The Mobile Lawyer

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

Monday, August 31, 2009

A friend needs a hand

And she has promised me a REALLY expensive bottle of wine, if my readers give her some help. Easy to do -- she is trying to win a $10,000 travel writing contest. She's quite the travel writer and deserves to win. So. . . she's done up a quick link about how to vote for her to win this thing.

Follow this link. Easy directions. Vote early and often (Texas style -- or Chicago machine politics style).

VOTE now. Damn it.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Haircut and a Shave

I recently just finished reading Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods, which is the story of him attempting to walk the Appalachian Trail. As is true for everything of his that I have read, it is a complete page turner.

Sometimes he finds himself just stopping on the trail, looking around in wonder and saying to himself, “I am doing this.”

I can’t tell you how often I have done that myself on this trip.

One of the points he makes in that book is a point I had been thinking about quite a lot, even before reading him: the appreciation of very small pleasures. He is basically on an extended camping trip in the book and so when he occasionally comes upon a town, he has a renewed appreciation for cooked food or freshly cleaned clothes or a non-leaky shelter for the evening.

Some of the biggest joys of travel aren’t the big things, but the small things that you experience every day in your normal life.

I have always enjoyed a cold drink on a hot summer day, but I have never appreciated a cold Sprite as much as I did on the third day of our truck trek across the Sudanese desert. Two and a half days with everything you touch, eat or drink being hotter than your body temperature will make you appreciate when you can find a cold drink.

Those Sprites (I bought two and chugged them both down in under five minutes) were some of the most memorable drinks of my entire life.

There have been a lot of moments like that for me on this journey. When I was in my taxi from Acaba to Petra, we were driving on the King’s Highway in Jordan. It was a completely modern, divided highway. I looked at my companions in the cab and said, “I think this is the first modern highway I have been on in more than four months.” I never thought I’d appreciate something like that in my life – or appreciate it that much.

A bus seat that reclines to somewhere around 45 degrees. A free plug to recharge my iPod. The view of water, with a cold beer in hand. Finding a good, or at least acceptable, book in a book exchange in a hostel. Air conditioning. An honest cabbie. A hot, or at least lukewarm, shower. An email in your inbox in the morning from someone that you look forward to hearing from. A good map.

I have absolutely loved some of the big things on this trip – Kilimanjaro, Manchu Picchu, animals, on safari, Lailbella, Petra – but I would have a hard time saying that I have loved them more than the small things. Just not sure on that question yet.

One of the small pleasures I have always appreciated is a good, straight-edge razor shave after a haircut. Hell, even without a haircut. There is something great about feeling a barber run a straight edge razor over your face and shave you so cleanly and crisply that it doesn’t even feel like you ever possessed facial hair in the first place.

And the sound. You can hear each and every hair of your beard being cut. It’s a rasping sound. But it actually sounds clean. If clean could be described by a sound – I think this would be the one.

On the day I was leaving Damascus, I shouldered my bag and walked over to one of the old parts of town for lunch. My train wasn’t due to leave for a few hours, so I had some time to eat and wander a bit. As I walked down one of the alleys, I saw an old guy – a really small old guy – in his tiny barbershop giving someone a shave.

Barber chair reclined. A fully lathered up face. And this tiny barber shaving away with the finesse of someone that had done it for decades – as no doubt he had. I was starving, so I have to delay my gratification until I could scarf down some kabobs and rice.

Well, I had to delay my shaving gratification – the food was pretty gratifying also.

As soon as I was finished, I went back down, dropped my backpack on his sofa and got mentally ready for a big smile that was certain to appear just minutes in the future.

He spoke about ten words of English, but there isn’t much need for communication to make this effort a success. I made the pantomime motions for a haircut and a shave, he nodded vigorously, sat me down in the chair, and started wacking away. After the haircut, the shave. It was just as expected. Wonderful.

The only slightly disconcerting thing was that he was the friendliest barber of all time. Every single person that walked by his shop got a wave and a ‘hello, how are you?’ in Arabic, out of him. It was hard to tell how often he actually looked at my face, but even if he was doing it my pure muscle memory and touch, it was great in my book.

Sometimes it is the small pleasures.


Updated Travel Stats

My very good friend, Doug Muzzy, requested a basic update on how I’ve managed to get from Egypt to Instanbul and I thought it would be a good time to update some of my travel statistics and recent basics of the trip. I don’t think I’ve done that since I left South America. Which gives me an excuse to post an old link to one of my old posts. . . and tell you if you haven't read any of my older stuff -- it is there and ready for you to read now :)

travel times update

As to the route, for Doug, I crossed Lake Nassar from Wadi Halfa, Sudan to Aswan, Egypt on the weekly ferry. It is the only overland method to get from Sudan to Egypt and vice versa. At Aswan, I took my leave of the Oasis Overland truck that I’d traveled on for the last three weeks.

