Blog Retirement

I’ve decided to stop writing new posts for this blog. The whole idea behind the thing was to document parts of my trip for myself, my family and friends back home. And now that I’m back… well, I’ve run out of material (at least material I can share publicly). So time to move on. I’ll leave the blog up for sometime just in case others might like to enjoy these stories. You can sort by country via the links on the right. And if I start writing again I’ll let you all know.

Richard

Back to the USA

Somewhere in Nepal, I decided that I needed to go back to the US. It’s hard to describe why, but something just clicked inside and I knew it was time to start on my next phase/adventure/whatever-you-want-to-call-it (plus, after spending so much quality time with Ben, I wanted to see my family and friends again). I wasn’t exactly going to be flying back the very next day, but I did begin to turn my thoughts toward moving in that direction.

When I set out on this little jaunt (I left my then home in San Francisco on May 1st of 2012 and drove to my hometown of San Diego) I had the following vague goals: 1) Stay out of the US for at least one year, and 2) I must see and experience Ibiza, Ethiopia and Nepal. Otherwise, I was just going to put up a sail and see where the wind sent me. After Nepal, I didn’t have any more “must dos”. It was like that point late in the evening of a great party… everything has been spectacular, you’re still having a good time, but you just know that it’s over. You’ll linger for a bit longer, but you know you’re going home soon. That’s exactly what happened; I just knew that this trip was over and it was time to go. Now, here I am… back in the US.

FAQ

I’ll spare you more some more boring introspection. For the curious out there, I’ll give you my answers to the 5 questions I’ve been asked the most about this trip since I got back:

1) What was your favorite place? Way too hard to answer as there are too many great places to pick just one. However, I will say that my favorite single experience was walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The magic of undertaking and completing such an epic journey, the metaphor of the camino for life itself (it’s the journey not the destination) and getting to share the whole experience with one particularly wonderful person (as well as the other characters you meet along the way) made the camino a very special experience for me.

2) Did you come back because you ran out of money? No, I came back because I wanted to come back (see above).

3) What was your favorite food? Indian… by far and away. The spices, the different regional styles, the breads, the yogurt, eating with your hands, free refills (sometimes), the tea, the coffee, the lassis, the prices (India was the cheapest place I traveled… yes, it’s cheaper than sub-Saharan Africa), the lime sodas… I liked Indian food so much that I sought it out in Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong (all places which are known for great food).

4) Did you get sick? Yes, several times (all food poisoning). However, often it was my own fault, forgetting to wash my hands, or eating something I knew I shouldn’t (generally so as not offend people you’re with), or thinking I’m invincible (in general, I have a pretty iron stomach, but some places will put that thought to the test). Ironically, out of all the developing countries I visited, the place I got the sickest was Spain. Conveniently, in most countries one can buy antibiotics over the counter at any pharmacy (because the locals get sick sometimes as well, and the prices are a lot lower than in the US). However, in Spain, for antibiotics, I needed to get a prescription. So it took me much longer to get over it than it did anywhere else. Also, I generally tried to avoid antibiotics unless I knew it was going to be bad, so once or twice I had some low-grade lingering issues for weeks at a time. But I also didn’t necessarily take the greatest care of myself during these times either (late nights, partying, etc.).

5) Did you ever feel unsafe? Rarely. Now, it helps that I am a bigger than average male, but, honestly, the vast majority of places one would travel to are as safe as can be (you’ll often feel more comfortable walking around in many places in the world than you will in many places in the US… sad, but true). Here’s an interesting article, focus on numbers 6 and 7 for the purposes of this question as I found the answers to be spot on. Now, I did get robbed in Goa, but it was a room break-in where I was away from my room (an inside job I thought), and I did get sucker-punched in a bar in Addis Ababa (crazy dude who promptly got the shyte beat out of him by the bouncers before I even got up off the floor), but those are the only two “incidents” that happened. Occasionally, I would get the hair standing up on the back of my neck feeling, but that was mostly me putting myself in a dumb situation (taxi ride alone through a kidnapping prone region of the Sinai, having to walk a mile or so along a pitch dark beach in Goa at 4 AM, or walking around certain crappy parts of Cairo and Addis alone at night), things that could have honestly been avoided. But again, these feelings happened very, very rarely.

