Thursday, April 22, 2010


I have been conducting very serious field research as I travel around the world. Through a blend of participant observation, data collection and surveys I have compiled a list of the results. I'm sure the impact of my study will be far-reaching and I just may be the next Jane Goodall.

There is a dead possum every .8km on the side of the highway in New Zealand - this is the highest per capita in the world.

After a stranger takes your photograph and you look at it, 72% of the time you smile, thank them, then hit your camera's delete button.  
Increase the odds you like your photo by instead taking a selfie!

Australia is the only country that eats its national symbol.  
* this one could possibly true and is courtesy of my new friend Annabel from Oz.

The international price index to pee is about $0.28. At this price, nearly 1% of my total trip cost went to visiting public potties. I miss American - land of the free (pee).

"TIA" is the most widely used acronym on the dark continent - This Is Africa. Its broad application is due to widespread corruption, breakdowns, and Africa just being a general cluster much of the time.  (but totally worth it!)  
 Supporting evidence: the border crossing into Zambia.

Baboons prefer power  bars over leaves 3:1 in a taste test.

An on-time train in eastern Europe is 30 minutes late.

There is a 22% chance that the monument/church/building you are most excited to see will be covered in scaffolding. 

The most accurate litmus test to determine if the city you're in has been westernized or not is one simple question: is there a Starbucks?


**These statistics are 100% inaccurate and completely fabricated by me. Not that there was any doubt, especially with my stellar math academic record...I can't even count how many times I enrolled and dropped statistics in college!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Scary Trains and a Rented Swimsuit, Welcome to Hungary.

It's 11:40am on Thursday as I type this. I haven't been to sleep yet. I am having a vanilla latte right now with skim milk which I was very excited about! (skim milk and flavored syrup are a rare find where I've been) I will do my best to write coherent sentences.

Last night I took another scary overnight train ride - this time from Belgrade, Serbia to Budapest. My last scary train ride was from Budapest to Brasov, Romania last week which is when I learned how dangerous night trains are in this part of the world. (I really liked Romania, by the way). Having taken many night trains in western Europe I hadn't thought much of it. My cabin on the midnight train to Romania had three locks - two of which could only be opened from the inside. I was given stern warnings about keeping them all locked because of the bandits and gypsies.

I got in my cabin in grungy Belgrade and to my dismay I only had one door lock. I was told by the cabin steward, " I must say you this. You must lock your door. Put your ladder in front of the door for extra protection. Put your head away from the door by the window so you can see the door. People will try to get in your room while you sleeping. Keep your passport and money on your body. I must say you." I was like, um, what about my lock? Can people still get in? Should I expect someone to come in? Holy crap what am I doing on a night train out of Serbia alone?!?

My weapons and I went undercover. Or rather, under the covers. I laid on my bed with my knife and my LED Defender flashlight in my hands. I made up my fake "throw down wallet" that I'd been advised to have in case I was robbed. I'm historically a quick draw on calling 911 at any perceived danger, so for someone like me this was very unsettling.

From 10:30pm - 2:30am I had a mix of police and border control agents pounding on my door then in my room  wondering why I was in Serbia to begin, that makes two of us. At 2:30ish was the last time border control should have been there - and they always pound before they unlock your door. I got back on my bed and thought I really needed to get some sleep as my train arrives Budapest at 5am. The train is very creaky and squeaky...though as I was dozing in and out I heard a clanking noise on my lock at 3:45am. I opened my eyes to see that my door was cracked open and there seemed to be a person trying to peer in - and since no one had knocked so I knew it wasn't someone authorized to be doing that. I leaped out of bed and reached through the ladder rungs and slammed the door shut. It may very well be my fastest reflex reaction time to date, in my entire life. I heard footsteps and then the door at the end of my train car slam. So much for my weapons - they went flying on the floor as threw my blanket off so I'm glad I didn't need them! I was then too terrified to try to sleep so stayed awake until 5am when we reached Budapest.