They were on a five-month trip from Capetown to Cairo and were a heck of a lot of fun to travel with for a few weeks. That being said, I have no idea how they managed to travel together for that long a period of time – more power to them, but there is no way I would have made it (or more likely, no way they would have been able to put up with me for that long and would have voted me off the truck).

Another great friend of mine, Dave Roberts, flew from Germany (he and his wife’s home for the past four or so years) to meet me at Luxor. I took the train from Aswan to Luxor to meet him, we saw the sights there, and then we took the overnight train to Cairo and spent a few days there. Dave then flew back to Germany to finish packing for their move back to the States, which I think happened this week. I then took a bus over to Dahab, on the coast of the Red Sea and did some scuba diving there.

In Egypt, I decided to cheat on one of my travel goals. As most of you know, I decided before the trip started to get one tattoo on each of the continents I went to. On the original route, that was to be five tattoos. Since my route change, it’s now going to be six.

In Panama, I got the map of the world. In Uruguay, I got the modes of transport that I was going to use on the trip, for the most part. In Africa, I was going to get the summit of Kilimanjaro and the date that I summited (June 4, 2009). My unexpected problem is that there are very few tattoo parlors in Islamic countries – tattoos are frowned upon here. I did manage to finally find one online in Cairo, but the additional problem I had was that I was due to leave the next day to scuba dive for a few days. Fresh tattoos and swimming are not a good mix.

So I put off the Africa tattoo until leaving Africa. I will be getting it done in Berlin, since I will have a bit of a wait there for my Russian and Chinese visas. Considering how short a period of time I am going to be in Europe, I’m totally unsure of what tattoo is going to be appropriate for there also, but I have a destination neutral idea, so I will be doubling up my tattoo total in one location.

In any case, back to the route. From Dahab I took the ferry to Aqaba, Jordan. That ferry is the only option, if you are planning on going to Syria or any of the other countries in the Middle East (and Indonesia, I think) that will not let you enter if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport.

From what I’ve read, you can sometimes talk the Israelis to stamp a piece of paper upon entry, instead of your passport, but that isn’t guaranteed. The other problem is that even if you get the Israelis to agree to do that for you, the Syrians might still turn you down if you have an exit visa from Taba, Egypt, because if you exited from there. . . you had to be going to Israel.

Damn immigration agents.

The reason that the ferry isn’t the preferred choice, if you had a choice, is that it’s a bit unreliable on its departure times. For me, it was only about three hours late in leaving, so not a big deal. I’ve heard of ten-hour delays.

From the port of Aqaba, there was a group of about eight of us that met on the ferry that were all going to Petra. We negotiated a fairly reasonable group rate from two taxi drivers to take us there. From Petra, I took a minibus to Amman, switched to a taxi cab to the Syrian border, waited around there for about five hours for my visa (they aren’t big fans of Americans, hence the delay) and then took another cab to Damascus.

One of the things I didn’t expect in the Middle East was how compact everything is – the distances are so, so much shorter there than what I’d been experiencing everywhere else on the trip. Taking a taxi from city to city would not have been a realistic option in many other places on the trip. There, it is common.

I wanted to take the train from Damascus to Hamah, but the cab driver must not have understood which station I was trying to get to and he took me to the bus station instead. So, bus to Hamah and another bus from there to Aleppo, in northern Syria. From there to Goreme, you should have already read my blog about taxis and idiot bus companies. If not, scroll on down and read it.

In Goreme, I met Aileen and we then took an overnight bus to Olympus, then she went off somewhere for a couple days and I went directly on to Istanbul on another overnight bus.

That very boring update provides me the opportunity to update my time/method of travel information. I don’t think I’ve done this since I got to Africa, so here goes. From Capetown to Istanbul:

Bus 265 hours
Train 65 hours
Truck/lorry 109 hours
Ferry 5 hours
Taxi 8 ½ hours

Total 452 ½ hours = 18.85 days

I arrived in Capetown, South Africa on April 10th and left Istanbul on August 28th. That is roughly four and a half months. For some reason, I have been telling people that I spent five months in Africa (and another half month getting to Istanbul). Apparently reading a calendar isn’t one of my talents. I’d expected originally to get out of Istanbul about three weeks before I did, but now that I look at the timeline, I think I did fairly well, all things considered.

Books read on this leg of the trip:

Notes from a Small Country and Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (I aspire to be one-third as good/funny/interesting as he is)
Quiet American by Graham Green (best English language writer to not win the Nobel Prize in the 20th century)
Loving Frank by
Too Close to the Sun: The Finton Hatch Story by Sarah Wheeler (Robert Redford in ‘Out of Africa,’ quite interesting)
Around Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks (maybe my silly travel ideas really will inspire some publisher sometime)
The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara by Terry Brooks (mindless fantasy stuff)
Treaty Planet by Anne McCaffrey and Jody Lynn Nye (mindless poor sci-fi)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (depressing doesn’t come close to describing it)
Lolita by Nabakov (master wordsmith. . . in his 3rd language)
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Memories of my Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (incredibly good. One of the best I’ve read.)
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (very good Japanese author I had never heard of)

Three continents so far an only two countries that I didn’t like: Costa Rica and Ethiopia. And even for those two countries, I can honestly say there are incredible things to see there. Both countries have gotten excellent reviews from many other travelers that I know or that I have read. My dislike of each isn’t me just be contrary, which I am certainly capable of, but rather just that I just had bad experiences in both of them.