By The Numbers

Some tabulating for the future version of myself. Here’s a timeline breakdown of this adventure, which I’ll count as being book-ended by me being in San Diego:

New York: 5/10/12 – 5/16: 7 days
London: 5/17 – 5/20: 4 days
Spain/Portugal: 5/21 – 8/29: 102 days
Amman, Jordan (transit): 8/30: 1 day
Egypt: 8/31 – 9/16: 17 days
Ethiopia: 9/17 – 11/15: 60 days
Kenya: 11/16 – 11/20: 5 days
Tanzania: 11/21 – 12/10: 20 days
India (1st time round): 12/11/12 – 2/7/13: 58 days
Thailand: 2/8 – 3/2: 23 days (spent night in Colombo airport in transit to India).
India (2nd time around): 3/3 – 4/6: 35 days
Nepal: 4/7 – 6/4: 59 days (had dinner in Kuala Lumpur in transit to Taiwan).
Taiwan: 6/5 – 6-24: 20 days
Hong Kong: 6/25: 1 day
Tokyo (transit): 6/26: 1 day
New York: 6/26 – 7/13 (re-lived the 26th due to the international dateline): 18 days
Total Time Gone: 431 days

I also added up/estimated about how far (distance-wise) I ended up going (not counting intra-city transit or anything I forgot of course):

Flights: 39,481 miles.
Driving (myself): 1,563 miles.
Bus: 1,252 miles.
Car/Taxi: 2,510 miles.
Train: 3,281 miles.
Walking: 948 miles.
India Overland: 4,880 miles (don’t worry, no double counting with the above).
Total: 53,915 miles. For the record, the earth is 24,901 around. So adding up my total mileage means I could have circumnavigated the globe twice.

Even though I’m back, I still will have some more posts coming out, so don’t go away just yet. 

The Russian Girl Photo Shoot

When roaming far and wide you tend to meet a lot of people. Most of these people, for a variety of reasons, tend to be other travelers. And, in my experience, most travelers tend to be what I categorize as “western”… i.e. Europeans (French, German, Scandanavian, Spanish, etc.), UKers, Canadians, Australians, Americans, etc. We’re all different of course, but we generally share a common culture and have similar frames of reference. Of course I’d run into the occasional traveler that wasn’t from one of the above places (Koreans in Spain, Argentines in India, Brazilians in Ibiza), but it was less common. However, certain places, again, for a variety of reasons, become hotspots for particular folks… Israelis in India and Nepal, Swedes on Lanta Island in Thailand, Australians in Lagos, Portugal, older frauleins in Mombasa, etc. Such is the case with Russians in Goa.

I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s a combination of Russia being cold over the winter, Goa being a relatively close winter beach destination, India being a cheap place to stay and other Russians having been there before. Whatever the reason, most of the northern beaches/towns in Goa are dominated by Russian tourists (such that most of the menus are in Cyrillic, many of the workers can speak basic Russian and clubs feature Russian New Year’s parties with DJs from Moscow, etc.). Now, what happens when you get a majority of people from any one particular culture is that the place tends to take on the culture of that dominant group (or maybe even a slightly exaggerated form of that culture). So I think it’s safe to say that you can get a little slice of Russia… the culture, the attitude, the quirks… in Goa.

I’ve never really been around a large number of Russians before. So it was nice to turn on the observational powers and just watch them action. One thing that stuck out was what I deemed the “Russian Girl Photo Shoot”™. First, let me step back a moment and say that it’s no big revelation that girls like to take pictures of themselves looking good to show off a bit, and that both men and women like to look said pictures (there are entire industries built around this principle). From American girls out at a party to endless stream of selfies by Taiwanese girls, it’s a universal phenomenon. However, Russian girls have elevated their photo-taking game to a whole ‘nother level. In Goa, no matter the time of day, somewhere nearby there was always… always… a Russian girl modeling for a camera. And when I say modeling for the camera, I mean full-on posing… crawling through the water on all fours, acting like a cat, smiling, staring, turning, sitting down in the sand, legs crossing, uncrossing, looking over the shoulder, etc. You can almost see an imaginary director there yelling out the posing commands. If you were on the beach at sunset, there were Russian girls getting their pictures about every 100 yards. They’d also never just take a couple of pictures and be done with it either, with all the posing, these things would turn out to be full on 10-20 minute photo shoots. I know that when everyone is picturing this scene in their heads they’re picturing young women, but that’s thing, it was all women… from the young ones to the babushkas (yes, really). And more often than not it would be two women taking turns photographing each other (if they were using a prop, like a scarf or a hat, one would hand it to the other as they switched places). Otherwise, it would be the girl’s boyfriend/husband taking the pictures.

For illustrative purposes, one time at beach my friend and I were watching a rather attractive couple doing the Russian Girl Photo Shoot™. The guy was full on into the photo-taking process, running around for different angles, lying on his stomach, getting in the water… so much so that at one point, while on this stomach (with a professional-style large camera and lens I might add), he actually monkey-rolled all the way over back onto his stomach to continue taking pictures from a slightly different angle, all while keeping his giant camera from getting any sand or water on it… just pure ridiculousness. Another funny thing with this couple (that I never saw with another Russian couple) was that she stopped posing, took the camera and proceeded to take pictures of him… however, it only took her about four pictures before she stopped and got back in front of the camera herself. 

