In a nondescript plot in Montreal’s Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery lies the body of a certain John Laird McCaffrey, whose gravestone has written upon it an ambiguously naughty inscription.
Now that I live in Montreal, I had to see this sacrilegious sarcophagus for myself.
What exactly is this crude commemoration, might you ask? Take a look:
Free your body and soul Unfold your powerful wings Climb up the highest mountains Kick your feet up in the air You may now live forever Or return to this Earth Unless you feel good where you are!
Missed by your friends
If you haven’t spotted it already, take the first letter of each of the lines in the epitaph and you’ll see it spells “FUCK YOU”!
I’d heard of this gravestone quite some time ago but I wasn’t sure if it actually existed or if it was an urban myth; thankfully an article at Snopes and an official entry at Find A Grave (the world’s largest database on all things related to burials) confirmed to me that it was, in fact, legitimate.
I took note of its location: Section C, Plot 01369, and rode my bike up the delightfully scenic Mont Royal, to Notre Dame des Neige Cemetery (one of the two necropoli that reside along its western slopes), to embark upon my quest.
It didn’t take long to spot. The burial location map at the official cemetery website gave me a good indication of where Section C was, and it was a quick search from there to find the specific slab.
So how did this gravestone come to be?
According to an interview published some years ago in the Montreal Mirror with the stonemason who carved out the words:
“Afterwards, as I’m done, I’m looking at it and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ I noticed it just like that. This guy’s ex-wife and mistress came in together and ordered the stone. They said the message represented him. It was a thing between the three of them.”
I’d like to think McCaffrey would see the light side to this – after all, it’s been 28 years since his death and random people like me are still visiting him!
I was curious to see just how common it was around the world for epitaphs to contain vulgar language like this and I can’t say I was particularly surprised to find it certainly isn’t prevalent.
In an article from 2015 on stuff.co.nz entitled Expletives could be banned from headstones, I learnt that the Palmerston North City Council censored the gravestone of Vincent Drummond-Paul which contained an F-Bomb. Engraved on the stone was a list of his favourite songs, including the Big Sean hit, I Don’t Fuck With You; it received complaints from another grieving family and the council took action to hide the offending word.
In another case a few years earlier in Lynn, Massachusetts, The Daily Item reported that the Cemetery Commissioner rejected a request from a local family to inscribe deceased rapper Sonny Santiago’s tombstone with lyrics from one of his self-penned songs: “You gonna remember the damn name, I give a fuck if I die with no damn friends, I got my fam by my side and that’s until the end”.
Don’t get me wrong – there are quite a few humorous gravestones out there in the world, easily evident from a quick google search, but it’s rare indeed to find any epitaphs containing a profane word. I wasn’t able to find any set rule as to what language is and isn’t acceptable on a cemetery shrine, but it’s pretty clear an unofficial line is drawn when it comes to hard cussing.
With all that in mind, I’m pretty sure the late John Laird McCaffrey can hold claim to the world’s most vulgar gravestone.
One of my favourite outdoor spots around Toronto to spend time in is Tommy Thompson Park (a.k.a. the Leslie St. Spit), a not-too-well-known peninsula that extends into Lake Ontario from the far south end of Leslie St. It’s essentially a chunk of reclaimed land, formed from the dumping of unwanted construction material in the 1950’s, which has since transformed into an environmental wetlands & conservation area.
I’d written about it once before here on my blog, back in 2014. Take a peek at it for a more thorough photographic depiction of the gloriousness of this urban wilderness as a whole, but what I’ve come here to talk about today is a certain corner of the park’s backroads that I chanced upon in October 2017.
The good majority of Tommy Thompson Park is accessible by an asphalt road but there are a number of smaller, more rugged trails that branch off the primary track. My friend Conor and I were cycling in the area on a fall afternoon and opted for one such weather-beaten way. We came to precisely this point on the map when we noticed a curious structure made from the countless bricks and cinder blocks that lined the shores:
A very talented & motivated artist / amateur architect (quite possibly a group of them?) had gone to an incredible effort to build a fort along the park’s southern banks. We spent some time wandering around, marveling at how such a construction could possibly have come together in such a remote and difficult-to-access area.
I returned a few weeks later with my camera and took a bunch of shots to preserve the memory. As much as I wanted to share them to Reddit at the time, I refrained from doing so as a viral post could have led to an overabundance of curious visitors and potential vandalism of the site.
Despite my frequent return visits to the park it took me quite some time to stop by this particular corner again; alas, by 2020 the fort had been demolished. I’m not sure if its demise was accelerated by the harsh Ontarian wind or if it happened purely by human hands. Regardless, I finally feel like posting my pics of this magical lakeside artwork in memory of its creator(s) and the handful of people who were also lucky enough to stumble upon it and leave their own marks of appreciation.
Dotted around the fort were some smaller pieces of art and emotive dedications:
I was also quite impressed by the sheer number of ladybugs resting on the debris-laden lakeshore:
Prior to writing this post I tried to locate some further information on the brick fort, assuming others may have posted photos or a journal onto the web in the years that have passed. It was my hope that someone out there had laid claim to its creation. Aside from this Toronto Star article seven years prior to my visit questioning the origins of a similar, smaller brick shrine, I haven’t been able to find a thing.
Whoever you were, dear creator, the time I spent getting to know your charming fort was certainly time well spent. I remain in awe of your superb craftsmanship.
Today was the big day that the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) opened the 6-station subway extension to Line 1 – nine years in the making and with a budget of over $3.2 billion!
I thought to myself yesterday while preparing to go out on a downtown pub crawl that it’d be cool to be part of Toronto history and ride the first public train along the new line from Sheppard West to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. Despite getting kinda wasted and heading home from the last bar at a reasonably late time, I still managed to wake up early enough on a Sunday to catch the first southbound train from College, which would eventually lead me northbound towards Vaughan.
My friend Elaine had agreed to come for the ride as well, boarding the 7:55am southbound train from the first stop on the line, Finch. The plan was for me to meet her when it passed through College, but I failed to realise that other trains closer to the downtown area had commenced service at the same time. She wasn’t on the first train that passed through College, so I train-hopped until I found her on the next one. We may have missed the opportunity to be on the first ever public train to use the new track, but we were on the first train to do the full circuit from Finch to Vaughan.
The best thing about the journey along the new portion of the track was that the train driver opened up his compartment and allowed a few people in at a time to see the line up close & personal, from the perspective of the operator. It was a rare privilege to be able to see the TTC in this form.
Elaine & I got chatting with a guy sitting next to us; he told us he also travelled on the TTC the first day the northbound Spadina line extension opened in the late 70’s. Not only that, but he remembered being 4 or 5 years old and taking the subway when the first line was completed in the 50’s. He was pretty confident he’s gonna live long enough to be the first to travel on the Eglinton LRT when it opens in 2021 – providing of course that it doesn’t get delayed!
Pretty much everyone on the new track was there purely for the ride. There was a surprisingly upbeat, happy & celebratory mood in the first carriage, it was a really nice event to be part of.
We reached Vaughan Metropolitan Centre around 9am to a round of applause from the fellow passengers and a lot of fanfare at the beautiful new station.
There wasn’t too much going on outside the new station, it was kinda desolate all the way up in the northern suburbs. We managed to find a nearby diner for some brunch and then made our way back to the station for the return trip downtown.
I’ll probably never come up this far north again but I don’t at all regret getting up early after a night on the booze to be part of Toronto transit history this morning. The opening of a new train line is definitely not something that happens every day.
As a new resident to Toronto in 2013 it was impossible to ignore the bright lights of Honest Ed’s the first time I passed by the corner of Bloor & Bathurst, in the north-west of the downtown core.
Opened in 1948 by entrepreneur Ed Mirvish, it rose to prominence as the destination in town for no-frills bargains. Met with some resistance in its founding years, it ultimately carved a place in Toronto culture thanks its huge storefront display featuring tens of thousands of flashing light bulbs and pun-laden slogans (Honest Ed’s a nut! But look at the ‘cashew’ save!). You might compare its notoriety with something like Harrods in London – on the complete other end of the price & elegance scale, mind you – but a one-of-a-kind store that locals flock to & tourists read about in all their guidebooks. It became pretty clear to me that this place was an institution.
Unfortunately in mid-2014 it was announced Honest Ed’s would close on December 31st, 2016 to make way for a new residential & commercial development. With less than a week to go, I decided to drop by one final time today with my camera to snap a few shots of this lovable Toronto landmark before it’s gone forever.
The first time I walked through the store I was awestruck at how full it was with all kinds of trinkets, clothes, appliances, groceries & housewares. I recall my bemusement at the randomness of some of the merchandise on offer, in particular some $2.99 water bottles with a choice of either a Jamaican flag or a Newfoundland & Labrador flag printed on it, of all things. This is exactly the kinda weird stuff that gave Honest Ed’s its charm! Only a few minutes later in the clothing section upstairs I found a pair of jeans on sale for $2 – less than the price of the bloody Jamaica water bottle. Thanks to Ed Mirvish’s contribution to the Toronto performing arts scene, my eyes were drawn to the scores of theatrical posters & props lining the walls of the two buildings, alongside hand-painted shop signs from years gone by. It was certainly a colourful & eccentric shop to spend time in.
