possibly the cleanest city on earth

Fear not dear readers, we did not drop off the ends of the earth near the end of our year away — we just got really busy adjusting back to life in Vancouver. Catching up with family and friends, setting up our apartment, and getting back to work and local volunteering.

In our last post we described our time in Vietnam and Laos. We mentioned that Vietnam is one of the most polluted and dirty countries we have ever visited. We did not realize that Hanoi is among the world’s most air polluted cities in the world. Smoke and other toxins everywhere from farmer’s burning their fields, huge manufacturing zones, coal-power, and no controls on vehicle emissions. Horns blasting everywhere and at all times of the day and night. Add to that men urinating in the streets and venders heaping trash along the broken sidewalks, and you are left with a general impression that no one cares about any aspect of the environment.

The contrast with our final destination before heading home was remarkable. The streets of Tokyo are utterly clean, well maintained, and strikingly quiet. We even wandered into back alleys to try and find the seedy underbelly. Clean and quiet. No littering anywhere, even though there are outdoor food and beverage vending machines throughout residential neighbourhoods. Signs remind locals and alert visitors that smoking is not allowed on the sidewalks. On the trains, signs encourage riders to not talk on their cel phones and to put them on vibrate. The trains themselves run very quietly, unlike Skytrain in Vancouver, which squeals and clacks along like an old amusement park ride.

Speaking of trains, we’ve never seen so many trains in one city. They are run by numerous competing companies so you sometimes pay two or three separate fares to get from one place to another. Likely the locals eventually figure out how to get around without paying as much as we were loading into ticket machines!

We took it easy in Tokyo. there are dozens of museums, art galleries, and historic sites, but we selected just a couple to visit, along with the central train station. The massive walls and gates around the Imperial Palace grounds are impressive, and although it was not the best time of year to visit the gardens, there are some interesting ruins, a few ancient buildings you can visit. You don’t get very close to the Imperial Palace itself.

And dear readers, you just know we checked out the craft beer scene in Tokyo! It seems undeveloped for a city this size, nothing was described as a tasting room but lots of places calling themselves beer halls. The few places that actively promoted craft beer were numerous train trips apart. Our favourite was WIZ, which offered us a wide selection of craft beers from around the world. Next up was a small hole in the wall called Titans Craft Beer Taproom. They had a smaller selection but they rotate the taps, perhaps they only get a keg of each beer at a time.

After lifting a final IPA and saying goodbye, we packed our bags for the last time, boarded a fast train to the airport, and closed the chapter on 51 weeks of life on the road (vida en el camino!). We hope you have enjoyed our posts as we wandered through 21 countries on four continents!

One of the towers along the walls of the Imperial Palace, surrounded by a wide moat.

Massive doors into the walled grounds of the Imperial Palace.

Quiet outside, but inside the stores, every display features loud audio urging you to buy, buy buy!

Cleanest back alleys we’ve ever seen!

Even the construction sites are neat and tidy!

escape to the west coast

“Why are you coming to Darling?” It’s not often that an Airbnb host asks why you’re heading their way, but Darling is a small rural town about 100 km north of Cape Town. It has been a farming community for 150 years and currently features a major dairy processing plant, huge cattle ranches, and several vineyards and small wineries. And oh, it’s also the home of the annual Darling Beer Festival, hosted by the town’s very own Darling craft brewery.

After six weeks in the most cosmopolitan city in South Africa, we wanted to see a bit of the countryside for Christmas. It just happened that the Darling Beer Festival fit nicely into our itinerary, to be followed by two days at a small game lodge and then a week near the beach.

The beer festival took place outside the brewery, in an industrial area that fills in the space between the original town of Darling, and the township that was created when all non-whites were removed from Darling during Apartheid. We’re happy to see that a festival like this is open to all, although we are certainly aware that significant socio-economic barriers remain for a large portion of the black population of South Africa.

Fun fact: Darling was named for the British governor of the Cape Colony, a man named Charles Henry Darling. He was born in Nova Scotia, and later he was the governor for Newfoundland and Jamaica.

After a day sampling yummy craft beer, we spent a day wandering this tiny town, having an early dinner at the only cafe that was open, and taking in a show presented by the town’s most famous (maybe only) celebrity, Tannie Evita (aka Pieter-Dirk Uys), an Afrikaner performance artist who during Apartheid challenged both racial discrimination and gender norms with shows that were banned in South Africa but well received around the world. Photos in the lobby show her rubbing shoulders with various political leaders and celebrities including Andy Warhol and Nelson Mandela.