I had never seen such photo-taking mania en masse like this before. The Russian Girl Photo Shoot™ was everywhere in Goa, and as Goa was the first place I really saw it, I just chalked it up to a Goa thing… but then I saw it along the beaches in Thailand. And then, at the Taj Mahal, I noticed a couple of well-dressed women doing some model-like posing there… sure enough, they were Russian (I asked). I saw it again and again and again at other tourist sites in India as well, empirically proving that it’s not just a Goa thing, it’s a Russian thing. So be on the look-out… if you see girls doing some ridiculous camera posing for an abnormally long period of time at a tourist destination near you, there’s a good chance they’ll be Russian.

Ingrained in the culture? A Russian father and his daughter Russian Girl Photo Shoot-style on the beach in Goa.

Ingrained in the culture? A Russian father and his daughter posing Russian Girl Photo Shoot-style on Morjim beach in Goa at sunset.

Angry Birds Invade Nepal and Other Observations [Guest Post]

The following is a guest post from my friend Ben who has joined me over the past two months in Nepal. Enjoy…

Since I arrived in Nepal, I’ve been planning (and procrastinating) the penning of a guest post for this blog. This has ranged from what it’s like to trek with the indomitable Richard when one’s own body has decided to throw every physical malady at you to being forced to learn the art of hiking in flip-flops–aka the Nepali way. Certainly Richard has been nice enough not to publish his less kind thoughts on trekking with me which might include:”Why is Ben carrying a first aid kit? Oh it’s because he’s going to cut his foot wide open on a rock. Why is Ben carrying a Tide Pen? Oh it’s because he’s going to spill coffee all over the pretty girls at our lodge. And why is Ben making up songs about Nescafe?”

While trekking from teahouse to teahouse has been our life for the better part of the last forty days in exile, our other life has been navigating the cities of a quickly developing, though not yet thoroughly modern, Nepali culture. Since I haven’t spent any significant time in developing countries and I’m still pretty amazed when people load five 50lb bags of rice on the local bus or don’t hold onto their child when he’s hanging out the door of a bus on a cliffside, I thought I’d focus my observations here.

Kathmandu feels like a cross between Blade Runner and Juarez.

Kathmandu feels like a cross between Blade Runner and Juarez.

“Angry, Angry, European Socialist Birds”

As soon as I landed, the city of Kathmandu itself was a blur. TaxiTaxiTaxi. RupeeRupeeRupee. Motorcycles. Scooters. Tiny non-Ben-and-Rich-sized cabs. Potholes the size of those cabs. Dodgy old samosa stands. Juice-box-eating cows. Honking. Lots and lots of honking. At least the phony beggars, drug dealers, and excrement on the street felt like home in the Haight. And, oh, all the Angry Birds.

Yes, not more than two hours into arriving and heading toward the city’s Durbar Square, what shocked me the most was the sheer volume of Angry Birds paraphanelia everywhere. T-shirts. Nepali-made winter hats. Pants. Socks. Tiny baby shoes. Balloons. Toy guns. All for sale and all being worn around us. In a cursory attempt from a perch on some temple steps, we counted sixteen kids in Angry Birds shirts. Move over Steamboat Willie. Where I assume once Mickey Mouse signified Western cultural hegemony, now the developing world is throwin’ birds on their Micromax-powered phones. It’s “Nothing like Anything.” (More on this later)

Balloon! Balloon! Balloon!

Balloon! Balloon! Balloon!

The Nepal Zoo Souvenir Shop

The Nepal Zoo Souvenir Shop

It wasn’t just Kathmandu. We went to Pokhara and saw the same souvenir stands, counted the same children with red birds and black birds and birds whose colors don’t exist in any of the Angry Birds games I know. We traveled to Besi Sahar to start the Annapurna Circuit, 8 hours from Kathmandu or Pokhara by bus, and the kids were wearing the same thing. The only thing I can compare it to is that moment in 1989 and 1990 when every child in America wore either a Batman or Bart Simpson t-shirt. And that makes me feel old, since half of the folks we’ve met here were probably born after then.

What’s that I see on a kid here in Besi Sahar? A green pig! Yes, that’s what’s been missing for me here in Nepal. While Angry Birds clothing and toys in the US often include the evil greedy egg-stealing pigs, here in Nepal all you see are the birds, angry for no reason at all. I started to wonder why the hell Angry Birds is so popular everywhere (besides, you know, the obvious fact that phones are subsidized computers and mobile games are cheap, blah, blah, blah). It’s perfectly clear to me that, unlike All-American Mickey, Angry Birds strikes a chord because it’s a thinly veiled metaphor for the rising up of developing countries against the Western industrialized nations stealing all their ****ing eggs.

