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The Mobile Lawyer -- One Lap, No Jetlag: May 2009

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Citiscapes article

*As published in the May 2009 issue of CitiScapes Magazine (

The Mobile Lawyer Around the world in 365 days with no planes and (almost) no reservations

On Dec. 15, 2008, Fayetteville attorney Michael Hodson did what most people only dream about doing: he took a year off to travel around the world. But to make things a bit more interesting, he did so with one, or rather two, caveats…no planes and (almost) no reservations. The planned route? Due south from Arkansas, through Central America and the west side of South America, over to Argentina, boat to South Africa, up the east side of Africa, then Eastern Europe, the Trans-Siberian railroad, a bit of China, Southeast Asia, then Australia, New Zealand and the three-week boat ride back home. He’s also blogging about the journey as he goes, and uploading scores of photos for all of his “followers” to enjoy (and live vicariously through). We recently caught up with Michael, four months into his solo adventure and having just completed his 10-day journey across the big pond to South Africa. With two continents down and four more to go (almost 50 countries in all), this modern-day explorer gives us a glimpse of life on the open road. –Aaron Bleidt

Q: It’s a big world out there. How and why did you choose these destinations and this particular route?

A: When I decided to go around without getting on a plane, the route pretty much chose itself. Originally I was going to go through the Middle East, then take a boat to Southeast Asia. But when I was in Columbia, I decided to try to hit the southernmost city in the world (Ushuaia, Argentina) and the northernmost (Hammerfall, Norway), which eliminated the Middle East and added Eastern Europe, the Trans-Siberian and a bit of China. Traveling without getting on a plane obviously limits you to a very linear route.
Q: Have you always had the travel bug?

A: I have always loved traveling, but frankly, I lacked the courage to go to too many places where English isn’t universally spoken until about six years ago. I’ve been to Europe about a half-dozen times. Then last year, from mid-December to mid-January, I experimented with my first longer-term solo trip, which was to Nicaragua for a month. I loved it and decided then and there that I was taking 2009 off to go around the world.
Q: What possessed you to pull the plug on your law practice and leave for a whole year? What do you hope to gain from the experience? And what are your plans, career wise, for when you return?
A: I foresaw the economic collapse a year ago and knew it would be a good time to be gone. Kidding, of course. I basically decided to do it because I could. I have no wife and no kids. Nothing was particularly sticking me into the ground. I figured if I didn’t do it now that I might never do it – and would be disappointed with myself every day. As for my post-trip career plan, it’s completely undetermined. I’d love to embark on a third career, this time as a writer, but we’ll see. I am not going to worry about what I will do after for one minute while I’m gone. Life sorts itself out.

Q: How did your friends/family respond? And, how do you stay in touch with them?
A: It was a combination of “you are crazy” and “I wish I was able to do that.” I actually stay in touch about as well now as I did before, absent happy hour drinks. The Internet is a godsend for keeping in touch. Facebook, instant messaging, email, my blog, Skype…I use them almost every day. It is amazing how many places have Internet these days. Almost every $10 hostel I stay in has wireless.
Q: On your blog, you describe the journey as involving “no planes and (almost) no reservations.” Why such limitations? How much pre-planning was actually involved, and how much time is spent in each destination?

A: I did almost no pre-planning at all. Unfortunately, that is a component of my personality, but frankly, you don’t need to plan too much on these trips or you will miss out on the spontaneity of hearing about a good spot and having the ability to go there because you don’t have pre-set plans. I bought some Lonely Planet guidebooks and that was about it. The no-planes thing is because I just wanted a bit of a challenge, and because I think planes distort the true sense of how far you have traveled. You hop on a plane and six hours later you get off thousands of miles away. It took me three days of bus trips to get from the southernmost city in the world, through Patagonia, up the coast to Buenos Aires – just under 1,500 miles. Looking out the window and seeing desolate Patagonia pass by mile after mile was great. The basic times spent in most places are functions of my route and the time you have to consume traveling, if you don’t use planes. One reservation I had to make in advance was the freighter from South America to South Africa. The only boat going that route left on March 31, so that set the time for the Central and South American portions of the trip. I am estimating about three-and-a-half months in Africa, a month going quickly through expensive Europe to Norway and back to St. Petersburg, a month to take the Trans-Siberian to Asia and make my way to Southeast Asia, a month there and about a month-and-a-half between Australia and New Zealand.
Q: How does one budget for such an adventure? And, do you exchange currencies in each destination, or are credit cards the most efficient way of doing business abroad?

