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Safely Navigating the Challenges of Third World Travel

Swedish Gun Laws

Swedish Gun Laws 176 176 Greg Ellifritz

I love to travel.  I also love guns.  This is a neat series that talks about the legalities of owning and carrying weapons in other countries.  In this case, the foreign country is Sweden.  While many people think that European countries have an outright ban on guns, that isn’t entirely true.  Watch the short video to see what kind of legal obstacles the Swedes have to hurdle in order to own a firearm.



Overview of Swedish Gun Laws


The World’s Easiest Counter Kidnapping Advice

The World’s Easiest Counter Kidnapping Advice 275 183 Greg Ellifritz

Reliable statistics about the number of Americans who are kidnapped abroad each year are difficult to acquire.  Our government intentionally downplays all incidents of international kidnapping so as not to inadvertently create more enthusiasm for the crime.

In my book, I talk a lot about physical kidnappings, virtual kidnappings, and express kidnappings.  If you want detailed advice, that is a good start.


Without discounting all the information in the book, tonight I realized we can dramatically simplify all the kidnapping advice ever written.

I’m leaving in a couple weeks to explore Turkey with a friend.  I just purchased my travel insurance policy for the trip and was reading the fine print on the policy documents.

In the kidnapping section, the documents made the following declarations:


1. Any kidnapping or express kidnapping first occurs in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, or any country for which we are prohibited from transaction due to sanctions by the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).


It struck me that with the exception of the occasional Mexican drug cartel kidnapping, I seldom see any American citizens kidnapped any place other than the countries listed above.

That might be a clue.  If kidnappings in those nations are so common that kidnapping insurance doesn’t apply there, maybe the best counter kidnapping advice might be to simply avoid traveling to those locations.


Guns in Thailand

Guns in Thailand 1274 611 Greg Ellifritz

I really enjoy traveling.  I also really enjoy guns.  That means I really like learning about the gun laws and shooting cultures in different countries.  Here is a neat video about guns and shooting in Thailand.  I’m going to have to visit some of those markets when I go back to Bangkok next time.


The Bangkok Gun District in Thailand



Uber in Foreign Countries

Uber in Foreign Countries 1200 900 Greg Ellifritz

Uber has been a complete game changer for me when traveling in foreign countries. By not using a cab, I avoid the overcharging “gringo tax,” reduce my chance of robbery, and avoid fumbling around with cash trying to pay the driver in a sketchy neighborhood. These articles below give you some strategies that will make using Uber even cheaper.


How to Save Money with Uber (quick and easy)


10 Uber Tips That Will Totally Improve Your Next Experience


All About Malaria

All About Malaria 768 574 Greg Ellifritz

If you travel in the developing world, you’ll want to understand how to avoid, diagnose, and treat malaria. Having acquired malaria on a trip to Colombia a while back, I can tell you that preventing the infection is far preferable to being treated in a rural medical clinic.  Here are some resources to check out.


Mega Malaria Extravaganza

Malaria Prevention Guidance from the UK


Antimalarial medications





Travel Log- Surviving Burning Man

Travel Log- Surviving Burning Man 768 644 Greg Ellifritz

I first went to Burning Man back in 2013.  Since then I’ve attended a total of six of the annual burns.  I just got home from the most recent event.


Burning Man is almost impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it.  The uninformed might call it an art and music festival.  That really doesn’t even scratch the surface.  Yes, there is a lot of art and a lot of music, but I think the event is better described as an “immersive experience.”  It’s a playground for adults.  You can encounter almost anything during the nine days the temporary city exists in the desert of northern Nevada.


Almost all the art is physically interactive and randomly spaced across an area about eight square miles in size.  There are dozens of concerts/DJs/ music events happening 24 hours a day, but there are few set schedules.  You either stumble across your favorite performer or you don’t.  Burning Man thrives on serendipity and spontaneity.



Upon entry, each participant is given a book (about 150 pages) of scheduled lectures, workshops, and group activities.  Everyone can participate in as many or as few of the events as he/she desires.  Nothing is off limits at Burning Man.  People can attend workshops ranging across topics as practical as installing solar electricity systems, making jewelry, playing musical instruments, or healing psychological trauma.


