In Praise of Men

I often have to wait a while for the afternoon bus, so when I saw it approaching after only a few minutes I jumped on, but only to turn around to see that someone had just sat in the last available seat. I grabbed the back of a seat and tried to brace myself against the herky-jerky motion of the bus all the way home, but today (as always) was really my lucky day. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see two gentlemen offering me their seat. I graciously accepted one and as I sat down I saw an even older woman climb aboard the bus. Now, in Medellin, all the buses have really small turnstiles that everyone must go through and I wasn’t sure this woman was going to fit. She managed to squeeze herself through and another gentlemen stood up and offered her his seat. As she sat down, her change purse opened and coins scattered on the floor. Since the coins looked close, I bent down and gathered them up and returned them to her. Then I noticed some coins on the other side of the bus and tapped the woman on the shoulder and pointed to the coins. From behind me, a gentlemen saw the coins, came forward, knelt down, gathered the remaining coins and returned them to the owner. It was a real team effort and I couldn’t help noticing how courteous the men were. At this point, all the passengers were watching this unfold and there was a chuckle from most people because the whole scene looked kind of funny.

No sooner did I settle in my seat once again, that I saw that the bus diverted from its intended route. I thought that perhaps he was avoiding an accident or the traffic was re-routed for some reason, but when the bus didn’t get back on track after a few blocks I started to worry. I looked at my GPS and, sure enough, I was headed in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go. OK, don’t panic, I said to myself. I didn’t know if I should get off the bus and get on the return bus going the other way. I thought I remembered hearing something about the buses go circular in one direction only. So I stayed on for a while, thinking of what my choices were. I pulled out the phone to call Bill and his phone was off. Still not panicking!

I turned on my translator only to find I had no service. Now, I’m starting to panic. I am a beginner Spanish speaker. I just started speaking in a classroom situation. I make my way to the bus driver to try and tell him where I wanted to get off and when I opened my mouth, I forgot every word of Spanish I learned. I choked! When I finally mumbled something about San Diego, the bus driver realized I didn’t speak English and his eyes bulged out like he was thinking, “Hey lady, I’m only the bus driver. I don’t speak English!” He looked over to the passenger seated next to him and asked her if she knew what I was talking about.

Well, she tried really hard to get her point across in English, but after the first two or three words, everything was in Spanish. I just nodded my head and hoped I would be able to recognize the stop I got on so I could get off and get on the right bus. The lady continued to talk to me and it was clear to all on the bus that we were having trouble communicating.

Again, another gentlemen came to the rescue. He stepped to the front of the bus and asked, in almost perfect English, how he could help me. I told him where I wanted to go and he said he would show me. I thanked him and settled in for a long ride back to town. When things started to look familiar, sure enough, the gentlemen indicated to me that it was time to get off. I saw what I thought was a familiar landmark and started to walk towards it. The gentlemen stopped me and said that this was only a transfer point and we needed to catch another bus. He not only escorted me across a very busy street, he paid my fare on the next bus!

I grabbed the last two seats on the bus and that’s when I had an opportunity to meet Diego, who grew up in Medellin. We had about a 15 minute ride to my stop and Diego and I chatted the whole way. Diego pointed out my stop, told me what direction to go, and I was off. I made it home only an hour later than usual, but what an experience.

I wanted to share this story with everyone because it’s always when you least expect it that you experience random simple acts of kindness. I’m truly grateful to the men who helped me today — from Chucho, who made sure I had the money for the bus, to the gentlemen who offered me their seats, to the bus driver, who never lost his patience, and a special thanks to Diego, who guided me back to my home base.

I’ll save my story of what happened when I went to add more data to my phone for another day!

Buen Dia everyone!