In Ethiopia’s case, perhaps I built it up too much in my mind. It was one of the 6-7 countries that I was most excited about visiting on the entire trip. The danger with heightened anticipation is that the expectations are that much harder to meet. On the other hand, some of the countries that I had low or no expectations of (Columbia, Syria, Egypt, Uruguay, Uganda) were some of my favorites.

Probably a lesson in there somewhere. One of the phrases I’ve used for a long time about setting goals in your life might apply: set the bar low; you will look that much better going over it.

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Goreme, Turkey to be exact. Sunrise balloon ride over the hills.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

The Norias of Hamah

17 Norias (water wheels) that date back to Ottoman times in the city, which is in Syria. When they are in use, they make a distinctive sound.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Scuba videos

These aren't that good, but I bought this little camera and underwater casing. . . so here ya go.

Dahab, Egypt. On the Red Sea. Incredibly good diving. Great place. Highly recommended, even if you don't dive. The coral reefs are literally just yards off shore. Great snorkling. Mt. Sinai is less than two hours away. You can do a day trip to Petra. And more and more.

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New pictures up on

I know that I've been gone about 8 months now and its taken me this long, but I finally realized that not everyone can see my pictures on Facebook. So I'll try to be better about uploading them to picasaweb and noting it on here.

Here are some samples of Damascus.

From Damascus
at the huge souk in Damascus. I love spices. I miss cooking

From Damascus
Umayyad Mosque. Massive. One of the most important mosques in all of the Islamic world.

From Damascus
the head of John the Baptist is supposedly in here, inside the mosque.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

pissed off in Turkey

I’d better write this while its all still on my mind, because I’d prefer to just purge it as soon as possible. I’ve written before that all is not wine and roses when on the road this long – though many travel writers paint such an overwhelming positive picture about the glories, without ever mentioning the down sides. Maybe that is the way to get published and I’m going to have to wipe out these occasional down-side travel stories.

A couple of days ago was one of those simply annoying and aggravating travel days.

The day started in Aleppo, Syria. I was in the process of rolling through Jordan and Syria quickly, in order to get to Turkey. Originally, I had figured that I could catch a boat from Alexandria, Egypt to Istanbul or Greece – in order to continue my route to the northernmost city in the world, in Norway – but after research, I finally realized that was impossible. There was no way I could see to go by sea from Egypt to Europe. So I had to go overland quickly.

Around that same time, Aileen, a friend I met and traveled with for a while in Africa, decided that she’d had enough of the real world since she’d gotten home and wanted a week or two more of traveling. She wanted to go to Turkey. I was going to have to go through Turkey. The timing was good. She booked a flight.

She was arriving late in the evening on the 16th. I was leaving early that morning from Aleppo to meet up with her in a town called Groeme, in east central Turkey. From looking at the map, it seemed like a relatively simple travel task.

I asked the people at my hotel in Aleppo about buses from there to Antyaka, Turkey, which is about forty or fifty miles across the border. They told me that buses run pretty much all day, starting at 5 a.m. I got up around 5:30, walked to the bus station, and asked around at the various bus ticket offices about a bus to Turkey. They told me that there was one bus at 5 a.m. (that had left, obviously) and one at 2 p.m., which was going to be way too late for what I needed to do that day.

No problem. One bus company said that I could just take a taxi. This may seem odd, but distances in the Middle East are fairly short and I had already taken two of three taxis for similar distances (100-150 kilometers). I asked how much and was told 1,500 Syrian pounds (slightly over $30 U.S.). That seemed a bit steep, since the bus ticket was only 250 Syrian pounds. I told them so and they said I should wait and see if anyone else showed up to split the cost with me. Sounded reasonable, so I waited around for about forty-five minutes.

No one else showed. I then started asking other cabbies that were there how much they would charge me for the ride and quickly got a counter-bid of 750 Syrian pounds. I made sure that were talking about the same thing (going to the map and repeatedly pointing to the town in Turkey I needed to get to – making sure it wasn’t just a ride to the border). I felt assured they were going to take me all the way to Antyaka for half the price of the other taxi.

So I went back to the original taxi and asked to get my backpack out of the truck. The guy loudly said, “no, no” and pointed to the taxi and said something to the effect of “I am taking you. Your bag is already in my cab.” I told him that I hadn’t paid and that the other taxi driver was taking me right now for half of what he was going to charge me.

