Thursday, October 21, 2010

What to Bring on Your Big Trip

You will never regret bringing less on your big trip. Most of the useful stuff that you carry will probably be the things you buy en-route. The less large and awkward your luggage is, the easier you can carry it and the more spontaneous you will be.

All the same, there are a few things that were oh so useful to us, that I thought I would mention them here. I'm not going to give you a complete packing list because, that would be boring. Instead my goal is to tell you about few things that turned out to be very helpful.

ATM card- When we checked in with our bank about using our checking account abroad, we found that we would incur a hefty fee by using our ATM card abroad AND a percentage each time we used our card. After shopping around, we found a checking account through Charles Schwab that didn't charge us a surcharge for using foreign ATMs and actually reimbursed us for the foreign banks charges which made withdrawing money any where in the world totally free. This saved us a ton. Now that we didn't have to worry about ATM fees, we were free to use ATMs as often as we wanted. This helped us avoid having to much cash on hand which meant we could worry less about theft and changing unused currency when we left that country. This one card worked for us in all 17 countries that accepted foreign ATM cards. So take some time and check around for the best deal for you.

Online Photo Account- Posting pictures was a fabulous way to share the trip with friends and family as we went along. It helped us feel connected to home and let us reflect that we were doing some very cool things. At times, coming up with a thoughtful blog entry was daunting; how could we manage to sound intelligent about some of the mind blowing and bizarre places we were in? But posting a narrative below a picture was always easy. Our viewers felt like they were "right there with us" and one friend even uploaded our pictures to create a rotating desktop image for his computer at work. Posting photos also allowed my mother in law to comment that we "looked very well fed" at some points in Asia, and why would you want to miss out on that? We posted on Flickr and Facebook but I am sure there there are plenty of good options out there.

Cheap Cell Phone- We left home without a phone thinking we wanted a break from being "plugged in." After some months though we realized that we did want a phone to call local people and fellow travelers and reserve hotels. For a minimal cost, we were able to buy a simple phone and a sim card. Leave your US sim card at home and avoid major roaming charges.

Reusable Shopping Bag- Okay so most things you can buy along the way. However we never regretted bringing our Envirosax reusable shopping bags. I liked not needing a plastic bag in places where people had to burn plastic trash for lack of a formal sanitation system. The bags also came in handy to take laundry to be washed, packing muddy shoes after a big hike, to bring towels to the beach, to pack snacks and magazines and other comfort items for epic train rides. Since the bags fold into the size of a kiwi, I had no problem finding room for them.

Travel Insurance- We got insurance through International Medical Group. It seemed like a good plan- it could be extended to provide coverage once we got home. However since nothing ever went wrong its hard to evaluate the quality of our insurance. Shop around and look at testimonials in travel blogs and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, which is a very good travel forum to post a travel question or read through other people's answers. Just make sure that which ever insurance you choose covers medical evacuation.

Travel Games- Having a few good travel games can help you keep your zen during the most trying of times. They can help you through uncomfortable waiting times and can provide a good way to make friends and enjoy your downtime. They can be a life saver in trains, airports, stuffy ferries and border crossings.

Travel games do not have to be expensive or heavy. And you certainly don't have to bring them from home. We picked up two packages of cardboard dominoes in Indonesia for 20 cents a piece. They fit into boxes the size of film canisters. For a dollar or two we purchased Connect Four in Thailand. Its slightly bigger than a pack of cards (another readily available choice). I also have a Othello set that folds practically flat. For most of the year we were carrying at least three games. Mark bought a small backgammon set in Syria when got tired of Othello and dominoes.

Games can be a great way to interact with local people. Your fellow train passengers are just as bored as you are. Often they are curious about you and just looking for an excuse to approach you. A game can be the perfect excuse. People love to watch games and play games. Even if you don't speak the same language, most people can observe and figure out simple games like Othello or Connect Four.

Dominoes came in handy on a slow Sunday in a bus station in Indonesia. A group of local men showed us how to throw down our cardboard dominoes so that they made a really cool slapping noise on the table . They laughed hysterically as we tried to copy their moves. After a game or two, we all were very sad when the bus arrived three hours later. Another time, we stayed with a local family on an island in the middle of the Mekong river. There isn't much to do on an island in the middle of the Mekong river- that's the whole point. So we found ourselves playing Othello on a log in front of the house. The neighbor came out and watched our game. He quickly understood the rules and played the next game against Mark. Having games can often provide an inroad to interact with otherwise shy locals.

