Signoff

December 24, 2009

Looking back on our trip, some things seem surreal. Did we really do that? We’re already starting to forget some of the details of the things we experienced. We’re glad that we have many photos, a journal, and this blog to help us remember.

People we meet ask us, “What was your favourite country”? We find this impossible to answer. Rather than a particular country, it’s been more about the individual experiences that we’ve had and the people that we’ve met. We started to compile a highlight list, but the first cut had over fifty items on it! Trimming it down to a top ten list would be very difficult.

This is the first time we’ve written a blog, and it’s been great. It was more work than we expected, but definitely worth the effort. We thought that it would be a way for family and friends to stay connected with us, and it has been that. It has also been a terrific way for us to stay connected with you. We’ve been able to share our experiences, thoughts, and emotions and get feedback as we go. It’s like you’ve come along on the trip with us. This has been a great comfort at times, especially for Diane. It’s ironic that while we’ve been travelling we’ve had more interaction with some people (generally those who don’t live near Vancouver) than we would probably have had if we’d been at home. We’d like to keep up these communications when we get home.

We’ve met many people while traveling. In a few cases, this has developed into friendships. We hope to maintain and enhance these going forward, rather than see them fade over time. We will do our best to not let the pressures of day-to-day life get in the way.

We are planning to do some presentations about our trip. We have lots of stories and photos that we’d like to share, many of which didn’t make it into the blog. We’ll be sure to let you all know when and where.

Looking back, Diane was surprised how many times she’s voluntarily done things that were beyond her comfort zone (canyoneering in Petra, rock climbing in Wadi Rum, tracking black rhino on foot in Zimbabwe, riding motorcycles in the Himalaya, spelunking in Laos, etc.) For a while she kept asking, “How did I get myself into this, again?” In these situations the expression “Bloody Hell” unconsciously become a new part of her vocabulary. Does she regret having done them? No. But would she do them again if she had the chance? Probably. In fact, Diane has already said that she’d be open to doing another trip like this in the future.

People are already asking, “What are you going to do next?” We have ideas, but no specific plans yet. We came home with a to-do list of over 100 items, which includes both the urgent things necessary to move forward with our lives, as well as making decisions about our future. We definitely want to travel again – South America, Central America, Europe, Australia, Canada and The United States. So many amazing places and so little time.

Travelling has been an education. We learned about the world, humanity, culture, religion, relationships, and most importantly, about ourselves. There is much more to see and experience, and we still have a lot to learn.

We feel truly fortunate to have had this opportunity. Thank you for all your emails and comments along with way. Sharing our journey with you made it even more rewarding.

Your humble bloggers,
Diane and Patrick King

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On Toileting

September 22, 2009

Be aware that the following article is colourful, and may offend the sensibilities of the faint of heart. Or, you might just laugh your a** off.

As is the case with many travel epics, it has come to this, the point when the many exaltations of a grand journey are set aside temporarily, to focus on the simpler aspects of day-to-day living — sleeping, eating, and the subject of this article.

In addition to the many varieties of toilets we encounter, the complexities of their use are a regular topic of conversation among travelers. Here are some of the considerations.

Dirty toilets are very common. It’s quite common to hover or squat over filthy toilets while treading on urine soaked floors, even in the ladies room. You know that the floor isn’t clean when the Indian women roll up their skirts before entering to avoid them touching the ground. Patrick knows that it’s really bad when he can hear Diane dry heaving from next door.

A purse or bag is not an asset in these bathrooms, as there is nowhere to hang it. Because toilet paper is almost never provided, you need to bring that into the room discretely, and somehow manage to keep it off the floor during the whole procedure.

In most hotels, the whole bathroom is the shower. There is no tub, shower stall, or shower curtain. When the whole room gets wet it takes a long time to dry, so as a result, from the time we first use the shower the whole bathroom usally remains wet for the entire duration of our stay. So every time you go in to the bathroom your feet get wet, which is especially annoying if you’re going in the middle of the night and return to your bed afterwards. If instead you wear your shoes or sandals in, the floor turns into a swamp as the dirt from your shoes mixes with the water on the floor. The separate shower common in North America is definitely preferable.

