Category Archives: Retrospectives

Our Around-the-World Packing List

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A note about the ordering — this is the order I always pack in — tech items and incidentals, kit bag, clothes. (Also smallest bags to largest). I know many fine folks who go in the opposite direction, so feel free to start from the bottom.

We technically packed the absolute largest carry-on size allowed by international carriers, but because of liquids restrictions and my desire to have a pocket knife for food preparation, we generally checked our main bags, which allowed us the luxury of two carry-ons. So I would often pack a smaller, front-carry sling bag, to put under the seat, and stow my larger backpack in the overhead bin.

Final note — this is obviously all from a chick perspective. Men should adjust accordingly. Dan carried slightly more of the adapters and tech gear, used a packable backpack instead of a shoulder bag, carried a water purification system, and carried the extra sunscreen.

Sling Bag

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small front bag/under the seat bag

First, the bag. I LOVED my old sling, but after 10 years of consistent use and one epic trip, it absolutely disintegrated. My old one went  cross-body over my left shoulder, easily slung around to my front (when walking on a crowded street, boarding public transit, or using a squat toilet), and had an optional waist strap which helped relieve the burden of particularly heavy, liquid-filled loads when hiking. I haven’t found anything quite like it. I tried this Waterfly bag. It has some advantages over my old bag including a water-bottle holder, its price point, and that it collapses for packing. But, I found the lack of structure or a real waist strap to be deal breakers. I ran into a fellow traveler here who raved about her Patagonia Atom Sling, and I might give it a try. It lacks the drawstring for additional storage that my old bag had, and it’s waist strap is somewhat less usable. Does anyone out there have any other recommendations?

What’s in the front sling bag?

  • Hand sanitizer.
  • USB drive (for the sharing of pictures with fellow travelers).
  • A good international travel phone — I love my European-banded Nexus 5 — it has a great camera and does almost everything well. The downsides are that it is now a generation old and the European bands limit your reception in the States.
  • Sea/car-sickness bands — I am not sure if these really work or if it is just the placebo effect, but I still use them.
  • A “tree book” in case your Kindle breaks.
  • A paper-white Kindle — an absolute travel necessity — holds a book, plus a back-up book, plus 13 travel guides and you don’t need much light to read by.
  • The best inflatable neck pillow in the world.
  • Tampons and pantiliners. So, I suppose this is as good a time as any to go into this. Tampons are not widely available in all countries, so bring enough to get by, especially if you are particular about the brand. (Some travelers swear by the Diva Cup, I didn’t love it, but I encourage giving it a try. ) The pantiliner trick is something I assumed all long-term travelers knew, but I explained it to more than one person on our trip who hadn’t heard about it, so here goes — change your pantiliner every day (or even twice a day), and your underwear can last for a couple of days.
  • Band-aids — always be prepared. Be really prepared, if you, like me, have a sensitivity to latex — it can be really hard to find latex-free bandages on the road.
  • A good travel wallet. Dan LOVES his Pacsafe wallet.
  • Your passport in a very secure pocket.
  • An international SIM — in the 120+ countries where your T-mobile plan works, use it — it mostly doesn’t work in Africa, so buy local — just ask what folks are using.
  • Toilet paper — restrooms around the world do not always have toilet paper.
  • A small adapter.
  • Headphones.
  • A headphone splitter to mooch entertainment off of other travelers.
  • Chapstick.
  • A fully-charged back-up battery — we have enjoyed this one, but a smaller one would also do.
  • Water bottle.

Backpack

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backpack

The bag — just find one that works for you and fits you well. Mine is all right, but I didn’t LOVE the fit.

What’s in it?

  • A travel hat — never be caught without it.
  • A good, lightweight, effective, travel rain jacket.
  • More toilet paper.
  • Some extra plastic bags.
  • A money belt. I almost never use it as a money belt, but find it an incredibly convenient place to keep the following super important items:
    • Some of your cash, including at least a couple of hundreds of US currency in case of an emergency. Never keep all of your money in one place.
    • Some back-up credit cards — keep at least one credit and one debit card separate from the items in your travel wallet.
    • Photocopies of all of your important documents including: your passport, your birth certificate, your yellow card, the fronts and backs of your credit and debit cards, and any other photo ID you have in addition to your drivers license and your passport. A few more words about how important these back-up copies are: You will need a copy of your birth certificate to get a passport if yours is lost or stolen. We have heard of folks getting through boarders with just a photocopy of their yellow card. When Dan lost his debit card in Kenya we didn’t have power or internet, so we used the paper copy of the back of his card to report is missing and get a new one Fedexed to our hotel in Nairobi.Yes, I did use my dive card as an additional form of ID on a military base in South Korea. COPY YOUR DOCUMENTS. Scan them into Google drive (or somewhere), but keep paper copies handy too.
  • Anti-malarial pills.
  • Pepto-Bismol tablets — always be prepared.
  • Immodium — for when the pink tablets can’t cut it.
  • A pain reliever — nothing creates headaches like hours of long plane flights and bus rides.
  • Anti-diarrhea antibiotics and any other potentially really important medications.
  • Nyquil. During our international travels we have been consistently impressed with how rarely we have had serious GI issues (knock on wood). But we have also been impressed with how often we have had viral, upper-respiratory colds. As we traveled around, we constantly encountered viruses to which we possessed no immunity and they would take us out. Nyquil (or Night Nurse to the Brits) is an absolute blessing for sleeping through a runny nose and unending cough.
  • Keep a toothbrush and toothpaste handy.
  • Sunglasses.
  • Extra hair ties.
  • Good batteries (buy them in the U.S. — they are hard to find and very expensive in the rest of the world).
  • Luggage locks (if you are so inclined).
  • Ear plugs (if you are so inclined).
  • A headlamp (MANDATORY). We picked up these for our most recent trip and have been impressed so far — very bright with only one double A battery — also, a local Colorado company. If you are going on safari it is a big bonus to have the red light setting — lake flies aren’t attracted to the red light, so you will be able to do your dishes while all your friends run for cover.
  • A travel journal and glue stick. My preferred way of documenting a trip on the go is by cutting up any little pieces of paper I get along the way with the scissors on my pocket knife and then gluing them into my journal with a few notes.
  • Another travel pillow. I sleep with three pillows, like this, and did that every night on our trip — and many basic hotels will provide only one.
  • Bathing suit — never be caught without one, there is almost nothing as disheartening as wanting a bathing suit and not having one.
  • A good travel camera. I am not that into photography — I mean, I like looking at it, but can rarely be bothered. To be honest, we used our phones for the vast majority of our shots. (So make sure your travel phone has a good camera.) But, if you are going on safari, bring a really really good camera — the folks with the 400x optical zoom cameras had the most fun. The lens can double as binoculars.
  • Compression socks — may I never take another international flight without them. These ones are great.
  • One easy-to-wash and fast-to-dry back-up outfit — a pair of socks, underwear, lightweight pants, a t-shirt, and an over shirt (in case you are separated from your main bag).
  • A laptop or tablet if you are so inclined. We really enjoyed having our Chrome books on our big trip. They are super lightweight, have a huge battery life, have a keyboard, and really encourage saving to the cloud, so if it is stolen, all your data is still in the cloud, and replacing it is pretty cheap. There are all sorts of options now, just pick one with an 11″ screen or smaller.
  • Your chargers and adapters. I really recommend having one of these universal adapters with two extra USB charging ports. The universal adapter worked every but South Africa. Freaking South Africa.
  • A guide book.
  • The best insect repellent in the world — easy to apply without getting it on your hands and it doesn’t leak in your luggage.
  • An extra water bottle — these are super handy when you want to start out with a bunch of water but be able to compact it down as the day goes on.

