Travel Log

Eating My Way Through Turkey

Eating My Way Through Turkey 2048 1536 Greg Ellifritz

Last month I took a great trip through Turkey with a friend.  If you are interested in what I did, check out my post titled Back From Turkey.


In that article, I didn’t cover one of my favorite parts of the trip- the adventurous food that I devoured.


People like food.  I get more comments on the pictures I take of my meals than any other aspects of my trips.  Because of that, I’m making separate dining posts for each location I visit.  Enjoy the photos below of some of the unique dishes I sampled in Turkey.


Lots of my readers are looking for something very exotic or completely different from what they might find at home.  This was the menu from a local Turkish restaurant in Bodrum.  I might be losing my hardcore traveler cred, but I skipped these soups and had some amazing Doner Kabobs instead.



You might ask: “What is a Doner kabob?”  You’ve probably seen Mexican restaurants serving pork “Al Pastor” from a vertical rotisserie like this one.  Doner kabobs are very similar to Al Pastor pork, but are generally beef and sliced on top of a pita instead of into a taco.

Turkish kebabs are not on skewers like you would expect in a Middle Eastern restaurant here in the USA.. They are grilled meat over rice, a pita, or something else. This is a kabob, but it’s really like the Turkish equivalent of a Philly cheesesteak


Thinly sliced grilled steak covered with cheese, tomatoes, and onions. Sitting on a bed of hash browns with a garlic yogurt sauce. One of my favorite meals from the trip.

Dinner at the Bodrum Yacht Club rooftop restaurant. This is fish, shrimp, mussels, and calamari. It’s all placed in a large shell. Add onions, peppers and cheese. Bake until delicious


It’s served in the shell over a burning fire to keep it hot while you eat. Definitely better than the smoked cow tongue I had for breakfast.


Whole fish was a common option in the seaside town of Bodrum.  The Turkish chefs made eating it easy by making some strategic cuts allowing the diner to quickly split the fish apart and eat the meat from the inside out.  This fish was Bream from the Aegean Sea.


Before I get off track talking about some amazing food, I also have to discuss Turkish coffee.  As most of the Turkish population practices Islam, many do not drink.  Coffee shops are the replacement for bars.  This is Turkish coffee.  It’s a thick expresso like drink that is very strong.  When you finish the liquid, there will be about a 1/2 inch of coffee grounds remaining in the bottom of the cup.


It’s very popular to turn the cup upside down after finishing the coffee.  That allows the grounds to slide down the side of the cup.  Turks will “read your fortune” by looking at the images created by the grounds sliding down the walls of the coffee cup.


In Turkey, appetizers are called “meze.” Waiters will come to your table with a massive tray of different varieties. You pick the ones that look good and the waiter brings out dishes full of your selections.


This is from one of our dinners. Beets, a local green that tasted like collard greens, spinach in a garlic yogurt sauce, beans, and mashed fava in a curry sauce. All this was about $8.00.


A three-meat kabob meal.


Tired of kabobs yet?  This is a “Lebanese kabob.” It’s cooked sliced steak placed on a thin pita. The steak is covered with cheese and rolled up in the pita.

The whole thing is then fried until the pita gets crispy and the cheese melts. It’s then cut up like a sushi roll and covered with a yogurt sauce.

Pretty good. Entire meal with a beer was $9.00.


You can’t have food without drinks.  In convenience stores, these little cups of water were sold right alongside larger water bottles.



The local beers were very malty pilseners and ales.  I tried almost all the local brews and never tasted any hops.  I didn’t find any Turkish IPAs in the country.




A very popular garlic butter shrimp appetizer.



The local pizzas had a very thin crust and less sauce than you might find in the USA.


Corn on the cob was a surprising afternoon snack served from a lot of the food carts in the urban areas.  I’ve only seen that in one other country (Brazil) I’ve visited.



My final dinner was a casserole of shrimp, mushrooms, peppers, and tomatoes.  Locals broke up pieces of the thin, hard crust, bread and dipped it into the shrimp casserole like sticking a nacho into a bowl of salsa.



I really enjoyed my meals in Turkey.  If you ever get there, be prepared to have more kabobs than you could ever imagine!






Travel Log- Turkey

Travel Log- Turkey 768 576 Greg Ellifritz

Earlier this month, I went on a short-notice impromptu trip to Turkey.  To be honest, Turkey really wasn’t ranked highly on my travel bucket list and I hadn’t considered ever traveling there.


At the end of August, my friend Nathalie and I had an amazing time attending the Burning Man festival.  We had so much fun together, Nathalie invited me to tag along with her on a family vacation she had planned in Turkey.  I had about five weeks to decide if I wanted to go and to book the plane ticket.  Of course I said “yes” and made the arrangements.


The 12-hour flight leg from Houston to Istanbul was the longest flight I’ve taken in 10 years.


In 2007, computer science professor Randy Pausch (who had recently received a terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis)  shared some advice two months before his death in his Carnegie Mellon University commencement speech.

“It is not the things we do in life that we regret on our death bed. It is the things we do not. I assure you I’ve done a lot of really stupid things, and none of them bother me. All the mistakes, and all the dopey things, and all the times I was embarrassed — they don’t matter. What matters is that I can kind of look back and say: Pretty much any time I got the chance to do something cool I tried to grab for it — and that’s where my solace comes from.”


I’ve had a couple of cancer diagnoses myself and have an outlook similar to the one Dr. Pausch personified.  Since reading that quote, I have attempted to embrace his advice.  Traveling with a fun companion on a spontaneous trip to a country neither of us had ever seen before is the very definition of “something cool” to which Dr. Pausch referred.  I booked the tickets and joined Nathalie in Turkey.



Nathalie’s trip started in Istanbul and then went to Cappadocia, Ephesus, and the Mediterranean resort town of Bodrum, before returning to Istanbul.  Due to previously-booked teaching engagements, I couldn’t accompany her for the entire trip.  I joined her in Bodrum and then flew back to Istanbul with her before spending a few more days in the capital city.  All in all, it was a 10-day trip and I really enjoyed myself.


Bodrum is a resort town on the Aegean Sea catering to wealthy Europeans and Russians craving some sun, sailing, and beach time.  Not many Americans make it there.  It was curious.  Many of the local residents spoke some English.  They all assumed I was British despite my lack of a British accent because they so seldom see Americans.  We spent four nights at the luxurious Caresse Hotel lounging on the beach and swimming in the crystal clear Aegean waters.


The town was pretty low key, but had some cool history.  We saw the original gates that Alexander the Great walked through when first traversing the country in the fourth century B.C and the nearly 2500 year old Theatre at Halicarnassus.


We visited some museums and the historic Bodrum Castle built in the year 1402.  We toured the final resting place of King Mausolos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  This burial site is the origin of the word “mausoleum.”  It was rather unimpressive.


We spent a lot of our spare time walking through the local shopping bazaars, checking out all the fancy boats in the marina, eating great food, and enjoying the fun waterfront atmosphere.


I’m not much of a photographer, but Nathalie is.  I let her take all the cool photos.  Here are some of the fun things we saw.  Photo credits Nathalie Weister.


Sunrise over the Aegean Sea


View from the back patio of the Bodrum hotel room.


Bodrum Caresse hotel infinity pool


Outdoor dining in Bodrum


The most low key of the seven wonders of the ancient world


Bodrum hotel beach


Bodrum castle at night


Bodrum marina from the top of the castle


At the Bodrum castle


Rooftop dining at the Bodrum Yacht Club with the castle in the background


Bodrum marina


Seaside dining


After Bodrum, we transitioned to the capital city of Istanbul.  Istanbul is a city split by the Bosporus Straight.  Half of the city is in Europe and half is in Asia.  The vibe was very different than the atmosphere in Bodrum.  The big city is a unique mixture of ancient history and a modern, fairly secular Muslim capital city.


