Aug 072017
 

One of the most frequent questions I got last year was “after you’ve been to every country, what will you do next?”

Over the last two years, the only community of “Country Collectors” or “Competitive Travelers” (take your pick) has actually come together quite a bit more, thanks to a combination of Facebook and various other websites. It’s a small club of 200-300 people by most accounts, and it’s been interesting to watch how people travel after going to every country.

Many people can’t stop collecting, so they go for the Travelers Century Club list of 325 distinct places. Others start ticking off US States, or Russian regions, or the UNESCO heritage list. There’s an endless number of possibilities for those of us who are list focused.

My plans were to at least take the next year to revisit places I had enjoyed, and spend a bit more time doing fun trips. My results at that have been decidedly mixed. Due to heavy work travel, I found myself in Croatia, Thailand, and Vienna over the last year – getting to see all three more in depth due to spending a week at a time in one city. I also made a round the world trip back in February, returning to places I’d already been and flying a variety of fun routes.

Then of course, I got sucked into the “list” thing a bit in the spring, when Ian convinced me to go to South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Abkhazia since they are quasi-independent. I’m still very interested in doing more of these autonomous places, but happy to take the pace slower.

So, with that, I figured I would celebrate the one year anniversary of going to every country with a bit of a fun trip. The routing would be somewhat determined for me, since I had a few tickets I had bought over the past year which would soon expire if I didn’t use them (non-refundable, but date-changeable) so it became a matter of piecing things together to make those work.

I toyed with all kinds of routings. I wanted to take some “fun” flights just for the experience. I wanted to try and get to some places I hadn’t been in a long time. Due to the existing tickets, I also had to go to Sydney, Singapore, and Helsinki. Yeah…not exactly on the same side of the Earth, eh?

So, this is how it all shook out. I didn’t set out to hit all six permanently inhabited continents, but that’s how it’s going to happen. The final routing looks like this, barring any surprises:

You might notice the trip ends in Detroit. Thats because I land back in the US on not only the one year anniversary of my getting to every country, but also the day before my NEXUS membership expires. …and just my luck, they’re requiring an interview for me to renew.

That puts me in Detroit/Windsor at the front end of a long holiday weekend before my birthday…so who knows where the last five days will take me. I’m intentionally leaving it open-ended for another week or two at least.

The start is also a little uncertain. I’m considering being brave and flying non-rev down to Santiago to start the trip, but fortunately I have a backup refundable award ticket booked on another airline just in case. So the front and end are a little questionable, but the middle is solid now. Who knows, since I’ll be in Detroit maybe I’ll make a quick two day hop to Europe or Asia at the end. All depends how things shake out!

Rather than go through all the details, I’ll just highlight a few of the flights/travel parts I’m really looking forward to:

  • Air Canada 787 from Santiago to Buenos Aires
  • The Private Room in the AmEx Centurion Lounge in Buenos Aires
  • My first South Atlantic crossing: Sao Paulo to Johannesburg
  • My first South Indian ocean crossing: Johannesburg to Perth
  • Singapore A380 suites from Sydney to Delhi, with a 23:55 connection to enjoy Singapore and the Private Room
  • Uzbekistan Airways 767 and 787 from Delhi to Moscow with stops in Amritsar and Tashkent
  • Russian SAPSAN train first class from Moscow to Petersburg
  • Allegro train from Petersburg to Helsinki

Feel free to share any must-see things to see/do along the way. Leaving in just a couple of days now…

Aug 252016
 

One of the most common questions I get about travel regards staying healthy. Not the normal stuff like how do you avoid catching a cold flying in a large tin can filled with sick people, but how do you actually stay healthy in developing countries? This question is usually followed by “oh I could never go to Africa, don’t you need lots of shots?” Well, yes, and no. To try and address some of these questions, I’ll break travel health in developing countries down into three categories: (1) what shots do you need (2) what medications do you need and (3) what is safe to eat and drink?

