Midpoint Notes on Traveling--January 30, 2010

We’ve learned some important lessons thus far in our travels. Now that we’ve passed the midpoint of our around-the-world trip it seems like an appropriate juncture to summarize some of the recurring themes.

Hotels: We’ve stayed at many hotels with prices ranging from less than $10 a night up to a hotel that charges more than that for a (small!) beer from the minibar (its nice having people join us!) While there are many soft factors for judging whether a hotel is acceptable, we’ve developed the following as a baseline standard for our hotels:

  1. Do the sheets stay on the bed? We’ve spent many a night where we’ve woken up on a strange mattress with the sheets on the floor

  2. Are there towels in the room? If the hotel doesn’t provide towels for guests in the bathroom then one has to wonder how clean the place is if it doesn’t expect its guests to shower.

  3. Are there bugs in the bathroom? This is also a cleanliness factor because bugs in the bathroom is just gross, really.

  4. Is toilet paper in the bathroom (without having to ask for it specifically)? See #2 regarding guest cleanliness. Meg had one particularly memorable experience trying to mime it in Jordan.

Transportation: We’ve used many modes of transport ranging from the rickshaw to the rental car but we’ve really done the most research on bus travel. Below follows a summary of our findings on the hierarchy of the various types of buses:

1. an actual normal bus (you know, you buy a ticket, you get on the bus, the bus leaves on time, doesn’t stop, and then arrives at your destination); in our experience, a very rare breed

2. direct buses (it makes a limited number of short stops, say 3 stops or less, between the starting point and the ending point); again, very hard to find

3. an “express” bus (this is where things get confusing since if something is called an express bus then it really isn’t an express bus but a marketing ploy to try to make you think that a really slow bus will get you there fast, an express bus really means is that it makes tons of stops and takes forever- see Zam-Nam Express);

4. a local bus (unless you happen to be going to some very small town, which doesn’t appear on any map, then you’ve made a real mistake if you end up on the local bus- a local bus stops every 16 seconds, leaves when it is full and takes 25 minutes to get out of the bus station and forever to get anywhere else that you actually want to go. This is commonly known as a “chicken bus”)

5. a local minibus (this has all the drawbacks of a local bus with the added drawback that it is likely to be extremely uncomfortable with no leg room, twice as many passengers as should safely fit and a short ceiling that you hit your head on every time you go over a bump- and on the roads that these minibuses go on there are always lots of bumps.)

6. a broken bus (this is a species of express bus or local that doesn’t actually move; given its broken state passengers spend there time standing by the side of the road or just sitting on the bus sweating all over- see Happy Nation Express).

A few other transport notes:

1. The award for crappiest car we’ve ever crossed an international border in goes to: the 1981 Cadillac we took over the mountains, in the rain, from Beirut to Damascus. The windows were broken so the driver had to jam wooden dowels in the door to keep the windows up and the rain out.

2. If you ever book a flight on Pegasus Air only to discover the price of the ticket did not include a seat, don’t despair. First, realize that for $33, it is to be expected. Second, while not buying a seat is NOT an option (we checked), you can still beat the system by booking 2 middle seats at $3 each, saving $5 in the process. (And the airline official will likely be so confused as to why you and your husband/wife are sitting separately, s/he will change your seats to put you together.)

Food: Sampling local cuisine and local restaurants is definitely always a highlight of traveling.From street food to fine dining, we have had some scrumptious meals and some we would rather forget. Except for the ice cream at McDonald’s in Aqaba, Jordan to make use of the free Wi-Fi there, we have really tried to keep it local and learned a few things along the way.

1. Middle Eastern Food is much better than African food. (Out of respect for some very tasty African dishes we had, we recognize this is a generalization.)

2. When traveling through Africa, you’ll come across enticing sounding local dishes such as nshima, cima, and ugali. Don’t be fooled- they are all the same corn meal crap. However, this dish made of corn meal and water is perfect if you are looking for a quick fill and have lots of chili sauce to go with it.