Despite the fact that the vast majority of Istanbul’s residents practice the Islamic faith, I saw relatively few hijabs.  The regular calls to prayer issued from every mosque generally went unheeded.  It was a strange combination of the historic Ottoman Empire and the hustle of a modern capital city.


After Nathalie flew home, I spent a couple more days eating lots of good food and touring the historic sites.  I enjoyed the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the “mini Hagia Sophia,” the Cistern Basillica and half a dozen other mosques that were all more than 400 years old.  It’s a perspective shift to be touring structures that are more than twice as old as the oldest buildings you can find in the United States.


Istanbul mosques



Blue Mosque courtyard


Early Istanbul was heavily influenced by the Egyptians


Hagia Sophia


Spice market in the Grand Bazaar.  Nathalie bought an obscene amount of spices here and now my kitchen smells amazing.


Courtyard between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque


Blue Mosque entrance


Ritual foot washing station at the Blue Mosque


Inside the Blue Mosque. If you go here, skip the inside tour. You must remove your shoes before entering. The whole place smelled of thousands of stinky feet.  You can see everything from the open windows in the courtyard.


Ceiling of the Blue Mosque.  It was even more impressive in person.


The Cistern Basilica is a 6th century underground water storage facility for an ancient Ottoman palace



One thing I like about traveling is that it allows the traveler to experience things that are very different than one sees at home.  Here are a few more curious things I saw or experienced on the trip that my readers might find interesting.




The Airport

The Istanbul airport is very impressive.  It’s the largest airport in Europe and the 7th largest in the world.  It’s absolutely massive.  On my three visits during this trip I walked more than two miles each trip just to get through security and get to my gate.  The business class lounge is utterly ridiculous.  It covers the entire second floor of the airport and is probably 200 meters long.


All the airports in Turkey have a dual airport security system.  Since the famous airport bombing and active killer attack in the ticketing area before security, Turkish airports have placed metal detectors and baggage x-ray systems just inside the each airport’s door.  In order to make it to the ticket counter, you must place your bags in an X-ray scanner and walk through a metal detector.


After getting your boarding passes and checking your luggage, you must again go through a traditional airport screening system.  On international flights, the Turkish equivalent of the TSA also hand searches each passenger’s carry-on bags and physically pats each passenger down before they get on the plane.  It’s quite a process.  I got really familiar with how the system worked when I almost got arrested.


“The pen.” All international travelers are locked in this area at the gate after getting an additional patdown and physical bag search. I’ve seen this in a few African airports as well.


The airport wheelchairs were actually Segway scooters




I had no idea how many stray cats I would see wandering the streets in Turkey.  The entire culture reveres cats and everyone regularly feeds the strays that live everywhere.  For the religious background about why cats are honored in Muslim countries, read Why Are There So Many Cats in Istanbul?


This article describes the country’s no catch, no kill policies with regards to feral cats and estimates that there may be up to a million stray cats in Istanbul alone.


The view of every sidewalk in the country


In every outdoor dining experience, you will be joined by a few feral cats




Other than the incident I previously described at the airport, I had minimal contact with the police.  There was a moderate number of visible police officers in both Bodrum and Istanbul.  In popular tourist areas there was a massive police presence (especially in the days immediately after the October 7 HAMAS attack in Israel).  They didn’t seem interested in shaking down any of the tourists for bribes.


After October 7th, I saw lots of random searches at the popular tourist attractions.  The cops stopped everyone carrying large luggage or bags and searched the bags for explosives and weapons.


Cops in Turkey carry the 9mm Canik TP-9 Elite in a generic version of the Blackhawk Serpa holster.  Most cops carried handcuffs and two spare magazines in open top mag carriers.  I didn’t see any uniformed officers carrying long guns, batons, or pepper spray.


Armored vehicles and portable fencing parked outside of all major tourist attractions


The cops used large and medium sized RVs for mobile command posts and officer rest areas





I spoke to a few Turkish gun owners and police officers during my stay.  In Turkey, citizens may not possess any semi or fully automatic firearms.  A license (requiring a background check, home inspection, psychological exam, and doctor’s note attesting that the applicant is physically healthy)  is required for each weapon they want to own.


The licenses must be renewed every five years.  A possession license does not allow the owner to take the weapon out of the address specified on the permit.  The gun possession license also specifies how much ammunition you may have for that gun.  The general license commonly allows for purchase and possession of up to 200 rounds per year for each weapon.  Ammunition is sold by the government.  Possession of ammo without a gun license is illegal.


A separate license to carry is needed to take the gun out of your residence or business.  Those are seldom granted and require a documented “need.”  In addition to the weapons ownership permit, a hunting license is also required to own a rifle.  Despite the rigid legal requirements to own a gun, there are 16.5 guns owned for every 100 Turkish citizens.  Contrast that with the USA where there are 120 firearms for each 100 citizens.



I was on the lookout for local gun stores to visit.  I walked dozens of miles exploring both Bodrum and Istanbul without coming across a single gun shop.  I’m sure they exist, but I didn’t find any.  What I did find in my explorations were numerous storefronts that looked like this.



They weren’t open during the day, but in the evening the security doors were lifted to reveal airsoft gun shooting galleries.


Airsoft shooting gallery with plastic knock down targets.


The storefronts were airsoft shooting galleries.  They attracted crowds like the BB gun booths I saw as a child at the state fair.  The shops had high end gas-powered airsoft rifles with knockoff versions of popular optics.  Of course we had to give them a try.  Two magazines’ worth of airsoft BBs cost the equivalent of $10 US.


I picked a AR-style rifle with a knockoff EOTech sight.  I went 29 for 30 on the small knockdown targets placed 10 meters away.  The crowd watching was screaming in encouragement and yelling the English word “military” to explain my shooting prowess.  They saw my haircut and assumed I was a soldier.  I didn’t have the heart to tell all the spectators that I have more than a few real AR-15s at home and can shoot them whenever I want.


After I shot, I gave Nathalie her first impromptu shooting lesson.  She had never before fired any kind of gun.  She loved the airsoft rifle and did very well.  We are going to go shooting for real the next time she visits.  It seems like these airsoft shooting galleries are just about the only way Turkish citizens can shoot for recreation if they don’t have a firearms license.


The blonde sniper laying waste to plastic knockdown targets.



On my first day in Bodrum and my final day in Istanbul, I intentionally played the role of a clueless tourist and engaged all the scam artists and hustlers I could find.  There were plenty of both, but the hustlers were far more common.  Most were touts trying to get tourists to buy the stuff they have for sale.  Most of the “scams” they used involved isolating the tourist, getting him into a private location, and using high pressure sales to get the tourist to buy more of their wares.


I did learn one new ATM scam that I will detail in my upcoming travel scam book.


The scam I found most amusing involved selling shoes. Take a look at the photo below.   That’s two shoes (one pair) for 20 pounds not two PAIRS of shoes for 20 pounds. I saw a couple of British tourists get taken by this one.




Medical Tourism

I had no idea about the extent of medical tourism in Turkey until I arrived there.  It’s one of the top destinations in the world for tourist surgeries.  I spoke with a few medical tourists who claimed that their surgeries cost 1/3 to 1/2 the price as the same surgeries in the United States.


One of the most popular surgeries seemed to be hair transplants.  I saw a stunning number of patients in the tourist areas with large bandages on their heads after having hair transplants.  Almost all the male passengers on my flight back to the USA were wearing headbands covering the area on the back of their scalp that was removed in order to harvest the hair.  It was wild.


Head bandage seen all over Istanbul



I will be posting a few more articles about my trip on my travel blog.  Look there in the coming weeks if you want to learn more about this unique tourist destination.



