35 Hours from Kampala to Dar es Salaam

Kampala, Uganda Taxi Park
Image of central Kampala by CG

A few years and many trips ago, I learned that it is usually better to travel by land whenever possible. I love flying, and I even love hanging out in big airports for hours, but it’s true that the experience of flying from one place to another often isn’t always that different wherever you are in the world.

When you travel overland, however, you’ll almost always meet people and experience life as it’s seen through more natural perspectives. When I have the choice, I usually try to fly into one country, travel overland for a while, and then fly out of another airport at least one country away.

I did this in Jordan two years ago, flying into Tel Aviv in Israel, traveling overland between the two countries and then throughout Jordan before leaving from Amman. I did it again a couple months later by taking a series of buses throughout the Balkans, including an overnight bus through Albania. I thought these experiences would prepare me well for an even bigger trip that took in the summer of 2007. For the most part, they did.

Taxi Park - Kampala, Uganda
Incredible Taxi Park - Click to Enlarge

My trip began in Kampala, Uganda, where I visited one of the largest taxi parks in the world and spent some time with local NGO workers. After a few days sightseeing, I bought a one-way bus ticket to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania via a number of other cities along the way. The ticket cost $54, and the journey was expected to take 31 hours.

I showed up at 12:30 for the 1:00 p.m. departure, but I didn’t see a bus anywhere. I sat with all of the other passengers for two hours, waiting for the appearance of an elusive bus. It finally arrived close to 3:00. In a way, I didn’t mind the delay, because another passenger told me they were fixing the tires. Not having good tires is a major cause of road accidents in Africa, so better to be late with good tires, I thought.

Uganda to Kenya

After the delayed departure, our trip began well enough. Every seat on the bus was taken, but there was no overcrowding and no one standing. I was also the only Westerner for the entire trip, which definitely helped with getting a more natural perspective of East Africa. After we got out of Kampala, the driver’s assistant passed out ice cream samples to each passenger, a nice treat after not eating lunch.

For the next four hours, nothing much happened. I had hoped to use a big part of the trip for reading and writing, but the roads were far too bumpy for that. We rode along through Eastern Uganda until arriving at the Kenyan border directly at sunset. Border stops are rarely boring, and in Africa, they are often highly disorganized and corrupt. At this one, though, all the formalities went about as well as could be. I paid $20 for a transit visa, as I had expected, and headed back up the road to the bus after receiving the necessary clearances. The whole process took less than half an hour, complete with an amazing dust storm that I tried to capture in a couple of quick snapshots.

Kenya Dust Storm!Kenya / Uganda Border

We had roughly seven hours more until Nairobi, where we were scheduled to arrive at 3:00 a.m. for a two-hour stop. Mid-point through the journey, the bus broke down. I wasn’t thrilled about this, and neither were the other passengers, but after a while the engine started up and we were underway again. We arrived in Nairobi sometime around 4:30, waiting at the bus station for a couple of hours, and got back underway just before dawn.

At this point my memory gets a bit fuzzy, because I had only slept an hour or two during the night and wasn’t feeling well from all the bumpy roads. I think it was about three or four more hours when we arrived at the next border, this time between Kenya and Tanzania.

This stop was also fairly efficient—we were through within 45 minutes. There were a fair share of “helpers” who tried to offer their services to me (to change money, expedite the visa process, etc.), but after I declined a few times they stopped asking.

Waiting in Arusha, TanzaniaWaiting in Arusha

Waiting in Arusha

Back underway and a couple more undetermined hours later, we arrived in Arusha, a Tanzanian city in the north of the country. We were told that we had to change buses, but no other bus was around. I spent the time in the transit area writing postcards from Kampala and eating peanuts, which in addition to two Cliff Bars I had brought from Seattle and the ice cream 24 hours earlier were my only food. I wasn’t really hungry, but I was certainly tired.

A new bus finally arrived two hours later. We were all relieved to transfer our bags and hop onboard, but there was just one problem: five other passengers had joined us at Arusha, and they had seat numbers for seats that were already occupied by those of us who had started way back in Uganda. Thankfully, I had already taken my seat when the mistake was discovered, so I didn’t have to worry about standing up for the remaining nine hours.

After a lot of arguing and the unsuccessful mediation efforts of the bus company’s employees, a woman stood up and addressed everyone. “Brothers and sisters in the Lord!” she began. “We are all Christians, so let us find a way to solve this problem!”

So far, so good, but some guys in the back were laughing and not listening to her, so she commanded them to “Shut up in the name of Jesus!” It was one of the most interesting social interactions I’ve ever been a part of. For better or worse, the evangelist was able to resolve the problem by acquiring some extra makeshift seats from the bus driver. Before we left Arusha after waiting far too long, she led the whole bus in a prayer for the journey. Even the Muslims supported a Christian prayer for a safe road journey to our final destination.

Kenya to Tanzania

A lot of other things happened along the way, but as we hit the 24-hour point, I was pretty exhausted. I vaguely remember running my hands through my hair and seeing them completely covered in red dust. I remember a collective bus stop for bananas, which looked nice but I couldn’t buy any because I didn’t have any Tanzanian currency, and I remember waking up after sleeping for three straight hours to find our bus about an hour out of Dar es Salaam. By then, it had gone well over the 31 hours we had expected to travel, so when people said we were an hour away I could hardly believe it.

We arrived at the Dar es Salaam bus station close to midnight the day after I had left Uganda. I stepped off the bus for the last time and walked to the gate where I navigated the usual throng of taxi drivers all shouting for my attention. Choosing one and negotiating a price of $8 (it was late at night and a fair distance away) to take me downtown to change money and then to a hotel near the port, I finally arrived at the beautiful sight of a hotel check-in desk shortly after 1:00 a.m. They had one last room available, which I was quite happy to accept sight unseen and without even considering the cost.

Before I feel asleep, I took two full showers in an attempt to shake off the dust from three African countries and 35 hours in a bus. For the next week, however, my shoes would set off a mini dust storm every time I put them on or took them off. When I finally got home two weeks later, my bags still had Kenya’s dust on them despite my best efforts to clean them with washcloths during my next two stops.

