The Pleasures of Biking the Czech Greenways

Tasty food in the Czech Republic.

In Europe it seems different countries have their own unique “tourism claims to fame”. In France it may well be the haut cuisine, fashion and art. Austria has a world renown tradition of theatre and desserts (read Strudel) that are worth dying for. And then there’s the Czech Republic.

A century ago the Czechs were the top economic dogs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But after surviving almost half a century of Communism, the country has found itself entering the 21st century markedly behind their Austrian neighbors. Despite their slow start, the Czechs has emerged in better shape than many of its Eastern Bloc cousins with an average GDP per capita at purchasing power parity of $27,100 in 2011, which is 85% of the EU average.

The principal industries are heavy and general machine-building, iron and steel production, metalworking, chemical production and the making of a host of other simple manufacturing products. Its main agricultural products are sugarbeets, fodder roots, potatoes, wheat, and hops (what more do you need to make a fine pilsner?). A growing and increasingly important industry for the country today is tourism.

Since their currency is relatively weak compared to the Euro, local goods – particularly food, beer and wine are exceedingly inexpensive. This has made Prague (with a rich history jammed with all sorts of monuments) and its surrounding cities a principal destination for visits from swaths of German families, broke student travellers and English stag parties. While the country has sometimes faced criticism in its bigger cities for rampant pick-pocketing and over-charging tourists, its countryside is increasingly coming into its own as a destination spot for a particular niche: European and North America’s cycling community eager to experience Czech food and culture without the headache of the tourist trap cities.

Thanks to an influx of millions of Euros investment, the Czechs are leveraging their cheap currency (and hence cheap food), their world class beer (hit a different region and try a different type), incredible Central European historical monuments and a vast network of 24,000 miles of color coded  farming roads to create a virtual cycling Disneyland.

The project was originally inspired by the Hudson River Valley Greenway, a revitalization project in New York that has spurred recreation and culture along the riverfront from Westchester County to Albany.

According to an article in the New York Times, the Greenways project is the brainchild of Lubomir Chmelar, a retired architect who splits his time between New York City and Mikulov, a small southeastern town near the Austrian border. Since 2005, the country has been blanketed by millions of red, blue, yellow and green trail markers. The trails use the patchwork of old country roads, forested trails, hiking paths and small town centres to guide cyclists through the heartland of the republic.

The beautiful Czech countryside.

The Czech people seem to be taking to the new and rapidly growing tourist tradition. Many pubs, wine caverns and small restaurants have sprung up along the main cycle routes. Bike stores adorn every mid-sized town square (next to the super-kitsch and somewhat tacky tourist traps). A flat tire or bewildered look at the map quickly leads to a friendly helping hand from a local. No one smiles in this tiny country, but most people seem to be very helpful.

This summer my wife and I embarked on a self-guided cycle tour through the south of the country climbing through sleepy villages and dozens of ancient towns of Moravia and Bohemia. The weather was similar to Vancouver with a mix of sun and clouds with the temperature hovering in the mid to low twenties.

Because our cycle trip meant we were on the road early and for most of the day, museum touring was kept to a minimum. Most closed within an hour or two of our arrival. That was fine with us. Our highlights of the trip were not the old museums or churches (we’d seen plenty of these in Paris and Vienna earlier in our trip) but the impromptu rock concert in the pouring rain in front of a three century old palace maintained by the House of Liechtenstein or sampling the delicate carp delicacies of the fish ponds of Trebon.

If you’re looking for a unique off the beaten path experience that combines exercise, great food and country-side sight seeing, consider the Greenways. You won’t be disappointed.

Ghostly Gastown – it’s The Thing!!!

Megan West via Flickr

“So, how do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know it was really me?”
Keith David in The Thing

As if possessed by some dark malevolence, hordes of otherwise well-adjusted young citizens, danced around the blazing infernos in a blind orgy of debauchery, their ghoulish grins fanning the flames ever higher.  A full moon glowed a dull white, a hollow skull in a smoked filled sky, witness to a 125 year-old secret…

By the time the Riot of 2011 was over, while the carcasses of burned out automobiles still lay smoldering, many wondered how revelry so soon turned into mayhem.  Very few people were aware of the fact that exactly 125 years earlier, in June of 1886, also under a full moon, the newly created town of Vancouver was torched to the ground by a similarly unholy fire, destroying hundreds of settlements, and taking several dozen people’s lives in the process.  Coincidence, or something more….sinister?

