Life Nomadic: Visiting Cirque du Soleil’s Roots

One great perk of being a nomad is that you get to see great shows all around the world that you otherwise may not have access to. I’ve seen Les Miserables in London, Paul Potts in Japan, and a number of shows on Broadway in New York.

Trips through Vegas, which seem to happen at least once a year, always mean seeing a Cirque du Soleil show. As you may have guessed from my previous write-up on KA, I’ve become a huge fan.

Although Cirque has now become a quintessential staple of Las Vegas, the troupe was originally founded in Montreal. So when I heard that a new show, Ovo, was opening in the famous Grand Chapiteau on the waterfront of Old Montreal, I knew I had to go. Luckily I was scheduled to visit my girlfriend, also a Cirque fan, in nearby Toronto, so we made plans to head to Montreal.

After a spectacular cup of tea at nearby Ming Tao Xuan, which nearly warrants its own post, we walked through Montreal’s pleasant weather to the tents.
For about fifteen minutes we stared at the enourmous egg (Ovo means Egg in Portuguese) on stage and pondered what they might do with it. Before we could come up with any solid theories, the show began.

I won’t give any specifics of the show to ruin the surprise, but I will say this: Ovo is the first touring show I’ve seen that rivals the permanent installations in Las Vegas. Declaring a favorite show is too gut wrenching to consider, but Ovo is definitely a contender.

My favorite element of Cirque performances are the acrobatics. Some shows have more, others have less. Ovo was packed to the brim, especially during the second half of the show. Some sequences were hard for me to watch– the maneuvers were so impossibly complicated and required such exact precision that I was actually nervous for the performers.

One performer actually missed his mark and fell. I was happy to see this, though, because it’s a signal that the directors are really pushing what is possible instead of relying on easier moves that they know can be completed easily. The performer tried again, made it, and the crowd went wild for him. You can imagine how nervous I was for him the second time around.

Another very strong element in Ovo was the music. In most Cirque du Soleil shows I’ve seen, and I certainly haven’t seen them all, the music is fantastic, but plays a background role. In Ovo, though, the musicians were clearly visible and several of them actually came on stage and became part of the story. This made me pay more attention to, and thus enjoy more, the music than I may have otherwise.

Like Mystere, Ovo had a constant element of humor. I found the main character (the suitor) annoying at first, but by the end he had totally won me over. His counterpart, on the other hand, was lovable from the first second we saw her. The costumes were incredible, but they’re so consistently incredible across all of the Cirque du Soleil shows that I don’t have much to say about them.

Overall, Ovo really blew me away. It was one of the very best Cirque shows I’ve seen, and seeing it in Montreal was the icing on the cake. It won’t be in Montreal much longer, but you can check out the schedule (and a short video clip) here.

Life Nomadic: Beating The Moroccan Hustle

I have a lot of great things to say about Morocco, and I’ll get to those soon. Today, though, I’m going to talk about an insane part of the culture that can be found everywhere from Tangier to Marakkech: the hustle.

As a visitor who doesn’t speak the language, I’m only really able to interact with a small percentage of the population. Of those people I interacted with, I’d say that a good ninety percent of them are full fledged hustlers.

What do I mean by hustlers? I mean people who are hell bent on getting money from you, whether it’s through lying, aggressive salesmanship, or cheating. They don’t cross that fine line from cheating to stealing, though.

The biggest scam is the outright price change. We became so used to this one that as shocking as it was the first time it happened, we had come to expect it by the end. Here’s a real life example of how it works:

The Price Bump

Determined to ride camels in the desert, we hired a taxi driver to take us seven hours south of Fez to the edge of the desert. On the way we made phone calls to different tour companies and arranged for a one night camel ride into the desert, including lodging, food, and return by minibus to Marrakech the next day. Already brutally familiar with the Price Bump, we three times clearly articulated how much we were to pay, 300 Dirhams each, and what we were to receive.We got to the desert and were met by a friendly man from the tour company who we had been in touch with. Moroccans are genuinely warm and friendly, even the hustlers, and he was no exception. We had a great time in the desert, and after breakfast the next day the man from the tour company came to see us.

“Do you need a bus to Marrakech? 350 Dirhams each.”

Yes, he was trying to charge us more for the bus that was supposed to be included already than we had agreed to pay for the entire tour. It was the only bus to Marrakech that day and was leaving in fifteen minutes.

