Thursday, February 28, 2013


Phileas Fogg
With sixty-five countries under my belt since I married Phileas Fogg,  there is good reason why people question my taking another vacation, especially so soon after my last one.   Initially,  I was apologetic and felt the need to defend myself for leaving town so often, but after a few years of circling the globe, I realized that Bruce and I were travelers, not tourists, and we weren't going on vacation.  We were exploring a foreign land.    Before I retired,  vacation was a time to vacate from the chaos of work and the stress of everyday  life.  I counted the days until I could take time off,  drop out and get away.  But now that I'm no longer working,  there's a lot less stress, so I don't need those beach vacations anymore.  

Celebrating with the villagers of Tambanum, Middle Sepik  Region,
Papua New Guinea
Travel for me is to discover,  observe,  interact,   learn,  educate, and  broaden my mind.   Despite our ages,  Bruce and I still actively explore offbeat places around the world that I used to call third world countries.   But now that I understand  their situations and conditions better, the term developing countries seems more suitable.   

Competing for a prize
Deep in the heart of Papua New Guinea,  we attended what I would call a tribal beauty contest named The Sing Sing, where thousands of tribesmen gather annually from around the country to win prizes for the best elaborate face paint and the most exotic dress.  Some of the wild costumes are made from rare bird of paradise feathers, shells, colorful beads, palm branches, and animal skins. Even though the trip was almost ten years ago, we still rave about it as if it happened last year.     

Mursi women with straw huts in background
One of the most fascinating places in the world I've been to is the South Omo region of Ethiopia, where we spent several days interacting with a number of exotic African tribes.  Most astounding were the unusual Mursi people, who wear clay plates in their lips and live in straw huts that a five foot tall person couldn't stand up in.   

My glasses changed his life

In the high mountains of Ethiopia I met a man who had extremely poor vision until I gave him a spare pair of my strong prescription bi-focal glasses that changed his life.  

Fish Monger in a Malaysian market
Gaining historical perspective to understand the culture of the country is essential, but my passion is talking with the local people and making some kind of personal connection to help me understand how they live their lives.  Since Americans are unpopular in some of the countries I visit, sharing positive reactions with them about my experience in their country is important.  If language doesn't hold me back, asking questions like how did you learn to speak such good English can open the door to more questions and answers, and often a more personal conversation with depth will occur.  

In Varanasi, India, a lovely merchant, who served me tea, shared a story about how his arranged marriage came about,  and what it was like to bring a new wife to live in his family's home.   "She waits until I eat my evening meal before she sits down and eats hers," he said.  "Although it's a custom in our family, it makes me feel uncomfortable and sad for her."

 If I simply say Namaste and bow to someone,  we might only hold each other's gaze for a few seconds, but sometimes it's enough to feel a connection.    Wherever I travel,  I always come home having made at least one new friend.  In 2006 while crossing the Denmark Strait on a Russian icebreaker, I met a British man, with an American passport, who was, and still is, living in Saudia Arabia.  We occasionally stay in touch and share  tips on travel and photography with one another, but I never thought I'd see him again.    As luck would have it, he will be in Dubai the same time Bruce and I are there,  so we have set a date to get together.    One of the beauties of travel is to recognize and appreciate how small the world truly is.  


Travel also satisfies my curiosity about things I've only read about or heard people say.   Yes, the glaciers are really melting in the Arctic,  and yes, the Borneo rain forests are being destroyed and replanted with oil palm by greedy foreign investors.   Bravely,  and with Pepto Bismol close at hand,  we've experimented with many oddball foods, and I can't say that I enjoyed eating the grilled guinea pig in Peru or loved the warthog stew we had in Zimbabwe.

Driving an ATV in the desert of Namibia
Nonetheless, I continue to step out of my comfort zone and experience the thrill of soft adventure travel,  and I will try and continue to do so until the day comes when I need to be wheeled up the ramp of a cruise ship.    If anyone told me fifteen years ago that I would rock climb inside a pitch-black ancient Mayan cave in Belize,  dodge a sea of motor bikes while crossing a busy street  in Hanoi, or drive an ATV solo down a tall, steep Namibian sand dune,  I would check to see what they were smoking or accuse them of being out of their minds.

But things change.  

Now,  instead of being accused of taking so many vacations,   curiosity gets the better of our friends, and they politely ask me where's your next trip.

And you pack your bag with 24 hours notice, right? 

Sure, that would be nice, but let's face it,  packing properly takes planning and time.  If I didn't do my research,  I might not pack a bathing suit for Greenland, but they had a sauna and jacuzzi on the ship.   There are many things to think about when packing for a trip --  the culture of the country,  the activities we will be doing, and what the weather is going to be.  

