Friday, February 3, 2012

Pudong, Shanghai, China

View across the Huangpu River to the Pudong District, Shanghai China
January, 2012

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ya Falta Menos!

Plaza Consistorial - Txupinazo!
Only 21 days until I'm back in Pamplona, Spain for the greatest party on Earth, Fiesta de San Fermin!

My buddies and I will be feasting on tapas and fueling up on Cava, right here on this incredible terrace overlooking Ayuntamiento for the Txupinazo ceremony. This is where the mayor of Pamplona launches the rocket, kicking off 9 days of 24hr/day celebrations!

I can't wait. Viva! Gora!


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Terror in Jemaa el-Fna

I was horrified when I saw the article in the news on Friday that accompanied this picture. Terrorists have bombed Cafe Argana in Marrakech's Place Jemaa el-Fna.

Terror in Marrakech
A year ago, I stood right where the red truck is in the photo. I was excited, early into my Great Odyssey, and thrilled to be meeting my guide there who would be leading what turned out to be an amazing trek into the Sahara. Today, they are cleaning up the remains of 12 innocent people, including two Canadians, killed by a bomb filled with nails and intended to murder Western tourists. I feel terrible for those lost, their families and their friends. I'm sad for humanity and am fraught with the realization that both alegría and terror can occur all in one small place, separated only by time.

My experiences in Marrakech were ones that I'll recall fondly for the rest of my life. At the time, I wrote this in my story about my visit to Marrakech. The minaret I mentioned is the one in the picture, behind the shattered remains of Cafe Argana.
"The epicenter of the medina is Place Jemaa el Fna, the main square. During the day, faux guides, touts, monkey handlers and snake charmers ply their trade in return for a few Dirhams. In the evening, the place absolutely teems with life and I can easily see how it might be a little overwhelming on the senses for many Westerners. It felt very exotic last night, as the sunset turned the terracotta colored Minaret at the back of the square a rich golden red. Tribal drums beat constantly, intermingled with the rhythmic, whining wail of horns played by the snake handlers and the putt putt vroom of those ever-present, exhaust-spewing mopeds. By sunset the food merchants had set up their carts and the square became a medieval midway of sorts, with all manner of hucksters, storytellers, tooth-pullers, henna artists, and kif dealers offering their services throughout the square."
Article about my visit to Marrakech
Article about my trek to the Sahara
I'll go back one day. No terrorist can change that.

Place Jemaa el-Fna. Cafe Argana is to the left of the minaret.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

One Night in Paris: Photos from the City of Light

The Pyramid at the Louvre
"After that I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe -- Paris, Venice, Rome -- collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, things for myself only..."
- Jay Gatsby
As with all good things, this Great Odyssey of mine will soon draw to a close. Like Gatsby, I lived life in the greatest capitals of Europe and North Africa this year, even if only for a short while. After many months on the road and countless extraordinary, perhaps even life-changing experiences I will be returning to Canada in a few days. Even Odysseus eventually found his way back to Ithaca.

Only time will tell what comes next.

I joked along the way that once the hard drive on my Mac is full with photographs, it'll be time to return home. As I arrived in Paris, one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, I was determined to capture the most beautiful memories in the precious few megabytes of space that I had left.

Perhaps I did things backwards, but no matter. I had set aside a little money to help me become a better photographer once I arrived in Paris, my last major stop. After all, the City of Light has been inspiring artists and photographers on to greatness for centuries so what better place could there be to learn?

To accomplish my goal I toured this photographic wonderland after the sun went down, accompanied by a professional photographer from Paris Photo Tours (which I highly recommend if you're in Paris, London or Rome.) Gilles, my exceptionally talented teacher and guide for the night, spends his days doing mundane things like shooting supermodels, Parisian fashion shows and Formula One races when not helping photography enthusiasts get the most out of their cameras. Rough life.

