We should all be hitchhiking in Sri Lanka

backpacker in training

     Backpacker in training. I forgot the part about putting it on your back; I’m an awful mentor.

     Sri Lankan buses have put me on the brink. It’s not them (so much), it’s me. I’m too tall. My backpack only fits next to the driver—if there’s space. At least the driver is communicative. Sri Lanka has the advantage over India in that the bus drivers aren’t betel-nut buzzed crazies driving like there’s no tomorrow. Even if I wasn’t tall, dark and formerly handsome, I too-quickly tire of being jerked around by the constant starts and stops of a typical bus and its impossible-to-reconcile air horn.
     The bus is extremely cheap and the other 200 people on it are friendly without fail, but I decided to make a complete cut from public transportation and throw myself upon the hitchhiking gods. It was a rare, wise move. I descended from the highlands of Ella down to the southern coast of Sri Lanka, and it went so well that I made a semi-circle by continuing around and up past Colombo back to Negombo where I started this trip.
     I would love to have a map right here to show you my route, with jazzy graphics that link to my previous blog posts in Sri Lanka, maybe a Facebook share button that I can’t seem to put on my website, but until I find a place to stop and try and do it or hire someone to show me how, you are stuck with simple pix and text. (Yes, it is a cry for help.)
time is money

     Seen on the inside of a tuk-tuk.

     I am a lonely hitchhiker. I want to be out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t like to be seen by anyone other than the drivers. It was an effective strategy since I hardly ever waited long to get a ride, but I spent more time walking away from town to quieter places than the act of hitchhiking itself.
     The fact that it was a viable option for me, a large, imposing backpacker of dubious hygiene (from a distance!) should make you consider it. Like in most countries, hitchhiking helps accelerate the process of getting to know a place just from the wide variety of people who pick you up. In my case the highlights were Mr. Purple Hat below, a couple of Sri Lankan Telecom guys who gave me a ride of no more than 500 meters but they were so eager to help, and a guy whose job it was to drive around Iranians working at a local power plant that they had invested in.
hitchhike cart

     Whatever you would call this vehicle, it was a first. I didn’t even put my hand out and he stopped to offer a ride. I almost turned him down because I was in a wetland area that was so peaceful and pretty, but there weren’t a whole lot of cars, beggars can’t be choosers, the purple hat, etc. I believe this was driver #8 out of 11 from Ella to Tangalle, which is 145km. I took any driver for any distance.

Sri Lanka wetlands
tangalle beach

     The sea at Tangalle is a titch cooler than any other place I was in Sri Lanka. A smidge. A teense. The beach is dirtier and you wish the water was less opaque, but there are less people, the ocean is fun to swim in, and the non-touristiness was a relief.

mirissa beach

     Some people rave about Mirissa, and I can picture it if you fall in with the right bunch of people, but I like having a real town nearby, not having every single business dedicated to tourists. Weligama, the next town west, had good-looking smooth waves and a town, but the main road goes too close to the beach. There has to be some hidden-away Shangri-la nearby.

free medicine

     I came for the free medicine. It would be funny if they were trumpeting “57% safety!”

Other photos of the fabulous people who picked me up hitchhiking in Sri Lanka
     I have to eat crow about Sri Lanka having made no changes to its infrastructure in the 15 years since I was here. There is a new highway running from Matara in the far south up to near Colombo. Strangely few people are on it, likely because of the price of tolls (aka Japan Syndrome.) It’s a godsend for hitchhikers, though it ends in a distant suburb of Colombo. Somehow I got a miracle ride from where the highway ends up to Negombo, which is like hitching completely through Los Angeles in one ride. Major score.
hitch tangalle

     This man picked me up hitchhiking to go into Tangalle with the admonishment, “I will take you, but if the police stop us because you don’t have a helmet, you must pay.” I assured him I would, but as we were going I wondered of the wisdom of this. I asked, “How much is the fine?” He didn’t know. (Later I found out that it is 500 rupees, or as the policeman spelled it out to me, “(Only) three and a half dollars!”) I said maybe it isn’t a good idea to give me a ride, but he then poopooed my concerns, saying, “I know a back road into town!”

hitch dumptruck

     This was only the second time a dumptruck picked me up. The first was the day before.

hitch principal

     A high school principal gave me a ride from the edge of Weligama to the highway entrance. Reread that sentence. that’s how cool Sri Lanka is.

hitch airport

     I got an embarrassingly short ride to the airport (because I knew how close I was) with this man.

     In Tangalle I stayed in Sun Sea (tel 0713051090) near the beach and town, only 1000 rupees. Relaxing to hear the waves at night. Less relaxing to wave away hordes of mosquitoes while on the toilet.
     I was at Moon Glow Guest House in Mirissa (tel 0773955172), but just after I agreed to stay, two Germans came to tell me that they were robbed two nights before. They said it was their fault, that they slept with the door open for ventilation, but they were on the second floor of a room not facing the street and the thieves rustled around until they found what they wanted. Could it have been an inside job? The Germans trusted the family enough to give them their key while they were out, which is something I never do unless they insist. I lock my backpack around the fan cord in situations like this. Maybe the fact that they slept well enough to be robbed is testament to the quality of the mattresses at Moon Glow.
     In Negombo I decided to stay on the northern end of town. I found a nice-looking place and used the old ruse of saying to the manager that it looks like too nice of a place for me to stay, which it was, but they had one simple room on the top floor for only 1000 rupees. Shanith Guest House, No 8/A Kottuwa Road, Ettukala, Negombo (0312237453).
     There is a type of fat banana here, the fattest banana I’ve ever seen, a fantastic creamy thing called Kolikuttu. The red bananas are also delicious. We Americans need to get over our Cavendish obsession.
     Sri Lanka doesn’t get enough tourist love, this forgotten teardrop of an island off the southeastern coast of India. It is a surprisingly cheap place to get to with the likes of flydubai, AirAsia and Air Arabia. I didn’t realize until I ran around for two weeks that I hardly scratched the surface of everything that I’d like to have done. Travelers, you don’t have an excuse to pass on it, and, no, I didn’t get sick from the food once.
kottuwa station