The Thali Thali game lodge was our first experience going on a game drive. It’s a former cattle ranch that has been transformed into a private game reserve and they host a small number of visitors at a time in tents and former labourer cabins. We were booked into one of the tents, but as dinner approached, gale force winds came up that caused the tent to flap so wildly we had to be moved into a labourer’s cabin. The drives were a lot of fun, we saw giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, antelopes and more in the semi-wild for the first time. A good practice run for the big game drives we were heading for in the new year.

Our last stop on the west coast was Langebaan, located in a bay that also features a naval base, a shipping port (mostly coal and iron ore heading for China), and a national park. Consistent high winds in the bay also draw kite surfers from across the country. We were there for the wide and soft sandy beaches, but we also walked into the West Coast National Park and followed a 5km trail to the highest peak in the park for an awesome 360 degree view of the bay and surrounding countryside (the photo above shows the bay and beyond a peninsula, the Atlantic Ocean).

Our accommodation in Langebaan was a B&B, which meant at breakfast we chatted with other travellers, including a man and his adult son from Johannesburg who we ended up also sharing some beers with as well as dinner on Christmas Day down by the beach. We got along so well they agreed to give us a ride most of the way back to Cape Town just for something interesting to do that day!

enjoying our feathered friends

From a small wetland area in the park across the street, to numerous beaches, mountains, and nature reserves, Cape Town has a lot to offer nature lovers. That would be us!

Table Mountain is the iconic background in almost every photo you see of Cape Town — it’s tall, wide and has a remarkably flat top. The prevailing wind comes from behind the mountain, and when the weather conditions are right, the misty cloud cover looks like a table cloth draped across the flat top. Fortunately, the city has enforced a limit on development up the slope facing the city except for the lower cable car station. By the way, we’ve reached the top of many mountains over the years, this is the first cable car we’ve been in with a floor that rotates 360 degrees in the time it takes to reach the top, giving everyone a view in every direction. Very cool.

Table Mountain is also the name of the national park that includes the big chunk of rock watching over the city, as well as a series of mountain peaks that stretch down to the Cape of Good Hope (the most southwesterly point of continental Africa). The Cape was once more infamously known as the Cape of Storms and the underwater home to hundreds of ship wrecks.

One of the most popular attractions is not far from here — Boulder’s Beach is home to a unique colony of African Penguins. South Africa National Parks has constructed a raised boardwalk that winds through the large boulders that give the beach its name and offer penguins shelter from the wind. They were moulting and preparing nests when we visited, so most were just hanging out on the beach. They can’t swim or eat for about three weeks while they’re moulting and many looked rather ragged and lethargic — but the walkway allowed us to get really close to the penguins without getting in their way or otherwise interfering with their daily lives (if you don’t count being watched by a steady stream of strangers for several hours every day!).

Cape Town is a sprawling city of over 4 million people but it also includes dozens of small and large nature reserves. We caught the city bus to one such nature reserve about 30 minutes from the downtown core. We walked through the open gate, past a small lake for sail boats and boarding, and into the bird sanctuary. A raised boardwalk lead us to a blind overlooking the wetlands.

And there they were, mostly at the other end of the reserve, hundreds of Lesser Flamingos. They are smaller and looked more pale than the flamingos we saw in South America, with very different colouring around the eyes. A few came our way so we could have a closer look, but in the meantime, numerous other birds flew by or perched on bushes near the blind: white pelicans, a great white egret, Pied Avocats, a Pintailed Whydah, a Southern Red Bishop, and yellow warblers.

Of course, one of our favourite ways to enjoy nature is to soak up the sun on a sandy beach with waves crashing in the background. We visited several beaches in the Cape Town area, but our favourite was Camp’s Bay, a 30-minute bus ride to the Atlantic Seaboard. Sun, sand, waves, but on some days gale-force winds blew the sand so hard it felt we were being attacked by bees! Fortunately there was a grassy area we could retreat to, so no need to abandon the beach altogether. We ventured into the water, but this is the Atlantic Ocean. Refreshing, especially when the air temperatures reaches 39 degrees, but brrrrr!

architects of apartheid learned from canada

In many ways, Cape Town reminds us of our home town of Vancouver. Both are port cities surrounded by mountains. Both are bustling metropolises with art galleries, museums and an aquarium, beaches and parks, bars and restaurants, and an uncomfortable history when it comes to the relationship between the white settler community and pre-existing non-white communities.

