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Trip to Jordan 2014

It’s late winter 2014. I’m at 140 countries. I’m watching TV. The news is on. They’re covering the Syrian civil war. Now they’re talking about the massive refugee camp across the border in Jordan, the fourth largest city in the country, the Za’atari refugee camp, 2nd largest camp in the world, with 120,000 Syrians, trapped in the camp, until they can return to Syria after the civil war is over. I try to imagine wandering around there. I imagine walking the camp, and finding a widow with children, to give food and other goods, maybe even adopting the family somehow. Fifty dollars a month I’m sure would make a big difference in their life. But certainly there’s no bank or Western Union in the camp, to even send money, right? For a week the thought keeps coming back. Then I take the step. I turn in frequent flier miles to book a flight to Amman, Jordan. I research the camp more. I discover you need a pass to enter. Or you can bribe your way into the camp. I find Saif online, while trying to hook up a car, for both the camp, and also to see Petra (more on that later). Saif let’s me know, it’s not possible to bribe your way in anymore, you must have a pass administered and awarded by the Ministry of the Interior. So I pull together a reasonable facsimile of journalist credentials, write a nice cover letter, describing the true sympathy I have for how the Jordanians have taken care of the Palestinians for a generation, and now likewise are supporting their brother Syrians, (the credentials might have been a little bit fabricated, but the sentiments are true),  and fax it all to my new friend Manal at the Jordanian Embassy in DC. photo 1 I try not to bother her, I have plenty of time, it’s five weeks away from when my flight leaves. I wait a few weeks, and check in, she tells me that the documents have all been submitted, everything is on track. I wait another ten days, bug her again, my pass for the camp is not ready yet. Time starts to click by. I want to bother her, bother her a lot, but I play it cool, and now I send a final email, four days before I need to leave. Nothing. Two days before I need to leave, I hear my pass is approved. I can’t believe it. I thank Manal over and over. Eventually I will send a handwritten thank you letter to her – she took care of me. But I will arrive on a Friday, and leave early on a Monday, all the way to Jordan and back for just two full nights, and as a Muslim country, their prayer day is Friday, and Saturday is also part of their weekend. So my only chance to visit the Ministry to fetch my pass is on Sunday, the last day I would have a chance to visit the camp, so If there’s a problem, it will be a problem. I email Saif. I ask if there’s any possibility that a driver, can go to the Ministry, and try to pick up my pass. I’ve not given him a penny yet, he’s working on good faith. I know this can’t work, the embassy has already told me I must secure the pass in-person. I scan my passport, write a note, and forward both along with the email from the embassy with my approval reference number. The next day Saif emails me back, and says the Ministry has told the driver to come back the next day, Thursday. Okay, that’s not good, but not bad. Saif asks me, “Are you sure you’re really approved for a pass?” That’s definitely not good. I urge him on, that all is kosher. He’s Muslim, so those were not my exact words. I don’t know if I’ll really get the pass, but I go on a shopping spree. I buy food, toys, and rummage children’s’ clothes around the house. I pack it all in a nice big red suitcase with wheels, that I’ve paid $20 for at an estate sale. goods


I fly from Dulles Airport near Washington DC, to Toronto. While there, I get the news from Saif, his driver picked up my pass. If I had waited until Sunday, my last day in Jordan, to try and pick up my pass, they would have said, “Come back tomorrow,” like they did two days ago to Saif’s driver, and it would have been too late for me to get the pass. This is unbelievable, it’s really happening. I can’t believe it in Jordan when I’m really holding it in my hand.


I’m connecting with Egypt Air to Cairo, then to Jordan. There’s a cigarette icon on my boarding pass, with no slash through it. Why is this on my ticket. Is it possible that smoking is allowed. I can’t believe it. I get on the plane and find my seat. Yes, I can smell stale cigarette smoke on the plane. This is going to be bad. I sit. I wait for the smell to get worse, but instead it gets better. It’s not smoke. Someone must have food. Of course smoking is not allowed. We land in Amman. I see what looks like my luggage coming off the plane, as the bus leaves from the plane to the terminal. I’m chill. All is on plan. Like a seasoned traveler, or like anyone that can read, I see on the screen, that our luggage will come to carousel 6. I sit and wait. I wait. I wait some more. Hordes of happy people grab their luggage and rush to go home, or visit relatives. I wait. This can’t be happening. No luggage. It’s time finally to go report my luggage as missing. I fein towards the other carousels hoping for a gift, and bingo, that might be my big red suitcase. It comes around, not sure if it’s mine, and I don’t know whether to grab it or not, I act like I know what I’m doing, and read the tag. I can’t read the tag. I can’t see my name or any name. I pull the bag, and finally see my name. My other bag is there too. I’m good.

IMG_1245I grab a cab, make it to my hotel in Amman. My room completely confuses me. First, I can’t figure out the Do Not Disturb outside the door. I tried to flip it, it won’t move. I start to unscrew it, but they wouldn’t engineer it that way. Only later that night, do some of the rooms have their notices lit up, and I realize there’s a switch inside the room.


I never really even figure out the shower. I figure it out just enough so water at the right temperature is coming out the top, but I know I’m not really doing it right.



There’s a secret button to push to make the hair dryer work.


There’s a hidden lever at the back bottom of the coffee pot. I spend five minutes till I finally figure it out.


I see the green light, the TV is on, but nothing shows. It takes forever before I crunch enough buttons at once, that the TV shows a picture.


I need to get on the Internet. I put in my name and password. Nothing. I call down, and finally figure out, that they have my name as MC KAY, instead of MCKAY. And I’m burning up, the AC won’t come on. Finally I remember that many rooms need the key inserted into the slot by the door. I’m finally set.

IMG_1182Time for a beer, down the elevator, I hold the door for a young Jordanian working in IT, his Muslim name is shortened to Dan, so English speakers like me can remember it more easily. He’s even done work in Washington DC. He asks if we should have coffee. We sit and discuss the current situation of Middle East peace. He’s one-fourth Palestinian. His family has documentation showing they own land in Israel, now lost to the Jews in one of the Arab-Israeli wars. Not only do they have this British documentation from the 1920’s, the paper trail goes back much further to the Ottoman Empire. He tells me that Jews will pay big money to buy the original documentation, so they don’t have to worry about lawsuits in the future. I tell him my vision for Middle East peace, is the entire world pays off all the people on both sides to just make peace. His vision is for a simple multicultural society living in peace in Israel. He has Jewish friends. He has Christian friends. Everyone can get along, it’s the governments that make the problems.

He gives me a ride a mile further into the center of the city. We have to make a U-turn near the hotel at Circle #3, and drive past Reem, the top fast food place in all of Jordan. There is a line day or night. They sell $10,000 worth of these sandwich wraps per day. The owner has been offered a million dollars to sell his establishment, and open franchises, but he refuses. I snack there four times during my trip, beginning later that night.






Here’s a video of them in action.



I ask Dan where to eat, I want a local place. He drops me off at the best spot, and tells me to order Mansaf. I have to write it down to remember the name. It’s plain, but the meat is tender. It’s not my favorite meal of the trip, but I’m glad to have had the national dish.



I walk to to the Roman amphitheater. I’m as tired as the stone. When you have to get up early, it’s hard to have a good night’s sleep. So I did not sleep well before flying. Plus I had to get up at 4:45am. So basically had almost no sleep. Then the flights went overnight, so a second night with almost no sleep. Now I’m being baked by the sun. I’m too tired to even walk up the stairs to the top. Pathetic.



I take a cab back to the hotel, then later go out for a walk. I go down a street with pet food stores on both sides. Why does retail work that way, with a city having all the car dealerships in the same area, or in a third world country, everyone selling just melons, or just flowers or in Jordan, olives sold strewn along the road all the way from the airport. Since age 12, I’ve owned three different Hungarian Vizslas, a rare breed, but here I see Vizslas pictured on the bags of dog food.

There is nowhere to have a beer. I’m in a Muslim country. I’m finally directed to an American style wing joint. They have a great beer called Caraka Ale. I look at the label to confirm it’s brewed in Jordan, it is, but by “Colorado Trading Inc.” I’m confused.IMG_1187 Later in the trip I have a beer called Philadelphia. One of the waiters writes out an address for a fun local restaurant. The first two lines are written by him in Arabic for me to show a taxi. The third line, I write, and show back to him to read. He stares blankly for some time. He’s confused. Finally I laugh, and tell him that I just made up some scribbles. Now he laughs.



The taxi takes me to the wrong restaurant.  The menu is awful, all tourist food, but finally I realize there is local food from the appetizer section, and I have a fantastic meal, almost all vegetables, tabouli salad the best ever, falafel, raw veggies, tomato, cucumber, Jordanian olives, and hummus w/ meat. Wow.


IMG_1292IMG_1296I sit with a sheik from Qatar and a Bedouin retired commando. I ask the sheik, “Are you from Saudi Arabia?” and before he answers, I remember that the Saudi’s wear a square band on the top of their heads, on their keffiyeh, and his is oval. I’m upset that I asked him when I actually knew he was not Saudi. This is me the next day, telling my driver the story, showing him how I picked up a tissue box from the table, and put it on my head, exclaiming, “Saudi Saudi!” It was quite funny. My driver later stops, and dresses me with a real Saudi fold. But back to dinner. The commando films me saying something in Arabic all crazy, we post to Facebook, and within moments, we have 30 likes. He tells me by the next day, there will be thousands. My kids would be jealous. The rant went something like this: “[Me yelling something in Arabic] Number One!, [same thing in Arabic] Number One!, [something else in Arabic] Number One!!.” The restaurant is nearly empty still at 8pm, we’re almost the only ones there, I’m told that it fills up solid from 3am to 6am, but I bail to go home and get some sleep.

Here’s a half minute video from my hotel’s outside stairwell, during the call to prayers. As Americans we’re not used to hearing the call to prayers, to us it sounds spooky (hard to hear in this video). Notice the giant flag at the end, that’s the King’s palace.

I walk to an ATM machine by the hotel. This is a video of the rat that ran in front of me. I jumped back screaming. Turns out it was not really a rat.

IMG_1222It’s the next morning. I leave in 45 minutes for the camp. Woke up at 4:45am after three hours sleep, could not get back to sleep. Got up, found cold bottled water, hit the can, and eventually fell back asleep. Morning time I’m drinking in-room instant coffee watching the news. So a good meal the night before, good sleep, all set for today. My driver now is 15 minutes late. I email Saif. The driver calls my room. Saif forgot we agreed that driver would call my room. He’s been sitting downstairs for half an hour. My driver’s name is Moumad. He looks dour in this picture, but he’s funny, smart, and over two days we become brothers. He’s Jordanian, but was born in Kuwait, and lived there for 27 years, until escaping just before the Iraqis invaded. His Arab friends told him not to leave, that all would be okay. Those people were mistaken. He’s lucky his family left just in time. In Kuwait he was a mechanic working on Lamborghini’s. I asked him if he ever got to drive them. Kuwait is very small. He said they would inform the police they were going to drive, then scream them to the border and back. In Jordan there are no Lamborghini’s. Jordan has no oil. So Moumad now drives a taxi, but he’s a content man. I tell him that beyond the camp, I’d like to try and somehow step into Syria to collect it as country number 142. He calls Saif, who reacts strongly. Saif tells Mamoud that if we get caught at the border, they will throw him in jail, confiscate the car, but let me go because I’m an American. I have google satellite maps of the area that I don’t need now. I don’t want to risk his livelihood just for my ego.IMG_1217

IMG_1220We see camels. Do not get too close, they will spit at you, or bite you.




We drive for an hour, topping the rise of a hill.  There’s the camp, wide and white on the horizon. I’m excited, apprehensive, anxious. The camp is less dangerous in the daytime. I hope I can hire a bodyguard. I try to not worry. But Mamoud tells me he’s worried about my safety. He knows a doctor working  in the camp. He says refugees don’t have just physical issues, but mental as well, that if you see your father killed before your eyes, then you change, you just don’t care. Likewise Mamoud could have worked in the camp as a translator for $1,000 monthly, more than driving a taxi, but he did not want to wake up and see the sadness each day.



We get to the first checkpoint. My driver speaks with the soldier. Luckily, instead of me walking down the long road by myself, towing the big red suitcase like a big red flag, among a lot of people coming and going from the camp, they let in my driver and our car too. I am so thankful.


IMG_1192Then they let us both, along with our car again, past the second checkpoint, into the main camp. We’re in. I’m incredulous. We drive to an admission center. Some Europeans are leaving a conference room. They’ve just seen some kind of presentation. None of them make eye contact with me. I think we’re all nervous.