Now if that wasn't enough excitement for one day...what on earth do you do in Budapest at 5am? Good question. I dropped my bag off at the hotel my cousin and I would be checking into later today and took the metro to a Hungarian thermal bath that opened at 6am. It wasn't until this morning that I realized I sent my swimsuit home. I did the unthinkable. I rented a swimsuit. I'm not sure there are many things in the world grosser than a rented Hungarian swimsuit that's about 5 sizes too big. I also rented a 'towel' that is actually a sheet. The bath facility felt more like an asylum and was a mix of creepy, disgusting and hilarious.

I signed up for a massage at 7am. The asylum workers made me put on the gargantuan one piece swimsuit and took me into my massage room. Before arriving I had visions of the Four Seasons spa in my head, not the Motel 6 spa. I lie down on the table in the bright light. No sheet covering me, no padding, and my Hungarian male masseuse pulls my swimsuit down to around my waist. As he rubbed my back it occurred to me that he may also plan to rub my front. This was all I could think about, then I began to giggle. I'm exhausted, in Hungary in a rented partially-on swimsuit on a table getting a rub down and growing certain that I'm about to get a massage to remember. It turned out I was partly right, I'll leave it at that. After the massage I got in the indoor thermal pools. Dozens of old geezers in speedos, and me. The men either had gigantic bellies, or looked emaciated. Trimming male nipple hair is not in common practice here. One man even wore whitie tighties and a shower cap. I hope that someday the mental images of what I saw this morning fade away.

I'm one hour away from getting into the hotel room - which means a shower and a nap. My cousin gets here from Dallas this afternoon and I'm so so so excited to see her! I'm sure she'll be very disappointed when I tell her what she missed out on this morning.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Portugal - I love it when a no-plan comes together!

I like fortunate accidents. Most of the time for me, accidents are not so fortunate (and often include me hitting a stationary object with my car). I did not plan to come to Portugal this week; nor did I plan to visit medieval castles, sip on port or take a morning stroll around 11th century fortified walls that encircle a charming tiny town. Being in Portugal has been delightfully accidental.

Lisbon is situated right on the Tagus river and is built of hilly cobblestone streets that wind around colorful facades. Its principle sites are standard European fare: castle, cathedral, monastery, piazzas and sidewalk cafes. Not far from Lisbon lies Sintra which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its 19th century Romantic architecture.

I didn't buy a proper Portugal travel book but saw one on display in a bookstore. I went in and had a quick glance at Frommer's recommended excursions and decided Obidos sounded like a nice place to visit. The next day I left my big bag at my pension in Lisbon and headed to the train station to buy a ticket. I was informed that the bus was easier, so I took the metro to the north part of the city then walked to the bus station. This sort of traveler confusion doesn't bother me. I'm not in a rush and since I have no rhythm on the dance floor, I'm used to moving off-tempo!

I got off the bus in Obidos and thought wow - these towns are the reason I love western Europe. I ambled down the narrow streets going in the local art shops and sampling port and local cherry liqueur out of edible chocolate cups.

The town reminded me of places in Italy I visited with my mom and our friend Lea. Having gone to Europe with my mom three times, it seemed unnatural she wasnt there with me. My mom collected nativity scenes from our travels and in one of the shops I saw a unique handmade ceramic nativity set and had a fleeting thought that I should get it for my mom. And then I started to cry. The poor shopkeeper wasn't sure what was going on, perhaps he thought I was really moved by his merchandise! I ache for my mom most all the time. Sometimes I go a few hours forgeting she died, and those are a welcomed reprieve. But it's in these unexpected insignificant moments that only she would understand that I miss her the most. I can prepare myself to miss her on holidays or birthdays; I cannot prepare myself for the moments like I had looking at a nativity set in Portugal on a Wednesday afternoon. I've said this is my year of healing after last being a year blanketed with loss. And since I do a terrible job talking about icky things like feelings, I decided I would go off-topic and write about it.