I wish I’d taken more pics of the place back then because the interior today was a shadow of its former self. The previously-packed rooms were now almost empty, with not much left to purchase aside from a few impractical bits & pieces which were clearly struggling to move off the shelves.
There was a whole section cordoned off for Honest Ed-related memorabilia though, where bins full of their iconic hand-painted signs were on offer as souvenirs. Most of today’s shoppers, including myself, could be found in this area trying to get their hands on a piece of Toronto signwriting history.
Last month the TTC subway station at Bathurst paid tribute to Honest Ed’s by installing signs & slogans in the spirit of the retailer. I’ve heard there are plans to turn it into a permanent feature of the station – here’s hoping this is true.
Thanks Honest Ed’s. It was a pleasure to have shopped in you over the past three years.
Oh and one final thing: I now have my very own authenticated piece of Honest Ed’s on display in my bathroom 🙂
I love documentaries. Over the past couple of years I’ve become engrossed in the genre & developed a true passion for them, to the point where they’re basically all I watch these days.
Here in Toronto I’m very lucky to have access to outlets such as the Hot Docs Cinema, one of the only cinemas in the world to specialise in documentaries, and Queen Video, with a more-than-extensive selection of hard-to-find non-fiction DVD gems. Not only that, but it’s great to be part of online communities such as /r/Documentaries on Reddit who help spread the word about everything from obscure short films from the early 90’s on sex, drugs or rock & roll right through to the latest Louis Theroux blockbuster (and can’t we all wait to see it…!) Between all these and my Netflix subscription I’m pretty much set for life.
A few weeks ago I posted a Reddit comment where I mentioned a bunch of my favourite documentaries. It had a pretty good response so I spent some time compiling a list of my top 60 to share with the community. And I thought I’d post them here to my blog as well.
I tend to steer away from the nature/science/biographical-style docs and go more for the ones that tell a fascinating story about someone or something. You’ll find most on the list are along these lines; also they’re all fairly modern dating from around the 2000’s – 2010’s (if anyone has suggestions for some decent older docs to check out I’d love to hear).
Note there are no links to view the docs, this is simply a list with a brief description about the film along with my thoughts on it. I hope some of you are inspired to investigate further & check them out. The full IMDB list I keep of docs I watch, if you’re interested, is here. Enjoy!
60. My Life As A Turkey (2011)
I happened to stumble across this doc late one night on TV, all about nature enthusiast Jim Hutto, who conducted an experiment by raising a group of wild turkeys well into adulthood. He bonded deeply with the turkeys as they grew over the course of two years, in some cases living & acting as though he was a turkey himself. It may make you think differently about your Thanksgiving dinner this year.
59. Bus 174 (Ônibus 174) (2002)
A chilling Brazilian film about Bus 174 in Rio de Janeiro which was taken hostage in June 2000 by a gunman, threatening to shoot all on board. The whole incident was captured and broadcast on live television as it happened; the film offers a bleak glimpse into life within Rio’s favelas.
58. The Missing Ingredient: What Is The Recipe For Success? (2015)
A fairly recent & light-hearted documentary about famed (and sadly, closed) Manhattan Upper East Side restaurant Gino’s and its striking red zebra wallpaper, the pattern of which was ‘borrowed’ by Pescatore, a struggling restaurant in Midtown. Much controversy surrounded Pescatore’s new image, especially by Gino’s staff and their regular customers. The narrative is delightfully balanced between Gino’s colourful history and Pescatore’s desire to remain on the map.
57. Craigslist Joe (2012)
I’m a pretty avid user of Craigslist so it was quite an inspiration to watch this doc & see for myself how Joseph Garner managed to organise an entire cross-US trip based entirely on personals ads he posted. The idea was that he wasn’t allowed to spend any money for a month, relying entirely on the kindness of strangers to help him along his journey.
56. Shut Up Little Man! – An Audio Misadventure (2011)
In the late 80’s, two friends moved into an apartment in San Francisco to find that their neighbours, Peter Haskett & Raymond Huffman, constantly argued & bickered with each other, laden with expletives, homophobic references and repeated catchphrases such as “Shut up, little man!” The new tenants set up tape recorders to capture the heated conversations; by accident it soon became an audio vérité phenomenon, with people from all around the country copying the tapes and passing it onto friends. The film tracks the story of Peter & Raymond’s unlikely rise to cult fame.
55. The Man With The 7 Second Memory (2005)
A made-for-TV doc about a British man called Clive Wearing who has suffered from a certain type of amnesia since 1985 which literally leaves him with a seven second memory. The moment he lays eyes on someone, his wife for example, he thinks it’s the first time they’ve met. Remarkably, he can still play piano (he was an expert choral singer & pianist at the point of contracting the illness) and his wife still cares for him today.
54. Happy People: A Year In The Taiga (2010)
Werner Herzog makes his first of many appearances in this list; in this masterpiece he spends a year in the Siberian Taiga documenting the traditions of hunters & gatherers whose culture has remained virtually unchanged for centuries. A wonderful insight into a whole other world.
53. Whole (2003)
Now this is a really strange doc I found while searching through the collection of Queen Video, an alternative DVD rental store, all about a unique group of individuals who feel like they should be amputees. They literally have all their arms & legs attached to their body with perfect function, but they have an overwhelming desire to be rid of one or more of their limbs. It’s just bizarre… you have to see it to believe it.
52. An Honest Liar (2014)
Illusionist, magician & skeptic James Randi has devoted much of his life to debunking all things paranormal, particularly self-proclaimed psychics and evangelical healers. A number of fascinatingly cringeworthy moments are on display from throughout his career, particularly the time he was asked by The Tonight Show crew for advice on how they could impose tight controls on Uri Geller during a demonstration of one of his ‘psychic’ tricks on live television. It really makes you realise the lengths these people go to in order to fool their audience.
51. The Summit (2012)
K2 is the second highest & one of the most dangerous mountain summits in the world; in 2008, eleven climbers lost their lives in one day following a devastating avalanche. The film tells the heartbreaking story of this fateful day.
50. Flowers From The Mount Of Olives (Õlimäe õied) (2013)
Definitely not the highest budget or best produced doc of the list, but there was something about the story that really captured me. 82 year old Estonian nun Sister Ksenya resides in a Jerusalem convent and contemplates her long & tumultuous life. She’s a super interesting woman who is soon to embark on the Great Schema, the final step along her spiritual path which involves a code of complete silence for the remainder of her life.
49. The White Diamond (2004)
Dr. Graham Dorrington is an engineer who has built a unique airship which he intends to fly above the forest surrounding Kaieteur Falls in Guyana. He attempted a similar exercise 12 years beforehand which resulted in the death of one of his crew members. Although the incident is still fresh in his mind, he’s determined not to fail this time around, inviting Werner Herzog along to capture his dream coming true.
48. Of Men And War (2014)
A group of American war veterans return home from the front lines of Iraq, taunted by horrific memories & left with post-traumatic stress. The film chronicles the therapy involved in opening up to share their story, find peace with their families and ultimately conquer their demons. It’s a pretty long movie but there’s a lot to get through.
47. Catfish (2010)
A rather creepy story that spawned a TV series of the same name, which documents the filmmakers befriending a young artistic girl named Abby Pierce through Facebook. The friendship eventually expanded to members of Abby’s family such as her mother & father. As it turns out: not everyone on the internet is who they say they are.
46. Waste Land (2010)
Brazilian artist Vik Muniz had an idea to work with waste pickers at Brazil’s largest landfill, turning trash into incredible works of art & later selling them at a London auction house, the profits of which were returned to the community. It’s quite uplifting to see how the experience was able to change the lives of those less fortunate.
45. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011)
Exceptionally cute film about Kevin Clash, the puppeteer responsible for the creation of Sesame Street’s Elmo. There were unproven allegations following the film’s release that he was involved in a relationship with a minor which kinda puts a dampener on things, but he still has a great story to tell. If you like this, it’s also worth watching I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, although I do think Being Elmo is slightly more charming.
44. Blackfish (2013)
Controversial documentary about Tilikum, an orca kept in captivity at SeaWorld for nearly 30 years who was killed her own trainer in 2010. SeaWorld went into damage control upon the release of the film claiming it was inaccurate & misleading; either way, it’s a harrowing look at the morality behind animal captivity.
43. Encounters At The End Of The World (2007)
Set entirely in Antarctica, Werner Herzog and Peter Zeitlicher get to know the scientists & researchers stationed there who study its barren wilderness. It’s an impromptu film in that none of it was planned prior to their journey – it all happened as they went along. It includes some stunning footage of ice caves and Mt Erebus, an active volcano.