I decided to consider it evidence of an achievement that had personal meaning to me, even if other people might find it incomprehensible. I also decided that I wouldn't necessarily want to do this again... but I’m really glad I did it once.


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9 Overrated Tourist Destinations (and 9 Great Alternatives)

In my trips around the world, I’ve been to a lot of conventional places and a lot of off-the-grid places. Among other things, these experiences have led me discover that some of the best destinations for travelers are not always “undiscovered.”

Many places have a well-deserved reputation for being cool, and some other places you’ve never heard of maintain that status for a good reason. Still other places have gained undeserved reputations for being somewhere you “must’ visit before you die – but whenever I’ve gone there, I’ve felt a bit disappointed.

I’ll tell you about 9 of those here, but…

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Working from Anywhere on the Planet

1) Working for yourself, especially while traveling, is not as easy as most people think. The fantasy and the reality are quite distinct, and it takes a lot of work to be successful. 2) Working for yourself, even while traveling, is awesome! The freedom is great, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Both statements are completely true, but naturally, we tend to view the idea of self-employment and extensive travel through only one of the two statements. I'd like to look at it a bit deeper.

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Midnight Notes from my 100th Country

colombo sri lanka
Colombo by Night -- Image by Dimitri

I’m sitting in a hotel lobby in Colombo, Sri Lanka, listening to the cover band play Lionel Ritchie from the back of a wedding reception where I’m obviously an outside observer. Sipping a 12-ounce Heineken I bought at the gas station across the street, I reflect on the last two weeks.

The final trip of the year.

And also, my 100th country. How did I come this far?

Before I can fully consider the question, we have a brief diversion as the band segues into a toast for the bride and groom -- or so I presume, since the bandleader is speaking Sinhala, the local language. I hear the word champagne and everyone stands with a glass in hand. I raise my Heineken can and smile. No one notices me, which I take to be a good sign.

In Which I Sleep Through the Entire Day

The flight to Sri Lanka (from Doha, Qatar) did not go so well. I was told at check-in that the morning flight was totally full, but if I wanted I could switch to the red-eye flight leaving at 12:50 a.m. Since I don’t usually sleep on planes, I’m not a big fan of red-eye flights, but I asked how full the flight was before making a decision. I was told that the midnight flight was fairly empty and I could have a whole row to myself near the front of the Economy section. OK, I said. I’ll take it.

You can guess what happened – the flight was totally packed and I was in the next-to-last row in the back. How does that work? Why did they lie to me?

It’s all about expectations, and in this case I was not prepared to fly 5 hours through the night in the very back of a crowded plane. Thankfully, every bad flight has to end at some point, and at 8:30 a.m. local time, it’s all over.

Upon arrival at the airport in Colombo, I’m tired from not sleeping at all the night before. I negotiate the taxi price down from $25 to $15 (it’s a long way from the city), and ride into town to a local hotel. I’m not especially jet-lagged, since I’ve been traveling incrementally this time (Panama City, Madrid, Cairo, Doha, and now Colombo), but the red-eye flight has definitely taken its toll.

I lie down and sleep for five hours straight, about three hours more than I planned.

I wake up when someone knocks on the door to ask about cleaning. "No thanks," I say, and go back to bed. I sleep for three more hours, and then three more after that. After 11 hours of sleeping, which I think is a personal record for me, I finally wake up at exactly midnight local time. I can’t believe I’ve slept this long!

I decide there’s not much to do except get up and pretend it’s morning, since there’s no going back to sleep tonight after a day of sleeping 11 hours.

Colombo from Midnight to 7am

I take a shower and sit down at the desk to do some writing. I have been trying to finish the next Unconventional Guide for weeks now, and I finally manage to force myself to work on it for three good hours.

At 3:00 a.m., I decide it’s time to go exploring. Sri Lanka itself is not exactly a safe place (there is an ongoing civil war between government forces and what is considered a rebel army in the north), but ironically this means that the capital of Colombo is actually more safe than it would otherwise be. This is because almost everywhere you go, armed soldiers are standing guard 24 hours a day at intervals of only 100 meters apart. There are security checkpoints throughout the city, and a big section of downtown is blocked off from traffic for most of the day.

I walk along the beach and am stopped at each post along the way by guards who are surprised to see a foreigner out walking in the middle of the night, but they don’t bother me too much. I pass by a group of kids about 7-10 years old who are all out flying a kite on the beach. As to why they are doing this at 3:00 a.m., I have no idea, but they are friendly enough. They all run up to me and start talking, but after we exchange names, there’s not a lot to say.

“Please, tell me what time it is,” one of them says. I tell him the time and he thanks me.

The next one speaks up. “Please, tell me what time it is,” he says. I repeat the same answer and he thanks me. It seems this is as far as the English lessons go in the 4th grade over here, so I wave goodbye and keep walking.

An hour later I’m on my way back to the hotel and it’s close to 4:30 a.m. I know this because I encounter the group of kids on the beach again. They all wave and come over. “Please, tell me what time it is,” one of them says again. “What is your name?” another one asks for the second time.

I give them the answers (again) and they all wave me off. The guards are less anxious now that I’m going back where I came from, and the sun should be up soon. I read until 6:30 a.m. and then go down to breakfast, which effectively also serves as lunch and dinner from the day before. It’s a big meal, thankfully.

100 Countries

A long time ago, I had a dream to visit 100 countries. I was traveling through Eastern Europe for the first time, and I counted up all the places I had been and thought about everywhere else I wanted to go.

This was nearly four years ago.

Dreams only go so far – they have to be turned into goals, or else they tend to remain dreams, like winning the lottery. I did the math and figured out that it would not be terribly difficult to visit 100 countries as long as I was willing to give up some other things. I set the goal and started planning several overseas trips a year.

Along the way I had to make a number of other decisions and very real sacrifices. I had to be away from home a lot, spend most of my disposable income on Round-the-World plane tickets, endure a few stressful and uncomfortable situations, and so on. While I enjoy many aspects of travel and many places around the world, there are certainly others I don’t care for as much. With travel, like anything else, sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. It’s just part of the deal.