The more adventurous folks can complete workshops in psychedelic breath work, rock climbing, navigating altered mental states, or even participatory Tantric sex orgies.  A 50-mile ultra marathon race happens.   You can play naked flag football or visit the temporary roller skating rink.  People fight in a full scale reproduction of the Thunderdome from Mad Max.  You can skydive or participate in a flame thrower shooting accuracy contest.  Clothing is optional.  Almost nothing is out of bounds at Burning Man.


I went to Burning Man with a friend. She had never attended before. This is the perpetual facial expression of someone experiencing the event for the first time.


Some of you will think that sounds cool.  It is.  But it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s quite a physical challenge.



Burning Man dust storm


At Burning Man the only thing for sale is coffee and ice.  There is no electricity, running water, internet, or cell service.  The only physical facilities are portable toilets.  There is no trash collection or food preparation areas.  The nearest town is about 15 miles away and in/out traffic is strongly discouraged. Burning Man is the largest “Leave No Trace” camping event on the planet


The event is held on the “playa,” a flat desert environment with nearly constant dust storms.  Temperatures are in the 90s during the day and 40s at night.  The wind blows pretty constantly at 20-30 miles per hour.  It is often so dusty that visibility is only about 10 feet.  It’s a fun place, but just surviving in this environment is a tremendous physical challenge.


Each participant must bring his own food, water, and shelter for the the extent of the stay.  Staff members evaluate each attendee upon entry to the event.  If the staff deems that you don’t have adequate supplies to successfully survive, you will be turned away and refused access.  Despite the tremendous adventures to be had at the event, merely existing in the environment is brutal and physically demanding.


The amount of gear it takes to allow two people to thrive for a week in harsh desert conditions.


Veteran burner Michael Michaels provides an excellent event description:


“At Burning Man, we’ve found a way to break out of the box that confines us. What we do, literally, is take people’s reality and break it apart. Burning Man is a transformation engine- it has hardware and it has software, you can adjust it and tweak it. And we’ve done that. We take people out to this vast dry place, nowhere, very harsh conditions. It strips away their luggage, the things they’ve brought with them, of who they thought they were. And it puts them in a community setting where they have to connect with each other, in a place where anything is possible. In doing so, it breaks their old reality and helps them realize they can create their own.”


Burning man is a truly unique environment, the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else on the planet.  More than 70,000 people attend each year.  When the city is built and temporarily occupied, it is the third largest city in Nevada.  What makes it work are its Ten Principles.  Of the 10, I think three are primarily responsible for the event’s continual success.


Radical Inclusion– Everyone is welcome so long so they make a positive contribution to the group as a whole.

Radical Self-reliance– There are few freeloaders.  You are expected to take care of yourself and will be thrown out if you can’t do so.

Gifting– Each person is expected to bring his/her own unique gifts (either physical, artistic, or intellectual) to enrich the experiences of the rest of the participants.


Now that we’ve established some of the basic detail about how the event works, let’s get into the survival challenges burners faced this year.  Last Friday it rained almost an inch of water onto the hard-packed desert soil.  Average rainfall there during the four months a year it occasionally rains is less the a half inch per month.  It was unprecedented to get two months’ worth of rain in an 18-hour time period.  The rain created massive desert floods and the hard desert soil turned into eight inches of slippery sticky mud.


The entrance and departure gates were closed for two days.  No one could drive out through the horrific mud.  Participants were essentially trapped in a huge flooded desert mud plain unless they were willing to trudge more than six miles on foot through the muck to get to the closest paved road.  Things became a bit chaotic because people couldn’t physically leave their camp, the portable toilets couldn’t be serviced, and emergency police/medical services could not access the site.


The mud and crazy sky during a brief respite from the pouring rain.


As is typical, the news media sensationalized the event.  Reporters who couldn’t get to the site (the entrance was closed, remember?) reported utter chaos, masses of untreated hypothermia victims freezing in inadequate shelters, and people in drug induced hazes wallowing in human excrement.  The media alluded to lawless uncontrolled riots, mass casualties, and the entire event being declared a biohazard quarantine zone.  “Journalists” spread rumors of the national guard being mobilized to quell the rebellion.  Utterly ridiculous.


I’m happy to report that Burning Man was nothing like what was reported in the media. I got out just fine and so did everyone else I camped with.   Yes, it was unusually rainy and cold.  No one could leave for a couple days because of muddy roads. But very few folks were planning on leaving on Friday or Saturday when the roads were too muddy to navigate.  Almost everyone leaves on Sunday or Monday at the end of the event.


