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

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

more random notes -- Ethiopia

Scroll down and read the blog underneath this one if you haven’t already. Its from one of my new ‘blog friends’ and its quite good. I’m negotiating to be her agent for the bestselling book she’s certain to write – except she’s also a lawyer. Damn luck. I’ll never figure out my next career. And after you are done reading hers. . . back to mine.

My blog exists for a few different purposes. It is a very convenient way for me to keep family and friends informed about what I am up to, and what I am seeing, on my trip. It is also a form of note keeping for me. I have a journal that I am keeping notes in, but the blog, and the pictures I have uploaded, serve as a sort of literary insurance, in case my backpack and journal are eventually pinched from me. With that in mind, I’ve had more than a few of these ‘random thoughts’ blogs. Here comes another.

• My week or so in Addis Ababa is the first time I have ever been anywhere during a true rainy season. From the end of June to mid-September, it is the ‘long rain’ season in this part of Ethiopia. They get over half of their year’s total rainfall in these months. Every single afternoon I have been in Addis, it starts raining sometime around one or two for a few hours. It is amazing in its consistency. One quickly gets in the habit of doing any errands needing to be done in the morning, eating lunch, and then making sure that you are in a place that you don’t mind waiting the rain out in the afternoon, before reemerging for dinner after sundown.

I love the rain. I have for as long as I can remember. It has always meant life to me. Water is such a crucial ingredient for all life, at least here on our planet, which is the only one I’m personally familiar with so far. Every time it rains, for some reason, the thought that life is soon to flourish goes through my mind. Now, I understand that in some places in the world, the overabundance of rainfall brings much tragedy, but I suppose I’ve yet to experience that, so it’s easy enough for me to rationalize away.

Thunderstorms are an added bonus. There is something about the power and the fury of it all that fascinates me. Plus, I think its one of the most romantic states of nature. The sound of the rain, furiously beating down on roofs, pavement, and trees. The flash of lighting on a dark night – lighting up the sky for a brief moment – the streaks of the electricity connecting sky with earth. The variety of sound that thunder brings – the low rumble that lasts for seconds – the sharp, whip-snap sound of a lighting burst close by – being able to judge its distance by its volume. One of the single most romantic nights I’ve yet spent in my life was on a covered back porch, overlooking the Arkansas River, at about 9 p.m., as a powerful thunderstorm blew in from the west and quickly overtook Little Rock. What a wonderful night.

• Ethiopian food is pretty good. Much better than the fare that I had during my stay in Kenya. They actually use spices here, which is welcomed. It has been quite a few miles since I’ve been anywhere where food has that good, spicy flavor that opens your senses. Perhaps since Zanzibar.

Most Ethiopian meals are some sort of spiced meat (beef or lamb/mutton being the most common) that is then served in a pile in the middle of a very large pancake-like substance called injera. Its not bread exactly. Nor is it a pancake, as we in the States would recognize it. It’s always served cold and has a slightly sour and vinegary taste and a bit of a rubbery texture. You tear off pieces of the injera and use it to eat whatever the main dish is, with your right hand only of course (we all know what we use our left hands for). The injera isn’t one of my all-time favorites, but once you get used to it, it’s fine. The main dishes that you are mopping up with it though have usually been quite good and more than make up for any shortcomings of the injera.



• This comment is clearly going to come back and haunt me in the bad karma department, since I am hoping my third career is going to be writing (and getting paid for it): I have become semi-addicted to pirated DVDs.

Every time I buy one, I think to myself “none of this money is going to the people that invested time and money into creating this product,” but I can’t stop. There are plenty of times on the road that I don’t feel like reading – though my tally of books read lies somewhere around 25 so far – or I don’t feel like meeting new people to talk with - or don’t really feel like doing anything that remotely involves my brain being switched on.

In those times, its really nice to have seasons 1-3 of Boston Legal and seasons 1-4 of Two and Half Men to vegetate over. Through trial and error I have learned that it is best to buy television shows and skip over the DVDs with a dozen movies on them.

Though, I have bought a couple of the movie DVDs. The “Mafia Movie Collection” is staring at me right now. Godfather parts I, II and III. OK, that makes perfect sense for this collection. Scarface. Ditto. Dog Day Afternoon? Hmmmmm. OK, close enough. The Insider? My friends in various Attorney General’s offices that sued the tobacco industry would be amused to see them included in the Mafia collection. But also on this DVD. . . Scent of a Woman and Any Given Sunday.

I suppose that anything Al Pacino stars in is eligible for a Mafia collection.

These DVDs all seem to originate from China (and I’m now a hypocritical, but full supporter of cracking down on China for intellectual property violations now). My favorite pirate company is one called “AK-47 Productions.” Not only do I like the name – their quality seems the best of the ones I’ve seen so far.

<----- I’ve watched a lot of Boston Legal – anyone ever seen this guy even appear in a single episode, let alone as one of the stars?

Some of the descriptions of the shows on the backs of these packages are written in understandable English. And then there is this description of season three of Boston Legal:

“Boston Legal ABC is the highlight of The practice fringe series, it gives us Alan Shore for a law firm in the course of the story, and how the case. Story on a Boston senior counsel, based mainly in civil cases. These intelligent agent must deal with the law allows them to do and how to combat them not to do so. When basically try, they will be faced with social and moral issues. This is a series of intricate sense of humour to the story of how we have to?”

Seriously, who wouldn’t immediately pick them up off the shelf and buy it. . . for about $2.

If I had to choose between that season and season one – how could I?

“Alan Shore and Denny Crane (Emmy winner by James Spader and William Shatner playing) are good incomes, lawyers Crane Poole & Schmidt team a rare friend. Partner Shirley Schmidt (five Emmy winners as Canice Bergen) in the fourth quarter will continue to reorganize the chaotic office administration problem. Alertness of her eyes, take care of all firms, especial by Denny Crane. It is said that the two had had a love-hate concubine.”

And no, I didn’t mistype any of that. Perhaps my next career is writing legible ad copy for Chinese DVD pirates.

It’s a bit sad that I’m now giving advice on the best pirated DVDs to buy, but I might as well close the circle and finish the thought. The problem with the movie collection DVDs is that they are usually made by taking a camcorder into a movie theater and recording. The lighting is horrible. The sound is pathetic. And occasionally, someone will stand up in front of you and go get popcorn (or start coughing loudly next to you). Or the camcorder operator will accidentally turn off the camcorder for a while and the movie will just skip forward a random half-hour. With the television shows, the quality of the recording is usually good, although a reasonable percentage of the DVDs you buy will be partly corrupted, so that you can’t watch all the episodes on your computer.

Now that being said, if I actually get a book published . . . go pay full retail and buy it in the store. And buy one for a friend.

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Guest Post (and a damn good one): Sickness and Travel

It is inevitable that you will get sick on the road. If you are lucky, this sickness will involve a quick trip to the doctor and some anti-parasite medication. If you are me, your illnesses will straddle several continents, a multitude of body parts and an exploration of Eastern and Western medicine – all in the span of one year. I am happy to report that I am in the Philippines (and currently healthy!), and that the gamut of my illnesses were not life threatening. In fact, had I not been so stubborn about ignoring how awful I felt, I would have been able to avoid a lot of doctor's visits and insurance claims. But then I wouldn't have all this information about getting sick on the road, nor would I be guest posting on Michael's blog. From free hospitals in Argentina (who knew?) to a terrifyingly long wait time in Port Elizabeth to an incredible Tibetan medicine doctor in Siberia, I have explored a significant sample of what the world's medical systems have to offer. What started in April 2008 as a cold in bone-chillingly damp Punta Arenas blossomed into bronchitis, and then – due to a systematic and intransigent inability to admit how sick I really was – went downhill from there. The thing is, I had worked so hard as a corporate lawyer – for 6 long years – to save up for this trip. I wasn't about to let some little cold get in the way. So what happened as I stuck my head in the sand was that the cold turned into bronchitis, then all the resultant coughing bruised my ribs, then the illness moved to my sinuses, then I lost all hearing in my left ear and then I ended up on a flight from Johannesburg in July, shaking with 104 fever and delirious – and heading home. It took one month of absurdly strong antibiotics, a steroid inhaler and prednisone pills to get me strong enough to walk down the street again, and it took an extra month for me to feel more like myself. To make matters more interesting, in the middle of these frighteningly exponential problems, I tore two tendons in my ankle and got food poisoning from a llama empañada. Good times. After recovering back home, I took off for Russia in the fall of 2008, determined to not get sick again. This desire turned out to be laughable, since I somehow ended up with an uncontrollable, dry cough the second I arrived in Moscow. I was confused. I was used to that kind of phlegmy, wet cough that instinctively makes everyone around you cringe. What was this arduous hacking dryness? Without wanting to see a doctor immediately upon resuming my travels (I know, I know - you'd think I'd have learnt my lesson), I resorted to a Ricola cough drop on the roof of my mouth whilst I slept and some strong prayers that I wouldn't choke during the night. My pseudo-treatment seemed to work – and by “work” I mean “'not sleeping at all for most of September but not needing to be hospitalized”. Vanquished by my exhaustion and fed up with all the coughing, I finally caved when I was in Siberia. It was time to see a doctor again. I decided to approach my guide Andre about a doctor's visit when we were in Verkhnyaya Ivolga, a tiny Buddhist village in the semi-autonomous Buriyat Republic. Tucked into the Eastern shores of Siberia's cold, windy Lake Baikal, the village did not seem like an ideal place to find a doctor, but when I discussed the matter with Andre, he felt otherwise. Andre was one of the more knowledgeable guides I've ever had, with a wealth of information about the intricacies of Buriyat life (explaining that the houses in the Buriyat villages were scattered haphazardly about because the the local Lama was the one who divined where the house wanted to live, and thus actual town planning was nonexistent) and a healthy dose of sarcasm (when someone asked why Buddhists in Siberia eat meat, the response was “We're in Siberia. What do you suggest we eat instead?”). When I talked to him about potentially needing some antibiotics, he suggested that we go to the Tibetan Clinic instead – and I am really glad he did.

