Travel Log

Travel Log Ecuador Part Two- Montañita

Travel Log Ecuador Part Two- Montañita 480 640 Greg Ellifritz

After spending a couple days in Guayaquil, I was off to a little hippie surf town called Montañita where I was going to spend the majority of my vacation.  I had originally planned on going by bus.

 

Long haul Latin American buses are usually fairly comfortable and the bus fares are really cheap.  The I started thinking about Covid-19 and the fact that I really didn’t want to spend four hours in a crowded bus during the pandemic.  Taxis are cheap (gasoline prices down there are a little over $2.00 a gallon).  I reconsidered my plans and took a private taxi for the three hour drive instead.

 

In Ecuador, the bathrooms at gas stations all have maps showing how close you are to your next public bathroom. I think it’s a great idea.

 

As I mentioned in the last installment, I had only been to Montañita once.  For a town with fewer than 4000 residents, it was really hopping during my previous visit.  Lots of surfers and tourists from across the planet in full-on party mode.  I had a really good time.

 

I think I made a good call on taking a taxi. This is the town bus station. I wish you could envision the muddy sidewalks, the smell of open sewage, and the packs of wild dogs in the area.
But the bus fare from Guayaquil was only $3.45!

 

As the taxi pulled up to the hotel where I was staying, I was shocked to see that the entire city was a ghost town.  Almost no one was out in the street.  I had booked a nice hotel on a cliff overlooking the city and the beach, just a short walk from all the bars, restaurants and parties.   It was a beautiful property.  I was the sole guest.  I literally had the entire hotel to myself.

 

View of Montañita  and the Pacific Ocean from my hotel on a cliff above the town

 

The desk clerk told me that with Covid-19 raging, few international tourists were as interested in traveling.  That fact completely wrecked the town’s economy.  He told me that the city got busier during the weekends when wealthy Ecuadorians come to the beach to play and party.  It was mid-week.  The town was completely dead.  It was a stunning contrast to my last visit.

 

High class living in rural Ecuador. My room was very nice, but this is one of the top five most expensive places in town. In a town full of hippies and surfers, there isn’t high demand for luxury.

 

I decided to go for a walk through town.  It was late afternoon on a Wednesday.  It’s a small town.  I walked all the major streets checking out the lay of the land and what was going on.  The walk took a little less than two hours to see the entire town.  I counted tourists I passed as I walked along.  The last time I was in Montañita, that would have been impossible.  There were thousands.  Not anymore.  I counted a grand total of  exactly 11 obvious Gringo tourists during the entirety of my walk.

 

Montañita is very different from Guayaquil in both culture and attitude.  Montañita was filled with independent thinkers, vagabonds, and surf bums.  Most people were not well off financially, especially since the pandemic began and the tourist numbers plummeted.  I did not see a single cop on patrol in the town during my stay there. In Guayaquil, I encountered cops every few minutes as I walked along the streets.  Zero cops in Montañita.

 

Hotel infinity pool overlooking the town

Even though Montañita had the same legal mask mandate as Guayaquil, in practice very few people in Montañita wore masks outside in public places.  Mask compliance dropped from around 95% in Guayaquil to probably closer than 20% in Montañita.  It was a noticeable difference.  No masks on the beach.  Only a few people wearing masks on the street.  Almost everyone carried masks and would don them when boarding public transportation or going inside, but the folks outside weren’t wearing them.

 

Besides the difference in mask wearing, the other difference was the widespread public drug use in Montañita.  Personal use quantities of marijuana are legal to possess in Ecuador.  I didn’t smell weed ever in Guayaquil.  In Montañita, lots of folks openly smoked in the street.  The odor of burning cannabis was never more than a few steps away.  On my walk, three different dudes offered to sell me cocaine.  It was a completely unique ecosystem.

 

The locals were hit hard by the pandemic.  Eighteen months without the tourists upon which their personal economy is based put a lot of folks in poor financial straits.  About half of the hostels were closed.  Maybe one third of the restaurants were shuttered.  The Spanish schools were all closed down.  No one was hawking surf lessons on the street.  The money was gone.

 

Each of these windows is a separate take away restaurant. None of them opened during my stay. Five years ago, this street would have been packed with thousands of people during dinner time.

 

Perhaps the most telling indicators of the problematic economy was the number of signs like the one below that translates into “showers for rent.”  Lots of locals were living in concrete block wall structures without roofs, electricity, or running water.  Businesses like this provided places for locals and tourists to take a cheap shower if their houses or accommodations lacked running water.

 

“Showers for rent”

Well, so much for taking Spanish lessons and surfing.  The town was deserted.  I was going to get a lot of my book writing done.

 

I quickly settled into a routine.  I would wake and eat a large late breakfast at the hotel.  I would write for my websites and post on social media for a couple hours.  After that, I would go for a 60-90 minute walk on the beach.  Back to the room.  Work on the book for a few hours until I got hungry for dinner.  Walk into town and eat.  Come back home and work on the book until I fell asleep.

 

With breakfasts like this, I didn’t need to eat lunch.
This one was called El Tigrillo. The only description was “ traditional Ecuadorian breakfast.”
Not disappointed. The mess on the right is hash browns mixed with onion, peppers, chorizo, and cheese.
Washed down with passion fruit juice and coffee.  It cost $6.50.

 

It wasn’t really a vacation, but it was a pleasant diversion of scenery and it allowed me to get a lot of my next book finished.  I enjoyed the hard work and the somewhat Spartan lifestyle.

 

In poorer countries, not everyone has a smart phone or internet at home. This is a cybercafe where people pay by the hour to rent a computer. They are usually packed with kids playing video games on the computers. I passed this one every day on my walk into town. It never had a customer.

 

As the weekend approached, the town started to fill.  My hotel registered a few more guests, mostly young couples or families from Guayaquil looking for a few days at the beach.  The streets started becoming more crowded with lots of partying teens and young adults.  Bigger dance clubs with pumping bass thumped until the early morning hours.  It still wasn’t quite the same as I remember, but the weekends livened up the town enough to keep the residents functioning during the slower week days until the high surfing season arrives.

 

I enjoyed the contrast.  I  liked both having the town to myself and talking to folks on the street during the busy weekend.  I was comfortable.  My book was coming along.  I was relaxed and enjoying my routine.  I had a couple more weeks to stay.  I was looking forward to getting my work done.

 

Then the wheels fell off.

 

I got sick.  Really sick.  Life threateningly sick in a town that didn’t have a doctor, hospital, or even a medical clinic.  It got ugly.  Stay tuned for the next installment “Escape from Ecuador” on Monday covering my illness and how I made it back to the USA while my body was trying to die.  It was a unique travel experience that I don’t ever want to experience again.

 

One of the streets where I often ate dinner outside. Pretty, but no other customers during the week.

 

Travel Log Ecuador- Part One (Guayaquil)

Travel Log Ecuador- Part One (Guayaquil) 480 640 Greg Ellifritz

I recently returned from a 16-day trip to Ecuador.  As most of you reading this will probably never make it to this gorgeous country, I thought I’d write about some of my travel adventures there.

 

Why Ecuador?

 

I had originally planned a trip to Rwanda and Uganda to see the mountain guerillas in their native habitat and to visit a local school that a friend’s charity had funded.  Covid-19 screwed that up.  Africa had some substantial travel restrictions and lots of curfews.  I didn’t really think trekking through the mountain rain forest while wearing a mask would be a fun trip.  I decided to postpone that trip until next year when it might be a little easier to travel in Africa.  Besides that, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to end up in a Rwandan hospital should I have caught Covid-19.

 

After cancelling that trip, I was left with a few weeks open when I didn’t have any classes to teach.  I still wanted to go somewhere.  I wanted  to visit a place with pleasant weather, without hurricanes or excessively high temperatures, reasonable Covid restrictions, and some fun things to do.

 

My normal summer vacation destination has been Peru.  I’ve spent four summer trips in Peru (winter there), but Peru still requires a two week quarantine for incoming travelers.  That put it out of consideration.  I thought Ecuador might be perfect.  It wasn’t an exceptionally long flight.  No quarantine required with a negative Covid test or evidence of vaccination (I had both, just to be sure).  No curfews.  Pleasant weather.  Lots of fun outdoor activities.  What’s not to like?

 

Surprise volcanic eruption viewed from my hotel during my Ecuador vacation in 2006. That added a bit of spice to the trip.

 

I had been to Ecuador twice before.  In 2006, I took a three-week guided trip through the entire country.  It was one of the most fun vacations I have ever experienced.  I returned in 2013 for a trip to the Galapagos.  That was an amazing trip as well.  I was certain to have another good time in a country I had previously enjoyed so much.

 

Hanging with nursing sea lion and mom in the Galapagos

 

I decided to base my current trip in Montanita.

 

Montanita is a hippie beach surf town.  It has a serious party vibe and seems similar to a lot of the island beach towns where I stayed while traveling in Thailand.  I had only visited the town once before, but found it fun, full of interesting people from all around the world, and although small, filled with engaging outdoor activities.

 

My plan was to take a few weeks in Montanita to knock out my next book, take some Spanish lessons, and do a little surfing.  I find that if I isolate myself in a foreign country, I can get a lot more writing work done than when I’m home with an unthinkable number of distractions.  It wouldn’t be a bad escape.  Write a few hours a day.  Hang out on the beach.  Eat some good food.  Do some outdoor exploration.  Who couldn’t get behind that idea?

 

To get to Montanita, I flew into Guayaquil.  I had never been there.  It had the reputation of being both the largest and most dangerous city in Ecuador.  I wanted to spend a couple days checking it out before taking a bus to Montanita.

 

Pandemic travel is a bit of a challenge right now.  This was my sixth international trip since the Covid-19 pandemic began.  I felt like I had a pretty good handle on how to survive  travel during these difficult times.

 

During the pandemic I visited Mexico twice (once for six weeks).  I visited Brazil during the height of the deaths from the “Brazilian Variant” over New Years.  Beyond that, I spent a couple weeks each in both Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic earlier this year.

 

On my first pandemic travel trip to Mexico a year ago, flights were virtually empty.  Hotels were operating at 30% capacity.  There were almost no tourists.  It’s very different now.  Airports and planes are packed.  The airlines and airports don’t have the staff to adequately handle the traveler demand.  Half of the stores and restaurants in all the airports are still closed.  People are grumpy because they have to wear masks.  There’s no beverage or meal service on planes outside of first class.  To be honest, travel is a bit miserable and I’m hoping it will improve sometime soon.

 

The flight to Guayaquil was completely full and delayed.  It landed after 1:00 am.  When we got into the airport, before going through customs, all the passengers were ushered into a big room and given a number. We waited until our number was called and then sat down to an interview with a nurse who was wearing full PPE including N95 mask, gown, glasses, a face shield, and nitrile gloves.

 

Passengers had to fill out a health form and show results of their negative Covid tests/vaccination record. No one can enter the country without being vaccinated or a having a negative test. The nurses asked some health questions and then walked us through a screening thermometer before we could enter the rest of the airport.