Travel Underwear- The seasoned traveler who suggested these to me at a cocktail party got a big eyebrow raise, let me tell you. But sure enough, now I am the crazy lady who can't stop talking about her underwear. Any clothing that can dry in four hours in a locked hostel locker and does not begin to show wear after one year is clothing I can endorse. Three pairs of travel underwear is all you need for your year-long trip. You can wash two pairs easily in a hotel sink while wearing the third and let them dry overnight wherever you find yourself sleeping. And they are super light and compact which means that my lingerie drawer was about the size of an orange. Just make sure you choose a color and cut you like, because they aren't wearing out anytime soon.

Some Essential Technical Clothing- They do have extra socks and t-shirt where you are going. Whats more, you'll probably prefer the stuff you buy there- after all you bought it in India/Middle East/Africa/Etc. The exception is technical gear- the durable, light weight that will hold up and fold up for the duration of the trip. Here are a few of those rule breakers that I would recommend:

Warm Layers- light weight thin layers like running shirt or long underwear tops pack easily and layer for ultimate versatility. One or two is probably enough depending on where you are going. You can get heavier sweaters and jackets locally if you need to.

Sturdy Hiking Sandals, walking shoes, hiking boots- These are hard to come by most places. Light sandals and dressier shoes are easy to pick up on the road although some people may have trouble finding their shoe size in some places. I would recommend a good pair of close toed shoes with good tread as well as a good pair of walking sandals like Tevas.

Pants- good fitting, light weight, easy washing pants are your best friend. Zippered pockets can prevent things being stolen from your best friend. I spent at least every other day in my grey Columbia pants- other than some spilled paint in northern Laos they are no worse for wear. Zip off pants are a choice of many travelers, but since shorts aren't really worn by adults in most of the world, how often will you really need to "zip off"? Personally I prefer pants that can be buttoned up at the bottom to make capri pants.

With clothing the important thing to remember is modesty. While shorts, tank tops and sundresses may be perfectly suited to your notion of hot weather wear, most warm weather cultures would disagree. Most world cultures dress more modestly, covering shoulders, legs and chest. Show local people your respect by dressing modestly.

Camping Lamp- A small bright headlamp can save the day or night, rather. We had trouble finding good ones on the road so you may want to bring one along.

High SPF Sunscreen- Technically, if you aren't freakish about sunscreen you should be able able to replenish your supply as you go. Many tourist areas will stock some sunscreen, usually a low SPF at a high price. However, I am freakish about sunscreen! I suggest you bring a good supply to ensure that you have the kind you like- you will be using every day after all. The stuff you bring from home will be cheaper and fresher.

Not Much Else- When packing for the unknown, its easy to justify bringing things "just in case." If its not something you will be using regularly, then leave it behind. Not sure if you have packed to much? Take the time tested walk around the block with your suitcase or backpack before you go. Its a good way to get a sense of how heavy your bag really is and make all your neighbors jealous about your big trip. If your neighbors feel sorry for you, you may want to re-evaluate your packing.

Mark and Juliah

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Final Report

A Summary of Our Trip Around the World

Trip dates: October 1st 2009 to September 27th 2010
Countries visited:18
Longest Country Stay: India- six weeks, Indonesia, Syria, Tanzania, Cambodia- one month each
Shortest Country Stay: South Korea and Holland-four days each, Israel and Rwanda- 8 days each.
Places stayed: 125 (110 hotels and 15 homes)
Daily Average Cost For two travelers: $75

How much of this did you plan before you left?
Juliah: We had airfare that went around the world, stopping in five places and then brought us home. The dates of our ticket were flexible so we didn't have to know the dates of our trip which helped us be more spontaneous. We bought several other plane tickets en-route.

Mark: Both of us were excited about taking this trip, but Julie invested much of her Netflix share in travel documentaries. Booking our multi-stop round-the-world ticket with United Airlines was an unrivaled frustration: Julie and I would plan a route on the hallway map, then I would call United booking agents and run their gauntlet of robot switchboard operators. Agents would tell us that available carriers wouldn't take us to certain airports, detours would run over our allotted mileage, a rough draft of an itinerary would be formed, and then the Ratings Department would call us back two days later to inform us that the flight didn't meet preconditions for special pricing. United's website wasn't set-up to book this kind of flight, and all stages had to be booked over the phone. In all, I estimate I spent 9 to 12 hours on hold and speaking to United Agents.

In the last few days leading up to the trip, we went on shopping sprees for essential supplies we didn't think we could find abroad: contact lens solution, sunscreen, bandages, a miniature speaker system to amplify the iPods. We'd haul our loot to the living room and spread it our in piles, then practice packing it into our bags. We lost or discarded much of it in our first month of travel, when we realized neither of us wanted to be hauling 40 lbs on our backs.

Visas weren't a concern, as I was sure we'd be able to secure them at the border crossings, but we'd planned our time in Indonesia to run just over the maximum allowance for Western tourists, and that was a problem. This required two trips into San Francisco to get an advance visa with the Indonesian consulate.

