Greetings, friends. Today I have an update on the Frequent Flyer Challenge, coming to you live from the Hong Kong airport: First, a good news / bad news personal update. The Bad News – After flying 19 hours, I slept on the airport floor for five more hours last night. It just didn’t make sense…Read More
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Some of you have noted that I haven’t published any first-person travel adventures lately. I haven’t been to any crazy countries, slept in airports, crash-landed without a visa, etc.
Don’t worry – I’m not getting soft. I’ve enjoyed hanging out in Seattle, trying to make a living, get my book contract sorted out, and recover from a running injury that has bothered me for a while. The extended break has been good for me, but in January I’ll resume my adventures around the world.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been planning out my trips for the first half of 2009. I tend to change things around a fair amount, but as of now, here is what I expect it to look like from January to June. If it seems overwhelming, first remember that I’ve done this a lot – I certainly didn’t begin with itineraries as complex as the ones I’ll show you here.
And of course, I’ll chronicle each trip in more detail as it gets closer. Cool?
In January, I’ll head to Northeast Africa, flying in to Ethiopia, then heading up to Somaliand (not Somalia; even I am not that crazy), over to Djibouti, and hopefully on to Eritrea and back out after about 12 days of roaming.
My fingers are crossed on this one, because the Eritrean embassy in D.C. has not yet given me a visa. If I don’t get one, I’ll have to scramble to figure something else out, because I already have a flight booked out of Asmara, the capital.
Earlier this summer, I learned that the Kurdish (Iraqi) government checked out this web site before deciding to issue me a visa at no charge. They even sent me a “Welcome Chris Guillebeau!” message which made me feel like a minor celebrity, at least in Kurdistan. Perhaps the Eritreans will be similarly kind – guys, if you’re reading this, please help me out. You can keep the $40 money order that I sent; I just need the visa.
Assuming I get to Eritrea or at least get home somehow, in late February, I’ll head to Washington, D.C. for a conference, then fly out from there to Qatar to resume the Round-the-World ticket I began last year. That trip will take me to southern Africa – specifically Mauritius and Namibia. I also hope to take a side-trip to Swaziland and Mozambique while I’m over in that part of the world.
After I’m done there, the ticket takes me back to my usual Asian hub of Hong Kong, where I’ll need to figure out how to get back to the States for another four-week stay at home.
One month later, I’ll be back on the road to visit Haiti and what I call the “three mysterious countries” of South America. They are Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. If you haven’t heard much about them, don’t feel bad – that’s why I call them “mysterious.” I’m not sure I’ll solve any mysteries, but I’ll try to at least get there and back.
In May and June, I hope to wrap up the rest of South America, which for me includes Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, and Bolivia. I’m not sure I’ll get to all of them, but it would be significant to complete the whole continent, so I’ll give it a try.
Finally (are you getting tired of this?), I’ll travel to Jordan and then perhaps on to the Sudan. I say “perhaps” because Khartoum (KRT) is part of my current Round-the-World ticket, but I suspect it will be extremely difficult to get the visa. I hope I’m not disappointing anyone with this, but Sudan is not a place I am willing to attempt to fly to without a visa. As previously mentioned, I may be crazy but not that crazy.
If I don’t think it will work out a couple of weeks prior to departure, I’ll pay $150 to change the ticket – not really my preferred option, but also not the end of the world. If I have to drop Khartoum for now, I still have a couple of other options in that region that are less problematic for U.S. passport holders.
For those who like these things, the itineraries for the trips are listed below. The parentheses are for transit stops, and the “x” refers to an overland segment.
By extreme travel standards, this is a fairly straightforward trip – all on Lufthansa, and the only complicated part will be the overland journey from Ethiopia (ADD) to Eritrea (ASM), assuming I get the visa sorted out. I also need to get to Djibiouti or Somaliland during the two weeks I’ll be away – preferably both, but nothing is for certain yet.
The next trip looks like this:
The ??? in this one is due to the fact that I’ll need to fly to one of the three mysterious countries (again: Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana) and I don’t have that ticket yet. PAP is Port Au Prince, Haiti; and POS is Port of Spain, Trinidad – the jumping-off point to get to Guyana or Suriname.
The trip to Bolivia and elsewhere looks like this, tentatively:
Here I will be resuming last year’s Round-the-World ticket from Miami (MIA). I’ll need to buy separate tickets to and from Seattle, but that’s how I break up my trips to only be away from home for about two weeks at a time.
How Much Does All of this Cost?
I could go on about the flights for a while, but hopefully the above information gives you a good overview. If you have specific questions, post them in the comments and I’ll respond. For now, I’ll address the most frequently asked question I get about these kinds of trips: how much does it cost?
First, read this about priorities and how it all started. I don’t own a car, I have no debt, I didn’t take out a sub-prime mortgage when you could get one at 7-11, I spend about $150 a year on clothes, and so on. I honestly believe that most people (at least, those in Western countries who read this blog) who want to travel can find a way to do so. It may require you to make changes or sacrifices, but inertia is a much greater hindrance for most of us than lack of money.
That said, it does cost money to do this kind of thing, so it's only fair to give you the specifics.
Ethiopia & Beyond
I used Star Alliance Frequent Flyer miles for the first Africa trip, round-trip from Seattle. It took a big hit to my United balance (120,000), and I now have only 60k left. On the bright side, I got the flights I wanted, it’s in Business Class (important to me for long-haul and back-to-back overnight flights), and it would otherwise be fairly expensive to purchase a ticket to that part of Africa. The taxes were also cheap -- just under $150.
Cost: 120k Miles + $150 in taxes
Countries: Ethopia, Eritrea (hopefully), and presumably a side trip to at least one additional country in the region
Qatar & Beyond
My Qatar Airways ticket, another Frequent Flyer award, was 90,000 miles and $391 in taxes – and I’m also trying to add a free stopover to Yemen or Kuwait.
I didn’t have any Qatar Airways miles (I’ve only flown with them once, and I credited it to United), so I transferred points from American Express Membership Rewards into ANA Airlines (Japan) to book the partner award. It sounds a bit convoluted, I know, but it wasn’t that difficult in practice.