We are often tested by cheap toilets that won’t flush with sufficient vigour as to get the job done. After several attempts, when confronted with a persistent floater, we’ve learned that you can fill a bucket and pour it into the bowl from a few feet above the rim. It works great.

The squat toilet is something that takes skill and experience to master. Not having the necessary flexibility requires a precarious balancing act on the balls of one’s feet. This is complicated by a slippery floor as you try not to pee on your feet. Lacking the necessary suppleness, stability must be augmented by touching something, but as minimally as possible. Diane prefers the one-handed water ski technique, while Patrick favours the two-armed elbow brace. The most sensitive part of the operation occurs when removing segments of toilet paper, as this normally requires two hands, making it a repetitive high-risk maneuver.

On a train, the difficulty level is further increased. Not only is everything stainless steel, wet, and at a minimum slick, but sometimes slimy, but the motion of the train makes balancing much more difficult. For some reason, the small bathrooms on the trains are exceedingly warm. Returning from the lou, it appears as if one has spent the last ten minutes doing squat-thrusts in a sauna. It often requires a cool drink and an extended period of recovery.

Another problem with train bathrooms is that you’re not supposed to go when the train is at a station, because everything just falls out onto the tracks below. It seems that more often than not, one just gets things moving when the train starts to slow. Some things can’t be stopped once started, so it would be helpful if all train restrooms were equipped with countdown timers until the next station. A good strategy is to only go in when you’re really good and ready.

Another challenge we face is the ‘pay and use toilet’. We find these everywhere, but especially in bus and train stations and sometimes in cities or parks. The concept is presumably that the small fee paid is used for the maintenance and cleaning of the facility. However, almost without exception, they are neither maintained nor clean. The attendant’s role seems be only fee collection. There is sometimes a mop in the vicinity, but usually in a dark, wet corner where it lays untouched. Even if it is used, it’s so dirty that it would just serve to spread the grime around. On a matter or principle, Diane refuses to pay at the ‘pay and use’ toilet unless they’re clean, and they’re never clean.

Every more perplexing is that there is often a difference in the fee depending on what kind of deposit you plan to make. For men this can be monitored by whether you use a urinal or toilet, but for women it appears to be strictly a matter of trust. Because it costs more, it is doubtful whether the women ever admit to anything more than a quick pee. Another problem is that you don’t always know in advance. Sometimes you’d like to keep your options open. And what if the anticipated result doesn’t materialize? Can you get your money back?

Some toilets in Africa and India are equipped with a metal bracket under the rear of the toilet seat that is connected by a tube to a separate tap on the wall. It appears to be a sharp piece of tin that is a cheap add-on. For months the usefulness of this device eluded us, and we were unwilling to risk putting it into practice. Eventually Patrick gave it a go. Through a tiny jet, it emits a horizontal stream of water so piercing that it could cut steel. Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on how calloused your sphincter is), because of its location below the seat, it doesn’t actually make contact when you’re seated. To experience its shocking effect, it appears to be necessary to lift the seat up, and then re-squat into the naked bowl. Small gyrations are then necessary to get coverage, but it is pretty important that this be done without making contact, requiring both strength and balance. Perhaps he was doing it wrong, but this certainly seemed to be an advanced and potentially risky maneuver given the cleanliness of the bowl and the razor sharp metal edge below.

Things are further complicated by the question of how to know when you’re finished? There is no tactile feedback as with the manual method. Should one stop based on feel, which would require greater sensitivity than we seem to possess, or is the exercise merely terminated after a reasonable time period. If so, how long? We may need further training to be able to maintain a squat for that time period.

Another issue is that the water emitted from this torture device is of unknown temperature and cleanliness. It would be nice to run it for awhile first, but this would result in a fountain as it ricochets off the front of the bowl. And what is one supposed to do in the meantime – stand up (ill advised), or maintain a parallel squat next to the bowl?

