International travel took a back seat to the pandemic this past year, so I've been exploring my own back yard while also keeping my global exploration dreams alive through virtual experiences. Here are the highlights of my recent armchair travels to Argentina, Egypt and Japan.
An April 2020 plan to visit Argentina was my first pandemic travel casualty. I was disappointed, but also grateful that I was safe at home as lockdowns rolled out across the globe. I found a few ways to get a flavour for at least a few pieces of my planned itinerary -- online and onscreen.
Touring Buenos Aires -- virtually
Shortly after the pandemic began, G Adventures created a series of free virtual tours featuring their charismatic local guides, including this one of Buenos Aires. Using a combination of Google maps, Google street view and photos, Marina showed off various BA neighbourhoods while sharing historical and architectural notes, cultural insights and insider tips for ordering food and drinks.
There was an option to tip the guide afterwards; a good way to support a passionate tourism professional who can't do her regular job during lockdown.
Seeing live tango was definitely on my to-do list for Buenos Aires. I had hoped to watch it both on the streets and in a milonga (tango dance club). I found plenty of video performances online, including this outdoor street dancing session and the the video 'review' below by a tango-loving Greek expat.
Street art meets the small screen
Another thing I was excited to see in Buenos Aires was the street art. Artists have been attracted to the city because of its open policies encouraging public art as a way to beautify the streets. Google's Street Art Project got its start in Buenos Aires, although the site now features photo tours of street art all over the world. Some of the tours have audio commentary, including a few in BA.
For a more personal connection, I signed up for one of Airbnb's new online experiences. If you're feeling wanderlust-y, browse through their virtual experience offerings from all over the world. Prices start around $15 CAD, and you can sign up for anything from an Irish village walk to flamenco dance lessons or an archaeologist-led tour of Pompeii.
I chose a 60-minute 'Buenos Aires street art and sketch' session led by local artist and curator, Flor. She shared a mix of Google street view images and her own photos of murals around the city along with notes on technique, cultural context and symbolism. In some cases, she actually knew the artists and shared personal commentary based on her discussions with them. She also encouraged us to express our own thoughts on the murals.
Part two of the experience was a guided sketching exercise, where Flor helped us take inspiration from the art we had just seen to create our own masterpieces. Although mine turned out to resemble a school art project at best, the exercise was both fun and therapeutic. And the finished piece will serve as a memento of this point in my life story.
My Argentina plans also included a few days exploring the famous Iguazu Falls. I was planning to see them from both the Argentine and Brazilian sides. Fortunately, YouTube had me covered, with the video below being just one of many visual 'tours' available.
Even when it was time to sink into the couch and cue up Netflix, there were options for transporting myself temporarily to Buenos Aires.
Apache is loosely based on the life of Argentine soccer star Carlos Tevez. The series dramatizes his youth in a rough outer neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. Most tourists will never see such parts of the city, so it provides an alternate perspective on local culture and social issues.
The Spy is a thriller series based on the career of another real person --an Israeli Mossad agent played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Much of the action takes place in Buenos Aires, where he was stationed for part of his career.
Another of my travel dreams is to explore the pyramids of Egypt, sail down the Nile and walk in the footsteps of pharaohs. While waiting for the world to open up again, I've 'seen' a taste of the site from the comfort of home.
The pyramids in 4k
I was surprised to find an extensive 4k video tour of the Giza pyramid complex posted for free, with the catch of occasional ad interruptions. It's stunning and thorough at almost two hours long. There's no voiceover, but the video includes informative captions to explain what you're seeing. You also hear the background sounds of vendors and guides chatting on the sidelines. It really transports you there.
Context Travel is known for its live walking tours led by historians and other scholars. They responded to the pandemic by creating a new series of virtual 'conversations' starting at $48 CAD. Feeling ambitious, I joined a four-part archaeology series covering the main sites along the Nile. The Zoom sessions felt a lot like university lectures, but Dr. Jade Bajeot was highly engaging and supremely knowledgeable. She used a variety of visual material, including a stunning 4K video walkthrough of Unas Pyramid.