Cost: 90k AmEx Points + $399 in taxes
Countries: Qatar to resume another ticket, Yemen or Kuwait (side trip)
All of the South America stops, as well as the second trip to Africa (Mauritius, Namibia, Jo’burg, etc.) are part of my OneWorld Round-the-Word trip. This will also take me on to Hong Kong at some point in the early summer. That ticket was about $5,000, and I’ve received tremendous value from it. I have no idea how much it would cost if I were to try to book everything with round-trip flights – certainly several times more than what I pay when I effectively buy the flights in book with the RTW ticket.
Cost: Roughly $350 per country, prepaid last year
Countries: Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa, Hong Kong, U.K. (transit only)
The only “cash money” flights I need to sort out now are the entry and exit flights to the three mysterious countries, the flights within Northeast Africa, and the occasional cross-country trek to Miami or New York. Those will probably be a few hundred dollars each.
Cost: Variable, but usually $200-400 each
Countries: None, but allows me to come home and take side trips
After I complete all the trips mentioned above, I’ll start running out of prepaid flights, so I hope to begin at least one more Round-the-World ticket in the early summer. This one may be back on Star Alliance since I've earned more than 200,000 miles with OneWorld in 2008, and therefore don’t need to worry about elite status with them for a while.
I'm not 100% sure of what I'll do about the ticket, but whenever I sort it out, I’ll let you know exactly what I decide and what the next monster itinerary will be.
Well, You Asked for It
One request I’ve heard several times now is for more detailed travel planning notes. I have a question for you in return: is this progress? Is this the kind of thing that you guys want to know?
I cover even more travel planning details in the original Discount Airfare Guide, and I’ll be coming out with a more advanced Travel Ninja report soon… but I’m also happy to post information like this on the site whenever it seems like a good fit. As long as you give me good feedback, I’ll keep doing it.
Also, remember that next month we’ll look at my version of lifestyle design and annual planning. This includes travel planning, but also creating a structure for work, fun, learning, and more. I always look forward to doing the review in December, and this year I’m looking forward to sharing the process with you as well.
If you have any questions or feedback about the 2009 travel plans, simply leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!
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Why You Should Quit Your Job and Travel Around the World
A few years and many trips ago, I learned that it is usually better to travel by land whenever possible. I love flying, and I even love hanging out in big airports for hours, but it’s true that the experience of flying from one place to another often isn’t always that different wherever you are in the world.
When you travel overland, however, you’ll almost always meet people and experience life as it’s seen through more natural perspectives. When I have the choice, I usually try to fly into one country, travel overland for a while, and then fly out of another airport at least one country away.
I did this in Jordan two years ago, flying into Tel Aviv in Israel, traveling overland between the two countries and then throughout Jordan before leaving from Amman. I did it again a couple months later by taking a series of buses throughout the Balkans, including an overnight bus through Albania. I thought these experiences would prepare me well for an even bigger trip that took in the summer of 2007. For the most part, they did.
My trip began in Kampala, Uganda, where I visited one of the largest taxi parks in the world and spent some time with local NGO workers. After a few days sightseeing, I bought a one-way bus ticket to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania via a number of other cities along the way. The ticket cost $54, and the journey was expected to take 31 hours.
I showed up at 12:30 for the 1:00 p.m. departure, but I didn’t see a bus anywhere. I sat with all of the other passengers for two hours, waiting for the appearance of an elusive bus. It finally arrived close to 3:00. In a way, I didn’t mind the delay, because another passenger told me they were fixing the tires. Not having good tires is a major cause of road accidents in Africa, so better to be late with good tires, I thought.
Uganda to Kenya
After the delayed departure, our trip began well enough. Every seat on the bus was taken, but there was no overcrowding and no one standing. I was also the only Westerner for the entire trip, which definitely helped with getting a more natural perspective of East Africa. After we got out of Kampala, the driver’s assistant passed out ice cream samples to each passenger, a nice treat after not eating lunch.
For the next four hours, nothing much happened. I had hoped to use a big part of the trip for reading and writing, but the roads were far too bumpy for that. We rode along through Eastern Uganda until arriving at the Kenyan border directly at sunset. Border stops are rarely boring, and in Africa, they are often highly disorganized and corrupt. At this one, though, all the formalities went about as well as could be. I paid $20 for a transit visa, as I had expected, and headed back up the road to the bus after receiving the necessary clearances. The whole process took less than half an hour, complete with an amazing dust storm that I tried to capture in a couple of quick snapshots.
We had roughly seven hours more until Nairobi, where we were scheduled to arrive at 3:00 a.m. for a two-hour stop. Mid-point through the journey, the bus broke down. I wasn’t thrilled about this, and neither were the other passengers, but after a while the engine started up and we were underway again. We arrived in Nairobi sometime around 4:30, waiting at the bus station for a couple of hours, and got back underway just before dawn.
At this point my memory gets a bit fuzzy, because I had only slept an hour or two during the night and wasn’t feeling well from all the bumpy roads. I think it was about three or four more hours when we arrived at the next border, this time between Kenya and Tanzania.
This stop was also fairly efficient—we were through within 45 minutes. There were a fair share of “helpers” who tried to offer their services to me (to change money, expedite the visa process, etc.), but after I declined a few times they stopped asking.
Waiting in Arusha
Back underway and a couple more undetermined hours later, we arrived in Arusha, a Tanzanian city in the north of the country. We were told that we had to change buses, but no other bus was around. I spent the time in the transit area writing postcards from Kampala and eating peanuts, which in addition to two Cliff Bars I had brought from Seattle and the ice cream 24 hours earlier were my only food. I wasn’t really hungry, but I was certainly tired.
A new bus finally arrived two hours later. We were all relieved to transfer our bags and hop onboard, but there was just one problem: five other passengers had joined us at Arusha, and they had seat numbers for seats that were already occupied by those of us who had started way back in Uganda. Thankfully, I had already taken my seat when the mistake was discovered, so I didn’t have to worry about standing up for the remaining nine hours.