Unfortuantely our guidebook is silent on these topics.


Things we like about travel

September 22, 2009

In addition to the challenges associated with extended travel, there are a lot of terrific things also. We want to highlight some of these also, in case they’re not obvious from our stories, to keep things in perspective. So here they are in no particular order…

  • Spectacular locations – From the deserts of Jordan and the forests of Uganda to the plains of the Serengeti and the peaks of the Himalayas.
  • Amazing experiences – Many of these we’ve recounted in the blog, and others we’ll share when we return.
  • Meeting other travelers – We’ve met some interesting people along the way and made some friends.
  • Meeting local people – Opportunities for this are more limited than we’d like. We try to find opportunities for this whenever possible, like eating in the restaurants where locals eat, traveling on local transport, etc.
  • Interacting with the children – Diane has a lot of fun playing with local children who generally haven’t been conditioned to fear strangers like in North America.

  • Continuous summer – Since we’re traveling in hot countries, it’s always warm, except when we deliberately go to colder places. A by-product of this is that we spend more time outside in nature.
  • Accomplishment – We’re doing some things that we’ve wanted to do for a long time and achieving the things we choose for ourselves on this journey, all while overcoming the challenges associated with traveling independently in the Third World.
  • Learning about and experiencing rich and diverse cultures – We’ve learned a lot about the countries and the people where we’ve traveled, including their customs and religions, and also about the homelands of some other travelers.
  • The food – tasting the different cuisines, especially in India.

  • Things are so interesting – Every day is a new adventure. Even if we haven’t planned anything, every day is interesting. Just wandering the streets is usually fascinating.
  • Time to read, reflect, and plan – finding time for these can sometimes be difficult when things get busy at home. Although these should be a priority in our lives, they tend to get displaced with more urgent things.
  • The cost of things compared to Canada – We have the opportunity to see and do some amazing things at prices which, although high by local standards, are cheap by Canadian norms. Rooms in India are basic, but typically about $10 Canadian (C) per night. Food is also cheaper, and even a nice meal with seafood and beer costs about $10C for both of us. If we eat local food, the quality of which is generally very good in India, in a local restaurant, it can be as little as $2C for both of us.
  • Cheap beer – About $2-3C for 2 bottles, and we’ve heard it’s even cheaper in South-East Asia!
  • Life seems less complicated – We rely only on the possessions we carry on our backs. As a result, it’s not difficult to choose what to wear each day. There are very few commitments to keep, so we have great flexibility on how we spend our time.
  • No commuting – our day starts wherever we happen to be.
  • We walk every day – except when we choose not to.
  • We waste a lot less time watching television
  • Awareness – we’re more aware of our surroundings, and we take delight in the small things.
  • Being together – To be honest, before leaving home, we weren’t sure how we would handle being together 24×7. We’re pleased to say that things are going very well. We still have disagreements, but no more frequently than we did at home. We are closer now than before we left.
  • There is no grass to cut and someone else washes the dishes!

Doha First Class

July 5, 2009

On our flight from London to Mumbai on Qatar Airways, we had a short stopover in Doha, the capital city of Qatar. The airport is basically a transfer station for those flying elsewhere, but it had an amazing duty free shop selling both the full suite of luxury goods, and curiously, large bags of powdered milk which were a hot seller.

On the second leg of our journey, after some delays in check-in, we were given a complementary upgrade to first class, much to our surprise. Many others in line with us didn’t receive this. We wondered whether it was because we were only white people in economy. After an eternity spent in a bus waiting to board the plane in the evening heat, and being delivered to the rear entrance of the plane (when we were sitting in the very first row), we finally made it to our seats. Neither of us had flown first class before, and we were pleasantly surprised.

After selecting our before dinner cocktails (a bloody mary and a martini), we reviewed the menu to select our appetizers and entrées. We both had the trout pate, which was presented with a variety of accoutrements. Patrick had the fish and Diane the chicken. The meals were served by course on hot white china plates, with real metal cutlery (can’t first class passengers be hijackers too?), with a fine selection of mid-2000 vintage French wines.