Verkhnyaya Ivolga, Siberia:







The clinic was a squat, chalky building right in the empty husk of town, and once the doctor ushered me into her office I had Andre run through the laundry list of my prior respiratory issues, ending with the dry cough that had plagued me for weeks. Other than my nationality, she had no information about me or my family history. Her examination started with the basics (blood pressure, heartbeat, breathing) and then I held onto a solid brass pen-like tube connected to a current meter with my writing hand, while she took another 5-inch brass tube and touched the reflexology points in my other hand. After taking out several plastic cartons, each with 10 small holes the size of a pencil tip across and 5 holes down, she used a different tool – baton at one end, exposed wire at the other – to prod my non writing hand with the baton and poke the exposed wire into an algorithm of the holes in the plastic sheets. The meter danced or remained immobile, depending on what holes the wire touched. She then put small sachets, one at a time, between the brass pole and my hand, and continued her examination. She started asking me questions about prior ailments and as translated through Andre, they were dead on: Did I have parasites recently? (Yes, thanks to the llama empañada.) Did I have a prior problem with wheat or flour? (Yes, they diagnosed me with a gluten intolerance years ago). And then she ran through my entire family's history – on both sides. Remember: I hadn't told her a thing about them or any of my medical history either, save for the coughing and bronchitis.

The diagnosis was scratched out on a piece of paper and translated through Andre that night (once he went home to comb through his Russian-English dictionary): I was allergic to wormwood, goosefoot, down and dust mites. I've never suffered from allergies before, and was dumbfounded, but since the woman had accurately and immediately provided me with my entire family medical history I believed her. She instructed me to take a spoonful of Tibetan powder, once at morning (a shot of powder followed by water) and once at night (boiled for 5 minutes and drunk like tea), from 2 small sachets that she prepared, and promised that I would have no cough in 10 days. I put the sachets up to my nose and inhaled deeply; their scent was strong, pungent and fairly indescribable. Were I to make a perfume called “Earth” I'd want it to smell exactly like the medicine she gave me. It tasted horrific, of course.

I got back on the trains, bound for Mongolia. Luckily, the only free thing on the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian lines is hot water – so taking my medicine was easy enough. Five days on: still coughing. I moved onto the Gobi, with my friend Bryce (who travelled on the trans-sib with me). No free hot water anymore, but Bryce had packed a camping stove and he generously boiled me water at night to take my Earth Medicine. Eight days, still coughing. And then, on the tenth and last day, my cough completely stopped. In the heart of the Gobi desert, living in a yurt with no running water and a family of nomads, I felt healthier than I had in months.
Me and my home in the Gobi:

The irony: I am allergic to Mongolia. Surrounding my yurt were plants Bryce and I recognized with a start: goosefoot and wormwood. Unable to explain the personal significance of these plants to the nomads, and unwilling to engage them in the subtleties of my illnesses (the age expectancy is 64 years old in Mongolia, so my allergies obviously paled in comparison to the problems they would have), I was content to laugh to myself about the turn of events. And of course, I was happy and relieved to have an underlying reason for the cough. Moving on from the Gobi, Bryce and I headed back to the trains. Staring out of the window as I watched the Mongolian steppes fade into the distance, to be replaced by staggering mountains as we dutifully chugged into China, I marveled at my first experience with a Tibetan doctor and resolved to be more open to Eastern medicine in the future.
Approaching Beijing, following the border crossing at Erlian:


* * *

I am obviously not a medical professional, but below I've listed some of the Dos and Don'ts that I have cobbled together from 14-odd months on the road:

Do:
● Do try and bring a friend who speaks the local language. If that fails, bring a Point-It Dictionary and a lot of patience.
● Do keep sterile syringes on you. They take up very little room and are indispensable the one time the hospital or doctor has run out of clean needles. These are much cheaper to purchase on the road – I bought mine in Chile.
● Do invest in travel medical insurance. I took mine out as a Canadian national, meaning I am covered everywhere in the world except Canada. Check the riders for activities such as scuba diving, skydiving, jumping off random bridges or high altitude climbing if you've a bit of an adrenaline addiction, like I do. A good resource is BootsnAll's travel insurance page.
● Do eat street food, often. The reality is, street food is a great way to explore local culture and cuisine, will earn you props with the locals and is usually a safer option than whatever fancy restaurant is in town. So long as you stick to street carts that have lineups or a good turnover, and make sure your food is cooked through, you are less likely to get food poisoning than a quiet touristy spot.
● Do read How to Shit Around the World before taking off. If possible, try to read this book in public places, with the cover in plain view. You will make new friends.
● Do bring some acidophilus or probiotics tablets with you (the ones that do not need to be refrigerated, e.g. Pearls), to take after a cycle of antibiotics. These will help build up the good bacteria that your antibiotics cycle has destroyed. For the ladies, these will also help with some of the nastier antibiotics side effects.
● Do try and let traveller's diarrhea take its course without resorting to Immodium. the Immodium will just trap the bad bacteria in your intestines and potentially make you sicker in the long run. Instead, try and stick to oral rehydration salts and lots of water - unless, of course, you are taking an 18-hour overnight bus ride through the Andes from Cusco to Ica. In that case, go nuts with the Immodium. And then hope that the bus doesn't break down.

Do Not:
● Do not fall asleep in the hospital waiting room. You will wake up to a small child trying to tie you to your chair. Despite having 104 fever and a serious desire to crawl under the chair and sleep, you will muster up enough rage to push said small child away.
● Do not climb above 5000m (16,000 feet), for three weeks in a row when you have severe bronchitis. Similarly, do not climb a mountain requiring you to hoist yourself up steep ladders or ropes when you have several bruised ribs.
● Do not get food poisoning when you are about to embark upon a 3-day jeep tour through the Bolivian Antiplano. It will not be pleasant.
● Do not be as enthusiastic about antibiotics as your local doctor. Though they are important for certain types of ailments, the dosages and frequency will be higher than you are used to and it is equally important to be cautious about consuming so many – they take their toll on your body, believe me.
● Do not follow my street food rules, above, if you are in India.

___

Born in Montreal, Canada, Jodi Ettenberg is a former corporate lawyer who quit her job to travel around the world. Starting in April 2008, Jodi has traipsed through South America, Russia and Mongolia, China and a good part of South East Asia, blogging the whole way. You can read about her adventures at http://www.legalnomads.blogspot.com/.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Visas, Dollars and Bureaucrats (and cabbies, again)

I need to write this while it is fresh in my mind, because I don’t want to make any notes about it or have to think about it again for as long as possible.

TIP: Big travel tip. Always, always keep $300-$500 of U.S. Dollars in your possession somewhere. Obviously, you don’t need to keep the money literally on you at all times, but have a stash of U.S. cash somewhere in your luggage. If you get under $300, buy some U.S. money at the next possible place you can buy it. . . because you might just end up somewhere you can’t get dollars. And that is bad.

English is the lingua franca of the world. If you are going to know one language, there is no doubt that English is the one that is going to get you the farthest. Corollary: the United States might be in decline or disrepute in some areas of the world – OPEC might be considering changing payment for their oil from dollar-based to euros or some basket of currency – crazy people out there might want to run trucks full of explosives into our embassies – George W. Bush might (indeed) be Satan, but. . .

The U.S. greenback still rules. There is no substitute.

After my screwed-up situation at the Kenya/Ethiopia border from Saturday to Monday, it took me until Tuesday afternoon to get to Addis Ababa. I was under the impression that I would be able to go to the Ethiopian immigration office Wednesday morning and get my visa, so that I could proceed on to applying for my visas for Sudan and Egypt.

I’d just been through bureaucratic hell at the border. What form of selective amnesia came over me to think that I’d just be able to walk in and some bureaucrat would slap a visa into my passport? Seriously. What the hell was I thinking?

I first went to the U.S. Embassy Wednesday morning to talk about my situation with them. Although I was suffering from some sort of selective amnesia, I was coherent enough to realize that I might just get arrested when I showed up at the Ethiopian immigration office, in the heart of Ethiopia, without a valid visa in my passport, though I did have an entry stamp from the border. The people at the U.S. Embassy were fairly amazed at my story and even more amazed that I had somehow, luckily, gotten to Addis. They had me fill out a registration form, giving them the hotel I was at and my other information, in case something (arrest being the primary concern) happened to me and told me to give them a call later to tell them ‘how it worked out.’

