Travel Log

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Log- Antarctica and Chile

Travel Log- Antarctica and Chile 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 a trip to Chile and Antarctica in December of 2017.

 

Written by: Greg Ellifritz

 

I returned last week from an epic two-week trip to Antarctica (via Chile).  Why Antarctica?  Because it was on our continent bucket list.  Both Lauren and I have been to all of the other continents in the world.  Antarctica was the last one.  So we went.

 

The trip started with an 11-hour flight to Santiago.  I booked an extra day on either end of the trip in the event of a scheduling problem, so we had a couple of days to explore the city.  I had previously been to Santiago about 10 years ago.  I didn’t care for it at all.  It was cloudy, smog filled, and I didn’t find the people to be very friendly.

 

This trip was completely different.  I loved the city.  I think part of the reason I hated Santiago 10 years ago was that I went in the winter time.  It’s a completely different city in the summer (like now).  Weather was clear and 85-90 degrees with low humidity.  It was a nice antidote to our cold Ohio winter.

 

The people in Santiago are quite different from what you would see in the rest of South America.  Chileans are a bit wealthier and better educated than some of their Andean counterparts.  They are also far less traditional.  The women regularly wore short shorts, bare midriff and see through shirts, and funky styles.  I saw more skin on display than any other South American city besides Rio.  Both men and women sported lots of tattoos and all kinds of crazy dyed and shaved hairstyles.  The general style trends seemed to hearken back to the early 1980s punk rock scene in America and Europe.  It was a big departure from normally conservative South America.

 

Santiago from the tallest building in Latin America

 

We spent time in Santiago walking the city, eating tons of good food, and hanging out in their amazing city parks.  Unlike parks in America, Chilean parks allow alcohol, grilling food, music, and unleashed dogs.  People would actually go to the parks and relax because it was a fun atmosphere.  Chileans would revolt at the idea of an American park that banned alcohol, cooking food, and loud music.  What fun is that?  We Americans can learn a lot from our southern neighbors.

 

Tuna Tartar with avocado for Lauren and Blood sausage with pesto and goat cheese for me- Santiago

 

We also went on a walking tour of the coastal city of Valparaiso about an hour drive away from Santiago.  It was a colorful city filled with painted murals on all the neighborhood buildings.

 

Valparaiso, Chile

 

Valparaiso mural

 

Valparaiso

 

After a couple days in Santiago, we flew three hours south to the southern tip of the continent and spent a day in Punta Arenas while waiting for a flight to Antarctica.  Punta Arenas was a small coastal town and seemed to be far more relaxed than frantic Santiago.

 

We wandered around the town and ate at some great restaurants there.  Interestingly, the town of Punta Arenas had concrete vehicle barriers protecting all of their sidewalks and parks from vehicles.  Take a look at the photo below.  Those vehicle barriers were present in every single part of the town with high pedestrian traffic.

 

I find it intriguing that a sleepy little town on the southern tip of South America has solved the issue of terrorist vehicle attacks while we still fumble to protect our own citizens.

No vehicle run-down attacks in Punta Arenas

 

As for self protection and gun issues in Chile, there were none.  In our five days in Chile we did not see a single uniformed cop.  Not even in the airport!  I have no idea what equipment the Chilean cops use and we didn’t talk to any gun owners down there.  There was a stunning lack of violence or drama in the country.  Drivers didn’t even honk their horns.  It was all quite civilized and very different from most of the rest of the continent.

 

From Punta Arenas, we took a two hour flight to a Chilean Naval Base with a gravel runway on the Antarctic King George Island.  From there we boarded a 100-passenger cruise ship and boated around the Antarctic peninsula, stopping a couple times a day for land excursions.

 

We did lots of hiking, tried stand up paddling (with dry suits), and had extensive opportunities to check out the wildlife.  We saw thousands of penguins, three different types of seals, and three different types of whales.

 

I wasn’t quite prepared for the penguins.  The penguin colonies were literally covered in pink penguin poop.  Inches of it on every horizontal surface.  We had to walk through rivers of the stuff.  Most of the islands smelled like a chicken coop.  Not quite what I was expecting to see.

 

Penguins and their stinky pink and green poop

 

mmm…more penguin poop

 

Besides the nature, we visited the Antarctic museum and a couple wildlife viewing stations.  During the five days we were there, we visited territory claimed by Chile, Argentina, Russia, and England.

