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas. This is where they make the Montecristo Cigar. There are two entrances – one for me, and one for you. They separate us because of the double economy, remember that. If I go and buy a box of cigar I can buy it for eighty dollars, if you go inside and buy a box of cigar you will pay two hundred and eighty”

A little puzzled I inquired as to why? Double economy, what a pain. Eighty dollars for a box of cigar still seemed like a bit too much but compared to what I would have paid if I did purchase it sounded a lot. I’ve already confessed that I did not smoke cigar but Evelio kept insisting and discussing the difference of cost. Perhaps I could buy it for my dad, he said. No, my dad quit a long time ago as far as I was concerned. For your friends? I pondered for a bit, I do have quite a few friends who would enjoy cigar, but an entire box? There would be at least twenty five, I did not know twenty five friends who could benefit from this. I love my friends, but I was hoping I could get something…er…cheaper souvenir.

After much convincing that it was necessary for me to take home a box of Montecristo I found myself walking in the streets of Habana, without looking at the map and letting Evelio lead the way, we marched to the factory. At parque La Curita, Habañeros can be found hanging around socializing and the fumes of tobacco filled the air. Schoolchildren ran a muck, vendors stood by their stalls, men played chess and women entertained in gossip.

“You can wait for me here. Give me the money, I will go inside, buy the cigar and give it to you. Will you wait for me here?” he said as he instructed me to stay put under a gazebo in the middle of the plaza.

It was a bit nerve racking. Though I built a friendship with Evelio a part of me thought I shouldn’t. What if he didn’t come back? I’d lose my eighty dollars and I was already tight on budget. I did know where he lives, well at least I could figure it out on the map. Did I really have to do this? I could always back out but it was way too late to change my mind, however, I really did not need that box of cigar.
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
“Yes,” and in a blink of an eye he took my money and went off into the crowd.


“This cigar is a cigar that locals buy. Not Montecristo or Cohiba. A cigar is just a cigar”

On the other side of town I enjoyed a conversation with a wonderful couple Ulysses and Paquita, both originally from the city of Santiago. I stumbled upon their humble bookstore situated at the very back of Cafe Literario in Nuevo Habana one day. On average they would sell at least 3-5 books on a good week at a price of $5 a piece.

“Habañeros make about twenty five dollars a month,” Ulysses said. Compared to what I spent the entire day already, $25 seemed a lot to them and the understanding of double economy in this country started to make a bit of sense. It isn’t fair that I pay more than anyone else, if you came to my city you’d pay the price that everybody else paid;. same taxes and fees applied. However, if this was how tourist can help the economy of Cubans I shouldn’t be complaining but rather be willing to cash out my wallet. A buck for a slice of pizza, I couldn’t even get a piece of pepperoni for that price back home!

“We need tourists to come here. They are the only ones that buy our books. It is sometimes hard because everyone goes to Habana Vieja or the resorts and nobody really comes to see the real places of Habana like here. So when they come to see our bookstore we are happy to see them because they help us”, said Ulysess. He didn’t need much convincing from me as I have been eyeing on the “Into the Wild” that displayed in front of me. I have purchased the novel a long time ago on my trip to California but left it in the hotel and haven’t finished it. “How much for this book?” I asked. Four Convertibles. I made a deal. As I hand in my cash Paquita gleed with joy hugging and kissing my cheecks followed by a multitude of gracias. I made their week.

The celebration continued with, you guessed it, a lighting of cigar. “This cigar,” said Ulysses “is a cigar that locals buy. Not Montecristo or Cohiba. A cigar is just a cigar” I guess we could compare it to wine. Why buy an expensive tobacco when you can get a more economical brand for the same pleasure? Tobacco consumption was indulged, Ulysses and Paquita made their quota for the day, I walked out with a novel for a fraction of a price, and a friendship that I will remember forever it was no doubt a win-win situation.