42. Meru (2015)
I’m a pretty big fan of mountain climbing documentaries and I think this is the best. It follows three climbers and their failed quest to ascend this Himalayan peak in 2008, attempting it once again in 2011. The crew evade death on more than one occasion during the process, including an avalanche and a frightening fall which led to a major injury. A true case of never giving up on your end goal.
41. Tig (2015)
A charming documentary about American comedian Tig Notaro, focusing on her breast cancer diagnosis in 2012 and a stand-up set she performed in an LA comedy club shortly afterwards which really put her name on the map. In the year that follows she continues to develop her career & relationship with her fiancée while dealing with the challenges that come with illness.
40. Walking The Camino (2013)
The Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s great long-distance pilgrimages which can begin at a variety of European locations but ultimately ends in Galicia at the north of Spain. A number of pilgrims were followed & interviewed along the 500 mile course in 2009, all participating for a variety of reasons from adventure to spiritual enlightenment. It made me want to take part in the pilgrimage one day myself.
39. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2013)
A huge fan of street art, the film follows Frenchman Thierry Guetta around Los Angeles and his quest to discover the people behind the art, eventually leading him to befriend renowned British street artist Banksy. It’s difficult to tell for sure if this really is a documentary or if it’s a work of art by Banksy himself. Either way it’s a bloody good story.
38. Children Underground (2010)
A bleak look at the lives of five orphaned children left to fend for themselves on the streets of Bucharest, Romania. Taking shelter inside a subway station, you become witness to physical/sexual abuse, drug addiction and other harsh realities that occur within the group. Also documented are the social workers who attempt to reform the lives of the young ones. Difficult to watch but certainly eye-opening.
37. Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (2012)
I first saw a clip of performance artist Marina Abramovic on Reddit; it featured some highlights of her 2010 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art where she sat for over 736 hours on a chair, simply staring in silence into the eyes of participants who sat opposite her for minutes at a time. The clip led me to discover this documentary of her life leading up to her retrospective performance piece. A truly fascinating individual.
36. Cartel Land (2015)
Follows the stories of almost all involved in the supply chain of illegal narcotics from Mexico to the US, from the drug manufacturers through to the Cartels through to vigilante Mexican and American groups trying to protect their neighbourhoods & border. The footage is so raw & real I’m surprised the filmmakers made it out alive.
35. Undefeated (2011)
Follows the progress of a Memphis high school football team made predominantly of kids who fall below the poverty line, and their struggle to keep together as a team. The sheer passion the coach Bill Courtney has for his players is inspirational; he’s a true mentor who’s ultimately able to turn around their losing streak.
34. On Death Row (2012)
Captured at the same time as Werner Herzog’s feature film Into The Abyss which appears further along the list, this is a made-for-TV series that takes a look inside Texan prisons with a particular focus on inmates who are due to be executed.
33. Somm (2012)
A fascinating look into the life of a Master Sommelier and what it takes to pass the coveted exam. The best scene is the one where a bunch of Sommeliers-in-the-making are asked to sample a particular wine and determine exactly which vintage it is. The accuracy by which they’re able to pinpoint the grape is tremendous.
32. Amy (2015)
One of the better biographical documentaries out there. I didn’t know all that much about Amy Winehouse or her music prior to seeing the movie but I was almost in tears by the end, wishing she was still with us today sharing her soulful voice & charisma with the world.
31. The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (2014)
A fun & light-hearted film about the famed Barkley Marathons, a 100 mile, rarely-completed ultra marathon held annually in Tennessee since 1986. The film profiles the charismatic organisers of the race as well as in-depth coverage of the 2012 marathon and its participants.
30. Weiner (2016)
A cringeworthy look into the life & times of Anthony Weiner, former Congressman and candidate for New York Mayor, famed for his numerous sexting scandals that tore apart his career and almost ruined his marriage. Despite what you make of him personally, I was particularly impressed at the composure & humour he was able to keep during a time of such strenuous media coverage.
29. Into The Abyss (2011)
Werner Herzog delves deeply into the abyss that is death row, interviewing a prisoner convicted of murder in the months & weeks leading up to his execution. Herzog collected a wealth of material from five inmates on death row, opting to feature Michael Perry in this film with the remaining men forming part of a TV documentary series called On Death Row.
28. The Bridge (2006)
This is probably the most hard-hitting film to watch out of all on the list. A camera crew recorded 10,000 hours of footage of the Golden Gate Bridge during 2004, capturing almost all the suicides that occurred that year and interviewing friends & family members of the deceased as well as a previous survivor of the fall.
27. The Cove (2009)
An investigation into dolphin hunting in Taiji, Japan, led by activist Ric O’Barry, who helped capture & train the dolphins used in the Flipper TV series. Although the dolphin hunt is legal, it’s a brutal depiction of the reality behind this barbaric tradition.
26. The Wolfpack (2015)
Residing in New York’s lower eastside, this family of 7 children were homeschooled and warned by their father to never venture outside due to the dangers lurking within Manhattan. After 15 years of their only exposure to the outside world being via film, one of the brothers broke the rules and wandered onto the street, followed closely by his remaining siblings.
25. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)
At 85 years old, Jiro has spent almost all his life dedicated to the art of sushi-making. As the owner of arguably the most famous & exclusive sushi restaurant in Tokyo, the film documents his youth, the day-to-day running of the location and his two sons, both of whom have followed in his sushi-making footsteps.
24. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Explore the Chauvet Caves in the south of France with Werner Herzog, who managed to gain rare access to what are considered the oldest known rock paintings in the world.
23. Winnebago Man (2009)
Jack Rebney, famous for his furious, ‘fuck’-laden outtakes of an 80’s Winnebago commercial, despised his notoriety after the clip took to Youtube in its early years and moved to a secluded location in northern California where he no longer had to deal with general society on a daily basis. Winnebago Man sees the filmmaker track down Rebney to introduce him to a genuinely appreciative audience.
22. The Last Days (1998)
Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film about five Hungarian Jews who revisit their childhood homes and tell some very traumatic stories about their time at Auschwitz.
21. Life, Animated (2016)
A heartwarming doc from this year showing at cinemas right now, about a young autistic man Owen Suskind and how it took animated Disney movies for his family to finally get through to him. It follows his story from a young boy right up until his recent graduation & move into his own apartment where he’s finally able to retain some independence.
20. Senna (2010)
I have absolutely zero interest in Formula 1 but I was hooked on the life story of Ayrton Senna, Brazilian race-car driver and national hero who died behind the wheel at an unfortunately young age.
19. Chernobyl Heart (2003)
A short film which I discovered through /r/Documentaries about children in Belarus born with cancers & illnesses related to radiation from Chernobyl. Particularly moving is a scene where a young girl is given an artificial heart valve, allowing her a second chance at life.
18. Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father (2008)
This is a particularly painful one to watch that’ll surely make you cry. Kurt Kuenne tells the story of his friend Andrew Bagby who was murdered, with the idea of presenting it as a gift to his son Zachary who he never got to meet. What ends up happening to Zachary is beyond belief.
17. Camp 14: Total Control Zone (2012)
Born & raised in a North Korean labor camp, Shin Dong-Huyk eventually escaped & made his way to the US to tell his tale of the cruelty that went on behind the walls of his former home. He witnessed the execution of his own mother and was frequently exposed to hunger & savage beatings by prison guards. I recently read that he since admitted to embellishing some of the stories for dramatic effect, but it’s still an intense watch & will leave you with utter contempt for Kim Jong-Un and his ridiculous regime.
16. Sour Grapes (2016)
Rudy Kurniawan is new to the wine auction scene but gradually makes a name for himself from his excellent knowledge and outrageous purchases. Little did the wine community know that he had a very fraudulent ulterior motive all along. An interesting tale of trust & deceit within an exclusive club of connoisseurs. Fairly recent doc that may still be showing in cinemas today.
15. Serving Life (2011)
A made-for-TV doc about a group of prisoners in Louisiana who are responsible for running an in-house hospice, providing care for those nearing the end of their lives who have little other friends or family to turn to. A rather beautiful perspective into how otherwise hardened criminals come together to treat fellow inmates with warmth, care & dignity.
14. Bowling For Columbine (2002)
Michael Moore at his finest, dissecting the Columbine massacre and presenting his thoughts on why gun violence is so prevalent in America. The most tense part of the film is when he brings two of the Columbine victims into the K-Mart head office to confront those responsible for the availability of handgun ammunition in their stores.
13. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery Of The Toynbee Tiles (2011)
Damn, this is a supremely mysterious & interesting story! Dating from the 80’s, a number of custom-made tiles have been found throughout US & South American cities which say “TOYNBEE IDEA / IN Kubrick’s 2001 / RESURRECT DEAD / ON PLANET JUPITER” or something to that effect. Nobody knew who was responsible for the tiles let alone what any of it meant, so a team of intrigued investigators got together to try to figure it all out.
12. Seymour: An Introduction (2014)
Seymour Bernstein is a much-loved pianist, piano teacher & composer whose announced his final recital in 1977, after which he concentrated solely on teaching & composing. The film sees Seymour take to the stage one final time; a performance nearly 40 years in the making.