 

I got my bag and headed outside for the taxi queue. It was fairly short and I got a cab within a few minutes.  My hotel was about five miles from the airport.  I researched cab fares before I arrived.  It’s required by law that all Ecuadorian taxi drivers use their meters.  After dark the taxi prices go up.

 

According to my research, the meter fare to my hotel would be around $4.00 (Ecuador uses the US Dollar for currency).   As I mentioned in my book, more tourists are screwed over by taxi scams than any other fraudulent activity in most countries.  I pay close attention to taxi fares, but I’m also not a tightwad.

 

Shameless self promotion. Buy my book to read a whole chapter on dealing with foreign taxi issues.

 

I got in the taxi and told the driver my destination.  He started rolling without the meter.  Here we go.  Scam alert.

 

I asked him in Spanish how much the ride would cost.  He replied “$5.00.”  OK.  Fair enough.  This is where I veer away from most travel experts who would demand that the driver put on the meter to save a dollar.  I tend to tip taxi drivers well.  If I had a $4.00 meter fare, I’d certainly give the guy $5.00 or more after the tip.  Why bitch when he quotes you a fare that you were going to pay him anyway?  It’s a completely avoidable conflict.  Who needs drama over $1.00?

 

I said “excellente” and enjoyed the ride.  The taxi driver was happy he was making a couple extra bucks and became a wonderful tour guide, pointing out all kinds of cool locations between the airport and my hotel.  I gave him $8.00 when we arrived and he was elated.

 

Be smart about these minor financial deals.  A couple extra dollars to you means virtually nothing.  It means a lot to a taxi driver trying to make it in a struggling pandemic economy.  I’d much rather pay a couple more dollars in order to have an enjoyable experience while simultaneously doing what I can to help the locals make it through a tough time.  If you have a little extra cash,  I think paying for good service as more of an investment than an extortion attempt.

 

Check in to the hotel was quick and easy.  I got to the room, showered, and hit the bed a little after 3:00 am.

 

Guayaquil is a river town and my hotel was right on the river walk (Malecon).  This is the view from my hotel window. It was overcast and not many people were walking around. The Ecuadorians are near their highest peak of Covid infections and lots of people are scared. Their infection rate is less than the USA, but is still quite bad.  Not many people are moving around outside.

 

 

In April and May, Guayaquil had a serious Covid-19 crisis.  Hospitals and morgues were overflowing.  Bodies were being dumped in the street. It was an incredibly ugly scene.  The city government instituted lockdowns and mandatory masking requirements.  Since then things have been steadily improving.

 

The residents still remember what it was like a few short months ago and were very strict about trying to avoid the spread of the disease.  While positive cases are increasing, the Ecuadorians have started to figure out better treatment options and are no longer throwing dead bodies into the gutter.

 

The mask issue was interesting down there.  Masks are required in every public location (including outside).  It’s a mandatory $60 fine to be caught in public without a mask (except while eating or drinking).  I would estimate that 95% of citizens I saw out on the street were masked.  There were a few folks walking around without face coverings.  Strangely enough, those folks attracted little attention.  The police didn’t stop and harass them.  The masked people they passed didn’t give the mask-less folks any dirty looks.  Everyone was remarkably chill about the issue.

 

It seemed very different to the American response.  At the height of the masking requirements here in the USA, I saw lots of store employees and other citizens getting really spun up about someone not wearing a mask where required.  None of that in Ecuador.

 

Almost everyone was wearing a mask, but there seemed to be little judgement cast upon those who chose not to wear one.  The residents seem to view mask usage as a public responsibility, not a way to look down on or discriminate against others. Masks down there were viewed as a health issue rather than an excuse to “one up” someone else or to feel morally superior to another.  I much prefer to handle things this way than to deal with a bunch of rampaging “Karens” at home in the USA.

 

As I was a guest in their country, I wore my mask wherever required, even though I likely would have likely suffered no negative consequences should I have chosen not to wear it.  Remember, as a tourist, you are being judged by the locals.  Don’t be the “Ugly American.

 

I may or may not have chosen my hotel because there was an Ecuadorian craft beer store around the corner.

 

I spent the next two days wandering around Guayaquil and taking in the sites.  It was a big city that almost reminded me of Miami.  The residents were sophisticated and well dressed.  Even though not many people were out congregating in public, the city had a good vibe for me.  I would definitely come back.

 

I walked all over town.  I took in the entire length of the Malecon along the river.  I ate some amazing food.  I wandered around through the slums to see how some of the less fortunate lived.  It was a fun experience.  I would definitely come back in the future.  It was a cosmopolitan city by South American standards and I had zero problems with crime or anything else while I was there.  Check out some of my photos below.

 

Lunch in a Guayaquil sidewalk cafe. Whitefish ceviche with onions, tomatoes, and avocado. Served with plantain chips and homemade salsa. Price with beer $8.00 US.

 

Guayaquil’s “teleferico” connecting the poor neighborhoods where locals live to the industrial areas where they work. It costs $2 and turns a 45 minute car ride into a 12-minute commute.  40,000 people a day use the system to get to work and back home.

 

One of Guayaquil’s low rent slum neighborhoods. I wandered around for a couple hours here and didn’t have any issues. It’s kind of like a Brazilian favela with more city services and fewer drug dealers carrying rifles.

 

 

City art murals in the street.

 

City art murals in the street.

 

As this is primarily a training and tactics blog, I get lots of questions from readers about the ability for residents to own guns and the policing/crime situation in foreign countries.  Guayaquil is a big city.  It has big city crime problems but has made dramatic improvements in the last decade.  In the tourist areas, there were cops on patrol everywhere.  They seemed fairly professional and friendly.

 

The cops had high quality uniforms.  They carried Glock 17s.  I saw lots of extended mag wells, rubber grip sleeves, and aftermarket sights.  That’s unusual in Latin America.  I never saw a cop with a long gun (also a bit unusual in South America).  The police did not wear body armor and didn’t carry much other than a gun and cuffs on their belts.  They always patrolled in pairs or small groups.  I never saw a cop alone.  The tourist areas where I spent most of my time seemed to be well protected.

 

There were a few armed security guards on patrol (usually carrying .38 revolvers), but the private security scene doesn’t seem to be as well utilized as compared to other South American countries I’ve visited.  You don’t see security guards carrying pistol grip shotguns outside every business like you may see in Peru, Brazil, or some Central American locations.

 

Bicycle tourist police patrolling the empty malecon

 

As for citizen’s gun rights in Ecuador, guns are easier to legally acquire than in many other South American countries.  Citizens and legal residents can apply for either weapons possession permits (to keep a gun for home protection) and/or concealed carry permits.  Residents with permits may own up to two guns no larger than .38 caliber.  Both permits require background checks, psych exams, ballistic samples, and a whole bunch of paperwork.  The process normally takes 30-60 days.

 

The CCW permit requires a documented “need” for carrying a gun in public.  They are generally only issued to business owners who are at a high risk for robbery.  From what I understand, only the rich business owners with a documented need for carrying the gun get the CCW permits.  Both permits must be re-authorized every five years at a cost of $20.

 

Pepper spray and electronic stun devices are legal.  Carrying knives for personal protection is generally illegal, but usually not enforced by the police as every rural Ecuadorian farmer carries a machete around with him all day long.  For more details on Ecuador’s weapons laws, check out Ecuador firearms laws and arms that are legal to carry and own in Ecuador.

 

My chosen personal protection devices for this trip.

 

As this article is getting too long for the TL;DR crowd, I’m going to cut it off here.  Check in tomorrow for Part Two detailing my experiences in Montanita.

 

I’ll put up a special Part Three edition on Monday.  Spoiler alert.  I caught Covid-19 in Ecuador even after being fully vaccinated.  Part three details my problems being sick in a tiny town with no doctors and hospitals as well as how I organized a James Bond-type escape plan to get home to the USA while my body was trying to die.  Fun stuff.  Stand by for the rest of the story.

Travel Log- Jordan

Travel Log- Jordan 720 960 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Jordan in June of 2019.

 

I got back home last week after a whirlwind seven-day tour of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

 

That’s not on most people’s travel bucket list.  Why go to Jordan?

 

When my former girlfriend and I met, we both had independent travel goals.  My goal was to visit 50 countries before I turned 50 years old.  Her goal was to visit all seven continents before turning 40 years old.  In the six years we have been together we’ve traveled quite a bit.  We both accomplished our travel goals last year.

 

Still loving travel, we needed some new goals.  Lauren decided our new goal should be to see the new Seven Wonders of the Modern World.  One of those wonders is the lost city of Petra (located in Jordan).  That’s why we went there.

 

We had some fun adventures and really enjoyed our trip.  After every international trip, I write up a brief trip report discussing the country, the endemic criminal or terrorist strategies employed there, and a bit about the “gun culture” of the places I visit.  If you would like to see similar travel reports click HERE.  This is my latest installment.

 

We arrived in Amman a day before our trip was set to begin.  We spent the day walking around the city checking out several museums and the 1800 year-old  Roman Theater.

 

Roman Theater in Amman, Jordan.

 

Revolvers and daggers on display at the Jordanian Folklore Museum.

While out walking, one of the more stark reminders that someone is traveling in a majority Muslim country is the call to prayer that is broadcast via large speakers at every mosque.  The call to prayer happens five times a day.

 

If you haven’t experienced it, take a look at this 15-second video from the sundown call to prayer in Amman.  It’s disturbingly loud in many locations. We are walking along a road about a mile from the mosque emitting the call that you’ll hear below.


I always find the sounds to be ominous. They don’t seem to be friendly or inviting to me. When discussing it, Lauren brought up a good point. In every war movie made in the last 20 years we hear something similar to this call to prayer in the soundtrack right before the “bad guys” attack.

 

That may be negatively affecting my perception, but the sounds still give me chills every time I hear them.

 

Interestingly enough, the Jordanian society (while 95% Islamic) is remarkably secular. Most of the residents seem to ignore the calls, going about their business as if the calls didn’t matter. When I was in Egypt, I found things were quite different. When the calls went out there, you could see people visibly moving towards the mosques or toward places where they could pray.

 

Not the same reaction in Jordan.  According to the guide we hired, the population of Jordan is increasingly becoming less religious.  The younger folks there are not embracing the Muslim faith in the same way their parents and grandparents did.  Jordan seems to be a country very tolerant of differing religions (unlike many other countries in the region).  I didn’t see any overt signs of discrimination directed to the five percent of the country who are Christians.

 

How would I know if a Jordanian is either Christian or Muslim?  In women, it’s very easy to tell.  The women who are walking around in public without a head scarf do not practice the Muslim faith.

 

Almost all the women here wear a head scarf (hijab) to conform to the Islamic standards of modesty.  I saw very few women wearing full black burqas.  According to our tour guide, the burqa is something that Jordanian women do not embrace.  Our guide said that the few women we saw wearing full burqas were Saudi tourists.

 

In addition to the hijab, almost every Jordanian woman we saw was rearing a sort of  dress or “house coat” over their clothes.  This garment is like a long jacket or dress that extends to the woman’s ankles.  It zips up the front and tends to be in a solid dark color with some embroidery or decoration around the cuffs and collar.  It almost looks like a longer version of the 1960s smoking jacket.