I always make a packing list for every trip and keep them in a notebook,  so I can go back and see what worked and what didn't, or whether I brought too many clothes or not enough.   For my upcoming trip to Dubai and Oman,  I consulted my packing list for past trips to Africa because of the similar climate, culture, and activities.  Like most of the trips we take, this one will be casual except for two days in Dubai, where one evening we'll be having drinks at the luxurious Burj Al Arab Hotel.  Not a place to wear  hiking clothes.  

Planning begins about ten days before we leave, mostly in my head, but I also look for my money belt, travel pillow,  special laundry soap and clothes line.   I also research what type of electricity adapter is required, or whether ATMs are available and how much cash I will need.   Maybe I should replenish my supply of mosquito repellant or purchase special items, like the leech socks I bought to hike in the rain forest of Borneo.   

Making decisions about clothes involves more time, but that's where my past packing lists come in handy.    I  like to shop for at least one or two new items before I leave,  although for some reason I tend to wear my old favorites first.  

I  always consider solid colors that mix and match and avoid patterns that might be limiting.   Lightweight fabrics that can be rolled and won't wrinkle much are my favorite.  Or the kind that dries quickly and doesn't take much room in a suitcase.   For  Oman I think I've brought the right clothes for touring villages,  ancient forts and castles, and walking in the dunes of Wahiba Sands.   In keeping with the Muslim tradition,  I will cover my head, shoulders and legs when visiting the mosques.  My goes-with-everything jacket will be perfect for riding in the air conditioned van, dining in restaurants,  and keeping me warm at night when staying at the nomadic desert camp.   On the plane I will wear my sturdy Keen shoes with rubber toes, and pack some lightweight sandals to help me shed the hiker image when necessary.  My flip flops are always handy in the shower, on the beach, or to wear to breakfast in the morning.   
Will all this fit in a carry on? 

At home our guest room serves as a staging area for packing.   Each day the pile on the twin bed grows larger and larger, and then I try and remove things that I believe are excessive.   It's best if I don't  put things inside the suitcase until one or two days before I leave, so I'm sure everything on the packing list has been checked off.   When roughing it,  like staying in a bedouin camp in the Arabian Desert,  or sleeping in a beach tent while snorkeling in the Philippines,  I roll my clothes and store them in two gallon plastic bags that I buy at Orchard Supply Hardware.   This way they stay clean and free of sand, and are relatively easy to access.  Plastic bags of various sizes come in handy for many uses along the way.   

I've always been happy to have a thin terry cloth hand towel tucked away in my bag,  but when asked what is the most valuable item I take on a trip,  I always say a headlamp, the kind you wear on your forehead and find at an outdoor-activities store, like REI.   Power outages are frequent in many of the developing countries we travel to and even occasionally in Europe.  Because there was no electricity in the Akha villages we trekked to in Laos,  holding a flashlight in one hand and brushing my teeth with the other in the dark was annoying.   

Hiking on the Greek Island of Amorgos
Another useful item is duct tape.  While hiking in the Greek Islands, someone showed me how to wrap duct tape around my toes to prevent blisters.  Guess what?  No blisters.     I break a pencil in half and wrap a small amount of tape on the end of the half with the eraser.  I also bring a lightweight laundry bag, so I can separate my dirty clothes from my clean ones.

I tuck in an extra pair of reading glasses because they can be lost or damaged.  Of course,  one can always buy new ones if  in Paris or Hong Kong, but not so easily in a safari camp in Botswana or on a three masted schooner in the Caribbean.    

My favorite luggage is a lightweight durable hard case that lies flat when open, and all of the contents are visible.    My husband loves his rolling duffel because of its large capacity,  but he also grumbles when he has to pull everything out to find his pajamas or  underwear because he can't see what's inside.   Polycarbonate is a lightweight material that is almost indestructible.   I say almost because mine was recently destroyed on a flight from Florida to the Caribbean.  It looked like it was run over by a tarmac tractor.  There are many good deals out there on luggage.   Paying full price is not my style, so I check online or go to discount stores like Marshalls and TJ Maxx.    My friends who own high end Eagle Creek and Tumi brands feel sick when their expensive bags come off the carousel ripped, dented, or filthy dirty.  

It won't be long before I'll be on that long overnight flight to Dubai, so I'd better get back to my packing.   Depending on the status of free wi-fi,  I hope to stay in touch with everyone.  


  1. This is one of my favorites. Thank you Pam for taking the time to write such interesting blogs.