My overburdened passport

Things accumulate.  I had been surprisingly stressed about the state of my passport thanks to East Africa’s fondness of full-page visas.   Canadians only have 24 pages to work with and we can’t add more unlike the lucky Americans.  The trick is to have at least two pages free so as to not stress out any customs agents.  South Africa is apparently very strict about this for instance and will send one away if they have any less free real estate than two pages.

Prior to this trip I had quite a bit of space.  There were only two full-pagers prior to Africa: from Argentina and China:

51 argentina 50 china

Suddenly, I was hit by three consecutive full-pagers.  This brought me down to three free pages.  Two days in Kenya, on a three-day transit visa, wiped out more than 4% of my passport space.  Brutal.

52 ethi


53 tanz

Tanzania is on the right track. For $50 at least one gets a nice looking visa.

54 kenya



I got lucky in Uganda, South Africa and Singapore and Malaysia– they were just stamps.  Indonesia however caused havoc with a small half-pager.  Fortunately I just have Thailand and Japan left for my plans or else I’d be really sweating.  Well, more than I have been literally sweating in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

So, that was the downside to accumulation — possibly having to get a new passport in the fly despite not stayong put for any great length of time.

On the plus side, I’d been using Trip Advisor for advice for most of the journey.  I belatedly created an account and started putting reviews up to give back and help acknowledge some of the great people and organizations that I’ve run into.   I logged on today and had a badge.  A Senior Reviewer badge.  Whoh!

37 gamified TA

I think it would be cooler if they called it “Señor Reviwer” but gamification is a work in progress.  Yet, I was fascinated as I am taking an Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on gamification now.  It’s hosted through Coursera.  Well, it’s sort of been on hold because as much as it’s interesting it’s nowhere near as spellbinding as Pinker’s Better Angels on our Nature book (see my South Africa post).  Anyway though, Gamification is incenting certain behaviour by keeping score, providing feedback, giving, ahem, badges is quite interesting.  It will never make a boring task less boring but it will leverage peoples’ inherent competitiveness.

So, I’ll keep hammering away with the Trip Advisor to get my next badge and keep watching my MOOC videos (to count them all down which fits with the rules of my own metal game.)  Fun stuff all around.

60 gamification

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I didn’t accomplish much in my first day in Singapore as I was on a staying-awake-for-28-hours marathon trying to outsmart the jetlag.   No success there..  My first effort here was a morning coffee in the airport following an all-nighter.  My first thought was Singapore maybe is not that expensive paid a normal McDonald’s coffee price.  I was wrong.

I spent the next seven hours wandering aimlessly downtown.  It was a long wait until the 2:00 pm check in time.  I had an unpleasant mix of just enough jet lag and not quite enough caffeine to not figure out that I should have booked the cheap(ish) dorm for the prior night to avoid doing the zombie walk for so long.

Later, I explored the city.  There was a seafood place called No Signboard that was supposedly good.  It was dreadful.  I had the cheapest thing on the menu, a $28 rice dish with pieces of mystery fish in it.  There was a prawn in the mix.  Then they tried to charge me an extra $2.50 for the unordered peanuts on the table and another $0.80 for a napkin.  I was offended – after all, what sort of self-respecting brute uses a napkin?  Then I saw their shark fin soup ad on the way out.  It’s a few hundred dollars.  It’s also extremely poor to whittle down an endangered species for apparently bland cartilage soup.  No Signboard Seafood is an awfully irresponsible operator.  And, Singapore is expensive.

Don't eat here.

Don’t eat here.

Changi prison was a sad memorial to the Japanese occupation.  By the numbers it’s even worse:

  • 4%:         An allied prisoner’s chance of dying under Nazi captivity.
  • 30%:       Any POW’s chance of dying under Japanese captivity.

A theory for the brutality was bushido, the willingness with fight to the death.  This mentality can be extended to look down on POWs as the lowest of the low.  The most unfortunate part of the whole situation was the conquest of Singapore didn’t have to happen.  When 36,000 Japanese troops surprised the 85,000 British and Allied troops the Japanese advance was a bluff.  The bluff paid off and Singapore was, in Churchill’s words, the scene of the  “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”

An app called Skyscanner is popular on the travel scene.  It’s used for finding cheap flights.  This is bad for both productivity and one’s carbon footprint – it shows up train routes, in particular, as being wildly overpriced compared to discount airlines.  I had planned to take the train to Kuala Lampur, Malaysia having heard it’s a good trip.  I was going to take a night train with a sleeper bed for about $120.

Then I checked Skyscanner.  Full disclosure, it to neither work well or consistently.  Yet, the concept is brilliant and it clued me into who the area’s discount carriers were.  An hour later I had a $30 ticket to Jakarta and a $40 trip back to Kuala Lampur.  Jakarta is big and chaotic from what I hear but it will be fun to see firsthand.  And one of my biggest disappointments in Holland was missing the Indonesian food so now I can atone for that.

Interestingly, my public bus back from Changi broke down.  This was not in character for Singapore.  It was probably their first breakdown in decades.  I got out and decided to walk but got hopelessly lost.  Normally in my part of town, Clarke Quay, the monstrosity that is the Marina Bay Sands is broadside.  It’s the boat or fish on top of three towers.  It’s also where they have the famous infinity pool.  If they had dorm rooms for $10 I would have been all over that but I think I’m off a few zeros on my target price.  Anyway, it made for easy navigation.

The next day I decided to check out Raffles Hotel before my flight to Jakarta.  I went to the famous Long Bar that Hemingway liked.  It was more or less a regular bar, but they were nice enough not to charge for peanuts unlike No Signboard Seafood.  They also had a fan system on the room of big ping-pong racquets driven by a piston-style push bar.  They also charged $25+ for a drink.  Interestingly I saw no frantic writing efforts for anyone trying to channel the muse of creativity by spending time in a Hemingway haunt.  It was a great wind up because Indonesia will look even more affordable now.