It may have seemed forever but really it was just about fifteen minutes. Nerves got to me as I looked around looking for a sign of Evelio. I squinted my eyes trying to see if I could spot him like a game of Where’s Waldo? and the prize would be Montecristo. What was he wearing again? Darn, I couldn’t remember for the life of me. Twiddling my thumbs I thought about the worst case scenario: he ran away with my money. Just when I was about to give up hope in humanity, I spotted him.
“Evelio!” I yelled. In slow painstakingly motion he walked towards me with a plastic bag in his hand and a smile on his face.
“How are you my friend?”
“Happy to see you!” I exclaimed.
He opened the bag and showed me the yellow box labelled Montecristo. In the box we counted twenty five and in gratuity I gave him two. “Do you want to light one now?” I asked.
And so we did.
Whether they were authentic Montecristo tobaccos or not didn’t bother me. Savouring the tobacco I reminded myself of a lesson I learned a long time ago and have forgotten.

A stranger is a friend you just haven’t met yet.

Paris vs. New York

20 01 2011

“Don’t you think when you first come here, you come because this is the capitol of everything possible?”

Two great cities. Two amazing films. One hell of a traveler’s itch.
A collaboration of short films rolled into one about finding love, losing love, and about the cities that we love. Released in 2006 Paris Je T’aime is the first of the Cities of Love segments followed by New York, I love You, released in 2008. The films’ concept follow the lives of local Parisians and New Yorkers in showing us what (may be) the real deal of the respective cities. Each short film is about eight to ten minutes long and at some point intertwines with the rest of the other short films creating a story quilt of a city.

In Paris Je T’aime the shorts are created via its 18 arrondisements (originally 20, however 2 of the shorts did not blend in with the rest). In the 5th arrondisement, we follow young man sparking an interest to a young Muslim woman while in Le Marais (4th arrondisement) a young man believes he has found his soulmate through another young man who works at a print shop. Both shorts develop a sense of ‘love at first sight’ theme that goes beyond borders on rules about love.

Some romance are darker and deeper: In the 12th arrondisement we are lead to a married man who is falling out of love with his wife but made a decision that will change the course of their marriage. We then follow a young couple in the 10th arrondisement where a young blind man believed that his actress girlfriend falls out of love and breaks up with him.

A not so star-studded, Hollywood-flooded film it makes up for its collection of amazing directors: Coen Brothers, Alfonso Cuarón, Wes Craven, Vincenzo Natali, it is no wonder the collaboration is critically acclaimed.

As you wander through arrondisements, chapters of peoples lives, and a platter full of Paris’ beauty, you wonder, ‘Who wouldn’t fall for the city of lights?’

“They say a lot of things about Paris…they say it’s a place where people come to discover something new about their lives. They say it’s a place where you can find love...

Like its Parisian version, New York, I Love You delivers stories through its boroughs. Unlike its Parisian version, it is not a big slice of apple pie; I guess New York figured, “They already know what we look like!”.

The film version focuses more on its real apples: The New Yorkers themselves. You think you know them? Not until you see the characters in their (literally) intertwined lives.

Take a look at “Camille“, a young and struggling musician finds a muse through a woman he has yet to meet, but will they ever? In “Love of Violets” a lady checks into a hotel where she befriends a bellboy to find a lot of similarties of him in her. In “Prom” a young man gets his wish fulfilled on a special night while on “Alchemy” a cassanova learns his lesson that sometimes his suave just doesn’t work.

In a city of millions one way or another these city slickers will cross paths. Don’t take your eyes off the screen because you’ll miss at where they did somehow. Unlike the former film, this version is more fast paced – a typical American style of film. Had it been set like its European version, which has a slower pace, then it would have been a snooze fest. But then again, New York itself is a city that never slowed down.

A great concept and I await the release of other versions in the Cities of Love series. What could be next? Wikipedia says that Rio, Shangai, and Jerusalem versions are in the works already and that Moscow, I Love You was already released in Russia in 2010. How about Madrid? Well, have you seen ‘Kilometro Cero’?

After seeing both films, it isn’t hard until you find yourself looking online for a plane ticket to come back to the first city you fell in love with. Perhaps they’re Paris or New York too.

