Ok… last post for the trip. In a way I’m kind of glad because, unlike Cameron, I’m actually anxious to get back to real life and resume working on some things I’m excited about and love working on :-O

We did two things in Fiji – the first day and a half we spent hiking at a national park and the next five and a half days we spent cruising around the western Fiji islands on a Catamaran. Minus our thrashed feet, the hiking was actually pretty cool. We stayed at a lodge (more like a cabin but…) near a native village. A guy from the village took us on a hike up to the second highest point in Fiji, which we were told was 750M (2500 ft.) above sea level. It was a pretty tough hike actually – insanely steep in few places. The view was worth it though as you can see in the photos. When we got back, we had a good swim/bath in a swimming hole in the local river and a family from the village made us a nice dinner. Only negative was that both of us did the hike in sandals and my feet have only just recovered over a week later.

So if you’re thinking that the catamaran gig sounds like just lounging around on a boat on crystal blue waters, eating catered food and exploring pristine deserted islands… you’re pretty much right on. It was a nice way to end the trip. The captain/owner of the boat is a swiss guy named Valentino who uses the business the pay for a pretty nice lifestyle. The boat is an older one, so the charter was a lot cheaper than you might imagine. From Nadi, we went to the west side of the Yasawa chain, north to near the top of the chain, and then back.

Most days were pretty much the same – break anchorage and read/relax for a few hours then anchor at a new place and snorkel/scuba/explore the area. The weather was almost perfect for the duration of our trip despite being about a month into the cyclone season. Valentino’s cooking was pretty incredible and he didn’t try to overfeed us. We went fishing one night and I caught a medium-sized trevally which he made a beautiful meal out of. The snorkeling/scuba was pretty nice in most places. We didn’t see anything super exciting but we saw some bigger fish and Cameron saw a turtle. Having been newly enlightened on freediving from our time in Dahab, we did some practicing from the boat. Cameron got down to 20M or maybe a little more. I couldn’t clear my ears below about 15m which was probably the result of mild cold. One of the islands we explored for a while was apparently used for a 2007 season of Survivor, although it might have been a non-US version of it.

So… that’s about it. Trip’s over. Just like the trip to the Arctic Ocean that I did a few years ago, I’m really glad I went. When I’m working I tend to be intense and not take much vacation, but I increasingly think it’s important to take a truly mind/life-clearing vacation every now and then. So.. thanks for following us around – hope at least some of it was interesting. I’ve got a project I’m really interested in that I’m going to put my heart into for the next several months, but I’d still like to keep this blog active I think, so check back every now and then if you want.

One of my greatest hopes for this trip is that I would get a little bit more insight into the lives, opportunities, and challenges of people in developing nations (I hate the 3rd world moniker). I think I now understand vastly more than I did but I’ve only just touched the tip of the iceberg. Most people in developing nations that we encountered thought that Americans were walking bags of cash, and it got pretty annoying after a while. While most Americans don’t have as much disposable cash as imagined, our life style is richer than most people in developing nations can understand. Not infrequently, people would ask us questions about what America was like that illustrated this (like “does America have a lot of paved roads?”). Over the course of our trip, I compiled a list of benefits we enjoy as residents in the US that we frequently take for granted. Here’s that list with some commentary:

  1. Availability of credit: This is a huge one. People talk about our massive dependence on, and abusive of, the consumer credit system in the US. It’s a problem. But ever wonder where we’d be without it? In many of the poorest countries, consumer credit is either non-existent or in infancy. Especially in Cameroon and Bolivia, there are essentially no credit facilities – no credit cards, which means no credit history, which means no way a lender can qualify you for a car, home, or small business loan. Even in some of the more developed nations like Egypt and Turkey, systems to provide mortgages to consumers are still immature. The lack of easy credit facilities provides an immense roadblock to entrepreneurs on any scale as well as to individuals who would like to buy a car, pay for an education, or make some other investment in their lives.
  2. Lack of ethnic conflict: This is a biggish one. I had an epiphany on my trip regarding the uniqueness of the US in the world with regard to ethnic conflict. The vast majority of nations on the earth are either ethnically homogenous, or are comprised of a number of clearly defined ethnic groups. In many of those nations, the nation is a relative newcomer on the scene and individuals think of themselves first in terms of their ethnic group and only secondarily as a member of their nation. This situation frequently leads to bloody conflict. Many of Iraq’s problems stem from this circumstance, as did the war in the Balkans, as has the bloodshed in most African conflicts. It’s a real problem in many nations. But in the USA, we have very little ethnic conflict. Yes… there is some racial tension, but it’s not the kind that leads to war and it seems to improve with every generation. The reason? 99% of the population of the US is non-indengenous. We are all immigrants who have decided at some level to break ties with our native ethnic groups and join a new nation.
  3. A developed highway system: Today, we take the superb US Interstate system, and the billions it took to build, largely for granted. Four of the seven nations we visited had paved roads between 2-4 major cities, with dirt roads everywhere else. Besides the comfort factor, dirt roads means that the road system – and the associated areas of the economy – can essentially be shut down during extended inclement weather. It’s a massive inhibitor to the economies of these nations. Remember that nearly every physical thing you buy sits on a truck before it gets to you.
  4. Drinking Water: The US has has potable drinking water from the tap for a long time and I hardly think about it at all. In contrast, you may safely drink the tap water in only two of the seven countries we visited. To get potable water for drinking or cooking, you have to buy bottled water at roughly $1 for a 1.5L bottle (price was mostly consistent everywhere). Often the very poor people can’t afford the water on a regular basis and so use unsafe water and assume the associated consquences.
  5. Relatively uncorrupt government officials: We do hear from time to time about a bribed congressman or some similar corruption, but governmental corruption is a pervasive hope-sucking reality in at least 5 of the 7 countries we visited. People in these countries see multi-million dollar bribes going to a handful of wealthy government-connected officials, they get regularly harassed by the underpaid police who learn bribery from their bosses and bosses bosses, and all this trickles down to the cab driver who will blatantly take a naïve tourist for all he can. This is a difficult thing to change in a country without a functional democracy and it was clear to us that this is one of the single biggest obstacles to progress in developing countries.
  6. Health care availability: Everyone knows we have, for the most part, excellent doctors in the US and a broken healthcare system. But in a lot of places there’s virtually no healthcare system. If you get a life threatening illness in rural Cameroon (appendicitis for example), chances are pretty good that you’re going to die.
  7. Affordable motorized transport: In all countries that we visited, the majority of working adults cannot afford motorized transport. This has a myriad of implications. In Cameroon, a significant economic boom occurred in the major cities when a Chinese company started selling an ultra-cheap 100cc motorcycle. It meant that people could commute on a low-cost two-wheeled taxi service to a job further away than they could ride a bike, it practically revolutionized inter-business trading and supply chains, and even the rural villages gained some freedom from mercernary middle-men by purchasing a village motorcycle for trips into town.
  8. Care for the disabled: I believe the US spends over 2 bilion each year educating our disabled. Billions more are spent on medical care, job-training programs, and other services. We have laws that force most critical services to accommodate those with common disabilities. Most of the countries we visited don’t have even the vestiges of a welfare system for the severely disabled. If you’re disabled, and you don’t have a family is willing to support you, your future is clear. You beg or starve. In many of the cities, we saw many beggars where overwhelming pity and overwhelmingly incredulity at the person’s plight competed for sympathies. Especially in Africa, the multitude of victims of the various conflicts have left them without multiple limbs, pieces of their faces, and other disabilities and no options but to beg.
  9. Oversight agencies: These city, state, and federal groups often get a bad rap, but when you’ve been in a country that doesn’t have them, you quickly miss them. A sampling of a few that we missed on our trip – agencies to oversee taxi cab standards, inspection service to qualify food providers, a functional non-bribable building inspection agency.
  10. Modern sewer system: Several of the places we visited had open sewers, and most had sewer systems that couldn’t accommodate toilet paper (i.e. tissue go in the trash, not the toilet).
  11. Garbage collection/litter policies: People in most of the countries we visited casually throw trash away on the streets. Often, garbage cans can’t even be found which leads to areas of town that are big, and disgusting, unofficial garbage dumps. There was pretty much garbage everywhere, even in places that are supposed to be pristine like national parks. Almost every city in the US is clean compared to almost every place we visited on our trip.
  12. Appliances: In four of five of the countries we visited, only a few in upper class owned appliances including a refrigerator/freezer, microwave, washing machine, or dish washing machine.
  13. Consumer businesses that can provide change for medium-size bills: I’m not sure how much of a problem this is for locals, but it was very frustrating for us. In the poorer countries, we were often unable to buy something because the smalltime vendor didn’t have enough spare cash to provide change for a mid-level bill.

Having listed several deficiencies I observed compared to the US, there’s a few areas where we’ve actually taken a step back compared to most of these countries. Here’s two on my list that were humorously encapsulated in about two sentences by a Fijian lady we talked to who had visited Tokyo and been overwhelmed by it.