Santiago Alvarez via Flickr

In the paranormal research community, it is known as an “anniversary haunting”, ghostly or supernatural phenomena that occur around the anniversaries of important events.  Was over-consumption of alcohol and unbridled adolescence the reason for the riot, or is it possible, just maybe, that 125 years to the day, a full moon Vancouver was once again the victim of malevolent forces, forces that once again engulfed the city in flames, and possessed its young to engage in wicked acts of maniacal terror?

Meh, it’s a theory.

To find out more about anniversary hauntings and the ‘Curse of Vancouver’, as well as over 20 other spine-tinglingly good ghost stories through Vancouver’s haunted past, you should take the Ghostly Gastown Tour.  On it, my tour partner and I will regale you with frightful tales of fiendish behaviour and other spooky occurrences.

Aaaaaaand…..

….For the upcoming Halloween season, Ghostly Gastown Tours is teaming up with Universal Pictures to give away free passes to an advanced private screening (October 12th) of “The Thing”, a prequel to the 1982 cult-classic horror film.

This opportunity is only available to the first 15 people who book a tour on either on Saturday, October 8th.

So, not only will you be spell-bound by tales of terror told along a two hour tour though historic Gastown, but you will also be one of the first people in Canada to see what promises to be the hit horror movie of the year.

Check out the trailer below!

http://www.universalpictures.ca/en/thething/trailer

Don’t delay!  Email ghostlygastown@shaw.ca telling us how many people are in your group for the October 8th tour, and a contact phone number.  Preference will be given to those who mention the Daily Gumboot in their email.

Travellers: Consider Yourself Labeled

Labels are bad. But then again, we love them. Oh, do we ever love them. Without labels we couldn’t classify things and fit them into the hierarchy. Everything has a stepped grading system of better and worse. How else would we know how to value things? Hmm? And don’t get all Zen on me and say that all things are equal. If that were true I’d buy a vintage Harley for the same price as a used Piaggo. They’re not the same thing.

After a recent hiatus from the Daily Gumboot in the south of France, I embarked on a wee trip in Western Europe. What I saw? The hierarchy of travellers. Now this isn’t necessarily how I see it, but wow do travellers love to grade themselves.

For those status oriented people (meaning, most of us), let’s start with the lowest on the food-chain:

Pre-packaged Group Tours: The Tourists

“Now everyone please get off the bus. Anyone need a bathroom? Plug in your radio headsets and tune into channel #1, because we’re the best tour group in Paris! [waits for laugh]. Versailles was built by blah, blah, blah…please try and stay with the group everyone  —”

And the group checks off their list of tourist sites like a dabber on a foreign bingo card , The Louvre = B3, Eiffel Tower = G46, etc. This group flies in to see 12 cities in 10 days, by bus, talking with nary one local person, then jets back home. Typically between in the older of travellers, these groupsters will finsih their travels with hundreds of pictures and videos as proof of presence, and a garage sale’s worth of Union Jack coffee mugs and Mona Lisa keychains.

Bonus points for: number of pictures taken, number of stars on hotel, horror stories about hotels and airports, darkness of suntan, and full bingo card.

ALSO INCLUDED IN THE TOUR GROUP: resort resters, hotel tv-watchings vacationers, and timer-sharers isolationists.

The Young and the Dirty: The Backpackers

“You can totally save 20€ if you sleep on the train, or just sleep at the airport. I did Prague and just stayed out all night. No, I was just there for a few days, but it was awesome. Not as, like, open as Amsterdam, but cool. I’m totally going to Barcelona next. You can’t leave without doing Spain. Oh man, check out that tour…man, those people don’t see anything.”

This group spends between 1-6 months with rail passes and newly purchased behemoth bags, hiking boots, bandanas, and moneybelts hopping from city to city with other backpackers. They will “do” 16 cities which will serve as the backdrop for their mind-opening experiences they’ll talk about for years to come. Hostels and sex, you will find them in either a haze of drunkenness or hangover. Sure they go to the same museums as the tour groups, but they tend to smell worse and their cameras are smaller.

Bonus points for: dreadlocks, braided beards, number of flags on backpack, not having Lonely Planet in hand at bus station, and the possession of Moleskin notebooks full of ticket stubs.