The Green Apple

11 08 2010

Tony takes us on a eco-tour of New York City amidst the beautiful chaos and concrete jungle – a wonderful and different side of the Big Apple

Words and Photos by Tony Gazso

I made my way past the crowds of people. Out-of-towners and New Yorkers alike. Up past the joggers, and the sightseers. And as I go, the crowds thin. Slowly, but surely, I leave more and more of them behind until I’m lost in the woods. Wandering through dirt paths along a stream. Underneath a hidden stone archway, I climb to the top of a waterfall and sit on the rocks looking down as the ravine continues below. At last I am alone with my thoughts. The occasional person passes through, but for the most part, it’s just me. I hear the water as it runs down the rocks to the stream below. Birds chirping, even the occasional raccoon high up in the trees. Am I relaxing at some forest retreat in upstate New York? No, I am in Central Park.

In a city that never sleeps, everyone needs some quiet. And New York City has no shortage of it, if you know where to look. Central Park is a very busy place, especially on weekends, but the vast majority of people visiting the park, visit the southern half. That is, after all, where all the “sites” are. At least that’s what people think, but it’s the north end of the park that’s the quiet end. Even on a busy, summer weekend, very few people go to the North Woods. It is the quietest spot in the park, and not many people even know it’s there. It’s easy to forget you are in New York City, which is something most of us New Yorkers need from time to time.

There are quiet spots all over this city. Some of them are out of the way places, some are seemingly in the middle of it all. But if it’s quiet you seek in NYC, then I’ll et you in on some of the best places to find it. Queens is one of the best places to find some quiet spots. It always interests me that when people visit NYC, they tend to only visit Manhattan or maybe part of Brooklyn, and they are still amazed by how big the city is without stepping foot in the largest of the 5 boroughs. I may be biased, after all, I lve in Queens, but Queens has some great places, and not too far from Manhattan. Socrates Sculpture Park is one of those spots. Located right on the East River, Socrates is a great place to wander, sit and relax, and take in the ever changing sculpture installations. It’s rarely filled with people, and gives a sense of seclusion, while also giving you a great view of Roosevelt Island, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The nearby Noguchi Museum is also a great place for a little escape. They have an outdoor area with sculptures from the Japanese artist that beats most other “quiet” spots at the busier museums. If you venture further into Queens, you’ll find the site of the old New York Worlds Fair. Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is a sprawling, fairly quiet park on the grounds of the fair. If you do head out there, the Queens Museum of Art is worth checking out. This relatively quiet museum features changing exhibitions, but its claim to fame is the Panorama of New York. A scaled model of the entire city that was unveiled during the 1964 Worlds Fair (The museum is in what was the Hall of New York.) The Panorama is updated, and really gives you an appreciation for how big the city is.

“Queens is one of the best places to find some quiet spots. It always interests me that when people visit NYC, they tend to only visit Manhattan or maybe part of Brooklyn, and they are still amazed by how big the city is without stepping foot in the largest of the 5 boroughs”

Moving north, the Bronx is another underrated place for some seclusion. To most, the Bronx brings images of poor, unsafe neighborhoods, but the Bronx is home to some of the most scenic spots in the city. Just north of the Bronx Zoo (a great trip in its own right) is the New York Botanical Garden. The greenhouses attract visitors, but if its an escape you want, wander the grounds. You’ll find some of the most picturesque spots along the Bronx River which runs through both the garden, and the zoo. Van Courtlandt Park is another beautiful retreat. A spot full of wooded hiking trails that are easy to navigate, and even easier to get lost in.

That’s great, but what about Manhattan? Well, the most densely populated borough has it’s share of spots, though they aren’t as large as spots in the outer boroughs. However, if you want to escape without leaving Manhattan, you’re best bet is to head uptown…way uptown to Fort Tyron Park. Located on one of the highest natural spots in all of New York City, Fort Tyron Park give you a great view of the Hudson, and the New Jersey Palisades on the other side. There’s no shortage of things to do here either. In addition to typical park activities, the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) displays a great selection of medieval art. The most scenic part of the NYC Greenway is also up here, just across the Henry Hudson Parkway from Fort Tyron. The Greenway is a bicycle path that circumnavigates the island of Manhattan. The path from up near the Cloisters is almost as high as the park, but takes you downhill to the waterfront just underneath the George Washington Bridge. If not for the bridge, it would be very easy to forget you were in the big apple. Lower Manhattan has some spots where it’s quiet, Hudson River Park, Thompkins Square Park, but while technically quiet, they do have a good amount of people wandering around. Not necessarily a bad thing, but if escaping the hustle and bustle is your goal, then they might not be the best solutions….

