Monthly Archives: March 2009

How many countries have you been to?

Posted by on March 11, 2009

I was in the tiny nation of Nauru for about an hour, in the middle of the night.  This is my only photo.

I was in the tiny nation of Nauru for about an hour, in the middle of the night. This is my only photo.

If you have traveled heavily, you have probably tried to convey the extent of your travels by condensing it down to a single number. It might be the number of countries you’ve visited or the number of states or provinces in your country you have been to.

Answering the question “how many countries have you been to?” is not as straight forwards as it may appear. While many places are obvious, the definition can sometimes be slippery and broader than you might think.

The United Nations

A good place to start any list of countries is with the UN. The United Nations is body of 192 sovereign, independent nation states. This covers everything you probably first think of as a country. Canada, Bolivia, Germany, Botswana, Malaysia, etc. Most of the big spots on the map can be filled in with countries which are members of the United Nations. The only country which is generally recognized as an independent nation but is not in the UN would be Vatican City, which has observer status at the UN. That would put the list at 193.

I was in Kiribati for several hours. I was denied entry into the country because the ink on my visa stamp bled

This was all I saw of Kiribati. I was denied entry into the country because the ink on my visa stamp bled.

The UN doesn’t cover everything, however. If you watched the opening ceremony at the Olympics, you will have noticed that over 200 countries were represented. 200 is greater than 193, and the Vatican doesn’t have an Olympic team (but it would be kind of cool if it did). This leads us to…

International Olympic Committee

There are 205 members of the IOC. The difference between the UN and the IOC is that the IOC includes several non-independent countries which are usually considered a territory of a larger country. This includes such places as Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Cook Island and the British Virgin Islands. The IOC also includes Taiwan (known in the IOC as Chinese Taipei) which is not a member of the UN.

If you merge the list of the UN and the IOC, you still have some issues. Hong Kong is part of the IOC, but Macau isn’t. American territories have independent status in the IOC, but French territories such as French Polynesia do not. Antarctica isn’t represented on either list, but it is an entire continent you can visit. We need a bigger list.

There is also another problem. The United States has 50 states, but there are obvious differences between Hawaii and Kansas. Not only are Alaska and Hawaii geographically separate from the rest of the US, but they have different histories and cultures than the rest of the country. If you have been to Hawaii, have you been to the United States? In a certain sense yes. Hawaii is one of the 50 states. In another sense, no, going to Hawaii isn’t the same as going to Kansas. In countries like Indonesia, you have thousands of islands which cover many different ethnic groups and languages. Is going to Vladivostok the same as going to St. Petersburg? Not really.

I was in Macau for about 12 hours, but did manage to see most of the territory in that time

I was in Macau for about 12 hours, but did manage to see most of the territory in that time

Travel isn’t just setting foot in political jurisdictions. Cultural and geographic distinctions are important as well, even if they are lumped in the same political entity. To solve this issue, enter….

The Travelers Century Club

The Travelers Century Club has taken it upon themselves to create a definitive list of “countries” for the purpose of travel. They not only include all of the above places, but also split off Alaska and Hawaii, Siberia from the rest of Russia, all the Emirates in the United Arab Emirates, the major island groups of Indonesia, the nations of the UK (England, Scotland and Wales), Tasmania and the rest of Australia, etc. Their list has 319 “countries”, and I put countries in quotes because most of them do not meet most people’s definition of a country.

This is the list I use on my website. I think it is a reasonable list which is covers most of the “places” on Earth. I do have some disagreements, but ultimately any list is sort of arbitrary and my disagreements are small enough that I still feel comfortable using it. Every so often I get an email from someone telling me that Hawaii isn’t a country (duh) or reminding me that Tasmania is part of Australia. I know that, but that isn’t really capturing the spirit of the list.

Where do you go once you’ve been to every place on the TCC list? That was answered by Charles Veley and…

Musandam, Oman is on the MTP list, but not the TCC list.

Musandam, Oman is on the MTP list, but not the TCC list.

MostTraveledPeople.com

Charles Veley is the self proclaimed “Most traveled person on Earth”. Actually, I have no reason to quibble with that title. He put in a helluva lot of effort into completing the TCC list and then set out for more. His website, MostTraveledPeople.com goes every further than the TCC and lists every US state, Canadian province, and region of Russia, Australia, China, and Brazil. It also goes the added step of merging the ham radio DXCC list, which is where the list begins to lose me. They list 757 places, of which I’ve been to 341 (as of 2016). A large number of the places they list I have no desire to ever visit. It focuses too much on uninhabited islands, exclaves and enclaves. For example, it lists Johnson Atoll, which is a territory of the United States in the Pacific. There is nothing special about this place. No one ever lived there. It has no history, culture, or anything interesting about it from a natural standpoint. It is just a place which is only remarkable because of its odd political status. If it were given to Hawaii, nothing about the atoll itself would change, but it would probably be removed from the list. There are a bunch of these rocks in the middle of nowhere which get listed. I really see no reason why every speck of island in the world doesn’t deserve listing if these places do. It might be interesting for ham radio operators to talk to someone from there, but as a travel destination, it isn’t worth anything.