My driver and I go into an office. There’s a soldier behind the desk. We talk. Finally my driver leans over and says, “Do you realize you’re talking to the commandant for the whole camp?” I cannot believe I’m in his office, this man responsible for the welfare of 120,000 refugees. The commandant is exceedingly polite, calm, direct, tall, and strikingly handsome. Later I realize I never caught his name. Days after I’m back in the U.S., there’s an editorial in the Washington Post below, a writer visited him the Monday after my Saturday, and mentions his name as Hmoud, the same as my driver, minus one vowel. I ask him if I can take his picture, but he demurs. He says he can’t afford to have mis-comments associated with his picture. We agree it’s a political issue. IMG_1193IMG_1194He’s called out of his office for a minute, and I jump up, and take quick fuzzy pictures of some maps of the camp on his wall, and of his desk, with the previous king, the current king, and the crowned prince.  Even knowing his name, later I google for an image of him, but he has protected himself. photo-2

He questions me, “So what organization are you with?” I tell him Act2 Media, with a straight face. He’s polite, pauses, and does not say, “Sorry, I’ve never heard of that,” but I know he’s thinking it. “How long did I want to stay in the camp?” I tell him just an hour or two is fine. “Would I interview people?” Yes, I’d like to interview a few people. An assistant brings in tea. We move to the bigger issue. He is concerned about my safety. So am I. He makes a decision, and requests a small but stern security associate to escort us both. I’m guessing this official will have to write up a report about my visit afterwards. I also find out that the paperwork sent to the camp, once my pass was approved by the Ministry of the Interior, explicitly addressed the security concerns for my safety.  This security officer is on our team, although sullen, he’s trying to help the whole time. The commandant even approves letting my driver and the car drive us everywhere in the camp with this officer. Then I start asking him questions, questions I would ask anyone in this situation, but strangely they’re the same questions as if I really am a journalist. How many come to the camp each day on average. 200. Didn’t it used to be about 350? Yes. How many are in the camp now, is it 120m? Yes. So you’re at capacity? Yes. You have a new camp, where is that? South, far. And all the overage goes there? Yes. How long have you been commandant? A year. And the Syrians can leave when they want? Yes, but we interview them. If they have a wife and kids, they can’t leave. If someone needs them here, they can’t leave. How do they get to the border, do you take them? Yes we have a bus. What’s the longest a refugee has been here? We opened in July of 2012. “This is all public knowledge,” he says. I say, “Yes, I saw on google from satellite pictures, how the camp has grown,” as I motion big, bigger, bigger with my hands. He laughs. I laugh. The tea we’re served is sweet. I don’t drink sweet tea, but this is a special occasion. It’s time to leave. The tea is so hot, I have not finished it, I drink some more, and although a tiny cup, cannot finish it, but I see no one has. The tea is not important. The offering of the of the tea, the sharing of the tea, is what’s important. At the car, the security officer asks about the suitcase. I ask if there’s a distribution center I can donate it to, if we can’t bring it with us. No. But we leave with the suitcase still in the trunk.

The security officer calls someone as we drive through the camp. He knows I’m looking for a widow with children. We drive, then turn around. He’s made contact with a strikingly tall older handsome bearded Bedouin elder in a flowing white robe, who directs our car to the tent of a woman who has arrived in the camp just six weeks before. I gently take his worry beads from his hand and flick them myself. He smiles.



We take our shoes off in a little ante-room and all enter this woman’s tent. Her name is Aziza. She’s from Alsuna Maim. It’s a surreal moment. She and her children stop eating to welcome us. Her three young boys are ages 3, 6, & 7. She’s just cooked lunch. I ask her how.



I look to the cookstove in a separate area off the back of the tent along with the few rationed supplies. Introductions ensue, then as a ‘journalist’ I get down to the business of ‘interviewing’ her. I have requested that we find a woman with children, who has lost a husband, and this woman’s husband and four brothers have all been murdered in prison in Syria. He was in prison for a year and a half, until a year ago, she’s told he’s dead. She never receives the body. This should be a moment of great heartache as we discuss it, but she still smiles a lot. I tell my driver, the only one that can speak English, to tell her that she seems very strong. She says she is strong for her children. She’s fairly young. Afterwards all of us men agree that she is attractive. We talk for awhile. Once we’re all comfortable with the situation, my driver goes back to the car to get the suitcase. I offer to go, but he says it would attract less attention if it was just him. We lay the suitcase in front of the family, and I unzip it, showing some things. “This is Cayenne, hot pepper from Mexico, this is Italian seasonings,” my driver translates. I’m nervous. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be a pseudo-journalist or just me. I’m looking in the suitcase, then it hits me, there are my kids’ old baseball gloves. I’m so happy to pull out the baseball and gloves, and then show the kids how to catch a ball in a glove. I try not to be one of those people who subscribe all things to fate, but that I had baseball gloves perfectly suited for her three boys, it did seem like all of this was meant to happen. I’m guessing these are the only baseball gloves in the entire camp. Maybe these boys someday will even have sons to tell the story, and hand down these gloves to. I ask what she’s given each month. She receives $13 in food coupons. Later I’m told they can get a few more things from NGO’s like UNICEF. I gave her some money as well as we leave. I reach to shake her hand. I’m not allowed to shake a Muslim woman’s hand, even my driver later says that he has never touched his brother’s wife in any way, even just shaking hands, so I boldly throw her a kiss and a big smile, pat my heart, with lots of waves, she smiling in return.

This is a half minute of video from inside the tent.



A lot of old women gather outside the tent. I was not allowed to photograph this woman inside, but when she came out of the tent, I took a photo from a distance, and somehow I think she knew and the men approved as well, because she had previously demurred – it was her way of saying thank you.

IMG_1207 - Version 2


Here’s a close up of Aziza from the same picture above.






It turns out, there is indeed Western Union in the camp, but we forget to ask for her phone number. My driver and I can’t believe we’ve forgotten. It’s the only way that I can send her more money in the future, to call and tell her a Western Union control number. My driver knows people in the camp, and luckily we took a picture of her ID, so he likely will be able to eventually get her number, and Saif will email it to me. We’ll find her somehow.

This is a video of the surroundings outside Aziza’s tent after we got back to the car.

This is the main street in the camp, Champ Elyses, named by the French NGO’s. This is 8 minutes of one straight shot, so just watch till you get bored, then bail out.

The miracle of the whole event started from a crazy thought in my mind in America, through the email to the owner of a tourist service, to the bond I made with his English-speaking driver, to the cooperation of the commandant, then the security officer, then the elder Bedouin, to finally living this small reality of a dream for perhaps ten minutes. The whole thing will be one of the most memorable days of my life. As we left, the driver and security officer told me that my gift was not to this woman, but that it was a gift to God, and a message of peace to anyone hearing of it. That really touched me. My driver told me that the security officer had worked there for a year, and that this was the first he had ever heard of someone coming with a package of gifts like this, especially alone, and from so far away. Everything I thought about visiting this refugee camp, and gifting a widowed family was very unrealistic, but somehow it  turned out perfectly anyway. The Syrian civil war will continue still for many years. It’s hard knowing when this woman might make it home, and what kind of life she will have once there. I’d like to think that someday, if even in ten years time, I will visit her sons and her there in Syria, and we’ll have another less-arbitrary but still as meaningful experience.

IMG_1211On the way home I say, “Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, almost Iran, why did Jordan have no Arab Spring.” I already know the answer, that Jordan is governed fairly, even though it’s a constitutional monarchy. Mamoud says, “King Abdullah can pilot a helicopter, he’s a marine, he’s head of all the marines – our king is a real king!”5349-king-abdullah-jordan




That night there’s a wedding in my hotel.

I eat at Reem yet again. I go to sleep early, as I need to get up at 7am, to meet Mamoud again the next day, we’re driving three and a half hours to visit Petra. There are many wonders of the world that don’t quite live up to expectations. Machu Picchu in Peru is one that exceeds. Petra I learn is another. The entrance fee is $50. A tour is another $50, but I know I can easily attach myself. I do. And as part of the tour, they hand me another free ticket. I didn’t even have to spend the first $50 if I had known (I’m not complaining). It’s a long hike down through a canyon, about an hour, a crevice at times, till you finally make it to the main area, containing the famous treasury, along with hundreds of tombs and apartments all carved into the sandstone. Petra was deserted in the 13th century, and not discovered again until 1811 (much like Angkor Wat in Cambodia was not popularized in the West till 1850). I highly recommend a trip to Jordan’s #1 attraction.

Here’s a half minute video of Treasury, plus pictures afterwards.




Trip to Southern Africa 2013/2014

I’m off on my third big Africa trip. I’ll be gone through Christmas 2013 and New Years 2014. I once took the ferry from Gibraltar to Morocco, which technically is in Africa, and I’ve been to Egypt, but no one thinks of Africa when they think of those two countries. Two years ago, I hit the west coast of Africa, countries like Ghana, Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Gambia and Senegal. Last year I hit the eastern countries like Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Tanzania. Now I’m heading to southern Africa, hitting 8 or 9 new countries as my goal. I’m totaled at 132 right now after getting four recently in the Caribbean during Thanksgiving week, aboard the only 5-masted and largest sailing ship in the world, the Royal Clipper. With luck, I’ll return home after this trip at 140. It’s taken me about 40 years to reach that total.


I’m such the seasoned world traveller, that I start talking to someone on the tram beneath Dulles Airport, and miss my stop. This is Dulles Airport’s tram area, representing the first mistake I made of my trip, and I’m not even out of my own hometown (the pictures get better, believe me).

I fly Air France to Paris for my connection. I have a 14-hour layover, so I’m definitely going into Paris to have lunch and walk around, that’s a done deal, but when we land in Paris, it’s cold and rainy, and I’ve only had a few hours sleep, so I can’t bring myself to leave the airport. Paris is a no-go, but I have a coupon for a free stay in the United Airlines lounge. I’ll eat, drink, and sleep there; it’ll be great, like a mini-vacation within my vacation. I research online that the lounge is now rolled into its partner airline in a different terminal. I leave for the other terminal looking forward to a pampered day in the lounge. Sometimes it seems hard in an airport to find a convenient bathroom, I find the bathroom, and the closer I get, the more my brain and body know I’m going to get relief, so the more I have to go, and just as I reach the door, ready to burst, it’s always the same type looking lady that has closed the bathroom; short, stocky, older, with a scowl which you know means there’s no way you’re getting into that bathroom, even though now you have to go worse than ever. I’m forced to use the nearby handicap bathroom.

It’s an American hobby to hate the French whenever possible, sometimes justified. I agonize for an hour by bus, arduously to another bus, waiting in a security line, to make it to the other terminal. Finally I’m there. I proudly present my coupon. The woman apologizes, but the coupon is only valid in the United States. I shake my head. I fight all the way back to where I started, almost another hour. By the time I leave for South Africa, my butt hurts from sitting, and I’m cold with no jacket. It’s so easy to hate the French. (And they act more like Americans than Americans do, very badly, with even less justification for doing so.)

IMG_0695We take off. A woman on my flight asks if I’d change seats so she could sit with her family. I say yes. The accompanying stewardess tells me my seat is “upstairs.” Wha? Huh? Turns out, I did not even realize that the Airbus I’m flying on, has two full levels. Feels very strange as I walk upstairs via a spiral staircase. You can see the two walkways off the plane, one for each level. Likewise in my National Geographic magazine I see later in the trip, on the last page called Found, where they show an old picture, I see a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser from the late 50’s, the largest most luxurious plane of the time, taxiing over the Van Wick Expressway at JFK Airport, (then called Idlewild), with part of the caption, “A circular staircase led to a downstairs beverage lounge.” Boy am I behind the times, really need to get with it on the double-decker plane idea.

IMG_0712I arrive in South Africa, country #133. It’s Christmas Eve. A good friend has hooked me up with someone from South Africa, that they met by playing Farmville via Facebook, that’s given me a great tip by recommending I stay near the airport at the Empress Palace casino complex. It’s a free shuttle from the airport, which is quite handy. Always nerve-wracking to deal with cabs at the airport, they know you’re at their mercy, brain-dead, new to town, unsure of the money, naïve, weak.

IMG_0702It’s early enough in the day to hire a cab to take me to Soweto, to see Nelson Mandela’s house. He lived there back before he spent 27 years in prison. He spent his first 11 days of freedom at this house as well. Interestingly, Desmond Tutu, just happened to have lived down the street. Nowhere else in the world, did two Nobel Laureates just happen to live in the same neighborhood.



We drive nearby to Freedom Square, in honor of the country’s constitution written near there by the ANC.




This is the back of Freedom Square.




This doesn’t look like much, but Mandela Square is a big deal in Johannesburg (lots of shops and restaurants), in the middle of their upscale district. I have a beer at the new Hard Rock Café, as it’s the only thing still open on Christmas Eve with outdoor seating that’s not crowded.

I fly the next morning Christmas Day to Livingstone in Zambia, country #134, named after the famous Dr. Livingstone, the first non-native to see Victoria Falls (maybe you remember the old black and white movie, with Spencer Tracy as Stanley, being sent by an American newspaper, to find Dr. Livingstone, who had disappeared for five years into the belly of Africa, whereupon finally finding him, speaks the famous line, “Dr. Livingstone I presume”). Upon landing, walking across the tarmac, I speak to someone who grew up there, who has returned for a wedding, and he tells me I’ve made a mistake, to have a hotel reservation across the river in Zimbabwe. He says I’ll have a hassle at the border, will have to walk a bit, to get another taxi. He says Zimbabwe is doing better but still bad (I know all about Mugabe, he’s 95, and has been a dictator there for eons, he kicked all the Whites off their land, and the economy has collapsed ever since). I panic, and instead, take a cab to an exclusive hotel on the Zambia side that I’ve read about, that connects by a free path to Victoria Falls. They’re fully booked, but she finds me a room somehow anyway, which is surprising as it’s now Christmas Day, a prime summer holiday. Wow. Lucky. I go online to to cancel my three day stay across the river, knowing I’ll have to still pay for the first day, but my account shows they’ve taken money for all three days already, and there’s no way to cancel. I’m stuck. I send an email to my cousin, asking him to call from the States. I’m surprised when I get an email confirmation that the money for all three days has been refunded. Wow. Lucky.



Yes, these zebras were hanging out, just outside my hotel room. As I took the picture, a woman employee yelled out, “Watch out, they kick!”



PlugOne of the smarter things I did for the trip, was to investigate what kind of electrical plugs they used here. I was lucky to have just enough time to order one online. Then I also went and bought a U.S. triple plug, so I could charge three things at one time. I’ll continue to use this orange triple plug when I travel in the U.S., and wonder why I have not thought of buying one years before, to simultaneously charge multiple devices.



I’ve read about the booze cruise on the African Queen, boating up the famous Zambezi river . I sign up. Beers are free once onboard, so I’m compelled to get my money’s worth.