 

Women generally wear pants and a t-shirt and then cover those clothes with the “house coat” whenever in public.  Lauren made an interesting observation.  The dress looks like a house coat, but is only designed to promote modesty when outside of the home.  For lack of a better name, we started calling this piece of attire the “out-of-the-house coat.”  Almost every woman we saw in Jordan was wearing one.

 

This outer dress serves the purpose of completely obscuring the woman’s general body shape.  You really couldn’t tell if the woman was fat or slim, muscular or weak.  Almost every woman looked like they were wearing some type of an amorphous, loose fitting potato sack in dark colors.

 

It seemed obvious that most men on the street were not used to seeing “Western” females who aren’t wearing the popular housecoat dress.  Lauren dressed very modestly in jeans and a T-shirt on most days.  She wasn’t showing off any skin, but I caught a lot of the men we passed openly staring in a leering fashion as she walked by.

 

Unlike many of the countries in South and Central America, Jordanian men didn’t whistle, cat call, yell suggestive comments, or molest women dressing less modestly than the residents in their home country.  They just stared a lot.  We didn’t have any problems with the leering men, but they gave off an incredible air of desperation.

 

All of the Jordanian people with whom we interacted were universally friendly and incredibly willing to help in any way they could.  Tourists call Thailand the “land of smiles,” but I would say the Jordanians looked even more happy than the people I encountered in Thailand.

 

Besides the friendly locals, another advantage to traveling in Jordan is that most people speak at least passable English.  It made communications go far more smoothly than what I have experienced in many other countries that don’t use the same alphabet.  Jordan was a British protectorate from the end of WWI until a few years after WWII.  As they were protected by the British crown, the Jordanians embraced the English language for many years. The trend of learning both Arabic and English as a child has remained strong even after the Jordanian independence..

 

On day two we spent quite a bit of time touring the ruins of Jerash, the oldest Roman ruin site outside of Italy.  The city was occupied from Roman times until around 800 AD when it was destroyed by an earthquake.  The ruins were rediscovered in the early 1800s and have been slowly excavated by archeologists.  While only about 20% of the site has been excavated, it was a tremendous experience to walk on roads that were built in the time before Christ.

 

If you ever make it to Jordan, it’s worth the  drive to see the ruins.

 

Temple of Hercules in Jerash

 

Following Jaresh, we visited the Moorish Ajloun Castle.  The current castle contains only the bottom two floors of what once was a five-floor architectural wonder from the 12th century.  It was one of the few Muslim-held castles in the area that was never overrun by the Christian Crusaders.

 

Ajloun is a 12th century Moorish castle. It’s a fabulous piece of architectural design with multiple redundant mechanisms designed to repel a crusader attack.  It didn’t take very long to explore the castle, but both Lauren and I were glad we made the effort to see it.

 

Inside the Ajloun castle. The fortifications and view were impressive. It was amazingly cool inside despite the 100 degree desert heat.

 

The next day we woke up early to take a trip to Mt. Nebo.  Mt. Nebo was mentioned in the bible as the location where Moses first viewed the “Holy lands.”  It is also recorded as the area where he died.

 

Mt. Nebo provided a very pretty view of the Israeli territory around the city of Jericho.   On the top of the mountain, archeologists uncovered what was once a fifth-century Byzantine church.  The church floors were made up of stunning hand carved mosaic tiles.  They were found almost completely intact after having been abandoned for nearly 1500 years.  I can’t even describe the feeling of wonder that those ornate mosaic tiles created in my brain.

 

Stunning mosaic tile flooring at the church atop Mt. Nebo

 

Following Mt. Nebo, we drove down to the Dead Sea to spend dome time in the salt water.  The sea has so much salt that floating requires absolutely zero effort.  Floating easily was a really cool feeling for a dense guy like me who tends to quickly sink to the bottom of the pool as soon as I enter the water.

 

The only real downside is that the salt water will really irritate any cuts, abrasions, or razor burn anywhere on your body.  When I waded out into the sea, I quickly felt a previously unnoticed scratch on my hand.  The salt water irritated the cut for several hours, even after I got back on shore.  If you are visiting, I would suggest that you avoid shaving on the day of your swim.

 

Effortlessly floating in the Dead Sea.  the far shore across the water is Israel.

 

Following our dip in the water, we took the long drive down the length of the Dead Sea to Wadi Rum.  Wadi Rum is a Bedouin area that is far away from civilization.  The views of the shining stars and harsh desert landscapes are quite impressive.  We stayed the night in a Bedouin camp and then got up early to go for a sunrise 4X4 tour of the nearby desert.

Wadi Rum

I am the farthest thing possible from a morning person.  Despite my usual habit of sleeping in, the 0500 wake up call to go check out the sunrise didn’t seem so bad.  I really enjoyed watching the sun rise over the stillness of the desert early in the morning.

 

Sunrise over Wadi Rum

 

We then drove to the lost city of Petra.  We spent the day touring the ruins.  The city is so large that it would probably take a week to see everything.  We were there about 10 hours and walked the main road through the city.  We hiked to the highest peak (called the Monastery).  It was a 7.2 mile hike with more than 800 steps up the mountain and an equal number of steps down.

 

Did I mention that it was 97 degrees and there was virtually zero shade along the trail?  That trek kicked both of our asses, but we survived and saw some really cool things while doing so.

 

 

Petra Monastery

 

We spent one more day in Amman and then flew home.  Below is some additional commentary about our trip…

 

Food

As usual when we are traveling, we try to eat as much local food as possible.  For our first dinner in Amman, we went to a local restaurant and had a traditional Jordanian meal.    I had Jordan’s national dish (mansef, pictured above). It’s lamb that has been boiled in fermented yogurt. It was completely edible, but not my favorite.  I tried the dish twice when I was there.  It tasted OK each time.  I came to realize that I’m just really not a big fan of lamb meat in general.

 

Lauren had lamb and chicken kabobs (very good) and a vegetable plate.  Universally, the kabobs (meat on a stick) were amazing.  We also enjoyed the Babaganoush, the hummus, the shawerma, and the falafel that was incredibly cheap in every restaurant.  Before this trip, I wasn’t really up to speed on middle eastern food.  Now, I’m ready to try every little middle eastern hole in the wall I can find here at home.

 

Chicken, beef, and lamb kabobs

 

Check out the picture below of the restaurant menu to see what’s available if we really choose to get adventurous.  We chose not to consume the lamb brains or sheep testicles.

 

 

As a majority Muslim country, most restaurants did not serve alcohol.  In the week we spent in the country, only one restaurant we visited served beer.  I’m a big beer drinker and almost went into alcoholic withdrawals, but I managed to survive.  Most restaurants had some amazing fruit juices that we drank instead of alcohol.  We both liked the lemon/mint homemade juices the best.  They were very refreshing after engaging in physical effort all day in the hot desert.

 

Besides the juices, I also tried lots of non-alcoholic beers.  Check out the one below.  It tasted like Sprite, but had a malty beer aftertaste.  Very weird, but I still drank a few at one of our stops.

Popular non-alcoholic beer

 

Guns in Jordan

Lots of American gun owners erroneously believe that residents of other countries cannot own guns. That’s not true. There may be more hoops to jump through than in America, but many other countries allow firearms ownership.

 

I  stopped in a few gun shops in Amman. According to the gun store sales staff, Jordanians can own handguns, shotguns, and rimfire rifles. No magazine limits, caliber restrictions or barrel length restrictions on shotguns.

 

To purchase a gun, they must be 21 years old, Jordanian citizens, and pass a police background check. They are allowed to posses four total firearms, but may get more with a special collector’s permit.  People with valid gun licenses are not allowed to carry their weapons in public buildings, universities and other educational institutions, and during official and public occasions, conferences, meetings or demonstrations.  They can get an additional carry permit to carry in circumstances other than the ones listed above.

 

Gun stores had shotguns and rifles in stock. Handguns must be special ordered.

 

A stock Mossberg 500 12 gauge pump with riot and hunting barrel cost $750 US.

 

The gun store owner spoke good English and joked with me “In USA, it probably costs $150 and you can probably buy it at Target.” Not far off.

 

Winchester white box ball ammo in 9mm was $19 a box.

 

Weapons and escape tools I carried.

When traveling in most of the third world countries I visit, I usually carry a couple blades and some pepper spray.  I feel relatively free to do so, despite any local laws prohibiting the carry of weapons because I am reasonably confident that, should I get caught with an illegal weapon, I could bribe the cop to change his mind about arresting me.

 

Jordan’s police have a general reputation of being less corrupt than most.  There are also a lot of metal detectors in the country.  Every hotel, museum, and historical site required that visitors walk through a metal detector.  Many sites had bag X-rays as well.  Because I was going through so many detectors, I chose to keep my weaponry low profile.

 

I carried the following:

– A Ka-Bar LDK along with a handcuff key and handcuff shim attached to my rear pants belt loop.

– A Stone River Ceramic knife in a custom non-metallic custom sheath by Zulu Bravo Kydex

– My Fenix PD-35 flashlight as an impact weapon

– Oscar Delta GTFO wrist strap.  See it in action here below:


– Oscar Delta Technora Escape necklace.

 

In Jordan, I was less worried about street crime and more concerned with terrorist kidnapping attempts.  I made sure I had numerous counter-custody options available.  They turned out to be completely unnecessary.  I found Jordan to be a tremendously safe country and I probably didn’t need to be as prepared as I was,

 

Jordan weapons and counter-custody equipment

 

The Jordanian cops carried Caracal F pistols.  They were carried in cheap nylon belt holsters or local plastic Serpa knock off designs.  The cops only carried the pistol.  No cuffs, extra magazines, or less lethal weapons.  Some of the sources with whom I spoke told me that most of the cops carried empty guns.

 

Some of the local cops on guard at major tourist sites carried short barreled “Commando” style AR-15 rifles.  The guns were all immaculately clean and polished.  They had iron sights and no optics.  They also lacked a magazine.

 

The cops carrying the rifles didn’t even have  loaded magazines on their belt.  It seems like the majority of cops were carrying unloaded and useless weapons.  I did see one unit of the national police guarding the airport that was armed with HK MP-7 sub guns with what appeared to be loaded magazines.

 

Overall, I felt that the risk for crime in the country was very low.  We had no problems with either the police or the criminals while we were there.

 

Jordan was a great place to visit and I’m glad we went.  If you ever get a chance to visit the country, make sure you take advantage of it.  You’ll be glad you did.

 

 

Sunset over Amman. It is actually illegal in Jordan to paint your house/business any color other than white or tan.

 

 

Travel Log- Cuba

Travel Log- Cuba 620 505 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Cuba in May of 2016.

 

 

I spent last week on a short vacation.  Our primary destination was Cuba, where we spent four days in Havana.  As there are no direct flights for tourists from the USA, we had to catch a flight from Cancun, Mexico.  Since we both love the beach there, we spent some time before and after Havana enjoying Mexico.