When it comes down to it, though, when I first started thinking about the goal of 100 countries, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I knew that I would always regret it if I didn’t try, and that knowledge has made all the difference. I think about that often, especially when it gets hard. This summer had some hard times, but now I’m sitting on a small island in South Asia, and I’ve already been to more places than most people will visit in their lifetime.

Back at the Wedding Reception

I’m in Sri Lanka for three more days, and it’s a nice place to hang out for your 100th country. I go to a Buddhist festival, an international book fair, and an Anglican church service. One taxi driver I meet tells me it’s 42° (107° Fahrenheit) the first morning I’m there, and I believe him. My clothes are soaked with sweat after half an hour of walking mostly in the shade, and I’m quickly defeated. I hire a tuk-tuk and go to the civic center for the book fair.

On the day of departure, my flight out to Hong Kong doesn’t leave until the awful hour of 1:45 a.m., so I have a final evening to spend before heading back out to the airport. After walking for a while, I pass the time hanging out at the previously-mentioned wedding.

From a sign at the entrance I see that this wedding is for Mr. Shahib Praseen and his lovely bride Tenga. Thank you, Shahib and Tenga, for letting me sit in the back of the room and write these notes while listening to Stuck On You being performed in traditional Asian hotel band style.

Classic Asian hotel band style, if you didn’t know, consists of five musicians but rarely a drummer – fake drums are provided via MIDI keyboard. There is often a female singer, but all of the musicians are men. You can hear the same synthesizer sounds all over Asia, and usually the same songs too.

I head out to the lobby to buy something to eat, where a competing band is playing Shania Twain.

Looks like we made it
Look how far we’ve come now baby

There’s one thing I like about going to places like Sri Lanka – I can afford to eat at real restaurants, and sometimes stay in nice hotels. In Brussels the $3 sandwich I’m eating would cost $14, and would the band really be playing Shania Twain? Come on. You want to hear Stuck On You or Still the One performed in full MIDI glory, you’d better come to Asia.

As I’m leaving, the band has moved to Carolina in My Mind, but I have no more time or interest. In my mind, I’m going to Colombo airport.

On the ride to the airport we have what I assume will be the final installment of worldwide taxi driver commentary on the U.S. election. In previous installments, we’ve heard from drivers in Pakistan and Egypt, and tonight my driver (in a small tuk-tuk, not a full taxi) tells me that America will not elect Obama because he is Muslim.

“Actually, he is Christian,” I say, feeling a little annoyed. You can like Obama or not like him, but I’m troubled to hear that the lies being spread about him have made it all the way to Sri Lanka.

Alas, my driver is not swayed. “No, he is Muslim. He has a Muslim name. You can not be Christian with that name.”

I briefly consider taking another taxi out of protest, but this is Sri Lanka, after all, and I do need to get to the airport. I guess if Fox News ever decides to broadcast from South Asia, this guy can be a commentator.


After waiting at the airport for two hours, I sleep-walk on to the plane at the 1:25 a.m. boarding time. I’m going to NYC before heading home to Seattle, and I don’t even want to think about what time it is in either of those places. The Cathay Pacific flight takes off for Bangkok and then continues to Hong Kong on the same aircraft. This all feels very familiar – the flight back from Karachi last month was almost the same, with a late-night boarding time, then a three hour hop to Bangkok followed by two and a half hours to Hong Kong.

I sleep on the plane out of exhaustion, but it’s all good. I made it. 100 countries down, and I’m on my way home.

The Future

This was my final “big trip” of 2008. I’ll be at home for the next two and a half months before planning my travel for 2009.

As I’ve said a couple of times, the next 100 (or technically, 92+) countries will be far more difficult. I’m rapidly running out of “easy” countries. There are a lot of countries in Africa I haven't really planned for, and two entire regions (Central Asia and the South Pacific) I haven’t even started in.

But for right now, I’m not ready to think about how hard it will be. It does feel somewhat monumental to have come this far, and that’s where I’m going to leave it for now.

It was totally worth it, and I hope I can say the same at the next few milestones.

Thanks so much for reading and being a big part of it. You guys are awesome.


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What I Talk About When I Talk About Travel*

The title comes from Haruki Murakami, who in turn took it from Raymond Carver. *** Since I started this site in March, I’ve been to more than 20 countries in pursuit of my goal to visit every country in the world. It’s going well so far, and I've made even more progress than expected. Next year I suspect it will get much harder, but we’ll take things one trip at a time. As the community here has grown, I’ve noticed that I receive at least several emails a day with the same kinds of questions about travel. I’m making a full FAQ later for the upcoming site redesign, but I thought I’d go ahead and publish this one now.

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Developing Your Own Philosophy of Travel

Image by Kurlvink

We all travel with expectations that may or may not be met when our imagination of a place meets the reality of actually being there. Traveling in Pakistan one week and Brunei the next, for example, I found my expectations upended.

Before going to both places, I expected that Karachi (Pakistan) would be a fairly rough place. The plan was to lie low for a couple of days, visit the market and mosque, maybe talk with a few people – nothing major. I do get tired fairly often while traveling, especially when I’m going between continents and to hot climates my body isn’t used to.

I figured I would “tough it out” in Pakistan and be rewarded with a few days in Brunei, a sleepy, oil-rich sultanate. Brunei was to be my last real stop on this trip before heading back to the States via Singapore and Tokyo.

If you expect to learn that my imagination did not match up to reality, you’re right: I greatly enjoyed my time in Karachi and found it quite relaxing (in an odd way), and I struggled with my weekend stay in Brunei.

Here’s why:

Getting to Pakistan was quite an adventure, mostly because I was unable to obtain a visa in advance, and they do not (usually) offer any visas upon arrival. That one was a real drama for a while, but after it was resolved, everything was smooth sailing. I could afford to eat whatever I wanted there, public transport was easy and cheap, I had good wi-fi access, and importantly, I felt completely safe for the whole visit.