Gratis dancing on the street

Gratis dancing on the street

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Cindy’s Perspective on Free Camping

It’s one tight space! One person has to lean against the side of the van if the other wants to pass by. “Excuse me,” was said quite often. It’s amazing we weren’t in each other’s face more often, more like, “Get the !!#^” out of my way!” Everything is quite compact. When you’re facing one way cooking over the two-burner stove, your back almost touches the tiny wardrobe that two people are allotted for their possessions. Everything has its place (slots for plates, bowls, cups) and you have to put things back where they belong (1) because there is no room to put it anywhere else, and (2) it’s the only safe place to put it without it falling and breaking while driving. There’s a table for two that needs to be converted to a bed every night before you can retire. The first night we couldn’t figure out how the bed was supposed to go, so my feet hung off the end. I knew something wasn’t right. If my feet hang off the side at 5′, what would an average sized person do? We got the bed configuration correct, but it took a few more days to realize the cushions should be placed in a certain order so you didn’t wake up with a sore back every day, though we couldn’t prevent Bill from waking up with a sore neck that lasted for a few days. And that’s just about the size of the camper!

We rented the large van so Bill can stand up

We rented the large van so Bill can stand up

Now for the beauty of freedom camping. We were told that as long as you’re self-contained, you can pull over anywhere if you’re tired, and camp for the night. Self-contained means a toilet on board, but since Bill didn’t want to use it, it made our options limited. But in many places you see signs posted saying “No Overnight Camping”. Tourist Information Centers also discourage freedom camping. They issue brochures on where to camp, but they all say the same thing. “Don’t assume it’s OK to camp anywhere. You must be over 200 meters off the road. Not on private land. Not near the center of town.” They also state that they prefer you sleeping in Holiday Park campgrounds which is like camping in a parking lot. Your neighbor is no more than five feet away. No privacy at all! The Holiday Park campgrounds cost around $50 per night and you get a hot shower, you can dump your waste and fill your water tank. The government sites, while inexpensive, offer no hot water showers, no waste dump and no fresh water to refill your storage tank. Some don’t even have flush toilets. This is not what I signed up for. So we spent a lot of money for the camper van thinking we would enjoy the experience as well as save some money. We were wrong on both counts.

Holiday Park accommodations. You get to know your neighbor quite well

Holiday Park accommodations. You get to know your neighbor quite well

Finding a free site that we both like isn’t easy. Bill prefers a deserted spot while I prefer to have at least one other camper around. I want to find out if it’s OK to camp in a particular place and Bill is content to set up camp anywhere and assume it’s OK as long as there’s no sign indicating otherwise.

You always have to worry about your water usage. We have a 10 liter water tank, and if you fill a few water bottles for a day hike, that doesn’t leave much for anything else. Water is a precious commodity that I’m learning to conserve even more than before.

Looks isolated now, but in the morning there were about 10 other vans

Looks isolated now, but in the morning there were about 10 other vans

With all this being said, as I’m sitting here writing this, we are freedom camping at this gorgeous place overlooking an inlet with small birds feeding at low tide and lush green mountains rising over the other side.

View from freedom camping site

View from freedom camping site

I could stay here another night or two, but, alas, we need to get moving. We have 5 more nights (and 7 hours, 13 minutes and counting) in this van and we have lots to see and do before we return it.

Lessons learned on the road

Lessons learned on the road

Before we started our journey, I considered myself a seasoned traveller. Little did I know how much I would learn. Here are a few examples:

1) There’s a hole in the ozone layer over Australia. Yes, that’s right! Just over Australia. Now, some people say it’s moving, while others say there’s a hole over Thailand, but since Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer, I’m applying sunscreen multiple times a day, and I see everyone else doing the same.

2) Always carry toilet paper. Whether you’re in Africa, Indonesia or anywhere in between. You’ll never know when you might need it. Don’t think that just because you’re in an international airport, they would have TP, because that’s just not the case.