Illuminated drones in the sky


Burners were generally prepared for this calamity.  They know there is nothing for sale.  They know there is no electricity, no food, no running water, and no internet. Every single person going to the event brought their own food, water, and shelter expecting to stay for up to nine days.


It got really wet. It got super muddy. Nighttime temperature lows weren’t any colder than usual. Almost everyone was prepared for all that. Despite the garbage news reports, the cold and mud was a complete non-event for 98% of the people there.


My friend’s muddy boots after her short walk to the portable toilets


If anyone can survive a deluge and chaotic camping conditions, I’d put my money on a burner.  This quote sums things up admirably:


“Burners are exceptionally skilled at functioning during chaotic crises when normal services- running water, electricity, communication channels and sanitation systems- are not available. Burners don’t just survive in such an environment; they create culture, art, and community there.”

– Peter Hirshberg


The big man burn didn’t happen as scheduled because they couldn’t get fire trucks in on the muddy road.   My camp constructed our own man out of scrap wood and got a neighboring camp’s art car to provide music as we held our own man burn party. About 250 random folks joined us for an incredibly enjoyable evening.



Rest assured, I was prepared to ascend the throne as king hippie barbarian warlord should the conditions have degenerated into a Lord of the Flies style event. That didn’t happen.  Almost everyone had lots of fun and took good care of everyone else. Don’t believe the media hype. It was by far the easiest apocalypse I’ve ever experienced.


With that said, I did learn some lessons as I survived the flood, mud, and chaos.  Read on as I share those lessons as well as the action plans I have implemented to mitigate such problems in the future.


Fortunes told here


Medical preparations are critical.  This is the element that had the most potential for disaster.  There are a few medical professionals working at the event, but even on a good day the closest hospital is more than a two-hour lights and siren ground transport.  During the flood, ambulances couldn’t access the playa.  No helicopter was flying in the horrible rain and winds.  Have you ever considered what you would do if you had a serious medical emergency in that kind of environment?

Even though civilization was relatively close, no one was coming to help us for a very long time.  I had a 4×4 pickup truck as a rental.  I mentally prepared an exfil plan in the event myself or one of my long time camp mates became seriously ill or was badly injured.  I was glad I had packed my larger trauma kit with all the meds I carry when I travel to remote foreign countries.  I had the skills and equipment to care for myself and friends in the absence of a traditionally  functioning EMS system.

That gave me a tremendous amount of peace of mind.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to use my equipment or skills.  I’m going to redouble my efforts to continue learning how to diagnose and treat patients should I be put in another situation with an abnormally long medical response time.  I’m going to carry my full medical kit with me on all my trips, even those when I don’t leave “civilization.”  An event like this flood could happen almost anywhere and anytime.


Double rainbow after the storm ended


Hypothermia is a thing.  I was dressed for a hot desert environment.  I had some warmer clothes packed, but when the rain started, I was having fun with my friends and decided I didn’t need them.  I had no rain gear as I was camping in the desert.  As the rain continued to pour down, I stubbornly refused to go back to my tent for warmer clothes.  It was about 55 degrees with 30 mph wind gusts and constant rain.  I was barefoot, wearing shorts and a cotton hoodie.  Within a short time, I was thoroughly soaked.  I stayed out in the rain having fun with all my camp mates as the temperature dropped.  I was cold, but couldn’t be bothered to put on warm clothes.

By the time I got back to our tent and turned in for the evening, my body temperature had dropped significantly.  I got out of my soaked clothing and crawled into bed.  I was shivering and shaking the air mattress so badly that my friend couldn’t fall asleep.  The uncontrollable shivering lasted almost 45 minutes.  I knew that I would be fine because I was dry and in a warm sleeping bag, but I unnecessarily worried my companion because I was too stubborn to put on clothing more suitable for the cold and wet environment.

I had been in similar situations before doing cold weather camping as a Boy Scout.  I wasn’t really worried because I had successfully navigated the beginning stages of hypothermia numerous times before.  Despite that fact, I was surprised at how quickly my body temperature dropped in 50 degree weather.  The rain and wind made what would have been a normally comfortable day in the 50s potentially dangerous.  I’m going to start packing a lightweight wind/rain shell jacket on all my trips even if I don’t expect cold or wet weather.


The camp layout. We camped near where the red mark is on the map.
From one side of the aerial photo to the other is about three miles in length. 80K people are staying here.