     Want to know a hot tip? Instead of taking two crowded public buses to get to the airport from Negombo Beach, take the train. Go from Kottuwa Station down to Katunayake South (it continues on to Fort Station in Colombo) and the airport is about 2km east of the overpass. You can catch a quick bus to just before the airport and/or hitchhike the last bit. Piece of cake, trust me.

negombo sunset

     Sri Lankan sunsets never fail.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Excellent service tomorrow in Ella, Sri Lanka

     I’m proud of my Indian-style head wobble. In fact, it’s safe to say that in the history of mankind no one has every performed it better or been more humble about it. There are different wobbles for various situations. I am not yet at grandmaster status for one of the more advanced wobbles used for saying goodbye to people you just had a positive experience meeting. It’s a vigorous figure eight that should not be tried at home nor without professional supervision, and if done incorrectly you risk mocking the person you are communicating with and whiplash.
     I specialize in the most common wobble, the inscrutable, understated one you get when you ask if the bus leaves at 3 o’clock or if the ice in your drink is made from mineral water. I really should teach an online course as it’s too precious to keep it to myself.

street plaque

     Seen on the street in Kandy: “Formerly this street was known by the same name.” Ta da! Can you imagine the sales pitch? “Listen, we should make a beautiful carved stone plaque to signify that this street has always had the same name.” Did a Sri Lankan Airlines executive say, “Genius! Here’s a blank check?”

     I was going to walk to the nine arches bridge along the train tracks but it’s good to know if a train is coming or not. I went to the pretty station in Ella and had this classic exchange with the stationmaster:
     “Is the train on time?”
     “Yes, on time with 10 minutes delay.”
     It was as if I were back in India. Even a Sri Lankan nearby had to laugh.
excellence tomorrow

     How great is this? Excellent service tomorrow. Today? Forget about it! The Ella train station is brimming with unintentional humor.

ella station

     Ella has received awards for having the most beautiful train station in the country, but when you read the comments book they have next to the office, page after page is of people complaining that they don’t inform anyone when the train is late and the stationmaster is uncommunicative. It’s funny to think that the guy is in his own world pruning flowers all day while his station is going to seed.

yellow toothpaste

     How am I supposed to get white teeth with yellow toothpaste? Most Sri Lankans have beautiful bright, white smiles, so they must know something.

little adams peak view

     Isn’t this wonderful? It’s Ella Rock as seen from the viewpoint called Little Adam’s Peak, one of the fantastic little hikes through tea plantations in the area.

ella family

     This sweet family is the caretaker at Holiday Homes where I stayed two nights in Ella. I ruthlessly and ferociously bargained down to 1000 rupees (US$7.50) for a room, money that was going to the absent owner, but in return I let the woman overcharge me for laundry since that money was going into her pocket. How do you say, “Scumbag with a heart of gold” in Tamil?

ella tea

     Typically picturesque tea plantation near Demodara.

train on nine arches

     I bought a 20 rupee (US 15 cent) train ticket just to ride it 10 kilometers to Demodara and go over the nine arches bridge. At Demodara it makes a 360 degree turn and goes right under the train station you just disembarked from. I walked and hitchhiked back to Ella.

nine arches
nine arches closeup

     Train’s coming! RUUUNN!!

     I took the train from Jaffna down to Kurunegala, then took a one-hour bus to Kandy with two tall, blond Dutchmen, a guy with tattoos all over and a girl with enormous dreadlocks. I was sure that if I was naked I would go unnoticed, but I never tested it. Kandy was bursting at the seams with tourists. Accommodation was tight. I started walking north away from the center and found a place less sad and mosquito-infested than the YMCA dorm for 1000 rupees.
     I stayed at a second, nicer place in Ella, right in the middle of town for 1500 rupees at Ella Village Inn, but you have to trample through someone’s living room to access your room. If you aren’t in the corner (#3?), it’s awkward.
     Ella feels remote and since it is near the end of the line you’d think a train ticket back towards Kandy and Colombo should be nothing to worry about, but reservations on all five trains on a Sunday were fully booked. You can buy unreserved the same day, and tickets somehow miraculously appear or their quota suddenly increases or I don’t know what, but don’t give up hope. Keep hope alive!
     (I had a funny experience at the Colombo train station. There is a “Train Tourist Information” office, and when you walk in and show your foreign self, suddenly every train ticket on “full” trains is available. They unfurl a beautiful, large train map of the country that I have never seen anywhere else and they discuss all the places you can go—but only on expensive package tours. When you say you aren’t interested in a tour, they roll up the map as you are staring at it like the red carpet is being pulled away and ignore you like you just passed gas in their office.)
     I’m no fan of the food in Ella or anywhere with hardly any local restaurants. A few Sri Lankans told me to eat at Lata, which appears to be a simple, signless general store up from the only supermarket in town, but if you poke your head in there is a tiny restaurant in the back. The food’s too salty.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Investigating war-torn Jaffna one chapati at a time

elephant row
     My last time in Sri Lanka there weren’t many places you could safely travel as it was still in the depths of the civil war. The entire northern half of the country was strictly no-go. Only last month was it made wide open since permits from the military were scrapped. Jaffna in the far north suddenly became my priority for this trip and I took a punctual, 6.5-hour, US$6 train from Colombo to get there. (I am ALL about the trains. I would take the train from Colombo to Jaffna a hundred times before I would take a bus, even if it wasn’t too cramped with a backpack.)
     I haven’t followed the war and its aftermath closely. The Tamils in the north lost with almost 100,000 deaths on both sides, and this might be the only country in the world that doesn’t trust Norwegians. (For some reason Norway decided to dive in head first to aid the peace process with mixed results.)
     The land gets flatter and more fallow as you go north. The whole north that I saw was like that, but for all the derelict buildings and unused land, I could never tell if it is from war, tsunami (40,000 people died in Sri Lanka) or simply poverty. The north is slower, quieter, bucolic, the atmosphere is more subdued, and the people dress more traditionally/conservatively. I was watching the Sri Lanka-Australia World Cup cricket match on TV from Australia, and all the Sri Lankan fans they showed in the stands looked nothing like anyone I saw in the north or anywhere else, really. It must be stunning for people here to see.