35 long bar

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South Africa

I really enjoyed Cape Town.  I had an awesome hostel called Atlantic Point that had a lot of space, baked muffins for breakfast each morning, BBQs, movie nights and amazing tours.

Shark diving was on the agenda.  It’s about what it sounds like, but very safe.  Interestingly, I was surprised that it was not ‘idiot-proof’.  You do sign your life away, literally, but the cage’s dimensions were tight and the bars were spaced widely enough to have feet and hands pass though.

I liked this -- but the major issue is that the great photo makes mine look terrible in comparison

I liked this — but the major issue is that the great photo makes mine look terrible in comparison

Despite limbs that occasionally came out of the cage the sharks seemed much more interested in the big chunks of tuna which were on the menu.  Bony wetsuit-covered foot – not so much.   The major concern was if hands were out they might get broken by a passing shark who brushes the cage while in hot pursuit of tuna.

White Shark Projects, the company that organizes these tours, was very responsible.  They draw on a lot of volunteers to do research and education for protecting great whites, which are endangered.  It’s a balancing act much like with the gorillas in Uganda.  To protect/sustain/improve requires awareness and education, but this is not free.  So, generating revenue in the process is required.  Enter the tourists…

26 a twn footer coming to the cape

This one was about 10′ long


24 the cage

The cage

  25 a 10 foot great white

Many people brought underwater cameras but it had rained torrentially in Cape Town in the previous week.  This meant the ocean was quite silty and that the visibility was poor.  It also meant that we had to press our faces against the bars of the cage underwater to try and see the sharks and then ominously crept by.  It made the process that much more exciting.

The Khayelitsha Township is one of the slums with somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two million people.  Populations are just guessimated by flying a helicopter over top.  There is a tour.  It’s along the lines of the burgeoning and controversial slum tours that are common now in Rio and Mumbai.  I had considered this in both Nairobi and Kampala but passed in both cases because the list of cons looms large. Treating poverty like an attraction seemed dubious.


Yet, the tour was very worthwhile.  The guide lived there and had created the tour as his business.  He showed an interesting mix of good (progress, enterprise, ingenuity) with the bad.  We paid a flat fee ($45 CDN) and then the transportation, coffees, lunch and a beer (at three different places) was all included.  It was a good way to spread the money around.  Other non-businesses (a school, an outreach centre, etc.) got cut into the profit from what I could tell.

The negative elements of day-to-day life were covered.  These went from “here’s where I was first robbed at gunpoint” to driving past a murder scene that was taped off.  There were forensic guys working there with rubber gloves.  Asides for our posse, these two forensics guys were the only two white people I’d seen all day.  There’s no racial segregation of course but there is economic segregation like everywhere else.  At at least the Apartheid days, per this bench outside the courthouse downtown, are long over.  It’s tough to read as it’s so weathered now bu this is the non-Whites bench.

28 Apartied Bench

Then there was a second murder scene.  This was a bad day in the township.  We just saw the road blocked off and the crime scene tape from a distance and detoured around.  These scenes notwithstanding, it was safe for us.  There is a lot of vigilante justice, apparently, for people caught committing crimes.  An interesting development is that people chased by the mob will often run to the police station to turn themselves in.  There is a progression towards state infrastructure in the township now with a handful of police stations and even an army base.  I did not think much of this until I was leaving South Africa.

The Cape Town airport had an awesome bookstore.  I bought Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature there.  I hadn’t read anything by Pinker before but knew of him from his masterful TED talk about violence.  The book is stellar and Bill Gate’s praise (reproduced on the cover) is spot on.



As a quick digression, Pinker identifies two major drivers that contributed to the rates violence by 100 times in the west over the past handful of centuries.  He measures violence in murders which is a valid proxy.  The decline is so pronounced that he has to use a logarithmic scale (1, 10, 100, 1000).  Murder rates for from 100 to 1, see below.  The two main drivers have been the self-interest of the state in monopolizing violence – taxpayers pay more tax alive than dead.  The second was the rise of “gentle” commerce that allows for people to benefit from their interactions with others. Pinker calls this “opportunities for positive-sum exchange, as opposed to zero-sum plunder. When it’s cheaper to buy something than to steal it.”

62 image pinker

Anyway, to loop that around: it’s good to see much more state infrastructure in the informal settlements like the townships, it’s good that criminals run to the cops because they are perceived as fair (or at least more fair than the mob) and it’s good to see business like this coffee shop doing so well.  The comment about fairer than the mob sounds like a truism when they want to burn you to death in tires.  But in many cases where a mob is just going to issue a regular beating or that the system is clearly unfair this may be a different set of choices.  Someone who got on the wrong side of a mob for something trivial in California is most likely better off with mob justice than a 3rd strike netting them 25 years in jail.  It’s interesting to contemplate.  Regardless, the book is absolutely amazing.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Lion’s head and Table Mountain are two fixtures that augment the skyline.  I hiked up Lion’s Head with a group from my hostel which made for a fun afternoon.

I also fit in a paragliding trip.  It was fun to have done but skydiving would have been a better bet.  It just entailed circling in the current and then landing ten minutes later in the same place where we took off from.  “We” is the operative word – I had a vision of intrepidly steering a di Vinci esque flying machine based on my own wits and (imagined) flying process.  Nope.  I’m strapped in with this big gruff dude who looks like one the rugby extras from Invictus.

30 paragliding

Speaking of, I was disappointed not to make it to Robin Island where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years.  It’s just off the coast.  If you missed Invictus the highlight is where the Damon character visits the cell and Morgan Freeman comes in with a voice over and reads William Ernest Henley poem Invictus.