To me, a place is a place because it has some significance. It could be political (see the UN list), it could be cultural, historic, or natural. That is why in my sidebar I also list:

Visiting Historic Nara isnt the same as same as just stepping foot in Japan

Visiting Historic Nara isn't the same as same as just stepping foot in Japan

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

There are 1,031 World Heritage Sites and there are more every year. Going to see the pyramids is different than just having set foot in Egypt. Seeing the Grand Canyon is different than having an overnight stay in LA. Not all countries are equal in that respect. Some countries with long histories have more sites than others. The US and Canada do not have much in the way of cultural sites compared to Italy or China. Ultimately I like this better than a country list because it represents specific things and places with a reason for each one. Also, unlike countries, you usually don’t just pass through a World Heritage site like you might pass through a country on a train or in an airport. If you visit one you probably went there to see it. The problem is most people have no clue how many they have been to and have no idea how many there are. They are also much more difficult to visit. Going to the Solomon Islands is one type of difficult. Going to the east end of Rennell Island World Heritage site is a totally different type of hard.

I should also make note of one other list which is sort of fun….

The Hillman Wonders of the World

Howard Hillman is a writer who has compiled a list of the top 100 and top 1,000 wonders of the world. I’ve decided to put this on my sidebar as well because I think it is a fun list. It is in the same spirit as the World Heritage list, but includes things like city skylines, cruises and drives. I think seeing the skyline of Hong Kong from Kowloon was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, but it will never be on a UNESCO list. I have currently been to 27 of the top 100 and should increase that significantly in the next year.

So, once again I ask you the question: How many countries have you been to?

Final Thoughts on Dubai

Posted by on March 10, 2009

Burj al Arab is the best known landmark in Dubai

Burj al Arab is the best known landmark in Dubai

To say that Dubai is unique would be an understatement. To capture what is going on in Dubai you have to realize that the amount of growth and construction which Dubai has seen in the last 10 years is probably without precedent in human history. While many cities have undergone construction booms, there are few times where a city so large has sprang up from nothing. Even in cases where planned city has been created by a emperor or pharaoh, they didn’t have the construction techniques available today. A city like Shanghai which has experienced tremendous growth in the past decade has been a major city for over a hundred years. Planned cities like Brasilia, Canberra or Washington took much longer to create much less. Modern Dubai was born fully formed from the desert.

I initially compared Dubai to Las Vegas. The similarities are obvious; a new city with lots of construction which emerged from nothing out of the desert. However, the analogy is superficial at best. If you have been to Vegas a few times, you can probably name all the major construction projects in the past decade. Many of the new casinos have replaced old ones, which were the original buildings on the space now occupied. It is almost impossible to count the buildings which have been constructed and are being constructed in Dubai. All of the Vegas strip could easily be contained in any of the numerous large scale city projects underway in Dubai.

Lots and lots and lots of cranes in Dubai

Lots and lots and lots of cranes in Dubai

Before I arrived in Dubai, I had heard that 25% of all the construction cranes in the world were in Dubai. From my window I could count about 25 in the Downtown Dubai area near the Burj Dubai. I figured it was an exaggeration. As I explored more of Dubai, I had a hard time believing just what I was seeing. There were probably 50 cranes in just the Palm Jurmeiah area. (The Palm is a giant artificial island off the shore of Dubai which can be seen from space. It is the smallest of three planned Palm projects). On the way to Oman I saw many other construction projects which had anywhere from 8-12 cranes. To give you an idea, I probably didn’t see more than 3 cranes in Jakarta and Manilla combined. Most of the other large cities I’ve been in didn’t have many cranes either. Melbourne, Sydney, Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong may have had some new buildings in the works, but those usually only require a crane or two. The closest I’ve seen in terms of construction (and it isn’t even close) was Macau.