bottles jaffna station

     Every time I walked by this room at the Jaffna train station (yes, I do like hanging out at train stations as well as post offices and prisons) the door was closed and the windows covered with newspaper. When I finally spotted it open, I poked my head in and voila! A mountain of plastic bottles. Someone appeared and sheepishly told me that they are waiting for the recycler to come. Godot Recyclers, maybe.

sri lanka post box

     sri lanka post box

     I made a day trip to Point Pedro on the northern coast. It’s only 30km away, but it took an hour and a half to get there. I walked out to the beach, stared at it for 10 minutes, and walked back to the town where I sat with a shop owner to watch some of the cricket. That’s a nice thing about being a foreigner here: I am gladly welcomed when I ask if I can sit in a guy’s shop and watch TV. I bought some mango drinks and we chatted about his upcoming vacation. He won a free trip to Bangkok because he made the biggest display of a supplier’s products.
     The next day I went west to just before Karainagar to see Casuarina Beach. I sat forever waiting for the bus and then it was deathly slow, taking an hour to go 20km, so I decided to hitchhike back. It was remarkably easy. The first four times I threw my arm out, the first vehicle stopped: one car and three motor scooters. It felt very liberating to zoom around the quiet countryside on the back of a motor scooter, though the road was bad and I didn’t have a helmet. I was less worried about helmetlessness being illegal than to get plastered by a passing truck. A tuk-tuk slowed and offered a ride for free, which almost never happens anywhere in the world, then an old man on a scooter stopped for me and before I had a chance to say anything, he said, “Come,” and took me into Jaffna.
     Once in Jaffna we got stopped at a police checkpoint. The officer motioned at us from across the street, sternly waving us over to him. The old man did the head wobble and in a conciliatory way said, “Foreigner!” The officer was unmoved, but when I got off the back of the scooter and turned so he could see me—I’m telling you, my dark skin is almost at Tamil levels (#skincancerherewecome)—the old man repeating, “Foreigner!”, with an even more effective head wobble, the officer changed his mind and motioned for us to proceed.
     I might go into a few banks and take some money. I’ll just sashay in and shout, “Foreigner!” while I fill my backpack with cash.
vegetarian hotel
     Vegetarian hotels! I waited a couple of times, but I could never get a photo of a wandering cow in front of a vegetarian hotel.
pepsi truck jaffna

     No ugly Pepsi delivery truck for Sri Lanka, no Sir!

pepsi truck back

     Imagine how much time it took to paint this.

casaurina police

     An old Casuarina Beach police post?

     I stayed at Raamni Guest House in Jaffna for 1400 rupees a night. It was OK, but every morning I woke at 5am to the sound of “It’s a Small World” blasting from a passing vehicle. The YMCA is only 800 for a single, but it is a bit distant from the center of town. No mosquito net either, though the gregarious manager said he could provide one for 50 rupees.
     Foreigners tend to mass at Mangos Restaurant north of town by Nallur Temple to eat, but I didn’t see the big deal. Cosy Restaurant (wifi password 2A55370AE03) on Stanley Road by the train tracks and especially Akshathai just down the street are just as good.

     At Akshathai this is what you get when you order simply “chapati” on the menu: chapati with coconut chutney and chana masala. Only a dollar.

     I met an Austrian pro photographer in Jaffna who, I will redundantly say, is taking photos infinitely better than anything I have. Check them out.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

I am in Sri Lanka for no reason at all

     This is my second visit to Sri Lanka; I was last here 15 years ago when there was still a civil war. I was surprised to see a new highway going between Colombo and the airport, but it seems to be the only addition or improvement to the infrastructure. In essence, zero has changed in Sri Lanka in 15 years. If you like your countries frozen in time, Sri Lanka welcomes you warmly.

garbage sign

     Tell it like it is, Sri Lankan Sign Maker! The other two languages on the sign are Sinhala and Tamil. I learned both over the weekend. Easy peasy.

     My time in Sri Lanka is entirely improvised. I impulsively bought a cheap ticket from Dubai and flew out two days later. My life is usually entirely improvised. Most of the time I don’t know where I am sleeping night to night. It’s an endangered way of traveling that is threatening to becoming extinct in this age of pre-booking and planning everything. The convenience is worth the trade-off, I guess the argument is. Maybe there is a good reason my way of living is close to extinction: I’m always tired.
     I went to Negombo, a beach town north of the capital, Colombo, and close to the airport that used to be infamous for child sex tourism. I expected a poor man’s Pattaya, and went early in case I wanted to escape, but it was pleasant. I didn’t see anything skeezy at all, and I had this great first Sri Lankan meal:
first SL meal

     This was 250 rupees (US$1.90), I believe. From the top, clockwise: dahl (mashed lentils), fish curry, okra—I didn’t eat it. Sorry, Mom, I know you love okra—rice, papadam (a crispy chip made from lentil or mung bean flour) and the green stuff next to the rice is just something tasty and indescribable. The woman behind this meal had a lovely accent, and her English was better than I would have guessed, and then it came out that she was actually British, a Sri Lankan emigrant who returned home because of an illness in the family. The visit became prolonged and she started a tiny restaurant with her husband.

