Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Coming Home

     Who would ever have thought that one could shower without making sure to keep their mouth closed? Not the folks who travel in the Third World. Ah, the sweet sound of a toilet that fills, flushes and empties clean. And toilet paper and a seat! Fresh pillow cases and clean sheets welcome me at night time. After each journey I spend time pondering the wonders which abound in my house. How about the pleasure of selecting a restaurant to go to that evening? That is another wonder for whichever one I select the food seems to have familiar names and is served on plates that look washed and carefully handled. What about the streets I drive on where ruts, if they are present, are usually marked and relatively few in number!  The drivers have their lights on - headlights that is, not just the parking ones, so I can see them coming well before we pass one another. Even bicycles have reflectors. The streets themselves are lit and there is often a yellow line to mark the paths for drivers. Oh the pleasures of home!

     In additions to the plethora of hazards of Third World travel, there are a multitude of inconveniences one must also endure. Cold water showers are not surprising to me anymore. Doctors and dentist offices are not necessarily meticulous. As a matter of fact, they can be open stalls looking out onto bustling markets. If you are driving a car, it may not be in shape to get you where you are going. Unless you are driving, transportation may be limited to overfilled buses or crowded trains. Many local residents travel by hanging on to the outside of public vehicles and, I suspect, praying a lot. Restaurants and food stalls customarily lack proper refrigeration and sanitation. This is especially the case where the people are very poor. Dangers to travelers or shoppers or just about anyone are unprotected (one finds regulations rare and usually unenforced if they do exist.) There are few inspections of bridges or road conditions or just about anything. Even more rare are warnings about potentially dangerous places or activities. These all  make the trip more adventurous and exciting but they also have their downsides as you can imagine.

     When I get home or to some other highly Westernized setting, I leave most of these hazards behind me as well as most of the inconveniences. Yet being home is, in a way, a continuation of the travel experience. The lights all work. The refrigerator and freezer and dishwasher, all things we take for granted even though we use them every day, become items of wonder. The warning signs on roads seem like luxuries when we realize that so many people in the world have no such guidance. Window screens are another example of home return appreciation. For the most part they separate humans from insects in a remarkably effective way. I realize how much I appreciate this one simple artifact and how much I prefer the separation between my bedroom and nature. Everywhere I look around me, I marvel at the comforts I have. After traveling in far away places, I take far less for granted and I become so much more aware of the things that make my life easy and predictable. Unfortunately, that feeling does not last very long so I have to travel once more in part to refresh my enjoyment at eventually being back in my own house and my own neighborhood. But surely one aspect of any trip to distant places is the return and the opportunity to appreciate anew the comfort I have built around me. Most of the non-travelers that I know just never think about such matters. You can learn to enjoy the awareness of the presence of safe water or the warming effect of central heating systems in wintertime or the absence of unwanted life forms crawling or flying about to revel in the availability of such artifacts. This renewed sense of the multitude of luxuries that surrounds us is one more benefit of the kind of travel I do. In addition to the excitement in the travel, there is also the comfort of eventually coming back home to be appreciated to as we look forward to every journey through the Third World. Just another exotic travel bonus!

Barber Shop, Rural Ghana

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Driving in the Third World

     All things being equal, I prefer to self-drive when I travel in the Third World. Doing so provides the most flexibility and best views when I can stop any place and spend the time I want there. Sometimes, if the next destination is along a complicated route which would be hard to follow or you need language skills you don't have in order to make the trip or the route requires some other skill or knowledge you might not possess, it is good to have a local driver behind the wheel. Actually that arrangement lets you spot events off the road and find the best photo opportunities. Either way, the tourist has the most control over the trip. That is, if all goes right. There is no guarantee that the voyage will be uneventful however. I do confess that there are some places so forbidding on the road that I won't get behind the wheel in spite of any convenience that might offer. If people drive on the opposite side of the road, I find I need to concentrate more and miss some of the sights although that depends on the place. Ireland, though not Third World, with its narrow roads and multitude of tight circles is one example of this. I even found the the gears were reversed in my rental car there and that made for disorienting moments from time to time. But generally the things that dissuade me from getting behind the wheel are unusual traffic obstacles (India- cows, dancing bears, carts and rickshaws for example) or dangers (Pakistan-  rough, unmarked highways, lurking bandits or terrorists) or lunatic drivers (Rio and a few other centers of road calamities.)