 

On the Russian Naval Station at King George Island

On British territory in the South Shetlands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A lot of people asked me about carrying weapons in Antarctica.  I traveled light this trip.  The cruise ship forbade weapons of any type.  Interestingly, the entire continent of Antarctica is a gun free territory.  Firearms and shooting of any type is expressly forbidden as it is a wildlife refuge.  Killing animals or frightening them with loud noises is against the international treaty governing the territory.

 

The only weapon I carried was a Spyderco Ark neck knife.  It was small enough to be considered a tool and is made of the same salt water resistant steel as my favorite Salt folding knives.  With the constant environmental exposure, I wanted a blade that wouldn’t rust.  It’s not huge, but is fast to access and would do a fine job if I had to stab something.  In reality, why would I need a weapon?  It’s not like I was going to get jacked by a penguin.  Thankfully, I never had to deploy the blade and had no hazardous encounters with either people or marine animals.

 

 

Here are a few more pictures of the landscape.  I hope you get the chance to see it someday.

 

Minke Whale

 

Chillin’ with a seal

 

21 hours of daylight each day. This is the view from the boat deck at 2 am. This was as dark as it ever got.

 

 

African Counter-Ambush Tactics

African Counter-Ambush Tactics 620 413 Greg Ellifritz

In 2019, I went on a a two-week trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.  The primary focus of the trip was going on safari to see all the legendary animals that inhabit the African plains.  On the trip I did 12 different safari outings, either on foot, by safari truck, or by boat.

 

I spent a lot of time watching animals, both the hunters and the hunted.

 

The African animals adopted very specific tactics that keep them safe from predators and allow them to survive.

 

I couldn’t help associating the animals’ survival tactics with tactics we police officers need to use to avoid being ambushed.  After a couple days of animal watching, the associations became crystal clear.

 

For my cop friends, here is some counter-ambush advice from the African Savannah.  You’d be smart to pay attention to the predator and prey species struggling for existence.  You can learn a lot from the techniques they practice.

 

Wide Open Spaces

Why do you think this African Fish Eagle is all alone at the top of this dead tree?

 

Sure it gives him a good vantage point for hunting, but can you think of any other reasons the bird is so isolated?

 

The Fish Eagle is both predator and prey.  It’s high up so that it can better see the critters it wants to eat.  That, however, isn’t the point I’m trying to make.

 

Note how isolated he is.  Note the fact that any predator would have to cross a lot of open ground to prey upon the Fish Eagle.  The Fish Eagle is likely to see any approaching predators and fly away before they get too close.

 

As cops, we need to adopt a similar posture.  When you are in your police car either working traffic or writing a report, think about your vehicle positioning.  You should be in a location where anyone trying to ambush you would have to cross a lot of open ground to get to your car.

 

Maximize your advantage.  Don’t make it easy on the killer.  Park in the middle of a large, empty parking lot.  Keep all your lights on.  Turn on the audio button on your radar for an additional alert mechanism.

 

Make it difficult for anyone to approach you without being seen.

 

 

Post Guards/Lookouts

These three cheetahs just ran down and killed a baby impala.  They are enjoying their feast.  As I watched them eat their meal, I noticed something critically important.  Only two of the three cheetahs were ever eating at the same time.

 

There was always one cheetah looking around for potential danger.  I never once saw a moment where all three cheetahs were relaxed and eating at the same time.  One always stood guard.

 

That’s a good posture to adopt as cops.  If you are responding to a potentially volatile situation, don’t get too sucked into the scene.  Keep looking around for additional threats.  If you are an “extra” officer on scene, direct your attention outward where you can scan for additional threats while your co-workers handle the business of the call.

 

These cheetahs are masters of the concept of “contact and cover.”

 

 

Everyone Looking in a Different Direction

These impalas are preyed upon by all the large African cats.  They are also regularly eaten by wild dogs, hyenas, and jackals.  They are one of the most common prey species on the African plains.

 

Take note of their posture.

 

Note how every one of the impala is facing a different direction.  They are set up for 360 degree predator detection.

 

We cops should adopt a similar posture.  Instead of everyone on scene facing the suspect or the complainant, mix it up.  Some of you should be looking at the victim.  Some of you should be looking at the suspect.  Some of you should be looking out toward the crowd to perceive any oncoming danger.

 

Orient your bodies so that all the cops on scene are facing in a slightly different direction.  That will provide the most advance warning in the event that a predator is stalking.

 

Team Up

Something I learned about African prey species is that they often team up and graze together.  Here is a perfect example of zebras grazing with giraffes.  Their differing heights allow them to detect danger coming from different locations.

