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.)

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