My taxi then took me to the Ethiopian Embassy to get my visa. I went to office 77, which is the office for foreign nationals. I explained my situation. They were confused and sent me to office 80, down the hall. The people in office 80 then sent me upstairs to office 97. Mr. Dematow’s office. The head of immigration. The person that twice (at least) rejected Paul and my appeals at border to be let in – only to finally change his mind when the South African bikers traveling with Paul went over his head to someone in the Foreign Affairs office. Basically, he never wanted to let us in and only did so under direct orders from someone higher up on the bureaucratic food chain.

That person higher up wasn’t with me now.

I profusely thanked Mr. Dematow for him letting us into his wonderful country and explained that I just wanted to go ahead and pay for my visa, get legal, and follow all the rules and regulations to properly be in Ethiopia. He told me that a visa wasn’t necessary. If I would just call his office the day before I was to leave his country, he would call the border post that I was going through and make sure that my exit would be expedited. My entry stamp signaled that I was in Ethiopia legally and if I had any problems, I should just call his office.

I’ve worked in government. I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of bureaucrats. I’ve been through the red-tape parades as a lawyer. I recognized the content between the lines.

This guy was pissed. Someone higher up had jumped down his throat to get us across the border and he wasn’t happy about his turf getting encroached upon. He wasn’t going to do anything more for me, unless he had to. He shushed me out of his office with false hospitality – “don’t worry. Everything will be fine. Enjoy Ethiopia.”

As I saw it, there were three possible problems with me not having a valid visa: (1) I was still going to travel some in Ethiopia and if some cop asked me for my ID, I could get arrested in small town two days away for being here illegally, (2) I still had to apply for a Sudan and Egyptian visa and they might reject me because I didn’t even have a valid Ethiopian visa, and (3) even if I got a Sudanese visa, I could get detained at the Ethiopian border when I tried to exit. None of these possibilities seemed appetizing.

The next day, Thursday, I went back to the U.S. Embassy to explain my concerns and see if there was someone there that might be able to call Mr. Dematow and talk some reason into him. The folks at the U.S. Embassy were really helpful and nice. They completely understood my concerns and someone called Dematow about them. After a short while, they came back and told me they had talked to him and he said there wasn’t any problem – I just needed to come back to the office and apply for a visa in the normal manner.

This would have been helpful information to know yesterday, when I was standing in his office, right upstairs from where I needed to get the application.

Took my cab back to Ethiopian immigration and went back to office 77, to get the application and fill it out. The person in that office wrote something on the back of my form in Aramaic and sent me to office 82. That person wrote something on the back of my form and sent me to office 80. More writing and sent to office 97. Mr. Dematow’s office. The acid test.

His secretary sent me on in. He told me, “You need to start downstairs,” and I said, “Yes sir. I’ve applied downstairs and been through those offices. They sent me up here to your office,” as I handed him my marked-up application. What I didn’t know at this point was that a few hours before, Paul had been in this same situation, and Dematow tried to put him off with the “your entry stamp is all you need” story that he’d given me yesterday. Paul was able to get the Foreign Office person to intercede at that point and make sure Dematow approved his getting a visa. I’m not sure it was that or the U.S. Embassy calling him on my behalf, but after a few pointless questions about my travel plans in Ethiopia, he made some more notes on the back of my form and sent me back to office 77.

Back in office 77, after a long wait (I’d killed about three hours in the various immigration offices at this point), they took my picture for my visa and sent me to office 78 --- the payment office. Whooo hoooo. I was going to get approved and get my visa!

I went in and sat down. The lady at the desk looked at my application and asked me for $20. I asked how much that was in Ethiopian birr. She said they didn’t accept birr, only dollars.

Yes, I was in an official Ethiopian governmental office and they wouldn’t accept their own currency for payment. If I was a currency trader, I’d say this was a pretty good indication to short the Ethiopian birr.

I didn’t have any dollars on me and by this time, it was almost 6 p.m. I couldn’t get back to my hotel and get the last $100 bill I had on me and make it back. The woman told me she’d hold my application form and I should just come back at 10 a.m. the morning and pay. She seemed really nice and sincere, but I didn’t sleep too well that night. I figured there was about a 50-50 chance that I was going through the entire process again the next day.

The other problem I had at this point was that I didn’t have enough dollars to pay for my Egypt and Sudan visa. According to what I’d read, the Sudan visa was $100 and the Egyptian one was either $15 or $30. I only had the one $100 bill left on me. So, in the morning, before the immigration office opened, I took a cab to the main branch of the biggest bank in Ethiopia, Dashen Bank, to buy some more dollars.

There they told me that I could only buy dollars if I had an airline ticket showing I was leaving the country. I told them that I wasn’t leaving by plane, that I was going to go overland to Sudan. “I’m sorry. We can’t give you any dollars.” “Is there any place I can buy dollars in Addis?” “I don’t know.” Problem. I went to another bank and a Forex office. Neither even offered the option of getting dollars if I had an airline ticket; they just looked at my like I was a moron when I asked if I could buy dollars.

I went back to the immigration office and the woman that waited on my in office 78 remembered me. She pulled my application off the pile on her desk, as I said “thank God” under my breath, and asked me for me $20. I handed her my $100 bill. She looked at it for a second and said she couldn’t accept it.

A caveat to my earlier tip about carrying U.S. dollars: for some reason, the only dollars accepted around the 3rd world are the new dollars with the oversized portraits of the people on the front, the ones they started making in the mid-90s. If you have ‘old’ money, it isn’t going to get accepted anywhere. An additional note, they money also cannot be ripped in any fashion – I had a bill turned down previously because there was a quarter-inch rip in it. I’m not sure what they would do if someone had written on the money, but I wouldn’t count on it getting accepted.

I’d been aware of this situation for months and my $100 bill was one of the new ones. . . but it was a 1998 bill and she told me they only accepted bills minted after 2001. Why, you ask?? Don’t ask why. There is no explanation.

I begged. I pleaded. I told her that it was my last U.S. bill and that I’d already unsuccessfully tried to buy some more, but could not find a place to sell U.S. Dollars to me. I asked her to run it through her machine that detected forgeries again (she’d already run it through three times).

Like some cabbies, some bureaucrats also aren’t agents of Satan. She finally relented and went ahead and took my $100, gave me four $20s back, and told me I could pick up my visa the next morning.

And speaking of cabbies that aren’t horrible people, I still had to find a way to get some more dollars to pay for my Egyptian and Sudanese visas. I do find it especially amusing that Sudan hates, hates the United States. . . but they will only accept our money at their embassy.

Someone had told me that I could buy dollars at the Sheraton Hotel in town, which, by the way, is one of the nicest hotels I have ever seen. It has to be the nicest hotel I have ever seen outside the U.S. or Europe and would be a five-star hotel if they transplanted it to London. I went to the bank office located there and they also told me I couldn’t get any dollars without a plane ticket out of the country.

So, the next day, I went to an internet café and made a fake reservation on expedia.com for a plane flight from Addis to Cairo. I’d had to do this 3-4 times previously, in order to show various border agents proof that I was leaving their country (a requirement to enter some places). If you go through the booking process, almost to the end, you can print off one of the screens that shows your name, reservation, cost of ticket, etc. Show that to a border agent and you’ll get stamped in.

This morning, I went back to the Sheraton with my passport, my Ethiopian birr and my fake plane ticket, in order to buy some dollars. The woman at the bank looked at my reservation for a while and said that it didn’t show a ticket number. She needed a ticket number to put on her form. I told her that it was an electronic ticket and that they wouldn’t give me the actual one until I got to the airport. “Then you can buy the dollars at the airport after you get the ticket.”

Great. I’m pretty serious about this round-the-world-without-flying thing, but I’m not going to actually buy a $1,000 plane ticket, just so I can go cash some money to get the dollars I need to proceed overland to Sudan, Egypt and beyond.

I got back into my cab and noticed there was another foreigner standing at the cab stand. She had a bunch of cabbies surrounding her and she was crying. I asked my cabbie what was going on and he said that she was trapped here and needed to buy dollars to get out. “That’s MY situation!” My cabbie said, “O’, well if its OK with you, I told her that I’d go get her some dollars to exchange with her.” I told him that was not only perfectly fine, but asked if I could buy $300 from him as well. He told me it would take an hour or so to find it, but he could just drop me off at my hotel and come back in an hour with the money.

And so he did. Three $100 dollar bills. Official exchange rate is 11.25 birr for $1. Black market rate was 13.2 birr per dollar. I’d never been happier to overpay for something in my life. 4,000 birr later and I had $300 in my hands. Another good cabbie – right as I was ready to condemn the whole lot of them again. And my first black market exchange to boot.

Now let’s see what those Sudanese bureaucrats say on Monday, when I show up applying for my transit visa. At some point soon, I could really use a couple boring, mundane days. Really boring would be great. Sightseeing. Maybe a tour.

Who wants to loan me $250 to check into the Sheraton for a night?

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Visas, Dollars and Bureaucrats (and cabbies, again)

I need to write this while it is fresh in my mind, because I don’t want to make any notes about it or have to think about it again for as long as possible.

TIP: Big travel tip. Always, always keep $300-$500 of U.S. Dollars in your possession somewhere. Obviously, you don’t need to keep the money literally on you at all times, but have a stash of U.S. cash somewhere in your luggage. If you get under $300, buy some U.S. money at the next possible place you can buy it. . . because you might just end up somewhere you can’t get dollars. And that is bad.