3) There’s no such thing as calling collect to your credit card company in third world countries. That 800 number that’s listed on the back of your credit card does not work outside the United States. It’s almost impossible to find a landline, let alone an operator. I’ve tried googling how to make a collect call and there is information on how to do it, but it never worked. I bought Skype credit very cheaply and it works well (even if I have to call on my dime).

4) Your international debit or credits cards don’t work in all locations. In developing countries, the cost of using cards is too high for vendors, so there’s a service charge added to your bill if you pay by credit. Cash rules. You’ll just need to find an ATM that accepts your card — and hope it has enough cash!

5) Always carry a flashlight when walking at night. I’ve seen sidewalks that have two foot gaps in them leading to the sewer 8 feet below.

6) It’s hard for a woman to get a good haircut. Now Bill wouldn’t say the same for men since he has had a few inexpensive haircuts that he’s happy with. But that hasn’t been my experience. I ask for a trim and end up getting it chopped off. I had a rather difficult time explaining that I only wanted my hair to be thinned out. I had to look for the right scissors and show them to her.

7) When checking out hotels on islands in the developing world, it’s a good idea to ask if they have freshwater showers (hot water helps as well). You really can’t get you or your clothes clean using salt water. White shirts don’t stay white for long with salt or fresh water. For long-term travel, pack dark colors only.

8) You don’t always need to make advance room or tour reservations. Booking in advance costs more. Most of the time, you get a better rate if you walk in off the street. If you have to make an advance reservation, make it for only one night. The hotel could be quite different from what they advertise online. You can always add more nights once you’ve checked out the hotel. This doesn’t apply during high season.

9) There’s the locals’ price and then there’s the tourists’ price; and there’s a big difference between the two. You can be sure that the locals didn’t pay $65 for a “nurse’s” visit on tiny Gili Air. I’m guessing they would pay about $2.

10) Always shop around. Don’t buy something in the first place you look and never pay full price. Negotiate. If you think you’re offering a fair price, and the seller doesn’t budge, walk away. 99% of the time, they will call you back and accept your price.

11) In developing countries, cigarette smoking is very popular and people can and do smoke in restaurants and bars.

12) Massages are really cheap in the developing world where labor is inexpensive. ($10 for a 90 minute massage.)

13) English is spoken (or at least understood) in most countries. Be careful what you say — people might be listening.

14) Squattie potties are difficult to use if you have bad knees and offer little, if any, privacy.

15) It helps to know the metric system. It’s used almost everywhere outside the US.

16) Most people are friendly and helpful. They are more than happy to give you directions or offer advice.

I’m looking forward to new experiences and what else I might learn.

What about you? What have you learned in your travels that has surprised you?

Surf’s Up and Singing for Food

Today, for the first time ever, I went surfing.  We are staying in a hostel that has loads of activities, some free, some reasonably priced. It turned out that the hostel hired a new surfing instructor and they were offering a free lesson with a wetsuit.  I figured what the heck.  When will I have another opportunity to go surfing for free.  I didn’t know how long I’d last, so I certainly didn’t want to pay a lot (or anything) to find out that surfing wasn’t for me.

I had so much fun!  The instructor was great — patient, good with beginners and safety conscious.  There were four of us out there, and I was the oldest and shortest (I mention my stature because I found it harder to get on the board than the taller people).  At first, the instructor advised me to get on the board and then told me, “start paddling NOW!”  And sure enough, off I went with the wave.  Granted, I didn’t stand up, but I did get to ride the wave, and I was thrilled.  

The sea was a bit rough so when I went back out to catch another wave, the water would splash in my face, turn the board around and knock me half way down.  I’d spit out the water, hang on to the board, and keep on pushing forward.  I was way out of my comfort zone, but I stuck with it.  Ryan (the instructor) gave me a few more pointers, and before I knew it, I was on my own.  I didn’t go as far out to catch the bigger waves, but I had so much fun.  It was all very exciting!  

I stayed out for about 2 hours, which was plenty of time to figure out that I probably won’t do it again.  My arms are sore, my legs are bruised, and my body battered.  But nonetheless, I was glad I tried it.