  1. Friendliness: This is huge. In several countries we visited such as Thailand and Fiji, it is the custom to wave and greet strangers that you encounter on a road. Everyone knows their neighbors and most of their neighborhood. People still hitchhike regularly. When I would tell people that in the US people frequently don’t know their neighbors, or that we don’t greet each other on the street, they would ask “Why”? I don’t have a good answer, but it’s clearly something we’ve lost.
  2. Hurriedness: The first thing that the lady from Fiji noticed in Tokyo was that everyone seemed to always be in a hurry. I laughed because if there’s anyone I know that exemplifies this, it’s me. I think it’s true that we hurry too much. I’m proud that America has a reputation for one of the hardest-working countries on the planet, but I think we frequently take our work more seriously than we take the rest of our lives and that’s not so good. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true that not many people die wishing they’d spent more time at the office. I’m going to do my best to try to allow myself time to live a little more from now on.

One other thing I should mention – in all but two places that we visited (Ecuador and Fiji), when we asked our guide agency whether they saw a lot of Americans, the answer was no. Europeans and Asians were generally more common visitors than Americans with the British among the most ubiquitous travelers. I think there are several reasons for this – the relative lack of vacation time Americans get compared to Europeans, the declining dollar, and a relative sense of isolation from the rest of the world compared to most other nations. I’m sure there are others. But if you can afford time- and money-wise to travel to non-G7 countries, I strongly encourage it. There’s so much to learn from doing it that can’t really be learned or experience from inside our borders.

I’ll post Fiji (which will be my last vacation post) in a couple days.

We packed a lot into our five days in Thailand. We spent the first two days in Bangkok (nicest hotel we had the whole trip) visiting the Chatuchak market, kick boxing at Lumpini Stadium, the royal palace, national museum, electronics district, and various other things. Bangkok is really big and not very centralized and we got screwed by taxi drivers like we have just about everywhere else. On the other hand, all the food we had was pretty good and very cheap. The kickboxing was a highlight. The boxers we saw were pretty small (130 lb was the heaviest weight class there), but they were lightning quick and hit pretty hard. The palace was also extremely impressive.  I think our guide said there was something like 3 or 4 tons of gold plating on the palace buildings and there are so many of them built by so many kings that it’s kind of overwhelming to try to get it all in a few hours. Of course, as geeks, the electronics mall was also a hit.  Prices for hardware (phones, computers, cameras) were about the same as in the US, but you could buy any software title imaginable for less than $5 (all pirated of course).

After Bangkok, we headed north to Chiang Mai to the Lampang elephant reserve.  The reserve takes in (or buys when possible) elephants with troubled backgrounds or from owners who can’t take care of them anymore.  Thailand pretty much banned logging a while ago which left many elephant owners with huge food bills and without a source of employment for the elephants. Some owners try to use the elephants to beg in the city, others give rides to tourists. The elephant reserve is usually the best option for the elephant if not for the owner. It gives them a good home and supports itself with various tourist programs. We opted to take a one-day introductory course to learn to be a Mahout – or elephant trainer. We learned about 12 Thai commands to get the elephant to go, stop, mount, dismount, roll over, etc. Both of us learned a lot and got very wet. See photos for a narration. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

We spent the last two days in the Chiang Dao area rafting down the Mae Tang river on a bamboo raft.  The scenery was amazing and the trip was pretty relaxing except when you were trying to stay on the raft going down rapids. We stayed overnight in a Karen village. The Karen are one of Thailand’s indigenous ethnic groups. The village was made almost entirely of bamboo. The stay was ok except for the evil roosters who had no concept of sunrise. Also, we were pretty much coerced into paying for brutal Thai massages from women in the village (I’m pretty sure that sadomasochism began with the Thai massage).  Eh… it wasn’t that bad really and the rafting was terrific.

Overall, a great five days and as with most other places we’ve been, it left us both with an appetite to make a more substantial visit someday in the future.

After leaving the Sinai, we spent a day in Luxor and 3 days in Cairo at various tourist attractions. I’ve decided that passive sightseeing with hordes of other tourists isn’t my favorite flavor of tourism. Nevertheless, we had good guides and the subject material was pretty interesting to me as a history buff (although I’m not going to try to regurgitate history here). As has always been true in every country we’ve visited so far, the best part of the tour has been learning from the guides about the lives they live in their countries.

Our stay in Luxor was mostly uneventful. Our hotel was a little odd. From the outside and in the lobby it appears to be a 15+ story luxury hotel with very rich, comfortable furnishings. But we paid something like $25/night for a double room. Turns out that only two floors of the hotel are finished. We later discovered that finished buildings incrementally is a pervasive building strategy in Egypt. I guess they don’t pay property taxes on the structure if it isn’t finished. so finishing a structure is often done as the owner can afford it. In fact, we saw whole neighborhoods of apartment buildings with re-bar sticking from the top awaiting more stories. We were told that frequently sons and their families will use future upper stories as their homes when they marry.