 

We wanted to visit Cuba before it was fully opened up to an invasion of tourists from the USA.  Despite all the talk about dissolving the trade embargo, it is actually still illegal to visit Cuba as a tourist.  The only way you can legally do it is to meet one of 12 travel restriction exemptions.  Fortunately, writing a third world travel safety book gave me enough credence to qualify under the “journalism” exception.  It turned out to be a moot point.  US Customs and Immigration agents didn’t even comment on our destination when we returned home.  No justification necessary (although I had the draft copy of my book just in case).

 

We had a great time in Havana.  We walked all over the city, visited tons of cool museums, drank mojitos, saw some live music in the legendary jazz clubs, and rode around in some classic American cars.  Travel there isn’t easy.  Due to the trade embargo, none of the Cuban merchants take credit cards drawn on US banks.  That’s a nightmare because it means you can’t pre-book a hotel or rental car.

 

The ATMs don’t work for American bank cards either.  We had to carry lots of cash and pay for everything that way.  Unfortunately, there is a huge penalty for trading US dollars for Cuban Pesos (20% fee).  We circumvented that by pulling out Mexican Pesos from the ATM in Cancun and then converting them to Cuban Pesos at the airport in Havana when we landed.  We got around the hotel issue by renting an apartment on AirB&B instead.

 

I had some preconceptions about what I would see in Cuba, but I really wasn’t ready for the reality we faced when we landed.  Here are the things that surprised me the most:

 

1). The deteriorated infrastructure.  Roads and sidewalks were in horrible disrepair.  Turn of the 20th century buildings have not had any improvements in 60 years.  Swimming pools and city parks were abandoned.  It was almost like being in a war zone.  The people and the government just don’t have enough money to maintain their buildings and infrastructure.

 

Delapidated buildings and a famous hotel that hasn't been remodeled since the 1960s

Dilapidated buildings and a famous hotel that hasn’t been remodeled since the 1960s

 

2). The high unemployment rate.  I was amazed at the numbers of people aimlessly hanging around in the streets during normal working hours on a weekday.  No one seemed to be working.  We had hired a taxi driver to shuttle us around, so I asked him about it.  He told us that almost all of the jobs are controlled by the government (it is a Communist country, after all).  Most jobs have very low pay.  The average Cuban makes the equivalent of $25 US dollars a month!  Can you imagine trying to live on that?

 

Our driver told me that he was formerly an engineer.  He said that the most money he ever made in his government engineering job was $70 a month.  It wasn’t enough to feed his family, so he quit.  Now he drives a taxi and makes a lot more money.   Many Cubans have eschewed government employment for piece meal work in the tourist industry.  It pays better and requires less effort.  It doesn’t take much work to make $25 a month in tourist tips.

 

3) Food shortages.  Since we had an apartment, our plan was to buy breakfast and lunch foods at the grocery store to prepare ourselves.  That didn’t work out so well.  We went to the largest grocery store in the best neighborhood in Havana.  There were no eggs, dairy products, fresh fruits, or fresh meats available for sale.  The supply chains furnishing the government run grocery stores have some serious flaws.  It’s rare that the stores regularly have any of these items.  Thankfully, we brought some protein bars from home that we were able to eat for breakfast each day.

 

The restaurant menu choices reflected some of the difficulty getting certain foods. No steak today. This is my dinner of stuffed rabbit.

The restaurant menu choices reflected some of the difficulty getting certain foods. No steak today. This is my dinner of stuffed rabbit.

 

Who needs food when you can get a pitcher of mojitos for $7!

Who needs food when you can get a pitcher of mojitos for $7!

 

4) Utility outages.  Power was out in our apartment about 1/3 of the time…and this was in Havana’s ritziest neighborhood.  There were constant rolling blackouts that affected entire city blocks.  We also had no running water for one whole day.  Utility problems have become the norm for this once-great island nation.  It makes living there even more difficult.

 

Our beutiful little apartment (for about $60 US a night. Too bad the government can only deliver electricity about half the day.

Our beautiful little apartment (for about $60 US a night). Too bad the government can only deliver electricity about half the day.

 

5) Internet.  It became legal for non-academic Cuban citizens to have access to the internet only a few years ago.  It still isn’t wide spread.  Very few homes have their own connections.  In order to get on the net, Cubans have to buy prepaid internet access cards.  The cards have a WiFi code.  The large hotels and government buildings have WiFi that can be accessed by using the codes.  Huge numbers of Cubans crowded the sidewalks in front of all the large hotels, using the WiFi to access the web on mobile devices.

 

6) The cars.  I expected to see some vintage cars, but I was surprised to note that roughly half of the cars on the road dated back to the 1950s.  It was like a time warp.  The taxis we took were a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Aire, a 1957 Oldsmobile, 1953 Buick, and a 1957 Ford  station wagon that looked like the Ghostbusters car.  To balance it out, we also rode in a 1980s Korean Tico and a 1972 Russian Lada.

 

All of these are taxi cabs waiting for fares outside of one of the larger hotels in Havana

All of these are taxi cabs waiting for fares outside of one of the larger hotels in Havana

 

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Our ’57 Oldsmobile convertible taxi

 

Some of the old cars on the street in Old Havana

Some of the old cars on the street in Old Havana

 

7) The friendly people.  I expected some anti-American sentiment, but got absolutely none.  The people were all very friendly and amazingly helpful.  That was a pleasant surprise.  The only anti-American ideas we experienced were in the “Museum of the Revolution”, an ode to Fidel Castro’s wonderfully benevolent communist policies.  Lots of the descriptions of the museum items had a distinctly anti-American slant.  Fortunately for us, the official government opinion wasn’t embraced by the citizenry.

 

A painting in the Museum of the Revolution entitled "Corner of the Idiots."

A painting in the Museum of the Revolution entitled “Corner of the Idiots.”

 

You don't like our presidents, that's fine (I don't either). No matter how bad they have been, they still don't even compare to Che.

You don’t like our presidents, that’s fine (I don’t either). No matter how bad they have been, they still don’t even come close to the barbarity of Che.

 

Since most of you are reading my page for insights into self defense and firearms, I’ll mention a couple of more things that may be interesting to you….

 

We had absolutely no fear of crime while we were there.  No one was aggressive.  We didn’t see any drug addicts or violent drunk people.  Everyone smiled and was extremely mellow.  That isn’t common in many Latin American countries.  Another thing you don’t often see in Latin America is a police force that isn’t corrupt.  I spoke to several locals about the police.  The general consensus was that the police officers were often lazy (I might be too if I was making $30 a month), but they didn’t shake citizens down for bribe money.  Not a single person I talked to said anything bad about the national police.

 

The cops were extremely visible in all the tourist areas.  They carried full duty belts (nylon) like we do here (another rarity in Latin America).  They carried a pistol, two spare mags, handcuffs, pepper spray, and PR-24 batons.  Some of the cops were wearing empty holsters as if they didn’t have enough pistols to fully equip all the officers.

 

Most of the cops carried Beretta 92 automatics.  Occasionally I would spot an officer who wasn’t packing a Beretta.  Those guys were all carrying Soviet Makarovs!  I certainly didn’t expect that pistol to be carried down there.   It’s an odd choice for a police duty rig.

 

Not much else to report.  I’m glad we went and had the experience of seeing Cuba before it fully opens to American tourists.  Seeing the friendly local people practicing amazing resiliency in the face of brutal living conditions isn’t something we get to experience every day.  If you have dreams of traveling to Cuba, do your homework.  They don’t make it easy for tourists.  The difficulty is part of the appeal.  It’s cool to experience something new.  If you aren’t looking for a challenge, you can always take the family down to Disneyland instead.

 

 

The only gun I got to play with on vacation.

The only gun I got to play with on vacation.

 

The Cubans like their canons. Probably wouldn't be my first choice for a lunch table.

The Cubans like their canons. Probably wouldn’t be my first choice for a lunch table.

Travel Log- Mexico (and almost Cuba)

Travel Log- Mexico (and almost Cuba) 885 594 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Mexico in May of 2015.

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A quick little travel narrative for you today…

 

I had a few days of vacation planned last week.  Our goal was to get to Cuba, but it’s difficult to arrange a flight.  There aren’t any direct flights out of America for tourists, so we would have to fly through Canada or Mexico.  Further complicating the matter is the fact that US banks won’t accept credit card charges from Cuban companies because of the trade embargo.  We couldn’t just get on Cubana airlines’ website and book tickets; we would have to use an international travel agency to book the flight.

 

I contacted a few travel agencies out of Canada.  They all told me that the flight that I wanted (from Cancun to Havana) was booked full on the dates we needed.  The only option was to show up at the Cancun airport with cash and hope to catch a standby seat.  We decided to give it a try, with backup reservations at a hotel in Cancun in case we couldn’t get on the plane.  No luck.  Not even a standby ticket available.  We were stuck in Mexico for five days…not really a bad fate to be delivered.

 

We stayed at a hotel near the northern-most end of the hotel zone far away from the idiot tourists that populate the majority of the island.  We took a sailboat ride, visited the largest Mayan pyramid site in the Yucatan and lounged around every day on the beach.  We took the local “chicken bus” into downtown every night and ate at some fantastic local Mexican restaurants and visited the local carnival nightly for street food and desserts.  It was quite a peaceful and relaxing trip.

 

We didn’t talk to many Americans on the trip, as most of the guests at our hotel were Mexican or European.  Those Americans we spoke with seemed excessively fearful of being in Mexico.  They wouldn’t leave the relatively American -feeling hotel zone out of safety concerns.  They missed some amazing opportunities to experience another culture by fearfully hiding in the hotel zone.

 

Despite all of the media attention about Cartel violence, the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan are quite safe.  The Mexican government does everything it can to protect the tourists as they provide a significant boost to the economy.  Beyond that, many of the hotels and restaurants in the hotel zone are at least partially owned by cartel bosses and used to launder money.  If tourists got killed with any frequency, those money laundering opportunities would disappear.  We never saw a hint of violence or any type of threat.

 

We did see some of the local police at work.  A drunk guy at a downtown festival was getting arrested one night.  The two local cops humanely lifted him into the bed of their pickup truck and handcuffed him to an iron ring welded onto the side of the bed.  Not quite up to American law enforcement standards, but they didn’t mistreat their prisoner.

 

I spent a lot of time talking to the locals about police corruption and cartel violence while we were there.  There are both local police and Federal police.  According to the residents, the local police are often uneducated and usually quite corrupt.  The Federal police seemed to have a slightly better reputation.

 

Look closely at this police substation in downtown Cancun. There is a female police officer passed out asleep with her head on the desk...must be a pretty dangerous spot.

Look closely at this police substation in downtown Cancun. There is a female police officer passed out asleep with her head on the desk…must be a pretty dangerous spot.

 

Some of the local cops were armed and some weren’t.  According to one former cop I spoke with, the locals have the choice of being armed or unarmed.  The armed officers have to go through a psychological test that scares away some of the officers from the armed jobs.  The locals carried a bunch of different pistols…mostly Glocks, M&Ps, and Third generation S&W autos.  I didn’t see any spare magazines and all of them carried no-name cheap nylon holsters.  The only other gear they had on their belts was a single pair of handcuffs.