There are far more places to go to get out of the city without getting out of the city. Some of which intrigue me, but unfortunately I have yet to visit. Places like the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Forest Hills Park, the Elevated Acre, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The list goes on and on. I love exploring the city, and do so all the time. It’s best way to find things you didn’t know existed, like a little secluded spot in the middle of the Big Apple. Maybe I’ll run into you while exploring the city. Maybe I even inspired some of you to check out the outer boroughs bex time your in New York City.

Tony is a Cleveland native and has called New York City his home in the last 7 years. A graduate of Arts School, he enjoys nature and owns too many toys for someone his age.

If you won a free trip to anywhere in the world where would you go?
Well, I’d say a trip around the world, but assuming I’m supposed to pick one place I guess I would say a Wildlife trip to a Central/South American Rainforest.

World Music: Jew’s Harp

30 05 2010

Or Jaw’s harp. Somehow I think the latter sounds better. I absolutely love buskers, and in Toronto there are a plenty. This one isn’t in Toronto but I am amazed by this instrument and would like to learn how to play it. The artist’s name is Byon Keiichi, listen to him work that thing. I can imagine a group of people dancing around a campfire to this, move over Lady Gaga.

I like World Music and from now on when I come across an amazing instrument or musician I will feature them. These people and instruments need a lot of credits


Heaven is Here: Pacific Coast Highway

2 05 2010

A pictorial journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

So long, city of Angels

…and then we passed by a wiener truck.

Crane City

And the pretty pictures start now…

The 7 hour drive turned 12 hour drive is well worth it in the end.
I mean, how can’t it be when this is what is waiting for you on the side of the road?

All photos taken by me.

‘Rubbish’ is the word of the day.

8 03 2010

There is something peculiar about them. One lousy word out of somebody’s mouth and you should be able to tell where a person comes from. From a simple word of hello comes a million ways of saying it.
Hel-low, hullo, allo or even hey is an acceptable greeting.
Usually accents differ from one country to another, or even one province to another. In Canada alone, accents differ almost in ‘time zones’ and not by provinces.

Not in the case of England.

Ahh the British accent. It is undoubtedly hard to pin down what a British accent sound like when almost the next town will have a different accent from the next, and sometimes can be as brutal as understanding another language that isn’t English. And no, don’t even try to mock their accent by copying what Hollywood made us believe all Brits sound like, they’re not all posh and proper like the Queen.

In the small town of Baldock in the heart of England I caught up with a group of young British drinkers in a watering hole called The Engine Pub. ‘Twas a chilly night but a small group have gathered outside to smoke where I joined them. Correction: ‘Twas a chilly night but the entire patron of the bar have gathered outside to smoke where I joined them. As the tourist in town my friend have introduced me to every single one of them where they offered if I’d like a smoke ‘Sorry, I don’t smoke. I’m fine with the beer’ and I took one gulp of the fine brew.

At this point another man stepped out of the bar and joined the small crowd.
“Oh right mate, this is Ashley. He’s visiting from Canada,” introduced my friend.
“Is that right? Welcome to Baldock,” he said then turned his attention to his friends.
“Right, do you want to hear a funny story?”
“Yeah!” cheered the crowd. I like funny stories and I eagerly pressed my ears to listen to a fine British comedy.
And this was his story:

“Neyhmart whone gown to brafthmension nees. Haha, garth brooks woke moyne apple struddle cowabonga gwonwon nasa roysell maine. Hahahaha, anddeyn gowsbow too olsentwins morgrowber then I gown maccarenawoe wayworth mowbobby lorne marone carmentime nofthlemone. Then two nightingale mowed lowallow browndye gobbledygook shamwow quotahorne seyne showarone rubbish.”