After a lot of arguing and the unsuccessful mediation efforts of the bus company’s employees, a woman stood up and addressed everyone. “Brothers and sisters in the Lord!” she began. “We are all Christians, so let us find a way to solve this problem!”
So far, so good, but some guys in the back were laughing and not listening to her, so she commanded them to “Shut up in the name of Jesus!” It was one of the most interesting social interactions I’ve ever been a part of. For better or worse, the evangelist was able to resolve the problem by acquiring some extra makeshift seats from the bus driver. Before we left Arusha after waiting far too long, she led the whole bus in a prayer for the journey. Even the Muslims supported a Christian prayer for a safe road journey to our final destination.
Kenya to Tanzania
A lot of other things happened along the way, but as we hit the 24-hour point, I was pretty exhausted. I vaguely remember running my hands through my hair and seeing them completely covered in red dust. I remember a collective bus stop for bananas, which looked nice but I couldn’t buy any because I didn’t have any Tanzanian currency, and I remember waking up after sleeping for three straight hours to find our bus about an hour out of Dar es Salaam. By then, it had gone well over the 31 hours we had expected to travel, so when people said we were an hour away I could hardly believe it.
We arrived at the Dar es Salaam bus station close to midnight the day after I had left Uganda. I stepped off the bus for the last time and walked to the gate where I navigated the usual throng of taxi drivers all shouting for my attention. Choosing one and negotiating a price of $8 (it was late at night and a fair distance away) to take me downtown to change money and then to a hotel near the port, I finally arrived at the beautiful sight of a hotel check-in desk shortly after 1:00 a.m. They had one last room available, which I was quite happy to accept sight unseen and without even considering the cost.
Before I feel asleep, I took two full showers in an attempt to shake off the dust from three African countries and 35 hours in a bus. For the next week, however, my shoes would set off a mini dust storm every time I put them on or took them off. When I finally got home two weeks later, my bags still had Kenya’s dust on them despite my best efforts to clean them with washcloths during my next two stops.
I decided to consider it evidence of an achievement that had personal meaning to me, even if other people might find it incomprehensible. I also decided that I wouldn't necessarily want to do this again... but I’m really glad I did it once.
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Image by Busse
First, thanks to everyone who has purchased my new product, the Unconventional Guide to Working for Yourself. You guys are so great… but you know that already. Please make sure you’re on the list for free updates, and let me know if you don’t receive the download links .
And now, on to traveling life – or in this case, life at home.
After a lot of contemplation, Jolie and I recently decided to stay in Seattle for one more year. We originally came here for my graduate school program in 2006, and I finished that a few months ago. We looked at some other options, but finally decided that until we start a new adventure next summer, we’ll continue to base out of Seattle.
I’m working on the book contract and growing the readership for the site, and she is building an art portfolio so she can launch her career as a painter.
Having written previously about my inability to get around very well in my own city, I’ve decided I might as well start learning more. Here are a few of the people and places I’ve come to know well over the past two years of living here.
Image by Travis
The Gyrocery on University Way in the U-District has the best falafel sandwiches anywhere. And I don’t mean just anywhere in Seattle, I mean anywhere in the world.
When I went to Jordan for the first time in early 2007, I ended up eating falafel every day for about 10 days straight. I was a new vegetarian and had no Arabic, so falafel was pretty much all I knew how to order. The falafels in Jordan were decent, but when I came back home and revisited the Gyrocery, I decided they were a lot better over here.
I thought it was just me, but a few months ago I was back in Amman for a one-night layover. I met up with my friend Dimitar who was studying Arabic for a semester. Ironically, Dimitar and I used to go to the Gyrocery to eat lunch once in a while back at home, and there we were in Jordan. He took me to a nearby falafel place around 11pm, but before we went he warned me that it was “no Gyrocery.”
Indeed it wasn’t. The falafels were fine, but the Jordanian guys who run the Gyrocery have obviously improved on the original recipe. The only problem is that the falafels in Seattle are $5 and in Amman they are 50 cents, but the huge difference in quality justifies the price. Really.
I also know Samir up the street, who is from Beirut, Lebanon. I met him just before I went to his homeland. “Hey, aren’t you from Lebanon?” I asked him. “Yes!” he said, with a smile that turned to a frown. “But it is not good there right now. We can not go back because it is unsafe.”
“Oh,’” I said. “I’m going there next week.”
“In that case, you will have a great trip!” he said, and we both laughed.
(In the end it was completely safe while I was there, although unfortunately it wasn’t for other people a few days later.)
Image by Rakkadeer
Ly (pronounced Lee) runs a donut shop called, fittingly, Ly’s Donuts. It’s up on 45th and Roosevelt, and as far as I can tell, Ly works there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Most of the time I go there, he slowly rises from a big chair like a sleepwalker to greet me, so I got the impression from the beginning that he spends a lot of time behind the counter.
One time after several visits, I went in and someone else was there. I was disappointed not to see Ly, but glad that he finally got some help.
A couple weeks later I was back, and I mentioned to Ly that an employee had helped me on my last visit. I said that I hoped he had a good vacation, but Ly looked confused.
“The white guy helped you?” he asked.
“Yeah, the white guy,” I said. “Where were you?”
“I must have been sleeping in the back.”
Go and see him sometime; he’s virtually guaranteed to be there.
Image by Imprints Group
Every Thursday when I’m in town, I visit the Food Bank near the Public Library in Wallingford. Before someone accuses me of stealing from homeless people, I should note that this particular food bank is for anyone who lives in certain zip codes. There is also plenty of surplus food to go around; you just have to wait a while for it sometimes.
Since I’ve made this discovery, I’ve tried to figure out whether it’s worth my time or not. On any given week I get at least $20 in free bread and usually anywhere from $10-50 in other groceries. On the low-end weeks, it’s probably not worth the 40 minutes it takes to walk up there, wait in line, get stuff, and walk back.
But on the high-end weeks, it’s basically free grocery shopping with a few nice surprises. I also think of like a food reality show. It might not always be good, but if I didn’t go one week, I’d worry about what I was missing.