Full moon over the Bosporus in Istanbul


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.


Safety in Mexico

Safety in Mexico 1512 2016 Greg Ellifritz
Despite all news outlets pronouncing my almost certain death for doing so, I successfully completed my 22nd “official” trip to Mexico.


I did have one other “unofficial” visit where I hopped over the border when the border guard was passed out drunk and I couldn’t wake him to stamp my passport, but that’s another story.


There is a lot of cartel violence in Mexico. That violence is directed at other cartel members, not the average tourist. You can have an absolutely safe trip in Mexico if you follow my four safety rules:



– Don’t buy or use illegal drugs
– Don’t consort with prostitutes (including random Tinder hookups, which are often one and the same)
– Don’t display ostentatious wealth
– Don’t be an asshole


If you follow these rules in most tourist destinations in Mexico, you will be safer than traveling through any big city in the USA.


Despite staying in local neighborhoods and being out late walking the streets almost every night, the biggest risk we faced was being sun burned and having a hangover after too many margaritas on the beach.


Taxi Shot

When you are friendly to taxi drivers in Mexico, they may reward your kindness with free tequila shots.  Far more dangerous than cartel violence.

Travel Log- Back From Mexico

Travel Log- Back From Mexico 620 827 Greg Ellifritz

I recently returned from a three-week trip to Mexico.  I wasn’t teaching and didn’t have any holiday plans, so I decided to do some relaxing down in one of my favorite places in the world, Playa del Carmen.


I spent my 50th birthday, Christmas, and New Years down there.  If you want to experience another country, I’d highly recommend traveling over Christmas and New Years.  It’s an experience few travelers ever have.


Mexico was very festive over Christmas and New Years


All the city parks were festively decorated with white and colored lights.


More festive Christmas lights


I spent a lot of time chilling in the sun, reading, writing and getting mentally prepared for my cancer surgery (surgery update at end of article). It turned out being a great trip.  I chose Playa del Carmen because it isn’t quite as touristy as many Mexican towns, is completely walkable, has some world class restaurants, and a population from just about every country on the planet.  It’s really easy to meet fun new people there.


I flew to Cancun directly from Austin.  Of course, my flight was late.  Even though the Mexican immigration officials got rid of their FMM form for tourists flying into Cancun airport.  That made things faster, but the line was still over an hour long getting into the country.  Once I got through customs and immigration, I found my pre-booked transportation and prepared for the hour-long drive to PDC.


That drive gave me a reminder to be careful talking to taxi, shuttle, or ride sharing drivers.

As I mentioned above, my flight was delayed. I was tired from the delay and the insanely crowded airports. I didn’t have the mental energy to talk to the driver for an hour. I pretended to be the stereotypical gringo and greeted him in English. Even though I speak passable Spanish, I didn’t speak any Spanish to him. His English was not good.

On the drive, he made a phone call in Spanish. I’m listening to the conversation when the driver mentioned his previous customer was unique and worthy to be watched. He said the last customer was a single man in his 40s who was traveling by himself with eight large suitcases.

The driver went on to say how the man had told him that he was a wealthy businessman and owned several hotels. The driver pulled up the phone app he was using to track his rides and shared the previous customer’s full name, email address, phone number, and the hotel where he was staying with whomever he was speaking.

The driver told his friend that the rich businessman should be watched. For what? I’m not sure, but it can’t be for anything good.

I didn’t hear them plotting any nefarious actions, but why would the driver share all that info?

Taxi drivers, especially in the developing world are true hustlers. Many do far more than just drive tourists around. They often serve as a connection to get people information, drugs, and prostitutes.

Be careful what you tell your driver. If questioned, make up a boring middle class job. If you are alone, you should tell the driver that you are meeting a large group of friends soon. Don’t tell the truth when they ask you about how long you will be staying.

Don’t give the drivers any reason to think you have money. Don’t give them information that could later be used to facilitate a scam or a criminal act.

Have a believable boring cover story ready before you get in the cab. Hopefully you won’t be “watched” like the passenger with eight suitcases.

If you want to dig a little deeper on the topic, read my article about best practices for a safe cab ride.


I arrived at the condo I rented and got the keys.  The lobby Christmas tree needed a little attention.  They didn’t put the live cut Christmas tree into any water.  I was amazed that it didn’t catch fire at some point during my stay.



My rented condo was in a secured building and on the top floor.  It had its own rooftop balcony.  On another part of the roof there was a small pool and a friendly little bar where we watched the beautiful sunsets almost every evening.


The condo we rented

Condo balcony


Sunset from the rooftop bar


I spent the first couple weeks in Mexico without any travel companions.  For the initial few days I spent a lot of time walking around the neighborhood getting a lay of the land.  The condo I rented was in a good location right on the border of the tourist area and the neighborhoods where the locals lived.  It was quiet, yet was within a 10-minute walk to the beach and all the fun tourist bars and restaurants.


On my walks, one of the most obvious things I saw was the enormous presence of armed security guards everywhere.  As I mentioned in this article, in failed states where corruption and government distrust is high, people with money hire private security instead of relying on the police.


Take a look at the photo below. It is a private security armored gun truck with bulletproof glass and gun ports. This isn’t a cash transport vehicle. This transports armed security guards as a quick reaction force.


Interestingly, it was parked in front of the public bus station, a resource that would usually be protected by municipal police in almost every country in the world.


But when you don’t trust the police and have expensive buses to protect in the developing world, you hire private security.  We are rapidly seeing the exact same thing happening in the USA.




There was a bank in the mall that  contained a large grocery store near my condo. When grocery shopping, I regularly saw armored car security guards picking up and dropping off money at the bank.


They always operate the same way. Two guards armed with handguns go into the bank. Two more guards with pump shotguns stand outside the bank watching the crowd.


What’s interesting is that the outside shotgun guards stand with their back to the front wall of the bank and arrange empty shopping carts as a barricade about five feet in front of them. It provides both an obstacle and a standoff to reduce the chance someone will get close enough to disarm them. Smart.


I always find it instructive to see how professionals do business in high threat environments.  The security guards in America seem clueless and untrained by comparison.


I was last in PDC during the height of the pandemic in February of 2021.  The police were quite menacing.  With businesses closed and fewer tourists around, the cops were very aggressively targeting folks for bribes.  On that last trip, I met people almost daily who had been shaken down by the cops.  I met a couple girls who went to a jungle rave in Tulum and the police robbed all the passengers on the bus going to the party.  It was nuts.


This trip was very different.  I was never approached by any cops at all.  Some even waved (with all of their fingers) when driving past me on the street.  I talked to a lot of people and no one mentioned any problems with the police.


Drug sales were also far more open.  I was solicited to purchase cocaine and weed on the street daily.  There were new open cannabis stores selling marijuana in all forms.


On previous trips, pharmacies would not sell very many controlled drugs without prescriptions.  That’s all changed now.  If you went to the right place, you could buy almost any pharmaceutical you wanted.

“Everything is over the counter if you know the right counter”


Be careful at these pharmacies.  The ones in the tourist areas and catering solely to tourists may be selling fake drugs.  My advice for buying drugs in foreign countries is to stick to drugs made around the world in factories that the US FDA authorizes to manufacture and export US generic drugs.  I also recommend purchasing drugs in pharmacies that have a local customer base and those the have air conditioning (hot temperatures reduce the storage longevity of many drugs).


You are legally allowed to bring back a 90-day personal supply of a non-controlled drug.  You are limited to 50 unit doses of all combined controlled drugs per trip back to the USA.  If you want more information about building a pharmaceutical stockpile from foreign sources, please check out one of my systems collapse medical classes.