     I wrote earlier about a trip along the Silk Road in China which included two flat tires, both occurring many miles from any place they could be repaired. Fortunately, the driver carried a pump to put air into the tire with the slower leak so we were able to limp into the next town stopping and pumping, stopping and pumping. It was a close call on a lonely and rather dangerous road but we made it. That's not the best driving experience I have had but it was probably not the worst. I remember riding in another junker in West Africa along a road which went through an unpopulated and barren area and having the car stall on us. We had put gas into the car some fifty miles earlier and there must have been something unwelcome in the gas. It turned out that the driver knew a mechanic in the next little town about thirty miles ahead. He decided to bring him back to the car in the hope that he could repair it. He hitched a ride to the other town but our guide was able to start our car in the meantime, ride a bit until it stalled again, and repeat the process until we hobbled into the town not far behind the driver's arrival there. He had already secured the services of the mechanic who then disassembled and cleaned the carburetor and put it back into the car. (He charged us $7.00 for that service. I wish he lived closer to my home.) The ride was smooth from then on. I asked the driver where the next mechanic was located. He said about 200 miles ahead.

     The experience of getting lost is another driving hazard in strange places. My first such experience occurred in Jamaica many years ago. I was driving through the countryside and took a questionable path into the hills. We twisted and turned, enjoying the scenery, until the road hit a dead end in a mountainside village where the folks were not particularly happy to see us Americans. The country was not too friendly to tourists at that time and we felt quite threatened by the people who mulled around us. The road had ended right there so a quick turnaround and a descent back to the main road was the next step. We made that without further incident. I also remember getting terribly lost in the hills of central Mexico. We were again ascending a steep, climbing road when the path ended right at the edge of a cliff. Somehow, I managed to turn the car around but my level of confidence was not high. It was hard to feel comfortable, especially as the sun began to set. Getting lost has become a recurrent adventure for me when I am behind the wheel in the Third World.

     Another hazard is running out of gas. In many of the places I have driven there were very few places along the road to fill up. Usually the gasoline comes out of a bottle purchased in some small, all purpose store, often the only one in the town. Sometimes there is no town. I was on a deserted road in southern Mexico and badly underestimated the opportunity to get gas along the road. The result was a long drive in a deserted area as darkness enveloped us while the gauge showed empty. We must have gotten some fifty miles out of the vapors in an empty tank. I managed to schedule in a couple of such adventures in my travels. It is so titillating to drive on empty in an area where safety is a concern under the best of circumstances. Not that it is only the Third World where one can have interesting rides. Recently, in the south of Spain, we drove our van down a small street in a little town which we stopped at to walk around in and found that the road ended right at the edge of a steep cliff. It was too narrow to back up so we decided to turn the van around in a street which could not have been much more than about six inches wider than the van. After assistance from one of the street residents and about forty or so backups, we finally got out of that mess.

     The foregoing does not exhaust the opportunities for special driving experiences in far away places. Running into the flood in China and getting stranded in the mountains as I wrote about earlier is another. Driving over a road covered by a slick glacier is a bit challenging. An overnight drive on a narrow road in fog so thick one can barely see the front of the car is an exciting undertaking. So are drives along high mountain roads with no lights, no markings, and no guardrails. If one is lucky, adventure is just a few miles ahead. The trick is to keep it at least that far away.

