Monday, July 20, 2009

Round the World, Completed

Our final few days in Malta were relaxing. We spent our mornings shopping and our afternoons at the beach. Shopping was for food, and as Malta is Europe, that meant that a shopping list eight items long meant a visit to eight different shops. The beaches were small and scenic and we got there by public bus; generally we found rocky coves with rocky shelves ending in deep blue sea, filled with mostly locals on an afternoon off or sometimes hordes of Italian teens there to learn English.

(Mdina, Malta)


On our last day we checked out of the Harbor View Hotel to move to the Asti Guesthouse. The Harbor View was spectacular; we had a balcony with a view of the busy seaport and the city's fortifications, which were floodlit at night. But the rooom was $65 a night. The Asti was just $50 a night, and the $15 saved meant a lot to us. But in return for our savings we got a view of an apartment, a stingy breakfast, a room hot like an oven, cold water in the shared showers and an ancient innkeeper who defined the word surly.



How much we spent on things was a big deal on this trip. I kept a daily running of every dollar, omani and bhat we spent on this trip, and regularly totalled the spendings up into a running average. We kept the trip generally on budget. In all, we travelled for $43 per person per day, a figure which includes the short hop airfares we picked up along the way but not our round-the-world plane tickets we bought. I'm proud of the $43 figure -- we saw a lot on little money, and generally ate, travelled and slept in comfort, much more comfort than on our last trip. You find a lot of resistance in the world when you decide to do things independently and on a budget; keeping expenditures in reign was an often daunting task.

(Valletta, where business seemed to be on permanent siesta)


On Wednesday we checked out of the Asti, went to the beach one last time, then boarded a British Airways flight for London Gatwick. We arrived at Gatwick late and walked along a busy road to our hotel. In the morning we went back to Gatwick and after much debate, misunderstandings and confusion got a train to Victoria Station and then the tube to London Heathrow. I had hoped to see some of London but the time and expense in transferring between the two airports meant we only had time to grab a bagel before heading on to Heathrow. After trooping all across the Third World for 12 months, the First World proved to be surprisingly difficult, expensive and frustrating. British Air took us on a plane crowded with screaming babies to Atlanta, where we arrived Thursday night. We took MARTA to Decatur, where Laura's parents picked us up, and like that our trip around the world came to an end.



We have now travelled around the world twice. Our world is an amazing place full of color and diversity and hardship and sadness. Sitting here in Laura's parent's house in Atlanta it's hard to believe that just a few days ago we were bumping along the north coast road in Malta headed to another beach. It's hard, too, to believe that at this very moment a packed louage is making the run between Sousse and Tunis, that ringtailed lemurs are jumping tree to tree in a national park in Madagascar's rainforest, that it is a steamy night in Vientiane with the sky lit by faroff lightning, that Tasmania, which we had seen in the height of summer, is now in the depth of winter, that a jet is circling Quito on the run in from Santiago. It's all out there, vivid as life.



Having been around the world twice I've noticed that there are some areas of the world where improvement is needed. In fact, many of the problems in any one particular nation are also shared by most other countries. There's a lot of opportunity there for people who want to make a difference:

*Simple health: The leading causes of death in many of the world's nations are easily preventable illnesses, like diarrhea. Simple health education and practices -- things we take for granted but which elude many of the world's residents -- can go a long way toward making lives better.

*Water quality: Perhaps the most disheartening thing I have seen on this trip is the worldwide problem of polluted waterways. Almost without exception, when you see a body of fresh water almost anywhere in the world, it's bound to have trash, fuel or human waste in it. Mostly, pollution to fresh water appears to come from a lack of regular trash pickup and a lack of education.

*Trash collection: Most places in the world lack regular trash pickup. Trash is often burned, often left in city streets, and always present.

*City planning: In many places, particularly Asia and South America, large cities come close to approximating hell on earth. There are myriad reasons for this -- overcrowding, poor trash collection, loose or nonexistant regulation. Many of these problems, I believe could be solved by assistance in city planning and implementation of even basic smart growth principles.

*Driver education: It's common in the US to say that the drivers of a particular city are awful. But you haven't seen anything until you've witnessed driving in, say, Peru. A license in many places is granted to those who can pay for it, not those whom have passed any sort of proficiency test. This fact exacerbates the hard lives many people already lead, and causes untold suffering and grief.