Waste Management was a challenge.  One of the biggest issues was that the trucks couldn’t get through to service the portable toilets.  By the time the roads dried out enough for the trucks to get back in, the toilets were getting really full and quite nasty.  Do you have a plan to deal with solid waste in an environment like that when the toilets overflow?  I hadn’t previously thought about that.  I will in the future.

The “Man” lit up at night from about a mile away


Life skills are really important.  As John Danaher says: “The path to excellence in all fields of life is skill acquisition.”  He’s right.

The only people who had trouble during this disaster were the folks lacking basic survival life skills.  Some folks didn’t know how to pitch a tent so that it stays dry in wet weather and stays upright in heavy winds.  They suffered and had to endure the elements as their shelters collapsed on them.  Some folks didn’t know how to cook food safely in the rain.  They took the chance of burning their camps down by cooking inside tents.  Fortunately my many years as a boy scout and wilderness survival instructor gave me the knowledge to deal with such problems and stay generally comfortable in the elements.

Beyond camping life skills, I saw lots of folks unable to repair their bicycles in the inclement weather.  Other folks got their vehicles stuck because they didn’t know how to drive through the slippery mud.  A misspent youth spent mud running in beater pickup trucks and driving a rear wheel drive Crown Victoria police cruiser through snowy Ohio winters gave me the skills to successfully traverse the mud as soon as it was reasonably safe to do so.

I’m going to continue to try to increase my skill sets across broad domains and activities.  Having general life skills really helped me avoid becoming a hazard or a victim.


Fixing a broken bicycle before the rains started


Community is everything- Part of the reason there were fewer issues than we could have seen is the intense level of community Burning Man builds.  I had about 20 people in my camp.  I met most of them on my first trip to the playa more than 10 years ago.  We all had different skill sets and resources.  We were all committed to minimizing the suffering of everyone in our camp.  We fortunately had enough resources to help others who weren’t as well prepared.

I know lots of you have the plan on being a “lone wolf” in any survival situation.  In my experience, those folks don’t do as well as other people who have a strong community support network.  In this crisis, none of my friends had to worry.  The group would take care of its own no matter what.  That gave us all the luxury of not worrying about ourselves.  We could then “gift” our skills and resources to those less prepared.

That was a good feeling.  I’m going to work on building more community in the “default world” as well.  I would suggest that you do the same.


The playa at night with burning art


Burning Man isn’t for everyone.  For me it serves as an excellent mental “reset.”  It’s nice being part of an intentional community who can help others in trouble.  It’s fun to re-experience childlike wonder in an adult playground.  The event creates great emotional bonds and lets me experience all the good aspects of humanity that are so sadly lacking in our everyday existences.  Despite the challenges, I’ve been irrationally happy since my return.  I’ll definitely be going back.  If you are interested in attending the event for yourself next year and have any questions, please contact me.  I’m happy to help out however I can.



Enjoying an event the media called an “apocalypse.”



Travel Log- Rwanda and Uganda

Travel Log- Rwanda and Uganda 2048 1550 Greg Ellifritz

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Rwanda and Uganda to track mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.  Solo travelers can’t do this trip on their own, they must sign up for a government park ranger-led program and pay for a very expensive permit.  The tours in both countries are done in groups of eight people.  I normally do trips like this solo, but since I needed to do the gorilla trekking in a group, I decided to book the entire trip through Intrepid Tours and allow them to arrange all the transportation, lodging, and permits.  I had a great time.


The gorillas can be seen in Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congo.  The Congo isn’t a viable option for most folks as it is mostly lawless with minimal tourism infrastructure.  In Rwanda, the gorillas are easy to find and the permits cost $1500 a day.  In Uganda, there are more gorillas, they but they take a little longer to find.  Ugandan permits cost only $700 a day.  I chose to do the trekking in Uganda.


I wouldn’t have expected it, but Rwanda was a far more developed country than Uganda.  It has a much better tourism infrastructure in place.  Intrepid chose to start the tour in Rwanda because of better international flight schedules and more modern amenities for the beginning and end of the tour.


As you can imagine, there aren’t many direct flights into Kigali, Rwanda from the United States.  I had to book a circuitous trip with United and Brussels Air to get there.  The 27-hour trip (door to door) took me from Austin to Chicago to Brussels to Kigali.  I don’t think I’ve flown United on an International trip for a long time.  I was able to use credit card travel points to upgrade to their Polaris Business Class.  I was impressed with their product.  Good food.  Lay flat seats.  Their Polaris Business Class lounges were the best domestic lounge experience I’ve ever had.  I will definitely consider flying with them again.  The flights to Kigali all arrived on time and had no problems or delays.