     I found a cheap, good place to stay, Nature View Lodge in Negombo, right by the beach. I bargained and got a room for 1700 rupees (US$13). In a whisper I was told to be quiet about my deal, though I am probably paying more than everyone. How did I learn about this place? By doing a radical thing: going up to another traveler and asking. That’s a novel concept these days. No one talks to each other any more. This used to be the traveler modus operandi, partly because there was no internet and partly because it is a better way that has been lost in our desperate, never ending search to find the best information in a sea of dreck. How can you glean anything useful out of TripAdvisor? How can you sort through all the reviews for a trend when you have no idea of people’s biases or expectations? There’s no consensus. I find it a waste of time. I can take one quick look at this unkempt traveler, his backpack, his clothes, and know his word is gold. The owner of Nature View turned out to be a two-faced shyster, but that’s besides the point.
kent water

     The Kent Elite II water purifier. Full refund if you die from dysentery!

     There was a topless European girl frolicking in the water and she was being openly filmed by a local guy on the beach like he was on a safari. (I wonder if Sri Lankan boys have a Big 5 of topless women they hope to spot.) When the girl noticed, she shot him a look of reproach, but I could hardly blame him. I’d have done the same, but I might try and be cooler about it. It’s crazy for the exotic white woman to think that in a deeply conservative society she can appear on a beach topless and not expect to be stared/filmed. I have read that nudity is illegal, but I don’t know if it is true.
negombo sunset

     Negombo sunset, the first of many daily fantastic sunsets. The water is a perfect temperature and seems clean enough, though I wasn’t thrilled to have a giant jellyfish slime across my chest.

     I was on the beach at Mt. Lavinia, a beach town south of Colombo, a few days later during a poya (full moon holiday) and there were throngs of locals, but I noticed only one local girl wearing a bikini top. This in itself caused a small stir among the nearby guys as she clung to her father lest in fear of becoming the slow wildebeest, so an exotic white woman topless? The boys are probably walking around with 15 spare camera batteries just for such an event.
mt lavinia beach

     Mt. Lavinia beach, the day before the holiday.

     With dumb luck I stumbled on to Mt. Lavinia Beach Hostel, a rambling home partially converted into a hostel very close to the beach, but I woke up in the morning with red spots all over my legs. I don’t know if it was mosquito bites or bedbugs. Mosquito bites are alarming since there is dengue fever, malaria and chikungunya in Sri Lanka, but what’s a little degenerative virus when your hostel has the smell of frangipani? Do you know this tree? Frangipani is so beautiful and the flowers so fragrant, it is creeping into my Top 5 Trees (redwood, jacaranda, baobab, banyan, and my memory fails me for the fifth. I think it’s a Brazilian tree…) It made me want to to stay. I’ll pay better attention at getting my mosquito net right.
     I had to go into town to try and buy a train ticket to Jaffna. A train to Colombo Fort station runs from Mt. Lavinia right on the coast, so close to the beach that when you sit on the sand you can feel the rumble of the train passing by. I’m glad everyone else has the mindset to take the bus over the train to town, which is insanity. I did it once; it took me an hour to go 10km. You sweat to death, you have to put up with the noise and the strong starts and stops in traffic, the hothead driver is shouting at another driver, and then you wait until he feels that he has enough passengers. OR, you can take the mellow train with sea views, the breeze, hang out with the stationmaster, be allowed into the office to see the cool, old-fashioned equipment and the ticket booth with the thick, Edmondson-style tickets they still use. No-brainer!
mt lavinia tickets

     The Mt. Lavinia station ticket cabinet. That is an arrack (very strong, distilled alcohol) bottle under the counter. I am going to say that it is filled with water, but if you had to deal with gee-whiz-can-I-take-a-photo foreigners all day, you’d be on the hooch, too.

mt lavinia tracks

     The train tracks of Mt. Lavinia.

mt lavinia sunset 1

     Mt. Lavinia beach sunset

     I flew flydubai from Dubai to Colombo for US$140 one way. Not bad for a four-hour flight, though it was a red-eye and I found myself half-dead at Colombo airport at 5am. There is an electronic visa you can get beforehand for $30 for us white-trash Americans (I got my confirmation in minutes) or you can pay $35 upon arrival, it appeared.
     Mt. Lavinia Beach Hostel was 1200 rupees for a dorm or 1750 for a single room. I stayed in both.
     Never buy SIM cards at an airport. They are taking advantage of you not knowing the market, but I am the last human without a smartphone, so don’t listen to me. I bought one for 150 rupees in town.
     Last thing: from my visit 15 years ago, I have only this story to show for it. I might have recklessly made up the last sentence as I can’t imagine half falling asleep outside at a cricket match.
aussie doctor

     I don’t know why I find this noteworthy. Maybe that I don’t need a name. “Australian Doctor” is enough? If I were Aussie and I became sick, would I call him/her? I might.

mt lavinia sunset 2

     Just one last sunset pic, if you don’t mind.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Have I been to Oman?

     My friend, Josefine, and some of her work colleagues invited me to go on a day trip north of Dubai to the Musandam Peninsula in Oman. It is a land mass separate from the country we are used to seeing on the maps as Oman. In fact, there is another part of Oman that is completely surrounded by the United Arab Emirates and inside that part of Oman there is a chunk of UAE that is completely surrounded by Oman, so there are two concentric circles of countries. I can’t think of any other place on earth like it.
     The news is that I had never been there before. First time to Oman! I can’t even remember my previous new country. Kenya? But wait, have I really been to Oman?
     Obviously, I have physically been in Oman, but in the world of extreme travelers who want to achieve 100 countries or try and visit every country in the world, it’s a sticky question: What constitutes a visit to a country? (Another question is, “What is a country?” More on that in a second.) Walking across the border? Getting a passport stamp? Does in transit at an airport count? Staying a night? Staying long enough to have a cup of coffee? Staying short enough to avoid paternity payments? (Oops! Was that my out-loud voice?
     Staying a night sounds logical and appropriate, but it seems just as crazy to say that my seven hours sightseeing in the country somehow doesn’t count. How can I say I have never been to Oman?

oman throwing fish

     Tossing the day’s catch.