Dubai is a city of contradictions. One one hand, people and goods probably flow more freely in Dubai than anywhere else on Earth. The immigration process at the airport was the easiest I’ve encountered in the world. I didn’t even have to fill out an immigration/customs card. The many free zones in Dubai are perhaps the purest form of capitalism in the world. Almost nothing in the way of regulation with a small, efficient government which will bend over backwards to make sure what needs to get done will get done. There are no personal or corporate income taxes in free zones.

Prior to the discover of oil, Dubai was a trading center centered around the creek

Prior to the discover of oil, Dubai was a trading center centered around the creek

On the other hand, they censor the internet. In addition to things like pornography sites (which I can at least understand even if I disagree with it), they blocked Flickr and I’ve been told in the past they have blocked Twitter, YouTube, and other innocuous sites. A British woman was recently found guilty of adultery and was sentenced to three months in prison. One man was recently imprisoned for having an amount of marijuana on his shoe the size of a grain of sand. (Did you know that there are minute traces of cocaine is almost all US currency? If you take drug laws to that absurd level, almost anyone with a dollar bill is a guilty of possession of drugs. Silly I know, but can you prove you don’t have some tiny trace of drugs stuck to the bottom of your shoe?)

As an American, I am always a bit suspicious of monarchies. When you read a newspaper report that talks about the monarch in glowing terms, you can’t help but roll your eyes. A good example of that is what you see in Brunei. I saw several things like that, including the front page of the sports section of the newspaper which had story dedicated to a victory by the Emir in an endurance horse racing competition in Bahrain. Yet, Dubai didn’t happen by accident. Modern Dubai was a purposeful, planned creation of the Dubai ruling family going back almost 50 years. Oil was discovered in the mid-60’s in Dubai, and there wasn’t much of it. Unlike more countries who’s rules squander the revenue brought in by oil, Dubai invested the oil revenue to prepare for the day when there wouldn’t be any oil. It was bold, risky and brilliant. One of the best quotes I’ve read about Dubai came from Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who said

“My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel”

Once you leave the city, it is nothing but sand

Once you leave the city, it is nothing but sand

I’ve read several books on Dubai since I arrived and based on everything I’ve read the current ruler of Dubai, Sheik Mohammad bid Rasheed al Maktoum is actually a pretty smart guy and knows what is in tune with what is going on in Dubai. The problem with monarchies is it only takes one generation to destroy a dynasty. Even if he and the crown prince and safely navigate Dubai for the next several decades, it only takes one grandson or great-grandson to screw everything up.

There has been a great deal of effort to turn Dubai into a tourist destination. For the most part they have focused on the ultra-high end market. You are lucky to find a hotel room for under $100/night, with most hotels going many times beyond that. All the malls I visited were focused on high end luxury brands. The fact is, there isn’t much to see or do in Dubai as a tourist other than shop. There are beaches, but honestly, if I wanted to go to the beach, I can think of a hundred places I’d rather go than Dubai. Witnessing all the construction is pretty neat, but that will disappear in a few years. While in Dubai, I didn’t meet many Arabs. I saw them at the mall and driving cars, but I can’t say I had an interaction with any Emaratis outside of the creek area and the Gold Souq. Every person you interact with in hotels, restaurants, stores and taxis are either Filipino or South Asian.

Dubai skyline at night

Dubai skyline at night

I was pretty excited about Dubai when I arrived and when I left I was more than ready to leave. I didn’t have a negative or bad experience, it was just sort of lukewarm. It is like a large American city in many respects. You have to drive to get anywhere, there are tons of malls and subdivision projects. There are planned meet and greets where you can talk to local Emarati, but the fact that you have to go to a concocted event to do that is rather telling. With the exception of signs in Arabic, you could easily think you were in a western country.

Should you visit Dubai? The only reason I can see visiting to Dubai right now is to witness the spectacle which is the construction boom. It is something unprecedented in history and will probably be over in 5-10 years. It is pretty cool. They have plans for a Disney World type attraction — DubaiLand — but I’d wait and see if they can really pull that off. If seeing a bunch of buildings and construction cranes doesn’t interest you, then Dubai probably isn’t for you. My recommendation: fly into Dubai, spend 2-3 days there and then go visit Oman.

Luxor and Celiacs Disease

Posted by on March 9, 2009

I’ve arrived in Luxor. Today I was planning on visiting the Luxor and Karnak Temples. Instead I spent the entire day in my room sleeping. I felt horrible this morning. The cough I had gotten in Alexandria came back with a vengeance and to 20 hour days in a row wiped me out. Outside of eating a light lunch, I didn’t leave my room until 7pm. I’m still not 100% but I’m much better than I was in the morning. I’m still really tired and will probably sleep well tonight.