Vancouver is essentially too young to have been implicated in colonial slavery, but our treatment of Indigenous peoples and later, non-white immigrants, is nothing to be proud of. In fact, between 1948 and 1962, numerous South African government officials visited Canada to study the Indian Reservation system. What they learned helped them design and implement the racist measures that would collectively become known as Apartheid.

Eventually as a result of tremendous domestic courage and international pressure, Apartheid came to an end, essentially starting with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela who in 1994 became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

His image is everywhere in Cape Town and the ideas he expressed about truth and reconciliation continue to resonant these 23+ years later.

We joined a free walking tour entitled From Apartheid to Freedom and our guide described some of the laws put in place starting in the 1950s that separated whites from non-whites in every aspect of daily life. For example, the Group Areas Act allowed authorities to designate residential areas for whites only, and this led to non-whites being removed from mixed neighbourhoods in the larger cities, and entirely from small cities. One neighbourhood alone in Cape Town, District 6, was emptied of 60,000 people and their homes and shops bulldozed flat.

Much of District 6 was never redeveloped and there is now a battle underway as people struggle to reclaim lost land but are facing commercial developers who want to build condos and shopping malls.

Our walk paused at the high court building, where Apartheid laws were enforced, and city hall, where Mandela spoke to hundreds of thousands of people on the day he was released from prison, and then again three years later when he was elected president. Excellent walking tour!

A few days later we caught the ferry over to Robben Island for a tour of the prison where Mandela and hundreds of other political prisoners were kept for so many years. They were forced to break rock and help build a larger prison to accommodate the growing number of people jailed for resisting Apartheid.

It was fascinating to be shown around the prison grounds by a former ANC prisoner. He was able to point to where his bunk was located, and show us the cell that was Mandela’s home for much of the 23 years he spent behind bars (photo above). He also showed us the garden area where Mandela hid the notes that he later used to write Long Walk to Freedom.

Photos below from Robben Island and the District 6 museum.

Mandala’s cell block

of ancient gods and goddesses

Name an ancient Greek god — chances are you can name quite a few, or at least recognize the names once you see them. In fact the early history of Athens was shaped by belief in a fascinating cast of gods and goddesses over the centuries. Don organized our stay in a small apartment within walking distance of many of the most famous archaeological sites in the city; we took the metro (subway) to sites a bit further out. Almost every day we visited at least one ancient site and learned more about life in the early days of Athens.

Our first day in, we visited the Temple of the Olympian Zeus… it was a massive building but only a few columns remain standing. We were quite intrigued on how they were constructed. No tongue and groove or rebar, just very heavy round discs set on top of each other.

We spent a whole day in the Acropolis Museum which exhibits all the significant finds from the Sacred Rock and its foothills. It was quite amazing with magnificent sculptures that were in the first temples on the Acropolis. There were horse riders, statues of the Goddess Athena, many male figures, etc. 

The next day we entered the Acropolis winding our way up the south slope. We passed the remnants of the Theatre of Dionysus, the Odeon of Herod the Atticus (the walls are mostly gone but the stage and seating area are used for live events), the Temple of Nike (Goddess of Victory) and the iconic Parthenon… Greece is working at carefully restoring this amazing space. 

My favourite Temple was the Erechtheion built between 421 and 406 BCE. On the north side, there is a large porch with six Ionic columns, and on the south, the famous “Porch of the Maidens”, with six draped female figures (caryatids) as supporting columns. Stunning.

We visited numerous other ancient temples, city walls, cemeteries, and museums in Athens — most of the photos below are from various locations around the city — and we enjoyed it all.

We also joined a tour out to the Oracle of Delphi. The world’s most famous (and powerful) oracle resided here in the Temple of Apollo (photo above), high up the slopes of Mount Parnassus. In ancient times, people would work their way up the mountainside, and patiently hope for words of wisdom from the priestess (called the Pythia).