Main Bag

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main bag

Alight, on to the main bag. First, again, the bag. We went with these: The CH 22 Tourist Expandable Carry-On, based on an argument made on a great travel blog whose domain has since expired. It meets most carry-on requirements, barely. Part of the reason I went with it was that the square-ish corners offer more internal space than similar bags with round corners. Also, I didn’t really want a bag that came with a day pack, since I wanted to find a backpack that really fit me. We never once used the backpack function of the bags, which might really say a lot — we dragged our bags through Asian metro stations, over the beach in Ghana, and stored them for two weeks in the bottom of our safari vehicle (we only used small expandable duffel bags as our day-to-day bags on the safari). And they held up pretty well. Still though, I like the comfort that a convertible brings, knowing I could use it as a backpack if I ever really needed to. All of this said, and Dan and I spent our whole trip RTW coveting these bags, just like our friends said we would. If I were to do it again, I don’t think there is anyway you could talk me out of the Meridian Travel wheeled deluxe luggage, 60 Litres.

What’s in it?

Clothes
  • 9 pairs of socks — bring more socks than you think you need — for reasons I don’t understand, they go fast in Africa, and when you wash them, they take forever to dry, no matter how expensive they are. At least two of these pairs should be tall enough to tuck your pants into them if you are going to Africa — it’s the only way to prevent safari ants from climbing up your legs.
  • 1 sports bra.
  • 4 regular bras.
  • 13 pairs of underwear — including a bunch of these exoficio ones — they are super easy to wash and dry.
  • 2 sporty, quick-drying short sleeve shirts or tank tops — quick drying, should fit under your over shirts.
  • 1 somewhat-dressy tank top or t shirt.
  • 2 more t-shirts.
  • 4 casual tank tops.
  • 1 safari/travel long-sleeve shirt.
  • 1 sporty, fast dry long-sleeve shirt.
  • 2 nice over shirts/sweaters.
  • 1 fleece or light jacket
  • 1 packable puffy coat — it gets chilly in Arusha and the highlands of Africa during good parts of the year, so check the weather.
  • 1 pair of elephant pants — if you don’t know what these are, don’t worry, you can buy them on the road — I loved having them with me.
  • 2 quick-dry dresses.
  • 2 skirts — at least one should go passed your knees.
  • 1 pair of athletic shorts.
  • 1 pair of casual travel shorts.
  • 1 zip-off travel pant.
  • 1 pair of skinny jeans — they actually dry pretty quickly.
  • 1 sarong.
  • 1 scarf — it can help make things look dressy and might be nice to have in some countries to cover your shoulders and/or hair when entering a mosque.
  • 1 pair of long underwear bottoms — I love sleeping in a tent in them — others might not.
  • 1 more bathing suit — your two bathing suits should serve vastly different purposes — one should be sporty for scuba diving, and one should be more of a stringy, lounging one.
  • I found having a bag like this to separate dirty clothes was helpful.

What you should plan to be wearing during your travel day? Good, comfortable travel pants (probably not zip off since you are about to be on a bus or a plane for a long time and those zippers can be annoying),  a travel short sleeve shirt — a good time to bust out one of your icebreakers — I LOVE my cool-lite crew, (a t-shirt works better with your backpack on than a tank top), and one long-sleeved travel over shirt.