11. Finding Vivian Maier (2013)
Nobody knew that Vivian Maier, a nanny who worked in various American cities in the 60’s-70’s, harboured a secret passion for street photography. Tens of thousands of photographs & negatives were discovered in the years following her death; director John Maloof wanted to spread the word about her previously unrecognised talent.
10. Spinning Plates (2012)
An endearing story about three very different restaurants in the US (Chicago’s Alinea, Breitbach’s Country Dining in Iowa and La Conina de Gabby in Arizona), detailing the trial & tribulations the restauranteurs and staff alike go through along the journey.
9. Alfred & Jakobine (2014)
I saw this at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto a few years ago, I don’t believe it’s available on DVD yet so it might be hard to find. Alfred & Jakobine met in the mid-50’s in Africa where they quickly fell in love & spent the next 10 or 15 years travelling around the world in an old London taxicab. After marrying & having children they decided to settle down in the US, but Alfred couldn’t stay put & ultimately left to pursue his vagabond ways. Decades later he came to regret his decision so he restored the old taxicab (which he’d kept all along) and travelled across the country to see Jakobine one final time before it was too late.
8. Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventures (2004)
This is a stage show rather than a documentary but it’s bloody entertaining. British comedian Dave Gorman discovered the term ‘Googlewhack’ (googling two legitimate English words that bring up only one result) and ended up on a ridiculous worldwide adventure because of it. If you like this one also check out Are You Dave Gorman? where he travels around the world to meet a bunch of other people who share his name.
7. Wings Of Hope (2000)
Werner Herzog was scheduled to take a flight within Peru in 1971 but he ended up on a different flight due to his reservation being cancelled. Lucky for him, because the original flight was struck by lightning & crashed, leaving a miraculous sole survivor to fend for herself in the Amazonian jungle for a couple of weeks before being rescued. The film retraces the exact steps Juliane Koepcke took during her fight for survival.
6. Tickled (2016)
Best documentary so far from 2016 about a Kiwi TV reporter who accidentally discovers a sport called Competitive Endurance Tickling and the investigation that follows. It has everything I could ever ask for in a narrative – an absurd but fun-sounding subject that escalates into something so much deeper than you could ever imagine, full of bizarre characters and engaging plot twists. Go see it in a cinema now if it’s showing near you.
5. Louis Theroux: anything
I didn’t want to break down Louis’ films independently otherwise the whole list would just be made up of him, so I put him here as a single category instead! But my top picks of his are The Most Hated Family In America about the Westboro Baptist (“God Hates Fags”) Church and his specials related to mental/criminal institutions such as Behind Bars, By Reason Of Insanity and Miami Megajail.
4. Man On Wire (2008)
In 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit & a team of assistants snuck onto the roof of the twin towers in NYC, rigging a high wire between the two buildings & completing the cross in around an hour one morning with bewildered pedestrians looking on from below. The doc tells the story of the preparation leading up to & including the event.
3. The Fear Of 13 (2015)
Nick Yarris spent 21 years in the Pennsylvania prison system on death row after having been convicted of murder. Surprise, surprise: it turns out he didn’t actually do it and was eventually released from prison. He’s an absolutely enthralling storyteller, he relates his youth & his time spent in jail with such passionate intensity. A must-watch.
2. Searching For Sugar Man (2012)
Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez released a few albums in the 70’s which didn’t result in much local success. Decades later he discovered he’d become a superstar in South Africa after someone had smuggled his records into the country, finding immense popularity among the anti-apartheid community. A truly mindblowing story.
1. Grizzly Man (2005)
Wildlife enthusiast Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers camping amongst wild bears in Alaska as though he was a bear himself. Werner Herzog did an astonishing job at interviewing his friends & family and stitching together the footage Timothy had taken over the years which ultimately led to his demise. As far as I’m concerned, there is no greater documentary than this one.
Up until fairly recently I didn’t know all that much about Latin America. I’d made a few friends during my time living in Sydney, namely from Brazil & Venezuela, who recalled fond stories of their upbringing, but all I could really tell you about countries south of the US was that the mother tongue was either Spanish or Portuguese, political, social & economic struggles were common, they ate a lot of grilled meat, people danced salsa and football was a way of life.
All that changed when I moved to Toronto and found myself hanging out with a whole bunch of interesting folk from all around South America. Friends from Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and Chile told me stories of their home, their food & their culture and it made me curious to one day witness these places for myself.
Finally in late April this year I was able to make it happen! My Ecuadorian friend Vanessa (who I lived with in the crazy Kensington Market apartment that was evicted without notice) had since returned to Quito and my Chilean friend Natalia had returned to Santiago, so I decided to spend a week in each city while I had the opportunity to be there with people I knew.
Let me tell you, I was blown away by the beauty of both countries, not only in aesthetic terms but by the warmth & friendliness of the people I was lucky enough to meet – you just can’t compare the South American attitude to that of the North, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. So here I’m gonna tell some stories and share some photos about my time spent in Ecuador & Chile 🙂
But first, before I even left Montreal I got to witness something pretty unique (well, not unique in Canada but unique for someone who grew up in a tropical environment). There was a small amount of snowfall the previous evening so our plane had to be de-iced. I was sitting at the window directly above the left wing which gave me a close-up view of the guys spraying the orange de-icing concoction along the wing & fuselage. Pretty cool, I thought.
It was around an 8 hour journey from Montreal to Quito via Panama, touching down in the late afternoon just before sunset. The descent into Quito was good fun to watch from inside the plane, the city is very mountainous which provided some spectacular scenery and I imagine a rather intense navigational experience for the pilot.
At 2,850m elevation, Quito is the world’s highest (official) capital city. I’d been warned in my Lonely Planet guidebook and also by a friend who had previously spent some time in Quito to expect a certain amount of altitude sickness upon arrival – the suggestions are to take it easy for the first few days and lay off alcohol. I was trying to think of the previous highest place I’d been to, I’m pretty sure it was the 2,228m summit of Mt Kosciuszko which I’d ascended 5 years ago and experienced no adverse effects whatsoever. How bad could an extra 600 or so metres be?
Almost immediately upon landing & exiting the aircraft, I could tell there was something different about the Quitoan air. The oxygen was lacking up here compared to that of sea-level, it wasn’t a debilitating sensation, but I needed to put slightly more effort into breathing, especially after any form of physical activity.
Vanessa met me at the airport and we took a combination of taxi & two local buses into the city. We exited the taxi in suburban Quito and had to run a brief distance up the road to board the waiting bus; it was after this short burst of energy that I realised my guidebook’s advice to take it easy for the first few days was worth heeding. I felt nauseous and short of breath for 15 minutes before my heartbeat calmed and I could breathe ok again.
The fare collector came to take our money for the ticket. It was here I learnt that every bus ticket in metropolitan Quito cost 25 cents (the currency in Ecuador is US dollars). I guess to a local wage it’s an average price for public transport compared to the rest of the world, but for me and my Canadian-exchanged US dollars it was a bargain.
A big day of travel + the thin atmosphere took its toll on me – I was a wreck by the time we made it home. My head was throbbing, my stomach was queasy and I had next to no energy left. We reassessed our grand plans to visit Quilotoa the next day (a crater lake south of Quito) because if I was feeling sick here in the city at a relatively stable altitude, I’d be totally screwed in the mountains. Hell, I wasn’t sure if I even had it in me to visit Vanessa’s friends later in the evening.
Surprisingly though, all it took was a cup of tea and a few spoonfuls of Ecuadorian brown sugar to feel a heck of a lot better. Within half an hour I was almost cured of my altitude-induced ailments. Hurrah for home remedies!
We ended up spending some time at a nearby bar called Green Chili, with a bunch of fun people celebrating a birthday. It was here I had my first of what was to become many micheladas – my new favourite alcoholic drink featuring beer, lime, tabasco and salt. After the bar closed in the wee hours of the morning we moved onto a dance club in a converted suburban warehouse around a 20 minute taxi ride away, where we met some more friends. Dance clubs are not normally not my thing at all but I loved every minute of this place. We chilled to the sweet electronic beats until something ridiculous like 5am – a time I’d soon come to realise many locals still considered early.
What I originally imagined was gonna be a disappointing early first night in South America sleeping off my nausea & pounding migraine without as much as a sip of wine turned out pretty damn awesome in the end.
Mitad del Mundo
I was feeling relatively good the next day after a late sleep-in, although I wasn’t confident I’d survive Quilotoa if we were to have made the journey. Instead we decided to check out Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City), an attraction built around a monument that sits smack bang on the centre of the equator, around 25km north of Quito.
We took a taxi to a bus station around half an hour away. Normally a taxi fare like this in a north American city would cost upwards of $40, but here in Quito? $5.67. The bus (again, 25 cents) was an experience of its own. Firstly, the traffic along the initial 2km of the journey was ridiculous, I hadn’t heard so many car horns honking in unison since I was in Cairo. Secondly, the bus rarely came to a stop as it collected passengers along the way; instead it would slow to a roll while people jumped from the kerbside through the permanently-open door onto the moving vehicle.