As a bit of background, two things I need to mention: this isn’t professional medical advice, but much of it is pulled from the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) or other governmental travel health sites. Consult your own travel health specialist for a professional medical opinion. Secondly, this isn’t advice for your next vacation to Paris or London. In general traveling in developed countries (most of Europe, major cities of Southeast Asia, Australia, Japan, etc) doesn’t require too much in the way of specialized preparation as far as travel health goes. Oh, but if you go to Australia the sun is most uncivilized, so you might want to bring extra sun cream due to the holes in the ozone later. Moving right along…

Eating and Drinking

As far as eating and drinking go, the first thing you should always think about is water. You need clean water to survive, and that’s not always the easiest thing to find. The good news is, in most developing countries lots of people drink bottled water for safety, so it’s relatively easy to find. Drinking tap water just isn’t worth the risk – it would be all to easy to at best catch some stomach bug that ruins days of your vacation and at worst you could end up with some nasty parasite. Even if this means getting extorted by your fancy hotel for a $5 bottle of water at the hotel restaurant, do it! Think of how much you spent on your vacation, and the $5 is a small price for staying healthy. Also, when buying water, make sure the bottle is still sealed. If there’s any question that the seal might have been tampered with, don’t drink it! People are of mixed opinions on brushing teeth with hotel tap water, but personally I don’t risk it. It just takes a few splashes of bottled water to brush your teeth, so again, not worth the risk.

Regarding other beverages, in many developing countries you’ll find lots of fruit juices for sale, especially on the street. Generally you have no idea how clean the press making that juice was, so I would personally avoid it. In hotel restaurants and in restaurants with a more middle class group of local people I would say beverages in general are safe. You should be drinking lots of water anyways, but any other sealed and bottled beverages are generally safe as well. Including beer…you should always try the local beer! (unless you think it was brewed in someone’s bathtub…)

Food is much, much trickier. One good rule to go by is to go to places that are popular. Locals usually know the safe (and tasty) places to eat, so anywhere busy that is popular with locals is a good bet. Even better if you see lots of expatriates there – word tends to get around the expatriate community quickly about which places are sanitary to eat and drink at. A few good rules are to always be cautious of salads. Lettuce tends to get washed (if at all) with tap water, which opens you up to all the water problems. Also, anything that’s been sitting out for a long time or that is covered in mayonnaise is also a no-go in my book. I also tend to avoid seafood unless I know it actually came from the sea and is fresh. You’re not going to catch me ordering prawns in the middle of Chad. Best case they came in frozen from somewhere over 1,000 miles away, worst case…well, I don’t want to think about that… If you’re going to eat fruit, peel it first, or at least make sure you can wash the skin with bottled/filtered water.

Medications

Getting sick happens, it’s a fact of travel. Especially colds and other viruses, these things can happen anywhere, but it especially sucks when you travel. Since in developing countries it can be difficult to get basic medications, I always travel with a few basics just in case. A good list of medications is aspirin/advil/tylenol/ibuprofen, something in case your insides go evil…and you absolutely have to leave your hotel like Imodium/Loperamide, and a generic cold/flu medication to treat things like runny nose and congestion. Hopefully they are things you won’t need on your trip, but you’ll be thankful you have them if you do!

Beyond that, there are lots of places it’s super-smart to take prophylactic medication against Malaria. There are several medications out there, and a travel health clinic can advise which is best for the country you’re going to. I personally take Malerone (Atovaquone/proguanil) as I’ve never had any side effects from it, and taken once a day it has helped me avoid Malaria up until now. The CDC has a great map of where malaria is found, but the mosquitos which carry it tend to come out more at night, and reproduce in standing water. It’s not nearly as common in cities as in more rural areas, but consulting the CDC map is a great place to start. Since I have no side effects from the medication I tend to be overcautious and take it if there’s any risk, but it’s a personal choice.

Shots, Jabs, Stabs, and Vaccines

First off, if you don’t believe in science or are an anti-vaxxer please stop reading. I’m going to recommend you get jabbed to protect yourself while traveling. Because…science.