After I went to Pakistan, I took off for Brunei, a small Islamic sultanate located on Borneo in Southeast Asia. Here’s a map, since not everyone knows where that is:

Map of Brunei in Borneo (Southeast Asia)

Part of the reason that Westerners don’t know much about Brunei is because it’s a small country. Another part of the reason is because, to be perfectly honest, there’s not a whole lot to do there for the average visitor.

During my weekend there, I naturally went walking, and naturally spent a morning at the local coffee shop. Picking up the local newspaper, this was the main story:

Imams Urge Decent Behavior: “Social ills and negative elements like intoxicating drinks, wearing indecent clothing, smoking and so on which are against the religion and culture [and] can be shielded by a knowledge of the religion,” imams said Friday.

A few other short headlines:

  • Prize Presentation for 10-Pin Bowling Competition
  • Police Recruits to Uphold Discipline
  • Racers All Set for Brunei Go-Kart Challenge
  • Fun Quizzes and Poetry Recitals to Be Held at Convention Center

(I thought some of those could probably come straight from The Onion… but this was actually a real newspaper. It gives you an accurate reflection of how sleepy Brunei is.)

The coffee shop featured a free magazine rack, but when I looked more closely, I discovered a McCall’s magazine from October 1999. Seriously, 1999 – nine years ago. I don’t always expect the latest Economist, but nine years is a long time in the life of a magazine.

Because of the country's vast oil wealth, Brunei is also pretty expensive. I quickly discovered I couldn’t afford much of anything, including food anywhere other than the coffee shop. By contrast, in Pakistan I could pay for breakfast – or any meal I wanted – in the nice hotel.

Before we go any further, I should provide the Obligatory Disclaimer: I’m not saying Brunei’s a bad place; I’m just saying that other than the entertaining newspapers, it didn’t really have anything that was appealing to me. If you live there or have visited and have a different impression, that’s great.

Your Mileage May Vary

None of my friends travel the way I do – and almost none of them travel the same way as anyone else. We all have different styles of travel, different things we enjoy, and different goals for our trips.

I’m pretty open-minded about all of this. There’s just one thing I don’t like to hear:

“You’re doing it wrong.”

That one bothers me. My view is that as long as your actions don’t hurt someone else (the basic “do no harm” principle), then it is up to you to figure out what you enjoy and appreciate about travel.

If someone tells you, “You’re doing it wrong,” you don’t have to listen to them. Maybe they’re doing it wrong, or more likely, they have not yet learned that people can do things differently without being wrong.

For example:

The people at Indie Travel Podcast are all about, well, independent travel. Their audience is mostly students (U.S., Canada, and U.K. primarily) and younger, adventure travel types.

I also read First Class Flyer every month to learn about strategies for upgrades and premium flights. Matt, the publisher, has a completely different audience than your average casual traveler.

There are people on FlyerTalk who fly all over the world and never leave the airport – they just enjoy flying. I like flying too, but not that much – I do like to get out and about for a while before getting on another plane.

These are just a few ends of the spectrum -- if you think about it, you can probably think of lots of other ways to travel.

What Is Culture?

For a while, I felt guilty if I went to a new place and didn’t “experience local culture” according to the way some people think you should.

I remember when I went to Tunisia in the late spring. Thanks to a friend’s help, I was able to spend a whole weekend with a host family. One of the highlights, believe it or not, was going to the grocery store on Sunday morning with them.

Some people might feel it is more important to visit the historical sites of Tunisia (there are many) rather than hang out at the grocery store, and they usually use the culture word to make their case. I enjoyed seeing a few of the sites, but I enjoyed my time with my host family even more.

To people who wonder about this, I ask, "What do you think people who live in Tunisia do all the time?" Well, among other things, they go to the grocery store. They watch TV. They live their lives.

Creating a philosophy of travel that works for you goes back to the two questions I wrote about a while back –

  • What do you really want?
  • What can you give?

Your individual answers to these questions can affect what you enjoy about travel, and if you spend some time on it, you can develop your own travel philosophy that is unique to you.

A Little of Everything

As for me, I kind of like to do it all. I’ve flown in Virgin Atlantic’s amazing Upper Class cabin and stayed in countless $10-a-night hostels. Using my Starwood points, sometimes I’ve been fortunate to stay in great hotels that otherwise cost hundreds of dollars a night… and then I check out after a day or two to move across town to a cheap guesthouse. I know most people would probably stay more at one end or another, but for me, I’m comfortable with both.

When I went down to El Salvador on the first part of my trip this week, I enjoyed the ironic fact that the taxi from the airport ($25) cost more than my room at the Hotel Happy House ($23). And by the way, there wasn’t a whole lot happening at the Hotel Happy House, but it had a nice vibe. If you head that direction, it’s not a bad place to stay for a couple of days.

Oh, and earlier this week, I slept on the floor of the Dallas airport. At least I tried to sleep for a few hours in between landing close to midnight and boarding the next flight at 5:30 a.m. It was pretty much as you’d expect – not a great experience, but it’s over now. No big deal.

The point is, I like mixing it up. That’s my style.

I stay in most places longer than the average jet-setter, but shorter than the average backpacker. Over the past few months, I’ve made some adjustments in my preferred travel style to allow me to visit more countries, especially the difficult ones like Iraq, Mongolia, and Pakistan.

I think of this as more of a lifestyle design issue – the goal of visiting every country is really important to me, so I've chosen to focus on it and occasionally push myself harder than I’d otherwise prefer.

Now I’m off to the Middle East and Persian Gulf again. I’ll be in Cairo most of next week, and I just realized that Ramadan is currently being observed. I’ve been in the region several times, but never during Ramadan... so I'm excited to experience it firsthand.

But anyway, that’s me…

The point is, I am resistant to people who try to put an agenda on the way other people live their lives, including their own preferences or styles of travel.

And really, life is short, right? Rather than do it someone else’s way, isn’t it better to figure out what matters to you and then pursue that goal?

What do you think -- and how do you like to travel?