A: I had a rough idea of what I thought the trip would take financially based on other blogs and a couple round-the-world guidebooks. I feel pretty confident I can do the entire trip for less than $100 a day. Money on the road is an issue and it will be an even bigger issue in Africa, which has fewer ATMs. First things first, check what your bank and credit cards charge you to make cash withdrawals. My ATM card was stolen early on this trip (my thanks to the great people at the Bank of Fayetteville for getting me a replacement quickly on the road), so I had to use one of my credit cards for cash withdrawals and they charged a hefty fee for each transaction. Basically, I use ATMs almost exclusively. I tend to get better deals if I use cash over credit cards. ATMs also give you better exchange rates than moneychangers.
Q: Are you traveling solo or with others?

A: I am traveling solo, in that no one from home joined me on the trip. I have a great friend, Tim Snively, who might come over and climb Kilimanjaro with me, but other than that, I’m on my own. That said, there is a big backpacker circuit out there and everyone ends up traveling with people here and there. I have met some of my best friends in the world on previous trips and I bet I end up adding another couple dozen to that list by the end of this one. You end up traveling with a few people for a couple days or a couple weeks, then splitting off in new directions and making new travel friends.
Q: How do you overcome language barriers? Are you multilingual?
A: I speak English moderately well, and other than that, my language skills are very, very limited. Having spent three months in Spanish-speaking countries, I’ve picked up a little bit. But the language barrier really isn’t much of a barrier at all, as you tend to meet fellow travelers who are fairly fluent in whatever language is spoken wherever you are. And if you are going to know one language, English is the one – there are tons of people that speak at least a bit wherever you are. Part of the fun of traveling is having a conversation where each of you knows about 5 percent of the other’s language, and you gesture, hand signal and guess the rest of the conversation.
Q: What are your primary modes of transportation, and where do you typically stay? First class or budget?

A: So far, I’d say I’ve gone about 90 percent budget class and 10 percent whatever class is slightly above that. I’m mostly staying at hostels – not only are they cheaper, but they’re the best way to meet people on the road. I will occasionally get a private room instead of a dorm room. As for my transportation, it’s almost all by bus. The buses in Central and South America are great. Most locals seem to travel by that method, so there are tons of options to get where you need to go. It took a little bit to get used to long, overnight bus rides, but you save money on hotel rooms, you don’t lose sightseeing time while getting to the next spot, the bus seats are at least twice as roomy as an airline seat, and you get to see some really horrible movies in dubbed Spanish.

Q: What about luggage and supplies? How much luggage and what all did you pack to start off the trip? What are the necessities for such a journey, and what are the three items you could not live without?
A: I am a one-backpack traveler. It’s a 70-liter pack, and I have to say that I’ve grown quite fond of it. It weighs about 35 pounds fully packed. Packing light on any of these trips is one of the first tips in every guidebook, and they are 100 percent correct. You can always buy stuff you need on the road and you don’t want to be carrying around 10 extra pounds of something you won’t be using every single week. I’ve got a few pairs of boxers; a few pairs of socks; a pair of shorts; a pair of jeans; a pair of khakis; five shirts or so; hiking shoes; a fleece; sandals; books; a laptop for writing, editing photos and connecting to the Internet; bathroom stuff; and a couple other things. Along the way, I’ve bought a sweater, some sunglasses and some bathroom stuff. Oh yeah, and a towel. My three indispensable items: My iPod – given the time I spend in buses, it needs no explanation. A good book – I meet a lot of travelers but eat alone about half the time and/or wander about towns sightseeing, and I enjoy reading while having a beer or a glass of wine. And, lastly, my camera – you come this far, you better be taking pictures of what you are seeing.
Q: What are some of the most interesting experiences you’ve had to-date? Any “ah-ha” moments?

A: I have really enjoyed every country so far, save for Costa Rica – the rest of the region refers to it as “Gringolandia,” and it’s the truth. On the plus side, Columbia was fantastic. The people were simply wonderful and the scenery was spectacular. One Saturday, three of us went to a bullfight and were befriended by a Columbian guy in his 50s who was a huge bullfighting fan. He took us under his wing for about eight hours that day, first sitting next to us at the bullfight and giving us all the ins and outs of that sport, then introducing us to a bunch of his friends at a post-fight party. I can’t tell you how many times locals have gone out of their way to show me their country. The “ah-ha” moment so far was Machu Picchu in Peru. There are few places in the world that live up to the hype, and this is one of them. I got up there as it opened and hiked up Wayna Picchu, the mountain in the background of all the pictures of Machu Picchu you’ve seen. The view from on top back to Machu Picchu defined a “wow” moment. Climbing up the active volcano next to Antigua, Guatemala, was also great, because they let you get within about five feet of the lava. There was a great conversation among my group about how you could never do that in the U.S.!
Q: Friendliest people/cultures thus far?