Shoes — I swear that I was completely happy and always had what I needed with just three pairs of shoes:
  • Flip flops — helps if they are black/semi-dressy and can go to a nice dinner.
  • Chacos — would not have traded them for anything.
  • Light-weight waterproof trail runners or hiking shoes –I hate being cold and wet — and these were pretty necessary on our gorilla trek.
Other gear
  • A travel towel.
  • A packable shoulder bag that will go to the beach.
  • A laundry kit, including: a universal sink plug, some good travel clothes wash, and this awesome packable clothesline — we used it ALL the time.
  • A first-aid kit, including: gloves, bandaids, a thermometer (a good way to know if you are just a little sick, or a lot sick and better start learning a new country’s health system in a hurry), bandages and tape, Neosporin (wounds get infected easily while traveling), Benadryl cream in the event of a contact allergy or bug bite, water purification tablets, (REI has a great article on water purification techniques. But if you get stuck and thirsty you can always throw these tablets in water, wait four hours, and drink), Gatorade powder (to prevent dehydration and cover up any iodine flavor), safety pins, in the event that you need to do some wardrobe repair, and scissors as part of your pocket tool (see below).
  • Your pocket tool: I think that spring-action scissors are key, as is a knife for cutting into an avocado or a mango, and a bottle opener and a screwdriver, or something you can use to get into wine in a pinch. I’ve had less of a need for pliers on the road. If you aren’t carrying on, the Micra or the CS will work. If you are carrying on, try the PS, but be prepared to show all of the tools to the TSA.
  • An anti-theft travel purse, for nights when you want to have your room key, your phone, and some money on you, but don’t have pockets in your dress.
  • Yet more bug repellent — this Sawyer stuff is terrific and even works against sand flies, you might want some in a spray bottle too to save from getting it all over your hands on the go.
  • This awesome sleep-sack — super comfortable, breathable, adds warmth, repels bugs, makes me feel at home ANYWHERE.
  • This awesome lantern — hangs in a tent like a champ — hangs other places too. If there are two of you traveling, one person should have a hanging lantern and one should have a lantern that stands up on a table. It was great to have light camping, and in places where the power was unreliable, but also sometimes we would just be in hotel rooms that didn’t have enough lights, and it was nice to have them then too.
  • Emergency coffee — do not leave home without some back-up instant coffee. Via is a nice travel size.

And, your kit bag, including:

  • this awesome self-cleaning, quick-drying wash cloth.
  • liquid body soap to lather with your wash cloth.
  • shampoo and conditioner.
  • hair gel and spray — I use a lot of hair products.
  • hair ties.
  • vasaline.
  • more toothpaste.
  • face and body lotion.
  • sunscreen.
  • more motion sickness pills, and a transderm patch if they help you.
  • any other meds for anything that ails you — occasionally get migraines or yeast infections? Bring medicine with you.
  • a comb.
  • some cleansing towellets — it’s impressive how much cleaner they can make you feel when you can’t shower.
  • make-up? It was occasionally, though rarely, nice to have eye shadow, mascara, foundation, and lip stick.
  • condoms — bring extras. And if you are sensitive to latex, bring TONS, it can be almost impossible to find latex-free condoms on the road, since they are slightly less-effective at preventing STD transmission — and its awkward to have to go to up to pharmacists to ask for them, though we spent an afternoon in Ghana so engaged.

So, was completely disrupting your life to travel around the world a good decision?

TL; DR: This is the post that I wish I’d been able to read before we decided to go on our trip around the world.When we were still deciding whether to pull the trigger, we would look at the travel blogs of our friends and of complete strangers and we would be awed at their pictures and amused at their adventures, but I’d always wonder, now that you’ve been back home for a year, are you glad you did it? Was completely disrupting your life to travel around the world worth it? For me at least, the answer is a resounding yes.

The time you spend traveling will pass so fast — what’s six months, or even a year, in a lifetime? And so, I think that what you gain from that time traveling is much more than what you lose by skipping out on six months of meetings, and house shopping, and bad television, and even friendships back home. And what is it, exactly, that you might gain? Perspective, I think, and confidence. And things you learn about yourself and your travel partner and your relationship. As in most things, though, I think there is likely a diminishing marginal utility to extended travel. You are likely to gain the most from the experience if you haven’t traveled or lived outside your home country much in the past. And the first six months of the trip are likely more valuable as a learning experience than the next six months, and much more important than the next six months, etc. Of course, I have a biased perspective on this because we only traveled for about 6 months, but I would say that we were learning less about ourselves and the world at the end of that time than at the beginning. (Though we were still having a blast.) And I would guess that if you spend 18 months traveling, it would be hard to resist the temptation to just set up shop on a nice beach and take an extended vacation for a time — which sounds lovely, don’t get me wrong, but probably won’t teach you as much about yourself and the world as does taking the trains through Japan, riding a motorbike in Vietnam, or taking a taxi through rush hour in downtown Nairobi. Also, I would say that Dan gained slightly more from this trip than I did, largely because, I think, he hadn’t spent as much time outside the US before. The traveling is incredibly doable, and very worthwhile.

The thing that demands real respect is the disruption to your life. If you’ve traveled or lived outside your home country for an extended period of time before, then you are likely fairly prepared for this, but it is still worth mentioning. Re-entry is tough. And it’s tougher as a married 30-something young professional than it is as an undergraduate study-abroad student or a kid going on an adventure between undergrad and grad school. We lived in my parents’ basement when we got home. They were gracious and wonderful, and it was tough. Looking for a new job is stressful, and looking for a place to live at the same time is almost overwhelming — not that people don’t do both of these things all the time for much more “real” reasons than returning from a trip around the world. Some advice: if possible, I think it makes sense to time your trip with a planned move anyway. I still miss my friends and colleagues and the community that we built in DC — moving to a new city  and building a new home is hard no matter what, so you might as well take six months and travel the world. It meant that I spent a few months unemployed in my parents’ basement, whereas if we’d left straight from DC to Denver, I would have lined up a job before the move — but in hindsight, those few months of uncertainty, which were hard, were worth it for the trip. Also, it was helpful that Dan was keeping his job — so we had some income coming in almost immediately after we returned to the States.

From a professional perspective, I don’t think the trip set me back much, given that we were moving across the country anyway. Most people are impressed with the trip and it provides a nice topic of conversation. In going over my resume, not once did I hear the question, “why did you do that?” The usual response is, “that’s incredible, where did you go?” Again, just my sense here — but I think people are more likely to understand a trip that is 6 months to a year than one that is much longer than that. I’ve met three people who I work closely with professionally who took similar trips. It’s amazing to be able to reminisce about the hikes in Cape Town, the ramen in the basement of the Tokyo metro station, or the night bus to Phnom Penh over a first get-to-know-you coffee. And I have a reputation as a capable traveler among my colleagues, and so I get to spend some time offering advice about vacation itineraries and gear — both favorite topics.