 

The giraffes can see predators approaching from a long way away and can warn the zebras before they get too close.  When the giraffe’s face is obscured by the tree it is eating, the zebras can see any close-in predators.  The two species mutually benefit from each other’s relative advantage.

 

Don’t be afraid to ask someone else to watch your back.

 

I remember one call I responded to where an armed murder suspect threatened his girlfriend with a handgun and then ran out of their apartment.  As I was trying to find the suspect outside, I noticed a roofing crew on top of the neighboring house.  I gave them the suspect’s description and told them to yell at me if they saw him approaching.

 

It worked symbiotically the same way these African animals use other species to help them detect danger.  Even though the roofers weren’t armed cops and couldn’t help me in a gunfight, they had the ability to detect a threat and communicate that threat’s location to me.

 

Don’t be afraid to utilize advantages like this.

 

Hunting Happens at the Fringe

Here’s a picture of a female lion hunting for a meal.  Although it looks like the lion is taking a nap, she is really trying to get some food for her cubs (hidden in the brush behind her).  Note the lion’s position.

 

The lion is hunting from a shady position on the border between an open area where prey animals forage and a brush-covered area with lots of cover.  You smart folks will identify this type of environment as a “transitional area.”  It’s a place where status changes between one condition and another.

 

We humans have “transitional areas” as well.  They are areas where we transition from one status or activity to another.  Just like this African lion, the transitional areas are where the predator hunts.  Thank about areas of transition in your daily routine.  Exercise more caution when you make those transitions.

 

The predator may be watching.

 

The world is filled with both predators and prey.  Your attitude and tactics determine which of the two you will be considered.

 

Embrace the lessons from our African friends.

 

 

One more Africa picture just for fun

 

 

 

 

Travel Log- El Salvador

Travel Log- El Salvador 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 El Salvador in December of 2016.

 

I spent last week vacationing in El Salvador.  Most of you are questioning my sanity right now.  Why go to El Salvador?  The country has the highest murder rate in the world when comparing countries not involved in a civil wars.  It doesn’t get a lot of tourism.

 

I went to El Salvador because it was the last Latin American country that I had not yet visited.  I’ve been to all of the other Latin countries in South and Central America.  I picked El Salvador solely to check it off my list.  I think it’s pretty cool to have visited all the countries in Latin America (except Venezuela.  That one is too dangerous, even for me).

 

El Salvador was surprisingly nice.  We landed there after a five-hour flight.  The airport was modern and clean.  We breezed through immigration and customs in only a few minutes and found our bags were already moving down the baggage claim conveyor belt on our arrival.

 

We pre-booked transportation to our hotel and found our driver waiting outside for us.  We drove about 45 minutes to a small surf town called El Tunco on the Pacific coast.  El Tunco is literally a two street town.  Everyone walks.  The only thing the town is known for is its excellent surf and nighttime party scene.  Most of the occupants of the town were surfers.  Rich Salvadorans filled up the few hotels on the weekends looking for a fun party/vacation spot.

 

We stayed in El Tunco for four days, relaxing on the black sand beach, swimming in the ocean, surfing, and eating lots of great local food.  El Salvador is known for its pupusas.  A pupusa is a soft corn tortilla stuffed with cheese, meat, or vegetables.  Think of them like thin corn Hot Pockets.  Everyone eats pupusas as their favorite snack food or as a dinner meal.  Street vendors sold three pupusas for a dollar.  The more upscale restaurants charged 75 cents to a dollar each.  We stuffed ourselves with pupusas daily and never spent more than $10 for two people (including drinks).  When we got sick of pupusas, we ate lots of great local fresh seafood.

 

One of our typical dinners. Pupusas and drinks for less than $10.

One of our typical dinners. Pupusas and drinks for less than $10.

 

After El Tunco, we spent two more days in the capital city of San Salvador.  We walked the city, visited some museums and handicrafts markets, and ate lots more cheap and awesome tasting local food.  One day we hired a local tour guide who gave us an all-day tour of the city as well as drove us to several national parks to climb volcanoes.  All in all, it was a great trip.

 

Volcanic crater lake outside of San Salvador.

Volcanic crater lake outside of San Salvador.

 

The “danger” of El Salvador is grossly overstated.  We had absolutely no problems at all.  Even though the murder rate there leads the world, I never felt a hint of trouble.  Subjectively, El Salvador felt much safer than many other countries I’ve visited.