A: Columbia so far, but really everyone has been great. The more you go to nontraditional tourist countries and places, the friendlier you are going to find the people – they are just so happy you have come to their country. Nicaraguans were wonderful. Peruvians are used to tourists, and they do it right.
Q: Have there been any disappointments of note thus far?

A: I can’t really think of any disappointments other than my self-imposed time limit of one year. I wish I could’ve had a year to just do Central and South America. Most long-term travelers I run into think I am crazy for packing so much into one year.
Q: Have you encountered any curious or otherwise unique foods, a la Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmer?
A: Fried grasshoppers in Oaxaca, Mexico, are supposedly a local specialty, so I tried them…won’t need to do that again. The taste was dry and bitter, not a good combo. Grilled cuy, which is guinea pig, is everywhere in Peru. It’s incredibly overpriced and everyone I know who tried it said the taste is so-so, and it has tons of small bones in it, so I didn’t bother with it. Mate is a tea drink in Argentina and Uruguay – a ton of leaves crushed up in a special cup and then warm water poured in, drunk, and poured in again. Odd looking, and it would take a bit to get used to the taste.
Q: What about hygiene… Are hot showers and opportunities to shave few and far between?
A: Ah, hot showers… Now you’re talking about the important stuff. I went about 10 days without a hot shower, and when I got to a place with one, it was like heaven on earth. Hot showers seemed to be available in about half of Central America. I had better luck in South America, where I probably had about 90 percent hot showers. The other hygiene stuff has been fine, but getting a haircut when you can’t speak the language is an interesting experience. And, knock on wood, I haven’t yet had the 72-hour stomach situation yet.
Q: Describe an average “day in the life.” What do you try to accomplish in each destination?
A: The average day depends on whether it’s a travel day or not. If not moving, I’ll wake up at the hostel and get some breakfast there. Check the Internet for email and news from home. I’ll then either wander about the town I’m in or join some people for some sort of excursion or tour in the area. Then I head back to the hostel for dinner, hopefully with some new friends, and then some drinks somewhere in town. If it’s a travel day, I’m usually up before dawn, because a good number of the buses leave quite early. I make sure my iPod is charged up and I have a bottle of water, a book, and some snacks to munch on in the bus and go wherever I am off to. Whenever I get to my next destination, I pull out my guidebook (or follow recommendations heard on the road) and walk around looking for a hostel.
Q: We’ve noticed by some of your photos that you’re somewhat of an “adrenaline junkie.” What was it like bridge jumping in Banos, paragliding in Medellin and getting up close and personal with that volcano’s lava flow in Guatemala? And, what other adventures are you planning?

A: The funny thing is that I am far, far from an adrenaline junkie. I just figured that if I was going to take a trip like this that I ought to try some things I’d never done before. Those particular activities were all new and out of the ordinary for me – and they were all a complete blast. I wish I would’ve indulged earlier. In the future, I think I’ll probably scuba dive in a shark tank in South Africa, bungee jump Victoria Falls, climb Kilimanjaro, hitchhike in Africa (you want an adrenaline rush?), and maybe swim in the Arctic Ocean. I’m not sure what else is in store for me…perhaps I’ll get some emailed suggestions.
Q: Have you come across any locales that you didn’t want to leave, or where you would be happy living one day?

A: I am likely going to move to somewhere in Central or South America after the trip to make a real effort to learn Spanish and write a book about the trip. I didn’t get to either of these places on this trip, but I think Cartagena, Columbia, and Mendoza, Argentina, sound pretty good. And I have strangely known since I was about eight years old or so that if I ever visited New Zealand that I would never come home. So I made it the last stop on this trip.
Q: Do you miss home, or rather the comforts of home?
A: I miss hanging out with my friends at happy hour and cooking dinner for them at my house and playing a little bocce in the backyard. Other than that, no, I really don’t miss much at all. Baseball season is right around the corner, so I’ll miss watching those games on TV, but I think I’ve got a pretty good lead on a way to get some of the games free on the Internet.
Q: Everyday it seems we hear about some new conflict or political unrest around the world. Are you concerned with safety?