While I thought I was a pretty decent amateur photographer already, Gilles was an incredible coach and my skills have increased exponentially as a result of our 3+ hours together. Or at least I think so. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves and you can decide!

Reflections of the Parisian Sky
Cafe Life in Paris
Cafe Life in Paris
Pont Alexandre III
Pont Alexandre III
Eiffel Tower and The Seine
Eiffel Tower and The Seine
Place de la Concorde and le Obelisk
The Obelisk
Passage to the Pyramid
The Louvre
The Louvre
Prepare for Take Off!
See-Through Pyramid
The Louvre - A Photographer's Paradise
The Louvre - A Photographer's Paradise
Geometric Louvre - Count the Triangles

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Technology Troubles

Sometime back in the springtime, when I was in Northwest Africa, my Macbook decided it wasn't having as much fun on the Great Odyssey as I was. It initated a 'work-to-rule' campaign, making it a little more difficult to keep this blog up to date, but still possible. While it kept pumping out the stories, it was getting angrier at me by the week. It decided to go on a series of frustrating, rotating strikes, usually when I needed it the most. I visited the Genius at the Apple store in London and we came up with a solution to get Macbook back to work. Unfortunately that solution crapped out on me too. Currently, my computer is only slightly more useful to me than a brick.

Unfortunately, this means that for the few remaining weeks of this trip, the likelihood of my being able to write and post to this blog will be very limited. If I'm feeling particularly ambitious, I may write some stuff on paper, and post it when I get home in August or September or if I find an Internet cafe nearby. Photos will definitely go up in early September.

I haven't written about Sevilla, Portugal, Scotland, or London yet. Still to come on my journey are Budapest (where I am now),  Vienna (where I go on Tuesday), Munich, Black Forest, Rhine River Valley, Bordeaux, Paris, and Brussels. Then I will likely be heading home, unless I figure out how to stick around for a couple more weeks to hang out with some friends who will have just arrived in Italy. We'll see.

So to all my friends and family who have been faithfully dropping by to see what I've been up to, I apologize. It looks like I will be letting you down when it comes to updates. Thank you so much though, for spending some time with me on the trip of a lifetime!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pamplona: The Thrill of Running with the Bulls

 A brilliant Life Magazine photo from the day of my 1st run
En caso de mala emergencia, llame por teléfono por favor a mi hermano, Brion, en Canadá +1 613 555 1234 o +1 613 555 4321. Él habla inglés solamente.
I finished scribbling this note on a scrap of paper, wrapped it tightly around my Ontario Health Insurance and Blue Cross travel insurance cards and placed it carefully in the right front pocket of my new white trousers. Then I tied the red sash around my waist and the red pañuelo (bandana) around my neck, and stepped into the hallway. Was I being paranoid? Perhaps, but as one of my new friends liked to say, “this ain’t no disco.” There was a very real risk that something could go wrong. If it did, no one was here to notice that I didn’t return.

Runners Awaiting the cohete
Today was the day I would run in my first encierro – the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona Spain. This is the event that leads news broadcasts around the world every July 7th, when men and a handful of women dressed in the traditional red and white of Fiesta de San Fermin celebrate life by running with fierce fighting bulls through the medieval cobblestone streets of Pamplona’s old quarter. It’s a tradition that dates back hundreds of years and likely emerged from the way herds were hurried along from the range to market back in the Middle Ages. In modern days, six fighting bulls trample and gore their way from the holding pen on the outskirts of town to the bullring where they will face one of three matadors (and most likely be killed) in the afternoon’s Corrida de Toros (bullfights). Alongside the bulls run six to eight enormous steers whose job it is to keep the herd together along the route. The encierro and Fiesta de San Fermin became famous around the world as the setting for Ernest Hemingway’s brilliant novel, 1926’s The Sun Also Rises.