36 invictus


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While travelling from Uganda to South Africa I caught up on the news.  Rwanda had been timely as there was some violence at the border with Congo – the other two countries with wild gorilla populations.

I had considered going to Rwanda but was pressed for time.  That, and I carry my dirty laundry in plastic bags.  They are illegal – fair enough – but Lonely Planet advises that you get searched for such vile contraband and the boarder.  Perhaps lamely, that likely tipped the scales and I didn’t go.  Well, it’s also a French colony too so that causes me linguistic fits.

Then I happened on an article about Paul Kabale.  He’s the guy in charge in Rwanda.  It was a brilliant interview.  The plastic bag overreaction that had previously gotten my attention is just one of many of Kagame’s wild interventions in day-to-day life in the name of progress.


It’s quite a provocative and balanced piece.  And on the whole the rapidly increasing standard of living in Rwanda speaks for itself in an neighborhood with other strongmen who likely (a) don’t give interviews and (b) don’t even try to advance the common good in their country as it’s incompatible with advancing the good of only them personally (and perhaps their family and their tribe.)  There is an interesting parallel to the high rate of development in Ethiopia as well.

Regardless, had I read this piece while still in the area I would have probably spent a few days there.

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The bus ride from Nairobi to Kampala was my least-pleasant trip to date.  I keep saying this it seems.  The buses in South America really set the bar unattainably high it seems.  Anyway, I was wedged in the back (again a common theme) and seemed to be constantly airborne.  The trip was scheduled for 12 hours but took 15 due to heavy road construction.  The border crossing was very easy as I had my $50 US in hand and ready to go this time

8 monsoon

The arid savannah-scape of Tanzania/Kenya was giving away to a more verdant jungle in Uganda.

The driving rain made for great scenery but a wet bus.  It was not watertight.  I got away from the dripping spot but a fellow who got on at a later stop was stuck below it for a few hours.  He asked the attendant what could be done.  The attendant smiled at the guy and congratulated him on receiving “so many blessings that so few people are lucky enough to have.”  I thought it was funny but the blessed man was less amused and hiked his leather jacket up over his head for the rest of the trip.

Kamala has two hostels where apparently all the backpackers go.  It made the late night logistics easy – I got off and had a map and flashlight in hand and was prepared to go through the directions with a cabbie.  He knew instantly.

“All the white people go to Backpackers hostel”

It’s quite a nice place but is a throwback to vintage travel.  By vintage I mean a place scores a great write-up in a Lonely Planet, that will not changed/updated/revised for a decade or so, so they completely stop trying.  Yet, for a decrepit place on the whole it was quite a good stay and they made good pizzas.

The rafting in Uganda has a great reputation.  It’s based at the source of the Nile River just north of Lake Victoria.  I was about to sign up when I did some last-minute research.  The New York Times had an article where the correspondent got rocked to such a degree that he lost his wedding ring.  This set is class five which is the highest difficulty for runnable rapids.  I decided to do it – it had great reviews and while it looked rocky at least the in the photos the screaming people all had helmets.

6 NYT use this

The trip was a lot of fun and was very safe.  The company, Adrift, hires very experienced guides and even sends down kayakers to make sure that nobody has any major trouble.  A friend of the kayak guy had just died in the river a few days before.  He had been an expert kayaker but overconfident and had gone down with no life jacket or helmet.

Our raft ditched almost instantly.  My counterpart in the front had a panic attack and dove for cover.  Our Kiwi guide kept screaming at him to “Paddle!  GET UP!!  PADDLE!” with no success.  Soon enough the raft flipped over and sent everyone flying into the river.  This was a fairly common occurrence.  After some of the flips, when the rapids were fairly rock-free, we could swim (well, float really) down the river which was awesome.   The other two advantages to doing this in the Nile was (1) that they haven’t had any crocodile run-ins for years since they came close to a nineteen-footer a few years prior and (2) that the water is much warmer than anything in Canada.

I forgot my duct tape for this trip so I borrowed some bandages and made a really geeky headband for my sunglasses.  They didn’t get lost which was great.

7 rft018 pre waterfall


Kampala was an interesting city.  It has a reputation for being a very safe place to visit.  The markets were packed with throngs of people, motorcycles and cars.  The roads were clogged; teeming masses of people and vehicles moved forward inches at a time.  I got zero attention as an obvious foreigner.  Vendors would rush past me to sell things to Ugandans but nobody was much interested in what I was up to.  Rather the opposite of many touristy places.  I came back from a trip downtown and seemed to be covered in exhaust.  I had a shower and thought, wow, I must have been holding on really tight during rafting.  My arm kept shaking when I extended it trying to get the right temperature.  On the plus side there was hot water.  On the downside the taps were electrified which was causing the shaking.  So much for the holding-on-too-tight hypothesis.

I was very lucky that I did the rafting trip before I had truly experienced Kampala transit.  It took me three or four days to finally get on one of the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis.  They are small Honda Boxer motorcycles whose name originates from taking quickly people between the no-man’s land separating border crossings.  Boarder-boarder.  Prior to the bodas, I’d been mostly on the minivans that follow approximate routes.  They were not flexible and cabs were very expensive, uncommon and slow because they just get mired in the gridlock.  Bodas were required riding.

The boda boda time prompted me to draw up the following:

9 the triangle

They are a terrifying way to get around.  I had a similar driving concept twenty-five years ago, prior to ever riding a two-wheeled bicycle, about why they were efficient.  A bike could just ride down the centre lane as it lacked training wheels or any substantial width.  Such an advantage compared to a tricycle or a car!  This supposed advantage from the 1980’s resurfaced with a vengeance in Kampala.