I also think with 95% certainty that I have Celiacs Disease which is probably one of the reasons I feel horrible right now. Despite the dramatic name, Celiacs is just an inability to process the gluten protein in wheat. I’ve been having serious stomach pains for years and I never knew what the cause was. Sometimes the pain would be so sharp in my stomach I couldn’t sleep. Eventually it would pass as the food worked its way though my body. I knew it was dietary but I always thought it was eggs or dairy or something. When I came across the symptoms of Celiacs Disease it fit perfectly.

I hadn’t had stomach pains for months while I was in Asia but they came back with a vengeance when I arrived in Dubai. I hadn’t been eating much wheat in Asia and now I was in a place that had lots of bread. I changed my diet to see if this was the case. I removed all wheat from my diet for several weeks and the symptoms disappeared. I felt great. When I did eat small amounts of bread I’d feel things going on in my digestive track. Last night for the first time in months I had a beer and ate some crumb cake and some chicken with breading. That was enough to set it off.

It really sort of sucks for traveling. It means no flat bread in the Middle East, no pasta in Italy, no bread in France and no fish and chips in the UK (the batter on the fish). It also eliminates most desserts, all sandwiches, beer, many fried foods and even gravy because it has flour in it. It is something I’ll have to do for the rest of my life or deal with the abdominal consequences, which you really don’t want me to go into here. Potatoes and rice are fine as are all vegetables and animal products.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say there wasn’t some benefits to this diet. Removing most fried foods, hamburgers and desserts is probably a good thing. The only things I can really eat in most fast food restaurants now are salads and french fries.

Tomorrow I have to leave the boat and will be moving to a hostel and I hope will get to visit Luxor and Karnak. The day after I’ll go check out the valley of the kings.

Now that I am a disease sufferer, you should cast a pity vote for me in the 2009 Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards. I am nominated in the Best Travelogue and Best Image Blog category. It only takes a few seconds and there is no registration. Think of it as something like a “make-a-wish” program for a blogger.

Aswan

Posted by on March 6, 2009

I seriously wish I had left Cairo sooner and come to Aswan. It is cleaner, not nearly as busy, you aren’t accosted as much, and it is much warmer. I have actually gotten some of my tan back and was able to wear shorts and sandals for the first time in two months.

I’ve been very busy since I arrived. After a 14 hour overnight train ride from Cairo, where I barely slept, within a few hours I was on a bus going to see the Aswan High Dam and the Philae Temple. The dam wasn’t as impressive as I thought it would be. It is a big dam and its significance being on the Nile makes it really important, but it wasn’t much to look at. Soviet construction seldom is.

Philae Temple was very impressive, however. It was moved piece by piece in 1977-80 by UNESCO after having been flooded by the original Aswan Low dam in 1902. Unlike the pyramids, Philae had all the trapping of what you expect from Egypt. Hieroglyphs and carvings of Pharaohs. The temple didn’t just show signs of ancient Egyptians. All of the images of humans had by carved over by Coptic Christians in the 4th century. You can still see crosses in the stone and an altar inside the temple. When Napoleon invaded, he had academics go to Philae and carve a large inscription into the wall in French. There are also tons of 19th Century British graffiti carved in everything.

Yesterday I wasn’t planning on doing anything because I was still tired from the train ride and had to wake up extremely early the next day to go to Abu Simbel. I ended up with an offer for a free faluca trip on the Nile, so I grabbed my camera and went. There was no wind, so we took forever to cross the river. I took the opportunity to take the zip-off legs off my pants and get some sun. I got the explore the very crowded botanical garden for about 30 min before we switched boats and went to Elephantine Island. Unfortunately, it took so long to cross the river, by the time we got there it was closed. Oh well, you get what you pay for.

This morning I woke up at 2:45am to go to Abu Simbel. It is 275km from Aswan and you have to leave with every other bus in the city in a big caravan. This is done to reduce the risk of kidnappings in the largely desolate stretch between Aswan and Abu Simbel. Arriving there in the morning was like being at the Disneyland when the gates opened. There were hundreds of people there. Like Philae, Abu Simble was moved from its previous location because it would have been flooded by the waters of Lake Nassar.

Between everything I saw I probably took close to 400 photos. It is going to take a while to get through everything.

Tomorrow I’m taking a cruise aboard a ship from Aswan to Luxor, with stops at several temples along the way. From everything everyone has told me, the temples at Luxor are really the best in Egypt. I will need to set aside some time after Luxor to go through my photos. I’ll have a lot and I don’t want to get too far behind. Because of the quality of the internet connection in Aswan, I did manage to upload all my photos from the Gulf, so I got that going for me.