English is the lingua franca of the world. If you are going to know one language, there is no doubt that English is the one that is going to get you the farthest. Corollary: the United States might be in decline or disrepute in some areas of the world – OPEC might be considering changing payment for their oil from dollar-based to euros or some basket of currency – crazy people out there might want to run trucks full of explosives into our embassies – George W. Bush might (indeed) be Satan, but. . .

The U.S. greenback still rules. There is no substitute.

After my screwed-up situation at the Kenya/Ethiopia border from Saturday to Monday, it took me until Tuesday afternoon to get to Addis Ababa. I was under the impression that I would be able to go to the Ethiopian immigration office Wednesday morning and get my visa, so that I could proceed on to applying for my visas for Sudan and Egypt.

I’d just been through bureaucratic hell at the border. What form of selective amnesia came over me to think that I’d just be able to walk in and some bureaucrat would slap a visa into my passport? Seriously. What the hell was I thinking?

I first went to the U.S. Embassy Wednesday morning to talk about my situation with them. Although I was suffering from some sort of selective amnesia, I was coherent enough to realize that I might just get arrested when I showed up at the Ethiopian immigration office, in the heart of Ethiopia, without a valid visa in my passport, though I did have an entry stamp from the border. The people at the U.S. Embassy were fairly amazed at my story and even more amazed that I had somehow, luckily, gotten to Addis. They had me fill out a registration form, giving them the hotel I was at and my other information, in case something (arrest being the primary concern) happened to me and told me to give them a call later to tell them ‘how it worked out.’

My taxi then took me to the Ethiopian Embassy to get my visa. I went to office 77, which is the office for foreign nationals. I explained my situation. They were confused and sent me to office 80, down the hall. The people in office 80 then sent me upstairs to office 97. Mr. Dematow’s office. The head of immigration. The person that twice (at least) rejected Paul and my appeals at border to be let in – only to finally change his mind when the South African bikers traveling with Paul went over his head to someone in the Foreign Affairs office. Basically, he never wanted to let us in and only did so under direct orders from someone higher up on the bureaucratic food chain.

That person higher up wasn’t with me now.

I profusely thanked Mr. Dematow for him letting us into his wonderful country and explained that I just wanted to go ahead and pay for my visa, get legal, and follow all the rules and regulations to properly be in Ethiopia. He told me that a visa wasn’t necessary. If I would just call his office the day before I was to leave his country, he would call the border post that I was going through and make sure that my exit would be expedited. My entry stamp signaled that I was in Ethiopia legally and if I had any problems, I should just call his office.

I’ve worked in government. I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of bureaucrats. I’ve been through the red-tape parades as a lawyer. I recognized the content between the lines.

This guy was pissed. Someone higher up had jumped down his throat to get us across the border and he wasn’t happy about his turf getting encroached upon. He wasn’t going to do anything more for me, unless he had to. He shushed me out of his office with false hospitality – “don’t worry. Everything will be fine. Enjoy Ethiopia.”

As I saw it, there were three possible problems with me not having a valid visa: (1) I was still going to travel some in Ethiopia and if some cop asked me for my ID, I could get arrested in small town two days away for being here illegally, (2) I still had to apply for a Sudan and Egyptian visa and they might reject me because I didn’t even have a valid Ethiopian visa, and (3) even if I got a Sudanese visa, I could get detained at the Ethiopian border when I tried to exit. None of these possibilities seemed appetizing.

The next day, Thursday, I went back to the U.S. Embassy to explain my concerns and see if there was someone there that might be able to call Mr. Dematow and talk some reason into him. The folks at the U.S. Embassy were really helpful and nice. They completely understood my concerns and someone called Dematow about them. After a short while, they came back and told me they had talked to him and he said there wasn’t any problem – I just needed to come back to the office and apply for a visa in the normal manner.

This would have been helpful information to know yesterday, when I was standing in his office, right upstairs from where I needed to get the application.

Took my cab back to Ethiopian immigration and went back to office 77, to get the application and fill it out. The person in that office wrote something on the back of my form in Aramaic and sent me to office 82. That person wrote something on the back of my form and sent me to office 80. More writing and sent to office 97. Mr. Dematow’s office. The acid test.

His secretary sent me on in. He told me, “You need to start downstairs,” and I said, “Yes sir. I’ve applied downstairs and been through those offices. They sent me up here to your office,” as I handed him my marked-up application. What I didn’t know at this point was that a few hours before, Paul had been in this same situation, and Dematow tried to put him off with the “your entry stamp is all you need” story that he’d given me yesterday. Paul was able to get the Foreign Office person to intercede at that point and make sure Dematow approved his getting a visa. I’m not sure it was that or the U.S. Embassy calling him on my behalf, but after a few pointless questions about my travel plans in Ethiopia, he made some more notes on the back of my form and sent me back to office 77.

Back in office 77, after a long wait (I’d killed about three hours in the various immigration offices at this point), they took my picture for my visa and sent me to office 78 --- the payment office. Whooo hoooo. I was going to get approved and get my visa!

I went in and sat down. The lady at the desk looked at my application and asked me for $20. I asked how much that was in Ethiopian birr. She said they didn’t accept birr, only dollars.

Yes, I was in an official Ethiopian governmental office and they wouldn’t accept their own currency for payment. If I was a currency trader, I’d say this was a pretty good indication to short the Ethiopian birr.

I didn’t have any dollars on me and by this time, it was almost 6 p.m. I couldn’t get back to my hotel and get the last $100 bill I had on me and make it back. The woman told me she’d hold my application form and I should just come back at 10 a.m. the morning and pay. She seemed really nice and sincere, but I didn’t sleep too well that night. I figured there was about a 50-50 chance that I was going through the entire process again the next day.

The other problem I had at this point was that I didn’t have enough dollars to pay for my Egypt and Sudan visa. According to what I’d read, the Sudan visa was $100 and the Egyptian one was either $15 or $30. I only had the one $100 bill left on me. So, in the morning, before the immigration office opened, I took a cab to the main branch of the biggest bank in Ethiopia, Dashen Bank, to buy some more dollars.

There they told me that I could only buy dollars if I had an airline ticket showing I was leaving the country. I told them that I wasn’t leaving by plane, that I was going to go overland to Sudan. “I’m sorry. We can’t give you any dollars.” “Is there any place I can buy dollars in Addis?” “I don’t know.” Problem. I went to another bank and a Forex office. Neither even offered the option of getting dollars if I had an airline ticket; they just looked at my like I was a moron when I asked if I could buy dollars.

I went back to the immigration office and the woman that waited on my in office 78 remembered me. She pulled my application off the pile on her desk, as I said “thank God” under my breath, and asked me for me $20. I handed her my $100 bill. She looked at it for a second and said she couldn’t accept it.

A caveat to my earlier tip about carrying U.S. dollars: for some reason, the only dollars accepted around the 3rd world are the new dollars with the oversized portraits of the people on the front, the ones they started making in the mid-90s. If you have ‘old’ money, it isn’t going to get accepted anywhere. An additional note, they money also cannot be ripped in any fashion – I had a bill turned down previously because there was a quarter-inch rip in it. I’m not sure what they would do if someone had written on the money, but I wouldn’t count on it getting accepted.

I’d been aware of this situation for months and my $100 bill was one of the new ones. . . but it was a 1998 bill and she told me they only accepted bills minted after 2001. Why, you ask?? Don’t ask why. There is no explanation.

I begged. I pleaded. I told her that it was my last U.S. bill and that I’d already unsuccessfully tried to buy some more, but could not find a place to sell U.S. Dollars to me. I asked her to run it through her machine that detected forgeries again (she’d already run it through three times).

Like some cabbies, some bureaucrats also aren’t agents of Satan. She finally relented and went ahead and took my $100, gave me four $20s back, and told me I could pick up my visa the next morning.

And speaking of cabbies that aren’t horrible people, I still had to find a way to get some more dollars to pay for my Egyptian and Sudanese visas. I do find it especially amusing that Sudan hates, hates the United States. . . but they will only accept our money at their embassy.

Someone had told me that I could buy dollars at the Sheraton Hotel in town, which, by the way, is one of the nicest hotels I have ever seen. It has to be the nicest hotel I have ever seen outside the U.S. or Europe and would be a five-star hotel if they transplanted it to London. I went to the bank office located there and they also told me I couldn’t get any dollars without a plane ticket out of the country.

So, the next day, I went to an internet café and made a fake reservation on expedia.com for a plane flight from Addis to Cairo. I’d had to do this 3-4 times previously, in order to show various border agents proof that I was leaving their country (a requirement to enter some places). If you go through the booking process, almost to the end, you can print off one of the screens that shows your name, reservation, cost of ticket, etc. Show that to a border agent and you’ll get stamped in.

This morning, I went back to the Sheraton with my passport, my Ethiopian birr and my fake plane ticket, in order to buy some dollars. The woman at the bank looked at my reservation for a while and said that it didn’t show a ticket number. She needed a ticket number to put on her form. I told her that it was an electronic ticket and that they wouldn’t give me the actual one until I got to the airport. “Then you can buy the dollars at the airport after you get the ticket.”

Great. I’m pretty serious about this round-the-world-without-flying thing, but I’m not going to actually buy a $1,000 plane ticket, just so I can go cash some money to get the dollars I need to proceed overland to Sudan, Egypt and beyond.