Our tour guide told us that in those days there was gas (vapour) seeping from deep within the rock into the chamber where the Pythia sat and shared her insights. This vapour would send her into a somewhat stoned state and she would often speak in dreamlike phrases that the wisdom-seekers would have to decipher for themselves.

As you can imagine, lengthy or repeated exposure to the gas was not healthy, so the Pythia would work short periods of time. There were many Pythia over the years, sometimes more than one at a time… but they had the job for life (however long that might be). 

We really enjoyed Athens and all its history.

Much happiness to you all!

Hadrian’s Arch

Temple of Olympian Zeus


Fallen column — Temple of Olympian Zeus


The caryatids of the Erechtheion temple

The Parthenon undergoing restoration

The Odeon of Herod the Atticus, back in use


Nike temple


Temple of Hephaestus, as seen from the Acropolis

Site of the Roman Agora (administration centre)

The Temple of Apollo

The Panathenaic Stadium, site of the first modern Olympics in 1896.


Athena Pronoia (forethought) Sanctuary at Delphi

freezing at 12,739 feet above sea level

​​There we were, at 3883 metres, the highest point we’ve ever been on earth, looking up at the top of Matterhorn Mountain, towering another 600 metres above us!

Well, that was the plan. When we arrived down the valley in Brig the afternoon before, there were scattered clouds, but we could see most of the massive mountains around us. In the morning we boarded the train that would take us high into the Alps. Clouds were rolling in but we hoped for the best. From the cable car station in Zermatt we could still see the mountain sides and glaciers but peaks were alluding us, and as we climbed, a strong wind brought more clouds in, and they brought snow. Sadly, as we emerged from the viewing station at the very top, the fog and clouds were so thick we could not see more than 10 metres out, and the Matterhorn and all other mountain tops were hidden from view. With the blinding snow it was freezing cold, with us in as many layers of summer clothes as we could muster. Oh well!

From Brig we took the train through the Alps over to Zurich. In all our travels so far, Switzerland has been the most expensive place for transportation, accommodation, and food. Just to give you a sense of what that looks like, imagine paying $17 Canadian for a Big Mac (we didn’t, we just walked by a MacDonalds and saw the price posted in the window). Groceries were easily three times the price we experienced in Italy and Spain. 

Aside from being expensive, Zurich didn’t have much to offer us — we walked across the city, viewed the lake and wandered around the old part of town. And before we knew it, we were deep inside a very seedy, smelly, and noisy downtown area of bars, strip clubs, and sex workers. We retreated and sought refuge at a small residential neighbourhood sidewalk cafe we passed earlier in the day that was laid-back, inclusive, and family friendly. Whew!

Next stop, Vienna, a much more fascinating city, and less expensive too. We found a self-directed walking tour that included many historical buildings and gardens, as well as some intriguing out-of-the-way side streets and stories to go with them. One side street happened to also bring us to the Vienna Peace Museum, a small organization that works to build peace, partly through promoting awareness of Nobel Peace Prize winners (congrats by the way to this year’s just announced recipient, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons).

As we’ve been travelling, as much as possible we’ve been purchasing groceries at local markets and from street venders. In Vienna we approached a fruit and vegetable stall, selected a bunch of grapes and handed them to the vender to weigh — he took one look at us, started loudly berating us (likely in German, which we don’t understand), and threw them back onto his table. Not sure what we did to offend him, other venders in the same outdoor market area responded much more favourably to us!

Otherwise, we quite enjoyed wandering around Vienna, especially finding the “beer, whiskey, and vegetarian” bar around the corner from where we were staying. Craft beer on tap, 1000 different whiskeys and scotches available, and the most delicious vegetarian goulash we’ve ever tasted. Our other favourite restaurant in Vienna: the quirky, off-the-beaten-track Pizzeria Mafiosi. Inside it felt like we were in an old fishing shack. And with his rough look, slicked back hair, and regular cigarette breaks, we were convinced that serving pizza was just our waiter’s day-job cover for something perhaps a little more sinister!

Approaching the top of the peak next to the Matterhorn.


For some reason, there were these large brightly coloured rabbits placed just out of reach throughout Vienna.


We enjoyed delicious empanada-like Zuricos in Zurich.


Lovely sidewalk cafe in Zurich, in the middle of a quiet residential area.


Klimt in Vienna.


Huge market in Vienna with fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, and lots of olives.