IMG_0729A young woman stands next to me at the bar, and I ask where she’s from, she says Chile, I’m surprised she’s so far from home. I mention that in 1991, I went to a concert in Santiago, Chile, which celebrated the end of the dictatorship of General Pinochet, featuring Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Sinead O’Connor, at the same stadium where 2,000 people were imprisoned and murdered after Pinochet and the U.S. CIA took power in a coup, murdering the then president Salvador Allende. I hear an older gentleman behind me mumbling negatively something grumpy and realize her father in earshot, was a Pinochet supporter. Oops. This is him.



On the cruise we see hippos. We also see these strange creatures.





The next day I take a cab nearby to the Victoria Falls Bridge. I see the falls for the first time. Tomorrow I’ll get closer.




IMG_0749I walk to the end of the bridge. I’ve left Zambia. I’m in Zimbabwe, country #135. I make friends with the two soldiers at their guard post. I ask about their families. I ask about their work. They work 12-hour shifts. I ask about what their wives have packed for them to eat. I ask to take their picture, but I know they’ll have to say no due to security restrictions. I show them how to shake hands the American way, not the three different grip maneuver that everyone does in Southern Africa. I leave. As I start back across the bridge, I consider turning around with a big smile, sneaking a picture at them anyway, then laughing loudly so they know I’m messing with them, and running away across the bridge, knowing they can’t follow me into Zambia, but decide to respect my encounter with them. You can see their white hut at the end of the bridge in an earlier picture as I walked towards them.

100 TrillionI’m not in the mood to bungee jump as I walk back across the bridge, but I do buy some giant Zimbabwe notes from the guy. This is not a joke, they really have 100 Trillion Dollar notes. I buy four notes  for $10 USD. I’m sure I overpaid. Robert Mugabe has ruined this country.



I had not known that you can take a tourist train over for a quick visit to the town there.




IMG_0759The Victoria Falls Bridge was built in 1905 and at the time of its’ opening, was the highest bridge in the world. The grandson of Charles Darwin marshaled the opening ceremony. The bridge connected important British rail lines. The major sections were manufactured in England. When they put the bridge together, the last major piece was 1.25 inches too big. They went to bed that night frustrated. When they awoke in the morning, the cool night, had shrunk the metal by that exact amount, and the piece had fallen perfectly into place.



It’s time to go see Victoria Falls. As stated, the hotel I’m staying at, is connected to the park, and is a free 15-minute walk over from my room. On the way, I find a sad monkey.



The mist at the Falls, turns to rain. The sky can be pure blue, but still it’s raining. This view of the falls is just one corner of its expanse.

Here’s a panorama shot of the falls from end to end. Dr. Livingstone had heard about the falls for five years before attempting to canoe to them. His first night they slept on an island ¾ of the way to the left above the falls. His quote upon seeing the falls said that nothing in England could compare to the Fall’s majesty.IMG_0764

IMG_0795The next day I hire a driver and car. The plan is to drive about two hours to a ferry that connects to Botswana. I’ll take the ferry over, then try to find a boat to take me illegally over to a small island that is part of Namibia. The driver Devon dodges potholes the entire way. His registration is expired, so he must avoid police roadblocks. We approach a police stop. Devon pulls off the road, talking to someone sitting at a building. They both come back to the car. The other individual gets in the backseat. We turn around and head the opposite direction. We drive 1/2 of a mile, and the backseat passenger motions for us to turn off into the bush. We drive through the bush, usually no real road, through villages, through water, to pass the roadblock, and turn back onto the road. We tip the guide, and he has to walk a mile or two back to where he was sitting. This is us in the bush.


It’s hard to see that it’s all water on the left out of the windshield. I did not take a picture of the young boys swimming naked in the pond as we drove past. The smallest of them was terrified to see a car, and ran away. I threw Reese Cups at the rest of them (Note to self: terrible candy to take, squishes flat in suitcase and melts in the car).




We need to eat lunch. We stop at a village. The restaurant says they’re waiting for fish. We go to another restaurant, same story, no fish. We go to a third, same story. They live right by the fourth biggest river in Africa, where the hell are the fish. It takes so long to track down fish, that by the time we circle back to the first place, the fish has finally arrived. Devon is happy. We order two to eat, and one takeaway for Devon’s wife for when he gets home late that night. She’ll be happy.


IMG_0765At the ferry we walk down past all the trucks to the river. For six months my dream has been to find a boat, which can take me illegally to a small nearby island, officially part of Namibia. I’ve pictured an old man with a rickety rowboat. Instead, I discover a big covered aluminum boat with seating for a dozen. This is good. I ask the pilot how much he would charge to cross the river, stop for a minute in Botswana, then over to Namibia for a minute. His price of $25 is offered expecting to be bartered down, but I say yes immediately, willing to pay 20 times that. I’m insanely happy and excited. Namibia’s the big wild card of my entire trip. I’m going to get the bonus country of Namibia. We stop at Botswana country #136 first.



As I jumped off the boat for Namibia country #137, the pilot yells, “Watch out for the crocodiles and snakes!” He also reminds me that we’re here illegally, and to quit whooping and yelling. I knew he was about to say that just before he said it, and had already stifled myself.

This leg of my trip has been totally successful. It’s time to fly through Johannesburg down to Cape Town, and work my way back up through South Africa. But who knew; it’s been impossible for me to find a rental car down south. There are simply no cars available through any company whatsoever in southern South Africa (where most of the Whites are). I’ve been trying for days, online and in-person, nothing. It’s holiday season, and I’m out of luck. So instead of taking my connection through Johannesburg down to Cape Town, I play it by ear, stay in Johannesburg a night, give up the second longer flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, successfully reserve a car for the next day, and spend the night back at the same Emperor’s Palace. The hotel is fully booked. I’m out of luck. But somehow the receptionist finds me a room. Wow. Lucky. On arrival at the airport I work to get my flights refunded and changed, but nothing works. Because I took the first leg of a two-leg flight, the second leg is not worth anything, it’s considered used. And the flight from Mozambique back to Johannesburg on the last day of my trip does not work with my plans anymore, so that’s wasted. The agent cannot do anything for me, as I had bought the tickets through their partner United Airlines, I’d have to call to call the local United Office downtown, assuming it exists, for which I have no phone number, no phone either, plus I know their change fee would be the same as the credit for the flight, so I somberly buy a flight from Cape Town back to Johannesburg for my last vacation day. My plan of driving the country south to north, thwarted by no cars in the south, has flipped to driving north to south instead. There are no cheap $129 seats left, I have to pay $300, but I’m back on plan again.

Half of the next day is spent at the airport. I have to rent a GPS from Tomtom. The car I had reserved is fine, till I sit in it, and realize the gearshift is on the left. It’s going to be hard enough to drive on the left without shifting on the wrong side as well. I go back to the rental counter. They have two automatics. We take the elevator and go back to the parking area, to see which one has an auxiliary jack for me to plug my iPod into. One does, but the price is double. The folks have gotten to know me pretty well as I’ve spent so much time in their office, the manager and the agent speak, and decide to override the system, and get me the car at the same original price. They have to redo the documents for me to travel into Swaziland and Lesotho. I’m there forever. I ask if they have maps. They have no maps. I ask where to buy a map. The manager tells me when I leave the airport, to stay in the center lane, and go to the gas station. He does not realize that I’m terrified of having to drive on the left, and going in something as complicated as a center lane, is not going to work for me. (Turns out the term for gas station in South Africa is “garage,” and the term for traffic light is “robot,” both which confuse me a few times, when asking for directions.) I have a better idea. I take yet more time, and go back into the airport, ask at the Information Desk where to buy a map, and the man confidently points down a hallway. I go down the hall. There is no store for maps. But there is a phone store. My Verizon hotspot wifi has died days before. It has worked for days before that, very handy, very necessary for me to plan routes, hotels, stops, stay in communication, and more, but I’m in trouble lately with no internet. I glance into the phone store. There’s one girl and a line. I have little hope to have her help me, I’m not sure what I even want to ask her, I’m looking for maps anyway, so I turn to leave, and another woman walks in saying, “Hello, can I help you.” I explain that my wifi hotspot died. She opens it, sees a SIM card, and says, “We can try another SIM card for just 10 rand ($1),” which I eagerly agree to. I spend 30 minutes in the store, leaving with a whopping 3gb of data transfer ready for $30. I’m set for wifi for the rest of the trip. Wow. Lucky. While waiting at the phone store, I step outside the airport and turn on the GPS unit, to see if that will help it work. It does not. Nothing. She also knows where the store is that would have a map, I wander and find it, and buy the biggest map ever, it’s about five by four feet square, actually more of a wall map, a bit cumbersome for use in a car, plus the bigger the map got, the smaller the font for the cities got, they have every tiny town in South Africa on this map, I can’t really even read it.

I go to the car to leave. With steering wheel on the right instead of left, I feel like I should be delivering mail. I plug in my iPod, but cannot get the auxiliary input to work. I’m stuck. I go to find the guy who checked out the car for me, both of us walking in a circle, noting the few scratches on the car, but he’s nowhere. I find a young woman who professes knowing nothing about car radios, drag her back to the car, she pushes each button I tried, she reads the manual, we push the same buttons again. Finally she’s on the phone, and five minutes later, an older woman shows up, pushes the exact same button we had pushed many times, and it works immediately. The girl and I exchange a very embarrassed glance at each other.

Now there are no other excuses, nothing else I can think of to do, except to actually drive. I’m scared. I pull out from the parking space and stay on the left. I slowly drive along, and there’s the woman who fixed the auxiliary jack for me. I’m terrified that I’m going to not only have to drive on the left, but wave to her simultaneously as well. Luckily she’s looking down at her phone, so I can ignore her and just concentrate on driving. I’m leaving the airport now. The rented Tomtom GPS is not working. I see a sign for Johannesburg and Pretoria. I know Johannesburg is the wrong way. The other sign has two town names I’ve never heard of, so I commit. I’m driving for five minutes, not knowing what direction, and the GPS suddenly is working, and I hear a British woman’s voice tell me to take a turn 800 kilometers up ahead. I have no idea how far 800 kilometers is, but I’m guessing it’s something like a quarter mile. As we approach the turn, I smile as I realize we’re driving right by the Emperor’s Palace complex, I’ve been this way twice before on the shuttle. I take my turn, and the sign says a city I recognize, I’m on the freeway, going in the right direction, driving on the left, with my own music, and a GPS that works. I’m on plan. The last thing I need to do, is stay in the slow lane, but I have no idea if it’s on the left or right. I see a car in the left not going too fast, get behind him, and cars pass us, apparently not angry on our right. I’m driving in South Africa.

IMG_0810I drive for five hours straight to the border with Mozambique. The weather is cold, and it’s raining most of the time. What happened to beautiful South African summer weather. The border guards are nice. I bond with one. He shows me somewhere to park, while I walk to take a step across the border. I have to pass another four guard layers, each time, explaining I just need to touch Mozambique soil, each time receiving a big confused toothy smile in return. They don’t bother to stamp me out, as I’m not going to stamp in on the Mozambique side. I don’t collect passport stamps, I just physically need to touch the country. I’m here, just over the border, using my hand to make an “M” sign, for Mozambique country #138. Funny that it’s a guard that was willing to take my picture.

As I leave the border area, for his kids, I give kiddy collector cards to the first guard I made friends with, and ask him where I should stay. He consults with his friends in some language, and they send me to Lou’s, about five miles back in town. I find Lou’s. It’s a very basic room for $40. The bar and restaurant are closed. I drop my bags in my room, then drive back out, to the nearby gas station. It’s modern, and has food for sale just like in the U.S.  I buy a beef and mushroom turnover, a small salad, and a quart of non-fat milk. I have a great dinner back in my bare room. My gas station dinner frankly is one of the best dinners I have. The Terminator movie comes on, I watch the whole thing.

I hit the road. I drive south to Swaziland country #139. I swerve and brake to avoid many potholes. I have experience with potholes having ridden with Devon in Zambia. I’m an expert in my own way. I look out the window, Swaziland is gorgeous, green, you can see forever, when I smash a pothole hard. I never even see it. I’m afraid the tire is damaged, but kilometer after kilometer I’m fine. It’s lunchtime. I see a sign for what seems might be a nice restaurant 30km away. I see another sign 20km away, then 10km away. Finally I’m there, I see the restaurant, and as I take my foot off the gas to slow down, boom, whoop whoop whoop whoop, my tire is flat. Once as a young driver, I had a flat tire when I was in absolutely no hurry, and thought at the time, how no one ever says to themself, “Wow, what a perfect time to have a flat tire.” As I pull in, the rain has stopped, it’s sunny now, and I’m not in any big hurry; it’s a perfect time to have a flat tire. There’s no one around for me to pay to change the tire, but that’s okay, I order a mutton burger, and while they cook it, I change the tire easily. I notice that I’ve lost the hubcap though. That’s not good. But I paid extra for tire and windshield protection, so maybe I’ll be okay, even though hitting the pothole was my own fault.

I want to make it all the way down the coast to Durban. It’s a long drive. I’m having a nice time, although worrying a bit about being naked with no spare tire. I hit patches of road that make a slight werp werp feeling in the tires, and each time I’m afraid a tire is going flat. But the countryside is amazing, so beautiful, that I email a friend that night, “God is definitely here for sure.” And the weather continues to improve the further south I drive. This is what I expected, blue skies, not the gray cold rain up towards Johannesburg. The more I drive, the more Mediterranean the climate becomes.

IMG_0812Still in Swaziland, I see an entire forest of strange trees. They look dead, or maybe a flash fire came through, and the trees are fine, or maybe this is just their natural state. The trees are part of a royal game park. I don’t care about game parks. I know you’re supposed to come to Africa, go out in trucks, and chase down lions and elephants. I don’t care. I’ve been to zoos, and feel like game parks are like just bigger zoos.