It was an hour’s ride to the Mitad del Mundo, where I made my way directly to the monument in the centre of the park to admire the view while standing directly atop the equator, on both the Northern and Southern hemispheres at the same time.
Curiously though, there are two claims to the equatorial line. The official line is the yellow one running through the grounds of the Mitad del Mundo, however just next door is the Museo de Sitio Intiñán (Intiñán Solar Museum) which advertises itself to be located on the true equator. Supposedly today’s calculations show the true equator to be a few hundred metres away from where the line was originally defined in 1736. Not only that, but even with today’s hi-tech navigational systems, the slight differences between military & civilian GPS means there is still debate as to the exact location of the 0 latitude.
Anyway, we stopped by the Museo de Sitio Intiñán and went on a very entertaining tour, the highlights of which included a glimpse of a real-life shrunken head, some important advice from our guide related to swimming in the Amazon (namely: don’t ever piss in the water because there’s a certain breed of fish that can sense the ammonia in your urine and make its way into your urethra), and a bunch of fun experiments on the line of the “true” equator. We saw a demonstration of how water spins in opposite directions depending on which side of the equator a basin was located and we got to balance an egg on a nail thanks to the centrifugal force being at its weakest on the equatorial line. As much as I’d love to believe these were genuine scientific facts I do seem to think a small amount of tourist gullibility was involved 😉
An Audience with the President
I was told of an event held each week at the Presidential Palace, within Plaza Grande at the centre of Quito’s Old City. At 11am every Monday amongst a whole lot of pomp & circumstance, the President of Ecuador (currently Rafael Correa) and his ministry appear at the top of the building to hold a brief audience with the crowd below. Fans & critics alike line the streets, some patriotically draped in Ecuadorian flags, others holding placards of protest, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the #1 politician in the country.
I arrived in good time before the ceremony began on this sunny Monday morning; already there were scores of schoolchildren being ushered onto the closed-off street in front of the building to witness the parade, as well as peaceful protesters setting themselves up to make their messages as visible as possible to Mr Correa. I had a decent spot at the front and waited 30 minutes for the crowd to grow. Right on 11am the ceremony began with a marching band weaving its way through the presidential corridors, eventually making their way onto the street followed by a group of heavily armed & uniformed guards on horseback.
A master of ceremonies delivered a few short words in Spanish and welcomed the presidential party onto the balcony of the palace. The band played the National Anthem and the crowd sung along passionately as Rafael Correa & his colleagues stood and waved at us below. They took in the sights for 10 minutes before retreating back indoors. The only words spoken came from the MC – there was no direct address from the president or any other politician so it was clearly a ceremonial PR event, but his local admirers & tourists alike enjoyed the experience and it gave his critics an opportunity to peacefully get their point across in a direct manner.
Within 15 minutes of the president leaving, the ceremony came to an end and the street opened up to traffic again.
I’m fairly sure this is the first time I’d seen a Head of State in the flesh, I don’t think I ever even witnessed any live sittings of Prime Ministers in my own home country. I certainly never imagined I’d get to be within view of the President of Ecuador. It was a pretty cool way to spend a Monday morning!
Over the course of my stay in Quito I was constantly in awe of its sensational views thanks to its position in the mountains, as well as its beautifully paved & colourful streets around the Old City with historic buildings on every corner. They say Quito has the best-preserved & least-altered colonial town centre in all of Latin America, so much so that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site in 1978.
Here are some of the more impressive sights I saw from around the Quito streets:
My favourite building in all of Quito was a church in the centre of the Old City known as La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. Here’s what it looked like from the outside:
It’s certainly a grand building based upon its exterior, with construction beginning in 1605 and taking 160 years to complete. However it’s the inside that truly blows you away – the whole of the interior is decorated in gold leaf.
You’re not allowed to take photos of the inside but here’s the main photo from its Wikipedia page (which is well worth checking out for more awesome shots of its decorations):
Vanessa lived in a super convenient part of the Old City, in a gorgeous building with some of her family and her adorable pup, Bianco. I loved when we took Bianco out for walks, the little guy was so happy.
By my 4th day in Quito I was almost completely free of the effects of altitude and I was ready to venture further into the mountains. I really wanted to go to Quilotoa to see the famed lake but it was tough to find a company who offered a mid-week tour, so I opted for a tour to Cotopaxi Volcano instead.
Located around 50km south of Quito, the volcano is one of the world’s highest with a summit of just under 5,900 metres. It’s also very much in ‘active’ status, having decimated nearby cities over the past few hundred years, its most recent eruption occurring as little as 6 months ago. As much as I’d love to have summited it, this particular tour instead took us on a trek through the hills surrounding the volcano.
I met my guide Pedro and our driver (whose name evades me) early in the morning and we embarked upon the fairly straightforward journey to the national park. The closer we got to our destination, the more we could see the weather wasn’t ideal. Pedro warned me we may not even get the chance to view the volcano because of the heavy cloud cover.
We stopped for breakfast in a tiny roadside village near the town of Machachi. You know those sketchy places you hear about in foreign countries where it’s recommended you don’t eat the food for fear of E. coli and other such nasty bugs? On initial inspection, this appeared to be one such place considering there was what seemed to be a rabid German Shepherd guarding the entrance:
Making our way onwards towards the volcano, our driver dropped Pedro and I at the starting point for our trek. Pedro gave him instructions about what to do in the event of an eruption and directed him to where we’d be meeting him in a few hours time. Indeed the weather had remained pretty shitty but the fog & mist surrounding us did offer an excitingly eerie atmosphere. Pedro said he was gonna take me via the challenging route because I looked fit enough, and so began our breathtaking 1 hour 52 min, 6.16km hike with a climb of 222 metres and maximum elevation of 4.04km (thanks MapMyRun for the stats!)
Despite my lack of experience hiking at elevation I thought I pulled up pretty damn well. When we arrived at the meeting point the clouds cleared for a very short while and we were offered a partial view of this magnificent bastard of a volcano:
I think if I ever return to Ecuador, I’ll be taking the tour that gets me right to the top.
Slightly to the east of downtown Quito is a neighbourhood known as Guapulo, famous (as I was told) for being the home of rich & influential Spanish ambassadors while also sheltering the city’s alternative/hipster community, not to mention serving as the choice district for carrying out drug deals. The mixture of rich & poor is clearly noticeable while driving up & down the INSANELY steep roads (seriously, I think these are the steepest city roads I’ve seen), with huge mansions on one side and graffiti-laden divebars & sketchy lower-class housing on the other.
We came here with Vanessa’s coworker Liz, who impressed me with her expert driving along the ridiculous streets. At one stage near the base of the neighbourhood we reached a dead end, the only way out was to u-turn along a 30º incline or something stupid like that. I can tell you if I was driving I would have given up and left the car to the thieves but Liz somehow navigated her way around, managing to pull off a 21-point turn with some help from a friendly passing cyclist.
After quickly dropping by the gorgeous Guapulo church, we stopped at Cafe Guapulo for dinner, around half way between the highest & lowest points of the neighbourhood. I had here a warm drink, the name of which I forget, that was sweet, bright red in colour and contained strawberries & cinnamon. Man, it was SO GOOD. This place ranks in my top 5 bars of all time – not only does it serve delicious sweet warm strawberry cinnamon drinks, but it’s full of hipster art and the outside seating area has a surprisingly stunning view of the city below. My photos didn’t do it justice but go check some out on Google Images and you’ll see what I mean.
This place should be a recommended location in the guidebooks to Ecuador but I don’t see it listed in any of them.
I wasn’t originally planning to visit the cemetery. My guidebook had talked highly of Iglesia de San Diego, a convent a short distance east of the Old City, which was apparently worth taking a tour through. I headed there on Wednesday morning, noticing how the further I travelled from the city centre, the dirtier & poorer-looking the area became. Even though I presumably had the lord on my side thanks to an upcoming visit to a holy site, I still made extra certain my wallet was tightly sealed away in my inner jacket pocket.
I was greeted by an unfriendly nun at the church who almost immediately wrote me off as a lousy tourist, I vaguely translated her as saying “we don’t do English tours here” before she shut the door on my face. Disappointed at walking a fair distance for such inhospitable treatment from a nun, I decided to instead wander around the cemetery just opposite the church. I didn’t know what to expect aside from a bunch of tombstones like you see in an average western cemetery, but boy was I wrong. I soon learnt Latin American cemeteries are really something else.
If they decide to bury me when I die, I hope they bring me here.
Some pretty awesome food
I’d never had so much access to South American cuisine before; as such I was suitably impressed with the food options around Quito. If you wanted to brave the street food you could eat local cuisine for as little as a few cents or you could spend a handful of dollars to dine at a decent sit-down eatery. Alternatively, something more upmarket wasn’t at all out of budgetary reach.