 

The Federal police manned several of the roadblocks we went through.  They were kitted up with rifle plates, drop leg holsters and full duty belts for their Glocks.  Several carried four spare pistol magazines and about half had a long gun of some sort.  I saw a lot of M-4s (no optics), a few FALs, and one Uzi carbine.  Occasionally we would see military units with M-4s and belt fed machine guns mounted on the back of their pickup trucks.

 

Fortunately on this trip, we didn’t encounter any cartel hit squads.  On a previous trip down to the area a few years ago, a taxi I was taking was intercepted and passed on the highway by two pickup trucks full of cartel assassins loaded down with M-16 A1 rifles (likely from the American military).  The cab driver explained that they acted as a cartel quick reaction force to attack any of the soldiers or cops who dared to interdict any of the cartel drug shipments.  Fortunately, they didn’t have any interest in a couple of tourists and they drove right past us.

 

The cartels down in Mexico create a complicated issue.  Like in some American ghettos and in the favelas of Brazil, they drug economy has some benefits for the local communities.  The drug dealing and manufacturing provide jobs for the locals.  Cartel bosses build and staff schools and hospitals that the government can’t afford in order to garner additional favors from the local populace.  Many of the locals are frightened by the cartel violence, but depend on the cartels to improve their standard of living.  It makes it tough for them to be eradicated because they are valued (while being hated at the same time) by the locals for their community contributions.

 

If you are interested in travel to Mexico and plan on traveling to the Caribbean coast, you likely won’t have any trouble as long as you stay away from the drug dealers and cartels.  Smile a lot.  Be polite.  Try to learn a little Spanish.  Read my book.  You’ll be fine.

 

View of Isla Mujeres from our sailboat

View of Isla Mujeres from our sailboat

 

We’ll try for Cuba again next year.

Travel Log- Iceland

Travel Log- Iceland 940 1111 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Iceland in March  of 2017.

 

It was Lauren’s birthday last week, so I took her to Iceland for a long weekend to celebrate.  It was a country that both of us were interested in visiting and one that neither of us had already traveled to.  She found a whirlwind four-day tour of the country and we booked it.  It was a fun trip.  Icelandic people are incredibly friendly and the scenery is unmatched.  It was truly stunning in its desolation and stark landscapes.

 

We took an overnight flight to Reykjavik and started our day as soon as we arrived at 6:30 am.  No time for jet lag in our life!  From the airport we went straight to the Viking history museum for breakfast and a history lesson.

 

Doing what I do best

 

After breakfast we headed to the country’s largest volcanic hot spring, which happened to be only a couple miles from the airport.  The Blue Lagoon hot spring is a shallow volcanic pool heated by natural hot springs.  It was huge…a couple hundred meters on each side.  The pool ranged in temperature from 90 degrees to about 110 degrees depending on which spring fed the area where you were bathing.  We sat in the hot water for an hour or so to loosen up after our flight and then we were off.

 

Blue Lagoon volcanic hot springs.

 

We visited a small fishing village in Grindavik Harbor and talked to a cafe owner about the fishing trade there over an amazing bowl of lobster soup.  According to the cafe owner, fishing is a really big deal in Iceland.  The fishermen on the bigger boats can bring in over $200,000 in salary for the 9-10 month fishing season.  The villages that support the fishing trade are the most financially secure places to live.

 

After lunch, we hiked through the bubbling mudpots and fumaroles at Krisuvik.  The water comes out of the ground at over 200 degrees and reeks of sulfer.  It made for an interesting walk.

 

In the stinky steam

 

After a nice walk through the mudpots we went caving in a 2000-year old volcanic lava tube cave.  The cave was about a half mile long and about 15 meters under the ground.  It was slightly challenging to get through in some spots, but was very cool to see.

 

Entrance to the cave

 

After spelunking, we arrived at a guest house on a country farm a couple hours outside the city.  We ate a fine dinner of locally raised beef and lamb and then went outside and got a captivating view of the northern lights.  I had seen them once before (in Alaska), but they were much more visible in Iceland.

This is what the Northern Lights looked like. Unfortunately, none of our photos came out so you’ll have to look at a photo from the tour company’s website

 

We started off day two with a hike around the Skogafoss waterfall and then ate lunch at a nearby farm.  The main menu was farm raised lamb, but we started with a local delicacy as an appetizer…15 day aged raw horse meat.  It was surprisingly tender and tasty.

 

Lauren at the waterfall

 

After lunch, we decided to attempt what may have been the stupidest move of our trip.  We wanted to hike out to the beach to see the remains of a 1973 plane crash.  It was about a four-mile round trip walk.  No problem.  Until we arrived.  It was 35 degrees, pouring rain with a wind gusting to 80 mph.  It was the most insane hike I’ve ever done.

 

Lauren and I stayed warm, because we were well prepared and had some good outdoor gear.  It was still miserable.  Some of our group did the trek in blue jeans and tennis shoes.  Those folks were dangerously close to hypothermia after a couple hours outside in the chaotic weather conditions.

 

Cold and windy hike

 

The wreckage of the crashed plane

 

After the hike we ate dinner at a nice restaurant in the town of Selfoss and went back to our dorms at the farm.

 

Day Three started out with a hike around the 6000-year old volcanic Kerio Crater Lake.  The views were breathtaking.

 

Kerio Crater Lake

 

We then visited the Haukandular geothermal area and saw some of the amazing geysers.  The first geyser ever described was in the area.  Local explores named it “Geysir” and all other volcanic water eruptions on the planet have been called “geysers” since.

 

After seeing the spurting geysers, we had lunch at a geothermal bakery.  The restaurant cooks bread in clay pots that they bury in the ground that is heated by geothermal waters to about 200 degrees.  It takes 24-hours to cook the bread using only heat from the ground.

 

After lunch, we visited the historic Pingvellir National Park, the location of the seismic rift between the North American and European tectonic plates.  It was also the location of Iceland’s first democratic parliament in the 12th century.

The seismic rift

 

We ended up the day walking around the city center of Reykjavik and going to dinner at a 11th century priory located on an island just outside the city center.  On day four we woke up, toured some of the museums in Reykjavik, and then boarded our afternoon flight home.

 

I normally talk about the local crime trends and weapons carried by the local cops in articles like these.  I don’t have much to say about that topic today.  Iceland is rated as the world’s safest country.  There is almost no crime.  In fact, despite a population of over 300,000 people, there are only about 150 people imprisoned in Iceland at any given time.  Citizens can own guns there, but mostly for hunting.

 

Semi-automatic pistols and rifles are outlawed.  The only handguns that Icelanders can own are rimfire target pistols.  There are minimal restrictions on hunting rifles and shotguns.  Anyone who owns more than three firearms must legally have a lockable safe in which to store them.  There are no concealed carry permits.  Even the carrying of pepper spray is a felony in the country.

 

We only saw two police officers on our entire trip.  One was armed with an ASP baton and handcuffs.  His partner has a similar loadout, but also had an attachment on his belt to accept a drop leg handgun holster.  He was not carrying the gun at the time we saw him.  Only a small subset of the Icelandic cops carry guns, and even those guys don’t carry pistols on a constant basis.

 

Overall, we had a wonderful time on our short trip.  If you plan on going, I have one caution.  Iceland is very expensive.  It’s an island nation that has to import most of its food and building products.  The minimum wage in Iceland is about $36,000 a year.  There is a 26% sales tax on everything except food (11% on food) and a 40% tax on large imported good like automobiles.  Gasoline is $6 a gallon.  A beer at a local bar costs about $12.  A decent restaurant lunch for two runs between $50 and $75.  It isn’t cheap to travel there.

 

If you don’t mind shelling out the money for the trip, you’ll find Iceland a remarkable place to visit.  If you enjoy the outdoors, the hiking is truly unbeatable.

 

OK, time to shave my Viking beard and go to work.

 

 

Travel Log- Dominican Republic

Travel Log- Dominican Republic 940 705 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers my first trip to The Dominican Republic in February 2013.

 

Sosua, D.R.

 

I just got back from a quick vacation to the Dominican Republic.  Some friends visit the island every year and they invited me to go along.  I had never been there before and it sounded like fun, so I hopped on the plane.

 

It was only a five-day trip, but I had a great time.  I’ve spent lots of time in other Latin American and Caribbean countries, but it was my first time in the D.R.  The people were very friendly and my subjective impressions were that the island was safer than Jamaica, Mexico, or any of the Central American countries.

 

Me, practicing my defenses against surprise spearing elbow strikes…or maybe I’m getting a massage on the beach.

 

The only safety issues I encountered during my brief stay were driving related.  There are some crazy drivers down there!  That little island certainly ranks in the top five worst places to be on the road.  It’s every bit as bad as Cairo or Bangkok.

 

There were fewer police patrols, roadblocks, and armed security guards than in most Latin countries.  The only obvious signs of crime that I witnessed were the massive numbers of prostitutes walking the street in downtown Sosua in the evening.  I was surprised that there were more street walking ladies in that town than even the busiest red-light districts in Thailand.

 

The trip was pretty short, so there weren’t any epic adventures to report.  I stayed on the beach in Puerto Plata and visited Navarrete and Sosua nearby.  One of my friends is planning on importing his own brand of Dominican cigars, so we went to visit a local cigar factory where he plans to source them.  Although I don’t smoke, it was cool getting a personalized tour from the factory manager and learning how cigars are made.

 

Inside the Dominican cigar factory

I didn’t get too much into the gun situation down there, but I did talk to a few local gun owners about firearms laws and access on the island.  There are two gun permits issued by the government.  One allows you to own a gun, keep it in your house, and carry it in your car.  The other allows you to carry the gun on your person in public.  Both permits can be acquired by any Dominican citizen or legal resident.

 

One of the taxi drivers with whom I spoke had both.  He said that each permit cost around $200 US and both required a police background check, drug test, and psychological exam before issuance.  There is no training requirement for either.  The driver said that it is fairly easy for anyone to get the ownership permit, assuming they have the money (which is no small obstacle in a country where the average annual income is less than $5000 US).  The carry permit requires a demonstrated “need”, generally having an occupation which makes one prone to being robbed or attacked.

 

Although I didn’t get to visit a gun store, two guys I talked to said that legal guns were extremely expensive.  They both quoted figures of $6,000-$7,000 US for a legally purchased Glock pistol.  According to them, a cheap .38 revolver costs around $2000 US if purchased in a gun store.  They  told me that most guns in the country are illegally purchased, having been smuggled in over the Haitian border.  On the streets, these smuggled guns go for $500-$1000 US…far cheaper than their legal counterparts.

 

The police are nationalized and they carried what appeared to be 3rd Generation Smith and Wesson 9mm autopistols in cheap nylon holsters.  None of the cops I saw carried a long gun (although I saw a couple of M-16 A1s carried by guards on a military base) or spare magazines.  I saw a couple of pistol-gripped pump shotguns carried by security guards posted outside some banks.  All of the other armed security guards I saw were carrying beat up 4″ .38 revolvers and no spare ammo.

 

I only got to see a tiny part of the country, but I had a good experience.  Their tourist economy has taken a hit recently and things are cheap.  Consider it for your next trip…I’ll be going back again!