So, here we are a year later. (Well, a year and couple of months — it’s hard to find time and energy to sit down and blog now that we are gainfully employed.) Our dog has forgiven us. We have a great house in a neighborhood we like. We both have jobs that are challenging and that we enjoy. And we are working on building our Denver community. We feel like we are in about the right spot for us. And we have the bonus of the perspective and confidence and relationship built over six months of fairly challenging and completely incredible travel. It was totally worth it.

Edit #1; 2-23-16 — Have now met three people in a professional capacity who took similar trips.

Ya gotta have a hobby, mine’s Sewer Covers

My collection of sewer cover photos goes back years. In DC, we have some old original covers from the late 1800s, and I tried to take photos capturing older and older covers.

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DC Cover from 1883

My collection then evolved when social network Path came out, being invited by a few co-workers my basic response was, not another social network. In the end, I signed up but would only post photos of sewer covers from around DC and my travels. Starting as a bit of a joke, but I began to enjoy the hobby of noticing interesting and old covers. Some places have different covers for each neighborhood in a city. While Japan takes sewer covers to a whole new level, with hand painted decorative covers.

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Bachelor party in Chicago

Now my collect evolves with each trip I take, and often I find a cover to shoot with friends feet during significant events. I enjoy keeping an eye out while traveling for interesting manhole cover “art” such as grass that grows on a cover I recently saw in Russia. It might be silly but I guess we all need our hobbies, and I have two weird ones have photos of amazing manhole covers and collecting orange T-shirts from places I visit.

Hopefully this make you take notice of something most people don’t take time to see. Feel free to check out the full sewer cover gallery. Also, there is an awesome Instagram account that posts cool covers.

And I Would Walk 689 Miles…How much we walked during our trip around the world

Our friends noted that they wish they had brought an activity tracker on their RTW trip. So, I wore a Fitbit (specifically, a Flex). I wasn’t perfect about wearing it and it ran out of battery a couple of times, but I wore it pretty much every day.

What we learned: We walked 1,637,488 steps on our five-month trip through Asia and Africa, the equivalent of about 689.57 miles. Our most active day was spent chasing the gorillas through the Ugandan bush. We walked 36,565 steps that day (about 15.4 miles).

Graphs below. Please note the scales — I couldn’t get Fitbit to export my data on a consistent scale, so the graphs require a bit of interpretation. FB+whole+trip+labeled (1)

Eight Surprises from our Trip Around the World

Edit: Update to include another link in the water vs paper debate in #3.

For better and worse, here are some of the things that surprised me during our five-month trip through Asia and Africa.

1. The world is a really big place, like a *really* big place. I know this sounds naive, but one of the most surprising things about our trip was that even though we took more than five months off work to travel, we could see only a fraction of the world. Even once we narrowed our itinerary to “just” Asia and Africa, we still had to be brutally choosy about the 13 countries and the cities that we got to see. Just off the top of my head, if we had had the time, we would have wanted to see more of rural China, perhaps taking a train from Beijing to Shanghai, we would have spent even more time in Vietnam, perhaps exploring the rice paddies up north and definitely getting to Phu Quoc, and we would have spent more time in Egypt, including spending time diving diving up north. And if you start adding additional continents into the mix, we would really like to have made our way to Eastern Europe, including Croatia. And, did I mention that I studied abroad in Italy? I could have taken Dan around Italy for a month with one hand tied behind my back — it would have been much easier than all the traveling we did where every country was somewhere neither of us had been before and we often didn’t know more than a few words of the local language or any of the customs around transportation.

2. Honduras is poor, even relative other less developed countries. Living and working in Honduras in 2006, I understood that the country was poor, but it was not until this trip that I gained an understanding for exactly how poor it is relative to most of the rest of the world. Throughout our travels, we saw the occasional barefoot kid with a bloated belly (early sign of malnutrition), the occasional thatch-roofed home (thatched homes are often leaky and riddled with bugs, which is why, given the opportunity, people rush to get a tin roof) and the occasional girl carrying a jerrycan of water down the highway (transporting water by hand/on one’s head takes a lot of time and energy and can be dangerous). (FWIW, along our route, these sites were most common in Cambodia, Uganda, Kenya, and Ghana.) But despite traveling overland through fairly rural areas, we rarely saw these sites at the frequency that we saw them in Honduras when I lived there. And we saw a lot more agriculture (Uganda, in particular, is famous for its soil quality) and livestock (water buffaloes in Cambodia, and cows, chickens, and goats throughout Africa) than I remember seeing in Honduras. I realize that our anecdotal experience is limited, but UN data seems to lend some weight to our observations. Honduras is #129 on the Human Development Index, and Cambodia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda all fall within the next 35 ranked countries out of the 187 countries with complete data. Their Human Development Index scores are all with .15 of one another and their Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index scores are even closer, within a range of .1. All of the other countries we visited on our trip, including Vietnam and South Africa, felt substantially more developed than Honduras, and the data support that observation too. It seems important to keep these facts in mind when politicians talk of sending unaccompanied minor immigrants from Honduras back to the country they fled.

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3. I was less welcoming of some cultural differences than I thought I would be.