Last year I experimented with Tinder to some success by changing my profile picture to a photo of a toilet. I was curious to see how this approach would play out in a South American environment so I redownloaded the app and got swiping.
Surprisingly (or, not surprisingly?) it worked wonderfully. Within the space of a few hours I had a bunch of matches and was happily exchanging broken Spanish/English messages with girls from all around the city, curious at this foreign porcelain newcomer to the Tinder scene. It was all good fun and I wasn’t expecting to actually meet anyone through it due to my short stay, but on my final day in town it turned out that I did get to make a new real-life Tinder friend!
I met my new acquaintance Pau at Plaza Grande just outside the main cathedral, who suggested we go to the nearby Plaza Chica Cafe, in a quiet open setting just behind some central offices. For someone who had never been outside South America she spoke pretty good English. They served us a 3-course meal from a set menu of Ecuadorian delicacies, including a soup full of local grains, a main course of tender beef, rice & more grains, plus a dessert and a delicious glass of papaya juice. Something like this in a north American city restaurant could have easily come to thirty bucks but here in Quito? $5.
Pau worked at a nearby museum and was kind enough to invite me there after lunch to see the many exhibitions on the social, geographical and religious history of Quito.
Not only that but after my museum visit we walked on down to La Ronda where we ate ice cream at Dulce Placer Heladeria, a local institution that serves a recipe with the hilarious name of Caca de Perro (dog shit!) It was worth coming to Quito just for this 😀
It never ceases to amaze me how a dumb photo of a toilet can actually lead me to meet awesome people in foreign countries.
(Although it’s worth noting this approach didn’t work at all in Santiago. Only the Ecuadorians were interested in talking to a toilet).
Later that evening I went with Vanessa and two of her friends, Gonzalo & Carla, to Marsical Sucre, a thriving entertainment district full of stylish bars, restaurants and cafes. It was here that we went to Mama Clorinda and I ate the cuy, recommended in my guidebook and by locals as the #1 place in town to sample some guinea pig. We followed this with a drink at Dirty Sanchez, a funky hipster bar also recommended in my guidebook which happens to be owned by someone Vanessa knew.
It was a really nice evening. I left the bar happy knowing the people I met in Quito were all genuinely warm, friendly & welcoming, very much in line with the South American people I’d gotten to know during my time in Toronto. This was a good place to be.
After going to bed late and waking from a very short sleep, the same driver who took me to Cotopaxi met me at 4am for the trip to the airport. I was off to Chile to hang out with Natalia and see what Santiago had to offer – even better, Vanessa was meeting us there the next day.
Rather illogically, the most affordable flight I could find returned me to Panama in the north where I caught my connection to Santiago. A week or two beforehand, Copa Airlines emailed me asking if I’d like to suggest a payment for a chance at an upgrade to business class. I could start at $100 for a small chance or I could offer to pay as much as $500 if I recall correctly, which was basically guaranteed. I set the slider to $150 and was quite happy to hear a day before my flight that I’d been accepted for the upgrade.
It was an exceptionally relaxing 6 hour flight, worth each of those hundred and fifty dollars. I got wasted on gin & tonic and watched The Notebook. I cried. Don’t judge me, I was drunk.
Thanks to my business class seat, I was the first person off the plane upon arrival into Santiago, and therefore should have been the first to enter the line at immigration. However, it turns out Australians and Mexicans entering Chile have to enter a separate line first to pay a reciprocity fee – Mexicans pay US$23 and Aussies pay $117 (no other nationalities need to cough up). By the time my transaction was processed the whole plane had disembarked so I now became the final person in the immigration queue!
It took ages to get through, I picked up my bags, bought a SIM card and went to get a taxi to Natalia’s place. She’d told me not to accept a taxi if it was going to be any more than $6,000 (Chilean pesos, equal to around $9 Canadian); of course the first taxi company I enquired with wanted to slug me $17,000 (about $31 Canadian dollars). I went outside and asked a taxi driver on the street, this time he said in broken English “one six thousand” before writing a different number on a sheet of paper for me, 17,000. Clearly I was too much of a tourist for them to charge me the local rate. In the end, Natalia’s father (who happens to be a taxi driver) kindly offered to pick me up. He turned on the meter to see how much the actual rate would have ended up being: $5,800. Lesson learnt: taxis in Santiago are a hell of a lot more expensive than their counterparts in Quito, especially if you’re a gringo.
We arrived home, where I met Natalia’s amazing family who were extremely hospitable to me for the whole of my stay in Santiago. I’ve honestly never felt so welcomed before, especially considering the language barrier and the fact I’d only just met them. They prepared some typical Chilean food for dinner and we ate and chatted and drank wine & cherry liqueur until the early hours of the morning.
Vanessa took a different flight to me and arrived at an ungodly hour in the morning. It was great to be reunited with both my friends in the same city again, and after breakfast we prepared for a weekend trip to the nearby city of Valparaíso, the second largest urban area in Chile and home to the busiest sea port in the country.
My time spent in Valparaíso was the highlight of my whole South American trip. I felt like I connected in some way with this city, there was a slight comparison to my beloved Kensington Market in Toronto, albeit the Chilean variation had a much more rough & real feel to it.
It took a long time to get there on the bus because it was the easter weekend and every man & his dog was out travelling, but we eventually made it and walked the couple of kilometres to our hostel. The thing is, Valparaíso is so hilly with so many winding paths that it was almost impossible to find our way. I’m normally good with Google Maps but it was suggesting we take ridiculous routes that didn’t even exist. Finally we made it after countless flights of stairs and numerous stops to ask for directions.
Because the city is so hilly, an extensive network of funicular railways was built in the early 1900’s to assist with pedestrian accessibility. Out of the 26 ascensor systems in total only 8 remain in action today; one of the first things we did was take a trip up the Artillería ascensor, the most popular & touristic of all the railways.
At the top we stopped at a restaurant for some delicious seafood empanadas, before walking around a local market and spying a nearby car who had run into some trouble trying to turn around in one of the narrow, steep streets. It reminded me of being in Guapulo a few days ago where Liz had to expertly manoeuvre the car to escape a dead end.
Later in the evening it really hit me that Latin Americans are in a whole other mindset when it comes to partying compared to your typical American or Canadian. Normally if I was to have a night out I’d leave around 8-10pm, stay out a few hours, hit a couple of venues and be home maybe by 2am or 3 at the latest. Here, the damn party starts at 2 and doesn’t even get pumping til 3 or 4! So at a time when I’d normally be getting to bed (if not already fast asleep) early on a Saturday morning, here I was still getting ready to leave. The problem was the opposite for my Latin friends when they were in Canada. By the time they were ready to party the locals were already on their way home.
The next day after a decent sleep in, Vanessa left for Santiago to visit Pame, another friend who used to live in Toronto, while Natalia and I continued to explore the streets. This is where I really fell in love with the city and its funky, artistic ambience. We visited Paseo Yugoslavo, a wonderful art gallery that exhibited pictures of Valparaíso from centuries gone by, as well as Casa Museo La Sebastiana, the house of famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Here are a few more highlights from around Valparaíso:
Before returning to Santiago ourselves we took a bus to the nearby city of Viña del Mar. In stark contrast, Viña appeared much cleaner and more accessible to tourists who perhaps appreciated the finer things in life rather than the rough urban feel of Valparaíso, with casinos, nice hotels and a glorious walk beside the Pacific to enjoy. Personally, Valparaíso was more my jive but it was still worth checking out its richer cousin a few miles away.
We returned to Santiago pretty late (by my standards anyway, around 10:30pm). In true Chilean style we went on out again at 1 in the morning to meet back up with Vanessa and a bunch of other friends at a nightclub. Another crazy late night of dancing!
Throughout my time in Ecuador & Chile I noticed a hell of a lot of street dogs left to fend for themselves on the busy city roads. They were more predominant in Chile over Ecuador, especially in Valparaíso where it seemed to be an epidemic. Thankfully all street dogs I encountered were friendly & approachable.
My favourite dog was in Valparaíso. We noticed after a few minutes of walking that this particular pup kept within a 20 metre radius of us either in front or behind. He stopped when we stopped to wait for the traffic and he turned when we turned. He was with us for at least 20 minutes but never directly acknowledged our presence until right at the end, when he came to sniff us as if to say “thanks humans!” and continued on his merry way by himself.
Here are some of the street dogs I saw around Valparaíso and Santiago:
And for good measure, this little fella from Quito:
There were three distinctively Chilean drinks that I sampled during my time in Santiago: the terremoto,mote con huesillo and pisco sour.
The markets & the cemetery
Constanza had heard of a local company called Tours4Tips and suggested we try one of of their walking tours. We chose the Santiago Offbeat 10am Tour, which lasted around 3 hours and worked on the premise of donation; you paid your guide whatever you thought the tour was worth at the end.
It was one of the coolest walking tours I’ve done because it took us through some truly offbeat sections of the city that a normal tourist would perhaps overlook. This particular tour focused on the many marketplaces dotted around Santiago’s river, followed by an excursion a little further afield to the cemetery.