I’m not even close to being the first person to connect our green piggy villains as greedy natural resource plundering capitalists (and royalists) or see our plucky (but not plucked) heroes as angry red communist birds. See here for one example from non-comprehensive googling. Yet it does ring true, and besides the communist red birds, this **** is racist. Yellow birds who karate chop through wood? Violent black birds who explode? Fat white drone-like birds who drop bombs from the air and then run away back to DC? And clearly, our Northern European / Western-apologist game designer saw fit to include the silly blue socialist bird who splits into three smaller birds (clearly representing Norway, Sweden, and Finland) and are only effective against ice. Great Rovio, thanks for including that one.

But I digress… Angry Birds is a cultural phenomenon in Nepal. And some of you may be lucky enough to receive authentic, unlicensed, Nepali-woven Angry Birds hats to wear this winter (or as we call it in San Francisco, July).

Richard and the real Angry Birds of Nepal--giant pelicans at the zoo.

Richard and the real Angry Birds of Nepal–giant pelicans at the zoo.

“No, it’s not familiar. But it feels like home” — Letty, Fast & Furious 6

This week we took a little trip to the Kathmandu Civil Mall. AND IT WAS THE BEST TRIP EVER. We wanted to do something different from Buddhist-this and stupa-that, and I personally wanted to see what it was like to see a movie in Nepal–and, more importantly, what kind of snacks they sell. One click later from my phone to the QFX Cinemas website, and we were on our way to see the latest US sensation Fast & Furious 6.

Outside to the muddy, pothole-strewn streets. “Civil Mall. Civil Mall. Kantipath. Sundhara. Sundhara. How much?” “400 rupees,” the first cabbie replied. “200?” “300.” “No, no.” Next cab. “Sundhara. Civil Mall. Civil Mall.” God forbid we were trying to win the Amazing Race and looking to save 50 rupees. “300 rupees.” “250?” Done. We’re on our way now down Tridevi Marg to Kantipath (most streets don’t have names here), four people in a tiny Suzuki hatchback, locking the door to prevent one of us falling out in a collision with a scooter driver wearing no helmet but definitely an Angry Birds shirt.

I can’t explain how exciting it is to reach the relative gleaming building that is the Civil Mall. Kathmandu is a mixture of old and new construction, all jumbled together and put together with glue and popsicle sticks. The Civil Mall, though, is a bit of an exception just because of its size–they knocked down whatever was here, and no one has yet attached a metal shack to its side. Plus the army base and park are across the street, making it seem somewhat like an oasis of modernity. All of us have been trekking for a decent period of time, Rich and I the longest, and while we’ve had little luxuries sometimes like wifi and warm bucket showers and toilet paper, nothing can prepare us for the sensory overload as we step inside the Civil Mall.

Escalators are a welcome respite from climbing uphill.
Escalators are a welcome respite from climbing uphill.

It is awesome. Richard, our friends, and I are smiling like we’re all seven years old again. I felt like I was back in an exciting US mall in the 80s when they didn’t smell of retail desperation and failed sweating real estate developers. I’m blathering, “Ohmigodohmigodohmigod, it’s an indoor putt putt golf course.”

Putt Putt is officially one of the loneliest things one can do when traveling by oneself. Luckily, not the case this time.

Putt Putt is officially one of the loneliest things one can do when traveling by oneself. Luckily, not the case this time.

Our friends are staring up at 8, 9, who knows how many, floors of pure commercialism. And what’s this? It’s Nepal’s first frozen yogurt stand. Pay by the gram. 155 rupees for vanilla, blackberry, and toppings. What’s over there? It’s a frickin’ bowling alley and arcade and a food court and a Vans store. And no one’s wearing Angry Birds shirts. Because Kathmandu’s coolest twenty and thirtysomethings are packing in for a really awesome Monday night out at the movies. We get in line behind 10 Buddhist monks for tickets to see Fast and Furious 6. Just call him “Zen” Diesel.

Fast & Furious 6 in Nepal brings new meaning to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Fast & Furious 6 in Nepal brings new meaning to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The ticketing system is as good as the best movie theatres in the US–you can pick your own seats, and there are different levels. For 250 rupees apiece (the cheapest tier, “platinum”), we get tickets in row O on the aisle. We go through TSA-style pat downs, check a pack of cigarettes(??), and head on upstairs to the theaters.

First, though, there is the matter of the snacks, which are exactly like the US–popcorn, cokes, nachos, and the infamous combo meals. We buy Combo #1 for 250 rupees which included two small cokes and two small popcorns, a surprisingly good value all things considered. The theater is big with stadium seating and large comfy seats. Unlike most Nepali facilities and vehicles, we have plenty of leg room, and I don’t have to sit with my knees up around my ears or fight Richard for the aisle or the wide knee stance (Note to readers: Richard usually wins, sneakily, by taking up more room when you get up to go the restroom. The secret is never to pee and thus never to drink. I’m very dehydrated.)