I got back into my cab and noticed there was another foreigner standing at the cab stand. She had a bunch of cabbies surrounding her and she was crying. I asked my cabbie what was going on and he said that she was trapped here and needed to buy dollars to get out. “That’s MY situation!” My cabbie said, “O’, well if its OK with you, I told her that I’d go get her some dollars to exchange with her.” I told him that was not only perfectly fine, but asked if I could buy $300 from him as well. He told me it would take an hour or so to find it, but he could just drop me off at my hotel and come back in an hour with the money.

And so he did. Three $100 dollar bills. Official exchange rate is 11.25 birr for $1. Black market rate was 13.2 birr per dollar. I’d never been happier to overpay for something in my life. 4,000 birr later and I had $300 in my hands. Another good cabbie – right as I was ready to condemn the whole lot of them again. And my first black market exchange to boot.

Now let’s see what those Sudanese bureaucrats say on Monday, when I show up applying for my transit visa. At some point soon, I could really use a couple boring, mundane days. Really boring would be great. Sightseeing. Maybe a tour.

Who wants to loan me $250 to check into the Sheraton for a night?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Guest Post from an Expat

Part of the fun of becoming an active blogger is that you have the chance to "meet" other bloggers out there. The blogging community is pretty great and I've really enjoyed reading stories from others out in the world. And I've been quite amazed and surprised by how many people reply to emails and offer help/advice on your travels.

One of the bloggers I've been following is Kyle Hepp. She's married a guy from Chile and is living down there now. I asked her to jot down some good and bad things about being an ex-pat and this is what she sent me to post here on my site.

Go check her site out also: http://www.kylehepp.com

3 of the most frustrating things about living abroad:

1. Life moves on without you. Yes, I know, I’m stating the obvious. But honestly, it’s one of the hardest parts of being an expat. Your grandparents die and older relatives get diseases as old people tend to do, you see your friends get married, have babies, all via Facebook, and you wish you could be there.

2. Friends move on. As an expat, lots of people you meet will also probably be in a constant stream of transition. It’s hard to put down roots places and it’s even harder to make long term friends with people for that very reason – you’re always leaving and they’re always leaving.

3. You’re never really home. Your adopted country may not accept you as an actual local but you no longer fit in in the place you came from. You’re an official nomad!


3 of the best things about living abroad:

1. You make a new life for yourself. And honestly, it’s so very rewarding to know that you’ve stared down a new country and culture in the eye and won! Relocate within a country – psshhh, anyone can do that. Relocate and learn a new language all while dealing with visa headaches that no non-expat can even imagine, now that’s a challenge.

2. The friendships you do make are the important ones. Because life as an expat is so fleeting you start to have a great people filter for knowing who you want to spend the time to get to know. The friendships you decide to invest time into become that much more meaningful. There’s an expat bond I think that will never go away, even when one you of moves away (yes, not if, when it eventually happens).

3. You’re always home. As someone who’s lived all over the world you know what matters – and I can tell you that what matter isn’t where you are. It’s the company you keep. It’s the experiences you allow yourself to be opened to. It’s the mind numbing awesomeness of knowing you are truly a citizen of the world. Cheesy yes, true yes – Home is where the heart is. That’s something you can never take away from an expat.

By Kyle Hepp
http://www.kylehepp.com/

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Border Crossing -- Kenya/Ethiopia

Border crossings. In this day and age, shouldn’t it be fairly easy to cross a border between one country and another? Of course, I say this knowing that perhaps one of the hardest countries to enter in the entire world is my own. Perhaps the last few days have been intended to partly equalize that karmic inequality.

I was in Nairobi for few days attempting to get my Sudan visa (a country that is difficult to enter for good reason – they don’t want anyone in there to perhaps tell the outside world what is going on there, between the ongoing problems in Darfur, Southern Sudan looking for independence, and China trying to make it another one of their provinces because of the presence of oil). I finally got fed up with the Sudan Embassy in Nairobi and decided to head to Addis Ababa to get my Sudan visa there, on the advice of a number of different people that said it would be easier to accomplish there.

I’ll skip over the details of how I got from Nairobi to Moyale for another blog. Suffice it to say that the 850 kilometers took me three full days to transverse. One day by bus and two days in the bed (and on top of) a medium-sized lorry. It was entertaining.

I didn’t end up getting to Moyale until about 6 p.m. on Friday night. I’d read in both the guidebooks and from various travelers’ blogs that the buses from the Ethiopian side of the border onward to Addis Ababa all left before the border crossing opened – and I’d arrived after it had closed for the day. So, I checked into a hotel on the Kenyan side of the border, spent the night (though the shower didn’t work, so the filth of the last three days lingered on), woke up the next morning and proceeded to the border. I expected to get through the border crossing, find a hotel on the Ethiopian side to spend the day and evening in and depart before dawn on Sunday morning for the day and a half trip to the capital.

I should insert here that I not only asked at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi (while there to see about my Sudan visa), but also read in my recently issued guidebook, and read online from at least three different sources, that I could get my visa into Ethiopia at the border post in Moyale. The same as I have done in every single country so far in Africa.

When I walked into the Kenyan border post to check out of Kenya, the agent there asked if I had an Ethiopian visa. I told him that I’d been told I could get one at the border. Very nicely, he told me that wasn’t the case, that he wouldn’t stamp me out of Kenya yet and that I should go to the other side of the border to see if they’d let me in first. He also said there was another muzungu (white person) in the same situation that had just walked over to the other side.

I walked over to the Ethiopian side and was quickly informed, again quite nicely, that they didn’t issue visas at the border and that I’d have to go back to Nairobi and get one there. The other guy in the same situation, Paul Harbidge, was a Brit on a motorcycle trip from Capetown to Cairo with five of his friends for charity. His story about being misinformed about the visa situation was much worse than mine.

FYI: their blog is at http://www.3boyzonbikes.com/

When Paul got to South Africa to hook up with his friends, all six of them sent their passports to the Ethiopian Embassy in Johannesburg to get their visas. The embassy issued visas for the five South Africans, but returned Paul’s without a visa, telling him that a British citizen needed to get one at the border crossing upon entering. Thinking it made little sense to not just issue it then, since he was asking for it in advance, he called the Ethiopian Embassy in London and was told the same thing in that office – you need to just get one at the border. Of course, when he got to the border, the agents there told him that he needed to get one in advance and they couldn’t issue one.

Paul had made friends with another group of South Africans that were crossing in a Land Rover. One of them knew the South African Ambassador to Ethiopia and managed to get him on his cell phone. On a Saturday morning -- very impressive. The Ambassador talked to the agent in charge at the border for a while, but he couldn’t talk him into letting Paul – and now me, since I’d latched into this effort – into Ethiopia.

Adan, the Ethiopian guy in charge, said we had two and only two options. Either we could get some official document from his superiors in Addis Ababa faxed to him, saying we could come in, or we had to go back to Nairobi and get a visa from the Ethiopian Embassy there.

Option two entailed a minimum of a 4-5 day round trip, down and back some of the worst roads I have ever encountered. It was not a tasty option. Paul and I immediately decided that option was our last resort.

We asked Adan if the other bikers went ahead with copies of our passports, got visas issued for us in Addis and faxed them back to him, he would accept that and we were assured that would be fine. We also got the name of the person in Addis that was in charge of the immigration department. Paul and his friends had a fixer in Addis that had helped them on the particulars of the trip and between that person and their contacts in South Africa, they thought they might be able to get through to that person and get approval for Paul and I.

Paul and I gave Mark , one of the bikers, photocopies of our passports and extra passport photos, to see if he could arrange visas for us on Monday morning in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. We had the name of the head guy in charge of immigration that they needed to convince. They had a long ride ahead of them and they left around mid-day on Saturday, so they could get to Addis Sunday night, in case we needed them to exercise that option Monday morning.

NEWS BREAK: As I sit here typing this, at 5:30 p.m. Sunday night, Paul just hurriedly knocked on my door and said, “we have to go to the border now – supposedly we have approval. Now!” It will be our fourth or fifth trip to the border in two days – I’ve lost exact count.

Now back to the story in chronological order. Paul had a local guy also assisting him, named Hadj. Hadj is a 56-year-old former English teacher from Moyale on the Kenyan side. As we learned over the new few days, he had lived in Moyale for most of his life and had relatives all over the place. In his son’s shop, I used the photocopier to make copies of the pages in my passport. We ate lunch Saturday and Sunday at a place owned by his sister-in-law. His brother-in-law owned the hotel we stayed at. Sunday after lunch, we went by his house and met some nieces (one of which wants to go to medical school somewhere in the West and Hadj was joking about her marrying either Paul or I for the visa), nephews, grandchildren and Hadj’s 83-year-old mother, sick in bed.

After our initial visit to the border, Hadj took us back to the hotel and Paul started making some calls to people that might be able to help. He called the person that organized the trip in South Africa and got him calling around and also called Tsegaye Asfaw, their fixer for Ethiopia, and got him calling around. Rsegaye called back and told him there was a letter from the Ethiopian Trade Ministry that said there were 38 countries, including the U.K. and the U.S., that could get entry visas at any border crossing and said he was going to fax it to us, so we could go and show it to the agents. He also said that he had contacted a person on the Ethiopian side of the border who would meet us at the office at 3 p.m. that afternoon. Hadj found a place in town we could fax the letter to, Paul called Tsegaye and gave him the number, and we waited. And waited some more. The fax didn’t come in and all of Paul’s calls to Sergey went directly to his voicemail.