After returning to the hostel, I grabbed a quick bite to eat and ventured to a local school (Bulugha Farm School in Chintsa, SA) where the children where literally singing and dancing for food.  They were hoping/looking for donations so they could enjoy a hot breakfast and lunch since they didn’t get much to eat at home.  It was an honor for them to be at the school to begin with since not everyone could afford the tuition.  Their uniforms looked ragged and some had no shoes.  But their eyes shone brightly and they sang with such enthusiasm that I think it was a good thing I only went with a small amount of money; otherwise I would have given them all I had in my pocket (which I ultimately did).  

The day we were there, the school was accepting delivery of new desks from the government which they had ordered in 2010. Every child helped remove the old, broken chairs and tabletops from their classroom to bring in the new desks. They were so excited. I noticed that even though the old tables/desks were nicked and dented, there was no graffiti on any of them. Not like in the good old USA!

Arriving in Tanzania

We arrived at Mt. Kiliminjaro Airport at 3:30 a.m. and after getting a Visa, going through customs,finding our driver, and getting to our lodge, it was nearly 5:00 a.m. and still pitch black outside.

When making the reservation at the hostel, I didn’t know I was going to have to climb a mountain to get to it. The driver/guide had a flashlight and was leading the way to the lodge.  Bill was close behind him but, as usual, I was a few yards behind.  It was difficult seeing where I was going. I knew I was walking on dirt, that it was a narrow, steep path and kept losing my footing while stumbling over rocks.  We kept climbing.  

Finally, we get to our room.  It was hardly bigger than the bed!  The bathroom door didn’t have a handle so you had to kind of punch it open and coax it close.  The toilet wasn’t working.  The blanket didn’t cover the entire bed.  The room was cold.  I put on extra layers and passed out thinking, this is too much!  I’m too old for this. (Side note: You never know exactly what you’re getting into when you stay at a hostel. We’ve stayed in some great ones and some that I wanted to leave as soon as I walked in.) We had reserved our room for two nights and I kept thinking there’s no way I’m staying the second night.  I was willing to lose our money, if necessary.  I’m not sure Bill was feeling the same way.  

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After only a few hours sleep, we wake up so we could start planning a safari.  After searching the complex for someone, we finally find Justin, the owner of the lodge, in one of the outbuildings.  He greets us with a big hello and invites us into his apartment for breakfast. He opens the shades and we are treated to a nice view of mountains.  

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Luckily, everything worked out fine. in addition to being the “CEO” of Arusha Lodge Hostel and Adventure (he is the only one running the place), he organized and arranged safaris.  Bill had already done some shopping around,so we knew what to expect.  Justin was able to offer us what we wanted at a reasonable price. 

The icing on the cake, though, was what happened the rest of the day. Justin had his driver pick us up, carry my bags back down the mountain, take us to a bank, stop at a grocery store for personal supplies, get us a SIM card for our phone (going to two stalls when he thought the first one was too expensive), and went to not one, but two hotels until we were happy.  He suggested a restaurant that we should try for our evening meal, but unfortunately, we didn’t listen and had an inferior meal.  I think we will have another opportunity to try Justin’s suggestion, though, because we will be back in Arusha after our safari. 

The next day, off we go to Tarangire National Park.

Tootles to Turkey

We can’t figure out why more Americans don’t visit Turkey.  While we have seen some Americans in Istanbul, we only saw a handful in all the other places we’ve been to — and that counts the one that just finished his stint in the Peace Corps.

Inside the Grand Bazaar

Inside the Grand Bazaar

The Turkish people are kind, honest, warm, friendly, and hospitable.  They have a sense of humor (like the time we were walking down the street and a shop owner said, “tell me, how can I get your money,” or when a restaurant owner was trying to get us to eat at his place and said with a smile and a wink, “the food is really terrible.”) We met people who treated us to a 4 star dinner (see Bill’s Istanbul post).