A: Safety is a big concern on any trip, and it’s certainly one of the things that people at home ask about most frequently. But frankly, I don’t think it’s any more dangerous traveling in the countries that I am in than spending an extended period of time in any large U.S. city. For the most part, you just need to keep your eyes open and be aware of what is going on around you. There are tons of stories of robberies from travelers on the road, and most of the stories start with, “so I was really drunk and walking back to my hostel at 3 a.m.” Then again, you hear stories of people getting robbed in the middle of the day. Some of it is luck and a lot of it is just plain common sense. I have found that most of the countries that are supposedly dangerous, like Columbia or Nicaragua, are some of my favorite places. Since they get fewer tourists, the people are usually incredibly happy you came to their country and are massively helpful to you. There are a few countries that I will avoid, Somalia and Zimbabwe being the primary examples, but if you are following current events on the Internet, you’ll be able to tell whether you should go to a place or not. And once again, asking the locals about the safety of certain locations is your best source of information.
Q: Tell us about the motivation to document the journey in near real time. How long have you had a blog? How many people are following your journey via your blog or Facebook page? And, is there a book deal in the works?
A: I have been writing for a while about some of my journeys. I find that being on the road heightens your awareness of everything around you, since it is all new and different, and is conducive to writing, at least for me. The blog is a nice way to essentially keep notes of the trip and keep friends and family informed about what I’m up to, in semi-real time. I’ve got about 300 subscribers via my Facebook page and 80 or so directly on my blog. Anyone and everyone can join in – the more eyeballs the better. I am going to write a book about the trip. Whether it ever gets published is another question.

Q: Have you encountered (m)any other long-term, independent travelers out there? Any advice for readers who might be thinking about embarking on such a journey?

A: There are a ton of long-term travelers on the road, and, if you do some of the hostel circuit, you will run into them left and right. Americans are incredibly underrepresented on the road, in relation to the size of our country. For instance, I’ve run into far more Dutch (population 16 million) than Americans (population 300 million). The whole concept of taking six to 12 months and backpacking around is one that is far, far more common in other countries than in ours, unfortunately. My advice is to just go do it. If you stay out of Europe, it is incredibly cheap and you will get in the groove quickly. The “On a Shoestring” Lonely Planet guidebooks are the most common out here, but any one will do. All I really use them for are the maps, some ideas of places to see, and occasionally a hostel recommendation.
Q: So far, what have you learned about the world and, most of all, about yourself?

A: Still hoping there is a lot to learn on both fronts. On the world, I’ve learned it is an incredible place to explore – all of it, especially the less common tourist spots. And generally, the people out here are so incredibly friendly and helpful. About me? Not sure—read the blog—my attitude looking outward and inward are openly on display every week.
Q: When will you return back to Fayetteville? Anything else? Final thoughts?

A: I plan on being back at the end of 2009, but at this point, I don’t think it is going to be a long stay. I am pretty sure that I am going to then go off somewhere and learn a foreign language fully and write. I have explored almost all of the United States in my 40 or so years on this planet – time to explore the rest of the world more fully.

To follow Michael’s progress online, visit


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A few Africa notes

A few notes on Africa:

First, I apologize for not posting more. I've been writing some stuff on my laptop, but haven't run across a place with wireless for quite some time, in order to upload what I've written. And sitting in an internet cafe for a couple hours writing -- and perhaps losing what you wrote on crappy computers -- doesn't appeal too much to me. And uploading pictures is completely out of the question with these internet "connections." That being said, here are some notes. . .

· In Zambia and Tanzania, there has been a framed picture of the President in about every commercial establishment you walk into. Hotels. Restaurants. Shops. Hostels. Bars. Doesn’t really matter where you are, when you look up on the wall, there is an 8 by 10 framed glossy of President So-and-So staring back at you. That wasn’t the case in South Africa or Namibia and I didn’t spend enough time in Botswana to really tell one way or another.

It’s a bit eerie, frankly. I haven’t drummed up the courage to ask any of the workers or owners whether it is a required display, but given their ubiquitous nature, it must be. There is no way that these leaders are loved by every one here. Plus, it’s the exact same picture every time. It has to be mandatory to display it, whether explicitly so, or whether there is an implicit “display it to avoid trouble” understanding.

I didn’t do much reading at all about the political situation in either of these countries, other than to assure myself that they were both relatively stable. I did ask someone how long the Zambian President had been in office. Apparently the President (of quite some length of time, as is par in most of Africa) died in office and the Vice President assumed power and he recently won his first election in his own right. I’d bet that both of these countries are basically single party ‘democracies’ and that those same faces will be on the walls of those same places for years and years to come.

At some point, I’ll get off my lazy ass and do some research to back this up, but for the time being, I’ll toss it out there anyway. Here’s my current thumbnail theory on African governments: the quality and trustworthiness of their governments can be determined in an inverse relationship to the number of framed pictures of the President you see.

· I simply cannot get over the amount of touts. As I wrote earlier, in Zanzibar, the translation for the local phrase for these people was ticks. Here, in the Mount Kilimanjaro area, the translation for the local phrase is flycatchers. Both terms aptly sum up how you feel when you get in an area that they are operating in – they just buzz around you, never really seeming to go away.