And he immediately cut his price to 500 Syrian pounds. Now look, I’m fine with the whole haggling thing. Hell, as a criminal defense lawyer, I had to constantly size up how much my prospective clients might be able to pay before quoting my fee. But its pretty annoying to have people quote you triple the price of what they will take. And I’m sure he was doing quite well at 500 – as quick as he offered it. I probably could have gotten the ride for 300 or so – twenty percent of the original price.

Mild annoyance, but now that I had the leverage, I made sure we were leaving immediately. For 500 pounds. Payable when I got there. Shortly after, two other guys piled into the back of the cab and we took off.

It took about an hour to the border. When we got there, me and the two other passengers went inside and got stamped out of Syria quickly and easily. On the other hand, the cabbie couldn’t get his car through customs. I never knew what was going on (no one spoke good enough English to explain), but the customs guys kept putting a rubber hose down the taxi’s gas tank, pulling it up, looking at it, and then yelling at the cabbie about something. This went on for a short while, and then the cabbie went off to talk to someone in the main building. Us three passengers were just left there to wait.

And wait. And wait. For about two and a half hours. Occasionally the cabbie would come out of the building and talk to the other two guys and make hand motions to me as if we were soon to leave. Then he’d disappear again and the three of us would just look at each other blankly.

First Syria didn’t want to let me in. Now they didn’t want to let me out. Make up your mind guys.

Eventually, the cabbie got some supervisor out of the building to come look at his taxi. The supervisor and some new assistant walked up with another rubber hose, talked to the cabbie, didn’t even put the hose in the gas tank, and let us go. Bureaucrats – gotta love ‘um.

We drove another hour or so to Antyaka and finally got there around 1 p.m. or so. At the beginning of the day, I’d figured on getting there around 10 or 11, so I was slightly worried about my schedule to get to Groeme and meet Aileen.

As we were pulling into the town, I told the driver a few times that I needed him to stop and let me change by Syrian pounds for Turkish lira somewhere. An official exchange bureau preferably. He told me “yes, yes – no problem” every time I asked. Lo’ and behold, we get to town, he stops at the place to let me out of the cab, and there is no exchange bureau anywhere in sight. He told me I could get a bus to the town I was going to across the street and I asked him again about changing my money.

He told me that he’d make change for me. I had 3,950 Syrian Pounds. That should have gotten me about 125 Turkish lira, according to the exchange program on my computer. He wouldn’t give me more than 115. I didn’t know how exchangeable Syrian pounds would be, the further I got away from the border area, so I accepted the screw-job and took the money.

The day hadn’t started off as the best introduction to Turkey.

I went across the street to buy my bus ticket. The bus was due to leave there at 3:30 and take about nine hours to get to the town of Kaysari, where I would get off and catch a mini-bus to Groeme. I was assured those mini-buses ran about every half hour and would be running that late at night. I bought the ticket and again went over it with the guy that sold it to me two or three times.

“So this bus leaves from right here (pointing at the parking lot) at 3:30, right?”
“Yes. Here.”
“15:30? (pointing to the line on the ticket that said that) From right here?”
“Yes. 3:30. Here.”
“Today, right? This ticket is for today?”
“OK, because I am going to walk into town to go to use the internet. I will be back here before 3:30. OK?”
“Yes. OK.”

I left my backpack there and walked into town to use the internet. I emailed Aileen to tell her that I was going to be in very late that night and that she might beat me to the hotel (earlier I’d told her that I’d get there way in advance of her). Checked Facebook, other emails, sports scores and such. Enjoyed the air conditioning in the café. Left at a quarter to three and got a sandwich on my way back to the bus station.

I got there right at three o’clock. The ticket guy and his co-worker were frantic.

“Bus left.”
“It LEFT??!! You are kidding me. Its only 3.”
“Bus here at 2:30. We looked for you. Could not find you.”
“You told me the bus left from right here at 3:30!”

I rarely get angry. I was furious. First time on the trip, I think, that I was screaming. I threw my small backpack down and had a semi-fit.

“No. Leaves from main station at 3:30. From here 2:30.”
“But you fucking told me it left from HERE (pointing at the ground and walking in a circle around where I was pointing) at 3:30.”
“No. We looked for you.”
“Well you wouldn’t have had to look for me if you’d fucking told me the right time the bus left in the first place.”
“Sorry. We look. You can take taxi.”
“Taxi to where?”
“To bus station. Leave now, you catch bus.”
“How much is the taxi going to cost?”
“15 lira.”

The bus ticket had cost 35 lira. Now, on account of their screw-up, the ticket was essentially going to cost 50 lira. Not a huge deal, but I was irate.

“Well, you should pay for the taxi. You screwed up. Not me.”
“No. We give refund. You can take bus tomorrow.”
“I need to get there tonight. And you fucking screwed up. You should pay for the taxi.”
“No. Refund. OK?”
“Well, you need to go now if you get bus.”