3. If you want to enjoy your meal, do NOT go back into the kitchen to learn what something is on the menu—this especially is true if you are at a local “restaurant” in Malawi (see Nkhata Bay.)

4. Even after eating hummus for 27 straight days (literally) in the Middle East, it is still possible to crave it for every meal (if you are Meg). However, trying to eat Middle Eastern food in South Africa might kill your appetite for hummus for a little while.

5. We have found two types of local restaurants in Africa: the one where they bring you a menu, tell you everything you try to order is “finished,” and just bring you what you have; the other where they don’t even have a menu and just bring you what they have. Either way, they just bring you what they want to bring you.

Most of all we have learned that often times you can have the most fun and learn the most about a country not by visiting its most famous site with other tourists (except in Namibia where there are no other tourists (or people)) but rather by traveling with the local people en route from point A to point B (except on the Happy Nation Express in Tanzania when in broke down for the second time—that just sucked.)

Why We Don’t Like Brett Favre or Agra Anymore (or “Watching” the Vikings Throw the Game Away in Agra, India); January 25, 2010

For all this talk of globalization and the flattening of the world with technology, other places in the world can still seem very far away when you are trying to watch the NFC championship game in Agra, India.  What follows is a description of the trials and tribulations of being a devoted Vikings fan half a world away.

As soon as the Vikings defeated the Eagles in the playoffs, Meg began planning how to watch the game from Agra. After exploring many possible options including:

-       ESPN but India gets ESPN Asia (which as best as we can tell only shows cricket, obscure soccer highlights, and old Olympic videos)- a downside of specialized programming in our modern era

-       Satellite TV, which just isn’t something that is feasible from Agra

-       Watching the game online, but apparently the NFL simulcast online is so bad as to not be worth watching

-       Calling Meg’s brother Josh via Skype to watch the game with him on Skype (ie pointing his computer at the television)

The last option was the plan that we decided on. Since the game started at 5am, we decided that we would get up, go see the Taj Mahal at sunrise (when it is at its “most atmospheric” according to Lonely Planet), get a score update from Josh and then leave the Taj in time to Skype call for the second half, if the game wasn’t a blow out. But, as usual when traveling, things didn’t go as smoothly as planned:

1.     When we arrived the evening before the game, it turned out that our hotel did not have wireless internet even though they told us over the phone that they did have it (after talking to the manager of the hotel it was clear that he didn’t really understand the concept of wireless internet when he told us “I have signal towers on my roof, why don’t you just plug into them?”)  The hotel did not, in fact, have any internet at all.

2.     As a next step that evening we decided to see if we could pick up in our hotel room wireless signals from nearby internet cafes. After exploration none of the nearby cafes had Wifi but we were able to pick up one obscurely named network. After consultation with the hotel manager, it seemed that the network was named after the son of the owner of the restaurant next door. So we went to the restaurant to investigate. To make a long story short, after phone calls across town, a Jed’s 15 minute walk through the back alleys of Agra with our laptop under his arm to visit the “uncle”, and a consultation on the mechanics of the Indian internet, it became clear that using this network was not a viable option.

3.     So giving up the dream of watching the game from our hotel room, the next option we explored that evening was nearby internet cafes. But these cafes closed early and opened late, but with the help of the “uncle” we were able to find a hotel that had internet which it claimed to be open 24 hours (the proprietor said “I’ll be here all night; just wake me up”).

4.     We woke up the next morning early, went to the Taj Mahal, bought our tickets, and got in line to go in. And waited in line to get in, and waited, and waited until it became clear that Taj didn’t actually open at the time we had been told. Then we got a call from Josh telling us that it was tied at half time. Since this meant we’d have about half an hour in the Taj, coupled with the fact it was so foggy that visibility was about 20 feet (not ideal for watching sunrise at the Taj Mahal), we decided to go watch the game instead. It seemed like a tough decision but that turned out to be the easy part.