10 uganda traffic

None of the bikes have a spare helmet for the passenger.  Actually, many don’t even have one for the driver.  I opted for the helmet-less drivers usually as at least we were equally exposed.  I turned one down too for having a broken mirror.  My theory was the mirrors, which stick out like cat’s whiskers, are key for how they scoot by gridlocked traffic with inches to spare.  I didn’t want a mirrorless driver to find out he’d squeezed into too tight a space based on any part of me getting making the contact.

A two-lane road can have up to five lines of traffic in any random order.  And yes, there are bodas racing at 40+ km down the centre line, on the shoulders, weaving…  anything.  To make matters worse the LP book reports that there have approximately five fatalities per day on the boda. To put it in perspective it’s a big city at 1.2 million, but still – five per day translates to 1825 per year and a rate of about 152 deaths per 100,000 people.   Apparently the overall rate for all vehicles in the Uganda is 25 for every 100,000 people.  Canada is 9 per 100,000.  So – based on these numbers I think I will retire from my short-lived career hitching rides on these.  Or at least hold out for a helmet.

I added fast internet on my triangular list of excitement.  This let me watch the Last King of Scotland.  It was really interesting look at awful Ida Amin’s dictatorship.  I missed it when it came out in 2006.  It was very well done.


I took had about eight boda boda rides one day when I got organized to do the gorilla trekking.  This is where you hike out into the jungle and watch the gorillas in the wild.  The families that are safe to do this with are all habituated.

Habituation is a multi-year process to have humans drop by for short periods.  The rangers who do it don’t interact with the gorillas but hang out unobtrusively on the sidelines for an hour a day, every day, and eventually the apes come to ignore them.  It sounds quite harrowing as the silverbacks roar and frequently charge.  There are pros and cons to this.  The upside is an adaptation of what gets measured gets done: that is to say what gets visited and researched gets protected.  Further, what generates cash for cash-strapped governments gets seriously protected.  The downside is diseases can spread, poachers can get close and gorillas can wander into villages.  The downsides are management and policy issues.  The upside is that the economic and conservation benefits of habituation is a strong step towards reversing the trend toward extinction.

Getting the permit was a bureaucratic challenge.  It involved going across town to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority’s headquarters and filling out paperwork.  Things would be stamped in triplicate.  The majority of the permits are spoken for in advance as there are only 94 available per day.

I was lucky to get one on a drop-in basis.  But the big line up was the one for the receipt – $500 US.  I had wrongly assumed that they would take Visa for security reasons but that was not the case.  So, it was off on a boda again to get a huge wad of cash — 1.3 million Ugandan shillings to be exact. For a brief moment it felt like I’d robbed a bank.  Why else would a newly-minted millionaire with his wad of cash be racing crazily through traffic on a motorbike?

big map

I left for Kabale the next morning.  It was an 8.5 hour bus that managed to make zero bathroom stops.  A few of the men at the very front could race off for the one-minute pit stops, but everyone else was out of luck.  Skipping a five minute break is an interesting way to making the journey 1% faster.  I can’t say I’m a convert to this Bismakan Buslines efficiency though – if I ever become a bus company CEO this will not be part of any turnaround plan.

The small stops were serviced by people selling street meat on sticks through windows.  They had fruit too, but that’s too healthy for me.  I sat beside a guy who wanted to chat and chat.  That was fine – it might have been just a proximity thing we were six adults crammed into the five seats in the back row.  I politely disengaged and then iPod’d the trip to stay sane but I got roped into the occasional conversation.  I got through Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick.  At one of the one-minute pit stops that seemed to be timed based of Indy 500 logic I (apparently) overpaid for some fried bread handed to me from a dude outside the window.  It was the only non-meat and non-fruit product I’d seen for the prior six hours.  Yet, my new best friend was absolutely incredulous.  He quickly deduced that I was fabulously rich.  His line of questioning went like this:

“You paid $0.60 CDN for that bread?  Why?  Oh, why?  Why would you do that?”

I guess the regular price is less than $0.60 CDN.  This guy was clearly upper middle class however — he had a suit and was well-educated.  Yet, his assessment of my massive wealth resurfaced later.  When the bus finally pulled in I had the usually touts gather around.  One however was very persistent and knew all my travel logistics down to the finest detail.  My buddy evidently sold him a hot tip: I’m an easy mark.  What else could one conclude from the bread fiasco?   He proposed to drive me out for two and a half times the going rate.  250%.  His negotiation style was to go from 250% to 240% to 230%.  It’s the approach you take when you think someone is really, really dumb.  In retrospect I’m amazed I went with this guy but there were not many alternitives.  It made for an easy bargain.  I just called out “who wants to take me to Ruhija for [90% of the correct fare]?” to the crowd.  It’s nearly $50 US, which is steep rate by African transportation standards but it’s owing to the two hour drive into the hills on shock-absorber-destroying potholes.  Buddy was disappointed because he probably spent at least $15 buying the tip about the rich millionaire who is financially illiterate that will gladly fork over $125. He  grudgingly took the $45.

Generally I try and find cabbies or drivers who are older.  This guy was young. Sure enough, we had problems.  He was (seemed?) sober but whatever he was drinking on the road was not apparently legal.  He had to get me to hold it when the police had a checkpoint.  Sucks to be him because I didn’t give it back.  It might have been a blessing in disguise because in the tiny village of Ruhija there were no liquor stores.  Well, or any stores at all, from what I could tell.  So, the forced delayed gratification maybe just meant he had a drink for the trip home.  I also commandeered his stereo in order to make the volume setting be somewhere other than full blast.