I wasn’t getting anywhere. And logically, I realized that it wasn’t that much money. If I wasn’t going to meet a friend – I’d have taken the refund and booked a ticket on the other company’s bus, which was leaving at 8 p.m. O’ well. I took the cab.

The entire next couple hours, I stewed in the bus. I read for a bit, but couldn’t concentrate. My iPod helped, but I just was going to be annoyed for a while about this.

To make matters worse, I wasn’t sure they sold me the correct ticket. In the destination line on my ticket it said “Trabzon” not “Kaysari.” I had no idea where Trabzon was, but on the other hand, I had looked at a map and knew that Kaysari was close to Groeme. I told the guys loading my back onto the bus that I was going to Groeme and asked if this ticket/bus was the right one. They seemed to say yes, but I wasn’t completely confident. On the bus, I asked when I would get to my destination, where I had to pick up a mini-bus, and they said about 1:30 a.m. I didn’t know if I would be able to get a ride that late. More stewing.

Then I looked out the left side of the bus and there was the Mediterranean. And in my last note in my journal about this particular ride, I wrote: “Totally unexpected. Smile. Guess it’s OK.”

Spoke/wrote a bit too soon.

About 10:30 that night, the bus made a stop at a bus station. One of the guys running the bus came all the way back to my seat and said, “You. Here. Groeme.” I asked if this was Kaysari. He said no, but I should get off. Groeme was as close to this station as Kaysari.

I was skeptical. I got off the bus and the young guy took me to talk to someone at this station. This guy also said that Groeme was as close to here as it was to Kaysari. By this time, they had gotten my backpack off the bus. I still was totally unsure. I asked if I could get a mini-bus from here and couldn’t get an answer. The new guy from the bus station told me to follow him and he would call a friend to see about a taxi.

No idea why I got off the bus. Of course, as we walk over to use the phone – the bus leaves.

Guy calls his taxi driver friend. Sure, he’d take me to Groeme. For 100 lira. Double the cost of the seven and a half hour bus ride I just took. I asked the guy to show me where we were on a map. He got out a map and showed me. Kaysari was a lot closer to Groeme than this town was.

I threw my second fit of the day.

“Why the hell did you get me off that bus? Was that bus going to Kaysari??”
“But Kaysari is a lot closer to Groeme than this town is – and there are mini-buses there to take me to Groeme.”
“You can get bus from here also.”
“8 a.m. tomorrow.”
“But I fucking need to get there tonight!”
“OK. Taxi?”

I’d only been in Turkey for about half of one day, but I’d taken note of one tendency here: when you are getting screwed over (intentionally or not), they just tend to smile a lot and play dumb. They might not understand my English, but even if they do, they aren’t going to admit it. This was essentially the “not my fault – guys on the bus told you to get off, not me” defense.

In the final analysis, it was my screw up to get off the bus in the first place. But that wasn’t going to stop me from being pissed.

I ended up taking the taxi. I talked the guy down slightly, to 90 lira. When I ended up getting to the hotel in Groeme, the hotel owner had me give him the short version of the story. He ended up telling me that 90 lira was a fair fare from that town, but agreed that I’d gotten screwed by essentially getting kicked off the bus. He also said that particular bus company had done it to a number of people and he didn’t know if it was intentional on their part, or just ignorance of the shortest way to Groeme.

The company is Metro. Let’s just say, I won’t be ever taking them again.

Other than that – Turkey has been fabulous. The people are great. Scenery is spectacular. Costs aren’t too bad. Tons of stuff to do. I really like it here.

I just hate cabbies, immigration agents, and now, selected bus companies.

p.s. There is this law in Turkey that says that writing or saying anything "anti-Turkish" is a punishable criminal offense. I'm assuming that this post would not rise to that level, but I'm risking it anyway!

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stuck in Sudan

at one point on our four day desert odyssey in Sudan, our driver decided to take a route that was a bit off the main road. According to his GPS directions, we were supposed to hug close to the rail line between Khartoum and Wadi Haffi.

Problem was that he decided to stick a little too close. The road went off to the left and he decided to just stick ahead and stay on the rail line. Literally, on the rail line. Well, we rode next to it for a bit, but then he had to get up on it to avoid a big washed out area.

And shortly after we got on it -- the right of it collapsed underneath us. Almost flipped the truck over. It was slightly scary, but worked out OK.

This is the video of the other overland truck getting us out of our jam. Saving our asses and getting us back on the road.

ARRGGGGG -- I have posted video from Facebook this way before -- anyone that knows what is wrong now, please email me ASAP at Thanks.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

New Pictures up

for those that aren't friends with me on Facebook.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

notes on a bus, again

Various thoughts while trying to remember how to write, since it's been so long.  Let's talk about Sudan for a bit and knock some of my notes out.

