Monthly Archives: March 2009

731 Days Later: My 2 Year Travelversary

Posted by on March 13, 2009

It was 2 years ago today, March 13, 2007, that I closed on my house, handed over the keys and began what I mark as the start of my adventure. While I didn’t technically leave the mainland United States till about a month afterward and still had many details to take care of, this date marks the point of no return and is the one I choose to commemorate.

Last night I was walking back to my hostel and I realized something. I was walking down a side street in a foreign land, exotic music playing (there was some sort of celebration going on), smells of grilled meat in the air, old men on the sidewalk smoking their shishas and drinking tea, and women walking about in their hijabs. This was exactly the sort of scene that people dream of being in when traveling. I really didn’t notice. It was just another day for me.

When I began my trip, I was like everyone else who dreamed of traveling. I read books and websites, I made lists, and I awaited for the day to arrived. I spent about six months with my house on the market before it sold. Eventually, everything came together. I found a buyer, found storage, rented a truck for all my crap, got rid of somethings and sold other things. The night before I closed on my house I didn’t sleep because I grossly underestimated the number of boxes I’d need for some things. I had to move the excess stuff to a nearby motel so I could be out in time. I was very tired.

Having previously moved all my stuff to a storage unit near my parents house in Wisconsin (I lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota) I drove to Wisconsin to stay with them for a few weeks while I took care of final business: getting shots, buying bags and clothes, and taking care of insurance. I really didn’t do any packing or actual preparation until I was out of my house. I did everything in about 2 weeks.

I get many questions from people about how to this or that when traveling. The answer to all questions is to just jump in and swim. When you are in a new place where you do not speak the language, you will be forced to figure things out. You really can’t plan for it. At first you might be apprehensive, but eventually you realize that you can get by and many of your worst fears will not pan out. The things you see on the news are not the reality on the street and no matter where you go, it is just full of people going about their lives just like anywhere else.

I am also often asked what I’ve learned while traveling. I’ve given this some thought. Here is what I’ve come up with:

  • I can remember almost everything from the last two years. I can usually pinpoint to within a day or two where I was or when something happened. There are entire events I can’t even peg to the correct year from before I left. Everything sort of blurs together when you do the same thing every day of your life. I’ve have moments where I’ll stare out in space just because I end up with a flood of memories which were spurred by something I just experienced. What I’ve written about on this site is only a fraction of what I’ve done and seen.
  • I’m pretty sure I can do anything. Not that I suffered from a lack of confidence or anything before I left, but when you spend two full years with nothing by your own wits and no one else to fall back on, I can’t say I’m too worried about the future.
  • I don’t worry about little things. I see many people on vacation who flip out over very simple things. Incorrect change, miss communication, etc. I don’t get worked up over things I have no control over. (the only exception is the delay in getting my new website up because my web designers decide to just cease communication with me for weeks at a time). I had to spend a week in Samoa once because I missed my flight to Tonga. Oh well.
  • What you see on TV is a lie. The news media likes to sell sensationalism. Boring doesn’t sell. Most of the world is boring. It is people going about the business of living. The result is that people are terrified of places they only know about from the bad news on TV. Murders and disasters in their backyard as dismissed, but the same things elsewhere are exaggerated. Even in war zones, if you do the math, the odds of anything happening to you would be well less than 1%.

So what does the future hold for me?

I am often asked how long I’ll be traveling for. The answer I’m giving is: forever. I have every intention of making this into a career. That doesn’t mean I’ll be on the road non-stop for the rest of my life, but do plan on keeping this site and what I’m doing going indefinitely. I’ve begun talking to several book publishers and have a fairly solid plan for what I’m going to be writing. I also will be opening up my photography for sales in the near future. I also hope to be doing speaking engagements once I get back to the US.

I will not be gone for two years stretches at a time anymore. I’m planning on taking 3-5 month trips to different countries and regions like China, India, Russia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Those trips would be huge trips for most people, but having done this trip, I think I could do 3 months standing on my head. Doing shorter trips will allow me to focus more on taking photos and video and processing it all when I’m doing. Currently, I have to process everything on the road.

I’m also interested in timing my trips to coincide with certain events. I have been traveling without real thought to when I’ll be in a place. I’d like to go be in Rio for Carnival, I’d like to be in Spain for the running of the bulls.

I will also travel with someone else and do more video and podcasting. I’ve put this on hold until I can do it properly. I don’t see any point in doing something half-assed on a schedule I can’t keep. Expect a few podcasts to dribble out in Europe if I can find someone to help with the camera work. I have no idea who I’ll travel with. On Twitter I made a joke about doing something like the “Worlds Best Job” contest but make it the “Worlds Worst Job” because you’d have to travel with me :) Surprisingly, my joke got a lot of serious responses.

I’m also going to explore North America. The more of the world I see the more I realize that there are a lot of amazing things to see next door. I plan on taking a road trip out west sometime this summer and visit Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, both of which I’ve never been to. I’d also like to spend more than a day in Yellowstone, which is all I’ve been able to see of the park.

The final thing I want to do is to meet with more people while I’m on the road. As more and more people discover me and what I’m doing, the greater the number of people I can meet while traveling. I could have met up with many people in Japan or the Philippines if I had only known about them when I was there. A second trip to those countries would be a totally different experience now.

As for the next few months, I’m undecided as to what I’m going to do. My initial plan was to get back to the US sometime around March/April after going through Europe. Clearly that isn’t going to happen. I still want to spend 3-4months in the US before setting out again later in 2009. It will be a matter of how much of Europe I want to go through before I do that. I’m considering going to London directly from Rome and leave most of Europe for a future trip.

So that is my rambling annual State of the Trip report. I thank everyone for following along and for all the emails and messages I get everyday. I do appreciate it.

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.

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, 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 122. 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 878 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.