Everyone is a guide, it seems. Everyone is ready to take you on a tour of the town, including showing you the inside story – the cultural tour, available in every town, no matter how much actual local culture they have. Although there seem to be less of these guys (and they are 100% men pitching you these deals) in Moshi than in Zanzibar Town or Dar es Saleem, there still are a good number of them. The Lonely Planet guide accurately sets out what areas of town they are mainly located in, but you can certainly count on getting mobbed at any train or bus station and any street area with a high percentage of tourist type shops.

Once you get used to getting constantly asked to take a tour, or use someone’s cab, or book your bus ticket or safari over and over again, it is not too incredibly annoying. No one has yet touched me, not even to lay a hand on my elbow or arm to guide me in the direction of their favored ticket stall. Although they really won’t take no for an answer (in certain locations, they will literally follow you for hundreds and hundreds of yards asking you if you want directions or what you are looking to find or buy or whatever), you can basically tune them out with a little experience.

The guidebooks do advise keeping your cool, staying polite and keeping the tone of your voice down. That advice is correct, though sometimes difficult to follow. Some of the guys are drug or alcohol addicts, obviously, or just a little bit off in the head, and its best to not provoke them in any way. Just a constant, “no thank you” or “I’m not interested in anything today” or “I know where I am going, thanks” as you keep walking seems to be the best way to handle it. Every once in a while you will get the ‘white guilt’ speech (“hey man, I’m just trying to make a living. Put food on my family’s table. You need to support those of us trying to work in this community. I’m not asking for a handout.”), but all-in-all its still not a horrible experience.

By the way, the word in Swahili for white person is muzungu. If you can memorize the Swahili phrase for “don’t give me the muzungu price,” when you negotiate, you might do a bit better on your budget. The kids run around and basically shout two things at you, "jambo" -- which is hello and "muzungu" -- especially if you have a camera out, when they want a picture taken of them.

But back to the omnipresent touts. On Zanzibar, I hung out with a couple Canadian guys for 4-5 days. One evening, we were eating in a garden area by the ocean, where dozens of food stalls set up every night to freshly cook seafood and Zanzibar pizza. There aren’t any public toilets in that area, so when Ryan and Joel needed to go to the bathroom, they decided to head over to one of the restaurants to see if they’d let them use theirs.

They came back from the bathroom after a while and said that they’d helped out a local woman while they were gone. Seems that as they were going into the place, a local woman was having an argument with some of the restaurant employees about paying to use the bathroom. She was saying that she shouldn’t have to pay to use the toilet because she was a local. Ryan and Joel went ahead and paid for her and for themselves – a total of about $2 U.S. dollars. The woman and her brother, who was also standing there, were so grateful that they offered to take Ryan and Joel on a local tour of their town the next day, to show them the sights from an insider’s perspective. When they came back and told us this story, they were quite pleased with their good fortune and excited about getting the authentic local experience.

The next day they went to meet the sister and brother. The woman they helped out wasn’t there, but the brother took them on a three-hour tour. And apparently ‘brother’ in just a loose sense of the word – he was just a friend of hers standing around and like every guy on the island, willing to give guided tours for a price. By the time that Ryan and Joel realized that they’d basically gotten conned into a paid tour, they were already into it and felt obligated to finish it up. Fortunately, they really liked the guy and enjoyed the tour. He ended up charging them $20,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $15 U.S.) for a three-hour tour of Stone Town.

Like they said later that day, it wasn’t that they felt ripped off or scammed in any way – they thought they got good value for their money – it was just that it was ‘sold’ to them as something entirely different than it ended up being. Those sort of encounters, and just the constant hawking of stuff to you, do tend to get you a bit jaded, a bit quickly. You end up being suspicious of everyone’s motives, which is too bad, but also necessary.

· Buses don’t operate on a schedule, unless you call “wait for the bus to be entirely full before leaving” a set schedule. When you get to a bus station in a good-sized town, there are normally a few buses there going wherever you want to go. You walk around and ask people which bus goes to, for example, Moshi from the Dar es Saleem station, which is a complete mad house, by the way. Anyone you ask will try to take you to whatever bus line will give them a commission for getting you to their door. I do mean anyone – one of the uniformed security guards for the bus station tried to sell me a ticket.

When you get there to buy the ticket (its safest to just buy the ticket literally right at the bus door, so you know you are getting a valid ticket on to some bus), you normally want to ask two questions: (1) “is this the bus to. . .?” and (2) “when is it scheduled to leave?”