Every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas, you can get a free ham or turkey in addition to the regular selection. Since neither of us eat hams or turkeys, I always decline the offer, but this creates a lot of nearby interest.
The first holiday week I was there, a fight almost broke out as three people simultaneously asked if they could have “my” turkey. I ended up giving it to a Vietnamese lady who was very excited. She offered a couple of onions to thank me for “regifting” the turkey.
Fights don’t break out that often, but there’s usually something interesting that happens each week at the food bank -- another good reason to make the Thursday afternoon trip. Last week, some guy asked the staff if they had any stuffed animals to give out. (They usually keep a few on hand for kids.)
The man at the desk said, “Sure, hold on.” As he picked one out of a nearby box, the guy said, “Thanks! My dog is really going to love this!”
To his credit, the man at the desk didn’t bat an eye. “I hope your dog has fun,” he said.
Image by Bus Chick
An elderly Japanese-American man frequently rides the bus around our parts of the city, sitting in the front and making origami birds for other passengers out of old newspapers. He looks like Mr. Miyagi from the old Karate Kid movies, and whether you want to or not, he’ll try to involve you in making the origami.
Mr. Miyagi also shares a numbers of observations while he’s making his gifts. “Mechanics,” he says frequently, perhaps out of explanation. “Holy Spirit,” he says when he gives out the dove – a nice touch, I suppose.
He usually gives the origami presents to women—my theory is that they are less threatening to him, and more likely to be friendly—but sometimes he’ll give them to men as well. One time I saw a business guy (not that typical in Seattle) try to decline the gift. The origami guy just kept offering, and by the third time the business guy gave in and ended up holding the paper crane for the next few stops. When someone gives you origami on the bus, resistance is futile.
Update: Bus Chick, who writes for a Seattle newspaper, spotted the same guy and has a picture.
Overheard on the Bus
Speaking of the bus, there are some great Overheard sites out there—see here and here — and I could probably create my own from riding Seattle’s buses. One time, coming back from the airport on the local 174 (one of the city’s longest routes, which means a lot of interesting people ride it), we heard a woman behind us talking loudly on her cell phone.
“Yeah, the doctor sent me home from work. What’s that? Oh, it’s so I don’t have an episode… the last time that happened, the police had to come… no, I wasn’t fired… after I got out they let me come back.”
Another time someone was calling his pharmacy about medication of a more personal kind.
“I need a refill on my medication… Well, it’s not working very well… It’s a sex medication and I think it needs to be stronger…. I took three last night but nothing happened… ”
These notes about living in Seattle served as a break from some of my other writing. Next week, I’ll be back with regularly-scheduled programming: How to Do What You Really Want on Monday, and an analysis of the recent product launch on Wednesday.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
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Image by CG
What can I tell you about Cairo, Egypt? To start with, there’s nothing average about it. Cairo is a city of highs and lows – high hassle, high history. High temperatures (98° every day I was there), high culture.
The hassle factor, unfortunately, can’t be easily diminished. Visiting there on a typical itinerary, you can expect to get annoyed (or even angry) several times a day with all of the people looking for business. The percentage of professional hustlers is especially high in Cairo, and they are amazingly multilingual – willing to extract your money in Arabic, English, French, German, and Spanish. There’s no way around this, and it can easily get on the nerves of any traveler.
Before I went out for my first long walk the morning after arrival, for example, one of the staff at the hostel I was in asked if I wanted help with any Arabic words. Always eager to expand my 5-words-in-every-language vocabulary, I said yes.
"Okay,” Hassan said. “First, you need to say ‘please leave me alone.’”
That’s the first thing I need to know?
“Yes,” he told me. “Next, you need to know how to say ‘go away now.’”
Thus the lesson continued with phrases like tourist police, and now in addition to greeting people and being polite, I can proficiently tell people to get lost in Arabic. Unfortunately, it’s an appropriate skill to have in a place like Cairo.
When Does Everyone Sleep?
On the other hand (there always is one), Cairo offers a lot of good reasons to visit. It’s an easy city to travel in, there are lots of nearby places to visit, and the people who are not trying to take your money all the time are genuinely nice.
For the first few days, I stayed at a place called Wake Up! Cairo Hostel. I was initially put off by the name – I think I would have preferred a Good Night! hostel – but it turned out to be one of the better places I’ve stayed at recently. Since I was there for several nights, they sent a driver to meet me at the airport -- a kindness I appreciated, since there was no shortage of taxi drivers and “helpers” ready to descend on visitors arriving without an escort.
I checked in close to midnight after 17 hours of flying (MIA-PTY-MAD-CAI), but everyone was wide awake watching a soccer match. Three hours later, I finally went to bed… but everyone else was still awake. When I got up at 9:00, however, they were all awake. I wasn’t sure if this was the Ramadan effect or the Wake Up! hostel effect.
If you don’t know, Ramadan is the month-long religious holiday for Muslims where everyone fasts during the day. From approximately 4:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Muslims all over the world don’t eat or drink anything, including water.
This leads to a fairly sleepy city during the day, a manic traffic situation in the late afternoon, and every restaurant in the city being packed at exactly 6:00 p.m. for the iftarmeal that breaks the fast.
I’ve been in the Middle East several times, but never during Ramadan, so naturally I was curious to be a part of it. Non-Muslims are not required or expected to fast during the day, and I didn’t, but it still felt weird to be the only person in a restaurant while five servers stood around doing nothing.
The Latest Commentary on the U.S. Election
I always enjoy talking to taxi drivers, who often speak some English and can be informative and entertaining at the same time. The first part of the conversation usually involves finding out where I am from and then discussing politics in the U.S. (as perceived from afar) and whatever country I’m in.
Lately, most taxi drivers have been talking about the U.S. election. In Pakistan, my driver told me that the Taxi Drivers’ Association of Karachi had endorsed Barack Obama, which of course I found highly entertaining.
Here’s how it went down this time:
"Oh, you are from America? New president coming soon, we are happy."
"Yes, early next year. You know about the election?"