 

Half a chicken, rice, beans and a big beer. Six of us ate this lunch at a roadside restaurant in Navarrete. The total cost was $22.75.

 

 

 

 

Travel Log- Brazil and Uruguay

Travel Log- Brazil and Uruguay 2560 1920 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip to Brazil and Uruguay in December of 2015.

 

We wanted to get away from the cold weather, so we took a short trip down to South America.  Brazil is one of my favorite countries and I absolutely love Rio de Janeiro.  My girlfriend had never been there, so we flew into Rio so I could show her the sights.

 

After spending a few days in Copacabana, we flew to Montevideo, Uruguay.  Uruguay was the last country that I wanted to see in South America.  I have already traveled through all of the other countries down there except the extreme northeast  (Venezuela and the three little formerly French countries).  Having no desire to travel in that region, getting Uruguay completed South America for me.

 

After spending three days in Uruguay, we flew back to Rio and finished out our stay with three more days in Ipanema.  It was a good trip.

 

While this makes my sixth trip to Brazil, I hadn’t been to Rio since Carnival in 2010.  While there, I grew to love Copacabana over the more posh Ipanema neighborhood.  The beaches were less crowded, hotels were cheaper, and the water was cleaner.  It was still a safe place to stay, and was much more enjoyable than hanging out with the “pretty people” in Ipanema.  This trip changed my opinion a bit.  In the five years since I had been there, Copacabana has taken a downturn.  It’s now significantly “grittier” than it had been in the past.  It was still pretty safe and we had no problems, but there were fewer tourists, more thieves roaming the beaches, and significantly more prostitutes walking the street.

 

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach

 

I didn’t know what to expect from Uruguay, but I was very pleasantly surprised.  The airport was new and efficient.  We quickly passed through immigration and customs without filling out a single form, obtaining a visa, or getting our bags searched.  Our bags came quickly and cabs waited at the curb in an orderly queue.  All the cabs are metered and the cabbies take payment in US dollars, Brazilian Real, or Uruguayan Pesos.  Most astonishingly to me was the fact that everyone drove the speed limit and no one honked their horns!  If you’ve ever traveled in Latin America, you’ll understand what a rarity this is!

 

As we were driving to the hotel I booked, we passed numerous joggers and cyclists.  The majority of them were wearing reflective vests or belts (like the military PT belts).  All the cyclists wore helmets.  People drove in a sane fashion.  It seemed to be a very safety-conscious country.  I found it amusing that the health and safety concerns continued as we checked into the hotel.  There was a huge sign on the wall of the hotel bar stating (in Spanish) “Less salt, longer life.”  The same saying was printed on all the menus in all the restaurants we patronized.  The whole country had declared war on dietary salt!  How strange for a Latin country.  I had a hard time with the concept of reducing salt for a population who still couldn’t drink the tap water.

IMG_1161

Leme Beach in Rio from the roof of our Copacabana hotel.

 

We spent a couple days touring Montevideo and then spent our last day at one of the city’s more popular beaches.  Both of us really liked the country.  As per our custom, we only ate in local restaurants and had some excellent steak with the country’s favorite alcoholic drink, Media y Medio, (half and half).  It was half sweet white wine and half champagne or cider.  It came pre-mixed and was sold in wine bottles.  We found it quite refreshing in the hot summer sun.

 

We also ate the favorite national fast food, the “chivito.”  Chivitos are essentially steak sandwiches, with lettuce, onion, tomato, cheese, fried egg, bacon, and ham on top.  You could choose to have your chivito served on a bun or eat it served on a bed of French Fries (no salt).  We chose the fries and had a very filling meal.  Many Uruguayans would eat this meal in lieu of going to fast food restaurants.  All the corner chivito restaurants had significantly more customers than the McDonalds, KFC, and Burger King restaurants we saw.

 

The Chivito

The Chivito

 

Montevideo seemed like a very safe place to live.  We had no problems at all.  There was a pretty heavy police presence, with all officers patrolling in twos and threes.  There were quite a few female cops (which is unusual for Latin America).  The police didn’t seem to be hassling anyone. We weren’t solicited for any bribes or given any undue scrutiny as tourists.  The police were polite and professional.

 

The cops seemed to be allowed some variety in their choice of gear.  All wore nylon gunbelts with Glock, H&K, or Sig pistols carried in either Serpa holsters or cheap looking plastic thumbreak holsters.  Some had spare magazines, some didn’t.  All carried handcuffs.  Some had a straight wooden baton.  No other less lethal weapons were visible.

 

We only saw one cop with a long gun.  He was patrolling downtown with his partner.  THE LONG GUN WAS CASED!  Judging from the shape of the case, it appeared to be a shotgun of some sort.  The case wasn’t big enough to allow for a semi auto rifle with a magazine inserted.  I’d never seen that before.

 

Uruguayan cop patrolling with cased long gun.

Uruguayan cop patrolling with cased long gun.

 

Uruguay is a fairly libertarian country.  Drug use is not criminalized.  The country was one of the first to abolish slavery and give women the right to vote.   Citizens can own guns (no semi-auto rifles, or military caliber pistols) with a permit process.  Carry permits are harder to obtain, but theoretically possible.  We saw one gun store, but it was closed on the day of our visit, so we couldn’t go inside.  People were friendly, but a little aloof.  They clearly weren’t used to interacting with Americans.  Everywhere we went, people assumed we were British.  Apparently, not many Americans make it to Uruguay.

 

Gun store window in Montevideo

Gun store window in Montevideo.

 

We only spent three days there, but I would like to go back.  It was a very pleasant country to visit.

 

Ipanema Beach

Ipanema Beach

 

After flying back to Rio, we spent the remainder of our trip in the posh neighborhood of Ipanema.  We ate out every night at the various all-you-can-eat Brazilian BBQs (churascarias) and lounged on the beach most of the day.  I took Lauren on a Favela (Brazilian slums) tour as well.

 

Walking on a sidewalk between favela houses. Most favelas have no roads and residents walk in narrow passageways like this to get to their "house."

Walking on a sidewalk between favela houses. Most favelas have no roads and residents walk in narrow passageways like this to get to their “house.”

 

The favelas are Rio de Janeiro’s low rent slums.  You would be astounded at how few amenities were present in such a rich city.  The favelas don’t have running water.  Most electricity is “stolen” by running a wire out to a traffic signal on the “street” in front of the residents’ shacks.  Most Brazilian favelas are completely controlled by drug gangs.  Some have been “pacified” by police intervention.  Over the years I have spent time in both types.  While “pacification” is a controversial topic among Brazilians, it was clear to me that the pacified favelas were very different than those run by the drug gangs.

 

Looking up at all the home electrical connections in the favela.

Looking up at all the home electrical connections in the favela.

 

On this trip we visited two pacified favelas, Vila Canoas and Rochina.  They were quite safe and doing brisk (drug free) business.  Unlike when I visited favelas controlled by drug gangs, there was no need to watch out for warring drug dealers or snipers on the roof.  It was actually safe to take photographs in the pacified favelas.  It was quite different from when I toured the same favelas when they were run by drug gangs in 2007.

 

Rochina, Rio's largest favela with about 150K residents.

Rochina, Rio’s largest favela with about 150K residents.

 

The Brazilian cops were pretty much non-existent as compared to the police presence in Uruguay.  Outside of the cops in the favelas (patrolling in threes with plate body armor and tactical rigs for their Beretta or Glock pistols), we never saw a cop in either Ipanema or Copacabana.

 

We didn’t have any problems with crime on the trip.  Our closest encounter with the criminal underworld was the location of our Copacabana hotel.  It was near one of Rio’s red light districts.  A restaurant near our hotel was the location where most of the prostitutes hung out…looking for business.  It was a useful exercise to sit around and watch them work one evening.  We spent some time watching from a distance, trying to identify the “normal” people, the prostitutes, the male customers, the pimps, and the criminals who preyed on the customers.  It was easy to identify all of these groups by just paying a little attention to what was going on.  Other tourists walked right past the whole affair without even noticing what was happening.

 

Watching your surroundings for a baseline idea of what normal people do is important when traveling to third world countries.  When you start seeing people behave differently than the baseline you’ve established, something is going on.  It’s up to you to figure out what that “something” is.  With a little attention, it’s fairly easy to figure out.

 

I suggest that everyone traveling in third world countries take a walk around their hotel neighborhood both in the daylight and at night.  Establish a baseline of behavior.  The look for anomalies in that baseline.  It’s a useful exercise and will have you identifying criminals very quickly once you do it a few times.

 

Although I really doubt that Rio will be truly ready for the Olympics next year, it is a very cool place to visit.  The Brazilian people are exceptionally welcoming and friendly.  If you are looking for a vacation destination that’s a little more “exotic” than Florida, I’d suggest you give Rio a try.

 

Travel Log- Africa

Travel Log- Africa 620 827 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip to South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe in December of 2019.

 

I recently returned from an epic two-week trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.

 

I had previously been to Africa twice.  I went to Egypt in 2005.  I returned in 2008 to climb Kilimanjaro, visiting both Kenya and Tanzania.  I got really sick climbing Kili (high altitude cerebral edema) and got jacked by a corrupt cop in Tanzania, so I wasn’t really excited to return to the “Dark Continent.”

 

After 10 years of avoiding the continent, my desire to see some of the cool wildlife got the better of me and I booked a trip back to Africa.

 

I did a few days on my own in Johannesburg, South Africa and then joined a National Geographic/G-Adventures safari tour of South Africa and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.  At the end of the tour, I booked a separate local tour of a large game park in Botswana and then flew home from Zimbabwe.

 

It was an amazing trip.  I was excited to see both Victoria Falls (the biggest waterfall in the world) and all the African game animals.  Both exceeded my expectations.  I would highly recommend a trip like this to anyone who is interested in natural beauty or seeing exotic African critters.

 

Getting to South Africa was a bit trying.

 

It took 21 total travel hours. Fourteen of those hours were spent on a single plane that had no functioning entertainment system and the heat pegged to about 85 degrees during the entire flight.  I’m not a big fan of South African Airways.

 

The dude in the seat next to me changed into red plaid flannel pajamas as soon as he boarded. He reclined his seat and cuddled up hugging a five pound bag of Nutter Butter cookies for the whole flight. He never ate any, but he held on to them as if he were deathly afraid that someone would steal his precious cargo.

 

I breezed through customs and immigration in South Africa without a single question asked or form filled out. In most other countries, the entrance inquisition is nothing like what we get coming back to the USA.

 

Before leaving the airport, I tried three different ATMs to get local currency. All three rejected my card.  My ATM card wouldn’t work at all in South Africa.  That’s the first country I’ve been to (besides Cuba) where my ATM card didn’t work.  That made life challenging, but I was smart enough to bring an emergency stash of American cash that I was able to exchange in a dodgy black market currency transaction (arranged by a taxi driver) for some local South African Rand.

 

I can understand why some folks don’t like traveling.

 

Johannesburg

I booked a room in guest house on a farm outside of Jo-burg. Outside, there was an eight foot cement wall topped with an additional four feet of electric fence surrounding the entire property. It’s was crazy to see that every rural house was a completely walled estate.  The South Africans really like barbed wire and electric fences.  Almost every house was enclosed by a wall with an electrified fence.