  • Take, for example, sitting on the floor to eat. We had the most experience with this during our week-long volunteer stay in Vietnam. Sure, part of the reason I didn’t like it was that I am not flexible in the ways that are required to hold your bowl of rice and chopsticks in one hand and reach out across the bamboo mat to grab the spinach with your other hand. But also, I think there may be some legitimate health reasons to avoid eating on the floor. We were never able to get the bamboo mat that we ate on particularly clean, and hair and dirt often made their way onto the mat. Even though, in general, people took their outdoor shoes off at the door, at least one person in a hurry to catch a bus walked across the mat in his shoes. But even eliminating all of the outdoor waste couldn’t guarantee cleanliness because of the bathrooms. The bathrooms in many countries are wet constantly for one of two reasons. One reason is that the toilets are often co-located with the showers in homes. (More on the second reason in a minute.) So the bathroom floor is soaked, and someone gets a stomach bug and uses the bathroom, and then someone else walks into the bathroom in their house shoes, and then puts those same house shoes on the mat, perhaps stepping over some food. I am not saying that there is tons of cross-contamination, just more potential for it with your feet so close to your food than when you are eating at a table. And I will say that the stomach bug passed around our volunteer house in a hurry. And whether it was for the potential health benefits or the comfort of the Western volunteers, the volunteer house got a table when it got the chance.
  • Using water instead of toilet paper in restrooms is the second reason why restrooms in many countries, even public restrooms, are wet constantly. We had the most experience with this in Malaysia, but found it in some other places with large Muslim populations and good plumbing. Thanks, internet, for all of the lively discussions of this cultural difference. The best posts I read on this topic include “Butt wipes. Water sprays. Bidets. Lotas. And other toilet stuff,” by Ethar El-Katatney and one by Svan Nathan on Quora, where he writes the following in favor of using water:
    • “Water is more hygienic, since all the urine and poop gets washed off, leaving a clean bottom.
    • With water, there is less friction against the skin. No matter how soft the toilet paper is, you still have to scrub it against your skin. Water is a boon for people who are sensitive to toilet paper.
    • You don’t need to spend a fortune on buying toilet paper every month.
    • Too much toilet paper in the bowl can clog it, but water will not.
    • Toilets that use water often have wet floors. And so, they also have a drain on the floor, so that the entire toilet and floor can be washed clean regularly.
    • The hems of pants and skirts are liable to get wet in a wet bathroom, and it takes a lot of careful planning and contortions to ensure that the clothes stay dry. [And he continues…]

But this is where I get hung up. And maybe it was only because we were traveling and so often both in a rush and carrying a lot of bags into bathrooms, but there was water, with some amount of fecal matter in it, I can only assume, splattered ALL over some of the public restrooms. I don’t exactly understand why so much of the bathrooms are wet — the entire toilet and the floor around it, but as Svan noted, they really do get wet. Perhaps this is more of a problem for women too, who are often using the toilets for what would be a less intensive activity except that as soon as you approach one, you have fecal-matter water covering your shoes and threatening anything else you are wearing or carrying. I hear Svan’s other arguments, but my damp sandals and the damp pants that I would be wearing for the next 11 hours on a bus wouldn’t let me get behind this cultural difference.

See, there is a hose in the bathroom.
See, there is a hose in the bathroom.

4. For his part, Dan was surprised by how well, relative to some countries, our government works. While it’s fair, and even patriotic, to demand a better government — one that protects and supports more of its immigrants and one that rummages through less data on innocent civilians — after just a few days without power and running water, all the while negotiating police contributions, you realize that for all it gets wrong, our country gets a lot right.

5. The world is not, seemingly, marching towards a more “western” future. In my own naive, American, way, I had this default notion that the world was generally becoming more “western,” more open, more capitalist. Like, if we just sat back and waited, the world will move naturally towards a more open future. And while some places are experiencing a dramatic growth in capitalism — the economy in Vietnam is an incredible thing to witness right now and you can literally feel the middle class buzzing underneath you — some places are not. While traveling in Malaysia, we had a sense that the country was once more open than it was on it’s way to becoming. We were there during Deepavali, and as a Hindu holiday, it was still celebrated and recognized as an official holiday, but we heard more than once about the growing power of the morality police — a special police force enforcing special laws on the Malay-Malay Muslims in the country (who are not allowed to exit the Muslim religion). The government there is a big supporter of technology companies, but we heard that if foreign tech companies visited, and hosted events that included alcohol, (something perhaps expected with Western companies entering a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country) then anyone who is paid by the government (and the government supports most of the tech companies and employees in the country) would be prohibited from attending the event, even if she helped to plan and coordinate it.

6. Our college-educated (and generally amazing) safari guide expects his future wife to go to a week of “wife school” before marriage. I feel like perhaps I haven’t said enough about how amazing our guide was — we had a friend who had been on seven similar group trips over several years, and she said that this guy was the best guide she had ever had. So yeah, he was amazing. But this week of wife school is not, in fact, all a hen party (though our guide couldn’t rule out the possibility that there might be one night of hen partying); it is really a week-long course in how to be a wife. We later learned that the wife school is a kind of substitution for the events that used to take place around female circumcision. Because female circumcision is no longer practiced in our guide’s tribe, wife school is a way of maintaining some of those traditional teachings. +1 for wife school.

7. There really might be either a parade of elephants or a cackle of hyenas between you and the bathrooms when you are camping in the Serengeti. There are no fences around either the Serengeti game park or the campsites inside it, and also, there are no lodges. So, everyone camps, even folks on the fancy tours camp. This means that our camping was taken up a notch from the usual set up. Someone set up our tents for us, provided us toilet paper, and cooked our dinner (this may have also been related to the fact that the kitchen was located inside a cage). So, we arrived right at sunset and had no work to do. Naturally, I started drinking the whisky we had brought. And then, at dinner, our guide announced that a beer truck had come by the campsite. In a lot of parts of Africa, the economy just didn’t work in the way I expected. For example, we couldn’t find any woman (or man) willing to do our laundry in Zanzibar — even if we were willing to pay generously, and they were currently doing their family’s own laundry. And in South Africa, we not once, but twice, arrived at a winery, that was open, but that wouldn’t let us buy any wine. So I was completely impressed with this Serengeti beer truck and more than a little eager to support this young entrepreneur by purchasing two five-dollar bottles of Serengeti beer. It was after the whisky and half-way through our beer that our guide started going over the necessary safety precautions one must follow if you need to use the restroom in the middle of the night at the campsite. Wake up your tent buddy and make him go with you, bring your headlamps and flashlights and shine them in front of you, talk the whole way. If you see something with two eyes close together moving toward you, shine your light at it, and back away slowly. Dan immediately started dehydrating himself. I finished my beer and drank some water, and woke up at 2AM with a desperate need to pee. I woke up Dan. We walked towards the bathrooms (which are also located inside a cage), and that is when we saw the group of hyenas, and at least two of them began slinking towards us. We retreated, waited in our tents for about 45 minutes (which felt like 5 hours on a full bladder) and then again made our way to the restrooms, satisfied that the hyenas had backed off a bit. So yeah, when you are camping in the Serengeti, I still recommend supporting that beer-truck kid, but perhaps skipping the whisky.