The sites in Luxor were probably the best we saw. I learned a ton, but won’t bore you with all that here. We found out that our tour guide had an archeology degree but had become a tour guide because of the lack of archeology jobs. He said that most of the archeology in Egypt is still done by foreigners for reasons having to do with money (I wasn’t sure if he meant other countries pay to do the work, or if it was just the high capital requirements to dig, or what). Even more interesting was that he was a local from the Kharnakk neighborhood and had started in the tourism business at the age of 8 or so as one of the little boys who goes around trying to sell knick-knacks to tourists. Becoming an archaeologist had been his dream. Right now he’s in the process of applying to get his master’s degree so he can lecture at a University.

Our hotel in Cairo was a small semi-hostel run by a fantastic Egyptian/French couple. The hotel just occupied the top floor of a tall building so we had breakfast and dinner overlooking the city. Of course, “overlooking the city” means you can see for about 8 blocks because the air pollution is so bad (by far the worst of anywhere we’ve been). Our guide was a beautiful young Muslim lady named Zinab who we forced to give a play-by-play of her social life. Her social life was fascinating (and by her account often hilarious) to us because it is so radically different from life in the US. Dates are arranged by others, and a couple may see each other only a few times before deciding whether or not to marry, which is a mutual decision. The boy must receive permission from the girl’s father and must prove that he can provide for her, which is often difficult. Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women without a lot of difficulty but the same isn’t true for women because the children are thought to follow the father in religion. Recently, this asymmetry has apparently resulted in lots of Egyptian men marrying light-colored and blond women from eastern europe and Russia. We also asked for and got a long question and answer session about Islam which I won’t post here because I’d probably get something wrong, but it was very interesting in a positive way.

We had some other great experiences in Cairo as well – like the time Cameron, acting as the Navigator in Chief, walked us for 45 minutes towards downtown Cairo at 10:00 at night 180 degrees in the wrong direction. We learned that instead of watching TV, men in Cairo hit the sidewalks at night with their hookahs to play backgammon and talk about current events, whether local or international. Another time, Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Church and a large entourage of his bishops and the press corps walked right by us going to their VIP plane as we were waiting to board our plane to Cairo. The next night we ran into the President of Austria and his entourage touring the Tutankhamen display at the National Museum in Cairo just before closing. Yet another time, we were randomly selected for to take a street-quiz for a TV show which we failed pretty miserably (do YOU know the names of all four of Egypt’s Nobel Prize winners?).

Anyway, Egypt was great. The Sinai was probably still my favorite area, but Valley of the Kings and the National Museum were also highlights of our trip. As with most of the places we’ve visited before, I hope to return sometime (among other reasons, to visit Zinab and her new husband!).

I’m slow on getting a post up on the rest of our stay in Egypt (we’re actually halfway through our stay in Thailand now). It’s a fair amount of work to sort through and process all the photos for our stays and I’m being lazy. In the meantime however, here’s some random thoughts that have accumulated during our trip:

  • It’s truly amazing how much of the world wears flip flops of some kind or another. They’ve been the dominant form of footwear everywhere we’ve been including our guides in the Amazon and Congo.
  • If you’re going on a long trip, pack light – you really don’t need most of the stuff you think you do and you’ll be carrying all that stuff more than you think you will. Then fight to carry everything onto the plane. Statistically, it’s worth it.
  • Sleep rocks.
  • I hate that moment when you realize you left something important/expensive at the last place you stayed and it’s effectively irretrievable now.
  • My experience on this trip has been that most taxi drivers will screw you if they think they can get away with it.
  • Neither of us was sure it was worth it to bring a laptop with us. Now we find that we have it on anywhere we can get either power or a wireless connection.
  • I think Coca Cola is available more places than potable water is (seriously).
  • I’m glad that my native language happens to be the most common second language on the planet.
  • We’ve discovered that a good rule of thumb is that stuff you buy at tourist-centric places is roughly 2-3x the street price in non-tourist areas in most countries. This is true especially for food and drink. There are occasional pleasant exceptions like the 30-cent smoothies around Bangkok.
  • There’s no question that the war in Iraq has damaged America’s reputation over the last five years – I’ve seen it on T-shirts and TV during our travel. But our experience has been that most of the world still dreams of coming to America, and with good reason as I’ll detail in a future post.