I was fascinated as a teenager by Mr. Fogg’s adventures in Round the World in 80 days (a classic by Jules Verne published in 1873). Today, I can travel round the world by air in less than two days. I am in no hurry and have taken seven months for such a trip. My journey through Australia, South and Central America and to the North Pole has been filled with delight and unforgettable memories.
This is my longest single trip. I left Hong Kong on December 2, 2013 for Adelaide Australia and returned home on July 3, 2014 after having spent 23 days in Australia, 117 days in six countries in South America, 51 days in seven countries in Central America, eight days in the UK, 12 night on an icebreaker on an expedition to the North Pole (90ᴼN) and two nights in Helsinki, Finland. In terms of distance, I have travelled at least 2500NM (expedition in the Galapagos + journey to the North Pole), about 7,000km in South America and 8,800km in Central America.
I have spent more efforts than usual in planning and preparation. I issued the ticket and booked my overland trip with Dragoman last October. In order to remain in touch with my family and friends free of charge, I brought my first smartphone and asked Lawrence, my brother to install WhatsApp, Skype and Viber in the new phone. A few days before departure, I rushed to buy a new computer, an external drive and a new 6-month travel insurance (at a cost of US$475) as my annual insurance policy only covered up to two months on each trip. I took three debit cards and had all sorts of vaccinations and preventive medication. I left home with 25 kilos of check-in luggage and 8 kilos of hand luggage. But, I packed too many warm clothes and some were not worn at all.
This trip has been punctuated with mishaps (fortunately not disasters). I had to go to the clinic for a dozen times and the police station twice. The most dramatic incidents happened in Bolivia. I hurt my knee during a 3-day hike in the rain followed by a dog bite in a grotto. I had the most painful anti-biotic injection in my life in La Paz when the pharmacy gave me something different from the prescription without informing me and the nurse administered the injection without checking (I could have died!). I had to change my travel plan in order to complete a 5-day anti-rabies vaccination. At the border, I was charged for over-staying for 12 days in Bolivia. Oh God, I had not looked at the ’30-day stamp’ on my passport. Luckily, I could leave for Peru after paying a fine.
I had fever for three days when I was in Copan, Honduras and Suchitoto, El Salvador. It turned out to be kidney infection. When I had some discomfort in my abdomen three days later, I immediately rushed to consult a doctor in Antigua, Guatemala. As a result, I had two blood and urine tests within five days. I had fever for one day in early June when I was in Columbia. Finally during my journey to the North Pole, I suffered from sleep deprivation (owing to the midnight sun), had flu-like symptoms and finally lost my voice. I was not in a good form and dared not take a plunge at the North Pole. What a shame!
In addition to minor health scares, I lost two things i.e. a purse in Columbia with about US$100 (I don’t know whether it was stolen or dropped from my pocket) and a 3-year-old Leica in a nature reserve in Costa Rica. I also broke the filter of my SLR camera twice in San Paulo and Belize City (but the sturdy Nikon functions as usual!). Luckily all these minor mishaps are not life threatening. I claimed insurance and received over US$700 reimbursement for medical expenses and the camera. I have now brought a new Leica C”E” which has more functions!
My journey began and ended with highlights. The romantic wedding of my nephew Choi and Jane in Sydney on December 15 had brought my family together. I had a lovely time with my brothers, Vicki (my sister-in-law), Shirley, Leigh and their 3-year-old son Thomas, my cousins Geoffrey, Wini and Bob who made a special trip to Sydney for the wedding. I stayed with Karen and had a reunion with friends from the Ho Lap College to celebrate the 40th anniversary. I spent my 60th birthday on an icebreaker to the Pole enjoying a white world with pristine scenery and watching the mid-night sun. My seven month-long journey reached a climax when I landed on the North Pole on June 25.
Overall Observations on Central and South America
I spent most of my time in Central and South America which is expansive with outstanding natural and historical heritage. South America is the planet’s 4th largest continent with the world’s highest waterfall, Angel Falls in Venezuela; the largest river (by volume), the Amazon River; the longest mountain range, the Andes, and the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert in Chile. I have already set out my initial thoughts on each country in the ‘Remarks’ section and do not wish to elaborate further. Nonetheless, I would like to highlight a few observations.
First, the whole region is rich in natural resources, strikingly green and beautiful. It is also relatively empty once one goes outside the urbanised and modern cities.
Second, the highway and transportation networks both nationally and internationally are surprisingly good and efficient. I spent half of my time travelling on my own using public transportation without problem. During the 62-day overland journey with Dragoman from Quito to Belize, I travelled in Gus (a truck) and Bessy (a yellow school bus) mainly along the Trans-American Highway which has been pivotal in the development of the western part of the continent. Hence, American influences are noticeable with plenty of McDonald, KFC and large shopping malls.
Third, the gap between the rich and poor is both enormous and visible. But, given its smaller population and abundant natural resources, I find the living standard of people even in more remote and poorer areas better than those living in poor countries in Asia and Africa. Support and aid from America and international organisations might have played a part.
Fourth, the plight of the indigenous people is noticeable. These underprivileged groups must not be left behind. I am sad to see many teenager moms who are physically underdeveloped with young toddlers. If they are ignorant, uneducated and unprepared for motherhood, they are unable to bring up and prepare their children for challenges of the 21st century. Education, unemployment and integration will remain a problem forever. What have been done and can be done effectively at a national and community level? I wonder.
Finally, of the 13 Latin American countries I have visited on this trip, I am most impressed by Columbia. It is world famous for its emerald and infamous for its political upheavals and brutality, crime and illegal drug trafficking. I am surprised to find the country fascinating, fairly organised, vibrant, prosperous and relatively easy to travel around on my own. Its people, museums, cultural and natural heritage have far exceeded my expectations. I love to return one day.
Travel provides an excellent opportunity for discovery and 3R (rejuvenation, relaxation and reflection). On completion of a full cycle in my life (i.e. at the age of 60), I am more convinced than ever that I am a lucky person with many guarding angels.
• I appreciate the support and help of Lawrence, Karen, Fong (my part-time helper) and Yam (my handyman) for taking care of my flat, plants and personal matters during my long absence. I have met many new friends on the road and their support and help are appreciated.
• I am glad that I am still resilient, energetic and young at heart. I am ready to take on new challenges and never feel lonely though I am alone. I have no problem in staying in touch with my family and friends through modern technology. But I miss my garden and plants.
• I realize my physical limitations: I am getting on and my knees are too weak to walk on crampons. I shall never be able to hike on snow to reach any peak over 6000m.
• I am foolish (or too trustful) and my ignorance could have caused my life. I should have gone for anti-rabies vaccination immediately after the dog bite and checked the drug purchased from the pharmacy before injection. Fortunately, I have returned home safe and sound.
• I am infatuated with long sea voyages and my North Pole expedition has wetted my appetite for more. I have already booked my next voyage from Bluff, New Zealand to Ushuaia and then Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean from mid-February to late April next year.
• I love overland journeys and already have several plans on the drawing board. I hope to travel before 65 from Venezuela to Ushuaia along the eastern part of South America, from Cairo to Cape Town in South Africa, from Mumbai to Kolkata, India.
(Written on September 13, 2014, Vancouver)