That night I stayed at a campsite called Ruhija Gorilla Friends.  It had awesome views.  It was also very tranquil having no internet or even power.  The power was unusual apparently as the generator was broken, but I really enjoyed my time there and caught up on a lot of reading.

My tent

My tent

15 sunset

The view at night


The next day it was off on the trek.  The guide takes a small group and some buddies with AK-47s.  Some of the people looked a little worried.  He explained that they are glorified noisemakers in case they run into a rogue elephant or a lone silverback.  Perhaps left unsaid is that it doesn’t hurt to have some men with guns where you are so close to the failed state that is Congo.    

16 gun dudes

After two hours of trekking through the heavy bush we got to where the family was hanging out.  It was really cool to see.  They were totally oblivious to us and we got to be up to 5 meters away from some of them.

17 bushwhacking

The first gorilla we saw was a blackback who was just hanging out looking scholarly.  Then we saw where the troop was spending the night.  The silverback was up in the nest snoozing.  But after a while he decided he was hungry so he clambered down to get back to foraging.  Three babies scurried out behind him.

18 looking schoraly

19 Silverback off the tree

20 silverback


21 had a look but you are boring

You are boring. I’m going back to lunch.


21 babies

On the whole I was very impressed with the conservation efforts made by Uganda here.  It’s a balancing act between generating the revenue for preservation efforts, building awareness and making sure that conservation is lucrative enough to not overlook.  Even if there were competing interests in the area, say mining, agriculture or development – they could be more easily dismissed.  The jungle has been turned into a source of profit for the government so they need not invite other revenue sources in.  There are a host of valid ways to put a price tag on preserving nature like contingent valuation but they rarely amount to hard cash in hand.  This does.  If Uganda can punch 90 people a day though it’s $16 million US in revenue per year.  Enough for the basics and then some –  the country only has a $3 billion US budget annually.  If gorilla treks comprise 1/200 of that total budget then all provisions to keep the animals safe will likely be taken.

So, while I thought the price was high I completely agree with the concept in principle.

I was quite fortunate on the trek.  It’s not a guarantee as the gorilla move daily and may not always be found.  If you don’t see any gorillas you may come back then next day, but you pay another $250.  A false start that I heard about was a girl at my hostel in Kampala who had trekked into a wasp’s nest.  The ensuing commotion scared off the gorillas and the whole group trudged back covered in dozens of welts.  They managed to snap one photos of a black hairy blur in a bush.  They only clear animal they saw was a cat at the ranger station.

On the trek I met an American couple who were heading back to Kampala the following day.  They were really kind in letting me hitch a ride in their Land Rover.  I was shockingly relieved.  I was dreading the trip back which would have been most likely in the 14 to 16 hour range.  Plus, I had no bus booked so it would have been iffy at best even getting out of town.  And my choices for the two hour trip from the hills in Ruhija to Kabale were likely going to be either the drunken idiot who took me there or a nice guy on a boda boda.  Two hours on the back of a motorcycle racing over potholes while holding my 50 pounds of gear was not something I was looking forward to.  I wanted to pitch in for the cost, secretly worried they’d call ‘halfers’ for a private hire that was likely in the $600 range but they wouldn’t accept any money.  It worked out great for their Ugandan driver though because I diverted most the money I’d planned to chip in to him and managed to beat everyone to the lunch bill with the rest.

That day I went past Kampala to Entebbe.  This is where the airport is.  It was an interesting place for accommodation.  I had three different places in two nights.  The first, Skyway, was appalling: they sent me packing down a dark road.  I actually hadn’t had seen my email in days so I assumed that my reservation didn’t go though.  Disappointing, but no big deal.  Later that night it turned out that it did go through and they confirmed that I had a reservation.  That really got pretty annoyed but the management has since gotten in touch and wants to atone so I can’t fault them much.  They seem to be taking steps to correct this sort of thing from happening again too which is good.

I ended up roaming Entebbe in the dark on the back of a boda boda that night.  I found a place I’d read some bad reviews on prior to.  It was a called Entebbe Backpackers.  There were some security complaints on TripAdvisor and sure enough I just walked in announced through an unlocked gate at 9:30 pm.  This is extremely uncommon in Africa – there are armed security guards everywhere it seems.  Anyway, this place had nice staff who checked me into a dorm with no reservation.  The room was a little rowdy with some partying hipsters who were drinking hard and chain smoking right outside.  It sort of comes with the territory, but again a loud iPod helped me get to sleep.

At midnight I was woken up by the clerk from the desk.  He wanted to know if I had the key to the dorm.  It was the first I had heard of it so I shrugged and decided to go back to sleep.  But the light stayed on and there was all kinds of commotion that I was in no mood for.  As much as the trip in the Land Rover was relaxing, it was the last 35 kilometers in a tiny claustrophobic minivan that took 90 minutes that did me in.  As I was trying to get back to sleep I caught some key words: “chase,” “robber” and “bag.”

The clerk was describing to a Canadian girl how a man had walked into the dorm from the street, a distance of maybe 80 meters, passed around the holding to the back, walked into the dorm, picked up her 70L backpack then lumbered off with it into the night.  The robber then got scared as he saw the one of the drunken hipsters staggering in the yard.  He fled, without the bag.  I got up to and put a chain on my bag but now the girl wanted to keep the light on and was quite disturbed.  It was a good use of my special brand of cut-proof duct tape.  I gave her some lengths to tape her bag to a bed post.  I’m not sure if my blatant lie about it being cut-proof worked, especially since I just tore some off and passed it over, but it was still my ticket to getting the light turned back off getting back to sleep.

The following day I flew out of Entebbe International Airport.  I arrived at 5:00 am the morning so was too dark to look around for the bullet holes in the control tower.  These apparently are still there from Operation Entebbe in 1976.  I had not heard of this before and it’s fascinating how Israeli commandos came it and rescued hostages who were being held there under Ida Amin’s rule.