But armed with this new information, we headed back to the border to see if we could talk our way in. No such luck. And no one from the Ethiopian side showed up to help us out either. It was the first of many brief glimmers of hope in the next two days dashed out by an official "uhh, no."

We later found out that this information in the letter might have been true at one point, but it doesn’t appear to be true anymore. Although we still aren’t totally sure, it appears that you can only get an entry visa upon entry at the Addis Ababa airport, if you enter via plane.

Hadj took aside Adan and the other guy that appeared in charge on this trip over and told them that we were willing to make a payment of $300 U.S. to them, if they could see clear to letting us pass the next day. Perhaps the two of them could call and explain the situation to someone in Addis that could approve our entry and then we’d be on our way. The two agents told Hadj they would ‘work on it,’ but they couldn’t promise anything. They told us to come back tomorrow morning at 8 a.m., before the border opened at 9, and perhaps we could get in.

We went back the next morning at 7:30. No sign of Adan or the assistant. Paul and I sat at a coffee shop next to the immigration office while Hadj went around to see what was going on. Some local Ethiopians that knew Hadj came at sat with us for coffee and told us that this issue came up with reasonable frequency – at least 5-6 people a month were in the same boat as us. We asked them what happened in those cases and they said that sometimes the people turned around to Nairobi and got the visa there, but sometimes they were let through. The best advice they could give us was to make it clear that there was no way we were turning back to Nairobi and contact anyone we knew that could somehow exert pressure on the people we needed to convince in Addis.

Hadj came back and told us that he’d found the overall supervisor for the Ethiopian border office and that this person was going to meet with us away from the office. He said that he was friends with a mutual friend of the supervisor and that he’d be assured that we could get this all worked out. It was unclear if there needed to be some sort of payment made.

So we went to the other location. It was a barbershop. The mutual friend of Hadj’s and the supervisor’s was their barber. Seriously. We waited there a bit and then the barber and Hadj jumped in a cab to go talk to the supervisor at some other location. They came back and told Paul and I to jump in the cab and we rushed off back to the border office. We were assured by Hadj and the barber we were getting the visa in minutes.

And we got rejected again. I was never sure on the details, but Hadj said he repeated the offer of $300 and was told that money wasn’t the issue – the agents were afraid of getting in trouble with someone at the capital if they let us through. They said they had talked to the head immigration guy in Addis the night before and he wasn’t going to let us in.

A few hours later, Tsegaye called Paul back and said he had also talked to the head immigration guy and that was true. He wasn’t going to let us in. But Tsegaye also assured us that once Mark and the other bikers got to Addis with copies of our passports that we could get visas issued in that manner, which makes sense, because tour operators do that sort of thing all the time – sending passports off to get visas.

I didn’t have much hope of the Sunday bribery plan from the beginning. When Hadj was talking to Adan and the other guy the afternoon before about us making a payment to grease the wheels a bit, my read of their body language was that wasn’t going to fly. So, we went back to the Kenyan side to get some lunch and relax at the hotel. I was actually quite confident that Mark and the others would get us visas in the morning in Addis, fax them down, and we’d be on the road by mid-afternoon, at the latest. It’s the optimist in me.

It is a bit funny -- before I left on my trip, I told a number of people back home that I wanted to come back with a "bribing a border crossing agent" story. Now that I was actually in that position. . . I was less enthused about the story.

Then came a couple of phone calls came on Sunday afternoon. Mark was calling from Addis. He’d been on the phone with a few people trying to pull some strings since he’d arrived in Addis and initially it didn’t look good on that front. He was still optimistic about getting a visa through the normal channels, but it didn’t look like we could cross until Monday at the earliest.

Then Paul came and knocked on my door at 5:30, with the “let’s go” message. We rushed off in a cab to the other side of the border and Paul explained that ten minutes after the last no-go call came, Mark had called back and said that he’d gotten us approval to get stamped in, but that we had to go to the border immediately. Paul had no idea who Mark had talked to in order to get approval and we had no idea if that person had called the border to get the information to Adan and the other guy (I think it later turned out to be someone high up in the Ethiopian Foreign Office). And we were fairly certain that the office was going to be closed at this time of the day also.

Now that I write that, I remember there was another trip earlier to the border crossing post. I forget the details of how we were crossing that time, but it didn't matter -- everyone was gone for lunch. Apparently the whole office closes for two hours at lunchtime.

When the cab got to the military checkpoint on the Ethiopian side (the military guys knew us on sight by this time), Adan was there to meet us with a smile. The call had obviously gotten through to him.

He and his assistant opened the office back up and warmly welcomed us to Ethiopia. They explained a couple of times that it wasn’t their decision to give a visa or not – it was up to someone higher up – which was undoubtedly true. Nonetheless, Hadj suggested that Paul and I each give $50 U.S. to them. Merely as a thank you for opening the office back up and stamping us in at this late hour, of course. Fine by us, just as long as we got the damn stamp letting us in.

And get it we did, though we still don’t have the visa. We have the entry stamp in each of our passports, but when we get to Addis, we need to go get the actual visa from the appropriate office. That is the subject of yet another blog.

And now, Paul just knocked on the door. Time for a cold beer. A really, really good cold beer. And then a two day ride to Addis in a truck.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Visa Day Two

OK, so according to the guy at the gate at the Sudan Embassy, it would help if I got a letter (of what content, I have no idea) from the U.S. Embassy about my trip there. So, I got up this morning and went out there by van, now that I've figured out how those work now.

I got to the U.S. Embassy around 9:45 this morning. Remember, yesterday I got there after they closed at 3 p.m. As I got to the gate, I showed the guard my passport and told him I needed to see someone about writing a letter for me.

"You know the office closes at 10, right?"

Now I REALLY want a job in the Foreign Service. Turns out the office responsible for helping U.S. citizens abroad is open from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., then again from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

What a job.

As a U.S. citizen, I got to skip to the head of the line, past the people applying for visas (all dressed far, far better than I was). Quickly got shown into the office dealing with issues for Americans. Through pexiglass, the woman working that desk asked me what I needed. I told her that I was applying for a visa to go to Sudan and that the people there said that a letter from my embassy, since I wasn't working for an N.G.O., might help. She told me that the United States government doesn't need to write letters -- the passport is all we need -- and that the Sudan Embassy knew that.

OK. I tried. Back on the buses to the Sudan Embassy.

I was worried I would make it by the time they closed, but I was determined to make it back there by van/bus. To make a longer story short, I got there at 11 -- in plenty of time. The security guard at the front gate recognized me and threw out a very hearty "Jambo! You are back." I signed in and he pointed me to the office I needed to go to for the visa.

When I got in there, the woman behind the plexiglass handed me two identical applications for a visa. I made sure I was supposed to fill both out. No explanation, but of course I was. It was perhaps the worst designed application I have ever filled out -- I had very little idea if I was putting any correct information in the spots they wanted it.

I filled it out as best I could and took the applications and my two passport photos (bring a couple dozen passport sized photos with you if you multi-country travel -- it is necessary). She took the application and asked the questions I dreaded: "When are you flying into Sudan?"

"I'm not flying, I will be coming to your country by bus."
"When will you be arriving?"
"I'm not sure -- I'd like a visa for about a month from now."
"You don't know your exact plans?"
"No, I am just traveling. I would like to go from Ethiopia to Egypt through Sudan, if I could."
"Did you get a letter from your embassy?"
"I just came from there -- they said they don't do letters like that."
"Why don't you just fly?"
"I am trying to see more of the world. I really would like to see Sudan a small bit, if I can."
"Why don't you apply for a visa in Ethiopia?"
"I heard this embassy was the best one to apply at."

I wasn't making any progress. She didn't ask for my application money. She was looking at me like I was an idiot.

"Do you have your Egypt visa?"
"No, I am going there after Sudan. I wanted to get my Sudan visa first."
"They will want to see your Egypt visa. You are an American. They aren't going to like this. Why don't you go get your Egypt visa first and then come back?"

And that was that. She kept my application and told me that she'd put it in a file, until I got the Egypt visa. Given her response, I wasn't too optimistic.

I went back to my hotel and across the street to an internet cafe. I'd been emailing a tour operator in Sudan as my fallback about getting a visa. He'd previously said he could arrange it for $150 U.S. I re-emailed him and told him about the day. He told me not to worry about it. He said just go to Ethiopia and I'd be able to get both the Egypt and Sudan visa quickly, with no problems.

Here's the main reason I trusted him -- he didn't want any money. I asked him, if I didn't get the visa quickly in Addis Abeba whether I could hire him to get them for me. He told me basically, don't worry about it -- you can do it without me for free. No worries. Hakuna matata -- a phrase that I totally love, even if it was in The Lion King.

So, I'm off to Ethiopia. I think it will take three full days on buses on the worst roads I've yet experienced, to get to Addis Abeba. Hopefully.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

its not all fun, frolic and glamour on the road. . .

While I have enjoyed almost every single minute on the road and have truly appreciated the dozens of emails that have gone something like "sounds great! Wish I was out there doing the same thing," there are then days like today.

I wish it was all wine and roses out here. Alas, it is not.

As many of you know, I am in Nairobi. Although, in my opinion, this city appears to have gotten a little bit of a bad rap (its referred to as Nairobbery by many), I really don't want to spend too much time here. I am ready to push north as soon as possible. The problem is that I need a visa to get through Sudan -- and that is supposedly not an easy thing for an American to get.