ALSO INCLUDED IN THIS GROUP: post-university mates hitting up the world before “real life starts,” people searching for something (most often getting away from something), thrill seekers who prefer the thrill of beaten paths but sound exotic, and introductory globetrotters

Life Experiencers: Exchange Students and Volunteers

“I know it’s the best Indian restaurant around, but they just don’t do the spices right here. Hawaii is great, but the nothing tops the surf in Oz. He’s cute, but you should’ve seen Raphael in Milano. Of course I speak fluent Spanish…oh, I don’t understand that, I learned in Madrid.  Sorry, I can’t come tonight I have to go to my capoeira class.”

For a semester or a year, these students of the world pack their books and laptops and head out to have their rite of passage experience of a lifetime.   With incredible opportunity to truly immerse themselves into the culture and enrich their lives with a first-hand look at living histories this group of travellers unfortunately performs minimum scholastic or actual volunteer work.  Yes, they have a few local friends, can tell the difference between a Bavarian and Belgian brew, and have developed a solid distaste for tourists and backpackers. They may have lived with a local family, can speak the language at a decent level, and have opinions on why the country is like that.  Much like the backpackers there is a lot of partying, but sometimes includes local parties.

Bonus points for: having local friends/boyfriend/girlfriend, speaking language, less-travelled-to or more-difficult-to-say-countries are better, more time spent away = more bragging rights

ALSO INCLUDED IN THIS GROUP: do-gooders who tend to spend more time at Big Milly’s Backyard than their “boring” volunteer project, high school and university students looking for foreign fun away from watchful eyes of parents, intermediate globetrotters

Expatriates to the Rescue (and Michael Ignatieff)

“I have to wake-up at 4am to be sure I can talk with Seoul and get specs by the ends of the day. I just wish the property values here would go up before we sell and go back home. The bureaucracy is terrible, it’s really incredible, but the health care system is so much better. I think the money’s about the same, but you just can’t get the same ________ back home, which makes it totally worthwhile.”

Foreign assignments, contracts with overseas companies, working from home anywhere in the world, this jet-setting group is monstrous. 3 million Canadians overseas right now. Expats, they like to call themselves.  Michael Ignatieff was one before he tried to become the prime minister.  You’ll find them at the Irish pub watching whatever sport doesn’t air on local television, excessive time on the internet talking with friends back home, and speak with a certain authority about their host country, as cultural/political/social interpreters that are basically experts in this esoteric field. This group complains about all the lower classes of travellers because they usually make their home culture look brutish and stupid to the locals. They don’t do “touristy” things because it’s beneath them.

Bonus points for: being married to a local, having children with said local, having local friends, using correctly strange and subtle slang and cultural jokes, knowing the “best” places to do anything touristy for visitors, and having a super-cool job that doesn’t exist at home.

Emigrants are just Immigrants in Reverse

It was brought to my attention that people who move across borders aren’t always travellers.  There are people who actually move overseas…for good!  Since an emigrant (or conversely, immigrant) are not really travellers but rather residents, I thought I’d leave them out, like the government tends to do. It’s actually a whole can of worms that I’d really rather not open.  And then there are all those politics and power and integration and problems, problems, problems to address. I think I’ll just stick to the nice, easy, privileged people who travel for fun and bum around the world under the guise of becoming worldly. They’re a far easier target.

In Conclusion…

So where does this leave us in understanding the movement of people around the world? It tells us that hierarchy certainly exists and that travellers love it like everyone else. So many people want to feel superior to others. No, we shouldn’t all live overseas for years just to prove we’re better than your friend Jim who did his PhD research in Belize.

Yes, tourism has real inherent problems. That doesn’t mean we all stay at home either. People should just stop being such jerks about how their experience is better than someone else’s. That’s the moral here. So grow up and enjoy travelling already.

Oh, and if your city attracts tourists, makes you millions of dollars, perhaps consider a halt to complaining about the tourists?

My friend Iain hates platitudes, but really this is a situation of “it is what it is.”

Kreston’s Monastic Community of Beer

Hax’n, Rollbraten or Leberkäs? What would you answer to this question? This was the very question posed to me when I walked up to the cafeteria counter. I was in search of
something to satiate the hunger that had built in me while wondering the monastic grounds of a monest- dammit.