United Polaris Business Class


I arrived in Kigali after dark and an eight-hour time change.  Even though I got about five hours sleep on the plane, I was still worn out.  I opted to go to bed early and spend the next day chilling  while adjusting to the jet lag before I visited all the city’s genocide monuments and museums.


I slept 11 hours, had a leisurely breakfast, and then took a long walk outside to get a lay of the land. I went to the grocery store, had a massage at the hotel ($37 for an hour), read quite a bit by the pool and had an uninspiring dinner at a local restaurant close to the hotel.


No one goes to Rwanda for the food. Nile River Perch at a local restaurant


I stayed in the hotel made famous by the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” It’s kind of cool staying at the hotel that sheltered over 1000 refugees during the 1994 genocide. The perpetrators of the genocide murdered nearly a million Rwandans in a three month period. There is a small memorial fountain in the hotel parking lot that commemorates the hotel employees and guests who were killed.


The “Hotel Rwanda.” It looks different from the hotel in the movie because the movie was actually filmed in South Africa.


A few general impressions of Rwanda:


-The Rwandans seemed very kind and exceedingly polite. They (along with the Ugandans) are extremely soft spoken, even when talking to other locals. Despite the fact that most folks here are at least partially fluent in English, I had real difficulty interacting with the locals because I can’t hear what they are saying after a lifetime of exposure to incessant gunfire and explosions.


– I was definitely out of place while walking through the city. I saw lots of tourists at the hotel, but didn’t see a single other white guy outside the hotel gates. The locals seemed curious about my presence, but not in a menacing way. I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. I wish more of the other tourists would get outside and experience the local culture.


– The country is impeccably clean. It’s one of the cleanest places I’ve ever been. Not a speck of litter in/on the streets, sidewalks, or parks. Once a month, the entire nation does volunteer work cleaning up their country.   The clean up date just happened to be during my stay. During these Saturday morning nationwide cleanup sessions, it is actually illegal to drive on the roads unless someone is going to or from their job. Everyone else is expected to spend a couple hours cleaning public spaces during one Saturday morning a month.


– Loads of “security.” When the taxi driver was taking me to the hotel, he had to stop at the property’s front gate. Security guards checked for bombs underneath the car with a rolling mirror. They also had the taxi driver open the trunk, glove compartment, and center console to inspect for weapons and explosives.



The hotel sends all guest luggage through an X-ray machine and all guests must walk through a metal detector to go inside. There were also walk-through metal detectors at all the other hotels, the local mall, banks, restaurants, and government buildings.   All of these metal detectors were staffed by completely unarmed security guards. I only saw two armed guards during my stay. Both were holding pistol gripped Winchester pump shotguns. One was outside a bank and one outside a large electronics store.


– I didn’t see a single cop during my first day.   There were security guards everywhere.  As I’ve noted in previous writings, people in the developing world don’t trust cops and can’t depend on them for protection. The areas with money hire their own security guards instead. We are already starting to see some of that in the USA right now. We’ll see a lot more of it in the future.


Most of the local folks I spoke with told me that Kigali is the safest city in Africa and that I shouldn’t worry about going anywhere in the city, day or night. My taxi driver from the airport was born in Burundi after his Rwandan parents fled the genocide. He told me that he has worked in several East African countries over the years, but moved back to Rwanda to raise his kids there because it is so much “safer” than other locations.


I think a lot of this “security” is theater, but people seem to believe that an unarmed security guard who isn’t even carrying a radio will protect them. The “boom barrier” stopping cars for the bomb check was made of aluminum and wasn’t even buried into the ground. Unsurprisingly, I set off every metal detector I went through. The guards just waved me past.


To avoid hassles, I ended up carrying a ceramic fixed blade knife (no longer made, so I can’t link to it) and my POM pepper spray.  I had a couple guards look at my POM.  I explained it was an asthma inhaler and they quickly lost interest.  I ended up clipping my POM container to the waistband of my underwear behind my belt buckle when going through all the detectors.  The walk-through detector would beep.  I would lift up my shirt and show my metal belt buckle.  The guards would let me through.


Each Rwandan hotel room has a “cock.” It works like a plug in air freshener but emits mosquito repellent instead.