So I set today out to get started on that process. And I wanted to try to find my way around Nairobi a bit on foot -- since its appeared to be pretty safe to me in the downtown area the last few days -- and since the Sudan Embassy appeared on the Lonely Planet map to only be 7-8 blocks away.

I got started around 10 a.m. this morning. I walked around the corner to where the Sudan Embassy was on the map. I didn't see any sign for the embassy where it was supposed to be. I asked a couple security guards in the area where it was. They gave me some complicated directions that seemed to indicate the embassy was 4-5 kilometers away.

Let me pause at this point and make a quick point about asking directions in Africa. Everyone here is INCREDIBLY helpful. Everyone wants to help you find whatever you are looking for. I probably have asked for directions 50 times or more in the last 4-6 weeks. I have yet to ever get a "I don't know" as a reply. Every single time, the person I ask just starts kicking some directions back to me.

Problem is that about 75% of the time, the person I am asking has no idea what they are talking about. I've talked to a number of travelers about this phenomenon and it happens to everyone else all the time also. There is something about the African mindset that thinks it is better to try to help you, even if they have no really effective way to actually provide help. Its nice, in its way, but its also a little frustrating.

So, I trundle off in the direction that these guards told me to go, but I was thinking to myself, "my guidebook is only 2 years old, what is the chance that an entire embassy has moved in that time frame?" When I got about two blocks away, I ran into a policeman and asked him for directions also. He pointed me back to where I came from and basically told me it was in a high rise building at the same place my guidebook indicated. I turned back around and went to the building.

I got inside and asked the security guy at the desk what floor the embassy was on and he told me. . . the embassy had moved about 4-5 kilometers away. OK, so the original security guards next door were right and the cop was wrong (though all of them sounded equally convinced they were 100% right -- which makes deciding on which directions to follow a bit difficult). The guy at the desk told me I could take the number 8 bus right to the embassy. Well, not really a bus per se, more like a run-down van, but just as effective. Just tell the driver on the bus to let me off at the Sudan Embassy. The number 8 bus stopped only a couple blocks away.

I found a number 8 van and asked the driver about the Sudan Embassy. He told me it was on his route. I paid my 20 shillings (about 25 U.S. cents) and felt pretty proud of myself that I wasn't going to pay about 750 shillings for cab. A short while later, the driver told me to get out and pointed down the road.

I walked down the road a little bit and the Sudan Embassy was right there. I walked up to the front gate and asked about a visa. A very, very nice guy came out in a few minutes and told me that part of the embassy was closed for the day. It was about 1 p.m. That part of the embassy is only open from 9 a.m. until noon. I asked him how many days it would take me to get a visa and he said "two." I asked again to make sure and he repeated it back to me.

Right now, I am literally knocking on wood in the internet cafe. I'm hoping that just writing that hasn't jinxed me.

He said, "just make sure you have all your stuff in order. It is fast here. Don't worry." I asked him what I needed, just to be sure. Passport. Two passport photos. Money. And a letter from my NGO saying how long I was going to be working in Sudan.

Ummmmmmmm. Huh??

I told him I wasn't going to be working for an NGO there. I was just traveling through quickly. He said it might help me to get a letter from my embassy saying that. OK -- I thanked him profusely and told him I'd see him tomorrow morning. I then looked on my map for where the U.S. embassy was. It was outside of town on the other side of town -- looked to be about 6-7 kilometers away on the map.

Knowing a cab would cost me an arm and a leg, if I could even find one over on this side of town, I decided to take another number 8 bus back into town and either take a cab from there or find my way via bus/van to the U.S. embassy.

The van took me back downtown. I asked a couple cabbies how much to the U.S. embassy. Everyone told me 1,000 shillings ($12-13 U.S. dollars or so). I've been overbudget for a while and was getting pretty cocky about navigating via the bus/van thing, so I said screw that and went around asking van drivers and such which one I needed to take to get to the U.S. embassy.

It was about 2:30 at this time. I gave myself about a half hour to see if I could figure out what van to take. After asking around for a bit, I came to a semi-consensus (like getting directions, figuring things out like this by asking locals needs to be done on a triangulation basis -- ask 4-5 people and see if most of the signs point the same way). Consensus was the number 11 van, and most people thought I could find one a couple blocks away. Which I did.

Out to the other side of town, which is a beautiful, tree covered neighborhood, with a number of embassies in the area. Found the U.S. Embassy around 3:30. As I was walking up to the security gate, I literally muttered to myself, "let's hope that U.S. embassy personnel actually keep moderately real office hours."

Nope. The office that does U.S. citizen assistance closes at 3 p.m.

Now look, those of you that know me, know that I was very prone to having quite short office hours myself. That is, when I felt like working at all. But when I was a government employee, I actually did show up at the office from 8 to 5 or 9 to 5. I was getting paid by taxpayer money -- I thought it was usually a good idea to at least be there.

I want a foreign service job when I'm done with this trip.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Plugged in

It is a bit funny to me that I am writing and posting this particular blog on the day before the exact halfway point on my trip. Tomorrow, June 15th, I will have been on the road for exactly six months (though I’m seriously doubting that I’ll be able to make it all the way around, without using a plane, and make it back in a year). The conversation that prompted this blog happened on December 16 – the 2nd day of my trip. It has taken me that long to go through my notes and write this one.

One of my good, and really smart, friends on this planet is a guy named Pete Kappler. Pete was one year behind me at the University of Texas at Austin. I can’t recall exactly how I met him, but I think it was because we were both chess players. Addictive chess players at the time. We met when I was a sophomore and Pete was a freshman.

Second semester that year, I took three classes. My grades: A, D, F. The only reason that I got a D, instead of an F, in that one class was that it was a Russian Literature class and the Professor was on exchange from Mother Russia. I took the first test (then didn’t show up for the second one or the final) and he didn’t think he could fail anyone that passed any of the tests.

The specific reason for that semester’s poor grades was that Pete and I, and another friend named Dave Rubin, played chess at my apartment about 14-16 hours every day. Well, not just at my apartment, we also played frequently at the Austin Chess Club, we formed the University of Texas Chess Club, and we played in tournaments all over Texas. I didn’t make it to class very often. I think Pete did a little better than Dave and I that semester, but I don’t think his performance was exactly stellar.

I had different reasons for poor grades in other semesters. Chess was just my addiction de jour.

Pete went on to graduate from UT with some sort of math degree, I think, and eventually went out to California and landed with Google. He ended up as one of their top programmers and eventually moved into a management position. He got married to one of the best women I’ve ever met, Jeri, had a couple great kids and moved back to Austin. I don’t have life envy of many people – but I’ve got more than a bit of life envy of Pete.

On the second day of my trip, I took a train from Dallas to Austin and Pete picked me up at the train station. We went back to his house, dropped off my stuff, and went out to get some dinner and drinks. We talked about Google, about married life on his part, single life on my part, about the Longhorn football team, and also about how both of us felt way too “plugged in” in today’s society.

We ended up talking about that last topic for hours over the next two days. Both of us are basically internet addicts. He at least has an excuse: his job. I, on the other hand, feel a constant compulsion to just see what is going on at all times.

The internet is sort of like heroin to me – and the needle is constantly plugged into my arm.

When I was back at home, I probably checked espn.com once or twice an hour – just in case there was some new sports news or analysis article posted that I wanted to read. Instant message program always on in the background. Clicking on the “check mail” button on my email program about every ten minutes or so. Reading an article, on whatever topic, and then clicking on every hypertext link inside the article that takes you to more content. News sites. Sports sites. Newspapers online. Blogs. Texas Ranger forums. You name it, I’m reading it.

Except I’m not really reading anymore. One of the articles I read last year (and I actually read it – the magazine in my hands, shockingly) was an article in The Atlantic about how our brains were being rewired by how we read online these days. Almost everything in this article applied to me.

The Atlantic Monthly

I don’t read anymore. Truly read, that is. I just skim. I’m constantly scrolling down to see what the next link is, or when the article is about to be finished. I’ll notice that I will ‘read’ 4-5 paragraphs without have any recollection at all of what I’ve read. I sometimes will read an entire article online, click onto something else, and then when I try to recall what I just read, literally ten seconds ago, can’t even remember the topic.

It’s particularly punishing to me because I used to be an excellent reader. I love to read. My book addiction is one of my longest lasting (and most productive) addictions of my life. I’ve probably got around a thousand hardcover books back at my house. When I die, the Fayetteville Public Library is going to throw a huge party in my honor after they get my bequest. In college and in the years I lived in D.C. (before the internet), I used to read for hours and hours and hours at a time. Every Sunday morning, I would go out and buy the New York Times and the Washington Post and read them from beginning to end, an effort that would usually take the better part of four hours. . . and lots of good coffee.

And as I told Pete, I think I’ve almost entirely lost the skill of concentrated reading. Last year, I took a month off to go to Nicaragua and see whether I could put up with myself for an extended period of time. A trial run for this trip. I took about 7-8 books with me, including some James Joyce.

I just couldn’t read it. I tried. I tried four or five times to get started with it, but the language was so dense, I just couldn’t manage to concentrate. I would read for a few pages and then realize that I had absolutely no recollection of anything that had just happened on those pages. I eventually gave up and just read all the other books I brought with me.