Stadium seating at QFX Cinemas

Stadium seating at QFX Cinemas

And while Fast & Furious 6 is a terribly great movie (or is that great, terrible movie?), I never would have had this much fun in the US. The theater is packed. Everyone is laughing and clapping and sitting on the edge of their seats. There’s even intermission! Intermission is less about the theater selling snacks (again, reasonably priced) and more about showing even more advertisements and trailers to the packed audience. I think you can figure out a lot about a culture by how and what they advertise, how they phrase and show things, what products are popular, etc. If the unapologetic brand building here is any indication, things in Nepal are looking way up.

“Have I Made It Large?” –Royal Stag Whiskey

Have you seen a commercial for a paint store in the last ten minutes… You know, like Sherwin Williams? Do you have a Sherwin Williams on your block? Do you have two Sherwin Williams and a Benjamin Moore on your block? Did you know Lewis Berger has been making paint since 1767? Do you even know who Lewis Berger is?

Lewis Berger, Since 1767

Lewis Berger, Since 1767

For shame, I can’t believe you’ve answered “no” to all those questions. Because here in Nepal, I can go to any number of ColorBank or AsianPaints or PashupatiPaints stores in a three block radius (I’m a ColorBank man through and through). Paint stores are like Starbucks. Everyone is buying paint or selling paint or trading paint futures or developing collateralized paint obligations. Okay the last part’s not true, but there is clearly a construction boom. Even in towns which require every piece of a building to be carried by porters over 20 miles uphill both ways, there are two new lodges being built every year. Thank you, Jon Krakauer. In fact, in Kathmandu just since we arrived in April, a shiny new grocery store appeared across the street from our hotel with all kinds of ex-pat goodies. It also has some of the same qualities as the SF Marina Safeway, if you catch my drift.

When was the last time a steel company advertised before a movie in the US? How about two? Yes, you can choose from multiple consumer steel companies for your construction needs, although both are using “family” messaging featuring brothers or family members at the helm. There is a marketing opening for a “bad boy” of Nepalese steel, if anyone is interested in competing with Ambe or Jagdamba Steel. PVC piping is also becoming big here, which is great since I broke a sink with lesser piping by leaning on it at a lodge in Pheriche leading to a cartoon-like sequence where I tried to put my finger in the gushing hole in the wall before running out into the lobby soaking wet yelling “WaterWaterPaniPaniProblemProblemPlumbing!!!” Once again I could see Richard’s thought bubble, “What is wrong with you? This is why we can’t have nice things.”

What’s one of the worst ideas for a commercial you can think of? Did you say people getting shot by a firing squad? See you’re just not thinking far enough outside the box like the folks at Micromax. Micromax’s intermission commercial involves a firing squad lined up to kill 10 people. The firing squad shoots. Everyone falls. And then you see that the squad was firing paintballs. And you can see the paint MUCH MORE CLEARLY with a MICROMAX powered camera than those on other inferior phones. WTF? Their tagline ends, “Nothing like anything.” Indeed, Micromax, that is nothing like anything I’ve seen.

What’s the current interest rate on your checking account? Probably, like me, close to zero. Here in Nepal your checking account will gain up to 5% per year, and the banks are just hopping to take your deposits and loan it out. Our favorite bank commercials at intermission involved moving vignettes about financial instruments. For example, you’ve just bought one of these ramshackle buildings put together with popsicle sticks and glue, yet your wife dreams of decorating it with fancy Index Furniture (now open in Steel Tower and Metro Park). Or you take your granddaughter out to the Civil Mall where she sees a pair of designer jeans. You instead see the price tag of 5,000 rupees. (For what it’s worth, I’m not sure I own jeans worth 5,000 rupees.) The answer to all the vignettes is credit with one of the taglines being “Cash whenever you want.” This has never in the history of finance turned out badly.

Also, for those of you who have taken money out of your US bank account and opened a Nepalese one after the last paragraph, please note that the US$/Nepalese Rupee exchange rate has gone in the US$ favor by 3% since we got here two months ago. Maybe that zero percent interest rate isn’t so bad.

Do you remember in the movie Three Kings when Mark Wahlberg is asked in an interrogation, “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?” You know, because America has made him bleach his skin and mutilate his face. Well, thank you Western consumer packaged goods companies, because you can’t buy a moisturizer here that isn’t Extra Whitening. And every moisturizer commercial shows you how much whiter your skin can get after just seven days. One woman in a Ponds commercial is dressed up as a brunette Marilyn Monroe and tries to put a fake beauty mark on her face, but it keeps disappearing because she used Ponds earlier in the day. The best moisturizers go down twenty layers of skin deep. That’s a lot. I’m paler now than when I got here.