#1 is a vital question, but you can dispense with #2. The answer to #2 is always some variant of “right now – we are just about to leave.” By the way, don’t bother to ask when any other bus is leaving to the same location, because that answer is always "a long ways off. They don't leave for hours. This is the only bus for you."

The bus drivers will go to some lengths to convince you of their imminent departure. People will be loading their luggage underneath the bus and hopping on board, as the bus driver revs his engine. Engine revving, must be about time to leave. If the bus is close to full enough to pull off this routine, sometimes the bus will actually start backing up out of the parking spot a bit, as the ticket sellers start loudly instructing any reluctant passengers that they better buy the ticket now or miss the bus. After the ticket(s) are bought and the passengers board, if they bus isn’t 100% full, the driver will slowly ease back into the parking spot, waiting to leave until the last fare is aboard.

It pays to walk around, see what buses are almost full, and buy a ticket on the ones that appear to really be about to leave. This is another reason why it is another reason you want to buy the ticket right at the bus, instead of at some ticket office a ways away, where you can’t see how full the bus is that they are peddling to you. If you buy a ticket on an almost empty bus, you might be waiting a couple hours before you bus hits the road. If it isn’t full, it isn’t moving. Which leads to. . .

· Walking away is the best form of negotiation. And it works almost everywhere.

Bus fare on the first bus you go up to is $20,000 shillings, but you can see some other buses around. Try “OK, sounds good, I’m going to go check the prices on the other buses and I’ll be back if I want to buy a ticket on your bus.” Sometimes that sentence is all you need to knock $5,000 shillings off the price.

We were on Zanzibar Island during one of their down seasons, so this probably isn’t possible at a high time, but the van driver that drove us from Stone Town to one of the small towns on the other side of the island agreed to drive us to three different possible places to stay (I’m sure he had commission agreements with each of the three that he suggested), so that we could compare. We went to the first place, which was a very nice hotel. The guy behind the counter quoted us $50 U.S. per person. We said it was too high and we needed to check out some other places. As we left, he pulled the driver aside and told him he’d do $25 U.S. per person, if we agreed to stay at least three nights. We did the same thing at the next place, which was a nice house that the four of us were going to rent out.

We ended up going to all three places, walking out of all three places, then going back to the house we liked. By then the price had dropped to $60 U.S. a night -- $15 per person. For our own house on the beach. And the owner brought over fresh bread and fruit each morning for breakfast. Incredibly good pineapple. Mmmmmmmm.

Africa takes a bit to get used to. . . but there is a lot of greatness out there to experience.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Stone Town, Zanzibar

Stone town is the old center of Zanzibar Town, on Zanzibar Island, which is offshore of Tanzania. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and quite and interesting place.
From Stone Town

UNESCO World Heritage Sight

Stone Town Info

Stone Town is an usual place. It reminds me a bit of Venice, obviously without the canals. The streets are incredibly narrow. Unlike Venice, there is some traffic on the streets -- cars on the 3-4 streets big enough to handle them and scooters and bikes on the small ones. But its the same feel of a town almost randomly constructed. There is no method to which way the streets run. And around every corner, you never know what you will run into. Its quite small though and like Venice, getting lost in Stone Town is much of the fun.

And the doors! Wow. For any door fans out there, like my sister. . .
From Stone Town

From Stone Town

From Stone Town

The one thing that the guidebooks warn you about Zanzibar (and Dar es Saleem, the big port city on mainland Tanzania that you go to to get here) is about the scams and touts everywhere. On Zanzibar, they are called papasi, which means ticks in Swahili. They literally swarm you went you get off the ferry.

But before I fill you in on that, let me tell you about buying our ferry tickets. Aileen, Sonny and I got into Dar es Saleem around 3:45 p.m. on the two day train from Zambia. Earlier on the train, a Dutch girl named Evelynn had warned us about buying ferry tickets, saying that she got ripped off by getting directed to a fake ticket office. A couple guys came onto the train at the Dar es Saleem station, as we were getting out stuff out of our cabin, and offered their services for a cab ride. I'm normally not into giving the business to the guys that actively chase you down for it, but the last ferry was scheduled to leave at 4 p.m., so we needed a ride fast. They offered to take us to the ferry for $10,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $8). I got them down to $6,000 and we had a deal.

The two guys led us out of the station and into their van. Two more guys were in the van, the driver and an older guy dressed as a Muslim in the front passenger seat. Apparently, he was the designated nice guy. He told us we'd never make the ferry in time, but we could go there, buy our ferry ticket for the next morning and then choose a hotel to spend the night. One of the two guys back with us immediately showed us a brochure for a hotel he recommended.