After his second martini, Patrick was really enjoying himself. Especially the large screen individual audio visual system with a remote control and active headphones (which counteract any ambient noise by playing compensating frequencies). Unfortunately Diane’s screen wouldn’t work, but we both enjoyed the adjustable powered seats that had at least fifteen separate adjustments on a separate remote control.

Regrettably, this was only a three hour flight, the shorter portion of our journey from London, but it was a great way to get to India.


Africa

July 5, 2009

Here’s a quick summary of our last few weeks in Africa.

After four flights over two days, we made it back to Arusha, a town in Northern Tanzania, which was the base for our next two weeks. We met our friends from Canada who came to join us on vacation (Werner, Henny, Kevin, Dave, Cliff, Adam, and James) at the Kilimanjaro International Airport, with a sign reading Black Chicken Climbing Team (derived from the name of our cycling club) in a safari vehicle complete with a cooler full of beer. We spent the next six days on an amazing safari to Lake Manyara, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater. Some of you may know one of our friends, who by now are back in Canada, in which case you’ve already heard more than we can write here.

Some highlights were:

  • the first morning when we were awoken by a lion roaring inside our campsite
  • the annual wildebeest and zebra migration (did you know that the wildebeest and the gnu are the same animal?)
  • watching two female lions stalking a herd of zebra
  • an early morning safari where the roads were so slippery and flooded that keeping the vehicles upright was a challenge
  • seeing a pride of lions sitting on a raised outcropping of rocks looking out over the savannah (just like in the movie ‘The Lion King’)
  • amazing sunsets
  • the Masai people, with their traditional villages, livestock, and clothing
  • watching a dust tornado on the savannah
  • experiencing the amazing wildlife, including ‘the big five’
  • our group’s lion and wildebeest vocal impressions
  • the night that we almost ran into an elephant on the way to the toilet!

After a day of rest in Arusha, our group started a seven day climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. At over 19,000 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. We attempted the Machame route and were fortunate to have very good weather.

At midnight on the fifth day we left our high camp to head for the summit. We climbed for six hours through the night, arriving at the top just before sunrise on June 11th, which was Patrick’s Mom Doreen’s birthday.

Everyone made it to the top successfully, experiencing only the usual symptoms of high altitude (headache, nausea, and in Patrick’s case vomiting near the summit – tales of which have no doubt been exaggerated by those who’ve already returned to Canada). Highlights included:

  • the amazing views from Shira campsite
  • climbing the Baranko wall, called ‘your cold breakfast’ by our guide Dismas (not sure about the spelling)
  • toasted sandwiches for lunch on the day of our summit attempt, and french fries the day before
  • seeing the porters carry huge loads
  • special treatment for married couples (our gear was always placed in our tents, but the single guys had to get their own)
  • our head guide Brendan singing as we climbed through the night
  • the ‘queen cakes’ in our packed lunches, which should only be eaten with butter and a gallon of water
  • warm soup with every dinner!

We spent then next few days relaxing on the island of Zanzibar, the famous ‘spice islands’ off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. Despite some rain, we had a good time. We went on a terrific snorkeling trip, even though the number of people on the boat and the weather at the start initially indicated that it might be otherwise. Cliff couldn’t get over the fact that huge beers were under $3 Canadian. The seafood was terrific, as were daily happy hours (2-for-1) at Che’s. We spent our last two nights on Zanzibar in Stone Town, an amazing historical city. Here we saw our friends off to the airport and then flew back to Nairobi where we spent our last two days in Africa with Diane’s Aunt Norma and her family, and Diane’s other Aunt Beulah who was also visiting from Canada.

Our last four months in Africa have been incredible. We visited nine countries, if you don’t count Egypt (which felt more like the Middle East). The sights and activities were amazing, but it is the people that we met along the way that we’ll remember the most. We also want to say a special word of thanks to our Canadian friends that came to join us for a few weeks in Tanzania and to Norma and Wayne (Diane’s Aunt and Uncle in Nairobi) for hosting us during our time in Kenya.