Back to Portugal. I only offer up two criticisms of the country. One: the "smoking kills" message has not made it through Portuguese customs. I would like to expedite the message's visa because smoky cafes are gross. Two: takeaway coffee is hard to find. The to-go concept abounds in the rest of Europe these days but not yet here. And since there are many non-English speaking baristas I learned that my charades impression of getting a cup and then taking it with me needs some work!

I don't hear much about Portugal as a place to visit when I'm in the US....perhaps part of its charm is that it isn't overloaded with American tourists (as an American tourist I can say that!). I could have easily filled up several more days in Portugal so I'll definitely be back.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Tale of my Missing Suitcase...or Rather Backpack

I always go back and forth on if I believe in luck or not. Oprah says luck is "preparation meets opportunity," and then there's just plain old fashioned chance. I'm currently reading "Fooled by Randomness" by Nassim Taleb so I'm going to keep an open mind for now. What I do know for sure is that my luck (or nonluck if there is no such thing) is like a yoyo. It has been my whole life. I am both the most likely person you know to win the lottery, and most likely to be eaten by a shark. It's either high or low, I don't dabble in the middle.
I hit a snag on my trip. My flight from South Africa to London was canceled because the pilots of British Airways are apparently not being paid enough, or maybe they want more gold shiny buttons on their uniforms. Because of it, I missed my connections on to Italy. I'm not a huge crier and tend to roll with the punches. But this set me off. MELTDOWN. A complete wailing idiot. It started as I dealt with the BA team's complete indifference in JoBerg, and continued the next morning as I described my rolling backpack to the "luggage inquiries" lady at Heathrow. She told me my bag was checked in Zimbabwe on the flight that was canceled (days before it turns out) and there was no record of where my bag was at the moment (they hand-write the tags in Zimbabwe so until it made it to SA it was untrackable). I finally made it through the long terminal change at Heathrow over to where the Italy flights depart. At this point I had been traveling for nearly 30 long hours, was sad to have left my friends in Africa but excited to be meeting someone in Italy, so my tears continued. Two very nice Alitalia agents tried everything in the world to get me to Sicily, but because of the strike it was going to take a couple of days. I thanked them for their hour-long effort and moped off in search of a coffee. I was now in London with no plan, no bag, wearing shorts and flipflops and it was cold and rainy outside. 
I regrouped, booked a hotel online from the BA lounge and took the tube into London. I bought a couple light sweaters on clearance at the Gap and even had dinner at Loco Mexicano right by hotel (margaritas were delicious, the fajitas need some work). I had complete faith that my bag would soon show up and I could depart London for somewhere warmer. The next day I tried to extend my hotel a second night when it was evident my bag's arrival wasn't imminent. It was full. I figured it would eventually be delivered to that hotel so needed to stay somewhere within reasonable walking distance. 
I walked to a few nearby hotels - all full. I was near Belgrave Road, a street lined with B&Bs, that I had stayed on twice during previous trips. I went door to door - occupied. No room in the inn; I have a new appreciation for what Mary and Joseph endured. I went into one and there was a nice Indian man working who told me they too were full. I must have had a defeated expression, because he then said, "well, we have one non-regular room." I'll take it. He assured me I should see it first so I followed him through the hall, down the stairs leading to the basement and into the laundry room. There was a door with nothing but an emergency exit arrow on it that he opened and sure enough, inside there was a bed. A large closet had been re-purposed and the nearest bathroom was on a whole different floor. Too tired to haggle, I paid way too much for my closet just happy to have a pillow I could rest my head on for the night.
London is a great city, so I decided take advantage of being there. The only major tourist site I hadn't yet been to in London that I could think of was the Tate Britain museum. I spent about 15 minutes wandering around it (national museums in London are free) and thought - I really don't like contemporary/modern museum art. My favorite part of the museum was the loo -  I lingered under the warm hand dryer as long as I could without appearing homeless. So I left and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering aimlessly around London popping into shops and cafes. Somehow in my warped brain, walking around the cold wet streets in flip flops was a personal triumph over British Airways...I'll show you who's tougher you strikers! Why buy new airline reimbursable shoes when you can make such a strong statement to those who strike?
I finally retrieved my backpack around 10pm on the second night. Even though I had updated/confirmed/reconfirmed my new hotel info, it was of course still delivered to my previous hotel. I checked the weather for a few cities in Europe I had not yet visited; Lisbon looked to be sunny and nice so I booked a flight for the following morning. My backpack and I set out for our next adventure, reunited at last.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