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Productivity and Vacations

Image by deqalb

Have you ever gone on a vacation only to come back feeling more tired than before you left? It’s not a good feeling to need a vacation from the vacation, but many of us have experienced that kind of let-down.

The secret to overcoming this feeling is planning some good, productive blocks of “work time” into your restful vacation.

No, I am not a workaholic. The key difference is that the work you do on vacation needs to be the kind of work that brings you energy… not the kind of work that tethers you to your cell phone or PDA.

While people not interested in lifestyle design may not appreciate this idea, I suspect that many AONC readers will not find the combination of vacations and productivity to be strange at all. The goal of most vacations is to relax, but we often go about it the wrong way. We binge on relaxation the same way we binge on work. It feels good the first day, but by the third day, you may have the same burned-out feeling you get from working too much.

Without a clear set of goals for your vacation, you may not come back feeling relaxed.

That’s why I advocate a process of goal-setting and GTD for vacations that is fairly similar to what I use for the work-week. The projects on the list are much different than work-week projects, but the system is the same.

At the start of any vacation, I set a few goals for myself -- usually just two or three big ones, along with a few small ones such as journaling every day. If you adopt this system, you should set goals that make sense for you, but feel free to steal some of my ideas if you’d like.

Here’s a Few Ideas

-Complete a bigger “weekly review” than usual. This could be a quarterly or yearly review. For several years now, I have completed a full annual review each December while on vacation. It is the most important thing I do that week, and I plan everything else around it.

Later this year, I'll explain more about that process in real time -- but for now, you can create your own review by looking at the major aspects of your life and planning anything you want to change. There are also many good books that can help with this - two of my favorites are Wishcraft and Finding Your Own North Star.

-Work on one or more writing projects. The good thing about being a writer is that I can work anywhere. I don’t even need a laptop all the time (although I do usually take one with me) because I do a lot of my initial work in a paper notebook before transferring it to computer. But even if you’re not a writer by profession, chances are you have some writing projects to work on, and these are usually a good fit for a relaxing week. You’ll likely find you get a lot more done without interruption, and the work is usually free of the stress that comes with being online all the time.

-Exercise Goals. I try to eat sensibly wherever I go, but I do usually end up eating a bit more while on a real vacation. That’s why I always make sure to set some simple goals of exercise during the week, which also helps maintain my regular habits of taking care of myself. I like to run, so my exercise goals revolve around that, but depending on where you are vacationing, you may also be able to swim, bike, or just take long walks.

Live from Alaska

By the way, I actually wrote the notes for this short essay in June while on vacation myself, from a cruise ship on the Alaskan inside passage. And in between all those big dinners and bread pudding desserts, I set aside a morning to run a full marathon (26.2 miles) while on the open sea. You can read the whole story here, but the short version is that it was an intense, crazy experience that I probably wouldn’t repeat, but I’m tremendously glad that I did it.

I knew I would have a good story to tell, and I enjoyed the bread pudding a lot more afterwards. Then, I went back to my room and did some more writing.


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The Perfect City by Personal Standards (Vienna, Austria)

Vienna, Austria
Image by Kliefi

The first time I went to Vienna, I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. I was tired after a two-week trip to Africa, and headed back to the U.S. a couple days later. The dollar had hit another all-time low against the euro the day before my arrival, providing even less motivation for visiting an expensive European city I expected to find crawling with tourists.

All that to say that the city of Vienna completely surprised me by how truly beautiful it was. From start to finish, virtually everything about my stay went right. From the airport I took the express CAT train to the Landstraße station, where I changed to the underground metro. At the city station, an Austrian Airlines check-in desk allowed me to check in to my ongoing flight even though it was two days away. I took my boarding pass for a flight that wasn't leaving for 36 hours, which I didn’t even think was possible until they handed it to me.

Walking down to the subway, a guy approached me, saying something I didn’t understand. “Entschuldigung, ich spreche kein Deutsch,” I replied, using a full third of my German vocabulary.

Oh,” he said in English. “Can you please spare 90 cents?

I’m always impressed by multilingual panhandlers. In America they could work for the U.N., but elsewhere in the world they have to ask for spare change in the subway. Anyway, the metro line took me exactly where my directions said it would, and I found my hostel a few short blocks away.

If this sounds normal, it’s not—I have a recurring experience of getting lost nearly everywhere I go, usually with my bags and often for an hour or more. It’s a small miracle when I successfully arrive at my destination in an unfamiliar city without getting lost at least once.

The hostel was just what I needed: a small dorm room with a writing desk and a window that looked out over a pretty courtyard. After dropping off my bags, I walked to a bakery I had seen on the way in. The sun was shining and I sat outside for 40 minutes, sipping cappuccino and brainstorming some notes for a business project. Life is good, I thought.

That evening I did some more business work and went running along the river Wien. It was incredibly relaxing and served as a good capstone for my first day in the city.


The next day was much the same—perfect chocolate croissants, friendly people, fun streets to wander. The skies were overcast and it rained off and on throughout the day, but I live in Seattle, so that didn’t bother me.

At the end of the trip I decided two things: first, I love Vienna and will start using it as a Star Alliance hub city instead of Frankfurt from now on. Second, I realized that part of what I like or dislike about certain places has to do with fairly narrow, personal standards. Is it a nice country to run in? Are there fun discoveries to be made? Of course there always are, but are they my kind of discoveries?

I hope I’m not becoming materialistic. At any rate, I do try to find beauty wherever I am. And by these admittedly personal and quirky standards, Vienna is beautiful. I spent my last morning at my favorite café, where I had gradually become amazingly fluent in ordering various kinds of coffee and croissants. This might not get me a job at the U.N., but it’s a good skill for my own travel needs.

When I went back to the airport, I headed straight to departures thanks to the boarding pass I received two days earlier. I left Vienna and traveled further east to Romania, which I expected to be a fairly direct contrast to everything I found in Austria.


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The Ancient Hotel in the Ancient City of Valletta

Valletta, Malta - Land of Anachronisms
Image by GordonMcKenna
You might expect that a hotel which offers its cheapest room for €299 ($440) a night would be pretty luxurious. Here in the city of Valletta on the island of Malta, I’m staying at the Le Meridian Phoenicia, where I noticed the room rates sign at the check-in desk.