Just after leaving Swaziland, arriving back into South Africa, I see a car brake up ahead for apparently for no reason, I slow down, I see it’s a herd of giraffe. Maybe game parks are okay.IMG_0820

I drive up another mountain; from the top I see a car pulled over, with a woman and child staring out into the valley. I pull over to see elephants crossing the river below. Maybe game parks are okay.IMG_0831

I’ve learned that in South Africa, just like Germany, you don’t just drive at what’s up in front, you drive from behind as well. No one really follows the speed limit. If you see a BMW or Mercedes approaching in your rearview mirror, you know you’re going to need to let them pass. And it’s normal here, to actually pull your car halfway out of your lane onto the shoulder, keeping your speed, as they squeeze by, whether there is oncoming traffic or not. But each time you do that, after the car has zoomed by, you get two flashes of their rear lights signaling a thank you. About one in ten times you don’t get the flashes, and feel a little disappointed. Most Americans would have a big challenge driving in South Africa, not because of driving on the left, but because we’re not used to caring who is behind us, and we also feel an entitlement if we’re ahead of someone, with no need to let them pass.

I don’t know how to get an iPod to shuffle music in a truly arbitrary way, so throughout the 2,000 miles I drove, many times the music came back to some of these personally meaningful groups: Springsteen, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Beatles solo albums, Rufus Wainwright, Weather Report, Who, and Neil Young. The trip was immeasurably upgraded by having good music for all those miles.

Our eyes see upside down. When light enters the eye making a picture on the back of our eyes, the picture is upside down, but without us realizing it, our brains invert the picture to make sense of it, into a right-side-up image. An experiment from 20-years ago had folks wear glasses with mirrors that turned the image upside down to what our eyes really would see. After a week the brain corrected this image, and folks again saw the image as normal. The experiment ended of course by the participants taking the glasses off, resulting in likely the first humans ever, to see images as they really are, upside down (till they reset again a week later). After driving on the left for a thousand miles, I try imagining my two cars at home with the steering wheel on the left. I can’t do it. I’ve been reset. It feels weird to think about it. It actually scares me to think of the steering wheels on that side. Taking a left turn is easier in South Africa. You’re in your left lane, you pull up to an intersection, you look to the right, no traffic, you turn left into the closest lane. Turning right does not feel comfortable at all. You forget which way to look for the traffic coming each way, then need to pull out into the far lane up and over to the left on the right. And when you sit in the car, the steering wheel is on the right, so the majority of the car is off to your left. In the U.S. the entire car is on your right. So beyond remembering to drive on the left, you also have to remember that the car is dangling way over to your left, not on your right. I pull halfway off the road going about 70mph to let someone pass, and oh no, my left front tire, the spare that I just put on the car, kisses the curb. Now I’m really worried I’m going to get another flat, but I drive for hours, and everything is fine. I’ve driven about 10 hours, and all of sudden, everything is not fine. I’m just getting ready to pass a small truck, and whoop whoop whoop whoop, my tire is going flat again, oh my god, this is not good, I have no spare, it’s nighttime now, not many cars are on the road, I’m on a freeway, with no phone, and no one to call even if I did have a phone. My heart stops, then jumps into my throat. My palms instantly sweat. I’m in fight or flight mode. It’s been a single second since the tire started to blow as I begin to brake and pull over, then my brain says to me, “Hey, look at the truck you were going to pass, there’s a little symbol on the back, I know it’s not likely, a one in a thousand chance, but maybe that’s one of those highway helper trucks.” So I hit the gas again, with no left front tire, and start flashing my high beams in a panic. I do that for four seconds, which feels like four minutes, then let the car slow down, when I see their brake lights come on. We both coast to a stop, they put their flashers on, and the driver gets out and comes back to talk to me. Indeed, the truck is a highway helper truck. It’s a miracle. Wow. Lucky. I have no spare, so the only option is for him to call a tow truck.

IMG_0834Everything has been closed due to the holidays for days, but an Indian descent tow truck operator Ashley is working, arrives with his two younger mates, we tow the car five miles to his shop, with his associates riding on the flatbed, with no room in the cab. I pay $60 for the tow, $60 for a tire to fix the spare, but the rim on the original tire is no good, so pay another $80 for a used spare tire on a rim that will fit my VW Polo if needed. This is the best $200 I’ve ever spent. As we drive to his shop, he points out two guys sitting at an overpass, and he tells me that these guys just sit and wait for cars that have trouble, then go down and rob them. He tells me of one guy, that didn’t want his car towed back to Ashley’s shop, he had Ashley just tow it a short way to get it off the highway, then later the police called him to tow the car, as it had been broken into, with all the luggage and everything stolen. I feel spooked. After his shop, we go to the gas station (“garage” as they say, up by the “robot”), and for the first time all of the people there scare me. I’m wimpy all of a sudden, and am happy to leave after Ashley has checked the tire pressure on all of my tires. Just get me to Durbin. (I get a receipt for the tires, but do not know yet whether I’ll get my $200 refunded from the insurance I took out – I don’t really even care, just happy to be alive, and still can’t believe the good fortune of that truck being right in front of me to help.)  Ashley is on the left in the picture. I tipped each of his two guys $10 for riding on the open flatbed and helping out. Soon after I arrive home in the U.S., a former Miss Venezuela is murdered with her ex-husband during a robbery after getting a flat tire in Venezuela.

IMG_0843I arrive in Durban. The British woman GPS voice takes me into the center of town. It’s almost midnight. I see a hotel, the Royal Garden. I go in. They have no rooms. Then they have a room for $140. I tell them I may come back. I go back to the car, and use my Wifi to explore I’m tired. I’m wasted. I realize I’m being an idiot to not just park the car, and go get a room. The hotel is a bit dated. I know the room is not going to be great, but I go back in, and the woman I was talking with is busy now, so she calls to her boss. I politely plead with the manager to give me his best rate, and the price drops to $90, but he only has rooms on the smoking floor. I’ve been in smoking rooms before which can be impossible to sleep in. I ask and he lets me go check the room with the security guard, we enter the room, no smoke, and an absolutely gorgeous full view of Durban from the 33rd floor. Wow. Lucky. The next morning, I even tell them I’ll take a second night, and yet again I get the room for just $90.

My plan is a one-day trip to Lesotho and back, then stay the night in Durban for New Years Eve. I leave in the morning. It’s a five-hour trip. I study the internet the night before, trying to determine the best route. There is no best route. Lesotho is a country, totally within South Africa. I think they never wanted it, because it’s all mountains. I read about the Sani Pass, the highest pass in all of Africa. I read you can only go up with four-wheel drive. Then I read a 2010 comment by someone that says the road is better now, and that cars can make it. I head to Sani Pass. I’m out in the country. It’s beautiful. But I’m having another flat. There’s a strange whirring sound. I keep driving and it disappears. Minutes later, it’s back. I’m in trouble. Then it’s gone. This keeps happening, until I realize it only happens when I drive past these giant trees. I’m come to the realization that there are some kind of cicada-sounding insects in these trees. But now my tire really is going flat. No no, it’s just ridges in the road. I realize for the rest of my trip, I’m going to be paranoid about getting a third flat tire. I drive many many hours up up up, all is going well, then no more paved road. Now I’m at a crawl, but it’s okay. Now it’s not okay. I’m going up rocks and ravines that no car should be going up, but I keep going. Now I’m scraping the car on the thorn trees. (Days later I find a car wash, and once the mud is off, can see the scratches. I remember the guy at the rental garage, and how meticulously he wrote up each scratch on the car at the time. This is not going to end well. The car wash manager appreciates my story, and has his guy apply silicon, and 95% of the scratch marks seem to disappear. I tip them. Like the tire situation, I won’t know how the money plays out for scratches till I’m back in the U.S.) I go on, up up up. IMG_0839Finally still very far from the top, I see a sign, about cars not being allowed any further, I’m defeated. But no, it’s okay, I’m at the border crossing. I have them stamp my passport, and walk into Lesotho country #140. I’m so happy because I thought the border was at the top. Their border post is at the top, but the border starts here further down. I’ve done it. I hit my target of 140 countries for this trip, and on the last day of 2013.

I stop for lunch in the nearest town on the way back. A dozen beautiful-people young folk are buying beers at the bar as I eat. The special of bangers, peas and mash is sold out, so I’m having a steak, I deserve it. I hear them say they’re going outside. I don’t say hello as I eat, but when I finish, I walk out and introduce myself. They’re all on vacation, and I stand at their table for five minutes, answering questions about my life and my trip. They beg me to stay and drink beer. It’s hard to say no, but I need to drive all the way to Durban. They all say I’ve seen more of Arica in a week then they have in their entire lives. I leave my email address with them all, and maybe I’ll someday see one or more in the DC area. Hope so.

I make it back to Durban. The bar and restaurant was closed the night before, like the night before near Mozambique, so I’ve not had a beer in a few days, I’m ready to celebrate, I hit my countries’ target, and it’s New Years Eve. They tell me to go to Florida Road. I take a cab and there are many cool bars and restaurants. I go into one that only has Blacks. It’s open-air seating for one or two hundred, everyone there affluent and beautiful. I’m the only White person. But no one gives me any eye contact. Then worse, a few more Whites come in, so now I’m not even the special token White guy. I finally realize that the Blacks and Whites just don’t mix. It’s like being in the U.S. in the 1950’s. During my entire trip I never see a single mixed couple in South Africa. For me it’s like going back to my childhood in the 1960’s. Once a car with a Black family drove down my street, it had never happened before, and was so odd at the time, I happened to have my Polaroid instamatic and actually took a picture of them. I can still remember the boy’s face looking at me from the back seat in the picture, maybe incredulous I was taking a photo. South Africa is a bit like that now. You drive past the townships, the shantytowns, thousands of people, none of them White, and it’s nothing but shacks. You drive by nice modern neighborhoods and you know they are all White. The lines by race are still very stark in South Africa. The northern part of South Africa is very Black, except for some areas around Johannesburg. Durbin, halfway down on the coast, has a population of Indians and Pakistanis; I wish I had had time to go see their mosque, the largest in the lower hemisphere. And the southern coast is very White. Ashley told me Whites were leaving South Africa. Others conversely told me things were getting better for everyone. You wonder how long it will take for the races to mix, could be 50 or 100 years. In America, Whites took Blacks. In South Africa, Whites took land. I ruminate on the justified bitterness in each case.

I have a nice night, and as always, you can’t believe how late it has gotten. I sleep in, but still feel the effects of the previous night’s New Years Celebration. I’m driving again. I have a long way to go. Two hours into my drive, I panic; I realize I’ve left my bags back at the hotel. My skin goes clammy. I can’t believe I’m going to have to drive two hours all the way back, then two hours more just to get to where I am now. I feel sick. I consider pulling over, but calm down, and decide to actually ask myself if my bags are in the trunk or not, and my memory can recreate putting them both in the trunk. I’m fine, just the usual momentary paranoia from the stress of driving and the previous night’s festivities. I get the same paranoia at major intersections. As I drive on the freeway, I’m in lanes going the same direction on my side of the highway, that’s easy enough, it’s when I drive through an intersection, with unnatural traffic directions for me, going at a high speed, that something really bad could happen. I practice in my mind, smashing into some innocent family, or having someone deservedly crash and crush me for being in the wrong spot. But by the end of the trip, I can’t remember or imagine driving on the right-hand side anymore.

IMG_0850I visited Mandela’s house in Soweto. That was a win. Now I’m heading to the middle of the country to Qunu where he grew up and is buried. I drive south of a major town, I know it’s not too far from there. I drive and drive, but don’t see anything. Finally, I stop and ask a woman on the side of the road, and she points back the other direction. Just then a van pulls over to pick her up, I yell to the driver, “How far to Qunu?,” and he replies to follow them back 10 miles. I’m back on plan.

IMG_0854The woman that recommended the first night’s lodging spot, also sent me a newslink about the grave, so I know that the grave is private, I won’t be able to get close. But there’s a museum nearby as well. I arrive at the Mandela family compound, speak to the guard; we both smile knowing I can’t come in. I say to him, “Respect,” and leave.




I drive up the road, and take this less than elegant picture of Mandela’s grave. He’s there somewhere in the middle of the photo.






I drive through Qunu, Mandela’s hometown village looking for the museum.




Someone tells me the museum is up the highway, to turn at the “garage” (gas station). As I do, I see a giant sign for the museum. But there was no sign going my original direction. Someone later says they might have taken it down for traffic work. I noticed that the highway just around Qunu had massive work done to make it look modern and new. I decide that as Nelson Mandela got closer to death, they knew the world would visit Qunu for the burial, so the government wanted to put on their best face. (To be fair, the roads in all of South Africa are modern and well kept.)

I’ll offer two interesting pictures from the museum. You can read the headings.  IMG_0864

IMG_0858I’m required by a young woman museum worker to fill-out and sign a form to take these pictures. She’s wearing a long green dress with red top. I tell her she still has her Christmas colors on. It’s not too busy today, so she follows a few of us around, and I ask about how this museum is situated where Nelson Mandela was a young boy, and she replies that yes, behind the museum, down the hill is the Sliding Stone, where he slid down, when herding cattle as a young boy. She promises to walk a few of us down the hill when we finish at the museum. These three pictures show me sliding down the Sliding Stone. You can see her in the second picture.