I also forgot to take my Swiss Army knife out of my carry-on bag which kicked off a struggle to get it back into my checked bag.  The South African Airways (SAA) staff were very helpful and I almost got the knife into by check bag before some security guy stole it.  He was quite pleased and smirked away while being as condescending as possible.  The knife, well fair enough, that’s a mistake on my end.  But he was being abusive to the SAA guy who was helping me too.  This got me going so dropped a bunch of thinly veiled accusations of bribe solicitation and theft, then started up the talk about taking names for the formal letters of complaint.  Then I just figured it would be better to find a place that sold coffee and relax.  Morning flights are not my favourite.  After laying into the security guy – mostly because he made no secret of how pleased he was with his newly-acquired loot – I got an upgrade to business class on the transfer from Johannesburg to Cape town.  SAA apparently reclaimed it from the Lord of the Airport and might mail it to me which would be great.  After all, it’s 100% my fault and I have not a leg to stand on, so I’ve been amazed how accommodating they have been.  Ethics will dictate that letter-writing scenario changes to be me commending the gang who went to all the trouble to reclaim this for me.

x raid_on_entebbe

I haven’t seen the movie yet but it is on the list.




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Into Kenya

I found a great bookstore in Moshie, Tanzania.  It was mostly filled with academic and  religious books.  Nearly everything was in English.  It was not what I’d expected to find.  I bought travel guidebook and a novel.  This took a few attempts.  The Lonely Plant book alone rang in at over $40 CDN.  That’s a lot of Tanzanian shillings and after an embarrassing rummage at the cash register where all I managed to find was about 20% of the required cash.  So much for the rich tourist (‘mzungu’) stereotype.  Mzungu is the loose equivalent of ‘gringo’ and just means foreigner.  It’s not pejorative, for the most past, and I got a lot of the  cries of “Mzungu!” when I walked past in Tanzania and elsewhere in East Africa.  

After failing at the cash register I walked the twenty minutes back to my hostel, a cool place run by a German family, and returned an hour later with a very impressive stack of shillings – eight of the biggest notes in circulation –  the $10,000 shilling edition.  Each of these is worth $6.40 Canadian.  It was awkward trying to beat the bank’s $5 international ATM fee by taking out a lot in one go given the big bill was not that big.  It would be like an ATM at home that only spits of $5 notes.  Prior to paying for a safari and part of Kilimanjaro I had an impressive wad of cash.  I remembered the Jesse character in Breaking Bad exulting such an outcome.

"Fat stacks [of cash], Mr. White!"

“Fat stacks [of cash], Mr. White!”

The Lonely Planet was worth it – it inspired me to head off to Uganda.  The novel, Dark of the Sun, was perhaps one of the worst I have ever read.  It was openly racist and steeped in needless violence and carnage even for a book about mercenaries rampaging through Congo.  Odd to find such a thing in an academic/religious bookstore.  Anyway, I thought it was bad until I looked up a review and saw they made a controversial movie based on it 1968.  The movie decided the book was too tame, evidently, so they added Nazis and a chainsaw duel.  It’s not on my list of things to watch anytime soon.

Different genres, but one was clearly better

Different genres, but one was clearly better

Upon deciding to head to Uganda the first step was to get to Nairobi.  I checked out the bus options and picked a smaller shuttle bus that promised door-to-door delivery.  This seemed to be a good idea since I was getting in late that night into a city with a bad reputation.  Lonely Planet’s take is that Nairobi  is “the most dangerous city in Africa, beating stiff competition from Johannesburg and Lagos.”

In true to door-to-door form I got picked up at my hostel.  It was an hour late but that was fine as it let me get another wildly frustrating hour of the slowest internet I’d seen since noisy 14.4 modems.  The driver insisted I sit in the front.  Fair enough.  Then he started a series of questions.  It was a little weird.

“What kind of bird is best?  Please tell me!  Then tell me what kind of big cat is best.  The best cat!”

This was mostly in English but it turned out that he also spoke Spanish.  He spoke it much better than I did.  I tried to play along, in Spanish, but I’m quite incoherent and doubly bad after two years of atrophy.  I remembered the word for eagle, but had no idea what “bald” was.  Not that I think the bald eagle is the best bird but my linguistic hands were tied because I couldn’t think of any other birds.  So I told the guy something along these lines:

“The best is the eagle with no hair.  He is without hair.  No hair.  The eagle.  He is big.  He lives in a house in the United States.  President Obama.”

On the cat side, I did know “orange”, “fat” and “cat” in Spanish but there was no conceivable way I was going to proffer Garfield as an example of a best cat.  The Dwight Schrute esque line of questioning did get old soon.  Yet, as it turned out he was just the transfer driver to the real bus.  That was a relief.  He asked me if I had Facebook.  I said I was on MySpace because FB would not let my profile play rock music and have spinning .GIF cats – bueno gatos –  and such things.  He looked appalled at what I rube I was and made no further attempts to befriend me electronically.

The Kenyan border a very basic government profit centre.  It’s a hand-us-the-US-dollars-and-go model.  The only issue was that I was out of US Dollars.  I figured I could pay in Tanzanian shillings – there is a lot of political collaboration between the five countries in the East African Community after all.  I was wrong.  The customs guy was horrified that I had only Tanzanian cash despite the border between the two counties being perhaps 10 meters away.  I had a look for an exchange place, either a man in a trench coat or a booth, but saw nothing.  Well, nothing but a huge line behind me.  As it turned out the “no Tanzanian money ever” impasse was quite easy to solve.

Me:                         Can I pay a fine for the inconvenience?  In                                         Tanzanian cash?  Say I give you $50,000                                         shillings [$30 US]?