    Sudan was the first fully Islamic state I have visited – Sharia law is in effect there.  It was also the first police state I've been to.  You have no doubt read about the problems there – foremost of those the situation in Darfur, but also the independence movement in South Sudan, which might make headlines in a year or so, even in the U.S.  It's pretty much impossible to get to Darfur these days, and I wouldn't have wanted to go anyway.  No one in Sudan wants to talk about it either, so you get my thoughts and observations on other topics from this interesting country.

    Before I get to the full Sudan story, I have to tell yet another bus ride story, this time the two bus rides from Gondor, Ethiopia to Khartoum, Sudan.  At the time, I was still on the Oasis Overland truck.  Pretty much everyone on the truck was fed up with Ethiopia and wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.  Sean, an Australian/Irish guy (damn, I wish I could carry two passports) and I decided to hop off the overland truck a couple days early in Gondor and head over to Sudan on our own quickly.  Sean is a big guy – probably 6'2'' or so and maybe 225 pounds.

    We got up around 4:30 a.m. and headed over to the bus station.  We ended up on a medium sized bus to the border with a capacity of probably sixty people or so.  They managed to fit about ninety people on board.  The first four hours of the ride weren't so bad.  The last couple hours were fairly horrible. 

    Sean and I were in the last row of the bus.  Good for safety.  Bad for bounciness of the ride.  Sean was in the back right corner and right in front of him and me was the back stairwell of the bus.  They managed to fit five people in the back row of the bus.  During the last couple hours, I had three different people sitting immediately next to me (as people entered and exited).  All three stunk. 

Don't get me wrong – at this point on the trip, I stink also.  I have frighteningly gotten fairly used to showing just a couple times a week.  And if it's a cold shower, I pretty much just shampoo my hair and give up on cleaning the rest of me.  That being said, I feel fairly confident that I have never, and will never, stink as much as any of these three. 

    Did I mention that one of the particular things that is completely different in Africa than in the U.S. or Europe is that there is no sense of personal space?  At all.  I think of all the things that I've heard from travelers in Africa – this is the one that confounds and bothers westerners the most. 

At one point in the last couple hours, Sean (who was horribly uncomfortable and cramped up the entire way) had a guy sitting on his knees.  Sean's legs were slightly sticking out into the stairwell and a guy just decided to use his legs as a chair.  Or a stool.  Tough to tell.  Sean just looked over at me and shrugged.  It wasn't like we had any room to move anywhere.  Hell – he barely had room to shrug.  Like I said, he's a big guy.  And these buses are not good for big people.

One of my favorite images of the entire trip happened on the last few hours of this particular bus ride.  The bus stopped by the side of the road to drop some people off and pick more up – strangely, there always seemed to be more people getting on than off – African buses work in a different space/time continuum. 

An older guy ambled onto the bus.  Sean and I guessed that he was about sixty years old, by his appearance, which meant he was probably forty.  That obviously wasn't the highlight.

He was carrying a live chicken in his left hand.  He was carrying an AK-47 in his right hand.

Come on – that's awesome.  Africa, baby.

Another strange thing about African buses, at least the ones that you pay for once you get on (unlike the occasional nice ones where you buy a ticket):  sometimes people don't want to pay.  I've never seen this anywhere else.  It never happened in chicken buses in Central America.  I've never see it in inner-city public transport in South America.  But this bus ride was probably the 8th or 9th time I've seen it in Africa.

A guy – always a guy, of course – gets on the bus.  The ticket/collection guy comes by and asks for his money.  The passenger, now seated, shrugs his shoulders in the "I ain't paying" way.  By the way, this obviously is all happening in languages I have no comprehension of, so take my translations with a grain of salt.  Ticket guy starts yelling at the passenger.  Every time the passenger responded the same way – silence and more shrugs. 

That never works.  The ticket guy starts yelling more and pulling on the guy to evict him from his seat.  Then comes the return fire from the passenger.  I tend to think the passenger is saying something like "not 60 from here – only 20" or something of the like, but who the hell knows.  Most times in the end, the passenger hands some money over and its over.  Of course, I have no idea if they managed to get some sort of deal in the process.

That wasn't how this argument ended.  The passenger never forked over the money and the ticket guy pulled him off the bus.  As he was throwing him out the door, the passenger reached back and grabbed the ticket guy's jeans.  "That's it motherfucker – its ON!"  Again, just my translation, but I'm pretty sure on this one.

And so started the fistfight.  Briefly next to the bus, but then ranging back and forth behind the bus.  At some point, the dozens of people standing there broke it up.  It was hard to tell who got the better of it – we didn't see the passenger – but the ticket guy had a pretty nice little scrape on the side of his face.  And then the bus moved on.  No big deal.

Sean's comment?  "I've seen 3-4 fights in Africa.  These guys have no idea how to fight."  I trusted him.  Sean looks like he knows how to fight.  And he is Australian and Irish.  That's good enough for me.