IMG_0894I continue on my drive. The countryside is so beautiful. In any direction you can see what seems to be 100 miles. Mountains stand any visible direction. The road passes through some, but tries to stay in the lower hills. Flooring the engine for up, then coasting for down, always looking in the rearview mirror for approaching vehicles, I continually marvel the vistas left and right. South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries I have visited. I brake suddenly to see a frustrated herder, unable to keep his goats from crossing in front of high-speed traffic. In my rearview mirror, I see the car behind me approaching a goat brazenly crossing back the wrong way, dead in his sights. I don’t see the outcome, but want to believe the car slowed, or the goat lurched safely back.IMG_0917

My friend from 25 years back, who graduated college in the U.S., and has lived mainly in China ever since, heard I was going to South Africa and hooked me up with a couple he knows. He’s told me nothing at all about them. I’ve traded the occasional email with them for six months, about getting together. My plans changed all around, about the trip inverting north to south, changing dates, but we’ve stayed in touch, and now I’m on the way to spend two nights with them. They’ve given me a phone number to call when I get into their town. It’s called Kynsna. Right, just try and say that word. It’s five hours away from the end of my trip in Cape Town. I drive all day. I pull over. I boot my wifi. I email them, that I still have 358 km to go (about 250 miles). I predict this will take me six or seven hours, which puts me there maybe around 11pm or midnight. I refuse to impolitely show up that late, and warn so in the email, I may just give up, pull over, spend the night in a hotel, and if I do, I’ll email right away to let them know, I won’t see them till the next day. But right after I email them, I come down out of the mountains, and from then on, the roads all have passing lanes, and I do not have to go through any small towns. I travel fast, watching the km click down on my GPS. I realize I’m going to make it, but I’m in too much of a hurry, to pull over again, to boot up my wifi and computer to let them know such. I have instructions to find them after golf at the Simola Hotel. I pull into Kynsna, and ask directions. I go further through town, and think I’ve passed the turn, see a woman, pull over, and ask her, she gives me directions, she’s pregnant, I think a prostitute, and disappointed when I thank her and drive on. I find the turn, and drive miles up into the hills. I end up at an exclusive resort. I talk my way past the guard post, sign myself in, and hear later the surprise that they let me in. I follow the signs to the hotel. I have their phone number, but it’s long, something crazy like 20 digits. I go in, I mention their names, the woman says maybe they live in the residential section. She tries the number. It does not work. The floormat I walk on into the hotel shows it is a five-star hotel. I smell food. I have not eaten since 10am, it’s now 11pm. (I’ve only pulled over once other than the museum, to get gas, and when I went into the gas station, I bought a pint of lowfat milk, came out, and my car was all locked up. The attendant filling my gas tank must of thought he was doing me a favor and he locked my car with the keys inside, I can hear the engine still running. Damn. What am I going to do now. Then I realize I’m standing on driver side in America, not in South Africa, walk around the car to the other side, and calmly seat myself with my milk). I see a sign for a seafood buffet. I tell the woman I have not eaten in 10 hours. She’s way cool, has much sympathy, tells me the buffet is closing or closed. We both rush in to talk to the manager. I’ve met someone else on the tour, Black, just like him, with a French accent, they both have come from the Congo. He’s nice. He tells me he’ll give me five minutes before closing the buffet. I go to get my iPhone from the car. I need to call my friends, to make sure they don’t have a meal planned with me somehow, even though it’s late, I don’t want to be rude, but the number does not work on my iPhone either. I have to make an executive decision. I decide to eat. I’ll email Brian and Fani after I get my food, and hopefully still be able to find them somehow. I go to the center of the buffet, and loudly proclaim to one of the people working there, that I have just driven 12-hours. I hear a reaction by a handful of people at the closest table, then someone exclaims, “Are you American?,” with a big smile, and I know the table of five must include Fani and Brian. It’s them. I can’t believe it. Wow. Lucky. I sit down, we start trading travel stories. They all live in Dubai, but for 7 years, have vacationed in South Africa. Brian’s friend tells me that night after everyone else is in bed, that Brian’s a founding member of the golf course below the house, each day he’s allowed “four for free” on the course. The next day for 2 cups I use 8 teaspoons of instant coffee. They all leave in the morning for their annual physicals. I intend to meet them later for lunch. I start to feel quite weird, weak, nervous, just bad. I drive into town, get my aforementioned car wash to hide the thorn tree scratches, then find the Quay Four (pronounced “key” four) restaurant, and they’re already there. I tell them I’m embarrassed that I don’t feel good, they offer to let me leave back to the house, which was my intention, but I stay a bit, and start to feel marginally better. They decide to not go sea kayaking, and instead go back to the house, so we all drive separately back. Everyone takes afternoon naps. I try to doze, cannot, but am happy to lay on the couch and do nothing. I eventually go online and do emails. IMG_0918Then I hear dogs barking. I look out over the balcony to see the dogs, but instead it’s a big baboon chasing smaller baboons across the golf course. Brian and Fani emphasize to lock my bedroom door when going out, that the baboons will break in. One guest forgot, and when he returned, they had ransacked the room, strewn linens all around the room, and appropriately shit on the bathroom floor. The house and view are superlative.IMG_0922

We drive to the ocean that day later when I’m feeling better, to see the “Heads.” It’s beautiful. Property is affordable. Everything is affordable in South Africa. The dollar is strong to the rand right now. A dinner that would cost $15 in the U.S. costs $10 here in South Africa. Here’s a panorama of the Heads. I like to think of Vasco de Gama, the first to sail around the Cape and on to India, went past here, would have absolutely marveled at this harbor entrance, maybe he even sailed in. IMG_0931

Fani, Brian and their friends are marvelous companions. They all are ex-pats, having grown up on the Isle of Man like Brian (that’s a small island, part of the UK, most notable for that crazy motorcycle race once a year on the island roads, with riders going 130mph, with fatalities not uncommon), or in Greece, Lebanon and Turkey like Fani. They both lived in the States for awhile as well. Brian with the green card of the time, lived in San Francisco in the mid-sixties, saw the tail-end of the Beat Generation and the beginning of the hippies. He moved back to England, and remarkably, got a draft notice from the U.S. Army delivered there, which he appropriately ignored. They toured many times with our mutual American friend Pat in China, buying antiques. I’ve been on Pat’s trucks doing that too. You drive into a small village, that’s never been visited like this before, and walk down the center of the street, proclaiming that you’ll buy their junk. They don’t realize that old furniture which is junk to them, represent valuable antiques for us. That’s how Pat made his fortune in China, and just retired buying a place in Chang Mai, Thailand. We traded Pat stories, and so many other stories, it was a highlight to hang with like-minded world travelers. Brian even remembered the Chinese words for, “Show us your junk, we’ll buy your junk.” Fani showed me a video of visiting gorillas in Uganda, with a young one flipping off their friend (yes, holding up the middle finger), then running away. I hope to see them both again sometime, maybe in Mongolia which is a country I need to collect, or in Thailand for us all to see Pat, or maybe with my kids, to stay with them in Spain, one of my favorite countries, and to meet Brian’s adult children.

They decide to go deep-sea fishing the next day. I’m in for $75 and getting up at 4am, but twisted luck for me, we find out the night before the outfitter does not have enough seats on the boat, so instead I sleep in to a normal time, and do the long drive all the way to Cape Town of about six hours. A few folks had told me this Garden Route along the coast to Cape Town would be a highlight of my trip. Fine, it was beautiful, and if that’s all South Africa offered for beauty, that would still work, but this drive was nothing compared to the drive down the spine of South Africa, that’s where the real beauty lies. I suspect that the folks touting the Garden Route do not like the poverty and shantytowns across the middle of the country, and instead think the Garden Route is a top drive, based more on the Whiteness of the drive, with modern towns and shopping centers, and fewer Black shantytowns. A gentleman overhears me talking at the airport about it, comes over, and energetically tells me, “You got it right mate, we come each year, and drive 7,000 kilometers to really see the country.”

IMG_0936If I had fished, I would have been very tired, and gotten into Cape Town late, instead I arrive early enough to make it over to the cable car, to go to the top of Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town. (They send me a picture of the many fish they caught, and I’m jealous to not be there for the grill party afterwards.) We’re fogged in, but I get high enough to see Cape Town before the fog at the very top, and it’s a meaningful experience. IMG_0940

I go out that night where I’m told to, on Long Street. The architecture is bizarre; every fourth building looks like it should be on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The next day a bartender says to me, “Oh, so Long Street pulled you in?”

IMG_0945It’s also Cape Town’s carnival. They’ll parade until after dawn. I see some of the marchers in the parade, but each time, I’m zooming by in a cab and miss the shot. I walk by early in the evening for this picture, but am told not to go back late that night to their staging area. From my experience in Ethiopia being robbed last year late at night by four teens, I go against my better nature, and decide to take the advice and go home instead to my hotel.

I discover days earlier online that tickets to visit Nelson Mandela’s prison Robben Island sell out way in advance. I have no conception to plan my ticket purchase in advance, thinking it will be like the Statue of Liberty, its ferry and tour never sell out. But Robben Island is sold out. I’ve seen his house in Soweto, I’ve seen his grave and museum in Qunu, but I’m not going to see his cell on Robben Island. I sleep in, and go down to the ticket office at the waterfront thirty minutes before the last tour anyway. Two women are already standing off to the side, hoping someone will turn in extra tickets. I stand for 30 minutes till the tour starts at 3pm. Nothing. If one ticket becomes available, the women will let me go. If two become available, the two women will go. If three become available we’ll all go. But nothing is happening and we’re running out of time. An older couple comes and joins us. Then the unbelievable, a young man comes to the ticket window and says he accidentally hit the Buy button online twice, and has six extra tickets. We’re all going now. It’s the last thing I needed as closure for my trip. Wow. Lucky. We take the 30-minute ferry ride. We bus around the island before seeing the prison. IMG_0954This is the lime quarry where all of the political prisoners did hard labor. The cave in the back, is where they met to talk to start constructing the frame of government for a new South Africa. The pile of rocks is where Nelson Mandela, upon his release and return as President, laid one rock, and thousands of others lay more rocks, different sizes and colors, to symbolize all the different but equal people of South America. They had no protection while quarrying the lime for all those years. Many of the prisoners later went blind from the bleaching dust. Nelson Mandela’s tear ducts dried up preventing fluid to cleanse his eyes, and eventually caused his death at age 95 from pneumonia, the same lung disease that many died of, from working in the quarry.

Over time on the island, only White guards were allowed (known as “wardens”), as the Black wardens became too sympathetic to the prisoners. Nelson Mandela directed all the prisoners to never fight with the wardens, but instead, when possible, explain why they were all incarcerated, in the search for freedom. Mandela stayed friends with the White Afrikaner guards after his release, inviting them to his inauguration and other events. After 200 years, Robben Island closed as a prison about 20 years ago. When the former prisoners visited after its closing, they thought the island should become a museum. The government agreed. About 20 former prisoners and wardens live on the island and help with the tours. IMG_0960This gentleman  was locked in the cell block pictured for seven years. At age 19, he had been part of the ANC’s student wing, then went to Angola for rebel military training, snuck back into South Africa and hid for four years till he was caught. It’s ironic how one man’s  “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter.”

Nelson Mandela served 27 years on Robben Island. Here’s the only picture of him there. IMG_0963


Here’s his cell window.








Here’s the hallway to his cell.








Here’s the cell where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prisons (no toilet, notice the bucket) and preached reconciliation and equality for all South Africans, thus averting a Civil War, and creating a measure of increasing prosperity in the country. He’s the only leader in history to leave prison, and within (4) months, become the elected leader of a country.





It’s the morning of my departure. I’m packing. Oh my god, my passport is gone. No way I can leave the country. No way they’ll do anything for me at the airport. There’s no U.S. embassy here. I’ll have to go to the embassy in Johannesburg. Will they even let me fly there with no passport. This is a disaster. This is a nightmare. I can’t believe my passport is lost. Oh, wait a minute, no big deal, here it is in this other pocket. This happens all the time; the moment you can’t find your passport for 5 seconds, supreme panic, then consideration of the worst that will happen. I’ve never lost a passport, although I’ve thought I’ve lost my passport 20 times.

BillAirportI’m sitting working on my trip write-up at the gate. Everyone lines up to board right in front of me. I sometimes wait to be the last person to board, instead of standing in line with everyone. I make friends with a guy in line with his family. This is his son. He’s going home to Johannesburg. He’s intrigued as we talk about what a sophisticated world traveller I am. Eventually he says, “I’m going to sit back down, the flight is delayed.” I go back to work, then hear my name called. This is good. They must be upgrading me. I go to the counter, and get a bad feeling, the woman is not smiling. She tells me I’ve delayed their flight. Worst still, she tells me I’ve missed my flight. Wha? Huh? Turns out, the line in front of me was for a different flight, even though it was in front of my gate, it snaked to another gate behind me. But I was just discussing what a sophisticated world traveller I am, how could this happen. All the subsequent flights are full. I’m going to miss my connection in Johannesburg to Paris. I’m going to have to leave the airport, and spend another night. I’m going to have to contact Air France and try and rebook. They’ll have nothing for tomorrow. They’ll charge me an exorbitant upcharge to confirm a seat. I’m in trouble. I’m instructed to go back out, past security, back to the check-in area. I’m directed to a kiosk. The guy is sympathetic, but no open flights exist. And he tells me that even for stand-by, I’m in the back of that line, I won’t make it on a flight. I tell him I’m so nervous, that I’m standing there with a dry mouth. He smiles weakly. He stares at his screen. We don’t speak for minutes. He asks me about my chances rebooking with Air France. I tell him I know they will have no sympathy, as my ticket with his airline South African, was not connected to the tickets I bought with Air France. They won’t care. Back to silence. This is not good. I get no encouragement. No way out. He finally shakes his head, I know I’m done for, he looks up, looks side-to-side like now he’s the one in trouble, and says, “I’m not supposed to do this, but I’m putting you on the 3pm flight.” I can’t believe it. I’m back on plan. Wow. Lucky.  (The end.)

Trip to East Africa 2012/2013

Am finished ‘collecting’ the Western Hemisphere land mass countries (although many Caribbean islands still left to go). Finished w/ Europe. Finished w/ Asia. Am at 126 countries as of the end of this trip to Africa. Running out of easy countries now. Have a lot of Africa left still, and the “stan” countries, that Herman Cain thought were funny to say. Need the war zone countries, they’re not easy. Arab Spring countries now are not easy. Overall my travel is getting interesting (from the Medieval curse, “May you live in interesting times”).