I spent the next two days in Kigali doing a city tour, eating at some local restaurants, and visiting a few of the major Rwandan genocide memorials and museums. The genocide museums hit pretty hard. The experience was far more intense than seeing the pile of skulls at the Killing Fields in Cambodia.


Tower of skulls from my 2013 trip to the Cambodian Killing Fields


Even though I was in college when the genocide happened, I didn’t know all that much about it. I had no idea the role the Belgians and French had in the atrocity. I also had no idea that the genocide actually started with what are thought of as several “practice runs” as early as 1959. Each of those “practice genocides” killed hundreds to thousands per event and were classified as “tribal violence” by the foreign media. The world mostly ignored them.


The two largest killing sprees before the 1994 genocide occurred in the early 1990s. In those events, Tutsis who were targeted for assassination fled to large sports stadiums and churches. The Hutu killers chose not to engage them in those locations and they survived


In April of 1994 when the  largest Rwandan genocide started, many of the Tutsis fled to local churches and sports complexes seeking refuge like in previous massacres. This time the Hutus breached their defenses and killed them en masse.


Two of the memorials I visited were churches. In one, over 5000 people were killed in a single worship room. In the other, 45,000 people were killed in the church and the town around it.


The bodies were removed, but otherwise the churches were left as they were immediately after the massacre. There were blood stains on the floors, the walls, and the ceilings. Bloody and torn clothing from all of the victims was carefully folded and hung from all of the church pews. Thousands of skulls crushed by clubs, hacked open by machetes, and breached by gunshot wounds were on display.


The most disturbing thing I saw was a section of wall in a church Sunday School classroom still darkly stained with blood and brains. It was there that the Hutus killed infants and toddlers by swinging them by the legs, smashing their heads up against the brick wall.  There was a section of wall in there that was about eight feet long and six feet high where hundreds of kids were murdered by repeatedly smashing their heads up against the mud brick wall until they died.


I didn’t take any photos of these areas. I honestly don’t want to remember them. I took the one photo below of the tin roof of the church where the largest number of victims were killed. The government soldiers threw grenades into the packed church, then let the juvenile militia members inside to kill whoever survived with clubs and machetes. The shrapnel holes from the grenades are still present in the church’s tin roof.


Tin church roof containing bullet and shrapnel holes from the massacre


I saw a lot of dead bodies and carnage in my police career, but these churches had a much bigger impact on me than any of the crime scenes I worked. Truly horrifying.


And for those of you who didn’t know, these were Rwandan citizens who were artificially categorized into two “tribes” by the Belgians for political control. This wasn’t tribal warfare. This was two groups of people pitted against each other for political gain. Best guesses are more than a million deaths (mostly women and children) in a little over three months. Countless more were raped, tortured, or seriously injured.


After spending two days learning about the history of this genocidal massacre, I can’t help but see similarities to the current situation in the USA.
In Rwanda, two groups of citizens who largely shared the majority of their values were polarized and pitted against each other for political gain. Does that sound familiar?  If you ever get a chance to visit Rwanda, I would highly recommend studying the genocide. It might open your eyes a bit to the way we are being manipulated and what the potential future outcome might look like.


The tour guides and museums recommended the following books and movies as the best sources of information about the genocide.


After the first day, I started seeing a few police officers.  Most Rwandan traffic cops were unarmed.  None of the cops or soldiers had handguns.  In fact, I didn’t see a single handgun being carried anywhere in either Rwanda or Uganda.  Each of the genocide memorials had a single cop (all females) assigned to guard the premises.  These cops carried really beat up AK-47 rifles with no support gear or extra magazines.  The cops I saw guarding government buildings and along the street at night were generally carrying French FAMAS bullpup rifles.  That’s a strange weapon choice that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.


Would you know how to operate this rifle in an emergency?


Interestingly enough, the tour guides and taxi drivers stated that the cops in Rwanda couldn’t be bribed, unlike the cops in Uganda.  In Rwanda, if an officer reports a bribery attempt, the person offering the bribe is arrested and can be sentenced to up to five years in prison.  The police department then gives a financial incentive to the reporting officer that is equal to three times the bribery amount.