How did you know how to do this?
Juliah: In preparation and sheer excitement I read travel blogs and watched way too many travel documentaries. For three years, I visited the public library on my lunch break and checked out travel books and covertly stashed them in my cubicle drawer for the subway ride home. Many books have been written on how to plan long trips- many quite useful. I spoke to anyone from anywhere or who had been anywhere (Most people love to talk about their big trip or home country). We put up a map of the world in our apartment and put pushpins in it for the places we wanted to go. For years we bored our friends with the rain cycles in India and the best ways to get to Senegal.

But really, you don't need to know how everything is going to play out. If you give yourself enough time, you can really figure most things out. Once you start your trip you can ask lots of questions and make plenty of observations. When we left we knew how to get to from the airport to our hotel in Seoul, Korea. Everything else was easy to figure out en-route.

Mark: I had taken a similar trip about 8 years prior, just after two years of teaching in Japan. The 24 year-old me was way more disorganized than the 33 year-old version, so I knew we'd be able to compensate for any lack in planning once we were on the road. There were places I'd been before where I felt a connection to the land--Laos and Cambodia, especially--and places I'd seen briefly and wanted to explore more in depth, like the Middle East. And there were places I knew nothing about, but was very excited to explore, like East Africa. Once Julie and I had committed to the idea of the trip, defining a loose itinerary wasn't too hard.

How did you afford this?
Juliah: The whole year long trip, airfare and all, cost us about $33, 000 for the both of us. Not including our original airfare package that's about $75 a day for the both of us. We could have spent less by doing fewer things. But in the end we decided that the time was also the factor- we may not be back to some of these places for quite a while. So it seemed like a shame not to stay in a nice hotel, dive or go on safari while we were in these amazing places. We could have also saved some money by focusing on fewer places and therefore taking fewer flights. But the temptation was just too great. When was I going to be invited to Bhutan again? When is the next time I will be this close to Sri Lanka?

We scrimped and saved. We stayed in and ate lentils and watched movies at home rather than going out in New York City. When we left we gave up our apartment and sold all of our stuff. If you aren't paying rent or storage fees, you have lots more savings to play with.

Mark: We also worked really hard in the three years leading up to the trip! Julie tutored after school, and I worked overtime and second jobs. I put away about 15 to 20% of my take-home pay into a liquid cd account, where it accumulated more interest and I knew I'd be unable to access it.

Best thing about traveling for a year:
Juliah: In the end, I absolutely loved having all that time. Taking time off made for the most fantastic year ever. However, at first it was absolutely daunting. I remember arriving to a small island in Indonesia and feeling like I needed to do something big and monumental with the time- I had a year, gosh darn it, and I ought to do something useful with it. I should be moving towards a goal or at least a cohesive final project. The island was 4 kilometers around. You could hear the ocean from the very middle of it. The only vehicles on the island were donkey carts. There wasn't much to do there.

When I couldn't figure out how to make a big project of this travel plan from my small island in Indonesia, I decided not to worry about how all the pieces fit together into a cohesive experience- instead I would let each day be what it wanted to be. Then I really started enjoying myself. One day found us dodging blood splatter of a buffalo sacrifice at a funeral in Indonesia, while another day was spent bouncing through the tea plantations on an over crowded Sri Lankan bus, clutching a stranger's avocado tree on my lap. One evening we canoed on the Kerala backwaters in southern India, our hosts singing and pounding their oars in growing darkness. Another evening we smoked apple flavored tobacco, drank frozen lemonade and played backgammon until 2 am in a second story cafe in the capital of Jordan.

A year really gives you time to follow your curiosity and not stick too tightly to a schedule. Having enough time lets you wander until you find the freshest black pepper in a market in Cambodia. You can stop and join the locals for tea in the Middle East instead of rushing on to the next set of ruins. One time we spent an hour on the beach in Zanzibar helping a fisherman dig for worms. Another time we asked a guest house owner in Sri Lanka if we could help her make dinner and learn how she cooked. Having enough time means not just seeing the major temples in Bhutan but also hanging out at the archery field in the afternoon to watch locals shoot arrows at a skate board sized target from a foot ball field away with amazing accuracy.

Being able to see many places lets you make interesting comparisons. . In Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa the word for tea remains "chai." Meanwhile, only Rwandans practice the two handed wave. Men in India wear Lungis (a plaid cloth that wraps like a skirt) which is rather similar to the Indonesian sarong that Balinese men wear.

What were some things we saw over and over? Lets just say many people on this planet enjoy World Wresting, wearing skirts, people make mainly organic trash and really nobody bothers owning a dryer. Oh, and lots of people eat eggs. How is that for sweeping generalizations?