How do you deal with the Price Bump? The only way to win is to refuse to give a single dirham more. When you show your surprise at the new price, the hustler will always try to act compassionate and bring the price down a bit, trying to get you to renegotiate.

I’d fallen for it the first couple times (orange juice salesman are ruthless), but I’d had enough. I made it very clear that not only was I not going to pay any more than we’d already agreed, but that I also wasn’t going to leave until he put me on a bus. I kept my feet planted and my money in my pocket.

He finally relented and let us on the bus with a smile.

Super Aggressive Salesmen

It sometimes seems like everyone in Morocco is either selling something or is acting as an agent for someone selling something. “Need hash? Get high before you fly” may as well be a national slogan. I don’t care where point A and B are; traveling between them will absolutely result in someone following you, belting out some sort of sales pitch.

If you make the mistake of actually talking to one of the would-be salesmen, he won’t leave until you get where you’re going, and often times will follow you inside.

The salesmen in shops are brutal. They’ll try to make you articulate which of their wares you like best, even if you say you’re not interested, and start the bargaining shortly after. They’ll tell you that even if you’re a poor student who doesn’t have any need for a fine wool rug, you should buy five to sell back at home.

The key to dealing with aggressive salesmen is to first realize that you’re under no obligation to buy anything, whether they approach you or you go into their store. Ignoring people who approach you, even if it’s with friendly conversation, is the only way to stave off the roaming touts.

Unfortunately…

By the end of the trip I’d started to like the bargaining battlefield and even the bait and switch price gouging. It was offensive, but somehow perversely satisfying to stand my ground and win. The casualty of being jaded, which is the only way to cope with the hustle, is that you miss out on meeting the really amazing friendly Moroccans.

In the beginning we’d talk to everyone who stopped us to ask where we were from. Ninety percent would then pester us relentlessly about something or other, but the remaining ten percent became our friends: people who showed us around Morocco, shared its stories, and became familiar faces around the Medina.

I’d recommend that everyone visit Morocco. It’s very different from Western culture, has a lot of great historic things to see, and truly has the best orange juice in the world. But be prepared for the hustle– we weren’t.

Life Nomadic: Building the Ideal Country

As I travel I build up this myth of the perfect country that I’ll someday discover, move to, and give up traveling for. Some countries do things SO RIGHT that it’s hard to fathom how other countries can do it so wrong.

To get the world moving in the direction, I’m posting — free of charge — the blueprint for a new country that does everything perfectly. Let’s call it Gadlingland.

Police of Panama

The police in Panama are great. They’re friendly and helpful, they seem to a good job of deterring crime, and when you do get caught slightly on the wrong side of the law, they treat you with respect and accept small bribes. An example: I decided to “surf” on the roof of the car crossing the Bridge of the Americas. They laughed about it when they stopped me, took a $15 bribe, and then cleared a lane of oncoming traffic for us to drive across the bridge in!

Tokyo police are a close second. They’re just as friendly and are too polite to stop you for minor infractions like riding your bike like a maniac.
Dried Fruit and Orange Juice of Morocco

Amazing fresh squeezed orange juice is served at just about every restaurant in this country, as far as I can tell. Street vendors sell cups of it for fifty cents. I don’t like grapefruit juice, but it’s almost as common. The nuts and dried fruits also sold by small vendors are amazing. I’m hooked on the almonds, figs, and especially the apricots. The apricots are really in a league of their own compared to the stuff we get in the states.

Honorable mentions go to most countries in Southeast Asia for having fresh cut fruit available cheaply everywhere along with coconut water.

Prices of Thailand

Things in Thailand are often inexpensive, but of surprisingly good quality. Hotels stand out as an example – $20 a night will get you a clean, comfortable, and well appointed hotel by the beach. A great Pad Thai is a dollar or so. Even movies are shown in better theaters than most American cities have, for half the prices.

Trains of Japan

Japan’s train system is legendary. Between the comprehensive but navigable subway systems in every major city to the bullet and sleeper trains that link most cities and towns, it’s safe to say that you can get just about anywhere of interest in the country by train and a short walk. Prices for long distance trains can be expensive, but buying a JR Rail Pass as a tourist makes them one of the best train deals in the world.

Europe’s train system is worth mentioning as well, but it’s a bit more expensive.