     I also get in debates about what a country is. Let me test you:
     If you visited Czechoslovakia back in the day and then later visited the Czech Republic and Slovakia, how many countries is that?
     If you visited East Germany, is that a country you can count today?
     What if you visited Juba, the capital of South Sudan, before independence, when it was just Sudan? Can you say you visited South Sudan? What if you visited Juba both before and after independence, is that one country or two?
     Is Bophuthatswana, a South African homeland that I hitchhiked through during apartheid where they stamped my passport in and out, a country even though no other country recognized it?
     Is Somaliland a country, another place no one recognizes, which is also a stamp in my passport?
     Is Taiwan a country? Wales? The Sweet Republic of California?
     All this is sensitive stuff to us diehards. I came out of the gate blazing, I had been to about 70 countries before I turned 30 years old, but now, depending on how you count, I have been to maybe 100-105 countries. I have been next door to out-of-the-way places like Djibouti and East Timor, but the one and only reason to go was to say I had been there, and it wasn’t enough. Instead, I have been to Hungary and Malaysia 20+ times, Japan over a dozen times, etc.
     My friend, Graydon of Jeopardy fame, is doing it right, more methodical, doing the world in regions when he gets free time, and he will probably see and bike it all. He’s at around 115-120 countries by now. We are both thinking we have one big, ugly Africa trip in us while we are still at the peak of our powers. Maybe we will travel some of it together, or I might just go to Hungary another 20 times.
sale food stuff

     If you know me, you know I loves signs like this.

     I had it in my mind that we were all going on a hike in Oman, but the others wanted to go on a boat cruise. I hemmed and hawed, but I am glad I went. The landscape just driving along the coast was dramatic, but on the boat was even more impressive. As promised by the boat company, we saw dolphins, but every time there was a sighting, the inbred boat operators would crank the engines and rush on top of where they were, scaring them off.
oman clear fish

     Such clear water! If it was less windy and chilly, I would have swum. I should have swum anyway.

corner boat sink

     I don’t know why a corner boat sink struck me as funny.

oman beach
Abu Dhabi
     Josefine offered to take me to the Abu Dhabi mosque. I didn’t know why she thought it would be worth the drive until I saw it. Another thing I am glad I laid eyes on. It’s fun to put on the clothes. You’d think a floor-length robe would be stuffy, but it felt breezy. Big fan. For Josefine, however, the hot, black abaya was tough to control and she got berated for showing too much neck at one point.
kent josefine mosque

     This is only the foyer to the even more ornate inside of the mosque. The mosque loans you these clothes for free so you can be respectable. Josefine and I look like we are meeting for our arranged marriage for the first time.

abu dhabi mosque outside
abu dhabi minaret

     All that detail on the columns is done as intricate mosaic work as you can see below. Incredible.

abu dhabi mosaic
abu dhabi mosque inside

     The Liberace of mosques. Major bling.

     To go to Oman, it cost 15 UAE dirhams (US$4) to get out of UAE by the northern border at Dara, then 150 dirhams (US$40) for insurance for our rental car, then 50 dirhams (US$14) to enter Oman, which surprised me because I thought a visa was US$50. Maybe other borders are different. It took over an hour to come back to UAE; there were a ton of us foreigners returning from our day trips.
     The boat trip leaving from Khasab cost 100 dirhams (US$28) per person, but shop around in town to get that price. I never saw an Omani rial in Oman. We paid for everything in UAE dirhams at a rate of 10 dirhams to 1 rial, which I have never checked to see if it was rapacious or not.
     In Dubai you can’t get on a bus without first buying a prepaid stored value card, which they don’t sell on the bus. Los Angeles is the same way now, I believe. It is anti-traveler, and therefore I instinctively hate such practices. If you buy a metro ticket, however, it serves the same purpose and you can transfer from the metro to a bus for free.
     Bus 43 to Dubai Airport’s Terminal 2 took an hour to come where normally it should come every 25 minutes. It really isn’t far to walk, I realized, when the bus finally did come. Next time I am hoofing it.
     Again, as I mentioned last time, if you fly out of Dubai airport but didn’t enter through Dubai airport, don’t stand in line to get your passport exit stamp; you have to go to a side office for that.
     I have no recommendations for accommodation in Dubai, I am happy to report. I was lucky to have a couple of friends that I could stay with that I will publicly praise: Claire, who let me stay with her last time through Hospitality Club, which is now the MySpace version of CouchSurfing, and Josefine, a friend I met in Netherlands. I should also mention or else she will put a hex on me that I had a very nice time over coffee with Anjaly and her husband, Nitin. Dubai is a great place to have friends, in case you were unsure.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Wadi Rum and the Falling Bread of Petra, Jordan

siq golf

     Ah yes, here it is, the classic Petra scene of the treasury as seen through the narrow Siq gorge with the traditional golf cart in the foreground. Timeless.

     Petra and Wadi Rum! I don’t need to sell anyone on it, right? There’s already a well-established reason people go there. It’s a world class combo destination. Throw in a dip in the Dead Sea, maybe the Roman ruins of Jerash if you can’t make it out to Palmyra, Syria, then a day in Aqaba by the Red Sea, and that’s a nice trip right there, that is! Just don’t rest your head at this dive below:
aqaba hotel

     The Jordan Flower Hotel in Aqaba by the Red Sea, the cheapest place in town. There is old, worn, and rundown, and then there is Middle East old, worn, and rundown. I think I saw Lawrence of Arabia’s graffiti behind the bed post. The guys running the place had a fastidious way about them that made us all pretend we were in a five-star hotel instead of a place of untold countless suicides.

dead sea

     I was expecting to be more buoyant in the Dead Sea, but I had a big lunch. That hummus really weighs you down.

petra monastery

     The view of the monastery. Both times I was there I just missed guys jumping along the top of it.

petra ceiling

     The ceiling inside a Petra edifice.