Egypt on screen
My couch potato explorations of Egypt so far have included:
Secrets of Saqqara Tomb- a Netflix documentary about the recent discovery of a new tomb. Wannabe archaeologists like me will enjoy the insights into the excavation and interpretation process as teams complete their delicate work and piece together the mysteries of the tomb.
Cairo Time - Patricia Clarkson stars as an American woman vacationing in Egypt's capital. She sails the Nile, attends a wedding, smokes shisha, withers in the heat, and of course, sees the pyramids, giving us a languorous portrait of the city.
Japan is also high on my travel wish list. These are the ways I've virtually visited.
Virtually touring Japan
The Virtual Japan YouTube channel houses dozens of 4k video tours (walks and bike rides) throughout Japan, including a night walk through Tokyo's Shibuya district (video below) and this sunset walk in Kyoto. Many of the videos were filmed during the pandemic, so crowds are much lighter than usual.
For a real-time view of what is normally Tokyo's (and the world's) busiest intersection, check out this Shibuya crossing live cam.
The local tourism organization in the Mount Fuji region operates an entire network of 'Fuji watcher' live cams, letting you view the iconic peak at any time of day from any angle.
I took a Google Street View tour of Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto, to explore its pathway of striking red gates. Google's images cover the entire trail surprisingly well, and this mode of 'transport' lets you move back and forth along the path at your own pace.
Tea ceremony, online edition
Japan Travel launched a 'Japan at Home' series of virtual tours. These are paid real-time video session with local experts on topics such as Geisha culture, calligraphy, and the history of specific neighbourhoods. Some are live presentations or demonstrations, and others involve the guide actually walking around an area in real time.
I signed up for a virtual tea ceremony, which was beautifully performed by a tea master, live from her tea room in Kyoto. Beforehand, I visited Tsujiri -- a local Calgary matcha shop -- to buy matcha and a bamboo whisk for making my own frothy green beverage. This powdered form of green tea has a few health benefits, so I plan to make it a regular ritual.
I was the only person registered for the particular ceremony time I chose, so I was fortunate to get a private session. I was able to ask a few questions and trade pandemic condolences with my host before and after the tea preparation. As is customary, she performed the ceremony itself in silence. Her graceful, assured movements were mesmerizing. It was truly a zen experience, which I think is exactly the point.
Japanese flavours at home in YYC
To get a more literal taste of Japan I picked up takeout from Shimizu Kitchen, a neighbourhood gem I had long been meaning to try. The miso ramen was full of umami goodness. I can't wait to go back for a sit-down meal -- when restaurants are allowed to re-open -- to dine under the imitation sakura tree.
I plan to continue eating my way around Calgary's Japanese restaurants via delivery and curbside pickup options, or in-person when it's safe. On my list:
Shokunin + nupo + greenfish - These three establishments have joined forces to offer a combined curbside pickup menu of contemporary Japanese fusion dishes. I'm eyeing the kimchee gyoza, chicken karage and tempura beet rolls.
Globefish - My favourite izakaya with well-executed agadashi tofu, tempura and teriyaki
Shiki Menya - This popular ramen shop is offering ready-to-go meals and take-home ramen kits. I may also add some Asahi beer to my order.
Streaming shows set in Japan
Some Japanese-produced entertainment I've enjoyed:
Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame) - A Tokyo detective searches for his missing brother who is accused of murder. Shifting between London and Tokyo, the series is beautifully written, acted and shot.
Alice in Borderland - A wild alternate reality thriller based on a manga series. The story centres on a group of friends who are forced to join risky, violent games in order to survive on the streets of Tokyo. There are similarities to Western YA dystopian fiction like The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games and Divergent.
Japanese Style Originator - An educational series about Japanese culture with episodes that alternate in tone from serious and stately to a distinctly Japanese brand of wacky humour. Simultaneously informative and corny.
I look forward to exploring the world for real again in the months and years to come. In the meantime, I'm grateful for technology, and for the creativity and initiative of the tourism and hospitality professionals -- both locally and worldwide -- who have made my virtual travels possible. When I eventually do visit these places in real life, I'll be a more well-informed traveler.