So here I go, leaving while it’s snowing at Dulles Airport, to arrive in a desert country Djibouti, as a friend called it years ago, “the anus of the world.” I’m an aisle-sitting guy on flights, so I can hit the bathroom whenever I want, but got a window seat to fly the one-hour connection from the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, over the Great Rift Valley, where humanity developed and walked out of Africa. Had read about Lake Assail, the lowest point in Africa, so was ready when I saw it below me, to take a picture. I hate seeing pic’s folks have taken out their plane window, seems pathetic somehow to take photos out of a plane, so novice-like; am sorry to do this, but here’s Africa’s version of our Death Valley [update: no picture available, will explain shortly].

Months back, an industry associate’s significant other, whose company provides security for U.S. personnel, when she heard I was going to Djibouti, asked, “What is Bill going to do for security?” Huh? Wha? I didn’t really get it. A month later, the Washington Post, had a front-page story, running to two full pages inside, describing the U.S.’s largest drone base in the world, outside of Afghanistan. On the other side of the tarmac where we were going to land, is Camp Lemonier, originally a French Legionnaire base, now leased from Djibouti by the U.S. after 9/11, as our only base in Africa, an interesting story about the birds roosting, and goats living there when the U.S. first came in, our assets still on a ship off-shore, till we could clean everything up. Whenever you hear about a drone strike in Yemen, this is the base from where it took off.

So I’ve been hoping to see our drones, but the plane lands the wrong direction for my window view, darn, but whoopee, it’s turning around, and there they are, two drones right outside my window, got a picture, a bit grainy when I crop it closer [update: no picture available, will explain shortly].

A month ago was flying from Paraguay to Uruguay, and my luggage never showed up, was cold as hell, only wearing shorts in Montevideo, all jeans cost $200 there, and they don’t sell relaxed fit, only normal and skinny fit. I’m forced to buy a pair. My butt has not looked so good in pants since high school, but not comfortable. I make it back to VA, days before my bag finally shows up there, I never do receive it in Uruguay. So I just recently had this bad lost luggage incident. I arrive now in Djibouti, and ask myself why was I even thinking my bag would show up. Our flight connection through Ethiopia is a bit late due to the snow in VA. There’s a girl there, waiting for her bag too, I say hello, and ask if she speaks French, she says yes, with an American accent. She has much more faith than me that her bag, our bags, are going to show up. I’m shortly filling out paperwork for a missing bag.

The Sheraton has told me they have a shuttle that will be waiting. I walk around the airport for ten minutes, looking for a shuttle or someone holding a sign with my name. I’m giving up, I’ll need to get a cab. I’m standing feeling frustrated, and weirdly, I notice the door right next to me says Sheraton. Huh? Wha? I knock, and sure enough, there’s someone inside expecting me. (Back in U.S., I email the woman at the Sheraton, telling her she should be more specific, and tell customers to look for the office.) I go to the Sheraton. I’ve read about it on Trip Advisor, very funny the descriptions, none good, the most polite saying, “a Sheraton by name only.” My luggage arrives that night thankfully on another flight. I have the hotel go pick it up for me.

I’m at the bar. A beer costs $10. Ouch. I tease the girl bartender at the Sheraton, as she has a hickey on her neck, very embarrassed that I pointed it out, tried to blame it on her boyfriend, “Ya right,” I think; it takes two to tango. Beyond the hickey, I see two small black tattoo dots where her uni-brow would be. I ask her about them, and she says, maybe defensively, I’m not sure, that they’re not religious, just that her mother had them, so she got them at a young age too. I see other women on my trip, with a similar prison-tattoo-looking Christian-cross on their forehead. They are Coptic (or Coptie I think for plural). Beyond the forehead, I see one with small dot and bubble tattoos all along the jaw line; Mike Tyson please take note. I’ve seen these Coptic Christian tattoos in Egypt, and interestingly, on the wrist of the girl that checked me in at Dulles airport to start my trip. But I’ve never seen the upgrade, with the jawline dot and bubble tattoos.

The next night I need a good meal. A French guy, and folks working the bar, recommend a restaurant, a short walk away. I steel myself, and head out into the Djibouti night, a bit apprehensive. I go down to the roundabout, take a right, find the restaurant, and it’s closed. Hmm. I have to decide whether to find another restaurant on my own, further towards the center of town, or walk back to the Sheraton. I decide to head back. The bartender explains that a restaurant would be closed on a Friday night, not like on a Monday here in the U.S., as Friday is the Muslim day of prayer. I understand, agree, and chime in, that Jews have their Sabbath on Saturday, and Christians’ day of rest and prayer is Sunday. Later I think about what it would be like if all three religions of Abraham, had the same day of rest and prayer. The French guy recommends another restaurant. I take a cab. I order the mixed fish, three kinds, with shrimp, and squid. I take a picture [update: no picture available, will explain shortly].

A girl walks in while I’m eating, comes right up to me, is talking to me, I wonder what she wants from me, she’s very bold, then she says something about luggage, and I realize it’s the very same girl from the airport. Turns out, her brother is my waiter. Turns out, she met a U.S. serviceman, and lives with him in Atlanta. My waiter is going to visit them in Georgia next month. Small world.

It’s the next day, morning, and time to fly to Ethiopia. I hire a driver in the morning, and we start off on the 45-minute drive to the border with Somalia. It’s not even really the border with Somalia, it’s the northern part of Somalia, that has broken off, has no government, and is called Somaliland. I have no visa. My goal is to somehow talk my way across the border, just to get one foot over. I’ve done this elsewhere. As warned the day before when hiring my driver, the road is hell, dirt with giant potholes everywhere. I need to make it back to catch my flight, so I’m wishing that my driver would go a bit faster, at least as fast as the giant trucks that are occasionally passing us, blowing dust everywhere. Way up ahead, too quickly to take a picture, I’m amazed to see a troop of baboons cross the road, about a dozen of them. We make it to the border. We go talk to the sole border guard, sitting by the gate, in his blue shirt. He’s saying I cannot cross. But my driver is still talking to him, smiling, begging for me. We’re making progress. Then a car pulls up, and out steps the border guard’s boss, in a white shirt. Now the blue shirt guard is stiffening up. I’m not going to be able to make it across. We go back to the car about 50 feet away. I’m sinking, but I see the border guard walk off to the office. I high-step it to the gate, and before anyone can stop me, put my foot under the gate’s bar, and touch Somaliland. Success. I walk away, then turn back to take a video of the crossing point. The blue shirt guard walks out while I’m filming and starts yelling at me and waiving his arms. I jump in the car [update: no video  available, will explain shortly].

We’re late now, I’m worrying about making my flight. We turn around, and shortly about 20 camels are crossing the road, holding us up. I film it  [update: no video  available, will explain shortly].

We’re driving through the dust, and my driver starts looking out his window in a weird way, and then stops the car. A flat tire. What? No way. Interestingly, we were driving just as slow with four good tires, as we were with only three. Okay fine, we’re out of the car now, the trunk is open, he pulls a spare tire out, pulls out the tire wrench, then moves things around in the trunk, looks me in the eye, and says, “I’m sorry, I left the jack at home, I meant to put it back in the car yesterday.” I’m thinking, why would someone take their jack out of their car? We’re stuck on a desert road, flat tire, no jack, and 30 minutes from the airport. I’m trying to keep myself calm. A giant truck zooms by 5 minutes later. Dust in our face. Five minutes more, and we can see a car way off in the distance. The car finally approaches. Hope. My driver flags him down, but he does not stop. We go back to standing in the silence of the desert. Five minutes later, another car, bingo, they stop, and as the driver helps us, I slip cash into his hand. He’s happy. My driver is happy. I’m happy. I have one of the other guy’s passengers take my picture with the tire repair happening behind me [update: no picture available, will explain shortly].

We make it to the airport, it’s going to be close. I wait in line. I finally check in. The woman at the counter asks me where my ticket is. Huh? Wha? I tell her it’s electronic. She says it’s not. She tells me to go upstairs to their office, and work it out. Oh god. I walk off, leaving my suitcase. She calls me back, and tells me to take my suitcase. I lug it up the stairs, and barely find the office, which is marked with a hand scribbled piece of paper saying, “Office.” I hear yelling from back down the hall. A guard has chased me upstairs. I’m confused about what he’s saying. I finally understand that suitcases are not allowed upstairs. I lug my bag all the way back down, fight through the people in line, to set my suitcase back down where it was before. I glare at the check-in lady, and walk back upstairs. The ticket agent upstairs confirms my credit card info as he processes a paper ticket. I make my flight.

I need to see the Redskins play the Cowboys. The game is flexed to a Sunday night at 8:30pm, which is 4:30am in Ethiopia. I’ve bought a $200 product just to see this game, it’s called Slingbox, you plug it into your TV cablebox at home, and also into your router, and you can watch your own home TV, from anywhere in the world that has internet. But my hotel’s connection is out of service 95% of the time, and worse than a 28k AOL dial-up otherwise. (Sidenote: actor son Marley gets hired for a small role in a TV pilot, but I don’t receive and respond to the email in time, so the casting agent gives the role to another kid.) I sleep a few hours, get up at 3am, and taxi to a Hilton by 4am. The lobby is cold and barren. The reception desk attendant apologizes, that I can’t get internet without a room number, no free wifi. Damn. He recommends the Jupiter hotel. I taxi again. Success, this hotel has a nice bar, one that is open, and the internet is free and working. The connection is slow. When I launch Slingbox, and put the game on, the football players are blobs, worse than when video games were first invented, but at least I can follow the game. The bartender does not give up looking for the game on the TV, and for 10 minutes keeps slowly clicking through every channel they have, and my god, a miracle, there’s the game. Unbelievable. I run at him, and give him a big hug. He’s as shocked getting a hug, as I am that he found the game. We watch the game together, and I teach him the basic rules of the game (you get four downs, to get at least ten yards, to get four more downs, and scores are either 3 for a kick, or 7 for a touchdown, it’s that simple). He gets into watching the game so much, that when his shift is over, he stays anyway, to see the end of the game. Every time the Redskins score, I sing the team’s fight song at the top of my lungs (“Hail to the Redskins, hail victory, hail to the Redskins, fight for old DC”). Every time I sing, Ethiopians peek around the corner, and stare at me wondering what the heck is going on so loudly and so early in the morning. Watching the Redskins win, is the highlight of my trip to Africa up to that point. I take a picture of the bartender standing next to the TV [update: no picture available, will explain shortly].

I go back to the hotel after the game, go back to sleep for a bit, then go out for dinner. I ask the receptionist where to eat, she says there’s only one restaurant close enough to walk to, it’s called 2000 Habesha. I cross the street, and head up. I don’t see it. I keep going. I finally give up, get a taxi, and he takes me back to near the hotel, down a little dirt alley that I had walked by, and there’s the restaurant. I go in. The place is amazing. The have a giant full buffet, with a band playing. I know how to eat Ethiopian. I take the spongy pancake type bread, spread it all over my plate, then put big spoons of various types of food all over the bread. You eat by taking a bit of the bread, and pinching the food with it, no silverware used or needed. The food is wonderful. Afterwards they bring soap, a big silver bowl, and an ornate water jug, and pour water letting you wash your hands. The band is playing native Ethiopian music. The sound is wonderful. The variety of instruments are wooden things I’ve never seen, and make a magical sound. I make eye contact with the drummer, and we smile at each other all night, while I watch various dancers and singers coming out to perform. I go back the next night, the drummer smiles. I go back my third night too, as the food and music is so good. The drummer smiles at me each time all evening. I’m such a regular now, I get up on stage with the singer, and make some sounds. About 30 people applaud when I step off after about a minute. If the band had an electric guitar or two, and a singer like Mick Jagger, they would be world famous. I take a video of the band playing, with close-ups of each of the seven musicians and their instruments [update: no video available, will explain shortly].

I head to another bar I saw, when I missed the restaurant the first night. Inside there’s another band, with dancers, they’re great too. I’m having a super great night. I could not be any happier. I head back to the hotel, go around the corner, and head up the street to another bar. Four guys are walking down the street. There are two really big guys, a medium sized guy, and a little shorty guy. They’re in their early 20’s. I start to walk around them to one side, but they spread out, and I realize I need to walk straight through them, and they’ll open up to let me pass. As I get closer, they don’t open up. The little shorty guy is now on my left. As I stop, he stops, then swings a punch to my face. I turn my head along with the direction of the punch, so it hits with about 20% force. I’m swinging back at him, miss him, and we grapple down onto the street. I’ve seen enough American movies to know it’s easy to throw these bad guys off, and kick their butts. But that does not happen. I’m stuck now, under shorty guy, being choked, down on the street. I’m still confused about why they’re going to beat the crap out of me. I feel hands going through all of my pockets. I’m slightly relieved to think maybe it’s ‘just’ a robbery, they’re not just going to beat me up for the fun of it, which I probably deserve anyway for some cosmic reason. I’m immobile. I can’t move. I try and poke my thumb into shorty’s eye. He closes his eye, my thumb is doing nothing, except making him choke me harder. I’m panicking now, as I get that I-can’t-breath feeling. I realize I’m not going to kick these four guys’ butt. I wheeze out, “You’re killing me, you’re killing me,” and they’re finished. They skip away, laughing. I stand up, still confused, feeling my pockets. My iPhone is gone from my front pocket. I’m finally fully realizing that I’ve just been mugged. I yell at them. I want to yell, “F%$# YOU!!!!,” but I realize they can just as easily walk back, and beat me up, so I yell the worst thing that can be said about you by Bill McKay, “UNCOOL!!!…..UNCOOL!!!”  This explains why I have no pictures or video for this report.