                                                Bridge, Central Sumatra, Indonesia

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Through the Door Marked E

     There is something about being in the kind of place we call exotic that is like no other experience I can imagine. The word is generally used to describe things which are foreign or strange and that certainly fits many of the places you can visit in the Third World. Exotic denotes cultural settings where folks still live in traditional ways, dress in traditional clothes (although that is changing rapidly), eat unusual foods, and, most of all, demonstrate different values than we are accustomed to in the West. I have written about exotic burial customs, about forms of hospitality quite different than we are used to, about religious practices totally foreign from ours, about safety and security concerns quite unlike those in Western societies, and other such basic differences. Of course, unusual languages alone contribute to a sense of otherness in certain places. On the Island of New Guinea one could experience almost 800 of those dialects alone. All of these and more examples of diversity add up to exoticness. When we walk through the door marked E instead of the one with the V for vacation or the S for safety or the one with the H for home and comfort, we venture into another world, a parallel experience where the unexpected is common and the unknown lies just beyond the next turn in the road. There is something so exciting and stimulating on the other side of door E that only the timid and disinterested are likely to pass it by.

     Once one passes into the Exotic, the newness and the unfamiliarity of what surrounds us calls for us to experiment with new behaviors. That place demands that we increase our alertness and our spontaneity and our energy to cope with the novel demands that are placed upon us. Why do some of us try that door. Partly because we find differences refreshing and exciting. Many tourists already have lives filled with adventure but even those persons can occasionally use more stimulation, can achieve a higher level of challenge and self-exploration. When we are in isolated places among folks who do not know us, who are less inclined to take care of us, we need more from ourselves at every turn. That enables us to test ourselves in more ways and to discover more about who we are.

     What does one do climbing a jungle path and meeting half-clothed, angry looking men with weapons along the way? How does one summon the moxie to cross a crevice or a creek with only a frail looking rope bridge or log in the road? How does one deal with a desperate child tugging at your sleeve seeking a coin or a candy? What is the coping mechanism for dropping into a hotel and finding there is no hot water available or the lights are so dim that reading is impossible though the day has ended and the time for bed is hours away? How does a traveler find the right route with no language clues or discernible directional signs or proceed with an empty gas tank to a place whose distance is unknown? How do you manage in an airport when you don't speak the language and you don't have your luggage? What do you do when your very life is in danger from armed robbers or hostile natives? I have had to manage all of those circumstances and I have survived to write about them, to tell their narratives to my friends and family and to feel the accomplishment that comes with success in the face of challenge brought on by being in the unusual and sometimes intimidating world of exotica. Thanks to plugging through such difficulties, I have become a bit more courageous and a less worried person. Those changes in my makeup have helped me to navigate more than a few situations I have encountered even on the near side of the doors, events in my normal, daily life.  I am much more inclined now to take the door marked E, not because I know what the other side holds for me, but rather because I know what skills I will be taking through that door.

Facing off with the Komodo Dragon

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fun on the Road

     Although I have written about the value of Third World travel for personal growth in several of my past blogs, I do want to emphasize that travel should be fun also. If you don't have fun on the road, your motivation to keep going will flag and you will have wasted one of the real potential assets of the whole undertaking. I recall an abundance of moments which strike me as just, plain enjoyable. Such happenings are always desirable though they are hard to plan for.

     The first such event that jumps to my mind was an unexpected thrill I had at a popular diving resort on the island of New Britain some miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea. We stopped there because we understood that the nearby reef (an extension of the Great Barrier Reef of Australia) offered some really fine snorkeling as well as the presence of some interesting cultural groups on the island. The first morning of our stay there we went out in a boat with a group of scuba divers to the heart of the reef.  The divers got out at one site and my wife and I went into the water a few hundred yards away to do some wonderful snorkeling. We when got back into the boat, the captain asked us if we would like to scuba dive as well. We had taken no classes, had no license and were both significantly nervous about the prospect of learning in deep water off a remote island. But we could not say "no." It was too exciting an offer. About 20 minutes or so of instruction and a guarantee that the captain would take us down and stay with us led us to strap on a tank and jump back into the water. As it turned out, after about fifteen minutes of descent, my mask filled with water and I indicated I had to come up. The captain was disappointed but he left my wife sitting on a rock about 20 feet below and took me up. She felt quite lonely down there, especially since she did not know how she would ever be found and could not swim one bit. I guess I had just not gotten his instructions quite right. Must have missed the part about clearing the mask if water gets into it. When they returned to the boat, I was ready to try again and did so with more success. The diving was great. We found ourselves keeping company with several reef sharks, many rays and a few other impressive denizens of the deep. It was one of the most exciting and enjoyable moments of our travels.