I was visiting what is said to be one of the most important monasteries in Bavaria, Andechs. It was everything that I thought a monastery would be: religious, old, and with a world class… Brewery! I started by doing the regular tourist stuff, such as taking pictures, which I will probably never look at, staring at (and pretending to understand) plaques written in German, and sitting completely silent in the church for a few minutes. The tourists and I filled the pews; all of us lost in our reverent thoughts (notice I don’t consider myself a tourist, I see myself as more of an adventurer like Indiana Jones, Laura Croft or Tin Tin). [Editor's note: Kreston is absolutely Tin Tin]. I was thinking what any man from a young western country thinks when confronted by the awesome wonder of an ancient cathedral that has the soul purpose of making you feel closer to God: “how the heck did they build this place hundreds of years ago using nothing more than elbow grease and what is considered primitive tools?” (Side note! If you want some good fiction on this subject, track down Ken Follett’s The Pillars of The Earth; Its all about building cathedrals. I worn you though its a big frickin book!)

Once I accomplished the required amount of touristing, it was time to get to the real business of why I was drawn to this site in the first place, which had to do with my almost religious worshipping of beer. Andechs boasts the best beer in Germany and when I heard this I came running. See, this wasn’t just a touristy day trip for me, it was a religious pilgrimage to the Good Beer Mecca. When I entered the hall my senses were overwhelmed by the sights and smells of the place. I stood for a minute just drinking it all in (pun intended). Like a father who first lays eyes on his new born child, I loved it instantly. [Editor's question: Kreston, how do you know what this feels like? What aren't you telling us, man?] The more that numerous Bavarians filled the place with their raucous laughter and deutsch conversation the thirstier I got. The crowd was seated at long oak tables that ran into other oak tables, giving the impression one might feel when they first gaze on the great hall at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I was mesmerized by the activity and all the different characters and, for a second, began searching for Waldo amongst all this chaos. A small part of my heart did break, however, when I realized that with all of these people crammed in here, I couldn’t spot one pair of leederhosen. It healed, rather quickly, when I saw the size of the beer steins everyone was drinking out of, and paused to calculate if I would even be able to lift one. I gathered a beer and some local eats, found myself a spot and prepared to slowly soak in the experience.

My late afternoon lunch was about to consist of one mighty pretzel, a plate of sauerkraut, one Swine Hax’n, a liter of Weissbier, and a liter of dark beer, which was so thick and black that if BP spilled it near the Mississippi Delta, environmentalists would be scraping it off birds.

Too soon?

[Editor's note: yes, but everyone has already forgotten about it, so I'm glad to remind the world of such things].

“Yes, yes” you are thinking impatiently, “but what is Hax’n?” Well my friend, it is the leg of a pig, slow cooked and looking extremely mid-evil. Eating haxen was like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, intense from the first page (bite), often I found my forehead sweating, and I couldn’t put it down until I was finished. Throughout my “Epic Meal Time” I sparked up a conversation with the couple beside me. We were soon close friends enjoying each others’ company as they explained to me some of the finer points of the food they were eating, which to me was simply a full trout on a plate. I must admit it was an amazing feeling, being a part of this community, even if just for a moment. I say community because of the difference of this drinking establishment and what I am used to, coming from North America. At home all serious drinking establishments are exclusive; with limits on the amount of booze they can serve you at one time, age restrictions on admittance, and tables far apart so each party can have their own island of independence. Here it is all about community. You are able to have as much booze as you can muscle back to your seat, people are allowed to have a picnic in the restaurant, plus children and dogs are welcome patrons.

In Andechs, in sight of the alps and framed by a backdrop of stained glass windows, it is all about the social.

Olympic Neighbourhoods – The West End

Vancouver-westendAs a key media outlet for the 2010 Olympics, the Daily Gumboot is excited to bring you our “Olympics Neighbourhoods” series. Here’s how it works: each week, Managing Editor, Kurt Heinrich, and Editor-in-Chief, John will profile a different Vancouver neighbourhood with a specific focus on things that might interest out-of-town visitors who arrive in The Couve for the Olympics. We will do this between now and the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver and the story will be told be the Gumboot’s editors asking and answering the five questions below. These are the straight goods that you can’t get from VANOC, the Ministry of Tourism or the City of Vancouver. Let’s get to it!

1. Where is this neighbourhood exactly, and how do I get there?

JOHN: You know what? Lindsay McKeeman (see the video below) did such a great job that I think I’ll let her walk us all through the colourful journey that is the West End of Vancouver. Here is a map of the neighbourhood. Have fun with it!