In retrospect I realize that these guys were actually pretty nice. I did not really get hurt. It was a fairly polite robbery. And because I was being held down on the street on my butt, they missed getting my wallet, which would have been a real disaster, in Africa with no credit cards. Later I think I could have instead yelled, “Hey, let’s have a beer,” and maybe I could have bought my phone back.

I fly on to Kenya the next day. I’m a bit depressed from the night before. I want to go home 3 days early (also to see the Redskins play their playoff game). Ethiopian Airlines has no seats to get me home. I call Johnson, the travel agent guy I had spoken to at the tourist counter at the airport. We negotiate for me to get a driver, to take me to the border of Tanzania. Patrick the driver is way cool, fun to hang with, easy to talk to. We drive the two hours to the border. The countryside is beautiful, wide valleys with hills in the distance. The trees are those kind that look flat at the top. It’s just how I’ve pictured Africa. We’re going by folks from the famous Masai tribe. This is the tribe, with the men wrapped in red throws, down to their knees, carrying a stick. It’s like a movie, but this is real and normal. We see them every few miles walking along the road. It’s strange though; where are the huts or houses? I talk to a teenager later in the day, he plays rugby, and wants to play American football, he explains that the Masai don’t like to have their houses near the road. There are no buildings of any kind either. Patrick explains just a few people own all the land between Nairobi and Tanzania, but the Masai don’t care, because they are just herders, and the land owners allow them to walk their cattle everywhere.

I’m having a great day. I’m no longer depressed. I no longer want to go home early. All of a sudden, the automatic transmission car downshifts into a lower gear, all on its own. Huh? Wha? Patrick and I look at each other. We start talking about what could be wrong. We pull over. Patrick grabs my water bottle (I’m still a little insulted by this), and his water bottle, opens the hood, opens the radiator, be careful it’s hot, and pours the water in. It does not top-off. We walk down the little hill to a house. I smile to the family, as Patrick borrows a water jug, and fills it. We top-off the radiator. He returns the jug. The whole time, there’s an old Masai standing with us at the car. I finally ask if I can hold his stick. It’s a small highlight of the day. We get back in the car, drive off, and somehow the car is fine. Life is good. We make it to the border. I’m nervous about getting over the border with no visa, and excited to get my 126th country. We walk past trucks, and the Kenyan border guardhouse, and past an ugly (but beautiful to me) hand painted wooden sign that says, Welcome to Tanzania. Up ahead is another guardhouse. I’m standing just past the sign with a smile. Patrick asks if I want to walk farther, and I say, “No, this is fine.” I laugh, “This is all I wanted.” Patrick laughs too. We turn around. I’m ready for a beer, and tell Patrick such. He points to the gas station on the right, saying we can get beer there. But there are a line of shacks on the left, and one has the letters B A R painted at the top above the doorway. I point and direct us there. We sit. I order a beer. The electricity they tell me has been off. The beer is not cold, but it’s cool enough to enjoy. Patrick and I had agreed to eat at the border. He goes for a walk, while I sit and stare at the women just in front of me on the street side, selling mangoes and other fruit and vegetables. No one pays any attention to me. I like that. Only a little boy is coming up to me, and smiling and laughing. I have another beer. Patrick comes back, and says we can get grilled beef. I say good. He leaves again. In 30 minutes he goes to pick it up to bring back to the shack. I walk with him. We step over the uneven dirt terrain down to another shack. There are two large hunks of meat hanging unrefrigerated in the front. I step inside, and in the back, there’s a grill, with a softball shaped piece of beef on the grill. They take off the meat, and put it on a tray, along with some salsa, and a wonderful corn bread type side dish, which is hard to describe (sort of like if you poured white grits into a pan, let it harden, then cut it like slices of bread, was fantastic). We go back to our shack, with the grill guy following, who then cuts the beef into pieces. The meat is terribly tough and chewy, but has a great charcoal flavor. I like it. We end up sitting at this shack for many hours. It’s perhaps the highlight of my trip to Africa.

We start our drive back to Nairobi from Tanzania. Almost immediately the car downshifts all on its own again. Our speed drops from 60mph, to 30mph, and even at that slow speed, the gear is winding way too high. We’re both nervous we’re not going to make it back. Patrick had bought a jug, and filled it with water by our shack, and now is pulling over often, to pour more water into the radiator. The car is running hot. The car is burning through gas quickly with the high rev’ing of the gears and engine. We pull over every 15 minutes. The car for some reason is now belching fumes inside the car. We put up the windows, but that doesn’t help. We put the windows back down, but that doesn’t help either. I can’t take the fumes. Now I hear this loud banging in the trunk. I look at Patrick. He looks at me. We realize the car is backfiring. Now the fumes are getting even worse. My eyes are starting to burn. Occasionally I put my head out the window, and gulp down fresh air. Occasionally the fumes go back to just being bad, instead of terrible, and ironically I’m relieved to have them be just bad, when before, the bad level had seemed terrible. We drive along with the winding gears, and backfiring, for hours. Each hill we go up makes everything even worse. I see some buildings, and say, “Oh, we must be close to Nairobi now?,” and Patrick responds, “We’re halfway there.” I’m sad. We keep stopping for gas over and over. Why doesn’t Patrick put more gas in the car, instead of just a little at a time? We’re out of gas now. We’re on the side of the road trying to flag down cars. I’m remembering being stranded from the flat tire incident earlier in my trip. This is my second time to be stranded. Patrick is waving, and a car pulls over. Patrick leaves with the car. Someone from the car stays with me. I make small talk with this guy. A Masai herding his cows, comes over to stand as well. This is when the teenager comes and discusses American football. The four of us stand there on the side of the road for half an hour. Patrick finally arrives back, pours some gas, and we’re on our way with the fumes and backfiring once again. Our two hour drive from Tanzania turns into a five hour drive to get back, but we make it. I see Patrick a few times over the next few days, he eventually takes me to the airport, and I find out, the problem with the car was the clutch for the automatic transmission.

Back in Nairobi at night, I don’t want to get robbed again, so I’m taking taxis at night, even if I only need to go two blocks. While standing one evening getting change at the Hilton reception desk, another guest comes up, complaining that he was just accosted at the ATM across the street by men demanding money, but he ran away back to the hotel. He said there were people outside the bank, and even a security guard, that did nothing to help.

I go each night to a club I had read about. I have a great time. There’s a band. On my last night, coming out of the bathroom next to the stage, someone from the band hands me a jingly percussion bell instrument, but I’m having a hard time shaking it in unison with the band. So I hand it back smiling, and start to sing instead. The guy motions to an open mic on a stand, and once again, I’m on stage now, singing with the band, doing a bluesy howling American rock counterpoint, to the lilting high vocals of the other two singers. I’m singing any nonsense words that pop into my head, but it’s good I know, because I’m in tune, on key. I go back around the corner to the table. Patrick is there. I tell him I was just on stage singing. He starts laughing hysterically. He tells me that everyone over by our table, out of sight of the band, was asking, “Wow, what’s that, a new sound?”  He tells me I sounded good. I’m laughing hysterically now too. My trip to Africa is over.

Trip to Western Africa 2011/2012

Here I am in West Africa. Sometimes I’ll be somewhere, and just for a second, I’ll blank on where I am as I look around, and have to ask myself, “Where AM I,” then have to think for half a second, and say to myself, “Oh yes, I’m in Ghana,” or wherever. I’ve had a bunch of those twists in the last week.

I get to Dulles airport to fly to West Africa the day after Xmas. I booked via Expedia, and I’ve never had a problem, but at the ticket counter for KLM, nothing, they’ve never heard of me, I show them my Expedia booking number, and itinerary, and they continue to look at me like I have three heads. The guy goes in the back. The guy comes back out, nothing. So I call Expedia, and they say I never paid for my tickets. What? So I work with the guy at the counter to rebook the whole thing. Time is clicking away. He’s all nervous like me, trying to bang this whole thing in before it’s too late to leave, which it’s pretty close. So my fare now is hundreds of dollars higher, pain, but at least I’m back on plan. He looks up at me, and says, “Your credit card just rejected the charge,” (little do I know, that this is just the beginning of my money issues). Luckily, I have an AMEX card with me, and bingo, I’m back on plan. I have a new Visa card. I still have no idea why it locked up, I’m not going to call the US from Africa to talk to someone in India, and cost me $50 to figure it out right now.  I rush to the gate, and to compound being late, I get off at the wrong stop on the airport tram, but I make my flight.

I fly to Africa via Amsterdam, but because I paid extra for the flight (read: Business Class, ouch), I realize I may have access to the KLM lounge in Amsterdam. It works. I’m in. I eat three plates of food, while drinking many fine Heinekens, all free in the lounge. I find this dark resting room thing, that I’ve never seen at an airport before, and go in to get two hours sleep. That does not work out exactly. I find one of the resting lounges they have, but they’re all curled in a way, that you can only lay on your back. So as I do my best to drift away, I realize this room with little cubicle things for each of us, is full of loud snoring. I never really sleep. I come out later, and get on my laptop for a bit, before catching the flight to Accra, Ghana.

I’m now in Ghana. I’m going to through customs. I’m through. Great, that’s 114 countries I’ve been to. I go to the bathroom while waiting for my baggage, and hear a guy in the stall  throwing up his guts. As I leave bathroom, I pass another guy coming in, and we smile at each other about what we’re hearing from the stall. Welcome to West Africa.

My bag, where is my bag. I wait forever. No way my bag made the flight. Visions of no toothbrush in the morning or anything else, till finally, god is great, my bag shows up. I’m back on plan.

I look for the ride I arranged with hotel. I see a guy holding a sign with three names, one of which sounds interestingly like mine; Gilliam (much like William) McVey (much like McKay). I go up to the guy, and say my hotel name, and he nods yes, but not convincingly. I say the name of the woman that runs the hotel, he looks confused, I’m certainly confused, and he responds with a guy’s name. I say the woman’s name Donna again, and he says yes. Good. I’m on plan. He’s waiting for two other people as well, so after 10 minutes with this guy, I get bored, and tell him I’m going into the other greeting area where there’s a bar, I’ll have a beer, and as I walk down the gauntlet of folks, there’s another guy with a much less confusing sign which says, William McKay. Great. I’m on plan.

So this guy’s name is Nana. He’s 27. He’s not the driver, but he has a taxi for us.  He sort of works for the hotel, and also makes and sells shoes, sewing beads on flip flops, or using cheap leather sliced through rubber to make sandals. Thus begins my four-day adventure with my new best friend, Nana.

I’m fine in the room for two days, then they ask me to move to another room. I had said I was going to be there for two days. They can let me stay longer, but someone else reserved that room. I go up to another room, which sits by itself, sort of hanging over the street. All night long, for the next couple nights, I get no sleep, hearing dogs, cars, music, machinery, trucks, laughing, yelling. In the morning, there was even a weird clicking on the window for five minutes. I open the curtains, and it’s a bird, flying repeatedly into the window with its beak. What? I’m guessing that the window was mirrored on the outside, and so the bird thought it was another bird of the same species. The TV only gets one channel. I’d say at least it was good that it was in English, but it only showed old shows from the 70’s, which weren’t even good then. After the first day in the room, the TV no longer works at all. The shower has no hot water.

Now my money problems really start. Turns out in Ghana, and most of Africa, debit cards and credit cards don’t work like they do in the U.S.  Nana and I go to an ATM. Neither of my ATM cards work. We go to another. Nothing. We must have gone to about 8 before giving up. The next day I go to the Citibank, my bank, but we can’t find it. I had googled it, found an address, but turns out it does not really exist. There are no Citibanks anywhere in West Africa. But at another bank a lady tells me to go to Ghana Commercial bank, and finally, thank god, my debit card works. The way things work here, is that there’s no difference between debit cards and credit cards really, the key is whether it’s a Visa card, or Mastercard. Almost no bank is affiliated with Mastercard like my debit cards. And my other problem is for my Visa card, I have no PIN. I would rarely ever want to charge my credit card to get cash in the States, so I have no PIN (I’ll get one now when I get back). I go back to the bank the next day, and get a bunch more money. I’m leaving Ghana soon, so need to change it back into dollars. The woman working at the money changer place, turns out has a daughter living in the town over from me in Herndon, VA, but that does not stop her from giving me at least one counterfeit $100 bill that gets refused later by a hotel. The only thing that has saved me, is using to pay for all of my hotel stays, otherwise I’d be destitute living on the streets, selling coconuts.

So for four days, I go everywhere with Nana. We got to Reggae Night one night at the beach. There were about 1,000 folks partying at night on the beach. I was the only White person there that I saw for most of the night (which instead of being nervous, I kind of like).

Nana had this habit of going crazy with cabs. He’d say he wanted to show me a bar, and he’d point, like it was just down the street, we get in a cab, and go forever, 30 minutes way across the city. For that cab trip, it was mainly so he could be seen with me, back over where he used to work. Or same thing another time, he wants to show me his son, so we get into a cab, and 30 minutes later, we’re finally there. When you’re jet lagged and not getting any sleep, it’s hard to eat. And it’s hard to feel comfortable eating food you’re not used to. So you’re rarely ever full. Many days I go the whole day with one small meal, once as bad as a single can of tuna and crackers for the whole day. So one night I’m talking about how Jamaicans have meat patties. And we talk to a woman that mentions a place that sells them. So we hop in a cab, and you guessed it, 30 minutes later we found the place, the third long cab ride that Nana snookered me into. The good news is that although the bakery mainly sells sweets, we see the very last two meat pies they have – we just barely score them. And the place next door cooks us an order of fried rice to share, the last meal they cook before closing. We were right under the wire on both counts. God has smiled on us, I’m finally full.