 

Lunch at a local market. Seafood soup. Whole crab, shrimp, clams, and about 1/2 a pound of fish. $4.00

Lunch at a local market. Seafood soup. Whole crab, shrimp, clams, and about 1/2 a pound of fish. $4.00

 

The violence the country is experiencing is (like in America) primarily related to drug trafficking and gangs.  If you aren’t trying to score drugs or provoke the gangsters, the chance you will be victimized is relatively minimal.  I spoke to several locals about the issue.  They all told me that most tourists get a “pass” from the local gang members.  The gangsters know that tourists bring an infusion of cash into the poor country (average wage there is around $300 a month).   They also know that killing tourists will bring a heavy police crackdown.  As long as the tourist isn’t doing something incredibly stupid, or acting impaired by alcohol or drugs, the relative risk or robbery and assault are very low.

 

I would have absolutely no problem recommending El Salvador as a tourist destination for any experienced traveler.  It’s remarkably safe in comparison to many other Latin countries.  English isn’t widely spoken and there isn’t a huge tourist infrastructure.  Having a passing competency in Spanish and the willingness to interact with the locals will help immeasurably should you choose to visit.  We found the Salvadorans to be incredibly friendly.  Almost everyone we passed smiled and greeted us warmly.  The people were courteous and polite to a fault.

 

The cops down there consisted of National Police, local police, and tourist police.  They all wore sharp black BDU uniforms and nylon gunbelts.  Most cops carried third generation Smith and Wesson autopistols (model 5906) in Uncle Mikes “twist draw” level three security holsters.  A few cops carried CZ-75 pistols in generic nylon drop leg holsters.  The majority of cops had no spare magazines, Tasers, or pepper spray.  Most carried PR-24 batons and handcuffs.  Often, the tourist police officers carried only the baton.

 

Police station in El Tunco. The cops here work out of a cell with no air conditioning.

Police station in El Tunco. The cops here work out of a cell with no air conditioning.

 

I only saw a couple of cops carrying long guns.  We passed a truckload of gang suppression police riding in the back of a pickup truck, likely heading to a raid of some type in the city of La Libertad.  The cops all had their faces covered with balaclavas and had rifles (Galils and FALs).  Public transportation and national monuments were also patrolled by members of the Salvadoran military.  They wore camouflage BDUs and carried Beretta 92 pistols and M16 or CAR-15 rifles.  The general consensus among the locals was that the local police were rarely corrupt.  Most could not be bribed to get out of a traffic infraction.  The locals said that occasionally there would be stories of high ranking police officers working in concert with members of the drug gangs, but most folks said that the local street cops treated people fairly.

 

Soldiers patrolling a San Salvador bus stop,

Soldiers patrolling a San Salvador bus stop.

 

El Salvadoran citizens can own guns, but a relatively small number of “normal” residents actually own firearms.  The people I spoke with said that the high cost of guns (Glocks were reportedly about $900) was the main reason few people purchased them.  Not many folks will pay three months’ salary to buy a reliable handgun.  Locals also told us that there is also no history of a “gun culture” in the country like there is in the USA, leading to a lack of desire to be armed.

 

Citizens are limited to buying one gun every two years.  A permit is required to own a gun.  Residents stated that the permit process involved a background check, medical evaluation, and competency test.  The people we talked to said that the permit process to own a gun was fairly rigorous and expensive.  Getting a permit to carry the gun is even harder, with some type of demonstrated “need” for the gun required.  Reportedly only security guards and wealthy business owners get carry permits.

 

The security guard population was incredible.  Every single business, restaurant, hotel, and apartment complex had its own armed security guard.  About 75% of the guards carried slung pistol gripped pump shotguns (Remingtons and Winchesters).  Most had horrible muzzle awareness.  I think I was flagged by shotgun muzzles at least 50 times on the short trip.  Many of the shotguns were slung in such a manner that they would be impossible to quickly use.  I only saw one guard with spare ammo.  He had a bandoleer of low brass Federal #7 1/2 birdshot.

 

Guard carrying a slung pistol gripped shotgun outside of San Salvador restaurant.

Guard carrying a slung pistol gripped shotgun outside of San Salvador restaurant.

 

The other 25% of guards had handguns, mostly Smith and Wesson K-frame revolvers.  I also saw a couple of Beretta 92s and one 1911 (carried hammer down).  There were guns everywhere!  I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if many of El Salvador’s “murders” were actually negligent discharges!

 

Literally "riding shotgun" San Salvador

Literally “riding shotgun” San Salvador

 

That’s about it.  Nothing more to report.  We had a relaxing holiday in El Salvador and would definitely go back again.  If you are considering El Salvador as a tourist destination, please let me know.  I can get you the contact information for our amazing English speaking local tourist guide.

 

 

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