When Pete and I were talking about all of this, we found that we had both evolved – or devolved – in this same fashion. It was as if some of our intelligence was just slipping away, and neither of us were old enough for that to be the natural course of things. And Pete has a much big reservoir of intelligence than I do – I need every bit of rainwater I can hold on to.

I told him that one of the reasons I was excited about the trip was that it should offer me much more ‘slow time’ that I ever get at home. Times when I can’t just click a mouse and get on the internet. Times when there is nothing else to do than read a book or think about life, absent the ever availability of friends’ conversations. Time away from the phone. Away from work. Away from much of what had become my life.

And that I’d promised myself to make one more effort and reconnecting with books. Big books. I knew I was going to read a variety of things that were easy reads, but I promised myself I would make one last effort to tackle some of the classics. Crime and Punishment was the big one I brought with me. As I told Pete, if I managed to make it through it, so much the better. But if my brain was so fried at this point that I just couldn’t read at that level anymore, this was the time to figure that out. I wouldn’t be happy if my big reading days were over, but I was content with that possibility.

I’ve made it through about half of Crime and Punishment so far. I was generally right about having more slow time – and removing the availability of distraction has helped a great deal. Its not easy and currently I’m reading two other books instead, but I will finish the damn thing before I get to St. Petersburg. And I will walk around that town with Crime and Punishment in my hand, opened to the map in the beginning, and attempt to find some of the landmarks from that book. I would have never guessed that day will be one of the highlights of the trip, but although I’m not there yet, I feel certain it will be.

And then pick up another book of substance. Because rebuilding one’s brain in the 21st century is going to take some concerted efforts. I better get to it while I’ve still got a few synapses available to fire.

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More random thoughts in Africa

It has been a little while since I’ve written and a lack of content is certainly not the excuse. I have immensely enjoyed my last month or so in Africa, from Zanzibar, to Moshi, to Kilimanjaro, to Uganda, and now in Nairobi for a few days.

There is a great blogging network out there and I’ve had the good fortune of ‘meeting’ a few of them online. A few of them have warned me that writing is something that must be done with regularity or you run the risk of getting out of the habit and having a hard time getting started again. I fear that I fell into that trap in the last few weeks; so today I am going to sit here (in this open-aired bar in Nairobi, with a cold Tusker beer on my table) and write all afternoon.

Some small thoughts I jotted down on my ride back after climbing down Mount Kilimanjaro from the village at the park entrance to Arusha:

• There are a large number of small bars that line the major roads in Africa, almost all with a Coca-Cola sign out front that has a picture of a beautiful black woman taking a big swig of Coke and then has the name of the bar printed in block letters beside her. All of the signs are exactly the same, except for the name of the bar.

One of the bars I saw on this particular day was the Agape Canteen. Agape is most often used in the States in conjunction with the name of some church, e.g. Agape Baptist Church of Loneview. I thought it was odd to see a bar named in the same fashion, so I went ahead and looked up the definition to make sure:

“a·ga·pe 2 (ä-gä'pā, ä'gə-pā')
n.
1. Christianity Love as revealed in Jesus, seen as spiritual and selfless and a model for humanity.
2. Love that is spiritual, not sexual, in its nature.
3. Christianity In the early Christian Church, the love feast accompanied by Eucharistic celebration.

A great line from a great movie (Princess Bride) came to my mind when I initially saw the sign: “I don’t think that word means what you think that word means.”

• The road between Moshi, which is a fairly large town near the foot of Kilimanjaro, and Arusha, which is the biggest city in the area, is about sixty kilometers or so. Between the two are a collection of small villages.

I saw a lot of guys riding old, one speed bicycles on that part of the highway. They each had 5-6 plastic, yellow jugs strapped to the back of their bikes. After seeing a couple dozen of these guys peddling along, I asked Eyan what the story was. He told me that they were bringing 20 litre jugs of fresh water to a market 10-15 kilometers away to sell. Luckily, the part of the road from the well to the market was slightly downhill. He told me they sold each of the jugs for 200 Tanzanian shillings.

The current exchange rate for Tanzanian shillings is about 1,250 shillings per U.S. Dollar. These guys were biking 20-30 kilometers round-trip for about a dollar.

There is a phrase that has been knocking about in my head for a few months now: the good fortune of the geography of birth. Get used to hearing it from me frequently. Any of our souls could have emerged anywhere on this vast planet. Count yourself lucky that you ended up where you did – cause it ain’t nothing more than good luck.

• Another common sight in Africa is chickens running around free everywhere. When you go into the smaller villages, you regularly see dozens of chickens and baby chicks just wandering around everywhere. The question that I still haven’t gotten a good answer for is how everyone keeps track of whose chickens belong to whom.

The other thing that popped into my mind was the old joke we’ve all heard a hundred times: why did the chicken cross the road? As I saw three chickens crossing the highway in front of our car, I thought that we’ve all probably used that phrase numerous times in our lives. . . and never seen a chicken actually cross a road. Even if you grew up on a farm, your chickens were probably cooped up or in some fenced-in area.

By the way, they did make it to the other side.

• When is the last time you saw a gas station attendant? And by gas station attendant, I mean someone that actually pumps the gas – not the guy sitting in the booth taking your money after you pump your own. I may be wrong, but I think every single gas station that I’ve seen in Africa has gas station attendants.

• There was a road sign that I really, really wish I would have gotten a picture of on this particular road. It was just a simple rectangular sign, black writing on a white background:

“danger!”

No explanation. No “beware of animals crossing.” No “beware of flooding” or “intersection ahead.” Nope.

Just generalized danger, I suppose. Words for all of us to live by.

• This isn’t a particular image from that one car ride, but one that has applied all through East Africa: you see guys holding hands all the time here. Its not a homosexual thing – friends just walk down the street holding hands. In fact, I’d wager that homosexuality is close to a stoning offense in many of the places I’ve been, so seeing guys (rarely women – just guys) walking around holding hands is a bit disconcerting.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with it.”



• One of the other sights you encounter on a regular basis is women walking around carrying baskets or other large objects on their heads. It is amazing how they can keep this stuff balanced on their heads as they walk around. Some of the baskets or whatever are really damn big, and must occasionally weigh a lot. And for the most part, they walk around without ever using their hands to keep things balanced.

On the this road I saw a variation of this that I hadn’t seen before. There was a middle-aged woman walking down the road with a large woven basket on her head, practically overflowing with corn. It had to have weighed more than 20 pounds. Her left leg was amputated above the knee. She was walking using crutches in both of her arms. Amazing balance.

• Another one that has nothing to do with this particular car ride, but my mind was wandering when I was making notes. Ugali. You just have to try it. Try to make sure that there is some sauce with it that gives it some flavor though.

• And some of the roads lately (not this one, but I’ll put this comment here) have been horrible. Simply horrible. I’ll write about one of the overnight bus rides I took separately, but one of the general observations I want to make is that although the roads are poor – and as a result, your vehicle is rarely traveling that quickly – there are speed bumps all over the place. Your car or bus might only be going 25-30 miles per hour, but anytime you get near any populated area you are going to have to go over a speed bump about every 100 yards or so.

It’s obviously a good thing that there is a concern for public safety, but if you are in the back third of a bus (none of which have any suspension after getting assaulted on these roads), you get a little sick of getting tossed about so often when banging over these speed bumps. And while we are on the topic of public safety – speed bumps area good start, but perhaps the same governments that are mandating those might want to think about a little stricter licensing policy before letting some of these folks loose on the roads in the first place.

• Last observation for this post is another sign I saw on the road that I absolutely loved. It was the same as every single other side on the road. Same Coca-Cola sign (which is used for shops, groceries, bars – almost everything). Same block lettering. Same, small run-down building.

“The Happy Shop”

I’m still upset that I didn’t make Eyan stop the car. I would have liked to have met that store owner. And maybe bought something there – one can never have too much happy.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

quickie in Africa

I am sitting in an internet cafe in Kisori, Uganda right now, awaiting my overnight bus (on one of the worst stretches of road I've been on yet) back to Kampala. Then tomorrow morning, I will take another bus to Nairobi, Kenya and start on my Sudan visa quest. But as bad as the internet is - no pictures yet - thought I'd give you a quick update.

I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last week. It was amazing. Difficult. Rewarding. Just simply one of the best experiences of my life. Blog coming soon.

Then I spontanously decided to hop a bus from Arusha, Tanzania to Kampala. I had 4-5 days to kill before I needed to be in Nairobi and decided to add another country to the trip, since I heard Uganda was beautiful. It is.

Got here Sunday morning (bus ride will be another blog) and decided to have a rest/beer day. Needed it badly. Also decided to make a seemingly futile, last ditch effort to get a pass to see the mountain gorillas in Bwindi National Park. They offer eight a day. At $500 U.S. a pop. Most are reserved months in advance. But there are cancellations. . .

I got a pass for Wednesday on that Monday afternoon. Hopped an overnight bus down here. Got a good night's sleep last night - first one in a while. Up this morning and got my hour with about 12 of the 19 mountain gorillas in this group in the park. I am hoping that a couple of the 250+ pictures I took actually are in focus. Perhaps some video also.

Pretty good week. Kili and mountain gorillas inside of seven days. Neither of which were booked in advance. I may be the luckiest traveller I know (knocking on wood as I say that, in the hopes I don't totally jinx myself.)

Lots of blogs and pictures from Nairobi this weekend. Promise.

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