LINDSAY: The West End of Vancouver is on the downtown peninsula neighbouring Stanley Park and the areas of Yaletown, Coal Harbour and the central downtown district. Encompassed within the West End is the vibrant Davie Village, or as I affectionately refer to it as the “gaybourhood”, which is home to the city’s gay community and annual Pride Parade held August 1st.  The West End also serves as the corridor to Stanley park, and an entry point to the Seawall.

2. Why should a tourist/traveler be interested in it?

LINDSAY: The West End, while still downtown, offers a close-by residential refuge from the busy bustling downtown business core. In addition this neighbourhood is home to a multitude of restaurants, pubs, cafes and clubs along Davie and Denman streets. If you continue West down Davie Street, you’ll find yourself at the ocean in English Bay. Walk down towards the water and you’ll link up with the Seawall as it snakes along the water to Stanley Park. The Seawall, on a clear day, is one of the most beautiful places to run or stroll, in Vancouver.

JOHN: The laughing statues – created by Yue Minjun – are a must see and you can find them in the Morton Triangle at Davie and Denman. It’s called A-maze-ing Laughter and it will certainly make you chuckle.

3. What good and/or unique things are there to eat?

LINDSAY: Want just a baked potato for dinner? no problem.  How about a baked potato with 40 different topping options? Mr Kumpir has you covered! What if you’re more of a sweet tooth? Again no problem, within the same block of Denman St there are cookie, cupcake, and cream puffs stores to satiate your search for sweets! One item restaurants aside, there are tonnes of cheap Sushi spots along Robson and Denman, including Akira Sushi. Akira Sushi, for what it lacks in esthetics makes up for in its cheap, good quality sushi. Highlights include the toro sashimi, gomae, and black rice rolls! Lolita’s south of the border Cantina, another favourite along Davie Street has super tasty soft taco’s, I recommend the halibut and “oceanwise” ceviche.

4. What can I do for fun in this neighbourhood.

LINDSAY: During the Olympics Vectoria Elevation will be lighting up the night skies over False Creek and English Bay in a myriad of patterns, that you can go online and control and create yourself! http://vectorialvancouver.net/

(I feel like I’ve talked about the seawall and restaurants, but those can be included too)

JOHN: English Bay is the home of the annual Polar Bear Swim (superfun and super cold), and, hey, let’s not forget the dancing. But that’s on New Year’s Day. If you just want to jump in the water when it’s cold, though, that’s cool too.

5. What are your three favourite things about the West End?

LINDSAY:

1) English Bay, and surrounding beaches, including sunset, second and third beach offer up some of the best spots in Vancouver to sit with some food, a bottle of fine wine and watch the sun set over the strait of georgia.

2) People watching. Oh yes, walking up Davie street or running along the Seawall offers some of the best people watching in the city. Whether it be drag queens in full costume or wide eyed tourists taking in the sites, there is never a dull moment in the West End.

Urban Density and the West End get along really, really well...

Urban Density and the West End get along really, really well...

3) Going for a Run along the Seawall. Again, while I feel like I’ve harped on this spot a lot already, I’m still quite new to Vancouver and the West End, so going for a run along the Seawall still leaves me breathless, for two reasons; its beauty, and quite frankly the length of that damn thing! If you’re feeling ambitious, technically you could run all 22km of that beauty!

JOHN: my favourite thing is that the West End is located right next to my home town of Merville! I guess that’s why Kurt put it in…not because he made a mistake. But we’ll get to that next week. I also like the dancing and weaving through pedestrians who walk on the bike path – for shame, pedestrians…

Olympic Neighbourhoods: The Downtown East Side

Your Olympic Neighbourhood this week is…The Downtown East Side (with special appearances by Chinatown and Gastown)!

As a key media outlet for the 2010 Olympics, the Daily Gumboot is excited to bring you our “Olympics Neighbourhood” segment. Here’s how it works: each week, Managing Editor, Kurt Heinrich, and Editor-in-Chief, John will profile a different Vancouver neighbourhood with a specific focus on things that might interest out-of-town visitors who arrive in The Couve for the Olympics. We will do this between now and the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver and the story will be told be the Gumboot’s editors asking and answering the five questions below. These are the straight goods that you can’t get from VANOC, the Ministry of Tourism or the City of Vancouver. Let’s get to it!