 

I spent most of my second day in Jo-burg at the incredible Apartheid Museum. It was one of the most powerfully moving museums I’ve visited. What an incredibly cruel and messed up government. I had no idea it was as bad as it was.

 

The ticket you purchase for the museum randomly assigns you to the “white” or “non-white” line.  For the first hundred meters of the museum, you are separated from your party and you get to experience life as it was under apartheid as most people seemed to be randomly assigned one category or the other with little relation to their actual genetic heritage.  Each separate line showed how life was very different for the “non-white” or “colored” (mostly of Indian or Asian origin) under Apartheid.

 

Museum entrance after purchasing a ticket

 

I was speaking with a couple new friends from Luxembourg who were about my age. We were in college when Apartheid was being overthrown by the South African people. All of us remembered a little bit of news coverage, but commented that the government overthrow really went virtually unnoticed by both the USA and Europe.

 

It’s scary when you get honestly educated about the atrocities that happened in this country and realize that this wasn’t 100 years ago. They occurred in my adult lifetime.

 

If you get a chance to go to the museum, go. Budget three to four hours for a basic visit. It takes at least five hours to do it right.

 

After a sobering education about the Apartheid regime, I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner out.

 

The high end restaurants near the rural suburb where I was staying are all associated with casinos. I went to one  and was shocked to see an almost exact replica of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, moving sky scenery and all.

 

I ate at a restaurant that specialized in African wild game.

 

This platter was from left to right:

– Ostrich in a plum sauce. It was served rare and cold inside. It looked like a tuna steak and had the same texture. The meat was virtually flavorless.

-Impala- Somewhat chewy and tough. Almost like a beef skirt steak.

– Bacon wrapped warthog- A surprise favorite. It was like a fattier, tastier, juicier pork chop. Delicious.

-Kudu stuffed with a thick cheese sauce- a very tender and mild tasting steak. Very good.

 

 

The white food in the bowl is “mieliepap.  It is a ground corn porridge that has the consistency of mashed potatoes or polenta.  It is a traditional South African carbohydrate that takes the place of rice or pasta in most local dishes.  It was served everywhere.  People covered it with something like a pasta sauce that they called “tomato gravy” (bowl to the right).  It was kind of tasteless.  The tomato sauce had a lot of different variations and created most of the flavor.

 

Overall, I enjoyed the South African food.  Their traditional dishes are served at a “braai” which is the local word for “barbecue.”   You can’t go wrong with grilled meat at every meal.

 

On my third day, I hired a private tour guide (recommended by the owner of my guesthouse) to give me a tour of some of the grittier parts of Jo-burg.  That was an education just as potent as the Apartheid museum.

 

There are entire parts of the city classified as “no-go” zones.  If you don’t live there, you are not welcome.  There are constant protests, roadblocks and tires burning in the streets of some neighborhoods.  The downtown area of Jo-burg is a wasteland.  Most of the skyscrapers are empty as large corporations have fled to the safer suburbs.  Many buildings have no utilities, but were nonetheless inhabited by squatters.

 

I’ve never seen so many homeless people in one place.  There were thousands of homeless people squatting in dozens of buildings without any electricity or running water.  People defecated openly by the side of the road.  There were huge trash drum fires and lots of people aimlessly hanging out in the streets.

 

While driving through the downtown area, we had to keep changing routes due to large amounts of rubble placed in the roadway as a roadblock during recent protests.  I’ve been a lot of places.  Downtown Jo-burg looked more apocalyptic than any other location I’ve visited and gave me an idea of what things would look like if our power grid fails.  It wasn’t a happy thought.

 

Following the tour of downtown, we drove into some of the “townships” or slum areas.  The most famous Jo-berg township is SOWETO (South Western Township) where Nelson Mandela lived.  The townships had lots of ramshackle buildings, but the people seemed much more organized than the squatters living downtown.  People were poor, but worked, had families and a purpose for existence.  The townships I visited didn’t seem dangerous at all.  The townships were kind of like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro without all the open air drug sales.

 

The South African national electric company is widely considered a failed enterprise.  None of the townships I visited had working traffic lights.  The power companies stage rolling blackouts (euphemistically called “load sharing”) to ration available electricity.  Certain neighborhoods were without power for a large part of the day.  There seemed to be more “load sharing” in the poor townships than in the affluent suburbs I visited.

 

My tour guide was a former soldier, a gun owner, and an avid shooter.  He explained that residents of South Africa could own a handgun and two hunting rifles with the proper permits.  He owned a Glock 17 that he bought for 7000 Rand (about $500 US).  Concealed carry was theoretically possible, but my guide didn’t know anyone who actually had the necessary permits to carry legally.

 

The cops in Jo-berg wore external plate body armor and often carried long guns (R-4 or R-5 rifles that are South African Galil variants).  I only saw two cops armed with handguns.  Both carried Beretta 92s.  One was carried in a cheap nylon IWB holster that placed the gun so deeply in the beltline, that the grip was barely visible.  The other carried his Beretta in a 1990s vintage Uncle Mikes “twist draw” retention holster on a duty belt with a big can of pepper spray.

 

I didn’t see any support gear like handcuffs or batons carried by the local cops.  That fact might be a useful fact for you travelers to notice.  When the cops aren’t carrying handcuffs, they clearly expect criminals to either submit to arrest without incident or be shot.  No half measures.

 

No thanks. I’m good.  I prefer to stay far away from cops who don’t train and carry less lethal weapons.

 

Kruger National Park and Karongwe Private Game Reserve

 

Day four started with a day-long drive on the Panorama Route to Kruger National Park.  Kruger is one of South Africa’s most famous parks and consists of 7000 square miles of public land designated for wildlife preservation.

 

Some of the views from the stops along the way…

 

 

When I booked the tour, I noted that in Kruger, the accommodations consisted of “safari tents.”  I’m cool with tents.  I don’t demand much luxury.  I was a little surprised when we arrived at the “safari camp” and I got to my tent.  It was on a raised wooden platform and had electricity, a king-sized bed, air conditioning, and a flush toilet!  Life was pretty good.

 

Kruger “safari tent”

 

We spent a few days at Kruger.  Kruger is a public park, so people don’t need to be guided.  Anyone can just pay the admission fee and then drive around the park roads.  That made life a little annoying because most of the cool animals had crowds of cars all around them.  We had a guided  tour in an open-topped Land Rover twice a day.  The guides did a good job trying to avoid the crowds and get us really close to a lot of very cool animals.

 

The animals generally ignored the safari trucks and we were able to get extraordinarily close to some amazing wildlife.

 

Impala

 

sleeping hyena

 

 

This is the critically endangered African Wild Dog. Kruger NP is 7000 square miles. There are only 58 wild dogs in the park. Very unusual to see.

 

South African crossing guard. Mama elephant wants to let us know that she and her babies have the right of way and they would like to cross the road.

 

 

It’s summer in South Africa. The normal temperature is about 90 degrees.  At Kruger, we had four days of really unseasonable cold and torrential rain.

 

It was about 50 degrees and pouring rain. That’s less than ideal for wildlife watching, but we still saw a stunning amount of animals.  I can’t imagine what it’s like in the peak viewing season.

 

Dressed more for duck hunting than safari. Even though it’s summer in Africa, temperatures were 50 degrees with pouring rain

 

After Kruger, we made our way to the Karongwe Wildlife Reserve.  This was a private game park that only offered guided tours.  That made it better than Kruger for two reasons; no tourists, and the guides could drive off road to get closer to the animals.

 

We saw a lot more cool critters at Karongwe than we did at Kruger.

 

Karongwe safari tent

 

The monkeys in camp were an absolute menace. A group of about 20 raided our camp and began grabbing people. As I was trying to clear them off a neighbor’s porch, they tried an ambush attack.

 

I actually had a Mexican standoff with a growling monkey as I had my OC spray ready to hose him down. He kept growling and advancing. As soon as I pointed the OC canister at him, he stopped, stared at me for a few seconds, and then walked away.

 

He righteously should have gotten some spicy treats, but I didn’t want to forever be known as the dude who pepper sprays monkeys.  The vervet monkeys are such a problem in some parks, that the government employs people armed with paintball guns and slingshots to keep them away from tourists.

 

Our other animal encounters were much more sedate.

 

showing how close we were able to get to the animals

 

My only leopard picture. She was moving fast. It’s tough to see these nocturnal animals during the day.

 

 

Rhino. The horn is sawed off to reduce poaching attempts

 

Cheetahs enjoying a meal of baby impala

 

sleeping giraffe

 

At Karongwe we were also able to take a hike in the bush. Since all of the “Big Five” most dangerous African game animals live on the property, we had to be accompanied by a guide and a “gun bearer.”

 

The gun bearer walked up to our group. He had a beat-to-shit CZ .458 Win Mag bolt gun. There was absolutely no finish left on the barrel. The wood stock looked like some small varmint had chewed on it.

 

The rifle was unloaded. The bolt wasn’t in the gun.  The gun bearer was carrying the bolt stuck behind this belt  in the appendix position. He was wearing a leather loop cartridge holder full of 10 rifle rounds at the four o’clock position behind his hip.

 

I thought: “Wow, they are actually sending us out into the bush with our ‘protection’ carrying a disassembled and unloaded rifle. What could possibly go wrong?”

 

We walked about 100 meters away from the camp and the gun bearer installed the rifle bolt and loaded it with five rounds. He took the rounds from the most forward cartridge loops, thereby guaranteeing that he would have to reach far behind his back to access the remaining cartridges should he have to reload in a hurry. Brilliant.

 

The gun bearer made an elaborate show of loading each round into the magazine. He then pushed the cartridges down with his thumb and moved the bolt forward. Once the bolt was over the top of the cartridges in the magazine, he closed and locked the bolt with a flourish, stating “Now we are ready.”

 

I normally shut my mouth in the evidence of such stupidity, but I couldn’t hold back.

 

“There’s no round in the chamber. You aren’t ‘ready.’ The gun is in a better condition to fire now as compared to when you brought it out unloaded, but you are far from ‘ready’.

 

He kind of looked at me sheepishly. I continued:

 

“Don’t worry. When the lion attacks you while you are trying to get the gun in play, I’ll be there. I know how to run that bolt. I’ll pick up your rifle off the ground, chamber a round and shoot the lion off your corpse.

It’s great having a plan. Now we’re ‘ready.'”

 

Neither he nor the guide really had too much to say after that.

 

Absolutely frightening muzzle discipline displayed during the whole hike. When the guide talked, the gun bearer stood with the rifle butt placed on his boot, leaning forward with both hands covering his muzzle. He was essentially using the muzzle of a loaded .458 Win Mag as a hand rest.

 

It’s a real good thing the leopards and lions weren’t hungry that day.

 

On one of the other excursions, we came across another group of tourists out in the bush on horseback.  Their guide didn’t even have a rifle.  He was armed with a holstered Smith and Wesson Model 29 .44 magnum revolver with a six inch barrel.

 

I really like the .44 magnum and own the exact same gun.  It works great to shoot deer in Ohio.  I don’t know if it would be an optimal choice for a rampaging Cape Buffalo in Africa.