Ok…now that that’s out of the way, vaccines really fall into two categories: those you must get to travel to a country, and those that are optional. Surprisingly, only one vaccine is generally mandatory for travel and that is the yellow fever vaccine.

who_certificate

Many countries require you to show proof of yellow fever vaccine to enter the country, and if you can’t one of three things will happen: either you’ll be denied boarding by the airline before you even get on the plane (ask Ian his story about this happening to him in Colombia), you’ll be turned around and not allowed to enter when you land, or possibly the worst, you’ll be forcibly vaccinated at the airport by some needle and vaccine of unknown safety…and often charged for the convenience. Spare yourself this, and get the vaccine in advance if the country you’re traveling to requires it. You get a nifty little yellow book (also helpful for recording your other vaccines) that shows where and when you were vaccinated. The vaccine is good for 10 years, and after that you’ll need a booster to be allowed to travel. The medical community is still a bit out to debate on if the booster is really needed, but countries require it to travel, so you’ll need to get it.

Most people probably got a vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella as a child. At least in the US, people generally don’t get booster shots for this, however, there have been recent mumps outbreaks in the US (I know people who got it), so it’s recommended you get a booster if you think there’s a chance of being exposed. Again, your doctor is the best source of advice on this, but most people have it taken care of when small. Another childhood vaccine to make sure is up to date is Polio. There have been outbreaks in recent years, so best to check with your doctor if you should get a booster.

That brings us to Diphtheria and Tetanus, also know as the DTaP, Tdap, or Boostrix vaccine in the US since it also covers Pertussis. Current FDA guidelines say that only one booster dose is needed in a lifetime, but I know many doctors still give additional boosters if you do stupid stuff like step on a rusty nail…I’ve personally had at least three boosters I know of, so best to check with your doctor as there seems to be different advice on this one. You probably got it as a kid, probably had at least one booster as an adult, but best to check with your doctor before traveling to somewhere you might not be able to get a booster if needed.

There are two different Hepatitis vaccines out there as well, covering Hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis A is spread by the fecal-oral route, and is a good thing to have if you’re traveling in developing countries. Food preparation and hand-washing standards might not be up to snuff, and the CDC strongly recommends you get a single dose before traveling…even if you’re going to be staying in luxury hotels. They say to aim for four weeks before travel, but any time before travel is better than not at all. Hepatitis B is blood-borne, and usually sexually-transmitted or through contact with needles or other bodily fluids. This one isn’t really travel specific, but the CDC has a rather long list of people they recommend receive it. Again, check with your doctor….

This brings me to a few less common vaccines that you can decide on for yourself in consultation with your doctor:

  • Typhoid is nasty, and probably a good idea to get vaccinated against. It can be spread by contaminated food and water, and is common in developing countries. Unfortunately the vaccine is only 50-80% effective, but hey, that’s better than nothing!
  • Meningitis is mostly a problem in central Africa, and that vaccine is actually required before you can enter Saudi Arabia on Hajj pilgrimage. Not technically required for other travel, I got this vaccine anyways, because hey…who wants Meningitis? Plus, meningococcal disease can progress from a stiff neck and fever to death in a matter of hours, so prevention goes a long way to minimizing the chance of serious problems. It’s not long-lasting, however, and a booster is needed every five years or so.
  • Japanese Encephalitis is a problem in parts of Asia, but this is one I skipped. It’s usually only recommended if you’re going to be spending a longer period of time in the region. Like most mosquito-borne illnesses, it’s much more common in rural areas.
  • Cholera is also quite common throughout Africa as well as south and southeast Asia. The vaccine, however, is not terribly effective, and both travel medicine doctors I consulted with recommended not getting it. I did, however, get shaken down on the Congo-Angola border and told I had to have it…and the offered to give it for about $3 with their who-knows-how-sanitary needle…or I could pay $10 and just get a stamp and a wink. Cholera vaccine isn’t currently required for travel anywhere, so don’t fall for this!

So that about sums things about – lots to think about, but what it really boils down to is a little prevention can go a long way towards preventing serious illness. What travel health tips have you discovered in your travels that are worth sharing?