*Global warming: It seems hard to believe there are still people out there who do not believe in global warming. We've seen it and seen its effects. It's changing landscapes, habitats and nations themselves.



Our last day in Malta was a hot one. With an hour to kill before going to the airport we went to the city's south fort, which overlooks the harbor and catches a cool breeze. Sitting on a bench, I noticed the man next to me reading a Bible in Amharic, the ancient language of Ethiopia. I struck up a conversation with him. Renyu Sigiwi was in fact a former resident of Eritrea, and he willingly told me his story. Five years ago, with his wife pregnant and Eritrea slipping into chaos, Renyu snuck over the border to Sudan. In Kartoum he spent three months seeking a work visa for Italy. When that plan deadended he boarded a crowded LandCruiser which drove over the desert to Libya. He spent three weeks in Tripoli before boarding a 16-foot boat early one Saturday morning and heading north. On day two the boat ran out of food and water. On day three it ran out of fuel. Adrift in the Mediterranean, someone on the boat made a distress call to the Italian maritime authorities, seeking rescue for the boat's 28 occupants. But the call was dropped uncompleted -- the phone ran out of minutes. A few hours later the passengers were picked up by the Maltese coast guard -- help from a quarter they neither wanted no expected. Renyu was detained for 28 days while authorities determined his identity and immigrant status. He was eventually granted refugee status and given accommodations and a job as a welder. Four years later, he learned he has just been granted a permanent visa for the US as part of a program to ease the immigrant crush on small nations like Malta. He will go to Houston, where after some initial assistance he will be left to fend for his self. He told me he plans to bring his wife and daughter -- whom he has never seen -- to Houston once he is settled there. He added the newcomers wil stay in the US -- illegallly.

(View from the Harbor View Hotel)


With the sun lowering over the Valletta port, Renyu held up his Amharic Bible and told me its impact on his life. Your walk with God is like a vacation, he said. You never know where it will lead you, but you always have to be ready for where you go. So there you are. The world is crawling with travelers seeking a new experience or a new life. Maybe we'll always be traveling, even when we're not going anywhere. It's just that the scenery is different. It's weird being back in the US. Our first morning back I woke up early, still on Maltese time, and turned the TV on. Do you know what is on TV at 5 am? Infomercials for back pain solutions, weight loss exercises and personal injury lawyers. No, now we have found the truly exotic place in the world, I thought, the place where everything is strange and weird. Am I glad to be back? I don't know. But I can tell you it's definitely over.


Friday, July 17, 2009

The Packing List

Several people have asked what we took on this trip.

The trip had three components: 'backpacking,' skiing and biking. Backpacking was what we did the whole trip: carrying things around in a backpack. We took additional gear for skiing -- namely, skis, boots, poles, gloves, ski pants, long underwear, etc. We posted all the ski-only gear home when we got back to Santiago. Biking entailed additgional gear as well -- gloves, tent, sleeping mats, bike shorts, stove, pot, plates, forks, knives, etc. We mailed a lot of that stuff home, sold it in Mebourne, or simply donated it.

Here is the list of items I carried basically for the duration of the trip. Laura carried a similar amount and type of gear minus the toiletries but plus a first-aid kit, her own and much larger camera, and laundry soap.

Our packs generally weighed 28 pounds.

Vortex backpack (veteran now of two trips, fairly falling apart)
Gregory pack cover (too thin, several tears)
Kathmandu day pack
Mountain Hardware ultralight jacket (also used as a ski jacket; too hot for wet tropical climates, not fully waterproof)
Mountain Hardware lightweight fleece
one pair North Face ultralight long pants
three pairs of shorts (key features: light fabric with lots of zipper pockets)
four t-shirts (two cotton, two wicking)
two short-sleeve button shirts
one long-sleeve t-shirt
two pairs boxer shorts
three underwear briefs
one pair long socks
one pair hiking socks
two pairs short socks
ball cap
Granite Gear stuff sack
Moonstone ultralight 35-degree sleeping bag (second RTW trip)
Smith sunglasses
Chums sunglass straps
Kathmandu microfiber towel (replaced old Sammy chamois midway through)