Beyond the issues of drugs, cartels, police and other curious topics, I actually had a very relaxing vacation.


My friend Emily, who has shared adventures with me all around the world, came down and joined me for my final week.


Emily got us on the VIP list for some great DJs spinning on the rooftop of the nicest bar in PDC for New Years.  We went to the show and met a bunch of fun people from all over the world while staying out entirely too late at a classy rooftop bar.


Interestingly enough, I expected wand metal detectors upon entry to the club.  I prepared by carrying a ceramic knife and some hidden pepper spray.  When we got there, I saw that the bouncers were patting people down instead of wanding them.  I re-positioned my weapons to an area that wouldn’t be searched during a standard pat-down.


As we approached the bouncers, the door man said “They’re on the VIP list.”  That got us escorted past security without any searches.  Just keep in mind that you may be able to carry better weapons than you might think if you are on a special entry list, especially in the developing world.

Rooftop club New Years celebration


We spent New Years Eve watching fireworks from our rooftop bar followed by a great dinner, and a walking tour of the beach and tourist areas, popping into various bars, restaurants and parties.  We stayed out late again and treated ourselves to a sushi feast when we woke up.  It was a lot of fun.


Fireworks over the ocean from the condo rooftop bar


The next few days we did daily running workouts on the beach and at a local track to make up for our excesses.  We also went snorkeling one afternoon on a nice catamaran out on the reef and closed out our trip with some amazing meals at some of the city’s best restaurants.  It was a great trip.


Here are a few more photos.


View of the beach from the catamaran


After snorkeling on the catamaran


Emily thinking that my decision to walk the back alleys in the  city late at night on New Years Eve was a bad decision


“Sure Greg, taking pictures in an abandoned lot in Mexico at 3 am is a great idea.”


Scallop and mushroom appetizer at our favorite French restaurant.


My final steak dinner


Some of you have endured all my travel content in the hopes of getting an update on my cancer surgery.  As of today, I am three weeks into my recovery from the surgery.  The doctor said he was extremely happy with the surgery results.  He rated the surgery as a 10/10 (best score) on their measures of both success and reduction of chances of long term negative side effects.


I’m still a bit swollen and fatigued, but I already have complete urinary control.  I still have to wait another three weeks before I do any physical activity and start recovering my lost physical fitness.  I won’t know for certain until my six-month followup MRI, but the most likely scenario is that the doctor fried all my cancer and I am now cancer free.


I’ll probably be around for a few more years yet.  Thank you all for your messages of support.



Weird Colombia- Part Two

Weird Colombia- Part Two 217 347 Greg Ellifritz

Back in July, I  spent 17 days in Medellin, Colombia.  Customs there were very different than in the USA. I wrote a previous post about some of the strange things I saw titled Weird Colombia.


I was going through my photos from the trip and I realized that I had seen a few more unusual things that I failed to mention in the original post.


Here are the additional things I found odd.  Some of them were definite improvements over the American system, but some were far worse.


An interesting warning sign on the door of a busy nightclub in the wealthy area where I stayed.  The “no weapons” and “No One under 18 allowed inside” signs would be right at place in any American city.  The other warnings aren’t so commonly seen here.


The first one says “It’s prohibited to consume drugs or hallucinogens.”  The third one says “No to child prostitution.”


Travelers should be alert for signs like these.  Hanging out in places where drugs are regularly used and where juvenile prostitutes operate may not be the safest choices in a foreign country.


Think about it.  Why would they need the sign unless the conduct was commonplace in that facility?


Colombian ATM key panel


All the Colombian ATM machines had grids like this placed over the keypad.  The grid is designed to prevent people watching the ATM from seeing your PIN when you enter it.  It also helps prevent losses from ATMs equipped with card skimmers and micro video cameras.


I think it’s a brilliant idea, but like the signs at the nightclub in the photo above, they should give an alert traveler a warning about the area.  If people weren’t getting jacked for their ATM/Credit cards in the neighborhood, there would be no need for such a keypad covering.


Pharmacy at the Medellin airport

Like many countries in the developing world, drugs that require prescriptions in the USA are often sold over the counter without prescriptions at the local pharmacies.


Many folks in these countries can’t afford quality medical care.  They go to the pharmacy and tell the pharmacist what symptoms they have.  The pharmacist knows the drugs commonly prescribed for those conditions and then simply sells them the drugs.


Every developing-world country has different laws about which drugs require prescriptions.  Colombia seems to be one of the more lenient vacation destinations.  Just about anything is legitimately available if you ask the pharmacist.

Hydrocodone and Tylenol sold over the counter.

Take a look at the box above.  This is the generic version of the more potent mixture of an opiate and Tylenol commonly called “Vicodin” or “Lortab” in the USA.  In the states, these pills have a street value of $10-$15 each.  They are sold over the counter in unlimited quantities for about 70 US cents a pill.


For those of you who are wondering, it is legal to bring back a limited quantity of prescription medicines from foreign countries.  If the drug isn’t scheduled by the DEA, the limit is a 90-day personal supply of each drug you want to bring home.

If the drug is controlled or scheduled (like the Sinalgen max in the photo above), the maximal quantity you may bring back with you is a total of 50 “unit doses” combined for all controlled prescription medications.  I have additional information about buying foreign prescription drugs in my book Choose Adventure.


Pick up a copy of my book at the link above. It has a stellar 4.8 out of 5 star rating on Amazon


Walk up dessert window at a KFC


American fast food restaurants are very common in South America.  McDonalds and KFC are the most commonly seen.  I’ve seen KFCs all over the world, but I’ve never seen one with a walk up dessert window.

The window was like a separate restaurant.  You couldn’t get any of the regular KFC food there.  They only sold pastries, cakes, cookies, and soft serve ice cream.  It was right up the street from my hotel and I never passed it without seeing at least one customer waiting in line.  The dessert window was even more popular than the regular restaurant.

Foreign travel always provides amusing experiences and insights.  It’s cool for me to see how differently we all live across the planet.  Observing quirks like these keeps international travel high on my list of rewarding pastimes.

Travel Log- Weird Colombia

Travel Log- Weird Colombia 843 1124 Greg Ellifritz

Last month I spent 17 days in Medellin, Colombia.  Customs there were very different than in the USA.  Here are a few of the things that I thought were odd.  Some of them were definite improvements over the American system, but some were far worse.


Gym Benches-  I went to two commercial gyms.  All of the people working out placed their bags and accessories on all of the workout benches.  No one would put anything on the floor or in the lockers.  Phones, water bottles, coffee cups (coffee was the pre-workout of choice) and clothing covered every bench in each gym.  People were annoyed when I asked them to move their stuff so I could use the equipment.


Chupitos Bars- There are crazy shot bars all over Medellin. Ten years ago, I was in Medellin at this insane bar where the bartender lit the ceiling on fire and we roasted marshmallows over flaming drinks (watch the video below). Then we all did backbends over the bar as the bartender poured unknown concoctions down our throats. Insanity.


I was walking around the city and found the place. It’s still around and does a crazy business at night.  I didn’t indulge on this trip, but was glad that the option was still available in case I had the desire to experience more ridiculous debauchery.


Alcohol spray– The hotel cleaning staff, the gym staff, and restaurant workers cleaned everything with 70% isopropyl alcohol spray.   There were no disinfectant wipes or commercial cleaning products.  It didn’t matter if it was an elevator button, a restaurant table, or a gym bench.  Everything was cleaned with straight alcohol.


Elevator buttons- Punching an elevator button twice deactivated it.  If you hit a button by mistake, you could cancel your selection by pushing it again.  What a wonderful concept!


Aphrodisiac Ants- Loosely translated as “big-assed ants.” Street vendors sell packages of these dried ants as aphrodisiacs.