But the most important question to ask yourself after visiting Nepal, is “Have I made it large?” This is the question posed by Royal Stag Whiskey (a Seagrams brand) in a series of fantastic advertisements featuring Indian celebrities that are as omnipresent on the streets as Tiger Balm hawkers and potholes.

It's Your Life. Make It Large.

It’s Your Life. Make It Large.

The ads also provide the important message that personal growth is forever; even though you’ve made it large, it’s okay to say “I have yet to become me.” 

The Indian knockoff version of Bradley Cooper has yet to become himself.

The Indian knockoff version of Bradley Cooper has yet to become himself.

Yes, I think that’s probably as good a sentiment I can find for Nepal right now in its development, as well as for these travels. Because if you’ve been following Richard’s blog posts on this Himalayan adventure, the answer to “Have we made it large?” is undoubtedly yes.

Time to find the swimming pool.

A Farewell Salute to my Orange Backpack

Well… it finally happened… it was bound to eventually after all, but you’re never quite prepared for it when it does. You’re probably asking your computer right now… “Richard… what the hell are you talking about?” Well… I’ll tell you… about an hour into walking on my second to last day of trekking (coming down from Everest Base Camp), just outside the village of Dingboche, one of the main straps on my orange backpack broke, and a backpack without shoulder straps becomes just about as useful as trekking with a laundry sack or garbage bag, which is to say, not very useful. It was a very sad moment. I, being as stubborn as I am, walked the remaining 4 hours that day just using my hands to hold the broken strap over my shoulder. The following day, which was to be our last trekking day, I jury-rigged the strap down with a well-placed knot.

IMAG2462

D’oh…

The solution for my final day... the black straps hold the blue bag to the side of the backpack and were tight enough to hold a shoulder strap for one day at least...

The solution for my final day… the black straps hold the blue bag to the side of the backpack and were tight enough to hold a shoulder strap for one day at least…

Now, normally, I’m not very attached to “stuff”, but this backpack and I have been through a lot together. I remember buying it… I was in Logrono about 7 days into the Camino de Santiago. The stitching in the shoulder straps on the cheap backpack I had bought in Pamplona (on the day I started the camino) were tearing apart. Since I was in a relatively large city, taking the afternoon off from hiking, I figured I’d get a replacement while I could. After a bit of asking around, I found a Bazar Chino (the Spanish equivalent of a 99 cent store) with a decent selection of backpacks. I found the largest model I could (Bazar Chino’s mostly sell school backpacks for little kids), and had the choice between bright orange and black. Despite the protestations of my camino companera (to her credit, she’s very, very stylish), I went for the orange one. How could I not? It would definitely be the most ridiculous looking backpack on the trail (most everyone has actual outdoor equipment)… I even, for my own entertainment, wore it straight away, all the way back to the hotel (giggling like a school kid the whole time… much to my companera’s chagrin). My decision to get a spare backpack, for once, proved to a remarkable action of foresight, as, not just a few days later, the stitching on my current bag finally gave way, leaving me with one sad strap, right in the middle of a long, hot, dusty section of the camino.

Ever since that moment my orange backpack and I have been like peas and carrots. Now don’t go thinking I’ve been travelling this whole time with just a school kid’s backpack… I just use it for treks and other activities where only a daypack is necessary… I have a duffel bag for my actual travelling needs. But, when it’s time to do something outdoorsy, I break the orange backpack out of the bottom of my duffel bag, stuff it to the limit, and go with it (leaving my duffel bag and other stuff behind to be picked up later). Despite being made in China, this backpack made it with me through the Camino de Santiago, to the top of Mt. Sinai, it survived trekking in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, ascended Kilimanjaro, saw a Hindu shrine in Pachmari, saw Mt. Everest from the India, completed the Annapurna Circuit and (nearly) made it through the Everest Base Camp trek. Generally, on these treks, it was the only thing I’d carry (as I managed to fit all of my stuff in it… the only exception being Kilimanjaro, where I had porters carry up the tent, sleeping bag and a couple of other items), and I’d always get surprised looks from people exclaiming, “is that all your stuff”, or “how did you manage to bring so few things?” (to which I always wonder… what the hell did you bring to actually fill a bag that size?). So, it is with great regret that I leave the remains of my former backpack in Lukla, Nepal… it was a good run. Farewell faithful friend…

IMG_0313

Breaking it in on the camino…

IMG_0265

At sunset on Mt. Sinai

IMG_1482

In Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains…

me

On top of Kilimanjaro…

Me on top of the hill...

At a Hindu shrine in Pachmari, Idia…

Me stopping to take a picture of a camino-like rock pile covered in snow (my picture didn't come out very well)...