Keen sandals
Vasque Goretex hiking shoes

Sansa 4G MP3 (used 1 AAA battery)
Sony Cybershot digital camera (used 2 AA batteries)
Lowepro camera bag
digital camera card reader

pocket knife
address book
small accounting book
graph booklet

REI money belt (unsatisfied with this; bought midway to repace old Eagle Creek belt)
credit cards
ATM card
immunization card
cash US dollars
cash Euro
US dollar Visa traveler checques
traveler checque receipts
driver license

11 AA Energizer rechargeable batteries
10 AAA Energizer rechargeable batteries
Energizer battery recharger
international plug adaptor set

blank postcards
pocket watercolor set
black felt marker

12 zipper plastic bags
two zipper two-liter canvas bags
one zipper four-liter canvas bag

contact solution
contact case

duct tape
30 feet of line (for clothes drying)
packing tape

an average of 7 novels
one or more guidebooks

Nalgene bottle, one liter
Steripen UV water purifier (used 4 AA batteries; bought midway to replace ancient MSR filter)

Petzl headlamp (used 3 AAA batteries)

swim trunks
swim goggles

soap case
dental floss

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Imagined World

Our packs are now about 10 pounds heavier thanks to our little carpet buying spree last week in Kairoun. Laura, though, is happy to carry this new beast of burden. This means I'm carrying all the books, and this added weight has spurred me into a bookreading frenzy. I've downed four books in six days and honestly it's too fast of a pace as the likes of The Education of Little Tree is starting to run into Voltaire's Candide.

Laura in Mdina, Malta


We have been trying to pare down what we've got, make things stretch, or simply throw things out (like the disposible towel we were given in Taipei -- seemed that if we had not used it by now we were not going to use it). We are down to a handful of shampoo, one bar of soap, just enough floss and the final few pages in our diaries. And after a year of hard travel, what is left is in tatters. My pack has a broken back support, meaning it wobbles. My camera, now on its 11,000th image, is scratched and dented. My shirts have permanent and rather disgusting sweat stains.



We spent two weeks in Tunisia and were totally ready to leave by the end of week one. The sights were OK, the hotels soso and the food pretty bad. But as is with many places it's the people who really make the difference and the people of Tunisia made things pretty unbearable. Tunisians have these intense personalities. They are quick tempered and seem to spend most of their time yelling at each other. These intense personalities mean that about 5 percent of the people we came in contact with are unbelievably friendly and kind; the remaining 95 percent of the people seemed to mostly be assholes. Never before have I traveled to a ruder, meaner place than Tunisia. It affected every part of our day, whether it was people cutting in front of us to get on the subway or a taxi driver ripping us off.

Sousse, Tunisia


Last week we decided to get even. I had given Laura a lot of slack when she bought her fake college ID for $6 back in Bangkok, but in Tunisia she put it to good use. Laura is, shall we say, a few years past college age, but no one at the historic sites and parks where she used her ID gave it second thought. We saved about $25 dollars. Take that, you swindling swine! (The pious would point out that all we are doing is robbing the government which is charged with protecting these ancient sites; not so: most park ticket sellers and takers run a variety of scams meant to enrich them and not the site, including bogus tickets and collection of unvalidated tickets which are then resold.)

Sousse, Tunisia, from the medina


The nicest spot we went to was El Jem, a small town out in the desert home to a staggering Roman coliseum. It's quite the sight, and we spent the afternoon there. The train back from El Jem was packed and I ended up standing next to a Brit -- one of the few independent tourists we've come across here -- who is retired and living in Phnomh Phen. He was back from Cambodia to go to a wedding but wound up booking the flight a month too early and so he had some time to kill. We commiserated about the state of manners in Tunisia and he mentioned that in two days he was heading from Tunis off to Lebanon. I was immediately struck dumb with jealousy. Lebanon! I want to go to Lebabon! I never get to go anywhere fun!

fort in Sousse, Tunisia


That's the sort of madness that travel induces. Only in the meanest rudest place I've ever been could I get jealous about going somewhere else. I want to keep traveling, but the fact is we have really run out of time, out of continent and nearly out of money. While we don't have cars or jobs or payments to make I am beginning to feel the burning desire to get on with something else. Laura is excited to find a town, find a home, find a job, make friends and be somewhere cool (as in, 'not sweaty'). I'm not really excited to do any of that (except the being somewhere cool part) but don't really know what else to do.