Of course, I’m not paying €299; I’m staying here for free using my Starwood points, where the same room goes for a bargain rate of 7,000 points a night. This turns out to be a smart decision for more reasons than one.

From the web site, the place looks gorgeous. Visiting in person, it looks like it was possibly gorgeous about 30 years ago.

I’m given a real key to my room instead of a room card, and when I get there via the creaking elevator that holds a maximum of three people, it doesn’t work. I head back downstairs with my bags for an apology and a new key.

My dusty room has a no-smoking sign on the wall and an ashtray on the desk, which of course I find amusing. I drink three glasses of water from the tap, and it tastes like drinking straight out of a swimming pool. As I set the glass down for the third time, I notice a picture near the sink that seems to imply that the drinking water is unsafe. Too late for that, and I’m sure not opening the mini-bar to pay for mineral water.

The Cocktail Party

At check-in, I was also given an invitation to a “Management Cocktail Party” at 6:30 that evening. I’m not sure what to expect, but on the principle that you should never turn down a free drink from a $400 hotel, I decide to attend. After resting in my room and watching French TV for an hour, I put on my nicest clothes (which aren’t very nice after a week of traveling without any laundry opportunities) and head downstairs to the lounge.

I take a free glass of bad chardonnay and check out the room. In a full ballroom, I observe that I am the youngest person by about 80 years. Okay, maybe it's more like 30 years… but it certainly seems like everyone else here has come straight from the nursing home for cocktail night at Le Meridian.

There is a French corner and a British corner, but other than the language, you couldn’t tell them apart. Every single person is white, old, and looks strangely comfortable in this ancient hotel. It’s like a reunion of the Greatest Generation from both sides of the channel. I try to take a quick photo as inconspicuously as possible while balancing my chardonnay and a handful of peanuts, but it doesn't come out well. A waiter gives me a bad look, so I put the camera back in my pocket.

a•nach•ro•nism. noun. something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time, esp. a thing or person that belongs to an earlier time.

Later I run four miles around the city and down by the seaport. The hospital ship I worked with for four years in West Africa was registered here in Valletta, and more than 20 years ago it had docked in the city for registration and maritime certificates. I enjoy running along the docks of each side of the water, wondering which quay our ship had docked at and thinking about my memories of those amazing days from 2002-2006.

Afterwards I wander through the town, eventually buying an olive calzone to take back to my room at the hotel. The next day I run some more, explore the fort, and after another night of takeout olive calzone (no free drinks on your second night, apparently) I check out of the anachronistic Le Meridian.

I ignore the taxi drivers waving to me outside and take the bus back to the small airport. I'll be flying back to Vienna, and the strange visit now feels eerily comfortable to me, just as it apparently does to the centenarians at the hotel. I'm writing these short notes in the departure lounge, and now it's time to leave this island nation behind and return to the continent.


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Lost in Singapore

Image by tobym
First – thank you to everyone so far who has purchased my first product, the Unconventional Guide to Discount Airfare. I am truly grateful.

If you weren’t here yesterday, you can read more about it in the expected location. Against the conventional wisdom of scarcity, I plan to keep selling and improving it for a long time.

And now -

This is the story in which I am provided a geographic tour of Singaporean prostitutes, reflect on the biggest travel month of my life, and sleep in Changi airport prior to heading back to Hong Kong on the ultimate no-frills airline.

It’s a bit long—if you’re not interested in my travel diaries, you might not like this one. But if you’re up for it, here it is.

The last time I was in Singapore, things didn’t go so well – I walked into the glass door of a Starbucks on Orchard Road. My head recovered quickly, but my pride was wounded for the rest of the day.

Today I’m between Brunei, an odd little country completely surrounded by Malaysia, and Hong Kong on a nice 36-hour transit stop. I arrived mid-afternoon, which means I officially have one-and-a-half nights to spend before catching a 6am flight back to HKG. The first night I had planned to stay in a budget hotel, and the second night I expect to hang out at Changi Airport.

Singapore is the Asian city all travel writers love to hate.

Almost any commentary on visiting here is filled with references to canings and chewing gum. The implication is that Singapore is uptight, militant, and boring. Mention you are going to Singapore among established travel writers, and many will roll their eyes. “Why don’t you go up to Malaysia or down to Indonesia for some real culture?”

Yeah, yeah. Actually, I like Singapore just fine. It has a culture all of its own. Sure, part of that culture is somewhat manufactured – but that doesn’t mean it’s not culture in its own way.

On the train from Changi Airport, I listen to my iPod and say silent prayers for being finished with Brunei and on my way back home. In Singapore I have no schedule or major travel mysteries to solve, and I am happy for that.

The Red-Light Hotel 81

For my one night in the city before sleeping in the airport the next night, I’ve booked the cheapest hotel I could possibly find. Times are hard these days, and that’s just how it goes. The YWCA I stayed in before goes for $90 a night, but I’ve found a cheaper place further out of town in the Geylang district – which also happens to be the red-light district.

When I learn this information about my neighborhood, I’m a little surprised. I had no idea that Singapore even had a red-light district, but indeed they do. I get out of the train and hail a taxi to take me to the hotel. Along the short journey, the driver gives me an unrequested run-down on the prices of the local prostitutes.

“This area here, this is Chinese area. Chinese prostitutes, very expensive—maybe $80!” he says. ($80 in Singapore dollars is about $60 U.S.). He looks back at me for encouragement, but I don’t give him any. Nevertheless, he keeps going.

“Indonesian prostitutes over here—they go cheaper, lah. Maybe $30!”

I tell him I’m only interested in sleeping in my room tonight, but he doesn’t take the hint. “Over here, Malay prostitutes, over there, Thai prostitutes…” and on it goes.

It’s like the ASEAN of prostitutes in this neighborhood, with every nationality assigned its own couple of blocks. When I check in to the budget hotel, a Chinese guy next to me is paying for a stay of two hours. A sign reads “Only two people are allowed in the rooms after 11pm.”