8. Traveling the world is incredibly doable. I was shocked at how doable the whole thing felt. Yes, it takes savings and planning and taking some care (sign up for STEP), but if you are considering it, then do it. I am not a low-maintenance person. I brought three different types of hair products. I brought two travel pillows so that I could always sleep with three pillows — like this. I have sensitive skin. I’m freaking allergic to aloe. It goes without saying that I’m allergic to a lot of laundry detergents, and so, whenever we were able to pay someone to do our laundry, I would have to re-rinse and re-dry my underwear. I am not a champion sleeper, but I slept like a baby in those safari tents (once I learned to stack up two of the safari mattresses). I’m telling you, if I can do this, almost anyone can. You won’t remember the ants in your hotel room or the biting flies on the safari…well, I mean, you will, but those memories won’t compete with the noodle bowls, the great wall, or the site of a leopard dragging its kill up a tree. Find some good travel-sized hair products and a very patient travel partner, and go.

A few notes from Ghana

Ghana was the first African state to declare independence from European colonization. There have been peaceful hand-offs of power from one legitimately-elected head of state to another since 2000, making Ghana among the most stable states in Africa. The last three US Presidents have visited the country. President Obama and his family visited in 2009. Here are some notes about our time here so far:

1. The power was out all day on Tuesday in Cape Coast, because it was Tuesday. (Cape Coast is the former British capital and home of the infamous Cape Coast Castle through which millions of slaves were loaded onto slave ships bound for the Americas through the Door of No Return. We visited the castle on Tuesday. President Obama unveiled a plaque at the castle in 2009.) There was no power or water in our hotel room Tuesday night, because, TIFA.  It’s not the first time we’ve run into power outages on the trip, and it likely won’t be the last. And when I lived in Honduras, this kind of thing happened all the time. But, still. Next time you walk into your bathroom, flip on your light switch, and wash your hands in the sink, just think about all of the things that have to go right for that to happen — the power and water have to be available, the government has to not fail at getting them to your house, and then the wiring and plumbing in your house have to enable it to reach you.

2. There is a name for the weather pattern that is happening right now in Ghana, when hot wind blows the sand in from the Sahara, coating everything in a fine layer of dust — harmattan. December in Ghana is hot. So, without power, even if you sit completely still, new beads of sweat still form. On the plus side, our laundry dried in a day.

3. In Ghana, as in Honduras, you can buy drinking water in bags. This is brilliant. Think of all the times you have an empty bottle and you just need to refill it. Or all the times you are hot and thirsty and you just want to slam some water and not be burdened with carrying around the bottle looking for somewhere even slightly environment my friendly to put it. Also, we can buy 15 liters of drinking water for the equivalent of slightly leas than 1 USD. I think this is partly because it is a commodity that so few tourist buy in bulk (why?) that locals are thrown off their game when we ask for it, and just charge us the standard local price. (Note: this happens with nothing else.)

4. The beaches are really quite pretty, especially from a distance. They’d be much nicer if they were cleaner and were not required to include public bath and toilet among their various uses.

5. My vertigo has become more intense as I have aged. Which meant that there were times when I was legitimately freaking out during the rain-forest canopy walk at Kakum National Park.

6. Though we were unimpressed with the reggae at world-famous Big Milly’s in Kokrobrite, their cultural drumming and dancing night was incredible, all the more so because the show was not put on for us, at least not entirely — the entire village was in attendance.

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7. The adorable baby goats running around all of the towns have convinced Dan to become a goat farmer. Anyway, when you visit us and hear the baa-ing, at least you will know what that is all about.

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8. Our “VIP” air-conditioned bus from Accra to Cape Coast began with 20 minutes of preaching and group hymns
followed by 20 minutes of biblical trivia. Unfortunately, both were conducted in Twi, which, in addition to being a language we do not know, is a tonal language we do not know, so we were unable to join in. On one hand, it is nice to have a group of people praying with you as you think, “Please, God, do not let anybody steal my bag from under this bus, and please do not let this bus topple over as it swerves to avoid the potholes.” On the other hand, particularly as the preaching entered it’s second half hour, Dan was longing for a greater separation of church and state, and I have to admit that it is a bit disconcerting that across Africa (we ran into a similar group prayer/song to Allah on the ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar) — the safety of your journey is entirely in the hands of God or one of his sons.

9. One night in Cape Coast, Dan and I bought a round at a neighborhood bar, for everyone in the bar. For $1.75, including tip. The whisky did come in bags.

10. In Ghana, people eat their delicious ground nut soup with their fingers (there are hand-washing stations at the tables). It still grosses Dan out, something about the dirt under your finger nails slipping into the soup. It is best with what is sometimes called banku, but goes by other names as well — fermented maize dough.

mmmm. Ground nut soup.
mmmm. Ground nut soup.

11. Many of the kids we see in the villages are happy. Some are reasonably well off, though most are not. Some are malnourished, but the vast majority are not. Most wear shoes, but some do not.

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Ghana Must Go is a good book, particularly in its descriptions of Ghana, and it includes references to Kokrobite and Big Milly’s. You should read it. This is one of my favorite parts:

“The child was smiling brightly, possessed of that brand of indomitable cheerfulness Kweku had only seen in children living in poverty near the equator: an instinct to laugh at the world as they found it, to find things to laugh at, to know where to look. Excitement at nothing and at everything, inextinguishable. Inexplicable under the circumstances. Amusement with the circumstances.”

And a bit later:

“Later in America he’d see [those kind of eyes] again, in the emergency room mostly, where eleven-year-olds die: the calm eyes of a child who has lived and died destitute and knows it, both accepting and defying the fact. with precisely the same heedlessness the world had shown her, and him, all dirt-poor children. The same disregard.”