Crossing Thorung La Pass on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal…

Why You Should Talk to People

Traveling alone is hard sometimes… I mean, I’m fine by myself, but occasionally, when you have a down moment or down stretch, it’s hard not to have someone there to break you out of your funk.  That fact, plus layer on top of everything the fact that I’m an introvert (by the actual definition of introversion… clearly I’m not afraid of new people or situations), so sometimes it takes a bit (or a lot) of effort to get warmed up to go out and meet some new folks.  I’m actually very envious of those natural socializer types… the guys who can just go into a room, talk with everybody and come out with everybody loving them while making it seem effortless (looking at you Shayne Fitz-Coy, Matt Daniel, Patrick Harrelson and Brian Harrelson – maybe you guys don’t feel it’s effortless, but it at least comes across that way).  Most of the time (hey… there are plenty of times that I just want to be by myself… but aside from those times), when I’m not feelin’ it, I just tell myself to suck it up and do it… because a) being uncomfortable is part of the growth process, b) how else are you going to meet new people, and c) sometimes even a little bit of good conversation opens doors in unexpected ways.
Case in Point #1.  Lagos, Portugal.  My first surfing lesson.  So, most people that come to Lagos to learn to surf come for a week or two and stay in a “surf house”, which is basically a hostel run by the company providing the lessons (I chose to stay at a much cheaper hostel and just sign up for two lessons).  The morning I show up for my first surfing lesson it immediately becomes clear that everybody already knows each other.  We’ve got a 40 minute or so drive out to the coast before the lesson starts… so I make a bit of small talk, but most everyone is wrapped up in talking about what so and so did last night or the other day (typical stuff for people together 24 hours a day for a week or so), and I’m clearly the outsider.  That’s alright… I keep at it, and everybody is friendly… but no real connection anywhere.  I’ve described my surfing lesson experience in general in anotherpost, so need to rehash it too much, but the only thing to really note is that I’m in one of four cars of people… so there’s more folks there than just my car (about 25 or so including all of the instructors).

Surfing is actually pretty social activity, because when you’re all sitting in the water waiting for waves you have plenty of time to chat… and then you all have the common bonding experience of trying to learn to surf.  So more idle chit chat, but again, nothing of substance right away… At some point I find myself out waiting for waves (in the “line-up” if you will…for all you surfing linguistics students) with one other guy, who, from what I’ve seen already, is a pretty good surfer.  We get to talking, his name is Griff, and right away we have some good report.  We have fun bullshitting for the rest of the day.  Turns out Griff works for the surfing company, but as a driver (airport and supply runs type of thing), one perk of which is getting a free ride to the beach when he doesn’t have anything scheduled.

Fast forward three days.  When I showed up to Lagos I got myself into a hostel and booked three nights (I was there two weeks, but didn’t want to stay at that place the whole time if I didn’t like it… so was giving it a trial run).  I had finished my two surfing lessons and took a day to decide if I wanted to stay in Lagos or not (maybe move down closer to the beach, give up on surfing on account of repeated face-plants… that kind of thing).  I made up my mind to stay (while out eating lunch), but when I walked back to my hostel the desk guy said that he was sorry, but he had sold out all of the beds for the following night and I had to leave the next morning.  Hmm… okay, maybe re-think staying in Lagos?  But I had one more night, so I started my planning process by promptly brought a motion to the floor of my mind to adjourn thinking about where I was going to stay until tomorrow… motion passed… unanimously.  The next morning I wake up, pack my shit, leave my bag at the front desk and walk outside to go get in my car and drive to the beach towns along the west coast to see what kind of accommodation they possess.  I don’t walk but one block when I pass an open garage door, where Griff and another guy are loading some furniture into the back of a van.  I stop, offer to help (declined, as whatever they were moving was the last thing to be moved… thank you impeccable timing) and start bullshitting with Griff and the other guy (Kevin).  Kevin has to run (presumably to deliver whatever is now in the back of the van) and Griff and I just continue having a conversation.  What I’m doing right this moment comes up as a topic and I explain my situation.  Griff asks how long I want to stay (9 days), noting that he lives in the building where we’re standing, another person just left so there’s an open room and that Kevin (the guy I just met) owns the place.  Griff calls up Kevin, explains the situation, Kevin says cool (as he’d already met me) quotes a price (a very good deal) and just like that… within 20 minutes of leaving the hostel, I’ve got a new place to stay (my own room, in a former hospital building… seriously, the place looked like the fight club house… for the same price as I was paying for a bed in a hostel).  And it turned out that the house, and the people that lived there, were my favorite things about Lagos.  So, if I hadn’t made the effort out in the water to talk to new people… none of that would have happened.