As we drove through town to the ferry location, the old guy and another one of our escorts (a total of four of them and three of us), was repeating the advice that Evelynn gave us on the train. Lots of scam artists around. Got to be careful about buying your ticket. Aileen in the meantime had pulled out her Lonely Planet Tanzania guide to look up the reputable names of ferry operators and also a hostel for us -- since it was obvious we weren't going to make the 4 p.m. ferry at this point.

We got to the ferry area. The two guys that got us on the train hopped out and told us to follow them to the ticket seller. Sonny and I went with them and left Aileen to guard the luggage (yes, not very gentlemanly of us, but we weren't thinking quickly enough). The guys took us into a small office. A guy was behind a crappy desk. Probably a 8 foot by 6 foot room. Nothing on the walls. No computer. No brochures or anything.

Clearly a scam operation. The two guys told us to buy the tickets from the guy at the desk. I said, "this doesn't look like the office." The guys with us pointed to a door in the back and said, "the manager is back there, this is just the front office." The guy behind the desk said "what's the problem?" in a surly manner.

No problem -- we left immediately. The two guys were trailing us asking what was wrong. I headed for a place with the sign of the company that Aileen had found in the book. We bought the tickets there -- from a couple people that barely wanted to sell them to us. . . which is a good indication that its the real office.

Then we got back into the cab. Aileen asked what was up, since she saw us exit the one place and walk quickly to the other place. I told her that we'd fill her in later. She told the driver the name of a hostel to go to. On the way, the two guys hopped out of the van at a stoplight and left us with the driver and the old guy. When we got to the destination, the driver tried to scam us into paying $15,000, though we'd agreed on $6,000 to the ferry stop and the hostel wasn't that much further. We were smart enough to not even talk money until we all had out luggage safely out of the van (never leave your luggage somewhere that it can be held hostage) at this point. I explained that the two guys that drummed up the business told us $6,000 to the ferry. I told him, as I handed the bills to him and walked away, that $10,000 was all he was going to get.

Aileen only wanted to give them $8,000. Tough girl, as almost every single female traveller I have run into is. No way I'm negotating against her in the future.

All in all, not a big deal. The next morning we caught the ferry, got off in Zanzibar, and went through Zanzibar immigration (oddly, they seem to think they are a seperate country -- though they are part of Tanzania. As soon as we exited the ferry stop, about eight of the papasi came up to us and offered to show us to hostels. They literally just swarm all over you. We politely told then we were fine and that we knew where we were going and they just wouldn't stop offering us direction -- "no, turn this way for Jambo Hostel." We just kept walking. . .and getting lost of course. Every time we stopped to look at the map, they would re-swarm. At one point, we thought we were down to about two of them, but when we stopped, six or seven immediately showed up. Annoying, but not physically threatening in any way.

Which leads me to another comment on Zanzibar. These guys are all over the place, trying to sell you stuff everywhere or offer you guided tours of this and that. Really annoying. But on the other hand, I've not felt this safe in many towns before. Everyone says this place is safe and I agree 100% with them. I've walked around with my laptop under my arm for a couple days and never felt threatened at all. Walking around at night is totally fine also.

The place is full of contradictions. Partly a Muslim town -- there are some fun places to get a drink here, but at the same time, only about one in four places serve alcohol. Annoying touts everywhere, but completely safe place. Part of Tanzania, but they think they are independent. And so on.

From Stone Town

Sorry for the rough draft on this one -- haven't written in a while and just needed to knock something out. A little jumbled.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Victoria Falls

It is hard to describe the scope of Victoria Falls. They are simply massive.