5.     After abandoning ship on the Taj Mahal, we went to the “always open” internet place. It was, in fact, open (literally the door was unlocked). But the proprietor was very asleep; Jed spent 5 minutes trying unsuccessfully to wake him up (techniques included talking, banging things, and (softly) kicking him). Then we gave up and enlisted a nearby rickshaw driver to rouse someone else in the hotel. This gentleman (the manager?) informed us that despite what we had been told the previous night that the internet wouldn’t work until 9am (long after the game was over) because the electricity was off until then! So back to the drawing board as we got another phone update from Josh on the game clock ticking down.

6.     After running down our (dwindling) options we decided to try for an internet connection in one of the fancy hotels across town. After being rebuffed by the closest (and fanciest) hotel (no non-guests allowed), we set off in a rickshaw to the next closest hotel that had a wireless internet connection. Given the need for speed, Jed even dispensed with the rickshaw bargaining, paying 10 cents more than he wanted to.

7.     While this hotel did have wireless, it would not work with Apple computers (which we of course have.)  Luckily Meg found another hotel, a few doors down, where, after some coaxing, we did get the wireless internet to work…..for a little while. While it was working, we were able to connect via Skype with Josh and see the game on the TV (granted we couldn’t really make out much—pointing the computer at the TV, while a brilliant idea and a good last resort, is not exactly HD quality).  This turned out not to matter as the wireless internet connection stopped working a few minutes later.

8.     Fortunately, we discovered that the hotel did have a business center where we could connect to Skype. But unfortunately the camera function did not work and all we could see was a black screen.  Instead we had to resort to Josh’s audio play by play (we appreciate his effort, but he shouldn’t give up his day job just yet). 

This was just in time for the Vikes last drive where they drove to the Saint’s 33 yard line with a first down, plenty of time left, and Meg thinking “this was totally worth it!”  Instead, of course, in typical Vikes fashion, they got a thoughtless penalty, threw an interception to end regulation, and lost the game in overtime (all of this, again, being relayed by Josh’s commentary, getting more depressing by the minute.)  The only solace Meg could take from this (apart from the fact that her traitorous younger brother who has become a Saints fan since moving to New Orleans was happy) was the thought “at least we don’t have to do this again for the Superbowl.”

Oh and, anticlimactically after this heartbreaking Viking adventure, we went to the Taj Mahal…….

 …where it was still foggy, a fitting end to the morning. 

Mumbai, India: January 20, 2010

Mumbai was a great introduction to India. The city is a great microcosm of what one associates with India: great opportunity, great innovations, great crowds, great riches, great poverty and, most of all, great food. For us Mumbai was literally the Gateway to India 

But more than anything Mumbai is a city of hustle and bustle. As Meg noted on our first walking tour of the city “I have no idea what everyone is doing, but they sure are busy doing something”. And Mumbai is city where everyone is busy doing a million different things at the same time in the same place. It is city that has 16 million people and it always feels that way with people, cars, mopeds, carts, and animals everywhere, all the time. This activity is one of the city’s great charms. And with so much activity and so many people there are endless entertainment options: from restaurants of every variety (aside from wonderful Indian cuisine, we also enjoyed fantastic Chinese food) stores and markets selling every imaginable ware to charming architecture and fascinating museums, Mumbai truly has it all. In a word, we loved Mumbai (and Jed even bought a t-shirt saying that.)

Being New Yorkers (or more accurately for Meg, having lived in New York for several years while still being a Minnesotan,) perhaps part of this can be attributed to our general affinity for big cities (we would say that Mumbai plays the role of NYC, with its place as the cultural and business capital of the country and its belief that the country revolves around it, to Delhi’s role as Washington, DC as the nation’s seat of government). Another large part of our love of Mumbai was the wonderful exposure we got to the inner workings from our very generous hosts, Brinda and Anand Somaya.

 Spending a week with them in Mumbai was a cram course in Mumbai-ness; we probably learned a month’s worth of Mumbai knowledge in a week with them. From insight into the sites, food explanations, cultural pointers, and introductions the Somayas were the ultimate insider’s guide to Mumbai (take that Lonely Planet!).