Diverse food of Europe

There are a lot of countries that have amazing food, but Europe really stands out to me. Besides the local foods it’s famous for, ethnic foods from other regions are pretty faithfully reproduced. As an obsessively healthy eater, I’ve been floored by the high quality healthy foods in the UK, Spain, and France. My current favorite: Inspiral in London.

History of Paris

Walking through Paris is like walking through the pages of a history book. Except that it doesn’t make you fall asleep and drool all over it. And once you think you’ve finally seen everything, you can always sneak into the catacombs and see Paris’ entire history from a totally new perspective.

Nocturnal Sensibility of Taiwan

Taiwan stays up late. Stroll through Sun Yat Sen Park at midnight and you’ll be sharing the area with teenagers hanging out, seniors doing aerobics, and even families spending time together. It’s a bit eerie, but I’m a night owl myself, and I like being in a country that matches up with my schedule.

Infrastructure of the US

I’ve traveled far and wide, but the US still takes the cake when it comes to overall infrastructure. We have addresses that make sense (Japan, I’m looking at you), maps for every GPS and online service, good water, good power, decent internet, and good phone service. Other countries beat us individually in most of these areas, but overall we have it pretty good.

Urban Landscape of Hong Kong

Hong Kong, grossly simplified, is three stripes. The first stripe is the ocean, which is home to ferry-accessible islands, beyond that is some of the densest urban development in the world, and close behind is a stripe of lush green mountains. The contrast is striking, and the ability to jump from downtown to pristine beach or dense forest within minutes is pretty darn appealing.

Unfortunately it’s not really possible for any country to have all of these things I love so much, so until then the only option is to go visit them one by one and appreciate the best in each.

Life Nomadic: Fringe Time

One of my favorite parts of traveling is something that, if you’re like me, you may not even consider until you actually become a nomad. I love the fringe time, the extra hours surrounding normal life which become a lot more interesting when you’re in a foreign city.

An example: a couple days ago I spent the day working at my favorite UK restaurant, Inspiral (amazing veg food). I met a couple fellow nomad friends there for early lunch, and we spent the day working by the window overlooking the canal, waiting to be hungry enough for dinner. In between our two meals there we considered what we ought to do after dinner.

In our home cities, our options would be limited. We would have already done everything really exciting, so second tier activities like watching a movie or going for tea would be the likely options. Boring. But London is relatively unexplored and exciting, so we ended up going to see Les Miserables, one of the greatest musicals of all time.

Not a bad way to end the work day.
We left London way before it gets ordinary and predictable, which I’ll admit would take a while. Now I’m in Marakkesh, home to a whole new set of fringe activities to fill my spare time.

Staying in countries where foreign languages are spoken, as I do for most of my time, brings similar benefits. I may eat the same type of food for dinner, but if I’m in China I’m ordering and chatting with the waiter in Chinese, and thus improving my proficiency in the language. Call it fringe learning.

The benefit of Life Nomadic isn’t so much that it replaces your life, but rather that it upgrades the predictable background of daily existence. I still write and work on my site all day most days, but the days I take off and the time I’m not working becomes a lot more interesting.

Life Nomadic: Coping With a Travel Disaster

I hold a strong belief that any bad situation can be turned into a good one. The thing about this belief is that it’s only true if you believe it. It’s easy to think this when everything’s going swimmingly, but when plans get derailed and blow up in your face, it gets put to the test. Case in point, here’s a situation I found myself in recently:

  • I got mugged and was robbed of my passport
  • The embassy promised to get me my passport before my 14 day transatlantic cruise left
  • They didn’t get it to me in time, so the boat left without me.

Imagine that. I’m stuck in Santo Domingo and my ride to England is sailing away without me, putting a serious body of water in between me and my British plans.

Step one: deep breath. Step two: examine options. There’s the boring option of flying straight into Saint Maarten two days later. It’s the ship’s only stop before the five day transatlantic push, and a call to the cruise line confirms that I can meet them there and get on the ship. Almost as bad as being boring, it’s expensive. Five hundred thirty seven dollars for a one way ticket.

I could book it and make it on the ship, but that’s not turning a bad situation good; it’s just turning a bad situation into a solved situation. I check a map of the Caribbean and notice that there are a few islands near Saint Maarten. Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla. I’d never even heard of Anguilla before, but a quick check online offers a $325 fare from Santo Domingo.