I beg your pardon?
The crowd roared into laughter while my eyes wandered in amazement. Was that in English or did I just hear Swahili? While the patio was filled with laughter, my thoughts were filled with…[crickets chirping].

“Did you understand what he said?” asked my friend.
I shook my head and he begged him to tell the story once again.

“Okay. Neyhmart whone gown to brafthmension nees. Haha, garth brooks woke moyne apple struddle cowabonga gwonwon nasa roysell maine. Hahahaha, anddeyn gowsbow too olsentwins morgrowber then I gown maccarenawoe wayworth mowbobby lorne marone carmentime nofthlemone. Then two nightingale mowed lowallow browndye gobbledygook shamwow quotahorne seyne showarone rubbish.”

To this day, I still don’t know what the story was about. Perhaps it was about a tourist lost in translation.

Last Train Home

6 03 2010

There are over 130 million migrant workers in China.
They go home only once a year, on Chinese New Year
This is the world’s largest human migration.

Only a handful of movies have the real power of moving a crowd in a theater. It is when emotions are felt, words hit the heart, scenes are full of awe and the characters become the source of compassion to the crowd.

However, this movie is not about Avatar.

In the day and age of 3D and Hollywood mega effects, moviegoers are subjected to unrealistic and manufactured characters that are so detached to real emotions. We follow fictional characters in hopes that we could relate to them, but director Lixin Fan had a different idea for his next film. Following the success of his first documentary film Up the Yangtze , Fan is a genius on this creative film about a migrant family trying to make ends meet while sacrificing the most essential necessity in a home – family ties.

Fifteen years ago, Changhua and Suqin Zhan left their sleepy town to work in the big city to support their family; their children, Qin and Yang were left with their grandmother. Over the years the couple lost their ties with their daughter (Qin) and as she grew up have become curious about independence. The couple, who both worked in factories, feared that their rebellious daughter will follow their footsteps.

Following the documentary the audience is exposed to the lives of the Zhans. The viewer is caught in a world stricken with intense oppression. Battling out financial difficulties and future dilemmas, sacrifices are an everyday challenge to the Zhans and it isn’t long until tears run down your cheek.

As the film succumbs in a story revolving around the Zhans, the documentary also focuses on poverty, chaos, and hardships of other migrant workers in China. Every year millions of people are dealt with a journey home that unlike ‘coming home stories’ are very difficult. Train stations packed, tickets being sold out, cancellations or delays, and people quarrel within jumble. Some do give up in the process, but others will try to get home.

“If the family can’t even spend the New Year together, life would be pointless”

Winner of numerous Film Festival Awards (Best Film from Quebec/Canada) and an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival, Last Train Home is a riveting masterpiece that is not to be missed, and when you do, don’t forget to bring a box of tissue.

Destination: China
Director: Lixin Fan
Deat of Release: November 20, 2009

A Blast in San Blas

2 02 2010

“Sometimes, you do believe in things happen for a reason and whatever reason the inhabitants of this minuscule island had to just pack up their belongings and desert the island gave us the opportunity to have it all to ourselves”

‘Solo yo?’ I asked.
I turned around to the other backpackers waiting for their canoe. I had the impression that several people would be on the canoe with me, but as soon as I walked away to chat for a bit with the other (backpackers) I was called by my driver. I hopped on aboard on the canoe that said Cabaña Iron painted on it whilst he turned on the motor and the canoe shifted away from the soil and slowly moved along with the swamp. Sitting alone I was accompanied by a driver and a helper; they spoke for a bit and I spoke back in my rusty Spanish until we reached the mouth of the river to the open Carribean sea then did the conversation cease.