     I went into a bakery in Petra and this transfixed me until I looked closer to see what was going on. The bread is coming off a conveyor belt above the guy’s head. Efficient!

     Did you know Petra was named one of the new seven wonders of the world? Any tourist spot worth their salt wanted to win the voting contest, but for travelers it’s always a losing proposition. Petra used to cost 20 Jordanian dinars ($38) to enter. Now? 50JD (US$70). Locals and Arabs pay 1JD. (Some travelers dedicate themselves to getting into Petra without paying since there are no fences around it. I was sent this link.) That is the price only if you have stayed in Jordan for at least a night. If you are a day tripper from Israel or a cruise ship, you pay 90JD (US$125), if I am not mistaken. A good half million people per year visit, so where does the money go?

petra poster

     It’s odd to see such a poster when tourists pay millions of dollars, and there are plenty of kids selling junk, so why is the government so powerless to stop it?

     It’s a complicated question that no one cares about, so the very short answer is that since the king gets much of his support from the southern tribes, he has a very soft hand when it comes to dealing with them, and he allows Petra as their cash cow. You could say his diplomacy is soft and fine like shifting sands. See what I did there? Sands, cause I’m in the desert? Get it? And I blog for free! I really need to put up a paywall.
     A kid sidled up to me with seven euros in coins in his hand (equal to 5.60 dinars) and tried to sell them to me for seven dinars. First they beg for coins, then they beg to sell you them for more than they are worth. Excuse my Yiddish, kid, but that’s chutzpah.
     $70 is a lot to enter Petra, but I might pay $100 if there was an animal-free day. The horses, donkeys, camels and horse carts, not to mention all the selling, ruin the experience. Well, “ruin” is a strong word, but in the afternoon when you are walking back from a great day, you have to hop around the dung and cover your nose from the smell. Is that the lasting experience Petra wants you to have?
kc wadi rum

     I successfully hitchhiked out of here to the main road, and then I paid-hitchhiked to Petra, neither of which explains my exuberance.

kent wadi rum

     So many photos of me in one blog post! I appear to wear the same clothes every day—on the outside. I do change my undergarments, I want you to know. I even change my diaper occasionally.

king shisha

     King Abdullah is a man of the people!

kent amman

     A rare selfie. I had to document the snow when I came back to Amman. Not pictured: my mesh running shoes. Doh!

PRACTICAL INFORMATION (1 Jordanian dinar = US$1.40)
     I stayed at Saba’a Hotel in Wadi Musa, the town next to Petra. I think it was 8JD for a dorm and 14JD for a single room including heat. A cheaper place up the road, Valentine Inn, is 10JD for a room but charges 3JD for the heat. Since it is off-season and low heat, I didn’t wake up early to go into Petra. I left just in time to stop and get some falafel and hummus sandwiches to take with me inside. A normal bus from Wadi Musa to Amman is 7JD. A government-run JETT bus costs 10JD, I believe.
     The Jordan Flower Hotel in Aqaba is 10JD. I should have bargained, but I did get the whole top floor. The girls in the tourist office were squeamish about recommending it. This woman thought it was great.
     If you find yourself with some free time or it’s late at night and you can’t quite go to sleep, you can read what I wrote on my first visit to Jordan a century ago. I surprised myself rereading the last paragraph where I unload on Israeli travelers.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Feasting like a king at Al Hashem in Amman, Jordan

     Hello from Jordan! This is my third time here. My last visit was four years ago when I spent a week here and then a month in Syria just before it all went to hell. Almost nothing in Amman has changed that I can see.

jordan stamp

     40 Jordanian dinars (US$54) for a visa. 120 dinars (US$162) for a multiple entry visa. You wouldn’t believe what it costs to visit Petra. Jordan isn’t serious about developing tourism.

     I had a funny experience with the police. As you can see above, I am supposed to contact the nearest police station within one month, which I dutifully did because I’m a role model for kids. The guys at the front desk didn’t understand why, so I was sent upstairs to someone superior.
     There was no one around upstairs so I walked around until I saw a meeting and poked my head in, interrupting a group of seven or eight policemen in high spirits about something. They broke up and gathered around to see what I wanted. An officer who spoke English set his glass of tea on the ground to look at my passport. He didn’t understand why I was obliged to stop by either. He asked if I was going to stay in Jordan longer than a month. I said no, and he insisted it wasn’t anything to worry about.
     Someone asked where I was from and I said “America,” and then there was another question, and I realized it wasn’t another policeman in the group talking to me, it was a guy behind them who was locked up in a cell who somehow spoke the best English. I answered his questions, but was consumed by how medieval the cell looked, just a thick sheet of metal with very small holes, the cell not much bigger than he was.
     I asked an officer who the guy was and he said he was in for being drunk. Another officer motioned that I could join him in the cell, which everyone thought was funny. They were all in a good mood, the prisoner included. I asked the officer if he was sure that the drunk guy wasn’t Daesh (the name the Muslim world gives to the Islamic State/ISIS.) which amused them. “No! No! A little much to drink,” the officer assured me. Good times all around.
     All visits to police stations and prisons are memorable, and if you can get a holding cell inside a police station, even better. I remember Moldova in this way.
al hashem sign

     An emotional return to Al Hashem Restaurant, one of my favorites in this cruel and harsh world. It’s a hole-in-the-wall vegetarian place with a small, simple menu.

al hashem meal

     Now this is good eatin’! Three dinars for what amounts to the entire menu: hummus, falafel, fuul, bread, tomatoes and tea, which is US$4.20.

al hashem hummus

     Some Al Hashem hummus. I do have one criticism: they could use less oil and a finer quality oil.

king at hashem

     A 2006 newspaper picture of King Abdullah demonstrating that he is a man of the people by eating at Al Hashem outside next to the street, something unthinkable now that Daesh is after him.