We got to the border.  Did the border formalities on the Ethiopian side.  On the Sudan side, we had to do the usual immigration stamping in.  Then we had to go to the local police station and sign some register.  No apparent reason – it wasn't like they had a computer to input it into to track us – just the first glimpse that we were in a police state.

Then we got on the Sudanese bus.  The first mode of transport I had taken in about two months that left without being full.  Not even close to full.  It was a full-sized bus and there were probably only thirty people on board.  I had two seats all to myself.

And it was air-conditioned.  Air conditioning.  Mmmmmmm. 

Sean and I both tried to remember the last time that we had been blessed with air conditioning.  Ethiopia?  Nope.  Kenya?  No.  Uganda.  Tanzania.  Zambia.  Namibia.  Nope on all fronts.  It was South Africa.  Four months ago.

The bus took off.  Well, we didn't make too much progress, the first police check was about 10 minutes later.  The bus stopped and a guy got on board and checked everyone's ID.  This was the first of seven such stops on the way to Khartoum.

The fifth such check was a personal highlight.  The guy came onto the bus.  Checked everyone's ID.  Got all the way back to Sean and I sitting in the last two rows.  I handed him my passport.  He said something and pointed to my small backpack, obviously wanting to look in it.  I opened it up and showed him that I wasn't smuggling in liquor, or dirty magazines, or U.S. imperialist propaganda documents.  He pulled out my copy of Crime and Punishment and proceeded to slowly flip through it.

You never know what I might be hiding in there.

I would have given it to him – he seemed quite interested – but I have promised myself (and ya'll) that I will finish it before I get to St. Petersburg.  A possible détente moment in U.S.-Sudan relations passed by on account of my book greed. . .

One last highlight of this trip.  And yes, I realize that this blog has devolved into 'immigration agent' and 'bus' stories – but you try traveling around the world on the ground and tell me what strikes you.

As I said, Sudan is a strict, very strict, Muslim state.  Sharia law is not to be scoffed at and by all accounts, they take everything, mostly their religion, seriously here.  The woman are all fully cloaked up.  Alcohol is prohibited, strictly (we know – we tried to find some).  The government censors the internet – there are a number of websites that are banned.  Police checkpoints.  A government permission document is even needed to take a single picture inside Sudan.

The memory I shall take from the bus ride, aside from the police checks, was the selection of videos playing on the TV's in the bus.  First, there was a really horrible 1970's Hong Kong kung fu movie that was dubbed into English, with Arabic subtitles.  Fine – crappy entertainment seems par for the course on buses around the world.

But after that – in very straight-laced and Muslim Sudan – four hours of DVDs showing World Wrestling Federation championships.  O' and don't be mistaken.  These weren't just any championships.  This was Wrestle Mania XX – the Women's Championships.

Four hours of very scantily clad women throwing themselves around a ring and doing everything short of pulling off each other's clothes, in an effort to amuse and entertain Bubba out in the live audience.  One of the competitions was between two former Playboy playmates – both of which stripped off their costumes to wrestle in . . . well, about nothing.

Sean and I looked at each other simply amazed at what we were seeing.  I had figured that if I had this sort of stuff on my laptop and the police found it – I'd be doing five years hard time in some Sudanese prison.

The kicker: the Muslim women on the bus were loving it.  They were pumping their fists and rooting on their favorites.  I wanted to tell them that I could introduce them to some guys they might like back at home, but. . . well, another moment of possible U.S.-Sudan reproachmont went by the wayside.

I'd be a horrible diplomat. 

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There is a new button added to my blog. At the bottom of each blog is a button that allows you to share/post the blog on Facebook or Twitter or other sites. It would be great if ya'll would pass the word about the blog this way.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Article about my trip

and more blogs coming.  Syria apparently bans blogspot (and Facebook).  So I haven't been able to post, but I leave Syria in two days.  Will get some stuff up then.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hyenas in Harar

I have gotten more comments on the photos I just posted on Facebook of me feeding the hyenas than anything else recently, so thought it'd deserve a short blog. For those of you that aren't my Facebook friends (I post the photos there with captions), here is the link to my picasweb photo site. I don't caption these and it takes longer to upload to here, so I might not have all my photos up.

From Harar
From Harar
From Harar

OK, so the basic gist of this is that there is a small group of locals in Harar that feed these wild hyenas every night, just outside the walls of the old town. Legend has it that practice began in the 19th century, during a famine. The locals feed the hyenas to appease the animals in times of drought, so they wouldn't attack children or livestock.

They are feed some old meat that the guys buy off local butchers. The 'donations' you make to take photos go to buying the meat.

For 50 Ethiopian burr, which is about $4 U.S. dollars these days, you can take pictures of the guy feeding the hyenas, and. . . feed them yourself.