Mini ice- There are no open container laws in Colombia.  It’s common for people to buy some alcohol and a mixer and make their own drinks in the street.  They obviously need ice.  Convenience stores sold small bags of ice just for the people who drink on the street.


Tattoos- A far higher percentage of Colombian residents had tattoos as compared to Americans.  It was rare to see a Colombian who was not visibly tattooed.


Gas prices- For all of you complaining about gas prices in the USA, here’s a Colombian gas station sign. The exchange rate is about 4300 pesos to the dollar. That means gas is a little over $2.00. But wait! That’s PER LITER, not per gallon. Doing the math shows that regular gas here is more than $9.00 a gallon.

Female dress- Typical of Latin countries, most women who leave the house are dressed as well as they could afford.  They all and wore makeup.  It was very different from seeing women in American Walmart stores wearing sweat pants and flip flops.  I never saw a woman on my trip wearing pajamas, sweats, or any type of lounge wear or casual clothing.


Hotdog obsession- The most common restaurants in Medellin were hotdog places.  People were obsessed with cheap gourmet hot dogs.


Drug Dealing- Men walked the streets selling cigarettes, candy, and gum from small wooden boxes.   These folks were also the drug dealers.  You could buy anything you wanted from those dudes and they were stationed about every 25 meters on the street in the busy tourist areas.  Even though all drugs are illegal there, the dealers regularly sold drugs right in front of uniformed policemen.


Babies in boxes-While walking to lunch one day, I came across a naked little girl (I would say around 2 years old) sitting in a cardboard box on the sidewalk. There was a dish sitting next to the box with a few coins in it.

I looked around and found mom about 50 yards away. She had two other kids less than 5 years old, each naked in their own cardboard boxes strategically located at various places on the sidewalks along a popular tourist walking route.
Mom was sitting in the shade watching her naked, boxed kids generate income for her.

Informal Recycling Program- There’s almost no place in Medellin to deposit your recyclable garbage.  Bottles, cans, and cardboard all get thrown out with the regular trash.  The homeless and low income people raid the trash dumpsters and pull out the recyclables.  They then take that recyclable waste to a recycling center to make some pocket change.


Day or night, you’ll always see homeless people dumpster diving for recyclables they can re-sell.  The photo below shows a taxi driver pulled over across the street from my hotel dumpster diving.


Dancing in the street– Kids down here break dance on the road in front of stopped traffic at all the major intersections during the day and afternoon. Drivers and pedestrians give them spare change for their efforts.


Hooker lights– This is Medellin after dark. Restaurants and bars put these blinding lights up on their exterior walls to keep the hookers from setting up shop and disturbing their patrons.


Foreign travel always provides amusing anecdotes like the ones listed above.  It’s cool to see how differently we all live across the planet.  Observing quirks like these keeps international travel high on my list of rewarding pastimes.



Eating My Way Through Medellin

Eating My Way Through Medellin 1080 810 Greg Ellifritz
I returned home last week from a 17-day trip to Medellin Colombia.  A lot of my readers like to see the food that is common in the countries I visit.  The article below shows some of the great meals I consumed in Colombia.  While there, I ate out for every lunch and dinner.  I ate at local places and didn’t try to scrimp.

For 17-days, I ended up spending less than $600 on food and alcohol.  That isn’t bad.  Here are some of the things I feasted upon.

On my first foray walking around Medellin. I hadn’t researched the neighborhood restaurants, so I took advice from my book and looked for the place with the most locals eating there.
I found Mondongo’s family restaurant.  It was packed.  Probably 150+ people eating at a covered open air patio at two pm.  That’s a good sign.
I was not disappointed with my choice . My first lunch in the city.
Three large steak medallions with chimichurri sauce, a whole avocado, a sweet plantain, French fries, fried green tomatoes,and a glass of homemade sangria for $15.


The restaurant has been in business since 1976.  There are only 13 dishes on the menu.  The cooks can prepare each dish to perfection and get it served quickly.  I got my steak less than five minutes after ordering and it was cooked to a perfect medium level.  Good, cheap, and quick?  I’m all in.  That’s probably why McDonald’s isn’t so popular here.


I ate a couple more times there as well.  Food was always excellent, but occasionally when they were short staffed, it took a while to get your check.

Here’s another Mondongo dish.  This is Ajiaco.  It’s a traditional Colombian chicken and potato soup that comes with all the fixings to customize it however you like.  The two small bowls contain capers and heavy cream to thicken the soup.  The cookie-like object is a tostone.  It’s made of corn meal and is used like Americans put crackers in their soup.  It also comes with rice, lime, avocado, cilantro, and hot sauce to jazz things up to your heart’s content.


The ear of corn in the center could be eaten on the cob or shaved into the soup.  Peruvian corn is a bit tasteless and chewy.  It’s definitely not Ohio sweet corn.  The meal was so incredibly filling I couldn’t eat it all.   I gave my banana and tostone to a homeless street kid on the sidewalk outside.


The soup was $7.25.  I added a small draft beer for $1.00 more.


The pic above shows a typical lunch for me.   Served at a small sidewalk cafe without a website, it’s white fish ceviche with avocado, onions, red peppers, and cilantro. Accompanied by a tasty local craft beer.  Seven US dollars for water, beer, and the meal.  In the USA, a restaurant would likely charge a similar price just for the avocado alone!


Beef carpaccio at a higher end restaurant in the most tourist-oriented area of the city.  I expected prices to be much higher here, but they weren’t bad.  I ordered the carpaccio as an appetizer, but the plate was huge.  It ended up being my entire meal.  It cost right around US $9.00.


The restaurant was called Bonhomia and it was situated with prime real estate along one of the most heavily trafficked pedestrian thoroughfares in the Poblado neighborhood.  I ate quite a few meals there.  The food was universally good, but service was always slow and the waiters often had unpleasant attitudes.


I’d been eating a lot of steak and one evening was in the mood for something lighter for dinner. I thought I’d order a chicken Caesar salad. This is what came.


It wasn’t really “light” but was the best damn salad I’ve ever eaten. About a pound of teriyaki glazed chicken, bacon, corn, cheese, and croutons covering a bed of romaine lettuce and kale, tossed with Caesar dressing.  It was $7.50.


And if you are wondering, yes, you can eat salads in Medellin. The city has potable tap water and the veggies are washed in that before serving.


The picture above came from one of my favorite restaurants called Botanika.  It was right across the street from my hotel and had pleasant outdoor dining.  They also had the best sangria I drank on the trip.  I ate there half a dozen times during my stay.


Here’s their salmon ceviche, mango, avocado, and cherry tomato bowl.  It was $7.00.


There was a tremendous variety of restaurants in my neighborhood.  Middle Eastern restaurants, Kabob shops, vegetarian places, Greek, and Asian restaurants abounded.  Strangely enough, the most popular for the locals seemed to be the Hawaiian Poke bowl restaurants and gourmet hot dog shops.


Menu at a local hotdog joint. I had to order a “Park Bitch” just to see what it was.

Looking at the menu, I had to figure out what a “park bitch” was.  When I was feeling adventurous one night I ordered it.

This is the “Park Bitch.”  What makes it a bitch?  It lacks a hot dog!  It’s a hot dog bun filled with with cheese, about a half pound of bacon, onion, and potato straws.

The “Park Bitch”


I also tried one of the local Korean restaurants.  The photo below is a sushi roll, but instead of fish, it’s stuffed with bulgogi, and fried egg. I thought that was unique enough to order. It was pretty good for $9.00


One of the restaurants that ranked well in the tourist guidebooks was La Revuelta.  It was a fusion Mexican place owned by Colombians.  It was always busy.  I had lunch there once and it was excellent.  They had a large and interesting menu.  I wasn’t that hungry, so I had three tacos with fish and shrimp ceviche, pickled onions, cilantro, and black beans for $5.50.  I accompanied it with one of their signature margaritas.  It went down quite smoothly.