El Jem, Tunisia


On this trip we visited some two dozen countries on five continents, plus toured around the United States a bit, making it a full round the world trip. We've left plenty of the world still to see, though. Neither of us, for example, has been to Russia, central Asia or west Africa, and there are still innumerable island nations in the Caribbean and Pacific to visit, and even some European countries we managed to skip. One thing about the way we travel is we get relatively short takes on a large number of places. That means we know, for example, that we never want to go back to Tunisia, and also that we'd love to take our bikes to Taiwan and cycle around the island. We know we've probably seen well enough of Sri Lanka but that we could laze endlessly on Mauritius. And so on.

We spent five days in Malta, a tiny island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean. After the difficult months of travel in much of the world this is a real treat. Tap water you can drink! Friendly locals who speak English! Food that does not make us sick! Wow!

Two days from now we board a British Airways flight for London, where we spend the night, and then fly back to Atlanta the next afternoon. And so we have become part of this worldwide movement, a migration if you will, around the world. We are one of many on the move for a variety of reasons. "Na so dis world be," wrote Nigerian author Chinua Achebe.

We were watching Al Jazeera the other morning and the broadcast was coming from Doha. Laura could not remember where Doha was so I brought out our Lonely Planet which has a small world map in the back and we picked out Qatar, Bahrain and UAE. Laura started to pack up our bag to head our for the day but I kept looking at the map. You know, the world is something like three-quarters ocean, and what a ripoff! I don't care for the ocean -- actually, I'm afraid of it -- but I do like the coast. All that ocean to me is a waste. Look at the Indian Ocean -- you could fit a goodsized continent in there, part in the Northern Hemisphere, part in the Southern, with mountains and African-like plains and tons of animals and strange cultures. It could be huge, and still you'd have millions of square miles of ocean left. And the Atlantic -- what if there was a continent in between Europe and North America? Part European, part American, damp and cold and windy. And a whole archipelago between South America and Africa, millions of tiny islands linked by sandy reefs and odd languages? And what about the Pacific? All that ocean and a few tiny islands. Just think -- why not massive glaciated islands off the Russian shore, flatter islands between Hawaii and Midway, something huge and magnificent with weird animals between Tahiti and Easter. I'd go to those places! I'd ride the buses, I'd fight the taxi drivers (for even on these new continents they will still be crooks), I'll hunt for hotels and decent restaurants and visit the parks and learn the languages and read books and stare at the sunset. Bring it on! I'll do it! I'll do it! I'll do it!

El Jem, Tunisia


Friday, July 3, 2009

The Things We've Bought

It never ceases to amaze me that we can get on a plane and a few hours later step off not just in a new country but in a totally different environment. Last week we took a crazy series of flights to go from Antananarivo, the beleaguered capital of Madagascar, to Tunis, the bright faced capital of Tunisia.


Building where The English Patient was filmed, Tunis medina

I'll be the first to admit this was a change we really really needed. Madagascar was nice, to be sure, but it was also pretty overwhelming. Tunisia is no walk in the park, but it's decidedly different and much easier to handle than Madagascar was.

Bulla Regia

Mosaic in underground home, Bulla Regia

It's hot here, and dry, and very sunny. The food is not so good and neither are the hotels but the ease of travel and just being makes life more enjoyable. They are used to tourists here -- though there are none at the moment -- and so you're more left alone. The culture is Arab and North African; it's man-based without being too manly, Muslim but relaxed, and African in its own way. It's also decidedly French, and I've bveen putting my French to work this past week as we make our way around the country.

We spent our first day in Tunis, mostly in the World Heritage listed medina, before taking a train west to Bulla Regia, where we toured the ruins of a Roman city built almost entirely below ground. From there we took a louage -- a sort of minibus shared taxi -- south through emerging desert to Sbeitla, where the locals spoke French with an Italian accent and where we visited the intact ruins of another Roman city. We then took a cramped louage east to Kairouan.

Bulla Regia

Roman theater, Bulla Regia

Kairouan is home to the Great Mosque, the holiest site in North Africa and the fourth holiest site in all of Islam. As with most Islamic centers, the Great Mosque is nothing much to look at though it is a peaceful spot.

The medina of Kairouan is also World Heritage listed and likely the nicest, though not the most interesting, medina we've been to -- the most interesting title, by way, would definitely go to Marrakech. It's got a fresh, clean feeling to it, and is genuinely friendly.