From Victoria Falls

I am here at a bad time of the year to photograph the falls, because it is the end of the rainy season, so the water level is still very, very high. As a result, there is a huge mist created from the water flowing over the falls and pictures really just capture the mist and miss the falls behind them. Its still worth seeing. And hearing. You can hear the falls from a long way off. I'd say a mile or so. You can also see the mist from an even longer way off. I was staying at a campground called Zambezi Waterfront. It was on the banks of the Zambezi about 3 miles from the falls. You could see the mist from the falls from the patio of the bar. You can stay on the Zambia side of the falls, as we did, in the town of Livingstone (or closer to the falls on the waterfront) or on the Zimbabwe side in the town of Victoria Falls. Although Zimbabwe isn't the safest country to travel in right now, by all accounts the area around the falls is fine to not only travel in, but stay in also. I was going to head over there (the views of the falls are supposed to be a lot better from the Zimbabwe side), but frankly didn't want to pay the visa charges both ways to see what was likely just a misty view. Both countries charge a pretty hefty visa fee. I did technically make it into Zimbabwe on the trip though. . . since I bungee jumped off the Victoria Falls bridge, which is the second highest bungee jump in the world. I did the Victoria Falls trifecta -- a very tame swing across the gorge, then a bridge jump where you go feet first, then the headfirst bungee. Its the second time I've done that sort of stuff on the trip and its a blast. This one was about a 110 meter free fall (more than a football field). Hard to describe the feeling, but quite exciting. IF I ever get a good internet connection, I will try to upload a video of it. Lastly on the topic of Victoria Falls was the best thing I got to see or do in my four days here: the lunar rainbow. There are very few places in the world where you can see a rainbow at night and Victoria Falls might be the most famous on a short list. Basically, on a full moon night, when the moon in low in the sky, it can cast enough light to create a rainbow in the mist of the falls. It is hard to see (and even harder to capture on film), but it is spectacular. Wow. It also marks the end of all of the easy travel I have had now for about 6 weeks. Between the two weeks on the freighter, then almost a couple weeks in Cape Town, then the three safaris I took with Wild Dog Outfitters in Namibia, Botswana and Zambia, I haven't really had to be in full travel mode for a while. Everything has been almost too easy. Tomorrow I take a local bus to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. If I am not the only white person on the bus, I will be quite surprised. Then I have to get to a town a couple hours north of that to catch the train to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. That train ride is supposed to be about 44 hours, but has been known to take up to 70 hours. Let's hope I get a ticket in one of the sleeping cars!

From Victoria Falls

From Victoria Falls

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Dinner tab in Livingstone, Zambia

So the dinner tab last night for the remaining 10 people on the eight day safari I just finished was $862,000. Almost thought it was going to be the first million dinner tab that I was ever involved in.

The $862,000 here is in the Zambian currency, which is the kwacha. Right now, you get about 5,000 kwacha for every U.S. dollar. My cab ride back from town today was $30,000. Yesterday's internet cafe bill was $27,000. It makes me chuckle every time I get a bill.

What is also interesting here is that just about every place takes a variety of different currencies in payment. You can pay your bill in South African rands (600 to 1), Botswana pula (700 to 1), US dollars, or Euros (6,500 to 1), or of course, kwachas. Or any combination thereof, which lead to an interesting bill payment last night.

Everyone took a look at the bill and got an idea of what they owed. I usually hate dealing with bills this way -- I'd much prefer everyone just paying 1/10th of the bill in this case -- but whatever. And then everyone starting throwing money into the pile, which I was assigned to sort out. Not sure why I was the choice -- I went to law school partly because I can't do math.

Thank goodness the bills here also usually come with a calculator.

Into the pile went 200 South African rand, 27,000 kwachas, and $55 U.S. dollars. The last three people needed to pay their portions on a credit card. I did the math a few times and came up with about 442,000 kwatcha that we had in cash and the credit card payments made up the balance nicely. Of course this all took about a half hour to sort out.

It was compounded by Wulf, a 71 year old German on the trip (much more on him in a longer safari blog soon) insisting that his bill was 135 South African rand. He only had two 100-rand notes. The restuarant couldn't make change for him in rand and he militantly refused to take back kwatcha in change. None of the other people in our group could change one of his notes in rand either. I eventually talked him into putting one of his 100 rand notes in the till and pretending that someone else lent him the balance -- because he wouldn't just let us cover the 35 rand difference. "That is RIDICULOUS!! I owe 135 rand and will pay my bill!!"

35 rand is about $4 U.S. dollars.

Gotta go -- this stop at the internet cafe is going to cost me tens of thousands. . .

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Off the safari road

I am now off the 8 day safari and back in the "real world." Though the real world is still Third World Africa. In this case, I'm in Livingstone, Zambia (next to Victoria Falls). Unfortunately, I don't have wireless access, so I can't upload the tons of pictures I took in the last week. Hopefully I will find a spot to do so in the next couple days.

And I am writing some updates soon -- in the next 2 days. Chilling out here and recharging personal and real batteries for a bit.

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Friday, May 1, 2009


I just finished a 6 day safari to Etosha National Park in Namibia and the Namib Desert here. Both are truly incredible. The problem is that the upload speed is so slow here, I am having problems posting pictures. Other problem is that I am leaving on a 8 day trek to Victoria Falls in about an hour, so I won't be online for a bit.

I might have some new eyeballs when I get back. For any of you folks that are reading this after seeing the article in Citiscapes -- I've got a lot of stuff to read about the trip so far. I promise to be posting up after the next week. Two weeks of camping and I am going to definately hole up in Victoria Falls for a few days and rest. And write.


Pictures of the trip are here --

And feel free to join me on Facebook -- I actually caption the photos there (and they upload quicker, so I have more there). Search via my email address for me.

And here are a couple I managed to upload.

From Namib Desert

From Namib Desert