Well, this is definitely not the vibe I get up at the YMCA, which does stand for Young Men’s Christian Association, after all. But the room is clean, and I take a quick shower, leave my bags, and head out to the parts of the city I’m more interested in.

The rest of the day, I walk. First I take the MRT over to Little India, a great neighborhood I’ve never managed to explore before.

Unlike a lot of Chinatowns, it really is like its own, well, little India. After a late lunch of potato curry, I head over to Orchard Road, Singapore’s central shopping area and also a nice place to walk in the early evening. I had just ran about 13 miles in Brunei the evening before, so my legs are pretty tired. I walk along at a slow pace, thinking about the whole trip that will be coming to an end soon.

The next day I head out to Changi Airport for an overnight stay before a 6am flight. I’ve decided to save money again and sleep on the airport floor, which at Changi is usually not as bad as it may sound if you haven’t been there.

Changi is frequently voted the #1 airport in the world, and for good reason. Transit passengers have access to free Xbox gaming consoles, internet-enabled PCs throughout the airport, nice relaxation rooms, a movie theatre, and even an outdoor garden you can sit in to pass the time. If you’re transiting in Singapore between 4 and 24 hours, the city will even send you on a free tour into the city, or give you a complimentary transfer shuttle so you can make your own tour.

In short, if you are going to sleep on the floor of an airport, Singapore is one of your better choices. I had planned to hang out in the garden, get caught up on emails, have a nice dinner at the vegetarian restaurant (yes, they have one of those too), and then crash out down by the Oasis lounge, where reclining chairs are freely provided.

There was just one problem… as there often is when traveling.

I do most of my long-haul travel on the Star Alliance and OneWorld networks, with major airlines like Cathay Pacific, Austrian, Thai, and so on. But I do a lot of side trips on low-cost carriers, which are ubiquitous throughout Asia and Europe.

On this side trip, I was traveling between Singapore and Hong Kong on JetStar Asia, a budget carrier in the truest sense. On JetStar Asia, you can’t even get a cup of water without paying extra for it… and they don’t allow you to bring your own food or drinks on board.

I know, I know – it’s almost as bad as Air Canada or any major U.S. airline. But the most troubling thing to me was that in addition to charging $1.80 for a cup of water, JetStar also does not allow anyone to check-in for a flight more than two hours prior to departure.

I didn’t realize this before I got to the airport, because I frequently get boarding passes for up to 36 hours in advance from other airlines. Then I’m free to cross security to the transit side, hang out in the lounge if I have access, or do whatever I want.

Anyway, I found out about 2pm that afternoon that I would not be able to get a boarding pass for my flight until 4am the next morning. This was definitely an unexpected disappointment, because it meant that my whole plan of spending the night in the transit area would not be possible now.

Happiness and Expectations

Writer Gretchen Rubin is publishing a book on the search for happiness next year, and I’m eager to hear what she has to say about it when the time comes. For me, I’ve learned through travel that happiness is largely related to expectations and perception.

I had been looking forward to the meal and the relatively comfortable place to sleep on the airport floor. With that plan, I’d get up about 5:15 in the morning and walk straight to the gate with boarding pass in hand. But without the boarding pass, of course, none of that was possible.

I’d have to fend for myself in the check-in area (which had less comfortable chairs and no carpeting, just a hard floor), and I would also have to wake up at 4:00, queue for the check-in, go through immigration and security, and then have another hour to wait until the flight actually boarded.

With my expectations dashed, I felt disappointed and unhappy. But when I thought about if further, I realized I had been in far more serious situations before. I mean, just last week I arrived in Pakistan without a visa. This should be easy, right?

I gave myself the “get over it” talk – also known as ass-kicking – and realized further that it was 2pm and I hadn’t eaten anything all day. (The lovely Hotel 81 in Geylang offers the option of two-hour rooms, but no complimentary breakfast.) After I ate some nice fried noodles with chili sauce, I immediately felt better about the situation.

I left my bags at the drop-off office downstairs, and went back into town on the MTR. After walking around Raffles Place for a while, I took the long way back to Changi. There wasn’t anything waiting for me there, and besides, I like to walk. For about an hour and a half, I walked through downtown, going along the Singapore river and then the Boat Quay area. Singapore is usually hot and sticky, but halfway through my walk, it cooled down.

Goodbye, Southeast Asia

My trip was coming to an end, and I was heading home. At 6am I’d be back on the no-frills flight to Hong Kong, then a connection to Tokyo and a long-haul flight across the Pacific the following morning. This trip had been far more tiring than usual, but I also made some good progress towards my long-term travel goal.

I realized I had been in a lot of places recently:

Pakistan – where I arrived without a visa, but then had a great week hanging out in Karachi.

Brunei – which was not really my kind of place, but I did have a great two-hour run and saw The Dark Knight with some Malaysians at the theatre in Bandar Seri Begawan.

San Marino – where I rented a car from the Rome airport and drove 12 hours round-trip to visit the Europe’s smallest republic. What, you don’t remember that story? It’s probably because I haven’t written about it yet. In fact, I may never write about it, because it didn’t go very well. But I did it, and I’ve been to San Marino now.

Mongolia – where I was evicted from my guesthouse—a first for me. It’s over, so that’s good. But it was also cool to see the Genghis Khan Brewery and other interesting cultural sites.

Poland – where I had another great run, also about 13 miles or so along the Vistula riverbank in Warsaw. I also learned I had made my biggest travel mistake ever, but I’ve gotten over it by now.

Northern Iraq, AKA Kurdistan – where I took off from my time in Eastern Europe to visit over a weekend. I was impressed with the culture and felt completely safe the whole time I was there.

Russia, Moldova, and Beyond – where I trekked through the Baltics, on to Russia, on Moldovan Airlines to Chisinau, and a train to Bucharest… before flying back to Vienna.

Yes, it was quite the journey. As I write this out in my journal this afternoon, I realize there’s a good reason why I’ve been so tired lately.