That’s the kind of situation I like. Two hundred twelve dollars cheaper than my only other option means that if I can spend less than that and turn it into an adventure, I’ve come out ahead. The ferry between the two islands seems to cost only twenty dollars, which is all the US currency I have in my pocket. That’s enough confirmation for me; I book the ticket to Anguilla, which should give me a full 19 hours from landing to boat departure to make my way to the cruise ship.


The layover in Puerto Rico gives me a plane window view of what the country is like. Not a real visit by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m happy to have a face to put to the name, so to speak. Two hours later I’m on another plane headed to Anguilla.

If you don’t believe that friendly and helpful customs agents exist, take a trip to Anguilla. Instead of grilling me when I told her I had no idea where I was sleeping, the customs agent went into an office, made some calls, and wrote down the name of a guesthouse on a piece of paper for me. The best price I’d found online was a hefty $100 a night. Hers was $45.

Right outside the airport I was once again confronted with Anguillan charm and hospitality. The security guards casually engaged me in conversation, asking where I was from and where I was going. When I told them I didn’t know where I was sleeping they offered the airport benches and said they’d watch my stuff for me.

I figured I’d walk around a bit to get the lay of the land, but I didn’t make it far. I cut through the parking lot of the airport and made it halfway across the lawn before I realized I was standing on a perfect little campground. Now that I have a luxury lite cot, every reasonable option to sleep in a public place delights me. The star filled sky and warm Caribbean breeze sealed the deal. I set up my cot, put it my headphones, and listened to Mozart as I drifted to sleep. Mozart has the ability to make anything seem luxurious, even sleeping out in a field like a vagabond.

One of these days I’ll learn that, no matter what, I should always bundle up before sleeping outside. By the time I woke up I was wearing my entire outfit of cold weather gear, and I barely remembered half of the occasions where I’d shuffled through my bag and added a new layer. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, and I wanted to pack up my stuff before it got bright enough to draw attention.

I didn’t know exactly how far it was from the airport to the ferry terminal, but with twelve hours to go before the ship left, I felt comfortable walking there. I walk wherever I can–it lets me get a feel for the place I’m visiting that a taxi window doesn’t, it costs nothing, and it’s good exercise.

The walk to the ferry was uneventful and pleasant. Road bikers, joggers, and expat power walkers were out in full force, getting in their activities before it got too hot.

Just over two hours later I was first in line for the first ferry of the day. I cheerfully paid my $15 fare and shuffled to the tax window.

“That’s twenty dollars,” the woman scowled. Everyone I’d met in Anguilla so far was so genuinely friendly that I was astonished, but she was the opposite. My patronization of the business she worked at was a major offense, apparently.

I’m a little (too) insane about avoiding conversion rates, and only had five US dollars left in my pocket.

“I only have five. Is there an ATM near here?”

“In the Valley,” she replied, immediately looking away to signal that we had nothing more to talk about.

The Valley was where the airport was. I left my backpack with a (friendly) restaurant owner nearby and started retracing my steps. I did some mental math to assure myself I was in no danger of missing the boat.

Half a mile in I started thinking. Anguillans were so friendly, maybe I could hitchhike. I’d never hitchhiked before, and this seemed like the perfect place to try it. I stuck my thumb out and the third vehicle to pass, a big truck, stopped and let me in. I told him I was going to the Valley and he dropped me off about two thirds of the way there, before he had to turn off the main road.

Fifteen minutes later, as I passed a bakery, I asked a man if he knew where an ATM was.

“Sure, I’ll bring you there.”

He brought me to one ATM, which didn’t work, then another, and then insisted on bringing me back to the ferry terminal. My desperately sincere assurances that I didn’t mind walking weren’t that convincing, I guess.

From there the rest of the trip was easy. I’d been to Saint Marteen before many years ago, but struggled to recognize anything. My friend Phil’s family had rented a beautiful villa there, and most of my time was spent relaxing and playing Cranium by the pool. The French side felt like a tropical chunk of France, the Dutch side felt like Mexico, and I made it to the ship before my friend there finished breakfast.

It’s tough to say that I’m glad I missed the ship in the first place, but I will say this: I had a fun and memorable little adventure through five countries is thirty hours, and I don’t regret it.

(A quick note: My characterizations of these countries are all based on tiny glimpses of them, so take them with a huge block of salt. Except the friendliness… I’m convinced on that one.)