A restaurant that was also popular with the tourists was Masaya.  It was a large hostel/hotel in a neighborhood popular with ex-pat remote workers.  The hotel has a killer rooftop pool and supposedly good cocktails.  I went twice and wasn’t impressed.  The cocktail on the rooftop was only average and the servers seemed quite haughty and easily annoyed.


They also have what is supposed to be the best hamburger place in the city.  I went during a slow lunchtime when there was only about six other customers.  It took 10 minutes to flag down a waiter for my order.  The wait staff and the kitchen crew were too busy screaming at each other to serve the customers.


I ordered.  After waiting 30 minutes, I still didn’t even have my drinks.  I left.  It might have been a good hamburger, but it wasn’t worth that hassle.


The richest part of the Poblado neighborhood was called Provencia.  It had several streets blocked off from traffic that served as outdoor dining and entertainment venues.  It was fun and always crowded.  See the video below for an idea of what it looked like.



I was in the mood for pizza on the first time I walked up the hill to visit.  I had a medium, thin crust “artisanal salami,” three cheese, and onion pizza.  It was really good and just the right size for one person’s dinner.  It cost $8.00.


The restaurant was called Hasta la Pizza, Baby and also rented shisha pipes.  I was in heaven.


My favorite Colombian dish was Bandeja Paisa. It has chicken, blood sausage, fried pork belly, and sausage with cheese accompanied by some mashed and fried plantains, a couple potatoes, and a small salad for $9.00.



Not all of my meals were opulent.  I often had simple lunches.  This one was a steak salad with plantain for $8.00.


I also ate the yummy empanada shop right around the corner from the hotel.   On nights when I didn’t have time to sit around, I’d pick up some empanadas to go.  Three chicken empanadas and a craft beer cost less than $3.00.


There were some surprisingly tasty Colombian craft beers that were often available in both restaurants and convenience stores.  My favorite was the Tres Cordilleras brand.  They had several styles of beer (including a strange “Rosada” that only contained 3.8% alcohol and tasted like strawberries).  I liked them all.  In upscale restaurants they cost a little less than $2.00 US each.


Some local beer options


One more thing for you foodies to understand if you ever go to Colombia.  Tipping more than some pocket change at a restaurant is a uncommon idea for the locals.  If you pay with a credit card, a tip of 10% will automatically be added to the bill.  If paying by cash, many places will ask tourists if they can add the tip directly to the bill.


Before giving your waiter a big tip, check the bill.  It was likely automatically included on your bill.  There’s lots of competition for server spots in the tourist areas.  The tourists don’t know the tip is already handled and then leave a cash tip on top of the bill.  Therefore waiters get to double their tip money as compared with their fellow servers in more local restaurants.


Colombia isn’t known for its food, but I ate really well when I was down there.


Travel Log- Colombia 2022

Travel Log- Colombia 2022 620 827 Greg Ellifritz

I just returned from a 17-day trip to Medellin Colombia.  I made the trip for two primary reasons.  The first is that it is as hot as Hades in my new Texas home.  It’s been 100+ degrees here every day for the last couple months.  I knew it was going to be hot when I moved to Texas.  I also know that I have a flexible work schedule and can temporarily re-locate elsewhere if I want to get out of the heat.


When I lived in Ohio, I’d spend a lot of the winter months someplace warm.  Now that I’m a Texas resident, I can do something similar by spending time in a cooler environment during the summer heat.  Medellin is known as “The City of Eternal Spring.”  It’s near the equator, but up in the mountains.  High temperatures are between 70  and 80 degrees with generally sunny weather year around.


The other reason I went there is that I wanted to do some more research for my upcoming book on travel scams.  I stayed in an area of Medellin that is full of expats, digital nomads, and foreign travelers.  This neighborhood (Poblado) has a lot of money.  Therefore it also has a lot of thieves and scam artists trying to separate the wealthy visitors from their cash.


I speak conversational Spanish and can get by in any Latin American country without problems.  Colombian Spanish is one of the most clear dialects I’ve heard.  The Colombians fully pronounce and annunciate every syllable.  They also speak slower than the residents in other Spanish speaking countries.  I find Colombian Spanish amazingly easy to understand.  That was critical for my research efforts.


I spent every night walking for a couple hours in the streets pretending to be a clueless tourist.  I chatted up all the hookers, thieves, hustlers, drug dealers, and scam artists I could find.  I was trying to learn how they worked their scams from direct experience .  Understanding their language was critical to this effort.  I could get scammed in hundreds of places around the world, but I wanted to be able to understand how the scams work in order to share them in my book.  I could only do that if I could talk to the scam artists.  In Colombia, I was able to do that fairly easily.


To better describe the area, here is a video of the area I frequented nightly.  Lots of fun.  Lots of music.  Lots of good food and drink.  And lots of hustlers/scam artists.


I like Medellin.  I last visited in 2012.  It’s a generally civilized place.  Most things work the way you want them to.  There is reliable electricity, potable tap water, and internet everywhere.  But there is still a very edgy Latin American vibe that keeps things interesting.  There is a lot of wealth disparity.  Both the ultra rich and the homeless share the same neighborhoods.  The streets are lined with homeless people for begging money as the wealthy folks visit the high end restaurants and night clubs.  It’s an interesting place to be.  I’d liken it a bit to Rio de Janeiro, but with a higher percentage of homeless.


An aware American can truly enjoy himself/herself here, but one must always be alert for pickpockets, robbers, hookers, and scam artists.  Medellin has just enough shadiness to keep things interesting, but not enough to be really dangerous (at least in the nicer neighborhoods).


They say a picture is worth 1000 words.  Take a look at the photos below to better understand the wealth disparity in the city.  The first shows a taxi driver stopping to dumpster dive for recyclable bottles to turn in for extra cash.  Every dumpster and trash can in the city is constantly being searched for recyclables by the poorer residents.


Taxi driver stopping to dumpster dive for recyclables he can turn in for extra cash


But there is also a baseline level of prosperity not seen in much of South America.  There is a lot of money here.  The wealthy live an amazing life.  The picture below is of a Harley Davidson store in the neighborhood where I stayed.  Unlike many poorer countries I’ve visited, business owners in Medellin use proper concertina wire (rather than embedded broken glass bottles) to secure their property.  All the high dollar businesses had razor wire like this or electric fences protecting their property.  That tells you that there is a real concern for theft, but also that many folks have the resources to minimize their losses.


Unlike most Latin countries that embed broken glass in the top of walls for security, in Medellin, proper concertina wire is used everywhere.



I stayed in the Charlee Hotel on the recommendation of friend who lives part time in the city.  It was a great place.


Here are some pictures of my room, which cost a little more than $100 a night.  It was huge and had a sitting room with large windows that open to give it an open air patio feel.



More like an enclosed balcony than part of the hotel room


My writing area on arrival (and that was the last time the TV was turned on).



Bathroom. The shower ceiling was mirrored. That was a bit odd.


View from the sitting room window


The hotel was centered right in the middle of the night life capital of Medellin.  It literally say between the two busiest party streets in the city.  It was noisy at night with the windows open, but the hotel soundproofed the door to the open air sitting room.  With the door shut, you couldn’t hear any noises from the outside.  For an idea of what it’s like at night, check out this video  shot from my open window on the third floor of the hotel.  This was a Friday night at about 2:00 AM.


The place had the best Latin American gym I’ve ever seen.  It was small but had a lot of great equipment.  The gym was on the top floor of the hotel and had large open windows overlooking the city.  To be honest, the gym and the rooftop pool is what sold me on the place.  I was happy with my stay.