A Lifetime of Amazing Pictures

Dan has been looking at his pictures over the last several weeks and saying how we have “a lifetime of amazing pictures.” Now, admittedly, Dan’s camera is better than mine, and I’ve been busy — booking bus tickets, doing laundry, knocking ants off the bed, reading, squatting over toilets, packing, unpacking…I don’t know — but it wasn’t until today that I had a chance to look through my last six weeks of pictures, and OMG. Some of my absolute favorites are below, and links to some of the galleries are below that.

Some galleries:

Beijing

Hong Kong

Vietnam

Cambodia

Tokyo

The first stop of our trip was Tokyo. I have always been interested in Tokyo. For reasons that are hard to explain, the city fascinated me. From various stories, images, and videos, Tokyo in many ways has to me seemed like a look into the future. And the people seemed to have such a passion for everything they do. I wanted to see some of this technology– bullet trains, LED stairs, flat screen TVs projecting information and advertisements on every wall and this passion, and the crazy quirkiness of the city that one hears about.

Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market

Our first evening was spent figuring out how to get internet in our room, which, do to a surprising lack of wireless required not fewer than three cables and an adapter, and getting Udon noodles for dinner followed by a sip of Japanese whiskey at a standing bar. The first real stop on our itinerary was Tsukiji fish market the following morning. It was really interesting to see the largest fish market in the world. I have never really gotten into raw fish sushi. I have enjoyed veggie sushi, tempura sushi, egg, etc… but have I generally steered clear of fish. Trying it every once in awhile to see if my tastes had gotten ‘sopisticated’ enough for real sushi. For years, I had claimed that I would give it another good shot when I can try the very best in Tokyo [NOTE from Erin — Dan wouldn’t actually let us get the very best sushi in Tokyo (see Jiro Dreams of Sushi) something about money and trees.] It became a mantra to the point that it was a bucket list item, to go to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and push my boundries trying a bunch of sushi. We walked the area enjoying some free samples and conversation in the restaurant square across from the market, before heading in to see the whole sellers and avoid getting hit by various people on weird moving devices. After exploring the market, it was time to go back to the restaurant area and dig in. I got a creative sampler with 6 or so fish pieces.

I learned:

  • Tuna is the best;) Fatty tuna is the very best (you will see that this is accurately reflected in the price).
  • I am not a fan of Squid, too chewy. Although the best places in JP claim to have not chewy squid. (We later had sliced squid at Zipangu, which was much better, so maybe really high end is OK)
  • I still don’t really like Salmon, but will keep trying
  • I really like egg sushi
  • I like prosciutto sushi
  • I really like soy crepe sushi, which I saw for the first time in Tokyo
  • I don’t like Roe

After our first stop we walked around a bit more and needed to try another place. Our second sushi-bar definitely was better than our first, here we just ordered single items and I really enjoyed my lightly grilled semi-fatty tuna. It is kind of as close to bacon mixed with good steak as one could get. I am sure we will pick up some more sushi for snacks the rest of our time in Tokyo and hopefully I will be happy to add a few fish pieces to my normal eating repertoire back home.

Tokyo Station

A maze of people, shops, foods, and trains. One could explore the sprawling station alone for a week. It was a place to explore and feast at Ramen Alley, where we visited Rokurinsha, a top ramen shop, and recommended by several friends. Making various connections through the station we definitely got lost a little bit, but never too bad. From this launch point we visited:

The station was our jumping off point to explore the city:

  • Shibuya, Meiji Shrine and neighborhoods.
  • Akihabara, electric city
  • Akasaka, Zipangu restaurant and neighborhoods.
  • Shinjuku, (Robot Restaurant) and bars
  • Yurakucho, Tsukiji fish market
  • and finally to leave the city and head to Osaka

Trains

One of the reasons I was really excited to visit Japan was to see their train system. Hearing stories of it being the best in the world and how fast the bullet trains were, had always made me want to visit. We bought a 7 day JR Rails pass, and have a Pasmo card to ride the subway. Overall, I have been super impressed. A city with so many people and we hardly see traffic and cars around the city. Many places we visited had major streets shut down allowing only foot traffic making for amazing pedestrian malls. The signs and directions inside the transit system are well done and clear. The staff and security are extremely helpful. It made me wish the US had done a better job with subway systems. The circle around Tokyo city with spokes of major stations connecting through many routes makes it far easier to get from point to point here than in Manhattan where everything is in a straight line constantly blocking one another. It was fun to take the long route to some destinations so we could complete the full Yamanote loop around Tokyo. Really, the system is so clear that without GPS or our phone’s internet initially working we got from Narita airport to Tokyo station on the Narita Express (N’EX) and made our transfer over the subway to our hotel without any problems. The level of detail they have put into making the experience good is simply amazing and awe inspiring.

Our Impressions of the People and the Culture

I don’t know if it was because we watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi on our flight to Tokyo, but I swear that, particularly in the city, you could feel the desire people had to do one thing really well – devoting their lives to perfecting a single task. Combined with the dispersion of technology, this type of culture leads to a cult-like restaurant scene — you can always pick out THE BEST ramen restaurant and THE BEST sushi restaurant by the crowds gathered out front, even when there is another roman restaurant next door, sitting empty. Only one can be the best. It also seems to lead to an intense work culture. We saw people (men, mainly) walking out of their office buildings at 9 and 10 o’clock at night. It’s also possible to understand how that type of  work culture could make it difficult to balance a family and a career (and could lead to the low percentage of women and mothers in the Japanese workforce), and could lead also to Japan’s relatively high suicide rate. Though we saw only the public, service-oriented types of work, it was possible to see how it could be hard to sit behind the counter at an empty restaurant, next to one stuffed with young, working, chatting, eating people.

On the positive side, it does seem to lead to people taking great pride in their work, which we noticed particularly in using the transportation systems. Workers would literally run down passageways, and if we arrived at a counter when someone else was already asking a question, another person would appear, eager to help us figure out how to get where we were going.