Aug 162016
 

With 195 of the 196 countries in the world visited now, I’d like to think I’ve learned at least a little bit about different places. Sure, some of these trips have been less than 24 hours and I’ve only scratched the surface of the country, but even in a short time it’s easy to discover that lots of the misconceptions you might have had about a country before visiting just don’t stand up. So, in no particular order, 14 common misconceptions I’ve recently discovered in my quest to visit every country:

10. Iranians hate Americans. The media in the United States repeats it constantly, and Iran’s government certainly doesn’t do much to dispel this notion. However, it’s hard to wander the streets of Iran for five minutes without someone coming up to you, asking where you’re from, and often inviting you back to their home for tea. I found Iranians to be some of the warmest and most hospitable people I met anywhere in the world, and they’re genuinely curious about how things really are in the United States. Sure, our governments and politicians can be pretty easy to hate on both sides…but on an individual level the vast majority of Iranian people will welcome you with open arms.

IMG_1275

9. Africa is full of disease and hunger. Usually when I tell people who haven’t visited Africa about an upcoming trip, their first questions revolve around what shots/medications I had to get, and how will I find enough safe food to eat. Sure, there are tropical and other diseases that are much more common in Africa (malaria, dengue, even HIV), but that doesn’t mean that walking down the street you’re going to drop dead. Regarding food, yes, there’s not a McDonalds on every corner, but you would be surprised how many places you see KFC! There are, of course, lots of hungry people in Africa, but there are lots of hungry people in the United States as well. …and like Iran, the number of times people insisted I come back to their home and join them for a meal was amazing. People may not always have much, but you’re a guest and they’re happy to share it with you.

IMG_0972

8. People in China are pushy and rude. While it’s true that overall Chinese culture isn’t the same as the west when it comes to queueing this is changing to some degree in larger cities. When people start pushing (such as boarding a plane) it’s not an attempt to be rude, but simply doing what one needs to to not get trampled in a society that views that as a norm. There’s no rudeness intended at all, and firmly holding your ground will be respected.

sb2004-206-hong kong

7. The Australian Diet Consists of Blooming Onions, Fosters, and Vegemite. In several trips to Australia I’ve never once seen a blooming onion, and all the Australians I know confirm it’s an American invention. As for Fosters, it’s incredibly uncommon and nobody drinks the stuff. Victoria Bitter (VB) is much more the stereotypical beverage and a higher quality beer costs up to $30 for a six pack thanks to taxes. Unfortunately, the vegemite part is true…and is definitely an acquired taste no matter how thinly you spread it and how much butter you use.

…but you can also get kangaroo and crocodile pizza:

IMG_0338

6. Argentina is Nothing but Cowboys, Steaks, and Evita. While it’s true all three play a huge part making up the Argentine identity, there’s so much more to the country. You can’t deny that modern Argentine politics was largely shaped by Peron and Evita, and you’ll find some of the most mouth-watering steaks in the world, but you’ll also find a vibrant international city in Buenos Aires and amazing skiing in the south and west. Oh, and don’t forget the amazing waterfalls at Iguazu and the Casa Rosada at night:

IMG_3292

5. You Can Get By Everywhere in English. While this is more true than it’s ever been, it’s still not universal. In most major world cities you will have no trouble in English (and in most European capitals the quality of English will be astounding) but there are still places where English is extremely limited. In Europe, Spain and Portugal are exceptions, and especially in Brazil you will find almost no english spoken outside the most touristic of places. Similar in China – get off the few major sites and international hotels, and limited to no English. Plus, if you want to see smaller towns you’ll find English much less common. This also goes for Russia and Central Asia outside capital cities. That’s not to say don’t go – most people will be happy to help, and do their best to communicate with you despite the language gap.

4. South Africa is rife with crime. Yes, South Africa is no stranger to both petty and violent crime. Yes, the stories of carjackings and people being robbed at gunpoint on the street are true. However, the same things happen in major American urban centres if you venture into the wrong neighbourhoods at the wrong time of time. Keep to well-trafficked areas, and use the “women, children, and old people rule” and you’ll be fine. The rule means simply if women, old people, and children are out strolling in the area, chances are things are just fine.

Cape Town sunset:

IMG_6875

3. Nigeria is nothing but Investment Scams, Corruption, and Oil Money. Is there corruption in Nigeria? Absolutely, but there’s also amazing beaches and some of the most amazingly warm people in Africa. One day I was sitting on a deserted beach just outside central Lagos, and the next partying at the craziest wedding I’ve ever been to. I found Nigerians to be some of the most fun-loving and happiest people I met in Africa…and they want you to join in the fun! I highly recommend to anyone who has a Nigerian friend they know in the US – try and get yourself an invite and see the real country. It’s an amazing place!