     The other major food in Jordan is shawarma, and on my first visit I saw the biggest shawarma I had ever seen, so ginormous that men on full-size ladders were putting more and more meat on it until it was the size of me. When I returned years later, I made a pilgrimage to it, but times had changed.

     I had forgotten about another of my favorite experiences in Amman, the tiny shop near Al-Hashem selling this sweet called kunafeh. According to wikipedia, it’s also spelled kanafeh, kenafeh, knafeh, kunafeh, knafeh, or kunafah. Thanks wikipedia, thanks for the clarification. It always looks like a methadone clinic on a Monday morning after a long weekend. I’ve never passed by when there weren’t at least a dozen people huddling by the entrance, waiting for their fix. Just under a dollar for a small portion.


     It’s my fault. I did ask for the cheapest cough syrup. Nocuf (get it?) has a taste that is indescribable, the opposite of kunafeh/kanafeh/kenafah…

     From the airport it would appear to be a good strategy to try and go south right away since the highway is nearby and on the southern side of town, but there is zero public transportation heading south and the government-run JETT buses won’t stop. As it is, you are stuck with the 3.25 dinar bus to town, and then if you put your bag underneath, they won’t let you out until you get to distant Tabarbour station. Try and bring your bag on the bus. Reason #54,773 to travel light.
     In Amman I again stayed at Farah Hotel near Al-Hashem. (Al-Hashem really is an institution. Every bus and service taxi driver knows it, helpful in a maze of a town with nary a straight or flat street.) These days it is 10 dinars a night, but now they have heating in the rooms and Naim, who I remembered from my last visit four years ago, gave me my own room. It includes a breakfast I couldn’t get out of. I never pay for breakfast if I can avoid it; 95% of the time it’s overpriced and low quality. That’s a pro tip right there, that is!
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Is Dubai the Singapore of the Middle East?

     Let’s start with a bad photo taken through glass, bad photos being my specialty nowadays:

ski dubai

     My third time in Dubai! The first time I met a Slovenian ski instructor who worked here at Ski Dubai in Mall of the Emirates.

     I was in line at the metro to buy a ticket. A Kenyan girl in the booth was telling off two guys in front of me, “Why are you Pakistanis always trying to cheat?” They appeared to be trying to use a false stored value card. The way she said it made me laugh, and both guys quickly turned to me. It was tense for a second, but the moment passed as they took her haranguing in stride and sauntered off.
     I knew the girl was Kenyan from her sweet, lilting accent and relaxed confidence as she leaned back in her chair to berate the Pakistanis—and because I asked. I ask everyone where they are from. I’m meeting Syrians, Indians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, and so on. No Emiratis. I’m fascinated by a prosperous place where only 14% of the population is local, and in this case, well-hidden. The only Emiratis I interacted with in the United Arab Emirates are the ones who stamped my passport in and out, and I wouldn’t call that quality time.
     Lots of Filipinos here. Someone needs to make a documentary, if there isn’t already one, about Filipinos working abroad and all they experience. Is it naive or ignorant to think that Dubai must be one of the best places to live based on the flimsy fact that dress codes aren’t strict and girls can walk around by themselves?
eat and drink

     Dozens of brainstorming sessions went into this restaurant name.

     I flew to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways. Last year I also flew to Abu Dhabi on Etihad and I got chicken pox. This time I thought I’d be more proactive to ward off illness and I went around the cabin spitting in everyone’s face. Um, actually, I spent time talking with a flight attendant who let me hang out in the back cabin. I mentioned that I tried to convince the airport staff to let me have an empty seat next to me because it was my birthday, but to no avail. Later, he had this cake below brought to me by a Hungarian(!) chef.
etihad cake
     We were talking about how international Etihad’s staff is and he mentioned that since Etihad bought Air Serbia, there has been an influx of Serbians. He went on to say that Romanians used to be the most beautiful flight attendants, but now the title has gone to the Serbians. “They’re taller than me,” he started, but his voice trailed off as maybe a public area wasn’t the place for this conversation, so he merely shook his head in amazement.
fuul variety

     It’s great to be back in the Middle East. I didn’t know there were so many varieties of foul/fuul/ful (mashed fava beans with spices.)

     I only stayed 48 hours in Dubai, and I didn’t get out much in my jet-lagged fog, but I am returning in a couple of weeks. Dubai seems to get a bad rap among travelers, but I am of the mind that Dubai is like Singapore, the best first place to visit in a region. Like Singapore, if it’s your first time, it’s exotic, a rush for the senses, vaguely familiar (but deceptively so) and you only realize how expensive it is when you visit nearby countries. Plus, they both have an (undeserved?) reputation for being fake and soulless.
excess baggage

     If you are down on your luck in Dubai, just go by the airport and take all the stuff that people abandon.

dubai departures

     Now THIS is a departure board. I will feel like a world traveler when A) I have visited half these places (only been to six) and B) I know where all these places are. (I was stumped by Lar and Gassim.) Graydon, what are your numbers?

check in screen

     A check-in kiosk showing how the dregs of world aviation are clustered together at Terminal 2. This is a very formidable quintet of airlines.

saudi circles

     Flying over Saudi Arabia, I noticed these circles. What are they? Something to do with drilling oil?