Worst thing about traveling for a year
Juliah: Fatigue. Traveling this long can be tiring. Imagine if the direction of traffic changed every three weeks, if you were never quite sure when to cross the street. Imagine if you had to learn how to greet people over and over and if you weren't sure if you were being polite or not. It's exhausting to always be an outsider and never completely understand the rules.

After a while seeing the "must sees" feels like a chore rather than an enjoyable activity. Ruins, museums, palaces, temples- once you have seen a handful its not easy to get excited about the next dozen or so. "We don't have to do anything we don't want to" became our mantra. Although we enjoyed Petra, we were exhausted after one day. So we forfeit our two day ticket to return to Amman and play backgammon in our favorite cafe.

A good cure for travel fatigue was downtime. Laundry, e-mail, games, reading all became activities central to our lives. We learned to wash our clothing by hand and hang it all over our hotel room to dry. When you have no home, washing your three shirts in a hotel sink with bar soap becomes a very comforting activity. Some days we lingered over breakfast with fellow travelers. Some evenings were spent drinking beer on hostel roofs. I read more leisure books this year than ever. Sure, I didn't have to be in India to read books and play dominos, but reading books and playing dominos let me be in India and actually enjoy it.

Posting pictures and journaling was a good way to recharge and reflect on my experiences. When I wrote about what we had done I realized that we were indeed doing some amazing things. Having people see and respond to our pictures and posts validated that even more.

I did get really really tired in months 11 and 12. The answer was to move more slower and enjoy something different. Slow and different meant learning to paddle a dugout canoe around a lake in Uganda. We watched a multitude of birds along the shores of the many islands and marshes. We also combated fatigue by doing more home stays and enjoying spending time with local people. I was too tired to see the local museum in Kisumu Kenya, but I was eager to help Mama Okech pluck and clean a chicken for that night's dinner and then watch cartoons with her grandkids in a nearby village. When we were too lazy to contemplate going to another genocide memorial in Rwanda, we were still excited to go hiking with Eva, a German woman working in Rwanda.

Mark: Travel fatigue was a pretty constant stressor. After three months of moving, I'd look at a calendar and think, "Jesus! We have 9 more months of travel." When we'd been gone 5 months, I'd wonder how we'd pull off the next 7 months together. We missed familiar friends, routines, and comforts, and the unrelenting togetherness of the trip got to the both of us. No doubt, this journey brought us closer to each other, but many mornings we'd wake up and read the same expression on each others' faces: "What, you again???"

What went wrong on the trip:

Juliah: Nothing that we ever worried about. We accidentally left our warm clothing on an overnight bus to Bangkok. We spent a sleepless night in the Calcutta airport on our way to Bhutan. At two am we realized that our hotel room had bed bugs. When we tried to cross into Egypt we were turned back to Israel to get a visa. I dropped my camera in a lake and didn't get to use it to take pictures of chimpanzees the next day. Our cheap cell phone went missing from an unlocked tent at the source of the Nile in Uganda (This was the only theft we experienced). These things sure were annoying when they happened- but they certainly were not major. We were able to remedy most situations.

Mark: I left my iPod on a train in Month 5: a good argument for never taking sleeping pills on an Indian train, no matter how difficult a time you have nodding off. We dealt with minor frustrations and lost items, but this happened rarely, since we had so little to lose. The best remedy to setbacks was patience, and over the course of the trip we became more patient than I'd thought possible.

Injuries and Sicknesses
Juliah: A monkey in Bali pulled out my earring, causing my ear to bleed. The earring was recovered. Yes, i wore it after it was in a monkey's mouth.
I got so sick in India that I couldn't lift my head to adjust my pillow.
I spent my first three days in Beirut in a benadryl coma due to the massive mosquito bites that covered my face and neck and made it look like I had been beat up.
My eyes swelled shut from bed bugs bite in Jordan.
In Rwanda I fell in to a waist deep drainage gutter and cut up my feet.

Mark: I supported Julie when a monkey pulled out her earring in Bali, when she was sick in India, when her face swelled up like a bag of hot chocolate marshmallows in Beirut, when she had bedbugs in Jordan, and when she fell into a drainage ditch in Rwanda.

Actually, Julie was a tough-as-nails champ when it came to injuries, and most of the time I had no idea she was hurting. I was kind of a baby when it came to very minor but persistent ailments. I had pretty severe allergies that followed me for most of the year. I suffered a centipede bite (painful and scary, but not dangerous) and had a high fever in Varanasi, India. The rest of the year I was in remarkably good health, compared to all the years I spent in the teeming petri dish that is elementary school education.

Are you still speaking to each other?

Juliah: Yes
Mark: Depends who's asking. Is Juliah asking?

Would you do it again?
Juliah- yes! yes please. I would visit fewer places the next time though and go much more slowly. I might even invite Mark to join me.