 

Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls

 

After a couple days in Karongwe, we flew into the failed state of Zimbabwe to see the world’s largest waterfalls.

 

A passenger on the flight from South Africa to Zimbabwe said the following as we were disembarking and  walking into the sweltering airport:

“We aren’t in South Africa anymore. That place is like ‘Africa Light.’ Now we are in the real deal.”

 

That’s a quality analysis.

 

Zimbabwe is a nightmare failed state with 70-90% unemployment (government says 70%. People say 90%), the third lowest annual income in the world ($253 a month), and crushing poverty.  The country went through a period of hyper-inflationary economic collapse from 1982 until 2008.  The currency inflated 900,000,000 times during that time period.

 

Zimbabwe currency I bought in the local market

 

I did a quick tour of the town where I was staying (the most prosperous in the country) and a local food market. As I was walking through the food market, I saw bags of what looked to be red dirt for sale. The seller explained that it was, in fact, red dirt and that it was high in iron. People who don’t eat meat regularly (too expensive) have low iron. Pregnant women literally buy and eat dirt from a local market to get the iron they need to keep their babies healthy.

 

I visited a local family and had dinner at their house. Thirteen people in four rooms with no electricity or air conditioning. Running water is rationed, so they survive by catching and storing the meager amount of rain that they get.

 

Having a home-cooked local meal in Zimbabwe

 

This is me eating a fried mopani caterpillar. This is a staple food in local villages. During the rainy season, these fat caterpillars feast on the leaves of the mopani (Mopane) tree. They are widely available.

 

 

Locals collect the caterpillars, dry them, and use them year round as a protein source. The dried caterpillars are first boiled and then fried in oil. They weren’t bad but they weren’t overly flavorful either. Kind of like the texture of eating cardboard with the flavor of the oil in which they were fried.

 

Dinner with the local family was insightful.  The host explained the economic realities of living in a failed state and discussed quite a bit about dating and relationships in the incredibly patriarchal  country.  Parents don’t like it when their kids date.  They want a quick marriage.  Marriage equals a dowry for the bride’s family.  Dowry money is how many families survive in the country.  The dowry is still payed in cows.  Generally, the dowry is high enough that the future husband has to make payments to the bride’s family for the rest of his life.  Few can afford the dowry in a single payment.

 

Outside of the town I visited, the entire country survives by subsistence level farming.  There are no agricultural farms.  There is no manufacturing.  The corrupt government makes it difficult for citizens to own businesses.  Everything is really expensive because it all has to be imported from South Africa or Botswana.  There is no domestic production of any manufactured goods.

 

Gasoline was rationed and often unavailable at any price.  The photo below is the line of cars waiting for a fuel delivery at the town’s only gas station.  The line stretched about half a mile.  Folks waited for hours on the off chance that one of the irregularly-arriving  fuel trucks might come and replenish the gas station’s supply.

 

 

Despite the depressing economic conditions, Victoria Falls was very cool.  It is the low season with regards to water flow rate, but it was still stunning to see, hear, and feel the water.

 

 

 

Kudu carpaccio in a balsamic glaze. Yes. I  ate raw antelope meat in Zimbabwe. The caterpillars were probably a safer choice.

 

Botswana

After the official tour ended in Zimbabwe, I stayed around for a private tour of Chobe game park just over the border in Botswana.

 

This trip made me happy. Since arriving down there I had done nine separate safari drives or boat trips. It was really cold with non-stop rain on the first week of the safari trips. When it’s cold and rainy the animals hide in the bush and don’t wander around. Their being stationary makes animal viewing very difficult.

 

Even though the conditions were horrible, I was able to see four of the “Big Five ” list animals in the first couple days here. The lion remained elusive.

 

I saw two different leopards (very rare to see one in the day). I also saw the critically endangered African wild dog. Both of those critters are next to impossible to find; yet the much more populous lions refused to make their presence known.

 

Chobe was a different story.  It was warm and sunny.  I spent the morning on a truck safari and then spent the afternoon cruising along the Zambezi river looking at animals.  I was finally able to see a lion in the wild.

 

 

In the Chobe National Park, this sleepy mother lion was relaxing in the shade no more than 30 feet away from the safari truck. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to see all of the large African cats.

 

There were lots of other cool animals in Chobe.

 

Chobe National Park

 

Hippos in the Zambezi River

 

Juvenile elephants playing in the water

 

The border crossing back into Zimbabwe was a bit challenging as neither side of the border had electricity due to the “load sharing”.  There was no way to scan passports.  Everything had to be done by hand with obsolete paper forms.  The guide shrugged it off saying: “TIA.”

 

“TIA” stands for “This is Africa.”  It’s a commonly-used expression by locals whenever they encounter difficult conditions or situations that are inefficient.  It is a useful acronym.

 

I had a wonderful time on my trip to Africa.  If you all would like to see the amazing wildlife and the stunning scenery, I would highly recommend a trip there.

 

I will close this article with the gift of a most excellent cover of Toto’s popular song “Africa.”  Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Log- Saba and St. Maarten

Travel Log- Saba and St. Maarten 620 465 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip to the Caribbean in December of 2014.

 

I spent the last week in the Caribbean, visiting French Sint Martin, Dutch St. Maarten, and the Island of Saba.  Saba was the place I was most excited about…primarily because most folks have never even heard of it.  It’s the smallest Caribbean island.  An extinct volcano sprouting from the sea, Saba is only about five square miles and has about 1500 residents.  It’s very quaint and known for its friendly population, mountainous hiking, and excellent diving.

 

There are no direct flights from the USA to Saba.  In fact, the only way to get there is by ferry or prop plane from St. Maarten.  Saba has the shortest commercial airstrip in the world and cannot accommodate jet planes.

 

The Saba airstrip as viewed from the prop plane's approach

The Saba airstrip as viewed from the prop plane’s approach

 

We flew into St. Maarten, rented a car and spent a couple days enjoying the French side of the island.  The people were amazingly friendly and the food was some of the best I’ve ever eaten.  It’s hard to beat fresh seafood and gourmet French cooking.

 

The driving was quite challenging.  Typical of third world travel, things are bound to be screwed up.  This trip was no exception.  I don’t normally rent cars in my third world travels.  Driving is usually very expensive and dangerous.  But this was St. Maarten.  It couldn’t be that bad!

 

With car rental prices averaging about $100 for an entire week, I figured it would be cheaper to drive rather than use public transportation.  Since all the car rental agencies were approximately the same price.  I decided to patronize a local company “EZ Car Rental” rather than one of the big American companies like Hertz or Budget.  I generally think that using the services of local companies provides a more positive impact to the local economy and I try to do so as much as possible.  I booked and prepaid for the car rental through Orbitz.com.

 

Using the local company was an incredible mistake in this case.  When we arrived at the airport, we went to the booths of rental car agencies in the arrivals hall.  There was no “EZ Rental Car” booth.  Other agencies told us that the company goes by another name and directed us to the correct booth.  Unfortunately, it was the only booth that was unoccupied.  No one had seen any of the agency’s employees all day.

 

I had to pull up the rental contract and ask around until someone loaned me a telephone to call the company.  I finally spoke to the agent on the phone and she unapologetic ally said that she hadn’t planned on working that day, but that since I had a reservation, she would send someone in a shuttle to pick us up from the airport and take us to the rental lot.  The shuttle arrived after 30 minutes and it took us to the waterfront slum where the rental agency was located.  We got a beat up Hyundai hatchback with a broken tail light.  I guess we were lucky to get a car at all.

 

Lesson one learned.  Never prepay for car rental.  And never trust third world companies to offer the same level of service that we are accustomed to here in the States.

 

Driving was quite a challenge.  Knowing that I couldn’t use Google maps on my phone because of the outrageous foreign data package charges, I downloaded and printed directions to our hotel.  The directions were completely wrong.  We followed them diligently (despite a lack of street signs) and ended up on a dirt road with nothing but an abandoned field where our hotel should have been.  Lesson two learned.  Don’t rely on Google maps outside of the USA.  We finally found our hotel after asking for directions numerous times and then randomly driving through the neighborhood where it was located until we spotted it.  Not much fun.

 

The driving itself was quite different than driving in the USA.  Traffic laws are generally more like “suggestions” than hard and fast rules.  Cars drive excessively fast or extremely slow.  Random stops are commonplace.  Drivers will stop in the middle of a two lane highway just to talk to friends for awhile.  No one cares that they are holding up all the traffic behind them.

 

Right of way isn’t determined by any other factor besides vehicle size.  Large buses and trucks didn’t yield for anyone.  The bus drivers knew that other cars wouldn’t hit them so they just pulled out in front of us on a regular basis, forcing me to slam on the brakes so we didn’t die.  Driving there was like playing a real life game of “Frogger.”  We saw one pretty bad accident where a bus struck a motorcycle.  The motorcycle driver was thrown from his bike and landed head first on the pavement.  He wasn’t wearing a helmet and looked pretty messed up.

 

Other than the driving difficulties, we enjoyed our stay in St. Maarten.  The beach was beautiful, weather was nice, and food was amazing.  What more could a person want?

Mt. Scenery on the Island of Saba

After a couple days of beach lounging we flew to Saba.  Saba was cool.  It was a very quaint and slow paced island.  We did some diving, snorkeling, and lots of walking up and down the mountain roads.  The underwater geography was first rate…a beautiful and healthy reef ecosystem that supported lots of cool marine life.  I saw several large sea turtles among the tropical fish.  Lauren spotted a couple sharks, a sting ray, a Moray eel, and a barracuda.

 

We spent three days in Saba and then flew back to St, Maarten where we spent two more days on the Dutch side of the island.  We had fun there too, but both of us liked the French side significantly more.

 

There isn’t much to report on the weapons/tactics/crime element to our trip.  We didn’t encounter any problems.  Saba has essentially zero violent crime.  They haven’t had a murder in 25 years.  Rapes and robberies are unheard of.  Residents all know each other and that fact completely deters all violent crime.  We weren’t even given a key to our guest house because no one locks their doors on the island.  The Saba residents I talked to said that guns were rare.  Residents could get permits for rifles and shotguns (after background check and shooting competency test) and there was some hunting on the island.

 

There are only nine cops assigned to the entire island.  They are brought in from the Netherlands or Bonaire for short rotations on Saba before going home.  The residents stated that the cops were extremely bored and spent most of the day napping.  We didn’t see a single officer during the three days we spent on the island.

 

In French Sint Martin, the cops were very well equipped.  The wore uniform BDUs in navy blue and had complete gunbelts containing a Sig Pro pistol in a Safariland SLS holster, extra magazines, flashlights, handcuffs, and Tasers.  It’s one of the few third world agencies I’ve seen that are equipped similarly to the cops here in the USA.

 

On the Dutch side the cops were a little more casual.  They only carried S&W M&P pistols in Safariland SLS holsters.  They didn’t carry any spare mags or less lethal weapons.  Their belts were bare except for gun and handcuffs.  Residents on both sides of the island said that the police were professional and wouldn’t take bribes.  That’s another third world rarity.