Very festive Nigerian wedding…the theme was obviously pink:

IMG_0657

2. Japan is all Pokemon, Anime, and Cat Cafes. Sure, all three of those things are very modern Japan, and all originated there and have become global phenomenons. At the same time, however, Japan is still a deeply traditional society with traditions and a history that goes back thousands of years. While Western society is certainly very at home in downtown Tokyo (as attested to by Starbucks everywhere), just turn the corner and you’ll find a temple that goes back hundreds of years that young and old alike still visit and respect. I found nowhere in the world where modern and traditional manage to exist side by side quite like in Japan.

IMG_2564

IMG_2589

1. The Gulf States are Largely a Vast Desert Full of Camels and People that Despise Western Culture. So, first off, yes, there’s a lot of desert in the Arabian peninsula. It gets extremely hot and dry, and yes, there’s a lot of camels – outside the cities at least. Speaking of the cities, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and especially Qatar and the UAE and littered with enourmous shopping malls full of western brands. Dubai has dozens of Starbucks, Caribou, Tim Hortons, Costa and every other coffee shop known to western man. …and all of them are packed with local men sitting for hours and talking over coffee. Like with Japan, Western culture and convenience have been imported and customized for local tastes. Infrastructure and convenience wise the gulf states are some of the most modern places on earth which in some part is owed to the fact that in many of them (especially Qatar and the UAE) over 75% of the population is expatriates!

IMG_1870

IMG_1786

So that’s my list of 10 of my bigger surprises – what has surprised you about places you went? What did you discover that you didn’t expect?

Jan 232012
 

What, you’ve never heard of Daallo Airlines? Shame on you – one of the finest outfits in the business. I mean, you even have the luxury of calling a 1-800 number in the US to book with them, where you get transfered approximately 114 times to different people, have to fax photocopies of your credit cards to another 14 people, and then email them as well just so they’re sure they can read them. Surprisingly…after all this…you actually do get a confirmation number…and when you check in at the airport things are flawless. Welcome to 1990 I guess? But…it all worked. Then, we got to the airport.

Honestly, the airport in Hargeisa was perfectly fine, and perfectly functional. Check-in was perfect, and we were informed that today we would have the luxury of travel on a relic – an Ilyushin IL-18D – a relic of an aircraft that is a bit of a legend from Soviet days. This plane was such a relic, I’m still trying to get details on its origins! Enough of that, however. Check-in was so good that our bags were tagged with proper electronic baggage tags, we got proper electronic boarding passes….and then off to passport control and security – which were honest, efficient, and only collected the fees posted on the wall. I was beginning to get a bit shocked at how anti-climactic this was!

Daallo Airlines Flight 159
Hargeisa, Somalia to Djibouti City, Djibouti
Depart: 10:00, Arrive 10:45 – later adjusted via e-mail to Depart 14:00, Depart 14:45 – flight time 45 minutes
Aircraft: Ilyushin IL-18D, Registration UP-I1801, Manufactured who knows when!
Seats: TBD, Printed as 18A and 18B

So, into the waiting hall where they were selling newspapers and food. THe usual sodas, crisps, etc, and then it was 14:00…and no plane. We found there were some plastic chairs out on the tarmac, so we went out there to have a sit and wait for our plane. Not much to see, but more interesting than inside!

Continue reading »

Oct 252011
 

This will be mostly a photo update.  We were up quite early, where the lodge provided (instant) coffee and muffins before a 6am safari drive.  The idea is that the animals are most active at this hour, and foraging for food.  What I’d failed to plan for is the weather.  It was COLD…and especially cold when the open-air jeep got moving.  Everywhere we’d been on this trip was in the 80s-90 fahrenheit, so I wasn’t prepared for moving in the wind when it was barely 50!  Oh well, the sun came up within the hour, and at least made things tolerable.  So, on that note…

Well, good morning Mr Giraffe!

Continue reading »