View from the hotel gym


The hotel had a nice touch of hospitality in that every evening a hotel bartender would knock on your room door while pushing a drink cart.  He offered completely free cocktails to each guest every night.  I often ordered a mojito.  The bartender usually said “You’re big.  You need two.” and would make me an additional mojito or margarita.  It was a nice touch, but daily free cocktail deliveries may have diminished my writing production a little bit.


Every night at about 6:30 pm


One of the outside walls of the hotel. An appropriate destination for a Gorillafritz.


A Deeper Look at Colombian social Issues


I saw lots of shocking things during my stay in Medellin.  My entire experience was quite educational.


The craziest thing I saw were boxed babies.  While walking to lunch one day, I came across a naked little girl (I would say around two years old) sitting in a cardboard box on the sidewalk. There was a dish sitting next to the box with a few coins in it.


I looked around and found mom about 50 yards away. She had two other kids less than 5 years old, each naked in their own cardboard boxes strategically located at various places on the sidewalks along a popular tourist walking route.

Mom was sitting in the shade watching her naked, boxed kids generate income for her.  I didn’t take photos for obvious reasons.  That level of poverty and abuse is abhorrent in America, but is considered “everyday life” in the developing world.
I mentioned that I spent most evenings strolling around the popular tourist spots trying to get scam artists to engage me for book research.


One night I finished my stroll and went to a corner grocery store to buy a couple beers to fuel the night’s writing effort. Two little girls followed me into the store and approached me begging for me to buy them food. That’s really common in Medellin.


I would guess that these sisters were 12 and 10 years old. When I refused to buy them food, the older one pointed at her little sister and said in English “You can have her. She will do anything you want. Cheap. Cheap.”


A 12-year old was pimping her 10-year old little sister. I’ve traveled a lot in places like Thailand, Brazil, and Cambodia where underage prostitution was rampant but I’ve never seen anything like that.


Most people have zero idea about the level of depravity that makes up everyday life in many parts of this world.


I would have loved to help these little girls (and the kids in boxes), but there are significant hurdles in doing so.


1) The scale of the problem. While on my two hour walk  one night, I passed several hundred starving kids begging for money in the streets. I was solicited by probably 20 underage prostitutes in the same time frame. None were as young as these, but being hit up by 14-16 year old girls selling their bodies on the street has happened dozens of times a day for my entire trip.


With so many kids needing help, how do you triage your efforts? It’s impossible. I would be bankrupt in a week if I tried to help all the kids down here who truly needed it.


The other issue is that my helping them in any way is a tacit reward for the choices they are making. If they successfully appear weak and helpless they get more money. That only encourages them to prostitute themselves/beg more.


It’s harsh, but if there were no one down here trying to “help” these kids by giving them food or money for sex, the kids would have to do something more legitimate to generate income. The kids need to be going to school rather than begging/prostituting themselves on the street. If tourists keep giving them money, they have minimal incentive to improve their lot in life.


Remember that a lot of parents force their kids to beg because tourist donations are an easier way to make money than picking up a minimum wage job. Many of these kids’ parents don’t want to improve the lives of their children because those kids are often the most reliable sources of household income.


2) Zero community support networks. There is minimal government assistance going to the poor. There are relatively few charities. There are no resources locally to refer these people to.


The hotel employees despise these kids because they often steal things to get money to eat. The hotel staff don’t want their customers ripped off by the street urchins. They run these kids off their property mercilessly. They absolutely wouldn’t be helpful if I showed up with these two kids. They wouldn’t let the kids inside and would probably evict me.


There is simply no place down here that helps these kids.


3) Personal risk. What does it look like when a 50-year old man brings two pre-teen prostitutes back to his hotel room to “help” them? The hotel staff would likely call the police and kick me out of the hotel.


These kids aren’t dumb. Even if your intentions were nothing but honorable, there is nothing to prevent them from lying to get paid.
In countries like this with overtly corrupt police forces, some of the local girls are in cahoots with the police to scam tourists. If I help the girls by getting them off the street, they can call the police and claim I raped them.


The cops will show up and demand a $10K bribe to avoid jail. Of course you’ll pay because you don’t want to end up in a third world prison. The cop will give a little money to the kids and pocket the rest. The kids hop back out to the street to work the scam on another gullible tourist.


While I would really like to help all of these kids, it’s logistically impossible and places me in great risk of false accusations that could potentially ruin my life or completely drain my bank account.


There’s no way someone like me can realistically help these kids. The only thing I can do is to support the “Mom and Pop” groceries, restaurants, and vendors with my money. If those proprietors are successful, there’s less of a chance that their kids will end up on the street.


Beyond the beggars and hookers, there was a tremendous problem with homeless folks called “indigentes” or “gente de la calle” in Spanish.


Hookers approaching dudes on the street


Medellin is a city of contrasts. Right by my hotel there is a beautiful urban park with trails and waterfalls. That’s unusual in many Latin American cities.


The beautiful little creek in the park near my hotel


But walk a little further upstream and you see that this beautiful little river is also where all the homeless people bathe.



It’s stunning to see such abject poverty in an area where the richest people in the country live.  I think that’s part of the reason I like Medellin so much.


Police and Security Interactions


I didn’t see many police on patrol  during the daytime.  The national police carry SigPro 9mm pistols in Blackhawk Serpa holsters.  Unlike the cops in Bogota, I didn’t see any cops carrying long guns in Medellin.  All the cops are also armed with a PR-24 style baton, handcuffs, and a radio.  They wore external plate carriers and always patrolled in pairs.  They generally looked fit and alert.  They weren’t hassling folks or shaking down people for bribes.


Police patrol in pickup trucks here. If I had ever become a police chief, I would mark all police cars like this. “Tactical Black” is stupid. Cop cars should be visible like this.


Despite the lack of daytime police presence, there were, however, lots of security guards.  Some were armed  and some were not.  Whether or not they were armed seemed more to be dependent on the individual rather than the job.  The daytime hotel security guard was about 35 years old and wore a nickel-plated four inch S&W Model 10 in a nylon flap holster with five extra lead round nose cartridges in loops on the outside of the holster body.  The late night guard was younger and only carried a PR-24 baton.


The security guards could be sharp.  On my second day, I ate lunch at a large outdoor restaurant frequented by mostly locals.  I had my flashlight in my front pants pocket (not clipped, that draws too much attention).  It was daylight, so I was carrying it primarily to use as a small impact weapon.  As I was eating, the guard walked over to me and bent over to better inspect the bulge in my pants pocket.  He quickly determined it wasn’t a pistol barrel, smiled, and moved on.


I suggest that you become friends with the security guards at your residence in Latin America.  My hotel had a very high end rooftop bar that attracted a lot of prostitutes and other shady characters.   It’s almost exclusively rented by wealthy foreign travelers. All the local hookers and hustlers try to get inside to run game on the clueless Gringos.


As such, security was tight. Three security guards at each door. Metal detector wands for everyone going in at night. If you know me, you know that going through metal detectors is hazardous to my health.  Social engineering is a thing.


On my very first morning there, I brought coffee back from a local shop for all the guards and front desk staff. Every time I walked in and out, I talked the the guards in Spanish for a little while, asking about their lives and families. All of the other Gringo guests ignored them.


Within a day, they no longer wanded me with the metal detector and waved me in without any security screening. I was a good guy and no longer considered a potential threat. Over my stay I brought the door guards some food, coffee, and soft drinks. My total investment during my time there was about $25.


Near the end of my stay, the hotel staff upgraded me to a much more expensive room. The door guys got me the “local” price for a haircut at the barbershop down the street. They took me to a laundry place that only locals know to get my laundry done for half the Gringo rate.