I enjoyed these markets more than I typically enjoy their western counterparts. The crowds & chaos here in Santiago offered a much more authentic feel than what I’ve become used to dealing with at the elegant & peaceful Atwater Market in Montreal.
Following the market our tour took us on toward the municipal cemetery. I had been here already a few days beforehand with another of Natalia’s friends, Edu, but this time we were returning with a guide who could tell us stories about the people buried there. This was the most fascinating part of the tour for me.
While not as beautiful as the cemetery I went to in Quito, the Santiago one was at least double the size and was distinctly separated into class. There were elaborate mausoleums for those lucky enough to die with money in their pockets; the middle-class were buried in upright crypts similar to those in Quito (our guide told us there can be as many as 11 people’s remains within a single crypt); the lower-class were shunned to the unkempt grassy fields on the northern side.
But the most interesting part of the cemetery was the story of Romualdito, a 12 year old boy who was allegedly murdered in the 1930’s. His tragedy outraged the population to the point where his tomb was enshrined; even today people still visit his grave to leave him messages and ask for his help.
To end the tour, our guide sat us down around the memorial for Salvador Allende, Chile’s president up until 1973 when he supposedly committed suicide (or was killed, depending on which story you read) after which the Pinochet dictatorship commenced. He related to us with great passion some stories about Chile’s dark political past and how the people endured the painful years under Pinochet’s control. It’s impressive to see how far the country has come in such a short period of time since their return to democracy.
Tension on the streets
I felt pretty safe in both Quito & Santiago during the day, but nighttime was a different story. It had been recommended not to walk alone after dark in either city and not to carry much cash. I made a habit of leaving my credit cards & passport at home, only taking what little cash I needed for the day.
On the Tuesday night I spent in Santiago, March 29th, I was given a particular warning to be home as early as possible and not to go outside at all during the night. Known as the Day of the Young Combatant, March 29th is seen as an annual commemoration for two young brothers who lost their lives from police fire in 1985. Ever since then, politically-frustrated Chileans (also know as the ‘criminal youth’) have gotten together on this day to protest against the government and police, some years involving violence, fire-bombings and injuries to anyone who happens to be in the way. I think it was a good idea to remain inside this particular night. At least the good news was Chile beat Venezuela, 1-4.
The only other time my safety felt like it could have been compromised was while walking with Edu – we’d just hiked around the Metropolitan Park and were on our way down the south-eastern slope of the mountain. We’d made it back to the city streets when we saw a woman running towards us, screaming something in Spanish which I couldn’t understand but was presumably some kind of call for help. We both stepped back & declined to be involved. A guy was chasing after her, trying in creepy way to embrace her & calm her down as she continued to yell obscenities at him and request assistance from other passers-by. Once they were no longer in sight I asked Edu what the hell that was all about. Apparently she was screaming something along the lines of “He drugged me! He drugged me! He’s going to rape me, please help! Get him away!”
As shocking as it was to have witnessed that in front of our eyes, who knows what would have happened if anyone had stepped in. I later told this to a friend and she suggested it was a setup – perhaps they were criminals working together, trying to attract attention and get an innocent member of the public to call the police. While they were distracted & on the phone, it would have been the perfect opportunity for either one of the couple or someone else in on the plan to snatch a handbag, wallet or the phone they were calling from.
A month before leaving for my vacation I checked the gig guides for concerts in & around Santiago while I was going to be there. I just missed out on Lollapalooza, and Coldplay were playing there the night after I was due to leave – the only big show I could find reference to was Julio Iglesias.
I barely knew a thing about him aside from the fact that he’s Enrique’s father, but I soon learnt he was the best-selling Latin artist of all time with 300 million album sales to his name. I checked out a few of his tracks, liked what I heard, and booked a couple of tickets to his show on the Wednesday night.
3 days before the show I got an email from the ticketing agency saying the concert has been rescheduled to October. Goddammit. I was looking forward to seeing this guy, it would have been something totally different to what I was used to. Although Natalia was relieved cause she wasn’t a fan of his to begin with 🙂
So the Wednesday night came around and I still wanted to go out to see some live music to make up for the lack of Julio Iglesias in my life. Natalia wasn’t feeling the best and decided not to come out, but we looked up some options online and I settled upon a live music bar called La Maestra Vida in the Bellavista district. It was a good option because it started relatively early (the website said 11pm) and I had to be up at a decent hour the next morning to take a day trip. I was warned that 11pm seemed a little too early for a party on a Wednesday night, but I (foolishly) trusted the website and went anyway, with strict instructions as to which street I should take to get there, which side of the street to walk on, and which streets I definitely shouldn’t walk on at this time of the evening.
I got to the bar right on 11pm & paid my $4,000 to get in, to find I was basically the only person there. *sigh*
I ordered a pisco sour from the bar. The barmaid told me the music was due to start at 12:30am, but that I should stick around because they were a famous Argentinian band and were bound to put on a great show. And with that, I took my drink to a table adjacent to the dance floor and waited. The drink was ridiculously strong.
Within half an hour a bit more of a crowd had formed and the DJ started to spin some Latino classics for everyone to dance to. Then all of a sudden this idiot drunk guy tripped over while he was dancing and fell onto my table, knocking my pisco sour all over me & smashing the glass into thousands of pieces over the floor. I looked at him as if to say WHAT THE FUCK DUDE but he mumbled something back in Spanish that I’m pretty sure translated to “Go fuck yourself”. Everyone looked at me, the once-friendly, now-annoyed barmaid came over to clean the mess assuming I dropped the glass myself, and I was pissed off that the stupid band hadn’t come on yet, I had to be up early and I was sticky & gross with sugary wine all over my clothes. I waited and fumed to myself until 12:30am upon which I left this ridiculous bar because there was STILL NO SIGN of the band even having arrived to set up.
In hindsight, it’s friggin’ hilarious to think this was the one night I was particularly looking forward to where I’d actually planned something – the world’s greatest Spanish musician set squarely in my sights! But in reality I ended up alone & angry at a Bellavista dive bar with sticky clothes and no music at all.
Oh, and I still don’t have my refund for the the bloody Julio Iglesias tickets. I’m told I should have it by mid-June. COME ON, PUNTO TICKET, GET IT TOGETHER!
I wanted to go on a day trip in Santiago similar to the Cotopaxi tour I did in Ecuador, so I found a company called EcoChile who offered an excursion to the Andes called the Glaciers & Hot Springs Tour. I met my guide Franco, our driver Cristian and two other couples (one from California and another from Birmingham UK) early in the morning and we set off on the 3-hour road trip to the mountains.
Although it’s only a fairly short distance from Santiago as the crow flies, the road through the mountains was long and at times treacherous, you really needed to be a concentrated driver to navigate these curves. Thankfully, Cristian was well up to the job, this guy was nuts! He took our trusty little van a hell of a lot further up the track than the guys with the jeep could get theirs.
It was around an hour & a half trek to get to the El Morado Glacier. Cristian became more & more excited the closer we got to the glacier, because he’s the guy who normally has to return to the van with the tourists who decide they can’t go any further (which apparently happens almost every time). We were told we were a great group because we all kept a good pace and nobody complained about how demanding the climb was. We all made it!
We ate a packed lunch by the lake & slowly made our way back down the track to the van. From here, we continued deeper into the mountains to the Colina Hot Springs. Spring water from a nearby volcano seeped out of the ground, cascading into a collection of pools that had been built. The highest pool contained the hottest water (I’d guess 45-50º?) It was relaxing for the first three minutes but quickly became unbearable. The water trickled from here down into the lower pools, becoming progressively cooler with each pool. After an hour bathing & relaxing our weary muscles in the springs our guides prepared us a delicious picnic dinner with cheese, cold meats, olives, fruit & a glass of wine while overlooking this awe-inspiring landscape.
Apparently the Argentinian border was only a handful of kilometres away from here.
We didn’t get back to Santiago until around 10pm. It was a magnificently exhausting day.
The cancelled flight
My final evening in Santiago was spent again with Natalia’s lovely family; I’d prepared some lamingtons so they could all sample some traditional Australian sweets, and we went out for some sushi at a downtown Japanese restaurant.
I said my goodbyes early the following morning and made my way to the airport by bus. I checked in, cleared immigration, boarded the plane, went through all that rigmarole without a hitch and we were happily taxiing towards the runway when completely out of the blue the plane stopped and the power went off. 20 minutes later, a bus had pulled up beside the plane on the tarmac to take us back to the terminal. After a confusing & frustrating hour wait, we were told the flight had been cancelled due to technical difficulties and we had to collect our baggage & return through customs back into the main airport hall.
Long story short, what was supposed to have taken 3 airports & 12 hours ended up taking a stay in a hotel, 5 airports, a bus transfer between airports in New York (delayed by an hour but thankfully I didn’t miss my connection because the flight was delayed too), and 40 sleepless hours in total to get back to Montreal. I didn’t get to bed til 1am Monday morning and had to be in the office in just a few hours. Jesus Christ.