1. Where is this neighbourhood exactly and how do I get there?

JOHN: Well, I will once again leave it to Kurt to create and deliver an amazing Googlemap. This neighbourhood is part of the “Olympic Corridor,” so you will be walking to it, my tourist friends. As mentioned in the video, many a tourist has aimlessly wandered or bicycled into “Canada’s poorest postal code” while trying to navigate their way from Gastown to historic Chinatown. Many tourism bloggers will tell you to be wary of such misadventures. We say “explore all communities” and “talk to strangers” here at the Daily Gumboot; just be sure to bring common sense along during your exploration.

KURT: Here’s the map. The big red icon  (surprise, surprise) shows roughly where the neighbourhood is.

MainandHastings

2. Why should a tourist/traveler be interested in it?

JOHN: Well, there are a lot of problems in the Downtown East Side; addiction, abuse, poverty, neglect, violence, and injustice are right out in the open. In spite of many political and business leaders’ best efforts to “clean up” the DTES before the Olympics, the homeless remain in this neighbourhood. And so does hope. Believe it or not, a lot of good people do a lot of good things in this neighbourhood. From Tradeworks, a woodworking cooperative, to United We Can, a collection of social enterprises that create employment for disadvantaged folks, to the Potluck Cafe, see the video, the DTES possesses some fantastic stories of human innovation. Look. Go to the West End, Yaletown and Kits and strike up a conversation. Then go to the Downtown East Side and have a chat with a local. Which conversation is more interesting and memorable? Yeah…that’s what I thought.

A tough life on the streets.

A tough life on the streets.

KURT: There are also a lot of terrific places to see. Some of Vancouver’s best heritage sites exist in the Gastown area (right next to the DTES). There you can see dozens of turn of the century (and older) buildings. The brick buildings with wood ceiling beams are fascinating to see and not duplicated anywhere else in the city.

3. What good and/or unique things are there to eat?

JOHN: Chinatown is full of unique things, such as duck, which is a favourite of my editorial partner, Kurt Heinrich. With the delicious restaurants of Gastown just a stroll away, you will be in position for good eating.

KURT: Good places to check out include Nuba (for healthy middle eastern and Mediterranean food), the Potluck Cafe (mentioned in our video), the Carnegie Cafeteria (if you’re all tapped out after paying thousands for Olympic tickets and want to buy a meal for just 2 bucks), the Cambie (great for burgers and really cheap beer), and Hons (a Chinese cuisine experience like no other).

4. What can I do for fun in this neighbourhood?

Gastown - chock full of heritage...

Gastown - chock full of heritage...

JOHN: People watching is always a good bet. Many Canadians affiliate altruism with fun, so lending a hand and helping out at one of these fine establishments would certainly add an interesting and meaningful chapter to your Olympic visit.  I also highly recommend taking in some kind of performance at the Firehall Arts Centre (if you have time you can check out the Vancouver Police Museum, too). And, if you’re lucky, you will be in the ‘hood on a day when the Portland FC street soccer team is playing a game.

5. What are your three favourite things about the Downtown East Side?

1. Holy crap, this is hard. I will forgo one answer to just say that, in the eyes of the world, what does it say when a country as rich as Canada lets people become marginalized in such a way? It doesn’t say much. And we can do better. We must do better.

2. Bus rides on the Number 20. A return trip on the last bus to my neighbourhood, Commercial Drive, from Downtown is, well, an experience. I’ve had my fortune told. Been asked to sell my girlfriend. Intervened in what was possibly a gang fight. Held a baby. Sang carols. Debated the meaning of life. Been educated about micro-lending and community currencies. And had my hair brushed. If you really value personal space, perhaps take a cab.

EastHastings3. The DTES Bazaar. Nice try, Marrakesh, but Vancouver has a pretty darn good street bazaar where you can find all kinds of stuff – sure, mostly none of it is obtained legitimately and the whole bartering economy serves to provide temporary fixes for people who are holding on to some sort of life by the skin of their grubby and malnourished fingertips. Or something less dramatic. Besides, where else in Vancouver can you come across this delightful – and possibly not hypothetical – scene?

DTES BAZAAR WHOLESALER: Anyone want to buy a bike? Nice bike here. Good price.