 One of my bulls in the afternoon

Here they come!
I had been looking forward to this for months. If all went well, Sanfermines would be in the running for the greatest adventure of my Odyssey. I was excited. At 6:30 a.m., there is a chill in the air and the morning dew makes the cobblestones quite slippery. Still, I doubt that the goose bumps that covered my arms and the chill that ran up the back of my neck were entirely a result of the brisk temperatures.

The fiesta from the night before is just winding down (though a new party will start as soon as the bars are swept) and those without hotel rooms are starting to head to the parks or scout out resting places in the myriad of public plazas nearby. Clean up crews are hard at work hosing down urine-soaked alleyways and power-washing away truckloads of broken wine bottles, beer cups and food wrappers that have accumulated over the past 24 hours. I dodge the street sweepers and those still partying and make my way towards the bullring.

 Crossing Mercaderes

The route starts at the corral on the outskirts of the city, in the shadow of the ancient ramparts. The first 293 yards run steeply uphill along Cuesta de Santo Domingo. It’s very narrow here, and the bulls run tightly in a pack. This is the first time in their lives that they’ve been exposed to more than the handful of vaqueros that tended to them on the range or tested them to see if they had the courage to be fighting bulls. It’s considered a dangerous section, yet some of the most experienced runners begin here by running directly at the bulls when they’re released to get clear of the crowds, then some turn at the last moment and run back uphill with the herd for as long as they can keep up. It’s aptly named the “Suicide Run.”

The Route
At the top of the hill, the bulls turn left, crossing City Hall Square and pick up speed as they sweep along Calle Mercaderes. There are no safe places along the route, but the presence of a double set of wooden barriers and a wider roadway leaves some room for escape should things go south here. At the end of Mercaderes there is a sharp right hand turn leading into Calle Estafeta – La Curva del Muerte: Dead Man’s Corner. With a full head of steam, the bulls are often unable to navigate the turn and crash into the wall on the outside of this corner. It astonishes me that year after year, run after run, people continue to get themselves into perilous positions by taking that curve wide and getting trapped between the wall and the bulls.

Heading into La Curva
Estafeta is dead straight with a slight incline running the length of a good Par 4. With buildings acting as barriers along this stretch, there are very few places to escape if the need arises. The herd often separates as the bulls struggle through La Curva, adding to the danger. These lone bulls, called sueltos in Spanish, can be very dangerous. They may get disoriented and when that happens they are highly unpredictable and prone to charging runners.

Old pic of a pileup in Callejón
The final stretches of the run are across the short Telefonica section and through the Callejón tunnel into the ring. Organizers installed some small gaps in the wall at the base of the tunnel a while ago which are just big enough for a man to squeeze through. Even with that, the tunnel can be just plain scary. It’s only 9 feet wide and when someone trips, deadly human pile-ups have been known to happen. Telefonica and Callejón are where the great Basque runners are photographed nearly every day, running gloriously right ‘on the horns’. The Spanish colourfully describe them as ‘Divinos’ – the Divine Ones. The run ends in the ring where the Pastores and Dobladores guide the bulls through a gate on the opposite side and into the security of the pen.


The mood as I walk from the end of the route towards the beginning is an odd mix of emotions. The booze-fuelled, devil-may-care celebrations of the weary revellers still mingling on the street – many still carrying huge cups of Sangria – contrasts with the excited but serious looks of the corredores – the runners. In an hour there will be pure mayhem on these very cobblestones. As I pass through the streets, I’m visualizing my run, anticipating where I think the bulls will be, and making mental note of where things might go wrong. I look for recessed doorways and other possible avenues for escape, and notice where the bright sun shoots between buildings into the eyes of the runners. My anxiety is higher than normal but to my surprise, I have little fear. Perhaps that is a side effect of my slightly obsessive preparation. I’d watched dozens of hours of video, studied the route in Google Earth, read every article I could get my hands on, and viewed the section that I was about to run from a balcony the day prior. Still, part of the allure of the run is that anything can happen.