Roman temple, Sbeitla

Kairouan is also the home of the Tunisian carpet weaving industry, and a walk dozn the streets here is like a walk through a museum of fantastic hand woven carpets.

We came to Kairouan as much to buy a carpet as we did to see the mosque and the medina, though I do feel a bit guilty traveling to somewhere with the aim of shopping.


Medina, Kairouan

We have bought quite a few things on this trip, and since we have mailed all of the items home it's hard to recollect exactly what all we've got:

-big painting bought at the Sunday market in Buenos Aires
-hand painted pottery in Uruguay
-scarves in Bolivia
-wall hangings in Thailand, Laos, Philippines, Peru
-frankincense in Oman
-Iranian rug in Oman
-purse in Philippines
-jewelry in Malaysia, Thailand, Chile, Argentina and Indonesia
-essential oil perfume in Thailand
-rice baskets in Philippines
-woven bag in Madagascar
-handsewn hankerchief in Australia
-silk pillow cases in Thailand


Medina, Kairouan

There are few capitalist experiences in the world which match the process -- and I do mean process -- of buying rugs. If you are used to getting your rugs at a suburban shopping mall there is really no way to make a comparison.

Think of yourself, the shopper, as the girl, and the rug sellers as the boy. What you do is coyly walk down the middle of the rug street eyeing discreetly which shops have the carpets you might like to buy -- the carpets are not only inside the stores but hanging on rungs outside. You actually do have to walk in the middle of the street because if you are too close to the stores the rug sellers will actually physically grab you and pull you into the stores. As you walk down the street, trying not to make eye contact, rug sellers are going into a literal frenzy to try and get your attention, calling out in French, English, German and Italian for you to come inside out of the heat and just look -- always it's 'just look, my friend.' (Once a salesman said in a phrase we have always remembered 'Why you no love me no more? Today one said 'I love Kansas City.') As you choose your store and walk inside you can literally hear groans emitting from the other carpet salesmen.


Medina, Kairouan

Once inside legions of boys dozing in the heat just seconds earlier are barked into attention by the store manager. The boys unfurl carpet after carpet with flambouancy which itself is a part of the spectacle. Carpets are laid on top of each other. Merely shake your head at one and the manager snaps at a boy to get it quickly out of your sight. If you make it past the first few minutes and still seem interested the manager makes a call and the owner comes. Now we're getting somewhere.

With the owner in the store the boys assume a posture not unlike one you'd display before a commanding officer. Carpets are rolled up and scooted out of your way as fast as new ones are unrolled. Lights are dimmed and turned back on. Carpet jokes are made (the best is, turning the carpet over and saying 'you buy one side, you get the other for free). Not so funny jokes are made about buying five carpets and getting the sixth for half price.

Kairouan Great Mosque

Great Mosque, Kairouan

Inevitably the pile is whittled down to three or four, the boys looking nervous, and the owner turns to you and says, Have you had our famous mint tea. Now is a critical time in the carpet buying escapade. While there is no promise to buy, the serving of the tea notches things up a bit. The owner snaps at the boy and says in English, 'Bring them tea -- and bring the good stuff this time.'

Never once has price been discussed during this entire ordeal, and it's a bit of a crapshoot. Nothing is marked, of course, so you have no idea if even a single small carpet is going to be affordable. That means you could have spent the preceeding hour wasting everyone's time. Nevertheless, because prices are so fluid, and the culture here so reserved, you simply can not come out and demand 'How much does the red one cost?

The owner brings out a big calculator and punches some numbers in, erases them and starts over, screams something in Arabic at the manager, and turns to you with a smile. Normally, he says, this carpet is 500 dirham, but because business is so slow I will give it to you for only 450 dirham.

The next half hour is a tense period of passing the calculator back and forth, plenty of 'Mon Dieus,' me saying in French, Do you think I am a cash vending machine? more cups of the famous mint tea, the boys folding the rugs up to show just how easily the carpets can fit into overhead luggage, and finally a handshake.

Deal over. Except for tipping the boys.

We got not one but two beautiful Tunisian rugs. The boys, in such a hurry to show how easily the rugs can be carted around, had wrapped them up even before the deal was finished. That means I can't post photos of them. But as proof of how nice they are, I can report that Laura is very, very happy.