DISTRESSED TOURIST: Hey! That’s my bike!

DTES BAZAAR WHOLESALER: No. No it’s not. It’s my bike. But I’m selling. Wanna buy it?

DISTRESSED TOURIST: I’ve had this bike for three years. My wife and I rode over from Victoria yesterday. I left it for a few minutes outside while I went into a grocery store to buy some fruit. That scratch – right there – that happened riding the Galloping Goose trail in Saanich! It’s mine!

DTES BAZAAR WHOLESALER: No, that didn’t happen. And these two guys say that it’s my bike.

FIRST BAZAAR BYSTANDER: Yeah, it’s his bike.

SECOND BAZAAR BYSTANDER: He rides it all the time. I seen it.

DTES BAZAAR WHOLESALER: So, do we have a deal?

[and scene]

So there it is. In 2006, when I landed at the airport in Nairobi, a gentleman named Mohammad gave me some good advice; he called it the Two Rules of Africa: “never underestimate peoples’ kindness and don’t trust anybody.” The same might apply for your visit to this Olympic Neighbourhood, too.

Murdering Pirate Communities

Members of the Somali Coast Guard, searching for illegal fisherpeople

Members of the Somali Coast Guard, searching for illegal fisherpeople

Leave it to Russia. Just when you think Somalia can’t get any worse, Russia takes things to an entirely perverse and morbid new level. At least that’s what this poorly translated story about the newest craze in Russian adventuretourism outlines.

The story goes like this. Tourists from The Motherland will pay thousands of dollars to hop aboard converted cargo ships and cruise the Gulf of Aden on the hunt for pirates. Perhaps a direct quote from the article will paint a more disturbing picture:

“Its business idea is simple: Its cruise ship is the seal for the pirates. If the genuine pirates try the apparently harmless ship too entern, the African experience their blue miracle. Instead of defenseless commercial sailors face them to Russian tourists armed to the teeth. A makabrer tourist fun.”

The trip goes from Dijbouti to Mombassa and, if history is any indication, it should be chalked full of many encounters with pirates. I mean, I know Barack Obama signed off on taking down pirates, but this takes things to a terrible new level. Read on…

“A submachine gun of the type AK-47 can be rented by the Russian cruise passengers on board for 9 dollar on the day. 100 shot ammunition costs 12 dollar. A grenade thrower costs 175 dollar on the day. In addition belong three shells, which are contained in the rent. The use one to the Reeling machine gun is 475 dollar would install firmly to cost.”

Are you kidding me?! The article goes on to outline the full breakdown of these cruise ships – these wolves in sheeps clothing. After all, these “toys” are provided for – ahem – killing people. Now, the team at Babel Fish (who translated the article) postulated that the piece might be in the vein of satire. But what if it’s not? After all, the article has been picked up by all kinds of reliable “sources” other than The Gumboot.

In an effort to put this ridiculousness in perspective, let’s talk about Somalia for a second. In his article, “You are being lied to about pirates,” The Independent’s Johann Hari examines the circumstances by which many Somali fishermen have been thrust into the world of piracy. After the fall of the country’s government in 1991, Africa’s longest coastline (Somalia’s coast spans about 2,000 miles) has been unprotected. This power-vacuum has provided a perfect opportunity for the international fishing industry to steal Somalia’s food supply and use the region as a dumping ground for nuclear waste (“yes: nuclear waste,” says Haricadium and mercury were also, allegedly, thrown in the mix). Hari interviewed Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, who claims that “there has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention” of such a gross example of pollution. They also don’t “fit” in the current economic system, which is probably why the independent Somalian news site, WardheerNews, found that 70 per cent of Somalians “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence.” Some even call them the “Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia”! And we can most certainly call them rejectors of an unfair system swirling in chaos.”

By no means am I excusing piracy or suggesting that Russia is solely responsible for the plight of the fish, fisherpeople and toxic coastal communities of Somalia – we’ve all turned a bit of a blind eye, in one way or another. But is an adventuretourism enterprise that provides well-to-do people from the Northern Hemisphere the opportunity to kill people from one of the poorest, war-ravaged places on Earth.

Sure, this article that I stumbled across may or may not be true (Editor’s note: 98% of things on the internet are true, so why wouldn’t this one be true?). But I hope the story provided you with a unique insight into myriad capacities of the human condition.

I still have hope for us. Do you?

- JCH