Customs guy:        *rolls his eyes* Ok.  Ahem.  Your change.  It                                       will take a looooong time to get change.                                             Long time.

Me:                         Oh, no worries.  I understand.  Thank you.

It’s not technically a bribe but it’s the closet I’ve actually been to paying one anywhere.  And I don’t think my bus colleagues would be down with me waiting a “long time” for $10 so off I went.  Really, it’s more of a tax on stupidity.   I was sort of disappointed that there was not more cash options between the two countries…  until I read well after the fact that a common currency for the five is on the agenda.  It’s actually behind schedule but it will be cool to see.  The five countries are even planning to team up as a federation circa 2015 which I think is very brilliant.  Suddenly you have a market of an eighth of a billion people that is a force to be reckoned with.

The bus continued uneventfully until the first drop-off which was just outside Nairobi.  The driver pulled over on a six lane highway in the dark and pointed to a hotel across the street.  A solitary European lady was told that “that’s your hotel.  Be careful crossing!”  He then sped off and left her in a cloud of dust.  This did not bode well and sure enough 30 minutes later was the call for “everyone off!”   It was downtown Nairobi in parts unknown.  I chatted with the driver about the omission:  I’d confirmed my destination address during booking, then as a follow-up and finally prior to leaving.  It was all for naught.  He grunted “no” and clambered up to start unloading gear from the roof.  It was more tossing gear to a small group of men below.  I followed him up to the roof of the bus to press the issue.  He told me to get off the roof.  I told him some other things.  I was unhappy as I still had no Kenyan money at that time, had no map prepared and only a rough idea where I was heading.  This was not how late night Nairobi ought to play out.  Then, I noticed that he’d gotten my bag off the roof and it was down in the mob of cabbies.  This was probably good as it cut the confrontation short.  I bid him a most pleasant evening and stomped down to get my stuff back and make sure to find a cabbie who would accept my US $10 note.  I say ‘cab’ but it was more a slew of rough looking unmarked Nissans with tinted windows – not the most appealing option but it would have to do.

My ongoing cab tactic now is to get the driver’s contact info during the trip for possible future trips.  This is great for the first ride in a new country where it’s still a feeling-out-process for the trip cost: late night drop-offs tend not to have lots of price debate.  It’s best to just load up and get moving.  Hopefully it gives the driver less incentive to gouge if there may be more business coming up.  And at the very least it’s less incentive to pull any dodgier stunts than overcharging.

The moral of the story is that Riverside Shuttle is not one to travel with when going from Tanzania to Kenya.  The sheer arrogance and irresponsibly is staggering.  I sent a follow-up note to the owner.  He shrugged it off saying the driver was “new” but would “face consequences” and would not give me my money back.  Sure, toss that guy under the figurative bus but the management accountability is the real issue.  Plus, money walks and BS talks.

How can an outfit with a website this legit dodgy?

How can an outfit with a website this legit dodgy?

Nairobi seemed quite nice.  I accomplished seemingly nothing but boring logistics – money changing, grocery shopping, laundry and bus ticket buying.  It was a lot of key clanking each time.  I was handed a huge Africa-shaped key chain.  It would have been fun if it was raygun to deter muggers but the boring actual reason was just to make it so awkward that it’s better to leave at the front desk. They must have enough robberies to make replacing keys an expense to consider.

The raygun

The raygun

Getting bus tickets was a hassle as it was in person and that meant spending about 45 minutes in traffic in a taxi to go maybe five or six kilometers.  The British legacy, roundabouts, don’t help.  They do work well in quaint little towns but in Nairobi with 5+ million people it becomes a horrendous circular mess of congestion.  Kenya looks to be building overpasses across many of them to minimize the gridlock.

Yet, the city is dense and compact.  This is an amazing photo that illustrates this:

I was staying downtown after only booking one night in the first place and finding it full for the second.  On the plus side I got to be downtown for the second night.  I got caught up on emails and the blog and ended up closing down an internet café.  Getting a cab for the for any walk at night is recommended but four blocks seemed like overkill.  It was perfectly safe as it turned out but even still some adrenaline crept into the mix.  I was fairly robbery prepared anyway – I had an old and deactivated Visa card and a slew of low denomination bills (maybe $10 worth) bulking up my wallet and the raygun stashed safely at the hotel desk.

The next morning it was off to the bus station bright and early to head to Uganda.

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Day 1: Shanghai

Sunday July 7, 2013

So while BD is still continuing his world adventures, for those who know me, I’ll be posting my recent one in Shanghai.  This first post will date back to the first day of arrival as China graciously blocks access to several websites, including We’ll see what I remember…

This is the first time I’ve left North America and I left for Shanghai to take an interdisciplinary, intercultural course on global health involving Canadian medical and pharmacy students and Chinese public health and medical students from Fudan University.  The course lasts 3 weeks.  I have sworn to myself that this is the very last time I ride Air Canada. I have the worst layover in Vancouver; arrival at around 10pm and I won’t fly out until around noon.  I’m really starting to question the value of penny pinching as a student.