Mark: A year is a long, long time, and I don't think I have it in me to reenact another 365 days homeless, wandering travel. That said, there are plenty of other adventures I have in mind... an apartment in Phnom Penh, a 6 month language course in Damascus, bicycling across America, and the Appalachian Trail. I don't think we'll ever be done traveling.

Mark and Juliah

Friday, July 16, 2010

Masa Mara Safari

Some people blog to be helpful to other travelers. They dutifully provide bus schedules, restaurant recommendations, referrals for guides and hotels for the rest of us. Alas, we have not been that kind of travel bloggers. We have been more concerned with trying to show the folks back home that we haven't gone soft in the head. But now, for the purposes of helping other travelers, I would like to share some of our experiences with the Masa Mara Safari in hopes that other travelers will could benefit from our experience.

We did a two night safari to the Masa Mara reserve in the middle of July. We went with Big Time Safari. And they were good. I'll tell you more about them, but first a few things to think about while planning your safari:

The Vehicle is probably fine.
Most Safari outfits use a pop-top matatu. It is a van with fewer, more comfortable seats and a roof that pops up to allow you to stand and look all around you while enjoying the shade and safety of the vehicle (think lions). For the purposes of a dry season (July) safari, this vehicle was fine. Maybe even ideal.

Number of Participants is important.
Ask how many people are going and how many they will take in a single vehicle. 2-4 would be ideal. Vans with more than 5 looked rather miserable. Not everyone fits in the pop top and the seating opportunities become more limited.

Quality of Co-Participants will impact your experience.
You will spend 3 days with these people. Make sure you do better than us in this department. We found ourselves confined with the most rude, vulgar and immature Spanish guys to ever grace this continent. I wish I could say it didn't affect our experience, but it did.

You will bother the animals.
About this we felt bad. And maybe you will too. Zebras sprinted from the road when we approached. Ostriches stopped their courtship dance when the van motored up to them. Even the sleeping lions woke up when we leered over them with many cameras. It didn't seem like a big deal until I understood just how many safari vehicles were in the park. Our car was one of 20 surrounding two leopards in a patch of bushes. The driving safari, in our experience, did disturb animals. This is something you should weigh out before you sign on.

Your Trip will be short, yet it will be long enough.
A "three day" safari really comes down to about 12 to 18 hours in the park. But consider that you will spend all your safari time driving around looking at animals. By the third morning, we had seen all we needed to see. In fact, a one day game drive would have sufficed. Keep in mind, that while you may spend 18 hours in the park, you will probably spend three full days in the car.

There are lots of safari companies.
We originally signed on to Safe Ride Safari. John picked us up in Narok at our hotel. When I asked how we would be returning to Nairobi (the other couple was continuing on) he asked if I had malaria and then told me not to worry about it and get back in the car. He was so rude, that within 10 minutes of being picked up, we agreed to take our backpacks out of the car and catch a bus back to Nairobi. We then realized that the guide/driver would greatly impact our experience. After that we insisted on talking to guides before signing on to a safari. All agencies were happy to call their drivers on their cell phones and let us talk to them. This gave us a gauge on niceness.

So in the end we visited Masa Mara with Big Time Safaris. George was our guide and driver. He was courteous and informative and gave the trip some good structure. He went out of his way to make sure we saw animals and got to observe different parts of the park. At times we were behind schedule which was a bit frustrating, but in the end it was fine. The camp was okay- a few more thoughtful details would have gone along way. The food was okay. We also spend sometime with another guide and driver named Abdi who would have been very good as well.


Mark and Juliah

Friday, July 2, 2010

First Impressions of Nairobi

Arrived in Nairobi early-early on June 30th, landing around 1:20am and clearing customs by 2:30. Julie and I are scared: Nairobi is rumored to be the most dangerous city in Africa. We'd talked about crashing at the airport til dawn, but now we're dead on our feet and will pay almost anything for a clean bed. We don't have a hotel reservation or taxi waiting, but by the luggage carousel we force a conversation with Dirk, a German high school student doing volunteer work outside the capital, and he agrees to share his cab to his hotel, where we hope they have an extra room for us. We're somewhat amazed that this ride has worked out, without any prior planning, and is cheaper and less scary than arranging our own transportation at 3am. We knock on the glass door of the Embassy Hotel, and a fuzzy shape moves in the darkness: the manager, rising from his sleep on the couch. He turns on a light, unlocks the door for us. He's unfazed by our arrival, and hands us a registration form. We copy our passport numbers, dates of issue and expiry, visa numbers and port of arrival. A young prostitute in a banana and khaki-colored dress comes inside and interrupts to ask if there is a room available. Does it have a bathroom? Is there tissue inside? She hands the manager 2000 Kenyan shillings, about $25, and takes a room key. Her john is waiting outside, and comes in when she gives him the A-OK sign.