     flydubai is the discount airline of Dubai—I saw Dubai-Zanzibar $264 round trip in two weeks; I am thinking about it—and uses forgotten Terminal 2. The cheapest way to get there is take the green metro to Abu Hail and then bus 43, but it only goes every 20-30 minutes. You could walk from the metro to Terminal 2 if isn’t too hot.
     Don’t stand in line at immigration if you I flew into Abu Dhabi, a different Emirate, and out of Dubai. There is a side office you have to go where they will stamp you.
     The Dubai metro doesn’t open on Fridays until 1pm. I discovered this the hard way, but a friendly Indian guy guarding the station gave me a ride closer to town, a very nice re-introduction to Dubai.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

A pictorial of Filipino homemade basketball baskets and streetlights

     Filipinos are masters of improvisation. Here is the proof basketball-wise:
     Every time I see ingenuity like these streetlights below I think of how many millions are given for international aid for necessities like this when it can be done so cheaply with homegrown ideas. I don’t know how these fare in rainy season, but there has to be a lesson in here somewhere.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

In praise of the Philippines (despite the food)

     The amazing thing about traveling is how much of a full life has been compressed into my one little month away. The engine fire feels like ages ago. It does feel like living in the grandest sense.
     I left the Philippines on the 30th day of my 30-day visa. Why is Philippines only offering 30-day visas? Do they want tourists or not? It’s a simple question. You have this vast archipelago with iffy transport and tourists only see a thin slice of it before they are forced to pack up and leave or buy an expensive-ish extension.
     Nobody comes to the Philippines anyway. Why is it a poor cousin to Thailand? On Thailand travel forums everyone is obsessed with finding the best, uncrowded beach, but that was last century; Thailand is saturated. It’s all been discovered. It’s over. There are great beaches, but you don’t go for your Robinson Crusoe experience. The Philippines, however, has endless little islands to explore with enough coves and beaches to satisfy anyone, and it will for a long time.
     I extol the virtues of the Philippines to everyone, but if someone comes and they get eaten by mosquitoes, freak out at seatless toilets, witness the poverty, and take too much time to become numb over bothersome things, then I can see why my excitement isn’t matched. And that’s before they try the food.

weight control

     Weight control? We need to talk.

nutrition for kids

     Nutrition?! No, really, we must discuss this.

     I was going to write a whole blog post about the food. I can’t let it go. I love the Philippines, but the food, let’s say, disappoints. It wouldn’t be fair of me to let it go unmentioned and therefore the country become idealized. I can sum it up in one sentence: nearly everything is overly fatty or overly sweet, even things that aren’t meant to be, such as spaghetti. Homemade food, when you can get it, is the best, and I am still discovering regional dishes such as tinumkan in Panay, which is mashed shrimp with coconut wrapped in a small leaf, but these are the exceptions.
     The Philippines is still a Top 10 country. Why would I come five times if I didn’t like it? (Wait, scratch that. I’ve been to India five times and it still makes me crazy.) The people are absolutely wonderful. I just wish I didn’t dread meals which is the opposite feeling I have for every other country in the region. It’s advantageous that I have a high tolerance for eating the same food every day, because there are only a few sure things to gravitate to such as fish and roast chicken. (Is this a bad time to mention that this is the only country where I have knowingly and willingly eaten dog? It is? Sorry. Let’s move on.)
     I guess the inconvenient truth is that the Philippines is a mirror image of America in many ways: the junk food, the sweets, the soft drinks at meals, the obsession with dubious supplements as waistlines expand, and a good time is shuffling around at a mall.
     We interrupt this rant to show actual jobs that Filipinos are applying for overseas:
no short butchers

     No short butchers!

tea boys job

     Really? We need to bring people a quarter of the way around the world to be tea boys?

couple job

     Has to be one of the easiest job descriptions to fill.

bakery job

     Two years experience making juice. You can be a married assistant cook, but no married waiters!

tips and toes

     Who knew Oman has so many needs?

tennis coach job

     You really should pass the exam and interview. Hey, wait a minute, I want to be a tennis coach assistant in Oman! What’s with the age discrimination? What 23-year-old is going to have six years experience?

     In the Philippines I am going to miss going into the street markets and having someone shout, “What are you looking for?”
     I would quickly say, “Love”, and then there would be a small commotion as they come up with women to matchmake for me.
manila dirty river

     My brain might be going to seed, but Manila seems a little more tolerable this time around. I kind of miss seeing garbage-swollen rivers and armed guards at donut shops. I already miss the people.

lady bedspacer

     A bedspacer is someone sharing a dorm room. That’s cheap. I pay 400 pesos for one night. I wonder what it looks like.

usps box

     Thought about making a citizen’s arrest to reclaim this in the name of Barack Obama. Decided not to.

     My heel had been hurting so I participated in some medical tourism at a clinic in Makati I found on the internet. Only supermodels seemed to be allowed to work the reception, which is an interesting business model. I saw Dr. Manuel Pecson for an 856-peso consultation fee. A Pinay friend thought that was high, but compared to USA, that’s crazy-cheap, and isn’t it worth a few pesos to observe the professionalism of the staff while you wait to see the good doctor?
     I should have brought a stopwatch as I think it took 23.2 seconds for the doctor to say I had plantar fasciitis. I’m a tad skeptical, but I will do the exercises he suggests and then come back for many more visits to the office for checkups.
     In Manila I stayed at the place I always end up, Pension Natividad. The only reason it isn’t more popular is that you can’t book online. 400 pesos for a dorm bed, the most I have spent in the country, but they have…ready for this? A HOT SHOWER! Hurray! I went a solid month without a hot shower. I went days without seeing myself in a mirror, which isn’t a pretty sight in the best of times.
     The Manila airport terminal fee is finally included in the price of an international airline ticket if it was bought after Feb 1. If you bought your ticket before then, you still need to pay 550 pesos after check in.
manila sunset

     Pretty Manila sunset. Take that, Boracay!

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

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