From Harar
From Harar


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lesson learned. . .again

Sometimes you have to relearn life lessons over and over before they stick with you. Yesterday, with my good friend David Roberts (who was nice enough to come join me for about a week on my trip), we both relearned one of the classics.

Always, always ask how much something is before ordering/buying/getting in and so on.

Dave's trip to Egypt was a whirlwind tour. Fly into Luxor. We hit the sights there for a couple days. Overnight train to Cairo. Hit the sights here for a couple days. Then he flies home to the wife and kids. . . and moves back to the States in less than a month. Lots on his plate.

Luxor was really, really good. More on that in another blog. The train was quite nice. And Cairo has been more than expected also. Egypt, so far, has been a huge hit with the both of us. I'm a big fan -- and didn't expect to be.

So, the train arrived two days ago around 6:30 a.m. We went and found our hostel. Checked in. Rested for a few hours. Then went and hit the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum.

The Pyramids are big. There is no other way to describe them. Yes, you've seen pictures. No, you have no good idea of how big they are, until you are standing there. Big. That's all that can be said. Just looking at them, everyone -- everyone -- sits there and thinks the same thing: "how fricking much time/effort/stone/people went into these monstrosities?!"

And my pictures are pretty poor. Really heavy smog the morning we went. Sorry.

You aren't allowed to take pictures in the Egyptian Museum, but it was much better than what I'd read in various guidebooks. Most comment on how little English signage there is on the exhibits, but seriously, how much do you want? There are little cards on most of the exhibits that give you 3-4 sentences on the object. It wasn't like we were there studying up for some Egyptology exam. And the exhibits were great.

At the Pyramids, you'd look up and say "big." At the museum, you look around and say "old." Really old.

Yes, I'm using all my big words today in this blog.

Now on to the life lesson. On Dave's last day, we decided to walk over to the Islamic section of town. We wanted to wander around, take pictures, eat a bit of local food and perhaps have some coffee or tea. Its a really nice part of Cairo. We got a smidge lost trying to find it and milled about aimlessly in some series of small alleys, which was a market section of town, but eventually we found what we were looking for.

After walking around a bit, we found a little street vendor for some food. Both Dave and I are always up for some street food (plus, I'd just gotten over my 72 hour bad stomach/adjustment to local food and water, so I was immune to anything possibly bad happening). We walked up to one of the guys cooking some sort of bean-type food and asked for "food." We got three or four bowls of stuff, plus a bunch of bread. It was obviously a place that only locals ate. When we walked up, the guy said "no Coke" before we said anything. He'd assumed we just wanted to buy a Coke out of his refrigerator and seemed quite surprised that we actually wanted food.

Good, filling meal. Cost = 2 Egyptian pounds total. That's less than fifty cents.

Then we got up and wandered around some more. We ended up walking by another guy cooking some falafel around the corner. We were pretty stuffed, but the guy got Dave to stop and try a free sample of the falafel. He loved it. I tried it. It was the best I've ever had. Dave said the same thing.

The guy asked if we wanted to get some. Absolutely. I tried to order a half dozen of the falafel balls. And then everything went downhill.

The guy waved us off and essentially said, don't worry. I will bring you food. He set up a table specially for us, right across from his little shop, in the alley. He then proceeded to bring out a feast of food -- considering we'd eaten, there was no way at all we were going to be able to finish it.

The major problem was that we never asked how much it was. Maybe we were still thinking about the two pound meal. Maybe the heat had gotten to the both of us. Maybe we were just on one of those traveler's highs, because people had been so friendly the last couple days. Maybe we were smitten by the falafel.

I don't know, but you never, never, ever get anything without asking the cost. We should have known better.

In the end, we ate about a third of the food, somehow. He wanted 110 Egyptian pounds for it. More than the dinner we had in a nice place the night before. And don't even let me think about how much more than the meal we just ate. We got him down to 90, which was at least triple what a moderately reasonable price would have been, paid it and walked away pissed off at ourselves.

If you see this guy in Cairo -- keep walking. Arrrggggggg.

And I've explained this before, but its a strange concept, so I'll do it again. Its not the money. 90 pounds split between Dave and I was about $8 U.S. dollars each. Its just that we got ripped off. Totally because we were stupid. It can ruin your mood for hours or even days.

Thirty minutes later, it all turned. I saw a kid on the street selling underwear. I needed some more boxer shorts (don't ask). I asked him how much they were and he said ten pounds. I asked if I could have two for fifteen. He asked Dave and I were we were from. We told him we were both from America. He lit right up and asked us some questions about the U.S. He was justifiably proud of his English, which was really good.

Then he told me that I could have the two pair for just 10 pounds -- although I was offering 15.

After I bought them -- he wanted his picture taken with Dave and I. Not on his camera. He didn't have one. On mine. Just to have his picture taken with us.

Faith in life restored.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Cairo traffic

Frogger with car horns.

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