When I assess the relative safety of the foreign neighborhoods I visit, I primarily look for two things.  In the daytime, I look for lots of working age men aimlessly hanging out in the street.  That’s a bad sign.  It signals unemployment.   Unemployed young men are often bored and frustrated.  They regularly turn to drugs and alcohol making their actions unpredictable. In Rwanda, I didn’t see anyone “hanging out.”  Everyone was dressed professionally and moving purposely.  That’s a big contrast to Uganda where there were lots of unemployed men standing along street corners.


The second thing I look for is whether or not people (especially women) are walking alone on the streets at night.  Where I don’t see people on the street or I only see people walking in larger groups, I know an area may be dangerous.  When I see local women walking home alone from work or exercising after dark, I know it’s generally a safe place.  The streets of Rwanda were busy with lots of walkers and joggers after dark.  The rural streets of Uganda were barren after sundown.


After a couple days in Kigali, we hopped into a Land Cruiser and took the five hour drive across the border into Uganda.  Crossing the border by foot into Uganda was a typical exercise in third world bureaucracy.  We first had to stand in front of a large mobile thermometer to ensure we didn’t have fevers.  Then a nurse asked to see our Yellow Fever vaccination record.  I had mine, but a couple in my group didn’t.  The nurse asked if they had taken the vaccination.  Both group members had, they just didn’t bring their vaccine cards.  The nurse let them in.  She had the vaccines available at the border crossing in the event someone wasn’t vaccinated.


After the health check we shuttled between four different service windows checking passports and visas before we were granted entry.  The tour guide with our vehicle entered by merely showing his passport to the soldier manning the border gate.  There was no vehicle search going into Uganda.


The drive was a bit chaotic and rough, but quite scenic.  Rural Africa looks very different from the streets of America.


Rwandan roadside market


Ugandan children carrying water from a public well to their homes without indoor plumbing.


Ugandans working to turn the clay soil into bricks for home construction


Lake near the Uganda/Rwanda border


After another 90 minutes driving on fairly rough dirt roads and we arrived at the Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge.  We stayed three nights in the lodge.  It was quite nice with four-course meals included as part of the stay.  There was a bar with inexpensive beer and free WiFi in the public areas.  The lodge contained six different individual cabins high on a hillside overlooking the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, one of only three places on the planet where mountain gorillas are thriving.


My cabin in the gorilla lodge



Sunset looking into the Congo from the gorilla lodge


We had an after-dinner lecture from a local park ranger about the mountain gorillas and what to expect on our trek the following day.  We all went to bed early for a 0530 wake up call for our jungle trek.


We woke early, had breakfast, and then headed to the park (about 45 minutes drive away).  When we arrived, park officials took down information from our passports and we had an orientation to what to expect from the gorillas.


There were eight “habituated” gorilla families in the area of the park we visited.  Each family could get a single one-hour visit from a group of eight humans each day.  The naturalists knew roughly where each family group’s territory was, but once in the area we would have to track them. Tracking gorillas through dense jungle at 7000 feet of altitude and almost vertical ascents and descents kicked my ass.  It was literal bushwhacking with a machete following gorilla poop.


I was lucky enough to find and see two different mountain gorilla family units. Most folks only find one.We found a family, but it wasn’t the one we were hunting. We had to quickly walk past them so that they could be visited by a different group of humans.  It took about two and a half hours of rough hiking to find the family we were seeking.  The first gorilla we saw was the silverback.  He was seated facing away from our group and wasn’t the least bit bothered by our presence.


First Gorilla sighting


As we were watching the silverback, another gorilla casually strolled right through our group.  We followed the gorillas and hung out with them as they ate and played for more than an hour.  During most of that time I had four to six wild gorillas as close as about five feet away. The rest of the 14 member gorilla family stayed within about 25 meters of us.  It was a rough trek, but well worth it. Amazingly cool to see silverbacks in the wild within touching distance.


I purposely only took a few photographs so that I could better enjoy merely being in the presence of these amazing creatures.  Here are a couple of the pics I snapped.






After spending a little over an hour with the gorilla family, we hiked about an hour out to a place along the road where our driver could pick us up.  All in all, our hike was a little over seven miles, but the brush was so dense that it took 4.5 total hours to complete.


The following day, some of the group paid an additional $700 to repeat the experience while some others went bird watching.  I chose to hire a local guide to show me the town closest to the lodge where we were staying.  We walked into town and spent about four hours checking out the local restaurants (2), school, bar, blacksmith shop, and herbalist.  It was enlightening.