Another way we got to see Mumbai’s many sides was through Meg’s volunteer work with SNEHA- an organization devoted to addressing the health needs of women and children living in Mumbai’s slums. Spending time doing health related work in various Mumbai slums provided a well-rounded picture of all of Mumbai. From working with the SNEHA staff to accompanying a community health working on a post-natal visit to meeting community members and local physicians in helping to prepare for a wide-scale hemoglobin-testing project, the experience was very rewarding.  As part of this we spent a day at a health post in the Varsha Nagar slum testing adolescent girls for anemia. 

From this we got great insight into the local health center (both services it provides and the limitations thereof) while documenting the high level of anemia caused by health and nutrition issues that, unfortunately, are very common in India. For more information about this amazing organization, visit www.snehamumbai.org. 

After reading all of the above, you can probably understand why it was so hard to leave Mumbai. 

Tanzanian Safari Video

Jed's brother Tim made this fabulous video our some of the highlights of our pictures from our safari in Tanzania.  We thought we would share it with all of you:

Thanks to Tim for doing this, thanks again to our parents for such a fabulous trip (and a special thanks to Meg's parents for planning it--it was perfect!)

Kenya--January 12, 2010

So getting in and out of Nairobi was pretty difficult (see below)- but while we were there we had a very pleasant stay. Unfortunately our first moments in Nairobi were spent at the dentist.

Meg had cracked a tooth on day 3 of our Kilimanjaro climb and had a disturbingly memorable trip to the dentist in Moshi, Tanzania, after our return (if you ever need a dentist in Africa, don’t go to Moshi or, perhaps better put, if you ever think you might need a dentist, stay far away from Moshi.)  After recovering from the experience, we decided that perhaps it was better to leave the country for dental care and did extensive research into dentists in Nairobi and found a great one (at least judging by the durability of the work so far- Meg reserves the right to amend this posting if there are problems before we return to the US)

We stayed with Susannah Friedman, a friend of Jed’s from high school. As always we were reminded how great it is to stay with friends. Perhaps this contributed to our positive experience in Nairobi. While everything we had read and heard made Nairobi sound terrible and dangerous, with the exception of the traffic in the suburbs, we found it to be a relatively nice, safe, clean, and prosperous place.  Our visits to the National Museum (filled with information on every animal or bird you might ever possibly see on safari,) the baby elephant orphanage, and the giraffe center were a great complement to our time on safari in Tanzania.

The highlight of Meg’s stay there was spending the day with Pathfinder International, an NGO that does international work in reproductive health and HIV treatment and prevention.  After meeting with several of the staff to learn more about the organization, she went with three team members to St Francis Hospital to visit the different aspects of the program that works to prevent, identify, and treat HIV.  She also heard testimony from several patients about how much their lives had improved with appropriate treatment, follow up, and community involvement. The patients themselves specifically attributed their improved health to the work of Pathfinder and USAID (which, as part of our ongoing theoretical debate on this topic, certainly puts foreign aid in a positive light).

If only our departure from Nairobi had be as lovely as our stay… Thanks to Ethiopian Airlines, we got to spend 16 hours in the Nairobi airport. The letter below to their customer service staff summarizes our experience:

January 12, 2010

Nairobi, Kenya

Dear Ethiopian Airlines Customer Service-

 It is 5:30am and I’m sitting in the Nairobi, Kenya airport at the Ethiopian Airlines desk. At the moment I should be on an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa. However, when I showed up at the airport several hours ago to check-in for my flight, the agent told me that my internet booking was not actually complete. Despite the fact that I had booked my ticket online, received a confirmation number, and checked the Ethiopian Airlines website twice to confirm my ticket, apparently there is a glitch on the website that makes it look like a ticket has been booked but the ticket has not actually been booked (a rather big glitch, I’d say). 