Other highlights with Nana included taking footpaths through the squatter neighborhoods (I always smile to myself, thinking about folks that I know, that would freak out with the poverty and trash, plus it’s easy to feel paranoid where you so obviously don’t belong, but I’m used to it), and seeing Nana’s son, such a handsome baby boy.  Also I hung with Nana on New Years Eve, and the bar we were at had their own professional quality fireworks that were shooting up in the air right outside the front door. It was all smiles and laughs from everyone standing around (you were never quite sure, which direction the thing was going to shoot, so a lot of nervous laughter).

Okay, I left Ghana this morning by hellish bus at 6am, and spent maybe 7 hours going across Togo, and I’m now in Benin. I’m up to 116 countries now. Tomorrow I’ll go to Nigeria, but just for a day, then back here, and fly to Senegal the next day, and will have some days to make it to Gambia. They don’t have much in the way of taxis here in Cotonou, Benin, seems you hop on the back of a motorbike to get around, the guy is wearing a special yellow shirt uniform, it cost me $8 to go maybe four miles from the bus drop-off, to my hotel, my luggage up on the guy’s handlebars, pretty sure that was more like a $2 or $4 ride, but they have you nailed when you get off of the bus, all White and desperate looking. It’s worth paying a bit extra, you just say the hell with it, grind through your trip trying to ignore having to overpay, no reason to freak over an extra $4 loser fee.

I’ve decided to treat myself to a real dinner. As I mentioned, it’s really hard to eat on a trip like this, when you’re tired, and hot (I’m trying not to say hungover as well). You have to force yourself to eat, especially knowing you may want to have a couple beers later. And in Ghana NO fast food joints of any kind. For my whole trip here in multiple countries, I have not seen a single McDonalds, or Wendy’s or even a Jollibees. So am at a Novotel and just ordered a steak. It’s expensive, so I won’t mention the price, most of you know that I’m generally cheap as hell on these trips. I bring it up to mention, that the sides included french fries or boiled potatoes, and meanwhile the lamb shank on the menu comes with mashed potatoes, and I knew when I asked for mashed potatoes as my side, it would be a problem. Right, the waitress said no. So I said, let me talk to the chef. So I follow her, stand outside the kitchen, and 3 minutes later, she comes out from a different door saying no, and then has me talk to the manager, a giant defensive lineman looking guy, same deal, he’s like, “Oh, we don’t have lamb tonight,” when I’m asking about mashed potatoes, not lamb. I give up. I order boiled potatoes, and ask for butter, and say I’ll make my own mashed potatoes. I know they will show up with no butter, or as I’m in a French speaking country, they will show up “sans” butter. I told the waitress three times, and the manager emphatically – do not overcook my steak. Okay food is out, streak is fine. I’m happy. Smart move to take care of my self with actual food. No butter as I expected for the potatoes, but the little peppercorn sauce for the steak works perfectly on the potatoes (and they claim the peppercorns are locally grown).

Back in my room now watching TV. Try to imagine watching U.S. football with a French speaking announcer. It’s Houston Texans vs. Tennessee Titans. The only word I’ve understood the guy say is, magnifique.

Okay, the poverty is certainly rampant here, but the time I spent in Ghana I have to say was remarkable for how nice the people were. They’re all mellow, nice humor, just amazingly sweet people. I was there for a few days, before I even saw my first policeman. These people are all the same, mellow and cool. I’m thinking that maybe the slaves came from here for Jamaica, I even looked it up on Google, and it looks like this country was one of four main places they came from, but I’ll forever think the majority, and the culture of Jamaica came from this place, it’s stunning the similarities. If Ghana was closer to the U.S, it’s somewhere I would visit again, but I guess that’s what Jamaica is for.

Ghana beachfront property


Ghana version of beachfront property.





Nana’s son Desmond


I’m holding Nana’s son Desmond. This is NOT my son, I repeat, this is NOT my son.




Got my hair cut


Got my hair cut, barber was cool.





Downtown at beach


Downtown at beach, swimmers and boats.





My local bar


My local bar, would sit and watch the world go by at sundown, talk trash with locals.




Pig Lady


Next to the bar, this woman sold pork. They called her the Pig Lady.




long wharf


The long wharf where the slaves would walk down to be loaded on ships.




slaves were kept


One of the places the slaves were kept.





Another place the slaves were kept


Another place the slaves were kept.





Building a boat.


Building a boat.





I hire a taxi from Benin to drive me to the border of Nigeria, so I can walk across the border, and come back. It was hell at the border crossing. There were multiple windows and desks on each side of the border, plus on each side of the street as well, depending whether you were coming or going, and the second I step out of the cab, guys are in my face asking where my luggage is, to get a tip out of me, I have none, I’m just going over the border and back, the hustlers are confused, I push past them. Every time I finish with one window, someone else is trying to help me, but they don’t work there, they just want money, and you can’t tell if they work there or not, very confusing, very uncomfortable, extremely stressful. One guy is begging, he’s down walking on his knees. Another guy is bow legged, and struts like a chicken.  I tell my taxi to wait, I naively say I’ll be back in 10 minutes. Little do I know, the process of hitting all the windows and tables, three in Benin going in, three in Nigeria going in, then three plus three coming out, just doing the paperwork takes an hour. Once I get into Nigeria, they speak English. I meet Maybel as she’s doing my paperwork, I explain that I collect countries. She and her worker friends crack up when I say I’m just going over the border for ten minutes. They’ve never heard of such a thing. I tell her that I would love it if someone could have one or two beers with me. She brings a guy over that works there. I end up leaving with him and another guy. I think we’re going to just walk 20 yards or such, and find a place to have a beer. Instead, we go to his car, and start driving. After driving for about 10 minutes, I say, “Sorry to sound paranoid, but my taxi is waiting,” and they nod, and keep driving. We end up driving another ten or so minutes, pull off the road, scrape the car on the curb, then drive through grassy sand areas to some shacks on the beach. Turns out the beach was great. I was kicking myself, because I would have liked to hang out there. We walked down and met the tall guy’s two daughters. We walked back up the other way, and viewed the 500 folks there partying. I wanted to stay, but was already paranoid about my taxi leaving without me. We drive back. I go back over to Maybel, tell her that the two guys beat me up and took all my money. All the other people working there were listening too with shocked faces, then I laughed, and we all laughed. I showed her the pictures of the beach, and just like my taxi driver later, she was really surprised I made it all the way to the beach. Now it’s time to go back through customs. I’m not really feeling good. I feel kind of weak and feverish. I also need to move my bowels. But nothing to do but hold it. I get through the Nigerian customs, but at the last window for coming into Benin, this big giant guy asks for his New Year present. I try to laugh it off, but he’s not laughing. I say I have no money, which is almost true. He and the nicer guy both start saying the stamps in my passport are messed up, that I’m missing one. I’m getting indignant.  The deformed guy with weird legs I saw on the other side of the road, is now on this side, and chicken walks over to where I’m having my problem, and starts screaming stuff in French at me. The only thing I understand him say is, “American criminals.” I’ve gone through Benin customs once already when I first came into the country by bus, and I know there’s no charge, and I know this guys is just extorting me. We keep going back and forth, it gets to the point that he’s threatening me, that I’m in big trouble about my passport, to the point that he says my taxi is going to have to drive all the way back to Cotonou city in Benin to get enough money to get me out of this jam. I hold firm. I stand there for 10 minutes, they finally relent, as I leave, I throw a 5,000 CFA note at the guy, worth about $12.50. I’m not sure why I did that, didn’t need to at that point, guess I was thankful, and gave him the money, because I did not HAVE to give him the money by then, plus I was still worried he’d yell after me, so $12.50 is worth the insurance plus I gave him the money in a screw you anyway kind of way. I find my taxi. I really need to go to the bathroom. My stomach does not feel right. We have a 40 minute drive. Waves of needing to go to the bathroom start crashing over me. I’m holding on. We finally make it to the city, but I’m still not sure I can make it to the hotel. I keep thinking of the mess I’m about to do in this guys taxi. It’s not going to be pretty. We pull up to the hotel. It’s a miracle. I’m still intact. Now I have to wait for the elevator. Damn you elevator. I make  it to my hallway, but I may not make it. My body is convulsing. I’m walking pigeon toed and stiff legged down the hall. I can make it. I’m going to make it. I make it.  Unbelievable. But I’m sick now. I’m sick all night. The next day, after an Imodium tablet, and starting myself on antibiotics I brought just for this scenario, I’m 90% better. I’m at the airport to go to Senegal, my bag just passed through the metal detector machine, WITH my water on the side, WITH my laptop inside, and WITH my shoes on. WHAT is the purpose of this metal detector?

Maybel who helped me at Nigerian customs.


Maybel who helped me at Nigerian customs.




My two Nigerian friends at the beach with friends and family


My two Nigerian friends at the beach with friends and family.




Again my two Nigerian friends, up the beach the other way, big party.


Again my two Nigerian friends, up the beach the other way, big party.




I fly into Senegal. I googled “Dakar to Gambia” and found three different folks to email about getting a ride for the day to my last country Gambia. One never responds. Another wants $270. Another wants $250. But then the woman emails again, saying she can get me into a car with a couple from the UK, so I only have to pay my third, about $85. I’m happy. At first we were going to be going the first morning after I fly into Senegal. Then it gets moved to the next day, which is tons better, so I can get some sleep, plus recover a bit more from my stomach thing.  My flight is delayed by an hour. Our flight finally arrives, and I have to fly from Benin, to Nigeria, then to Burkina Faso, then finally to Dakar, Senegal, the whole thing taking 5 hours. I get to the room at 2:30am. I am so happy to be in a Novotel hotel, my first time ever, I’m in civilization, I have CNN, I’m going to sleep, all is good. I slowly unpack, organize and such, and by 3am, I’m in bed, then think to check email, and aghast, the car journey has been moved to the next morning at 5am. Now I’m only going to get 2 hours sleep. I get a call at 6am, within minutes I’m downstairs, and meet Ali. He’s cool. He’s my new Nana. But when we start driving, the trucks and traffic are emitting so much exhaust, that it’s pretty intense smelling in the car. After awhile, I realize it’s not from other cars, it’s from our car. The car has no AC, and I have to endure the exhaust smell from 6am to 9pm to drive to Gambia and back. I make two sandwiches and grab a hard boiled egg off of the breakfast buffet they’re just setting up. All day long I look forward to eating my hard boiled egg. Later at the border with Gambia, I finally crack my egg open, and it’s raw. What a disappointment. The next day I see they have a special hot water bath to cook your own egg. We drive for an hour, to a seaside resort town called Saly, and pick up the couple from the UK. Ann is White. Her husband is Nigerian, but speaks with a British accent.  They’re both extremely interesting and we trade stories the whole way to Gambia. They sold their house in the UK, and are going to just spend all their money touring Africa for two years. They’re part of an overland group that is touring in a giant truck thing, but they splintered off for awhile to spend more time in Senegal. There’s this weird dust all day long, that is making the palms of my hands continue to turn black. It’s weird. I can’t really explain it, but all day, this weird black dirt just starting showing up on my palms. I kept joking that I was turning Senegalese. I wasn’t doing anything with my hands to make them dirty, it was just happening on its own. On the way back, there was a giant traffic jam, so our driver got off the main road, and we’re driving on these dirt trails, all around this absolutely massive quarry complex. We take 10 minutes to just drive completely around the quarry. We’re lost, so every time we see a person, the driver asks which way. We finally make it to the entrance/exit to the quarry, but there’s a rope up blocking us. Security comes over, yells at us, and tells us to go back the way we came. Our guy politely begs and argues. The guard finally smiles, and lowers the rope. But we’re still lost driving through these neighborhoods. We finally talk to an old man, and he agrees to get into the car, and show us how to get out. We drop him off five minutes later, and the driver gives him a small tip. We fight traffic all the way back through Dafar. All these folks really want to listen to is Youssou N’Dour. I bought two of his CD’s about 20 years ago. He has an amazing voice, so I was happy to listen to him for hours. I take out my iPod, and use a male to male plug, to attach to the Aux of his car player, and let them hear Shakin the Tree, the song he did with Peter Gabriel. I buy the latest Youssou N’Dour album off a guy on the street while stuck in traffic, for about $1.50. We test it in the car player, it works. Finally I’m home at the hotel, I have two beers at the bar with my dirty self, then I’m crazy happy to go take a shower. For a couple days, from my 8th floor room facing the ocean, I can see a restaurant I want to visit, and finally now, I’m there for lunch, just had fish soup, Senegal was as a French colony so you know the bread is going to be good here, just like in Vietnam where the French were before us, best bread in Asia.

Baobab tree



Baobab tree. Super cool looking, they’re all along the highway in Senegal, supposedly live for thousands of years like our Redwoods.








These folks showed up while I was taking the photo of the tree.




fish soup


Here’s my fish soup, the coast of Dakar on the left here in Senegal, at this super cool French restaurant and bar that I’ve been looking at from my hotel 8 floors up, finally made it here, great seat overlooking the water, and the island off to the right, is known as a former slave island point of transit, but I went online, and it’s not true, was not a main slave site. I’ll take the ferry over there tomorrow anyway, Goree Island. 1,000 folks live there on 100 acres, a UNESCO site. This seat is the best spot I’ve been on for the whole trip, so glad it’s on my last full day here, kind of a celebration.

Tonight’s my last night here. I’ve had some exceedingly tough work on this trip, but I’ve never felt in danger, and the highlight for me, has been the people, both the tourists I’ve met, and particularly the locals I’ve gotten to know. The people are what I’ll remember most. I’ll come back to West Africa and other parts of Africa in the next couple years and collect more countries. There’s plenty of poverty here, but the negatives we hear about in the press for Africa, are just like how years ago, the world thought NYC was a dangerous place, it’s overblown. As I always say, it’s good to get away, and it’s good to go home. Can’t wait to get to my house, and have my traditional welcome back to the USA meal – Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.