“Yes, of course. Obama is very interesting man! But also small.”
“Yes, very small man.”
I’m not sure what that means, so we move to another topic: I ask about John McCain.
“McCain, he is old man. Not beautiful.”
“Is he small?” I want to ask, but the driver is not done yet.
“Yes, very old,” he continues, but then smiles. “However, McCain is smart man. He choose beautiful woman to be president with him! Zara Pullom.”
“Sarah Palin?” I ask after making sure I’ve heard him right. Word spreads quickly here, it seems.
“Yes, Zara Pullom.”
He goes on for a long time, and we have a long time, since the drive out to Giza City is about half an hour. “Zara Pullom” is beautiful, but so is Hillary Clinton. Upon some consideration, he decides that Laura Bush is also beautiful, but Jenna and “the other girl,” as he calls her, are the most beautiful of all. Since Jenna and the other girl are 20-30 years younger than everyone else he’s named, I’m not too surprised.
We wrap up this edition of Cairo Observations on U.S. Politics by talking about Jimmy Carter, whom I’ve noticed is always very popular in Arab countries, and he concludes with the observation that Rosalyn Carter was beautiful a long time ago, but is now old like John McCain.
I wish I could bring all the taxi drivers I meet and put them on Meet the Press to debate who is the most beautiful and whose policies are the best for transportation unions around the world. I guarantee it would provide more entertainment than Saturday Night Live, and at least as much information as most real political shows.
Did I mention the Pyramids?
In between eating during Ramadan and talking with taxi drivers about beautiful U.S. politicians, I also got out and about to see the usual sites. The pyramids, I am pleased to report, are impressive. If you’re coming to Egypt, you should see them.
What else can I say? I’m not your average travel writer. I assume someone else has written about seeing the pyramids at some point in history, so all I can add is that they are as worthy of attention as advertised.
I suppose if I had paid for one of the many professional hustlers to be my guide, I would have learned all about how they were made and the significance of everything. Instead, I just stood at the base, looked up, and thought, “Wow! How did they do that?”
Here's a few photos:
On the half-mile walk to the pyramids entrance, I decided to count the number of people who came along to offer their assistance. I think one or two of them might have been repeat hustlers, but I believe I met at least 11 guys who all had a similar pitch.
I said goodbye to my 11 new friends (and a few others) on the walk back to the hotel I had moved to for my final two nights, passing up the chance to buy cigarette lighters and alarm clocks in the shape of the pyramids. Alas, no one on my Christmas list will have a Sphinx magnet in their stocking.
When the week was over I headed out on Royal Jordanian, one of my favorite airlines and a solid partner in the OneWorld alliance I’ve been traveling on almost exclusively this year. Royal Jordanian has a nice new lounge in Amman and at least half of their passengers are not Ramadan-observers, so I didn’t feel strange eating lunch.
Connecting in Doha, Qatar, I flew out on Qatar Airways to Colombo, Sri Lanka – my final stop on my final overseas trip of the year.
And guess what? Sri Lanka also happened to be my 100th country. How about that?
Yes, I was pretty psyched. I’ve been thinking about visiting 100 countries for at least three years now. And now I've made it!
After clearing immigration and negotiating a ride to my guesthouse, I walked out into the night with the driver. I looked up and the sky and said… wait, hold that thought. I’ll tell you more on Friday, when I tell you more about Sri Lanka itself. It’s also a nice place, and a good country to conclude my record-setting summer and fall travel schedule.
For now, I’m in transit back to Seattle via New York, working on my projects and rewriting the book proposal for the third time. I’ve also completed the second Unconventional Guide, and all the news about that will arrive early next week.
It’s going to be fun! Thanks for being a big part of it. ###
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Image by Kliefi
The first time I went to Vienna, I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. I was tired after a two-week trip to Africa, and headed back to the U.S. a couple days later. The dollar had hit another all-time low against the euro the day before my arrival, providing even less motivation for visiting an expensive European city I expected to find crawling with tourists.
All that to say that the city of Vienna completely surprised me by how truly beautiful it was. From start to finish, virtually everything about my stay went right. From the airport I took the express CAT train to the Landstraße station, where I changed to the underground metro. At the city station, an Austrian Airlines check-in desk allowed me to check in to my ongoing flight even though it was two days away. I took my boarding pass for a flight that wasn't leaving for 36 hours, which I didn’t even think was possible until they handed it to me.
Walking down to the subway, a guy approached me, saying something I didn’t understand. “Entschuldigung, ich spreche kein Deutsch,” I replied, using a full third of my German vocabulary.
“Oh,” he said in English. “Can you please spare 90 cents?”
I’m always impressed by multilingual panhandlers. In America they could work for the U.N., but elsewhere in the world they have to ask for spare change in the subway. Anyway, the metro line took me exactly where my directions said it would, and I found my hostel a few short blocks away.
If this sounds normal, it’s not—I have a recurring experience of getting lost nearly everywhere I go, usually with my bags and often for an hour or more. It’s a small miracle when I successfully arrive at my destination in an unfamiliar city without getting lost at least once.
The hostel was just what I needed: a small dorm room with a writing desk and a window that looked out over a pretty courtyard. After dropping off my bags, I walked to a bakery I had seen on the way in. The sun was shining and I sat outside for 40 minutes, sipping cappuccino and brainstorming some notes for a business project. Life is good, I thought.
That evening I did some more business work and went running along the river Wien. It was incredibly relaxing and served as a good capstone for my first day in the city.
The next day was much the same—perfect chocolate croissants, friendly people, fun streets to wander. The skies were overcast and it rained off and on throughout the day, but I live in Seattle, so that didn’t bother me.
At the end of the trip I decided two things: first, I love Vienna and will start using it as a Star Alliance hub city instead of Frankfurt from now on. Second, I realized that part of what I like or dislike about certain places has to do with fairly narrow, personal standards. Is it a nice country to run in? Are there fun discoveries to be made? Of course there always are, but are they my kind of discoveries?