The manager here was kind enough to explain this glitch to me just before he informed me that he couldn’t issue me a ticket and that I could not get on the flight I had booked. He is an idiot and very unhelpful. His name is O.M. Kiolkol. He spent an hour telling me all the reasons that he couldn’t help me including:

-       why he couldn’t just issue me a ticket now (he couldn’t process payment)

-       why he couldn’t process a payment now (as best as I can tell he doesn’t know how- perhaps a good topic for a future staff training)

-       why he couldn’t contact someone else to process a payment now (apparently the only place to do this in the Nairobi City Center office, which doesn’t open until 9am)

-       why he couldn’t call the Ethiopian Airways central reservations line (unclear exactly why this couldn’t be done though it seemed that he couldn’t make an international call)

-       why even if he were to call the central reservations line, no one would be able to help us (unclear why this is the case but he refused to even pick up the phone)

-       why our best option was to take a taxi back into the Nairobi City Center, go to the ticket office when it opened at 9am, try to complete our reservation there, take another taxi back to the airport, and get on the 6pm (in 12 hours!) flight

 So in sum, Mr. Kiolkol was less than helpful as his best option was for us to sit outside his office for 4 hours to wait for the next manager to arrive at 9am so that she could deal with our problem. In fact, as I’m writing he has just locked the office and left to go home

In my many years of airline travel, this is the most outrageous example of disastrous customer service (and sheer idiocy) that I have ever experienced. For an airline that is “Africa’s World Class Airline” and promises passengers that they will “Travel the World in Style” this is the least classy and stylish experience of my traveling life. 

Usually, I end letters such as these by asking for some sort of consideration from the airline- a refund, extra frequent flier miles, a free ticket, etc. But in this case, I don’t even know what to request. All I can think of is that I would like to avoid flying with you or seeing Mr. Kiolkol ever again. In sum, you suck. 

In anger,

Jed Herrmann

PS To add insult to injury, a mosquito keeps biting me as I’m sitting outside your office writing this. I’ve probably got malaria now; I’ll send you the doctor’s bill for that… 

(Editor’s note: Names in the above letter have been changed to protect the guilty. Also, we didn’t actually send this letter though Jed wanted to, especially after we arrived in Mumbai to discover our luggage had been left in Addis Ababa and it took them two days to deliver it to us.) 

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro: January 7, 2010

It turns out that climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is actually rather hard. 

We knew it would be a challenge but figured as relatively active, physically fit people, it wouldn’t be too difficult.  Somewhere around 18,000 feet at 2:00 in the morning on summit day when Jed was frantically looking for his glove (it was on his hand) and Meg was trying to zip together the two different jackets she was wearing, we realized that high altitude can make seemingly simple things pretty difficult.

Two hours later when we arrived at Gilman’s point (a turning around point for a large number of climbers) and realized we still had 1.5 hours to the summit, things looked pretty bleak. About at about this point that Jed said “it is 4am, dark, freezing, and snowing and we are on top of a mountain at 19,000 feet, what are we doing?” However, walking slowly and unsteadily, we reached Uhuru Peak—the tallest point in Africa—exactly as the sun was rising.  It was a pretty magical moment: 

For those of you that don’t know the system for climbing Kili is quite interesting.  You are not allowed to enter Mt Kilimanjaro National Park without a guide, nor are you allowed to do the climb carrying your own things.  Instead, you arrange to climb through a local tour company (as we learned, some of them more sketchy than others.)  The climbing package includes the guide, several porters, a cook, and a waiter.  You carry only your day pack from hut to hut and upon arrival, your bags are delivered to your cabin door, washing water in brought to you, a three course meal is cooked and served to you, etc.  The whole process is quite disconcerting.  On the one hand it is very uncomfortable to have so many people serving you.  On the other hand, it provides employment and income for thousands of Tanzanians and when you are at 14,000 feet (with another 5,000 to go), you realize that not carrying your heavy backpack is probably not such a terrible idea.  Throughout the entire climb we discussed how to reconcile the discomfort of so many people serving you (when you are supposed to be “roughing it”) with the benefits to the local economy it brings and never really arrived at an answer.  We did have a fabulous “team” though! 