It might as well, I needed the time to absorb what the sea behold. It didn’t take long and far until the rough sea gave its wrath. Splashes of salty water were thrown at my direction and even with my sunglasses on the water stung. No pain no gain I guess. About 2 hours east of Panama city is the autonomous province of Kuna Yala. Here, the Kuna Indians ran the province and have maintained their customs, language and culture that dates back to hundreds of years even before Columbus discovered the Americas. If the history of Panama city pleased you, anticipate more in the Kuna Yala province where at this moment, they are still paving roads for easy access to visitors which means the influence of the Western world is still a rare find and that being said, tourism is just picking up. The province is well known to travelers for absolutely one thing The San Blas archipelago. From a distance islands dotted the Caribbean water and my excitement grew as every time the boat made a curve directly to the island, my hopes that I had found my destination escalate only to be disappointed that they were just used as shields from the rough currents. However, it gave me a preview of what to come. On most of the islands tiny cabanas lined the anterior to the beach and heads looked up to see us go by. On some islands they were deserted and only inhabited by birds.

Suddenly, the driver pointed out to one of the islands and curved his hand which from my understanding he was telling me we were using the islands as another shield. I looked firmly at the distance, at the tip of the island was a tiny peninsula blessed with a white sandy beach and I thought, whoever resides there is so lucky. A big splash of salt water aimed at my face when I choked and rubbed my eye from the sting until the motor stopped running, all of a sudden the water was not as rough anymore and the boat drifted closer to the shore. With my eyes wide open I started to process what was going on. The scenery was almost too dramatic and surreal – calm waters and blue sky, white sandy beach lined with coconut trees that had hammocks hung in between, a few cabanas laid out by the shore, and only a few people to be seen walking around. My jaw dropped and thought, this can’t be where I’m going?

Cabaña Iron. A simple hostel gobsmacked on a beautiful island off the coast of Panamá. The island itself I reckon was no bigger than two neighbourhood blocks. It was small, quaint, barely inhabited by the Kuna people and almost isolated from tourists. Ah, this could be heaven. I was greeted by Ali, a young and beautiful girl from New York City whom I met at the hostel back in Panama (city), while swinging in a hammock with a book in her hand. A bit cliché? I think not! The only thing missing was a freshly cracked coconut. Six other cabana hostels took over the island. About thirty Kuna people, and the influx of travelers seeking paradise changes everyday. That day, it might have been forty. In Cabaña Iron there were 4 other visitors along with me and Ali – a couple from Paris named Boris and Martine, and another couple from Toronto named Littal and Jon – with a family of Kuna including Iron (pronounced E-Ron) himself.

Iron greeted me with great hospitality wrapping his warm welcome with the typical ‘Mi casa es su casa‘ speech that you hear ever so often whenever you step into somebody else’s home. Lunch was served three times a day: breakfast is served when I’m up, lunch is at noon and dinner by sundown. I arrived just in time for lunch but Iron had encouraged me to unpack, relax and scout the beach and I will be called when lunch is served. I opted to go sunbathing at the sandy peninsula I’ve seen earlier.

After lunch I was introduced to Julio, a friend of Iron’s from Costa Rica who comes a few times a year to help out Iron and his family, essentially he was the translator since he spoke English well. “Would you like to come snorkeling?” he asked. Now, I usually would pass on such occasion because I didn’t know how to swim but I was convinced by Martine, “I don’t know how to swim either but I’m going,” she said. I thought why not? Even if I didn’t swim I’d settle for a walk on the beach. Julio promised to take us to another island and the idea of island hopping intrigued me. I ran back to my cabana to grab a few things: some money, sunglasses, suntan lotion, my camera and a towel all wrapped in a plastic bag. I was told that we would see a lot of starfish on this island we were about to visit. It took around half an hour until we docked on a deserted island. I sized it up to about the size of two neighbourhood blocks. After scouting the beach for a while Julio had to tell us that the water was too rough and that we should go and see another island where the water would be calmer. It seemed it was for the best when I noticed a dark cloud hovering above us; I wanted the sun! In soon time we came across a smaller island the size of one neighbourhood block. It looked pretty abandoned and empty as we realized that the cabanas were left unmaintained.