Solemn runners before the Encierro
Without a few thousand humans to dodge, running with the bulls would be little more than a simple math problem:
  • Bull leaves Point A, running x km/hr
  • Runner leaves Point B, running y km/hr
  • They intersect at Point C 
  • Therefore, runner should choose Point B so that C occurs in a safe place with lots of escape routes.
With the size of the crowd this morning, you can throw that theory out the window. This is the weekend that the French cross the Pyrenees and come to town so the number of people more than doubles – twice the number of targets for the bulls and for people to trip over. Ending up on the end of a bull’s horn is the most traumatic injury, though it’s all those other runners that pose the greatest risk in the encierro. Sure, the gorings get all the press, but most of the injuries are a result of falls.


Today is July 10, 2010.

As I wait for the cohete (rocket) to blast (once to warn runners that the bulls have been released, the second to indicate all bulls are clear of the pens and on the route) a man is handing out pañuelos to the runners anxiously gathered along Santo Domingo. They are simple red fabric triangles with text in small white letters on one side. The chap from New Mexico standing beside me says something about it being advertising. I glance at the one in my hand and suggest that he look a little closer. There is a slogan in Spanish with fifteen names below it. The last name is Daniel Jimeno Romero and below it, the date July 10, 2009. One year ago this morning, in the final stretch before the ring, an 1130-pound red-coloured bull named Capuchino took Daniel’s life. He was the fifteenth man to die in this run since they began keeping records in the 1920s and what frightens me the most is that he was no rookie. Daniel had run in over 80 encierros before that fateful day. I later learned that as we were being handed these pañuelos, Daniel's dad was further up the route, tearfully tying a pañuelo around the barrier at the exact spot where his 27 year-old boy entered mortality.

My heart dropped as the significance of this symbolic piece of cloth resonated within me and I thought about the crushing loss that Daniel's family must feel.



The instant the second rocket is launched, I see absolute, unmitigated terror in the eyes of many of the people who are running straight at me. Others are already cowering in doorways or crowding up against the inside of corners and I ask myself, why are they here? Perhaps they were too cheap to rent balcony spaces or were unwisely cajoled into running by so-called friends who questioned their masculinity. Maybe there are other reasons that I just don’t understand. As long as they stay out of my way, I’m happy.
[If you're going next year, Pamplona Man (San Fermin Travel Central) is the guy to talk to for help with scarce San Fermin accommodations, balcony rentals, bullfight tickets, etc. He was a huge help to me.]

There is literally a stampede of panicked runners hurtling past my spot on Mercaderes. I start to jog, looking back over my shoulder. The screaming of the crowd gets deafening and I can now hear the rapid jangle of the cowbells that are tied around the necks of the steers. I catch my first glimpse of them through a gap in the crowd as they exit Town Hall Square. By now, I’m completely focused and don’t hear or see anything that I don’t need to. I’m running as fast as I can without crashing into the people in front of me and in a heartbeat the bulls are alongside me. They are very fast and no one is stepping directly in front of them to slow them down. I try desperately to keep up and after several seconds beside the beasts, I realize I’m about to be exactly where I said I’d never go – the outside of La Curva! I peel off to the left side and as I watch the bulls careen through the corner, I notice the crowd is still running at me. Otra toro! The herd had already become separated and there were more bulls coming. I scan the crowd, sprint across the inside of the corner, and start running up Estafeta. Seconds later two more magnificent fighting bulls with rippling muscles, shiny jet-black coats and razor sharp upturned horns, are scattering the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea. They’re right beside me now and I’m committing every ounce of energy I have into keeping close. My thighs are screaming, my lungs are burning and I haven’t run like this in twenty years.

And then they were gone. I slowed to a jog, then a walk, but my spirit is still soaring beyond the clouds. I’m filled with an indescribable feeling of pure jubilation from having completed this legendary run. I feel more alive than I have ever felt in my life.