Observations about East and Southern Africa

July 5, 2009
  • People have a vague understanding of Canada, and a generally positive impression. Some think it is part of the US. Many know that it is cold there, and can quote the city names of ‘Toronto’ and ‘Vancouver’, even though they have no idea where these are.
  • The majority of the people are Christians, the result of a century of successful missionary activity that continues to this day.
  • Many of the businesses are controlled by South Asians, primary East Indians. They drive much of the economic activity, including import/export and retail. They often employ African people, and there appears to be a love-hate relationship between the two groups.
  • Women are generally not empowered. They do the majority of household and farming work, all while carrying a child on their back and with toddlers scrambling around their feet.
  • Education is highly prized. In most countries, elementary school education is free, but you usually must be able to afford the uniforms and school supplies, so many children do not attend.
  • HIV/AIDS is widespread. Funerals are common, and many children are raising their siblings.
  • Life expectancy is generally low. The combination of high infant mortality rates, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, unclean water, and malaria mean that the average life expectancy in these countries is between 38 and 48 years.
  • African politics generally follows the approach of the British parliamentary system. However, in most countries corruption , partisanship, and patronage are widespread. The newspapers constantly report it, but there is rarely any information about perpetrators being punished. Governments and politicians will often go to extreme lengths to remain in office (e.g. by removing or extending term limits, or rigging elections). By the time an individual or party loses an election, or is otherwise thrown out or overthrown, they need to have feathered their nests enough that they don’t need to work again, and can leave the country if necessary, because the new government will likely not be fair to them.
  • The quest for money seems to dominate the lives of most African people. This is really no different than in Canada, but because the amounts of money are relatively much smaller, it is often surprising the extent to which they go to earn just a little bit of money. e.g. a woman with a small child will sit out in the hot sun all day selling peanuts, to earn a total of a dollar (or less). Sellers will wander around a bus depot all day trying to sell a single item like a pair of shoes or a flashlight (not one type of product, but one specific item).
  • Lack of capital is an issue. Many people have the work ethic and ingenuity, but lack the money to initiate an activity that would allow them to support themselves (e.g. buying hand tools or a pump to farm, a bicycle/motorcycle/car to operate as a taxi, or chickens to sell eggs). A variety of groups are working to filling this void by offering micro-financing.
  • Almost all the men love soccer, which they call ‘football’. Most boys and young men play football. In addition to their national team, they follow the English Premiership very closely. Many men wear the jersey of their favourite team and decorate their vehicle with stickers, etc. Most buses and mini-buses display the name or logo of a Premiership team. Manchester United and Arsenal are the most popular teams, and Patrick is often asked which team he supports.
  • The people of East and Southern Africa are generally friendly and pleasant. They appear to like foreigners and are usually willing to help out in any way they can. Sometimes they want so badly to be helpful and to not be rude, that they’ll give you information about things they’re not sure about.

Okavango Delta

June 21, 2009

We entered Botswana from Zimbabwe and traveled west across the north of the country to the small city of Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta. This area was highly recommended to us by our friends Barb and Terry, who traveled here many years ago. Unfortunately, Botswana is not a discount travel destination. In fact, the whole country specifically markets itself as the high-end safari destination relative to the rest of Eastern and Southern African. As a result, most people arrive in Maun on pre-arranged trips, then immediately fly in to luxury lodges in the famous Okavango Delta. We had nothing arranged in advance, which is not recommended, but were hoping to take advantage of last minute rates at the end of the shoulder season.

The Okavango Delta is a 16,000 square kilometer maze of lagoons, channels, and islands. It is fed by the Okavango River, which runs 1430 kilometers from Angola, across Namibia, and into northwest Botswana, the only part of this flat dry country that is lush and green. The Delta supports a wide variety of wildlife, which move around in response to the changing water levels of the delta.