Typical street in Vienna.

roman history lessons come alive


After a month in Malaga on the sunny Mediterranean coast of Spain, we spent three weeks exploring numerous cities and historic sites in Italy. We flew directly from Malaga to Rome, and on the bus from the airport to our first place to stay, we spotted the Colosseum, proof we had landed in the right city!

Our experience of Rome, and of Italian cities in general, is that they are the sites of ancient ruins and contemporary decay. While celebrating their history, Italians don’t seem to be paying much attention to the present when it comes to infrastructure and civic services: the sidewalks, roads, buildings, and public spaces are in varying states of disrepair or abandonment. A few centuries from now, will visitors be wandering through the ruins of various Italian cities, reading about a once thriving civilization that failed to properly invest in the future?

In the meantime, Rome presented us with the iconic Colosseum, the Vatican museums, the massive ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, the remains of numerous palaces and temples in the Palatine/Roman Forum areas, and the opportunity to criss-cross the city by tram. We tried a few brew pubs and discovered our favourite, Brewdog Roma, is actually an import from Scotland!

From Rome we scooted down to the town of Scafati in order to wander through the nearby ruins of Pompeii. One of the few things I remember from high school social studies is doing a report on the volcanic eruption that completely buried this ancient Roman town almost 2000 years ago. The descriptive panels indicate that while many people died from the volcanic debris, it was the wave of toxic gas that killed people in mid-motion. Which also means that when anthropologists started digging through the ruins hundreds of years later, everything was just as it was at the time of the eruption, and that helped them understand much more about first century Roman life than was possible before this discovery. We spent a full day wandering these ruins and seeing some amazing ancient frescos and tile work.

We then headed north to Florence, taking in more art and history, with the highlight seeing Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, along with Leonardo da Vinca’s famous unfinished (and carefully restored) The Adoration of the Magi. We also took a day to visit Pisa to see for ourselves, and climb, it’s famous leaning tower. Apparently a few years ago it was leaning too much and so they brought it back to the “original” 4% tilt. Great view from the top, all 297 steps up!

One of the attractions everyone said we had to visit in Italy was Cinque Terre, five little villages perched on coastal cliffs and down by the water that have become a major tourist destination. We visited and drifted around four of the villages, but it was the next day in Porto Venere, on a point south of the Cinque Terre, that felt more charming and relaxed — no hordes of tourists dashing about trying to see everything.

We didn’t know it at the time, but one of the claims-to-fame of our next stop, Verona, is the balcony that Shakespeare immortalized in Romeo and Juliet. It’s a major tourist attraction in the centre of the old part of town. We stopped by but did not get in line with tourists paying 6 euros each to have a turn standing on the fabled second-floor balcony. We did catch the train to Venice for a day, and joined a free walking tour that got us into some areas of the city less travelled. Our guide was quite good, and had recommendations for us around where to eat (“just wander into the side streets and get lost, if the menu is only in Italian and there are no pictures, eat there”), and to head for a rooftop terrace located above a luxury department store for a bird’s eye view of the city. 

The city is sinking, the water is rising, and some say tourism is ruining the whole place anyway — turning it into another soulless Disneyland. Apparently UNESCO has even said the city needs to get it’s act together or it will lose it’s status as a World Heritage site. 

Of course we didn’t experience everything “Italy”; that would obviously take many months, perhaps years. But we certainly enjoyed the art, history, cities, and landscapes we did find and wander through.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome.

Pantheon in Rome.

The Vatican Museums have an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian art and objects.

Many of the houses in Pompeii features wall paintings, from single animals to scenes like this one.

Inside on the the public baths in Pompeii.

Pompeii columns, either a mansion or a temple.

One of numerous tile floors that survived the eruption that buried Pompeii.

Pompeii shop, possibly a bar, with a fresco on the back wall.

Large house in Pompeii.

Pompeii was a favourite summer place for wealthy Romans.

The Birth of Venus by Botticelli, at the Uffizi Museum in Florence.

The tower in Pisa really is leaning!

One of the classic views of Cinque Terre.

Porte Venere, just south of Cinque Terre — there was a wedding underway in the ancient church on the rocky point.

Crowds gather in Verona to see Juliet’s balcony, some pay to stand in it for about 30 seconds. Not us.

Venice and the Grand Canal