I was certain I’d never make it to the ring before they slammed the gates shut so I strolled the rest of the way up Estafeta, absorbing the sights and sounds, watching groups of runners start to animatedly describe their adventure to others. The third rocket blast sounded announcing that all the bulls were in the ring, followed 10 seconds later by the final rocket confirming they were all safely locked away in their pens. The entire run took 2 minutes and 53 seconds – a clean and quick encierro.

It takes a couple of minutes for me to reach the top of the street and I pass the spot where yesterday medical crews had been treating a runner in his mid twenties with an angry-looking puncture wound to his side. I’m thinking of heading over to Bar Txoko for a celebratory morning drink, as a few people start to jog past me. I think to myself “forget it guys, the bullring is shut.” Moments later more are passing. They’re running now and again I hear the jangle of bells. What’s going on? I was positive I’d heard the fourth rocket! Suddenly, there they are – two huge steers coming around the bend onto Telefonica in full gallop. The steers are not wild animals like the fighting bulls so they’re less dangerous, but they still carry horns as wide as a compact car and you don’t want to get in their way. If you doubt me, just ask the lad who was knocked unconscious by one at the entrance to the ring during yesterday’s run. The steers had been held back in case they were needed to help guide any rogue sueltos to the ring.

The legendary Miura bulls rntering the Plaza de Toros
I’m running again, right alongside them and they're within reach of the rolled up newspaper that I’m still carrying in my left hand. Across Telefonica we sprint and straight through the Callejón. When we burst out of the darkness of the tunnel and into the blinding sun of the bullring, the ground seems to vibrate with the roar of 20,000 people who have gathered inside to watch the run. With the crowd cheering wildly, I throw my arms up in triumph and suck up the overwhelming glory of my first encierro. It would not be my last. Hemingway would have been proud of me today. I'm sure of it.

Viva San Fermin!

 The Spanish sarcastically call those who run into the ring far in advance of the bulls "Los Valientes" - the Brave Ones. This humiliated group of first-to-arrive runners was showered with trash and called a very bad name by 20,000 people in the stadium!
 Crowd playing with a two-year old cow in the plaza

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pamplona: ¡Viva San Fermin!

“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
—Ernest Hemingway
La Curva, San Fermin Encierro, July 9, 2010

I came. I ran. I'm alive - perhaps more so than ever.

On Saturday July 10th and Monday July 12th, I participated in the famous San Fermin Encierro - the Running of the Bulls. I'll write much more about that when I get a chance.

In the meantime, above is a picture of the Friday July 9th run of the bulls and corredores going into La Curva (aka Dead Man's Corner). I took this from the balcony location I arranged through Pamplona Man, an Irish ex-pat living in Pamplona and a really good guy. His company, San Fermin Travel Central is the one who you should talk to if you ever visit Pamplona.

Also, a little shout out to the Frenchmen I shared the balcony with - hope you had a great time in Pamplona guys!

Stay tuned for more on San Fermin when I get caught up. The experience here was extraordinary.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pamplona: ¡Chupinazo!

I can't wait to get here!

Awaiting the Rocket   (c) Getty Images
Today, thousands of revellers from around the world gathered in Pamplona Spain's main square, most dressed in the traditional white shirt and pants with red sash around their waists. In keeping with the tradition, at 12:00 noon, everyone held up their red bandannas as the mayor declared the official start of Fiesta de San Fermin. The chupinazo (rocket) was fired off to shouts of ¡Viva San Fermin!, everyone tied on their bandannas and the party was on. For the next 9 days, as they have since the year 1591, the streets will be drenched in Sangria as celebrants enjoy this fiesta made famous by the daily encierro and Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises.
Hopefully they'll save some Sangria for me. I arrive on Thursday afternoon and have shortened my trip to Portugal so I can be in Pamplona until Monday.

Here are a few pictures that I "borrowed" from the UK Daily Mail of today's festivities:

The Fiesta is Underway!   (c) AP

¡Viva San Fermin!   (c) AP