There will be always a few places than we can exhale and say ‘This place is breathtaking’ and no doubt it was. A postcard perfect view, nobody would ever believe that this place existed but only in somebody’s computer screensaver. In every corner unfolded a beautiful snapshot from the heavens to the sea

“This island used to be a hostel too,” said Julio. My memory of why the island was left abandoned is a bit mushed and I blamed it partially on my attention span and partially that Julio couldn’t put the story straight as to whether a tourist went swimming and died? But no, nobody died though two boys went missing. Hold on, nobody went missing but somebody did drown one way or another. We reckoned the tourists got drunk. Wait a second, it wasn’t a tourist but a local kid who drowned. Oh goodness, whatever happened here people left and this island is now occupied by the six of us.

That’s correct, just the six of us. Me, Ali, Julio, Martine and Boris, and Reagan the driver.

Though the island was remote it was not withdrawn at all with aviary inhabitants. Standing between the trees, the birds chirped amidst the crashing of the waves and the gusts of the wind. Blessed with warm weather and temperate sun it was so hard to believe that people used to live here and abandoned the place when it was the epitome of paradise. The archipelago consisted of about hundreds of islets but only a few were inhabited. The islets range in sizes and I’ve seen an dwarf island populated only with seven coconut trees.

Sometimes, you do believe in things happen for a reason and whatever reason the inhabitants of this minuscule island had to just pack up their belongings and desert the island gave us the opportunity to had it all to ourselves; and then you wonder why? This island was stunning! The circumference of the island was blessed with aqua green water and a light breeze. If I were ever to be stuck in a small island this would be it.
“What’s the name of this island?” I asked Julio.
“This island’s name is Isla Pelicano”

Reagan and Julio

The routine was done all over again the next day though this time it was John and Littal who joined me. As promised the previous day, Reagan was taking us to Isla de las Estrellas where it’s best to snorkel for starfish. From what I experienced the previous day I have come to conclusion that tropical storms are a norm in San Blas. Clouds may hover a while but expect it to be gone soon leaving only traces of rain. It was exactly what had happened to us upon reaching Isla de las Estrellas; hard rain poured on us and the water instantaneously got rougher. The ride was rocky and almost frightening that I just wanted to get to any land as soon as possible. In no time we had reach the isla welcomed by a few yachts that were already docked on the shore. When the rain ceased and the heaven opened up and the water glistened like gold in a mine when lo and behold like Robinson Crusoe paradise was found. We wasted no time flashing the camera in every angle and corner possible.

Snorkeling in the water I failed to find at least one starfish. It frustrated me for a while until John called out my name and yelled out “Ash, they’re here! They’re everywhere”. I quickly swam to his direction only to be told by him that I should be careful not to disturb the sand. I looked in the water and saw one starfish, swam up and gleed with joy. I returned my face in the water to find another starfish nearby. And then another. Oh look two of them! And then another nearby. Wait, there’s another one. Six. Eight. Nine. Ten. I quickly realized I was surrounded by stars; it finally made sense why they called it Isla de las Estrellas. Like Isla Pelican, this too was abandoned but haven for yacht owners. The feeling of isolation was almost surreal and I was waiting to find myself waking up in the hammock…back in Panama city. The inner children within us surfaced as Littal and I ran around between trees and on to the next shore. There will be always a few places than we can exhale and say ‘This place is breathtaking’ and no doubt it was. A postcard perfect view, nobody would ever believe that this place existed but only in somebody’s computer screensaver. In every corner unfolded a beautiful snapshot from the heavens to the sea.

San Blas was overall pretty impressive and will definitely take the breath away. I definitely feel having sinned sharing the experience for San Blas was heaven itself. Swinging in the hammock, there were times when I found myself overcome with boredom. I should have brought a book, I thought. However, the more I think about it the more I appreciated that doing absolutely nothing was a blessing. Once I get back on the plane home it will be rare for me to find to get absolutely bored and be okay with doing nothing. City people never get breaks like this and a rarity experience is considered lucky. Tossing the unruly guilt feeling, I swung the hammock once again and watched the distance and in a few minutes I dozed off. Being unproductive had its worth of being in a relaxing state – soon enough I will be back in the hustle and bustle of the city and this was definitely an opportunity be relaxed. I swung the hammock one more time and with the roar of the sea as my lullaby I closed my eyes and dozed off to a not so far away paradise.

The lone island

All photos taken by me.