I hope I’m not becoming materialistic. At any rate, I do try to find beauty wherever I am. And by these admittedly personal and quirky standards, Vienna is beautiful. I spent my last morning at my favorite café, where I had gradually become amazingly fluent in ordering various kinds of coffee and croissants. This might not get me a job at the U.N., but it’s a good skill for my own travel needs.
When I went back to the airport, I headed straight to departures thanks to the boarding pass I received two days earlier. I left Vienna and traveled further east to Romania, which I expected to be a fairly direct contrast to everything I found in Austria.
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Of course, I’m not paying €299; I’m staying here for free using my Starwood points, where the same room goes for a bargain rate of 7,000 points a night. This turns out to be a smart decision for more reasons than one.
From the web site, the place looks gorgeous. Visiting in person, it looks like it was possibly gorgeous about 30 years ago.
I’m given a real key to my room instead of a room card, and when I get there via the creaking elevator that holds a maximum of three people, it doesn’t work. I head back downstairs with my bags for an apology and a new key.
My dusty room has a no-smoking sign on the wall and an ashtray on the desk, which of course I find amusing. I drink three glasses of water from the tap, and it tastes like drinking straight out of a swimming pool. As I set the glass down for the third time, I notice a picture near the sink that seems to imply that the drinking water is unsafe. Too late for that, and I’m sure not opening the mini-bar to pay for mineral water.
The Cocktail Party
At check-in, I was also given an invitation to a “Management Cocktail Party” at 6:30 that evening. I’m not sure what to expect, but on the principle that you should never turn down a free drink from a $400 hotel, I decide to attend. After resting in my room and watching French TV for an hour, I put on my nicest clothes (which aren’t very nice after a week of traveling without any laundry opportunities) and head downstairs to the lounge.
I take a free glass of bad chardonnay and check out the room. In a full ballroom, I observe that I am the youngest person by about 80 years. Okay, maybe it's more like 30 years… but it certainly seems like everyone else here has come straight from the nursing home for cocktail night at Le Meridian.
There is a French corner and a British corner, but other than the language, you couldn’t tell them apart. Every single person is white, old, and looks strangely comfortable in this ancient hotel. It’s like a reunion of the Greatest Generation from both sides of the channel. I try to take a quick photo as inconspicuously as possible while balancing my chardonnay and a handful of peanuts, but it doesn't come out well. A waiter gives me a bad look, so I put the camera back in my pocket.
a•nach•ro•nism. noun. something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time, esp. a thing or person that belongs to an earlier time.
Later I run four miles around the city and down by the seaport. The hospital ship I worked with for four years in West Africa was registered here in Valletta, and more than 20 years ago it had docked in the city for registration and maritime certificates. I enjoy running along the docks of each side of the water, wondering which quay our ship had docked at and thinking about my memories of those amazing days from 2002-2006.
Afterwards I wander through the town, eventually buying an olive calzone to take back to my room at the hotel. The next day I run some more, explore the fort, and after another night of takeout olive calzone (no free drinks on your second night, apparently) I check out of the anachronistic Le Meridian.
I ignore the taxi drivers waving to me outside and take the bus back to the small airport. I'll be flying back to Vienna, and the strange visit now feels eerily comfortable to me, just as it apparently does to the centenarians at the hotel. I'm writing these short notes in the departure lounge, and now it's time to leave this island nation behind and return to the continent.
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If you weren’t here yesterday, you can read more about it in the expected location. Against the conventional wisdom of scarcity, I plan to keep selling and improving it for a long time.
And now -
This is the story in which I am provided a geographic tour of Singaporean prostitutes, reflect on the biggest travel month of my life, and sleep in Changi airport prior to heading back to Hong Kong on the ultimate no-frills airline.
It’s a bit long—if you’re not interested in my travel diaries, you might not like this one. But if you’re up for it, here it is.
The last time I was in Singapore, things didn’t go so well – I walked into the glass door of a Starbucks on Orchard Road. My head recovered quickly, but my pride was wounded for the rest of the day.
Today I’m between Brunei, an odd little country completely surrounded by Malaysia, and Hong Kong on a nice 36-hour transit stop. I arrived mid-afternoon, which means I officially have one-and-a-half nights to spend before catching a 6am flight back to HKG. The first night I had planned to stay in a budget hotel, and the second night I expect to hang out at Changi Airport.
Singapore is the Asian city all travel writers love to hate.
Almost any commentary on visiting here is filled with references to canings and chewing gum. The implication is that Singapore is uptight, militant, and boring. Mention you are going to Singapore among established travel writers, and many will roll their eyes. “Why don’t you go up to Malaysia or down to Indonesia for some real culture?”
Yeah, yeah. Actually, I like Singapore just fine. It has a culture all of its own. Sure, part of that culture is somewhat manufactured – but that doesn’t mean it’s not culture in its own way.
On the train from Changi Airport, I listen to my iPod and say silent prayers for being finished with Brunei and on my way back home. In Singapore I have no schedule or major travel mysteries to solve, and I am happy for that.
The Red-Light Hotel 81
For my one night in the city before sleeping in the airport the next night, I’ve booked the cheapest hotel I could possibly find. Times are hard these days, and that’s just how it goes. The YWCA I stayed in before goes for $90 a night, but I’ve found a cheaper place further out of town in the Geylang district – which also happens to be the red-light district.
When I learn this information about my neighborhood, I’m a little surprised. I had no idea that Singapore even had a red-light district, but indeed they do. I get out of the train and hail a taxi to take me to the hotel. Along the short journey, the driver gives me an unrequested run-down on the prices of the local prostitutes.
“This area here, this is Chinese area. Chinese prostitutes, very expensive—maybe $80!” he says. ($80 in Singapore dollars is about $60 U.S.). He looks back at me for encouragement, but I don’t give him any. Nevertheless, he keeps going.
“Indonesian prostitutes over here—they go cheaper, lah. Maybe $30!”
I tell him I’m only interested in sleeping in my room tonight, but he doesn’t take the hint. “Over here, Malay prostitutes, over there, Thai prostitutes…” and on it goes.