We decided to splurge with a couple of days at a luxury lodge. Somehow, this morphed into four days and three nights at two different luxury lodges (requiring three different flights) – the most expensive days of travel we’ve had, not just on this trip, but ever.

From the Maun airport, we flew about 35 minutes on a small Cessna to a private dirt airstrip near Shinde Camp. Diane had anticipated neither the small size of the plane nor the turbulence.


We were greeted by our guide in a safari vehicle, and immediately set out on an hour long game drive before lunch. In that short time we saw warthogs, giraffe, several different times of antelope, three lions, and a bull elephant that threatened to charge our vehicle in what is known as a ‘mock charge’ (the one that proceeds the ‘real charge’).


When we arrived at the lodge, we were greeted by the staff singing and dancing. We were shown around the beautiful open air facility, where all of the lounges and dining hall are on raised wooden platforms looking out onto the grasslands or waterways. This exclusive facility accommodates a maximum of 16 guests, and there are more staff than visitors. We stayed two nights in a ‘tent’, which was more like a luxury hotel suite. Inside was a king sized bed with white linens, a seating area, and a full bathroom including shower. Each morning we were woken by tea and coffee delivered to our room. Each time we left the room it was cleaned and reconfigured (bed made, mosquito nets up or down, windows and blinds opened or closed, fresh linens, floor washed). Each evening, while turning our beds down, a decanter of brandy and two glasses were set out on the night table.

Each day, in addition to three terrific meals, an afternoon siesta, afternoon tea, and an evening socializing on the deck around a campfire (also known as ‘bush television’), we participated in two activities of our choosing. We could choose between a game drive in an open safari vehicle, or a variety of activities in the Delta — a power boat trip, fishing trip, or a makoro trip. A makoro is a flat bottomed dugout canoe that is traditionally used in the delta, poled by a ‘poler’ through the shallow water. Our three hour makoro trip was just after sunrise, very quiet and relaxing.

Here is Patrick trying his hand at the makoro, causing the camp manager much concern.

We also went fishing in the Delta. See Diane’s catch below.

Note that Patrick’s fish was slightly larger, but the difference was not distinguishable to the naked eye.

At Shinde it seemed that almost every activity (makoro trip, vehicle safari, or getting into bed at night) was accompanied by a hot water bottle, something that Diane really enjoys. Each day at sunset we would pause, wherever we were (land or water), for ‘sundowners’, usually a couple of glasses of wine and some appetizers. This is a great tradition which we should consider adopting at home!

Of course, at these camps the bar was always open. We spent one afternoon enjoying gin and tonics in true colonial fashion. And the service was excellent. Patrick mentioned the first afternoon that he enjoyed a gin martini, with both the glass and gin chilled beforehand. Four hours later, upon our return from some sunset fishing, he was greeted by a manager holding a chilled martini. Impressive.

Because we were situated on the edge of the delta, we were challenged by some difficult water crossings in our vehicle. The Toyota Landcruiser diesel performed amazingly well, even when the entire engine and hood were completely under water, at which point, the driver and all passengers were balanced precariously on the armrests because both the vehicle and the seats were under water!

We spent the next two days at Lebala Camp, where we had an even more amazing ‘tent’ (this one with a double shower, double sink, and claw foot tub). Our tent was located on the edge of a hippo pool, and at night we were surrounded by hippos feeding. Hippos are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa in terms of human casualties (they feel very threatened when out of the water), so we were not allowed to leave our tent after dark without an escort. The deep grunts of the hippos around us at night were disconcerting, and our only protection was the seemingly implausible information that hippos have short legs, and therefore couldn’t climb the few stairs up to the raised platform where we slept. The only challenge was getting to our tent after dinner, and one night we had to detour around a stubborn hippo that was blocking the path.

Overall, we had an amazing four days in the Okavango Delta. Definitely a different caliber of safari than we’d enjoyed to date, and almost certainly different than the budget safari we had planned with our Canadian friends who would soon be joining us in Tanzania.