Copa Airlines did alright though, I complained and they offered me a $300 travel voucher for the inconvenience.
Looks like I have no choice but to return to South America again soon?
A very happy vacation
I may not have had an immersive experience in South America, but the brief couple of weeks I spent in Ecuador & Chile exceeded all my expectations. It was a whole lot more than just grilled meat, football and salsa dancing.
But really, it all comes down to the people I met & spent time with while I was there. Plenty of times in the past I’ve travelled to places where I’ve seen breathtaking sights either alone or with a group of other backpackers who have congregated from elsewhere – while this type of vacation isn’t at all bad, it does lack a certain personal touch.
This vacation was different. I got to spend time with wonderful local people who graciously invited me into their own lives & culture for a few days, and that’s what made for a truly special experience.
I’m so happy to have amazing friends who live all around the world 🙂
Donations to assist victims of the Ecuador earthquake can be made via the UN, Red Cross or other such charities
Around 35km east of Montreal lies Mont Saint-Hilaire, a mountain which shares the same name as the surrounding township. With its multitude of hiking & skiing tracks and four summits ranging in height from 320m to 414m, it’s an accessible day trip for anyone in the Montreal region who fancies a moderately-graded trek or some cross country skiing during the snowy months.
I’ve spent much of my time in Montreal over the past year exploring Mont-Royal, the peak in the centre of the island which the city surrounds, but I’d recently been eyeing off some of the hills a little further afield. Mont Saint-Hilaire was one of those that caught my attention, so with a warm Sunday forecast of -4º (well maybe not warm in the strict sense of the word, but still 35 degrees warmer than the previous weekend) I set off on the #200 bus and completed my journey with a taxi to the park’s entrance, the Gault Nature Reserve.
Here are some photos from my delightful 5 hour wander around Mont Saint-Hilaire 🙂
The eerie, foggy forest on the way to the first peak, Burnt Hill
A curious & hungry squirrel at the Pain de Sucre summit:
The breathtaking panorama of Pain de Sucre:
From Dieppe Summit looking back towards Pain de Sucre:
The sun finally came out of hiding along the hike to the Rocky summit:
A few weeks ago as I was leaving the office I was stopped by a random guy who appeared to be waiting at the bottom of the stairs to our building. He asked me for directions to Thursday’s, a popular bar in downtown Montreal barely a minute’s walk away from where we were. The conversation that followed went like this:
“Yeah of course, I know Thursday’s. Just keep walking here along Crescent Street and it’s the second or third building on the other side of Maisonneuve, you can’t miss it”
“Merci beaucoup,” he exclaimed. “Hey I hear an accent there, are you from Britain?”
“No mate, I’m Australian.”
“Aaah Australian! Of course, I should have known. G’DAY MATE! How’s the kangaroos? Hey I love that sport you guys play in Australia, AFL?”
“Yep, Australian football, it’s pretty unique huh?”
“Yeah and I love how you guys do the Haka before each game!”
Before I had the chance to correct him on either the nationality or code of football, he bent over at the knees, punched his chest, grunted “Ka mate, ka mate!” and gave me his own personal interpretation of the famous Maori war cry right there on the Crescent Street sidewalk. I couldn’t believe how quickly our conversation had escalated!
He finished his Haka demonstration and went on to ask if I’d like to see a poem he wrote. He handed me a sheet of paper with a piece he’d penned called “The Ocean of Wolves”. And with that, he wished me a good night before heading off up the street – the total opposite direction to Thursday’s.
So, Alexandre B. A. Lebel of Montreal: if you ever happen to Google your own name and stumble upon this post, please know that I have your poem pinned up at my desk at work. It always makes me smile to glance over it and recall the brief but hilarious encounter we had on the street that evening. I hope you made it to Thursday’s eventually. Thanks for the laugh!
As an Australian who grew up only ever experiencing two seasons (namely: hot & wet followed by not-quite-as-hot & dry), the north American continent hasn’t yet ceased to amaze me after experiencing its seasonal variances for the past two years. From the brutal -38ºC Toronto/Montreal winter to the sweaty, humid summer a good 70º warmer than its icy counterpart, it must be a meteorologist’s dream (or nightmare, depending on how you see it) to know the job varies so extremely throughout the year.
Only last Monday the high was 24ºC with most of the city’s population out & about in their shorts & t-shirts; this weekend we had our first snowfall of the season and it didn’t get above 6º. I think people would riot if a drastic change in weather like this ever took place in my north Queensland home town!
I took the opportunity over the past two days to explore the gorgeous autumnal foliage of the city during its transitional period between summer & winter. I began Saturday morning on the north-western face of Mont-Royal, a small mountain in downtown Montreal bursting with greenery & hiking tracks, before detouring through Mont-Royal cemetery where the skies opened up with a short but intense flurry of snow. After the sun returned I ventured along a number of mountain trails, stopping by two lookouts as well as the famous cross that can be seen lit up from miles away at night. Sunday saw a visit to Parc Jean-Drapeau, situated on a small island east of downtown, well-known for its 1967 world expo attraction, the ‘Biosphere’.
Here are a bunch of photos I snapped over this Montreal fall weekend:
Isn’t it beautiful?
Maybe my next post will be of Montreal in the winter…
Burgers are awesome! I’m living on the perfect continent to satisfy any burger craving. There are diners, bars and restaurants on almost every corner serving a myriad of recipes ranging from the traditional favourites to the highly experimental. I’ve had a few burgers I would class as ‘phenomenal’ throughout my time in North America so far: notably at the Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier, Vermont, and at Burger Royal right here in Montreal.
A few months ago my Toronto friends Juilie & Cory told me about a burger restaurant they dined at in the small Ontario city of Cornwall called Truffles Burger Bar. They spoke extremely highly of it and suggested I check it out with them next time they were in town. Such a recommendation naturally piqued my curiosity, and it just so happened that they made the drive back to Cornwall this weekend. I took the hour-long train ride west of Montreal and joined them both in town for lunch today.
To get an idea of what to expect at Truffles, I had a browse through their online menu a couple of days beforehand. The burgers sure sounded impressive – they were definitely on the gourmet side of the scale, ranging from the Surf & Turf (beef, lobster & garlic butter) to the Apple Burger (pulled pork, baked apples & goat cheese). They even had a selection of exotic meats to choose from, such as llama, venison, kangaroo & bison.
However there was one burger in particular that really caught my attention:
Are you serious?! I thought to myself. A hundred dollar burger? That’s ludicrous! Who in their right mind would want to buy a gold-dusted burger with black truffles for $100?
It didn’t take long to come to the realisation that, in fact, I was precisely one of those people who would buy a gold-dusted burger with black truffles for $100.
We were greeted and served by a jovial young chap who had travelled all the way from Laval (in Quebec) to work at this venue in Cornwall. I wasn’t quite 100% sure at this stage if I would go ahead with the S.G.B. so I asked a bit more about it first. Our waiter gladly assisted in selling the idea to me by showing me a photo of what to expect. I can’t lie: it looked amazing.
Ok, what the hell. I’ll do it.
Juilie opted for the Snapping Alligator (with curry fruit tapenade) and Cory settled on the Beaver Creek (locally-farmed elk with blue cheese, mushroom & sautéed onion). With that, our orders were placed and we waited patiently for our meals while sipping on some delicious white wine, expertly selected again by Juilie.
A short while later, our orders arrived.
Now, it’s not every day that one forks out such a large sum of hard-earned cash for what is commonly known as an inexpensive fast food staple, so I made sure to document as much of the occasion as I could.
Here, I present to you, the Truffles Burger Bar Solid Gold Burger:
So there you have it: that’s what a $100 burger looks like.
Was it worth it? For the taste alone, probably not… I mean, yes, it was a great tasting burger – the beef was cooked to precision, the black truffles added a slight nutty dimension to the mix and with the foie gras came a definitive hint of complexity – I just can’t say it tasted like $100.
But was it worth it for the experience?
Hell yeah it was! It’s a freakin’ gold-dusted burger served on a gold plate with a glass of champagne! For 20 minutes of my life as I chewed my way through this masterpiece, I felt like royalty. And that, in my humble opinion, is well worth the money I spent.
It’s a tradition at Truffles Burger Bar that if you order the Solid Gold Burger, you get your photo taken to be included on their official Facebook page:
After we finished our meal I logged on to check the pic and saw a comment from a guy called Steven, who pretty much summed it all up:
If this guy actually flew from Australia to try this burger…no matter how good it is… and I am sure it is wonderful…it validates what my father used to say that “Some people have more money than brains.”
But seriously, if you ever find yourself in Cornwall, you should stop by Truffles Burger Bar for a meal. Yeah, Solid Gold is a little extreme, but there are plenty of other delicious and less expensive options to choose from. I for one have my eye on the Camel Burger for next time.
Thanks so much to Juilie & Cory for recommending this place and showing me around Cornwall, it’s a lovely town!!