It’s like the ASEAN of prostitutes in this neighborhood, with every nationality assigned its own couple of blocks. When I check in to the budget hotel, a Chinese guy next to me is paying for a stay of two hours. A sign reads “Only two people are allowed in the rooms after 11pm.”
Well, this is definitely not the vibe I get up at the YMCA, which does stand for Young Men’s Christian Association, after all. But the room is clean, and I take a quick shower, leave my bags, and head out to the parts of the city I’m more interested in.
The rest of the day, I walk. First I take the MRT over to Little India, a great neighborhood I’ve never managed to explore before.
Unlike a lot of Chinatowns, it really is like its own, well, little India. After a late lunch of potato curry, I head over to Orchard Road, Singapore’s central shopping area and also a nice place to walk in the early evening. I had just ran about 13 miles in Brunei the evening before, so my legs are pretty tired. I walk along at a slow pace, thinking about the whole trip that will be coming to an end soon.
The next day I head out to Changi Airport for an overnight stay before a 6am flight. I’ve decided to save money again and sleep on the airport floor, which at Changi is usually not as bad as it may sound if you haven’t been there.
Changi is frequently voted the #1 airport in the world, and for good reason. Transit passengers have access to free Xbox gaming consoles, internet-enabled PCs throughout the airport, nice relaxation rooms, a movie theatre, and even an outdoor garden you can sit in to pass the time. If you’re transiting in Singapore between 4 and 24 hours, the city will even send you on a free tour into the city, or give you a complimentary transfer shuttle so you can make your own tour.
In short, if you are going to sleep on the floor of an airport, Singapore is one of your better choices. I had planned to hang out in the garden, get caught up on emails, have a nice dinner at the vegetarian restaurant (yes, they have one of those too), and then crash out down by the Oasis lounge, where reclining chairs are freely provided.
There was just one problem… as there often is when traveling.
I do most of my long-haul travel on the Star Alliance and OneWorld networks, with major airlines like Cathay Pacific, Austrian, Thai, and so on. But I do a lot of side trips on low-cost carriers, which are ubiquitous throughout Asia and Europe.
On this side trip, I was traveling between Singapore and Hong Kong on JetStar Asia, a budget carrier in the truest sense. On JetStar Asia, you can’t even get a cup of water without paying extra for it… and they don’t allow you to bring your own food or drinks on board.
I know, I know – it’s almost as bad as Air Canada or any major U.S. airline. But the most troubling thing to me was that in addition to charging $1.80 for a cup of water, JetStar also does not allow anyone to check-in for a flight more than two hours prior to departure.
I didn’t realize this before I got to the airport, because I frequently get boarding passes for up to 36 hours in advance from other airlines. Then I’m free to cross security to the transit side, hang out in the lounge if I have access, or do whatever I want.
Anyway, I found out about 2pm that afternoon that I would not be able to get a boarding pass for my flight until 4am the next morning. This was definitely an unexpected disappointment, because it meant that my whole plan of spending the night in the transit area would not be possible now.
Happiness and Expectations
Writer Gretchen Rubin is publishing a book on the search for happiness next year, and I’m eager to hear what she has to say about it when the time comes. For me, I’ve learned through travel that happiness is largely related to expectations and perception.
I had been looking forward to the meal and the relatively comfortable place to sleep on the airport floor. With that plan, I’d get up about 5:15 in the morning and walk straight to the gate with boarding pass in hand. But without the boarding pass, of course, none of that was possible.
I’d have to fend for myself in the check-in area (which had less comfortable chairs and no carpeting, just a hard floor), and I would also have to wake up at 4:00, queue for the check-in, go through immigration and security, and then have another hour to wait until the flight actually boarded.
With my expectations dashed, I felt disappointed and unhappy. But when I thought about if further, I realized I had been in far more serious situations before. I mean, just last week I arrived in Pakistan without a visa. This should be easy, right?
I gave myself the “get over it” talk – also known as ass-kicking – and realized further that it was 2pm and I hadn’t eaten anything all day. (The lovely Hotel 81 in Geylang offers the option of two-hour rooms, but no complimentary breakfast.) After I ate some nice fried noodles with chili sauce, I immediately felt better about the situation.
I left my bags at the drop-off office downstairs, and went back into town on the MTR. After walking around Raffles Place for a while, I took the long way back to Changi. There wasn’t anything waiting for me there, and besides, I like to walk. For about an hour and a half, I walked through downtown, going along the Singapore river and then the Boat Quay area. Singapore is usually hot and sticky, but halfway through my walk, it cooled down.
Goodbye, Southeast Asia
My trip was coming to an end, and I was heading home. At 6am I’d be back on the no-frills flight to Hong Kong, then a connection to Tokyo and a long-haul flight across the Pacific the following morning. This trip had been far more tiring than usual, but I also made some good progress towards my long-term travel goal.
I realized I had been in a lot of places recently:
Brunei – which was not really my kind of place, but I did have a great two-hour run and saw The Dark Knight with some Malaysians at the theatre in Bandar Seri Begawan.
San Marino – where I rented a car from the Rome airport and drove 12 hours round-trip to visit the Europe’s smallest republic. What, you don’t remember that story? It’s probably because I haven’t written about it yet. In fact, I may never write about it, because it didn’t go very well. But I did it, and I’ve been to San Marino now.
Mongolia – where I was evicted from my guesthouse—a first for me. It’s over, so that’s good. But it was also cool to see the Genghis Khan Brewery and other interesting cultural sites.
Northern Iraq, AKA Kurdistan – where I took off from my time in Eastern Europe to visit over a weekend. I was impressed with the culture and felt completely safe the whole time I was there.
Russia, Moldova, and Beyond – where I trekked through the Baltics, on to Russia, on Moldovan Airlines to Chisinau, and a train to Bucharest… before flying back to Vienna.
Yes, it was quite the journey. As I write this out in my journal this afternoon, I realize there’s a good reason why I’ve been so tired lately.