Japan has Things Figured Out

Japan seems to have got almost everything figured out. There is no tipping, people just help you and serve you cheerfully because it is their job to do so. And things I had always wondered about were answered with a solution. For example:
Is it gross to sit on a toilet seat that someone else just sat on?
Yes, it is. That is why, in public restrooms, you are helpfully provided with either a “Japanese squat toilet” (no need to sit on anything) or a western-style toilet, appointed with toilet seat sanitizer, either in form of wipes or as a sanitizing spray to spray on “50 cm of toilet paper” and wipe the seat.
Is it gross to put my bag down on the floor?
Yes, that is why even restaurants with no more than 6 seats around a counter provide you with a basket in which to place you bag.

Speaking of Toilets

The toilets in Japan are amazing. Even the squat variety is easy to use with minimal mess, always accompanied by a flushing mechanism, and often accompanied by a frequently-cleaned bar to use for balance. But, the toilets in the hotels (even our budget hotels) were simply incredible. They came with heated seats, a heated shower (back and front) and a stop button (helpfully labeled in English). The toilets at fancier establishments in Tokyo also had these types of toilets, but with only the panic/help button labeled in English (all of the other buttons, often has many as 8, were labeled in Japanese only), which made me too intimated to actually try any of the functionality.
Our first Japanese Toilet
Our first Japanese Toilet

An Exception — The Gomi Strategy

Dan and I spent days wondering around Tokyo, trash in our hands, pockets, and bags, looking for trashcans. And then, we had dinner with our friends who have been living in Tokyo for a month. They told us that to live in Tokyo, you must have a gomi strategy. Almost no one litters in Japan, but public trashcans are few and far between, and difficult for tourists to find. So, you have to have a strategy. Carry a plastic bag to collect your trash, or, if you buy a can of iced coffee or other good from a vending machine or convenience store, slam it, and dispose of it in the cans located directly outside the store. This explains why you will see business people, sometime after 10 pm, all standing outside of a 7-11, slamming their beers.

Tokyo Quirkiness

I have read, seen, and heard about wild and bizarre things in Tokyo. I just wanted to experience and see some of the lovely weirdness of the city. We hit up some neighborhoods known to be more quirky, a show that is known to be amusing and non-nonsensical, and explored alleys searching for the perfect tiny hidden bar.

Robot Restaurant is a quirky show of song, dance, and ‘acting’. In theory it is a dinner show, but the food can cost extra and most give it horrible reviews. We chose to eat elsewhere and just enjoy beer and sake with the show. The show doesn’t seem to make much sense but generally has the theme of evil robots fighting the good humans. It was a great way to see some oddball Japanese humor. While it does target tourists locals enjoy the show as well, I believe there were 3 people celebrating their birthday’s at our show. Really the photos and various videos can’t do justice to the spectacle you are immersed in (and if your in the front row occasionally dodging).

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Piss Alley Bars, not kidding this is what a collection of back alley bars is known as. Even with the amazingly inviting name we decided to check it out. We wandered through crazy alleys with tiny bars that could fit 4 to 6 people. Many dark with stairwells disappearing into the unknown. Eventually we picked a stairwell to find a happy well dressed gentlemen ready to make us cocktails. It wasn’t our favorite as we were hoping to find a place with some more locals chatting. The bar tender didn’t know English and we don’t know enough Japanese, but we all had a good time.

Akihabara’s Electric City is just wild to me. I like electronics and computers. This place has a lot of those, all trying to beat out each others prices. Although that is what the area was originally known for now that while interesting takes second seat to the manga and video games. The area is full of comic, comic fans in outfits, video game arcades. Giant Sega signs and buildings seem to be around every corned. People waiting in line to see and play the latest and greatest game. It also has a large number of maid cafes, which is pretty funny. We didn’t drop by any but saw plenty of people in costumes trying to get visitors into their shops. The coolest part of this area was that all the streets were completely shut down. So people could wander down the middle of the road and all over the place. It made for great views of the cityscape and pleasant walking as you didn’t have to use all your energy avoiding people.

Mildly Air Conditioned  In a series of campaigns beginning in 2005, the Japanese government has set thermostats in all government and public buildings to 28 degrees Celsius (82.5 degrees Fahrenheit) and encouraged business to do the same, encouraging business people to dress down for work, with open, short-sleeved shirts. And, while, I think it is fair to say that the most common business outfit we saw was dark pants with a long-sleeved white shirt, we saw very few ties on businessmen, and a few white, short-sleeved shirts in the crowds. I hate the over-air-conditioned feel of so much of the US in the summer (especially around DC), and I hate that I, and half of my co-workers, had to use space-heaters at our work spaces to stay comfortable in the summer, and so, I am quite a fan of the Cool Biz campaign. I will admit that schlepping luggage through 85 degree subway tunnels can make one rather sweaty and somewhat smelly. But I loved not having to bring a sweater when I went out to dinner.
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When I Close My Eyes and Think of Japan

I see masses of people all moving in choreographed crowds, always on the left (except in some passageways and stairways where signs indicate that you should stay on the right — this was confusing), feel my neck craning up to see directional signs pointing to trains and metro lines, and hear smiling people saying, “arigatou gozaimasu” (thank you very much). There are about 128 million people in Japan, an area smaller than California (population 38 million).

Final Notes

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Not enough photos? See Dan’s full Tokyo photo gallery and Erin’s full Tokyo photo gallery (we were trying to merge them, but Google got upset about it).

Helpful Tokyo travel posts passed on by @abatalion:

I found the Rough Pocket Guide to Tokyo pretty useful and fun to read on the trains as we approached destinations.

We used the JR 7 day rail pass and thought it worked great for the type of traveling we did. You still need to pay for some subway and buses, but we did a lot of day trips to nearby cities like Kyoto and Nara as well as using the local JR loop line in towns when it made sense. Really just the cost of the Tokyo-Osaka round trip covered the cost.