At 3am, inside the cab, the city is deserted and sort of menacing-looking to first time visitors, but by noon, when we've woken, we notice that the streets are clean, people are extraordinarily well-dressed, relaxed, and polite. The downtown district abounds with coffeeshops and Indian restaurants. There is construction happening behind our hotel, and the workers wear helmets and climb metal scaffolding. These are the things we're noticing after our 8 weeks in the Middle East.

I've got feeling of whiplash from flying from Egypt to Kenya. In Luxor, the temperature was 120 degrees Fahrenheit, forcing these skinflint travelers to splurge for rooms with A/C. In Nairobi, it's shot down to about 70, cool and overcast through most of the day. Security guards give you directions without expecting to be tipped. People ask you where you're from as a simple conversation starter, not as a means of suckering you into their shop--but we still have our guards up.

Mark and Juliah

Third Quarterly Report

To think that it's now month 9. The first part of our trip seems like a vacation we took years ago. People have started asking us which country we've enjoyed the most. I'm tired of the question already! My answer is that having the time to move slowly and really observe things has been my favorite part of this trip. I have most enjoyed the places I knew the least about. This quarter has been all about surprising places. From a rowdy Buddhist New Year's on the south coast of Sri Lanka to the syrupy sting of the Dead Sea in Jordan, our mantra quickly became "Who knew?" And when it comes to surprises, the Middle East has been very rewarding. Hospitable, safe and welcoming, there is much to see here in terms of people, history and natural beauty. What a shame we met so few Americans seeing it for themselves.

Countries covered this quarter: Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, and Egypt
Days in the Middle East: 74 (April 16th- June 29th)
Miles traveled in the Middle East: 3,900 (Most of those logged on a train to southern Egypt)
Cousins Visited in the Middle East: 4 (Thank you for offering up your cousins, Loussi and Maya).
Accommodations used to date: 109
Pictures taken by Juliah: 4,920 (Mark had shipped home a memory card and was unable to provide an accurate count)
Maximum number of falafel meals consumed consecutively: 4. Cheap, ever present and delicious, a large portion of our body mass is now made of falafel.
Next on the Agenda: East Africa

A Few Highlights from the Middle East:
Diving the Blue Hole in the Sinai Peninsula. We suited up in 5 millimeters wet suits, put on our tanks and started walking down the dirt road. We passed a cliff with at least 20 memorial markers for the divers who had died at this site. Summer, our dive master, made a point of humming a happy song as we continued our walk. Then we got into the water and began our 30 meters decent down a stone shaft. It felt like a free fall. I had to pace myself to make sure didn't fall on top of Mark who was right below me. The fall ended when we emerged through a tunnel in an immense reef wall. To our right, reef pulsating with crazy corals and little orange fish. To the left the deep blue Red Sea, mysterious and seemingly bottomless.

Getting pulled off a bus by Israeli Defense Forces headed back from the West Bank. Apparently foreign tourists were not permitted to pass through this security check point. We suspected that the Sargent on duty was just miffed that we had visited Palestine. With the Turkish flotilla incident just weeks behind us, perhaps the Israelis were feeling even more on edge than usual. The Israeli soldier barely looked up from his cell phone when we tried to protest this "new policy." So we were forced to walk along the highway in growing darkness until we found a cab to take us to a different security checkpoint that would let us back to Israel.

Touring the tunnels below the Islamic Temple of The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Burrowing through the dark and muddy tunnels you eventually find the foundation and original door to the second temple, the most sacred site for Jews and an undeniably eerie place for the rest of us.

Climbing a hill in Amman to see the sunset. As we reach the top, two Palestinian women pull us into their home and demand we stay for coffee. We meet their children and heard all about how much they love American people. They hope we enjoy Jordan. We completely miss the sunset.

Petra at sunrise. I'm torn between the stately symmetry of the carved facades, statues and niches and the beauty of the stone itself. The cliff faces are marbled with white, red and orange hues that would make them stunning even had they not been carved by an artful ancient people. The stones reminds me of salmon and then I long to poach salmon and eat it with a nice salad. I found myself walking away from one building only to turn back for a second look.

Staying the night in a 10th century monastery tucked between rocky mountains above the desert in Syria. We ate homemade cheese with the monks and slept above the chapel which let the smell of frankincense wafted up from below.

Smoking shisha (tobacco water pipe) on the banks of the Euphrates river at sunset in eastern Syria. Eventually the guy at the next table started chatting with us, paid our bill and took us cruising around town as the desert air cooled and the locals finally emerged for the evening.