The first three days of the climb were very enjoyable and fairly easy.  We hiked between 8 and 11km per day very slowly (“pole pole” as they say in Swahili) to minimize the effects of the altitude.  As we reached higher altitudes the vegetation changed starting from the rainforest, to heather moorlands (think Scotland), and finally to alpine desert (similar in appearance to Chile’s Atacama desert).  Each day was ended with a short, acclimatizing walk that afforded amazing views of each of the three vegetations, though our legs were never actually tired at the end of these days. 

Day 4 is when things started to get difficult.  We started our summit climb at 12am (see above for details.)  Once we reached the summit, we immediately wanted to start back down (to get to a lower altitude.)  Unfortunately (as we needed to get back to town early on Day 5), our ending point for that day was 29km away making the total distance we hiked 40km (including the 11km to the summit) over an elevation change of nearly 11,000 feet. By the end of the day, we had spent the previous 36 hours hiking a total of over 50km with nearly 18,000 feet in elevation change and 3 hours of sleep.  Needless to say we were pretty tired by the end of the day.  Day 5 was only an 8km hike to the entrance gate, but rough on our sore legs. Overall, climbing Kili was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and a great capstone to our time in Africa. 

Tanzania: January 2, 2010

Our first impressions of Tanzanian buses were extremely positive.  We had just crossed the border from Malawi in the early evening and quickly caught a minibus to the town of Mbeya 100km away.  We did not have any Tanzanian shillings, which upset the conductor, but we were able to pay in Malawian kwacha thanks to the help of two local female passengers who took up our cause and convinced him to accept our fare.  Another fellow passenger then bought us a fried banana at our first stop (he, on the other hand, refused to accept our Malawian kwacha as payment.)  Meg looked at Jed and said, “so far Tanzanian buses are great!” 

It all went downhill from there. 

We spent the next 4 hours on that same minibus to get to Mbeya (again, only 100km away)- it was so crowded that one point three people were sitting on one seat in front of Meg. After arriving late in the town of Mbeya we spent an hour looking for a hotel before finding a not-so-nice one. Then we got up in time for the 6am bus (never got to see Mbeya in the daylight) to Dar Es Salaam. Thanks to our friends at Happy Nation Express, we arrived in Dar, 16 hours and two bus breakdowns later.

The next day we met Jed’s family (parents, brother, and his fiancĂ©) for the beginning of a vacation from Africa. We spent the next week on Zanzibar; then Meg’s parents joined us for another week of safari.

We had noticed in Dar that the feel was very different from the other parts of Africa we had been in but Zanzibar had even more of a middle eastern feel to it. Wandering the winding alleys of Stone Town with women in veils and long, colorful dresses felt like being back in Damascus. The diversity also encompassed significant parts of Indian culture with the spices and curry-based food as just one example.

For our trip, just as in its history Zanzibar represented the cultural amalgam of Africa India, and the Middle East. So while the middle eastern influence reminded us of the beginning of our trip, the considerable Indian influence was a preview of the time that we’ll spend on the sub-continent in the latter half of January, and yet so much of the island remains truly African. Thus in so many ways, the Christmas holiday with our families represented a midpoint to our travels- geographically, chronologically, and culturally.

Our Herrllivann safari was a great chance to catch up with our families and see fantastic scenery and wildlife as well. We truly hit the highlights by visiting a diverse set of habitats. Lake Manyara national park was filled with baboons and a wide variety of birds. The Ngorongoro Crater was a unique plain within a volcanic caldera- the views from the crater rim along with the lions, elephants, and flamingos (to name a few) combine for a truly magical setting. 

Perhaps the climax of the safari was our time on the plains of the Serengeti. There we witnessed thousands of wildebeests in migration, giraffes by the score, and elephants by the dozens. It really was like a film from the nature channel. A big thanks to our families for trekking to Africa for such a wonderful holiday celebration.