This was more the norm than the exception. From the hotels/hostels to the ticket taker at the Metro, they went out of their way to help us. If they didn’t speak English, they would find someone who did. 

The transportation system, including buses, dolmus’, trams and ferries all ran like clockwork.  The seating was comfortable and the service exceptional.

Istanbul from the Bosphorus-Galata tower in the background

Istanbul from the Bosphorus. The Galata tower is in the background.

The food was fresh, the fruit sweet.  We enjoyed our time in Turkey very much. We’ll be back someday.

Cappuccino. Mmmmmm.

Cappuccino. Mmmmmm.

My First Hamam (or Turkish Bath)

When Bill suggested trying a Hamam, I quickly agreed. I’m all for trying something new that doesn’t require being on my feet! I was, though, a bit apprehensive about going to a place alone, knowing English wasn’t spoken, so we invited Sue and Dave, the couple we met two weeks ago in Cappadoccia.

We arrive at the Hamam where the guys go one way and Sue and I go the other. A young lady escorts us to a changing room and indicates that we should change into our bathing suits (luckily, I asked our hotel what I should bring before we left, so I was prepared — or so I thought!) Now, as I said, I’ve only known Sue for two weeks, but they put us in the same dressing room so we had no choice but to get undressed together.

After changing, we were led to the sauna (pronounced in broken English as “sue awna”) where we sit for about 15 hot minutes. This being our first experience in a Hamam, we wait for someone to come and get us, but no one comes. Finally, we decide to get up and leave the room. I figured out later that the whole Hamam experience is done on your own time. We could have spent the entire evening in the sauna if we wanted.

A scantily clad (as in bra and panties) young lady was waiting for us. She takes one look at me, points to the top of my tankini and says, “Off”. I look around and see similarly dressed young ladies “working their women” on a marble slate. So, off comes my top and I lay on my stomach. The next thing I feel is a few drops of water on my feet and then, whoosh!, warm water being poured all over my body. Then comes the soap which has a tingling sensation. The soap starts foaming and I open my eyes (big mistake — soap in eyes!) Out comes the loofah. Scrubbing here, scrubbing there. She gives me a wedgie and scrubs my butt! Authoritatively, she says “Over”. So I flip over. Scrubs some more, not missing a spot! Then she has me sit up, raises my arms, and uses the loofah from the tips of my fingers to my waist while I’m trying not to laugh because I’m ticklish.

Next she brings me to another part of the room with warm water flowing into a basin and uses a small bowl to start rinsing me off, pouring water over my head, down my back, under my arms, in between my legs, just about everywhere. She grabs some shampoo and massages my scalp and rinses me again. Then she sends me back to the first spot and after applying more soap, starts giving me a full body massage. She knows what she’s doing, kneading me in all the right places.

Lastly, she leads me to a pool, and in very broken English, she points and says “pool, sauna, shower.” She leaves me there to go and work on her next customer and I start entering the pool. After being pampered with the warm water treatment, the water feels quite chilly and the room is dark so I can’t see the bottom. I’m walking down the ladder, hoping that I can touch the bottom. Luckily, I just make it. I’m in up to my neck and on my tippy toes.

By this time, I’ve lost complete track of time. We’re supposed to meet the guys in 1 1/2 hours, but since neither Sue nor I have a watch on, we don’t know how long we’ve been there.

So after the pool, sauna and shower, we meet up with the guys, served some tea and brought back to our hotel. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience and would do it again.

I did, however, come away with something more than just being squeaky clean. Firstly, I like being in a place for women only. I found it rather comforting. Secondly, I saw almost-naked bodies and thought that we come in all shapes and sizes and we’re all beautiful. I look no different than any other woman my age and should feel good about myself. And I do!

Pictures courtesy of Google. I did not have my camera nor were there any men!

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