Sleeping on the roof in Damascus. It's cheaper to sleep on the roof rather than getting a room and besides they still give you breakfast. There are 25 cots set up on the roof, most just 6 inches from the next. Blankets quickly become a commodity between our 25 roof mates, most of us sleeping just inches from each other. The 4am morning call to prayer finds us wearing rain coats and wool hats and snuggling to keep warm.

Wading in the Mediterranean on the south coast of Lebanon and collecting a few choice pieces of sea glass for my desk at my next job. The southern coast of Lebanon has been inhabited for thousands of years. Its difficult to choose between the colorful bits that turn up among the pebbles in front of the light house turned hotel we have been sleeping in.

And How Would You Say Things Are Going?
It's amazing what seems normal after a while. After nine months on the road, I can't imagine doing anything else. It has been a very good use of a year. By moving slowly and not pushing ourselves to do the "must sees" we haven't burned out yet.Though, there are a few indicators that our stamina may be waning.

For one, everything we own is falling apart. My watch, which got a new band in Northern Thailand and a new battery in downtown Mumbai just got fixed for $1.25 on the streets of Nairobi. To my shock and dismay, the watch repair guy actually used his teeth.

What's next on the agenda?
Africa! East Africa. In 2006 Mark and I visited Ghana, Togo and Benin in West Africa. We looked forward to returning to Africa ever since.
The guide books that we bought in Cairo for Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya all have animals on the covers. Usually the cover of a guidebook excites me, but I couldn't be less excited about these book covers. Chimps? Elephants? really? What excites me instead about East Africa is meeting people, enjoying some lush beautiful country and seeing how people live. It will also be nice to eat with our hands, drink beer and have really good papaya again. But still, I will take 120 giraffe pictures when the opportunity arises.

When are you coming home?
This is a frequently asked question, to be sure. We will probably be home in later September or early October.


Mark and Juliah

Monday, June 21, 2010


There's a good reason we haven't been posting as often over the last few weeks: our brains have been literally fried by the heat here. In southern Jordan and Egypt, you can feel cerebral matter melting out of your ears. Sorry to say, I haven't been keeping up with my journal. All my photos look bleached and whited out in the sunshine. Thinking back over these last months, I have moments of amnesia associated with blunt head trauma; it's just that hot here.

Last night I had a good conversation with a German student living in Cairo, and she helped me to put into context some of the feelings I'd been having about Egypt since arriving from Israel. The Holy Land itself was a difficult place, buzzing with tension, mistrust, religious zealotry, jittery and arrogant military, and occasional bigotry. It became a regular and uncomfortable routine to bump into a local who would tell you how much they despised Arabs, or would speak somewhat gleefully about how the Palestinian people could never come back to this land. One shopkeeper at a passport photo shop harangued us out the door, ranting about how my president ("Barack HUSSEIN!!!") was a Muslim, how all Muslims rejoiced in the September 11th attacks, and how by visiting Egypt and the Muslim world, we were supporting terrorists. Other times, we'd wind up in heated and circular arguments with other travelers about the legitimacy of the Israeli state, the rights of Palestinians, and the future of the region. Each day would shed light on an angle we hadn't considered before, but the picture as a whole emerged as one people scrambling to climb over the backs of another, while their neighbors did the same. Yeah, the sights were fascinating, but I couldn't wait to leave. The longer I spent here, the more I wanted to completely disassociate from it.

But Egypt wasn't much better. We crossed the border from Eilat to the Sinai, and in Dahab and Upper Egypt the temperature shot up to 50 Celsius, about 120 Fahrenheit. We were followed in this heat by hotel touts, restaurant touts, shopkeepers, greasy cops who'd corner you for baksheesh, and overtly sexual and harassing men in their 20's. Walking the streets, muscle-bound guys would zero in on my wife and sneer "Beauuuutiful. You're one lucky guy," in this breathy voice that made me want to punch the men give the whole city the finger. Last night, after giving us directions to an intersection, a man invited us to his perfume shop. He said he could sell us a fragrance that would make sex feel like an earthquake, that would make us feel something like we'd never felt before. People just do not say such things in the Middle East, but they seem to happen here.

I know I'm painting a broad and hyper-negative picture of Egypt, but this is how I'd been feeling after a week of travel here. We'd meet good people in Egypt, too, but it was impossible to let our guard down after dealing with the pestering and harassment. I wondered how they navigated this extraordinarily stressful society.

"People live such difficult lives here, that the immediate benefit takes priority," our friend told us. Financially, they were really struggling, and they did what they could to keep their heads above water without much consideration for strangers. That's why the touts would follow you for blocks or clutch your arm and guide you to a shop or restaurant. Among the people at the bottom, it means every transaction is followed by the question "Are you happy?" and the hope of charming a tourist into tipping 40 of 60 cents. Police pull you aside and give extensive directions around a neighborhood, then ask you for a dollar. It's hard-scrabble living and everything feels on edge.