     In a recent blog, I wrote about our moped experiences in Southeast Asia. The one in Vientianne, Laos was pure fun. We rented a moped one evening with a plan to spend the next day motoring from temple to temple and town to town in the area. The problem we ran into was a heavy morning rain. I was inclined to hand in the moped and do the touring by taxi but my wife said that the whole town was on the street on mopeds so we could manage just like they did. She found a large umbrella in the lobby, rode on the back of the moped with the umbrella covering most of us and we had a ball. She was right. Most of the town residents seemed to be on the road much in the same way we were and we laughed the entire day.

      Camel rides can be fun too. I have been on camels in the Sinai Desert, the Sahara and Rajasthan, India to mention a few such experiences. Of these, our ride into the Sahara from Timbuktu accompanied by a Tuareg guide was probably the most fun. We rode quite a few miles out of town and then got off for a desert walk. At one point we came upon a group of Tuaregs who had become aware of tourists in their area, gone back to their tents and brought back artifacts to create a small market. We did buy some nice things from them leaving all of us satisfied but it was truly an unusual and enjoyable experience. The fact that they were all armed with knives was one inducement to our making some purchases. Our second most enjoyable camel experience took place at the Camel Fair in Pushkar. We got to the fair grounds stadium early enough to obtain good seats to see the horse and camel competitions but as the time passed we were virtually crushed by other arrivals and could barely see what was happening. What could we do? We decided to rent two camels for the afternoon which we parked right next to the ceremony giving us private, well placed viewing and enabling us to have about as good a vantage point as was possible. Our camels were happy not having to drag us around and we had the best time.

     I wrote earlier about a piece of luck I had on the Island of Lombok one day which surely qualifies as unadulterated fun. At our beach hotel one evening, I asked the waiter if he knew of any local events which we might witness while we were there. He replied that there was to be a wedding in his tribal village the next morning and, if I wished, he would take the day off and accompany me there. That offer was irresistable; we were off to my adventure early the next morning. Along the way, we stopped at fascinating markets I would otherwise been unaware of and we toured much of the island. Unfortunately, it turned out that the wedding was to occur a day later than the waiter indicated. No problem. Instead we went to his village, visited his family in their small, tent-like home and I got to see more of real life on Lombok than I would ever have imagined. It was a traveler's dream day, an abundance of fun.

     I am not sure if my wife would classify it as fun but there was a day in the Copper Canyon I will never forget. In the evening in our hotel dining room, I overheard a Mexican family planning a horseback ride through a colorful area of the Canyon the next morning. Since my wife had ridden horses on several occasions, I told her about it and she decided to join their group. The next morning I had planned to do some hiking with a youngster I met on the train whose mother worked at our hotel. I am no horseback rider so I left my wife off with the group that was about to ride through the hills. The only problems were the that the man in charge spoke not a word of English nor did anyone else, the older woman I assumed was going with them was not going at all, my wife's horse had a knack of going to the edge of the mountain scaring her to death, and another horse which was not behaving well needed to be tied to the leader's horse so, since she was dependent on him, she went back and forth all morning. At the end of her ride when I asked how it was, I got a look which I will never forget. Did I mention that she was afraid of heights? I really enjoyed the hike. She almost left me. I laughed the rest of the day.

     Getting totally soaked in the spray of Victoria Falls in Zambia, bumping into people we knew in Puebla, Mexico or folks who lived right near us on an elevator in Cold War Budapest, finding celebrations in unexpected places, noticing that our lunch was looking at us in a small Greek restaurant that had no English menu, encountering the same salesman at the Kenya-Tanzania border who recognized us and remembered the good deal he gave us the last time we came his way and let us know immediately that we would not get that deal again, and many other such circumstances were all a great deal of fun. If you are open to it, fun just happens helping to make travel one of the most enjoyable activities one can ever undertake.

                                                 Ready to Enter the Mine, Potosi, Bolivia