After the horrendous layover in which I was miserably cold and tired as I couldn’t fall asleep peacefully on the cold, metal benches or find an available empty cushioned seating area, I haggardly got on the plane to Shanghai.  The plane is filled with Asians who have ridiculously overpacked the carry-on luggage.  One of the female passengers near me is trying to cram her luggage above my bin as I’ve stored my crap under my seat (ask LVM, I travel light).  Watching her cramming her luggage was like a plus size woman trying to fit into a size zero pair of jeans – ain’t gonna happen hun.  She hands me her Starbucks coffee to hold as she tries shoving her luggage in the space.  Why do I hold it?  I have no idea.  I guess I’m one of those suckers that feels compelled to hold things if something is shoved in front of my face.  Trust me, it’s a habit that’s broken by the end of this trip in China.  I am ecstatic though over the 3+ meals I am served on the plane (a choice of Chinese or western food…. amazing!) and 10+ new release movies (score!).  I managed to see 4 movies during the flight.  This turned out to be a bad idea, considering that when I landed it was around 2pm Shanghai time and there was a welcome dinner that night.  I also luckily was seated near an English speaker (a Caucasian male) who traveled to Shanghai frequently for work as part of management to oversee a company that manufactures screws (or something else metal that sounds manly).  He gave me tidbits of advice and tips of which I’m pretty sure escaped me by the time I got off the plane.  Selective memory – oh yeah!

What I remember upon landing in Shanghai is how the heat hit me – like a wave of uber hot mugginess upon exiting the plane.  I bump into one of my classmates at the luggage carrel whom I’ve never actually met before since I postponed my graduation by a year to complete an MBA.  I paid for an overpriced Chinese SIM card at the airport; my fear of being disconnected from the world took over my stinginess.  We split the cab fare and the ride from the airport takes us about half an hour or so.  Thank goodness I ran into a classmate who speaks broken Chinese; the cab driver does not understand a word of English.  And I conversely, am so whitewashed that I do not understand Chinese.  This is going to be a problem.

My first impression of Shanghai was that the city was so industrial looking from the outskirts.  Smog, yes.   Towering clones of highrises situated so close to each other, yes.  How do people not confuse which building they actually live in?  Not friendly for the people lacking a sense of direction such as yours truly.  I expected to see tons of pedal bikes on the road.  That was a stupid assumption considering we were driving on a highway.  Instead, there are so many vehicles on the road.  Chinese people like their SUVs too.  And being in Shanghai gives a whole new meaning to the term “Asian driver”.  A North American Asian driver looks sane next to those in Shanghai.  Apparently the lines on the road are just for show as 5 cars will try to fit across a 3 lane road.  Rules don’t exist and honking is used as a communication tool to signal that their car is near you; it’s a constant cacophony of blaring horns in a concrete, chaotic jungle.  At least the roads lack the gaping potholes that riddle the streets back home.  A non bumpy but noisy, jolty ride by a brake-happy cab driver with a lead foot.DSC_0731DSC_0716 Our hotel that had been selected for us by our professors (3 who accompanied us on the trip) was the Home Inn in the Xuhui district (Fenglin Road).  Trying to check in is an ordeal.  The hotel staff do not understand English well and keep trying to communicate in Chinese with me.  My credit card PIN is not working and the staff do not understand my crazed charades attempt to get them to just swipe the card instead of sticking it into the PIN slot.  In the end, they call some of my other classmates already checked into the hotel to translate.  After a half hour or so, I end up paying in cash to cover 2 days worth of my stay.  Sigh.  Epic communication fail. By the time I arrived at the hotel, it was pretty much time to head out for a campus tour of Fudan University.  We are stationed at one of the satellite campuses that houses the public health department.  What I notice during our walk is a culture shock:  how narrow and dirty the sidewalks are; how cars, bikes, scooters, and people are constantly intermingled across the large, multi-lane roads; how I’m fearing for my life walking across these roads; and how people love to park their bikes and cars across the sidewalks.  It was like ghetto Chinatown at home had grown virally infecting all the streets and unevenly paved sidewalks.  The walk to campus is only 10-15 min but feels much longer due to the unbearable heat.  During the tour, I completely walk around like a sheep in a herd as my mind is obsessed by how grossly hot and sweaty I am.  I head back to the hotel quickly afterwards to shower.

DSC_0624At the hotel, my first obsessive thought is to turn on the A/C.  Oh look, the remotes here don’t have any English on them.  I press every button like a desperate madwoman until I hear the roar of the machine coming to life.  Not sure what I pressed to create such magic so I’ll inevitably have to repeat my crazed dialing procedure again.  I started getting really itchy during the heat (probably on the brin k of breaking out in hives) so I immediately self-medicate on the good ol’ antihistamines.  As a pharmacy student I made sure to come prepared with my own mini-pharmacy of quality Canadian meds.IMG_5374IMG_5376DSC_0673 DSC_0650DSC_0676 DSC_0664(1)

Our welcome dinner was near the Fudan campus at a halal restaurant.  Little did I know that this was going to be one of the best meals I had in Shanghai.  Should’ve ate more of the hummus and pita bread.  The meal itself is served Lazy Susan style as small dishes.  I have the misfortune of being seated next to a very accident-prone classmate.  As she reaches for, of course, the most staining red, spicy Asian sauced dish (see pic below), her chopsticks slip and I ended up doused in red, spicy sauce on my new, white Guess shirt and on my face (did miss my eyes though).  I am too tired and polite to freak out.  Instead, I just wipe my face with the hot cloth the waitress had passed around prior to the start of the meal.  The Chinese students are pretty nervous and shy the first night to speak to us foreigners.  Understandably so, considering I am a hot mess of makeup mixed with spicy sauce and seated next to butterfingers who should be given a fork to use for the rest of the night.  Sweet girl though and she did feel bad.  I think we ended up bonding over the fiasco.

IMG_2669 IMG_2668The rest of the night is really a blur to me.  Somehow I got home, although I have no idea where the restaurant is actually located.  I must have followed some other people back to the hotel.  Stared defeatedly at the remote control for the tv that mocks me with its incoherent Chinese hieroglyphics.  Oh wow.  It’s 10pm here but noon back home in Canada.   I can’t for the life of me fall asleep.  Tomorrow is going to be a brutal day – the first day of class – and today I have been up for close to 48 hours.  Ugh.

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