Thankfully, being tired works in my favor when nighttime comes, at least tonight in Singapore. I go back to Changi and enjoy a surprisingly good meal in the subway area below the airport. It also costs half the price of the $9 meal in the real airport, so I’m doubly-content. I buy a beer at the downstairs grocery store (they have one of those at Changi too) and head up to the check-in area, where I’ll make my “bed” on a couple of plastic chairs.
It’s not comfortable and they never dim the bright lights even after the last flight has left, but because I’m so tired I manage to sleep about four or five hours. I wake up sleepy-eyed, but ready to check-in and move on at 4:00 a.m.
I fly back on the uneventful JetStar Asia, but the good news this time is that the flight is half-full. I have a row of three seats to myself, and right after takeoff I fall asleep across the whole row. Nearly three hours go by before I wake up as we descend to Hong Kong, and I’m very thankful for the extra sleep.
Home from Japan
And then, a few hours later, I was heading back to Tokyo on the wonderful Japan Airlines, which provides consistently great service. Hot towels are brought out to everyone in all classes, and everyone gets a welcome drink. The 15 flight attendants, who are all women, are super-polite.
“Excuse me, sir,” says one of them as we are all boarding. “Is it alright if I ask you to please turn off your iPod before the departure?”
Being asked like that puts you in a great mood for the flight. Yes, it is quite alright. Thank you for asking so nicely.
The next morning, I'm on the way across the water, and I watch Kung-Fu Panda and type up these notes for everyone. Next stop, Seattle, my home city. It’s nice to travel, and it’s nice to come home.
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As previously reported, I often end up having the same conversations over and over in different parts of the world. I don’t always respond to the usual “Where are you from?” icebreaker question right away, but after talking with someone for a few minutes, I don’t hesitate to say I am from the U.S.A.
In Pakistan, where I spent the better part of last week, this was certainly the case. The stock dialogue usually goes like this:
“Oh, you are from America. That is a very nice place!”
“Yes, well, Pakistan is nice too. I’m happy to be here.”
“Really? You like it here?” (They usually sound a bit surprised.)
“Yes, very much.”
And so it goes, ad nauseum, the same conversation everywhere with a few variations.
On the way back to the Karachi airport after my four-day visit, the taxi driver and I have this conversation for a while, and then he leans forward and says, “You know, I want to tell you something about America.”
As he says this, I have déjà vu all over again. I have seen this movie before, and I know exactly what comes next.
“American people very nice,” he says, sounding like a Pakistani Borat. “Pakistani people like American people very much.”
Yes, I know what comes next, because I’ve heard it in Uganda, in Vietnam, and Romania.
“But Mr. Bush,” he says. “We don’t like him or Mr. Musharraf.” (Mr. Musharraf is the president of Pakistan, although he’s in the process of being impeached this week.)
Then there are the references to Guantanamo, Iraq, the difficulty of getting visas to the U.S., and so on. It’s usually a bit depressing to hear the litany, and there’s not much you can say except “Sorry about that.” But this time, since we’re closing in on November, I have a better response.
“Well,” I say, “We are having an election in America very soon, and next year there will be a new president.”
And here is the part of the conversation I did not expect, the one variation in the simultaneous love of America and indictment of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy that I hear pretty much everywhere.
“Yes! The election!” the driver says, taking his hands off the wheel and looking at me in the back seat as I frantically watch the road in front of us. “You will have Mr. Obama as president!”
I laugh at this unexpected statement. Should I try to explain that Obama has not yet been elected, and there is in fact another candidate in the race? It’s probably too complicated.
“You know of Mr. Obama?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says. “Everyone here is talking about him.”
After careful deliberation, the taxi drivers of Karachi have apparently decided to endorse Obama in the American election. When I ask my driver what he and his friends think of the other candidate, he says, “You mean Mrs. Clinton?”
One of the things I love most about traveling is conversations like that one. Every time I meet someone like my driver in Karachi, I walk away with the conviction that I couldn’t make these stories up if I tried. I have my share of misadventures, but I also meet incredible people with ways of life that are completely different from my own. I don't usually have a desire to live my life the way they do - I probably won't be moving to Pakistan anytime soon - but I almost always appreciate how different people view the same world.
Later, at the KHI airport, I sit in the departure area waiting for the check-in desk to open up. I look at the departure sign, which reads as follows:
Hong Kong via Bangkok
Jeddah via Riyadh
Two-thirds of the flights are to the Persian Gulf, where laborers head off to work for nine months or more. There are also a lot of kids here, though, and a lot of women who don’t keep their distance from me as much as most of them do in the city.
The check-in begins on time. I go through the second security check. At 1:40 a.m. we finally take off to Hong Kong, with a stopover in Bangkok to drop off two-thirds of the passengers. My next stop is Brunei, a small, sleepy Islamic monarchy surrounded by Malaysia. It’s the last stop on the trip, and after this, I’ll be headed home.
View previous “getting to” entries here: Getting to India Getting to Moldova Full Trip Reports Archive *** As the Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong lands in Karachi, Pakistan, the purser makes the usual landing announcements. You can turn your mobile phones on but please don’t get up until we’re at the gate, be careful…Read More
This is the story in which I fly to Mongolia for $44, get kicked out of my guesthouse after midnight, and visit the Genghis Khan brewery. Sounds like fun, right? Well, yes. But I should first explain that in my world, a misadventure does not always refer to a bad day or an unfortunate series…Read More
I head out in the morning for what I plan as a 6-8 mile run. I’ve never been here before, so my route is somewhat flexible. I Google “Warsaw running” and find a couple of ideas, but mostly what I decide is to simply head north. I’ll run for half an hour or so, then…Read More
Hello everyone, here are the details behind my secret stopover while on the Baltics and Beyond trip. I had a stop on this part of the trip that I deliberately chose not to publicize in advance. The secrecy was partly for safety concerns, but just as much because I wasn’t sure it would work out.…Read More
Previous Trip Reports: Getting to India Five Journeys to Cotonou, Benin Easter Island to Beirut, Lebanon Leaving Hong Kong Homeless in London Full Archive *** In the parts of the world where globalization has truly set in, skill with languages is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In some cases, I’ve learned, it’s better to play dumb even…Read More