Case in Point #2.  I’m on a flight to Amman, Jordan… yes, you read that correctly… Amman, Jordan.  Maybe not weird for some people (you know… Jordanians, other people from countries around here that transit through Amman… I’m sure it’s not strange for them), but it was a little surreal for me.  I was in Santiago de Compostela (Spain), and, for various reasons, I decided I wanted to go to Egypt, and I had bought a ticket from Santiago to Sharm El Sheikh on a flight that was leaving in two days.  When I bought the ticket, I did notice I was transiting in Amman, but the way the flights were set up, I would leave Santiago around midday, fly to Madrid with a nine hour layover there, then take the red-eye flight to Amman (it’s about 5 hours), and then arrive in Sharm around midday the following day.  Fine with me… gives me some time to get to an outdoors store in Madrid and stock up on a couple of things.  However, when I check in for my flights in Santiago and receive my boarding passes, I notice (after walking away from the check-in desk mind you) that the flight for Amman is now leaving Madrid two hours after I land there, and arriving in Amman at 10:30 PM… the flight to Sharm from Amman is still at noon the next day.  I also commit one very grave travel error here… I have checked my bag with virtually everything in it (minus some electronics for the flight)… so now I have no other clothes, no contact lenses, no toothbrush, no deodorant… nothing (yes, it was stupid, but I thought I’d be picking my bag up in Madrid since it was a short domestic flight and then I’d be heading for the international terminal 9 hours later).  Fuck me I think… I’m sleeping in the Amman airport overnight… with no chance to even take out my contacts.

On an aside, flying to the middle east from Spain was quite interesting from a language perspective, a mix of three languages everywhere… Arabic (for obvious reasons), with the main back-up of English (there’s a lot of English spoken in Arabic countries) and Spanish (because we were on a flight from Madrid).  From my observations, it seemed that the flight attendants either spoke fluent arabic or spanish, but not both (all spoke passable to fluent english), so when they did their rounds, a fluent spanish speaker was always paired with a fluent arabic speaker.  As I look more Spanish than Arabic (apparently)… I was continually addressed in Spanish (where, generally, I’m comfortable with for the basics).  During the first drink service, I make an effort to start chatting with the flight attendant serving me, but I’m finding it really difficult to understand her Spanish for some reason, so I ask her if she speaks english.  She does and asks me where I’m from… to which I respond by telling her to guess… and she goes with France (I had been getting French a lot from Europeans for some reason).  We continue conversing in English… and I find out she’s Romanian, but lives in Amman (I then tease her by telling her it’s no wonder I couldn’t understand her Spanish due to her thick Romanian accent… and then I ask if she’s a vampire).  She keeps on going with her drink service, but comes around to chat a few times (and I speak with her once in the back while in line for bathroom).  She’s genuinely interested in what an American is doing on a flight from Madrid to Amman.  I explain, and after a bit ask her about what I should see in Amman tonight, a hotel recommendation and what a taxi should cost… just in case I can’t spend the night in the airport.

The flight lands in Amman and I get off the plane trying to figure out what to do… of course I immediately have to go through customs (luckily US citizens can get a visa upon arrival for 15 Jordanian Dinar… and an interesting note for you foreign exchange lovers, one US Dollar buys about 0.7 Dinars… as in 70 cents… and you just thought it was the pound and euro that had the US Dollar beat).  I find the baggage claim area to ask the airline if I have to get my bag, or if they will hold it and put it on the plane for Egypt tomorrow (secretly hoping I have to pick it up to have something for the evening)… and they assure me they’ll take good care of it and I’ll see it in Sharm El Sheikh tomorrow (d’oh).  I leave the baggage claim area and am instantaneously outside the airport.  Although I do have a boarding pass for my flight tomorrow, for some reason I think it’s a bad idea to try and go back in at 11:30 PM for a flight at 12:30 PM tomorrow…?  I turn around to head back in the building to use the restroom and, in a lovely coincidence, run right into the Romanian flight attendant.  Long story short again… we split a taxi to her place, she invites me in to crash on her couch for the evening, feeds me, let’s me clean up (and even has an extra pair of contact lens holders and some solution) and we have a fantastic evening enjoying each others company.  To boot she even fed me breakfast and helped me to arrange a taxi back to the airport.  And none of it would have happened had I not made an effort to talk to her.

So… lesson learned (although, believe me, I have to learn this over and over again): Talk to people… even if you don’t feel like it… because some of them are interesting and you will like them, and maybe good things might happen in the future as a result.

Africa… A Little Help Por Favor

I’m contemplating going to Africa in a week or two.  I know it’s a really, really large place and there are a million things to see and do… so does anyone out there have any suggestions on places to go, or friends that may be living/traveling there that you could put me touch with?  Any help would be appreciated.  Just post in the comments or shoot me an e-mail… Thank you.

Richard