Thankfully, being tired works in my favor when nighttime comes, at least tonight in Singapore. I go back to Changi and enjoy a surprisingly good meal in the subway area below the airport. It also costs half the price of the $9 meal in the real airport, so I’m doubly-content. I buy a beer at the downstairs grocery store (they have one of those at Changi too) and head up to the check-in area, where I’ll make my “bed” on a couple of plastic chairs.

It’s not comfortable and they never dim the bright lights even after the last flight has left, but because I’m so tired I manage to sleep about four or five hours. I wake up sleepy-eyed, but ready to check-in and move on at 4:00 a.m.

I fly back on the uneventful JetStar Asia, but the good news this time is that the flight is half-full. I have a row of three seats to myself, and right after takeoff I fall asleep across the whole row. Nearly three hours go by before I wake up as we descend to Hong Kong, and I’m very thankful for the extra sleep.

Home from Japan

And then, a few hours later, I was heading back to Tokyo on the wonderful Japan Airlines, which provides consistently great service. Hot towels are brought out to everyone in all classes, and everyone gets a welcome drink. The 15 flight attendants, who are all women, are super-polite.

“Excuse me, sir,” says one of them as we are all boarding. “Is it alright if I ask you to please turn off your iPod before the departure?”

Being asked like that puts you in a great mood for the flight. Yes, it is quite alright. Thank you for asking so nicely.

The next morning, I'm on the way across the water, and I watch Kung-Fu Panda and type up these notes for everyone. Next stop, Seattle, my home city. It’s nice to travel, and it’s nice to come home.


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Conversations in Karachi

Image by megabeth
Almost without exception, the hundreds of people I’ve met in dozens of countries are nearly always happy to meet an American. Most people are smart enough to separate a government’s policies, which they may or may not agree with, from an average citizen who happens to be traveling in their country.

As previously reported, I often end up having the same conversations over and over in different parts of the world. I don’t always respond to the usual “Where are you from?” icebreaker question right away, but after talking with someone for a few minutes, I don’t hesitate to say I am from the U.S.A.

In Pakistan, where I spent the better part of last week, this was certainly the case. The stock dialogue usually goes like this:

“Oh, you are from America. That is a very nice place!”

“Yes, well, Pakistan is nice too. I’m happy to be here.”

“Really? You like it here?” (They usually sound a bit surprised.)

“Yes, very much.”

And so it goes, ad nauseum, the same conversation everywhere with a few variations.

On the way back to the Karachi airport after my four-day visit, the taxi driver and I have this conversation for a while, and then he leans forward and says, “You know, I want to tell you something about America.”

As he says this, I have déjà vu all over again. I have seen this movie before, and I know exactly what comes next.

“American people very nice,” he says, sounding like a Pakistani Borat. “Pakistani people like American people very much.”

Yes, I know what comes next, because I’ve heard it in Uganda, in Vietnam, and Romania.

“But Mr. Bush,” he says. “We don’t like him or Mr. Musharraf.” (Mr. Musharraf is the president of Pakistan, although he’s in the process of being impeached this week.)

Then there are the references to Guantanamo, Iraq, the difficulty of getting visas to the U.S., and so on. It’s usually a bit depressing to hear the litany, and there’s not much you can say except “Sorry about that.” But this time, since we’re closing in on November, I have a better response.

“Well,” I say, “We are having an election in America very soon, and next year there will be a new president.”

And here is the part of the conversation I did not expect, the one variation in the simultaneous love of America and indictment of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy that I hear pretty much everywhere.

“Yes! The election!” the driver says, taking his hands off the wheel and looking at me in the back seat as I frantically watch the road in front of us. “You will have Mr. Obama as president!”

I laugh at this unexpected statement. Should I try to explain that Obama has not yet been elected, and there is in fact another candidate in the race? It’s probably too complicated.

“You know of Mr. Obama?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says. “Everyone here is talking about him.”

After careful deliberation, the taxi drivers of Karachi have apparently decided to endorse Obama in the American election. When I ask my driver what he and his friends think of the other candidate, he says, “You mean Mrs. Clinton?”


One of the things I love most about traveling is conversations like that one. Every time I meet someone like my driver in Karachi, I walk away with the conviction that I couldn’t make these stories up if I tried. I have my share of misadventures, but I also meet incredible people with ways of life that are completely different from my own. I don't usually have a desire to live my life the way they do - I probably won't be moving to Pakistan anytime soon - but I almost always appreciate how different people view the same world.

Later, at the KHI airport, I sit in the departure area waiting for the check-in desk to open up. I look at the departure sign, which reads as follows:

Abu Dhabi
Kuwait City
Hong Kong via Bangkok
Jeddah via Riyadh

Two-thirds of the flights are to the Persian Gulf, where laborers head off to work for nine months or more. There are also a lot of kids here, though, and a lot of women who don’t keep their distance from me as much as most of them do in the city.

The check-in begins on time. I go through the second security check. At 1:40 a.m. we finally take off to Hong Kong, with a stopover in Bangkok to drop off two-thirds of the passengers. My next stop is Brunei, a small, sleepy Islamic monarchy surrounded by Malaysia. It’s the last stop on the trip, and after this, I’ll be headed home.


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Getting to Pakistan

View previous “getting to” entries here: Getting to India Getting to Moldova Full Trip Reports Archive *** As the Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong lands in Karachi, Pakistan, the purser makes the usual landing announcements. You can turn your mobile phones on but please don’t get up until we’re at the gate, be careful…

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My Biggest Travel Mistake Ever

A few days ago I wrote about my misadventures in Mongolia—the primary misadventure in that case being evicted from my guesthouse after midnight. That experience was certainly not fun while it was happening, but in the end, things turned out rather uneventfully. As a follow-up, today I thought I’d tell you about a misadventure that…

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Misadventures in Mongolia

This is the story in which I fly to Mongolia for $44, get kicked out of my guesthouse after midnight, and visit the Genghis Khan brewery. Sounds like fun, right? Well, yes. But I should first explain that in my world, a misadventure does not always refer to a bad day or an unfortunate series…

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