But there's an allure to the challenges that come with living here; a little bit of language opens doors for you, and people who invest the time in living here have experiences they could have nowhere else. For some, the sheer weirdness keeps people going: our new friend Astrid told us how in a one week period, she had one cab driver fall asleep on her, another read a newspaper while driving in traffic, and a third propose marriage. And quietly hiding among the loudest and rudest of the crowd are the polite. It takes some work to find them, but they are here: practice a few sentences of Arabic with a shopkeeper, and you can be drawn into an excited, seven-hour conversation that only ends when you insist you have to go. Seeking out a small restaurant on our last night, we were invited to ditch our plans and have dinner with a local family. I think it's this allure that keeps drawing some people back here, like Astrid, who's now made her 5th extended trip in 18 months. And though the rest of the Arab world rags on Egypt as well, everyone is consumed by their music, art, and cinema--one of the world's largest entertainment industries outside of Hollywood and Mumbai.

No doubt, this is one of the world's more difficult places to travel. You can make a two week trip of it and see nothing but the ruins of a civilization that ended with the Roman Empire, but exploring the living culture takes more time and effort than we have at the moment.


Mark and Juliah

Monday, May 17, 2010

Welcome to the Middle East

Welcome. Welcome. Welcome.

The man in army fatigues had looked through every last page of my passport and examined each stamp in detail before adding a Lebanon stamp to my frayed passport. We had just arrived at the Beirut Airport from Sri Lanka. I was immediately struck by all the white people and how most of them seem to be smoking as they line up for Customs. The immigration official looked me in the eye, paused to hand me back my passport and said "Welcome to Lebanon" in such a thoughtful way it sent chills up my spine. Leaving immigration, I asked Mark if he too had received a meaningful Welcome to Lebanon and he said that he had.

Maya's cousin Omar met us in the airport and ushered into his car. He pointed out key buildings as we headed towards the hotel he had helped us to book. A long the way we stopped for an amazing schwarma sandwich that slit the throat of any ideas I had had about vegetarianism back in India.

"Are you afraid?" asked the hotel manager with a ghoulish smile as I handed him my passport when we arrived. Remember, I thought to myself, 'they can kill you but they can never take your soul.' It was a line I had heard on the TV show "Jailed Abroad", a show about foreigners who end up in captivity somewhere with dirty floors, hostile inmates and no flush toilets, usually for drug smuggling. This line came from an episode in which two journalist were captured by some terrorist group somewhere. One was an ex-marine who gave this shred of advice to the other journalist when it looked like they would both be killed. Whenever we have cable in a hotel room we try to watch the show. The show makes us feel pretty smug and superior-- we have dirty floors and no flush toilets because we are cheap.

"What should I be afraid of?" I asked the hotel manager, trying to sound very very casual.
"You have an American passport. I could sell this, you know."
"Then can I trade it for this free city map?" I took one of his city maps from the desk.
The hotel manager smiled and nodded and soon all three of us were sitting and drinking coffee until 11:30 pm. We spent the next afternoon smoking a nargila (water tobacco pipe) with him in a parking space ac cross from the hotel.

The kindness and hospitality we have encountered so far in Lebanon and Syria has been shocking.

"I think the rule in the Middle East is just to say yes" Mark said thoughtfully as we were strolling through Aleppo's old souk. Aleppo is Syria's second city and vies for the title of longest inhabited place on earth. The souk is a labyrinth of tunnels lined with neatly kept shops. While old and attractive, most of these shops are still geared to locals rather than tourists, which is make the whole thing feel even more authentic. Mark is talking about the frequent invitations we as foreigner receive here. A one minute conversation with a man in a small desert oasis town leads to an invitation to breakfast in his work place. Yes to a group of old men sitting by the side of the road in Lebanon yields us a ride back to our rental car after hours of hiking in the wrong direction. Yes to a man sitting at the next table in a cafe along the Euphrates finds us in the back of a luxury sedan with his brother. We cruised the riverside and tour town with music blaring before being thoughtfully deposited at our hotel.

Sometimes, hospitality isn't really a question at all. Palmyra is an ancient set of ruins of an oasis town in the middle of the desert. You can probably see to the Iraqi border from here although all there is to see beyond this town is a large expanse of desert. From the citadel we wandered down the hill of small rocks and dried grass to a small valley of roman tombs in the shape of three story towers. A man sitting with a group of people in the shade of a van yelled and beckoned us over. We were quickly ushered to sit down with them and drink some tea as they guessed at out nationality and introduced the family. Sometimes accepting hospitality here doesn't feel like a choice but these two tired travelers are happy to sit down and drink some tea.

Mark and Juliah