The town


Restaurant #1


Restaurant #2


As appealing as these food establishments looked, I didn’t eat in either.  The stunning lack of local customers despite it being lunch time made me question if if was worth getting sick to taste the local fare.  I decided it wasn’t.


I did go to the local bar.  This was the nicest bar in town.



I had a shot of their local moonshine.  It’s a gin made with sorghum and bananas.  Rough.


Banana Gin. That tasted nothing like bananas.


The locally made sorghum beer wasn’t bad.  Very malty and sweet.



The village blacksmith was turning rebar into a machete and the local herbalist showed me the plants he most commonly uses to treat his patients.




The closest school was actually a private school.  All parents pay for their Ugandan children to attend school.  The public schools cost about $3.00 a month.  The private school near the lodge costs $40.00 a trimester (without boarding costs).  It was so full it had to reject students.  When I walked past the school, little kids were playing a volleyball game using a crushed plastic soda bottle for a ball.  These were the kids with money and they couldn’t even afford the most basic ball for recess.


The next day we headed back to Kigali.  Of course the truck broke down on the way.  The rough roads broke one of the wheel studs attaching the wheel to the axle.  We couldn’t stop because we were an hour away from the nearest garage, so we limped into town.  It was an interesting experience watching the mechanics use a tiny car scissor jack and a bunch of bricks to jack up the Land Cruiser.  The missing wheel stud caused the wheel to move on the other studs.  The holes through the wheel became severely elongated.  The guys at the gas station actually put a bunch of metal washers under the lug nuts and sent us on our way.  TIA (this is Africa).


I had one more day in Kigali before my flight left late the next night.  I found a nice restaurant and enjoyed a meal of steak filet medallions.  On the taxi ride to the airport, I encountered another new experience.  When entering airport grounds, the cab driver drove into what looked like an automated car wash.  He put the cab in neutral and ordered me out.  It was a whole car X-ray machine to check for explosives and drugs.  All passengers had to exit and go through a metal detector before entering airport property.  I’ve never seen that before in any of the 60-some countries I’ve visited.  Here are the only two pictures I got of the car X-ray machine before the local cop yelled at me to stop taking photos.




My flights home using Air Rwanda and United were not quite as smooth.  All three were delayed.  My plane connection in Heathrow was a complete nightmare.  I’m glad my flight was late because after three terminal changes and security checks, I almost missed it.  For what it’s worth so far this year, 22 of my 42 flights have been delayed or cancelled.  Last year at this time 29 of 37 total flights had been delayed or cancelled.  Although flying is still a nightmare, it seems to be getting a little better than last year.


For what it’s worth, my friend Nick Hughes from Warriors Krav Maga didn’t believe my travel account as written above.  He found a newspaper alleging that I was involved in smuggling a shaved gorilla back into the United States.  Maybe he’s right.  I’ll leave it for you to decide.


French Gun Laws

French Gun Laws 275 183 Greg Ellifritz

With my passion for foreign travel, I’m always curious about the gun laws in other countries.  Here is a lot of information about how things work in France.  Many Americans assume that it is impossible to own a gun in European, African, or South American countries.  It is not.  While there are usually far more hoops to jump through to get a gun than in the USA, gun ownership is certainly possible in most foreign countries.



Overview of French Gun Laws


Airplane Confrontations

Airplane Confrontations 357 241 Greg Ellifritz

I am seeing more and more cases of drunk/high/crazy people causing disturbances on flights.  It’s useful to prepare for such an altercation.


Here is an informative discussion about how the author handled a drunk and belligerent passenger seated next to him on the plane.  I personally would have changed seats.  You can’t escape a plane in the air.  Moving as far away from the drunk guy as possible shows your attempt to deescalate the situation.  If he presses the confrontation, he will be more clearly seen as the aggressor.


Do your best not to engage with the drunk and high people on your flight.  It’s not worth the aggravation.  Remember that protecting others on the flight isn’t your responsibility.  Get yourself out of the hot seat and let the flight attendants deal with his obnoxious behavior.


“The Gentleman In 23 B Is Drunk And Wants To Fight Me.”




Fevers After Travel

Fevers After Travel 600 401 Greg Ellifritz

This is an article for doctors, but it is also extremely useful for travelers coming back from the developing world. It’s nice to have a list of differential diagnoses when one comes back home with a fever. I just got back from Africa on Monday.   You can bet that I will be alert for these symptoms.


Fever in the Returning Traveler