They all called me “Mr. Marine.” I kept telling them that I’m just a writer who likes to work out. They didn’t believe me, but they played along. It’s was fun.


For the cost of a couple coffees and hotdogs, I became friends with all the staff and they were more than willing to take very good care of me.  Personal relationships are far more valuable than money in much of the world. I urge you all to cultivate these relationships when you travel. They will enrich your life and make your stay much more enjoyable.


Outside of the hotel, I was staying in one of the safest parts of the city.  Lots of security guards everywhere.  At night, plenty of cops on foot and motorcycle patrol.  Unlike many South American cites, the locals don’t seem to be too concerned about getting jacked.  People count money out in the street and walk around holding expensive cell phones with no worries.


The security guards all carried very strange weapons in my neighborhood.   I made friends with a local security guard and he let me take a photo of his shotgun.


It was a 16 gauge break top single shot cut down with pistol grips. Loaded with birdshot.…in a super crowded outdoor dining venue.   This video gives you an idea of the area the guards were patrolling.  It was two blocks away from my hotel.


The sticker on the gun says “Royale Express” with a logo of a bull.  I saw lots of these, some nickel plated.  I only saw one other pistol gripped shotgun.  A convenience store guard near my hotel carried a chrome plated Winchester 12 gauge pump with pistol grips. It reminded me of the store guards in Honduras.


I needed help identifying the pistol in the guard’s flap holster.  My friend Will Peck and some of the other authors from The Firearms Blog helped me out.  They did a great job of identifying the pistol as an early model of the Colombian Cordova 9mm auto.


That was the only semi-auto pistol I saw security guards carrying.  Almost all the guards in my neighborhood carried the sawed-off single shot shotguns or .38 revolvers.


My weapons

It’s important when you are outside the USA not to have any visible indications of carrying a weapon.  Having a pocket knife clipped to your pocket goes unnoticed in America, but will attract a lot of attention in the developing world.  I mentioned my flashlight earlier.  I carried it in my right front pocket, next to my money clip.  The money clip contains less than $100 in local currency and one credit card.  I don’t take my wallet with me when going out in public.


I had my Spyderco Salt knife clipped to the waistband of my pants in the appendix position.  If going to a bar or club with pat down searches, I moved it to my underwear just behind my belt buckle.  I carried my POM pepper spray in my left front pocket with my cell phone.


The most common attacks here are street robberies.  In the event of multiple attackers or loaded guns, my plan was to give up my money clip and phone.  But a lot of these robberies are committed by unarmed punk street kids.  In that case, I had a weapon right next to each valuable item I carried.  If they demanded my phone, I feign compliance and go for the pepper spray.  If they ask for my money, I feign compliance and then hit them with my flashlight.


The knife is a last resort.  No one will care if you beat the hell out of a criminal down here, but if you stab someone, you’ll be in a lot more trouble.  Besides surviving the attack, you’ll also want to avoid a long prison sentence in the developing world.



I did one tour while in Medellin.  It was a free tour of Medellin’s Poblado neighborhood provided by Beyond Colombia.  The tour guides work for tips.  These are a bit of a crap shoot and really depend on the individual tour guide.  I’ve had good ones and bad ones.  This one was horrible.  The guide gave us a little history of the neighborhood and the park where we met.  He then showed us some graffiti walls before taking us to the rooftop bar at Masaya for “a break.”  After 40 minutes in the bar, I grew bored and left.  I can go to bars on my own.


I also took an Uber (20 minutes, $3.00) to the Medellin botanical gardens for a stroll one afternoon.  Entry was free.  It was more like a large, well maintained city park than a nature exhibition.  There were tons of plants, but none of them was labeled.  When I was there on a Sunday afternoon,  hundreds of families had  just thrown down blankets and were spending a lazy afternoon in the garden eating picnic lunches with loved ones. I wish more Americans would embrace that lifestyle.



After strolling through the gardens, I wanted to visit the downtown park where all the Botero statues are. According to my phone, it was two miles from the gardens. I wanted to walk, so I asked the garden security guard if it was safe.


His reply? “More or less. The neighborhood is ugly. Lots of homeless and street people. Guard your money and your cell phone.”


The perfect challenge. I made the trek. The guard was right. It was ugly. I would have taken photos on the traverse, but my phone was hidden down my pants. Lots of poverty and chaos.  A fascinating piece of abandoned land that was taken over by shade tree motorcycle mechanics.  Only there was no shade. so each group of mechanics set up a big blue tarp for shade and worked on the motorcycles people brought them.  There were dozens of these “shops” on a piece of abandoned property about two acres in size.  Lots of them were keeping busy.  The true “underground economy” at work.


I was most certainly the only gringo around. I got some strange looks, but emerged unscathed.   The picture below is the famous downtown park.  While there, I was treated like a wallet with legs.  It was great practice for improving my situational awareness and learning some more scams run against travelers.  Hustlers everywhere.



Then I got to see the only artistic statues that reinforce my positive body image.  I love Botero.







One of the reasons I enjoy third world travel is that lots of things are amazingly cheap.  I stayed 17 days and needed to do laundry midway through.  I went to a wonderful place called “Laundry and Beer”  recommended by my hotel security guards.  They took a week’s worth of my dirty laundry, washed, dried , and folded it in less than two hours for the equivalent of $4.50 US.   I got a haircut for $5.00 and an hour-long massage for $20.00.  Most of my meals were less than $10 each.  Draft beers at a bar were about $1.25 US.  It was a nice escape from the ever increasing price inflation in the USA.

On travel in general


I can confidently state that travel is continuing to get worse. While waiting on airport delays during my flight home, I looked back at this year’s travel. I’ve thus far flown 36 flights in this calendar year. Twenty-eight of those flights have been delayed or cancelled.


Flying to and from Colombia in the last few weeks has been illustrative of the entire process.


My flight down to Medellin was delayed 2.5 hours, meaning I didn’t get to into my hotel until 3:00 am.


Coming home, my flight left Medellin on time. I arrived in Miami with a two hour connection to go through immigration/customs and board my plane to Austin.


I was flying at the front of the plane and had Global Entry, which meant I entered the country with a line of only three people ahead of me. It took less than five minutes to get processed through immigration. The folks that didn’t have Global Entry were looking at a 90+ minute wait in line.


Then I had to collect and recheck my bag. It took 1.5 hours for my bag to arrive on the conveyor belt. When the bags arrived, there were only four of us from the flight (all with Global Entry) who had made it to the baggage claim area The rest of our flight was still waiting in the immigration line.


As I was picking up my bag, I got notification that my connecting flight was delayed 30 minutes. I was glad. I wouldn’t have made the flight if it had left on time. I had to walk/sky-train 50 gates in Miami’s D-terminal to get to my connection. I arrived four minutes before my flight boarded.


The flight landed in Austin. We sat on the runway for 50 minutes after arrival. The pilot explained that the airport was operating with a “skeleton staff” and there were not enough employees on the ground to guide the plane to the gate.


That “skeleton staffing” was also evidenced in the baggage handling. After deplaning, it took another hour for the bags to arrive on the baggage carousel.


I’ve been traveling a bunch in the last nine months. Most of it has been flying around the country to teach classes, but I’ve made a couple international trips now. All have been utter chaos and getting continually worse.


Things don’t seem to be improving.


Despite the travel delays, I enjoyed Medellin.  I think I will spend even more time there next summer.  If you are interested in some more information about my stay, I will be posting some more articles about my trip on my Choose Adventure website next week.


Even though travel right now is a massive hassle, it still beckons to me.  I hope articles like this one make you more interested in seeing the world as well.





Medellin at dusk during a thunderstorm edited by my friend at Magellen Photography