 I'm officially an Overlander. We bounced along 5400 kilometers through southern Africa. The beginning of the trip was like a bad boyfriend. You want to leave him, but then he goes and does something wonderful so you stick around. The first few days were so hot, long and the most exciting activity was putting up our tents, that I wanted to break up with it. Then I saw an African sunset and decided this was a three week relationship that I wanted to in...and what an incredible and fun life experience I got in return.

There is something about Africa. Photos do no justice and experiences do not translate into words. It's really more of a feeling you get. You get it when you're watching the sunrise over giant sand dunes, or while watching mommy and baby elephants frolic in a river. It hits you when you look into the night sky and the stars look so close that you can reach out and grab a handful. Or free-falling backwards in a gorge above the Zambezi river. You feel it when you're playing soccer against local village boys who are so excited to be kicking a real ball. Most of all, you get the feeling while looking into the eyes of the African people - eyes that tell a thousand stories of a life that I could never even begin to imagine. 

In an effort to keep this blog a reasonable length let me summarize: I'm sick of bugs. Flies buzzing in my ears makes me bonkers. A jackal pawing at my tent makes me scream and jump. I pretty much had "pissy ankles" for three weeks and the bottom of my feet may be permanently dirty. I can put up a tent but still prefer someone else to do the hard/dirty part like roll it up and put it in the bag (thank you tentmate Annabel). I had an absolute blast playing underwater Chinese freeze tag in a pool with my fellow Overlanders. Butternut is my new favorite vegetable. Botswana was voted "least corrupt African country" by its peers but I'm not sure I agree; the border
crossing between Botswana and Zambia ranks high in the most bizarre events I've ever experienced. Flipflops are not for rock climbing. Victoria Falls - amazing. Sleeping in an open-air treehouse along a river full of hippos is incredible. Lions are mysterious. Guinea Fowl are stupid. All the animals are fun to watch in their natural habitats. Sunsets in Africa overwhelm me with their magnificence.

One of my favorite experiences was in the largest inland delta in the world - in the Okavango river in Botswana. We went for a sunset ride in a makoro (that's me in the canoe) through the marsh - the pictures say it all. The African Painted Reed Frog we spotted was my favorite animal sighting of the trip!

Am I officially old if I talk about weather? It's just that I'd like to note that whoever says "dry heat" isn't so bad has never gone on a two hour walk through the Namib desert in 112f (45c) heat. The heat doesn't get much dryer than in the middle of sand dune, and there wasn't one piece of clothing on my body dry - I was drenched in sweat.

Vaccinations are really expensive, so I put mine to work. I ate loads of travel-expert forbidden fruits and veg; I'd even eat them unwashed from stands on the roadside. I'm a man(go)niac. Of course eating like this combined with strange meat is not without side effects. But that's okay because a trip like this brings people close together, quickly. I have never discussed "faxing" so publicly in my life. Sometimes it's an urgent fax, other times the fax machine is jammed. Perhaps it's out of paper, or worse you can only send one of three pages. These are the discussions that fused the lifelong intestinal bonds with my new Overland friends.

I was sitting on the dirty floor of the 'airport' in Zimbabwe waiting for my flight to JoBurg and this wave of sadness came over me. The same thing happened when I left Kenya nearly three years ago. Africa is like no place on earth. I want to go back before I even leave.

click here to see my overland adventure photo album