Tag Archives: africa

Counting Countries in Ethiopia

Probably every traveler who has been outside their own country more than once has discovered that counting the countries they have visited is another way we humans have found to rank ourselves amongst our peers. Travel is not really a competitive sport but people will always have a necessity to compare themselves to others, no matter what the endeavor.

Eventually, most travelers will come across websites with a list of recognized countries and what they have determined actually constitutes an official visit to a country. Like rules to any game we have created, we must set requirements to actually keep score. Some sites suggest that you must spend at least one night or must spend money or must at least leave the airport, cruise ship terminal or transit facility to get credit. Some sites make an effort to give credence to the farthest regions of the world, or just attempt to balloon the possible total, by adding territories into the count. Perhaps they suppose people who are lucky or intrepid enough to visit Bora Bora, which is officially still France, want to get some extra credit over their friends who visited Paris on a pensioner bus tour of Europe.

 

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Trinity Church- Addis Ababa

 

While nothing may feel better when telling stories in some far off corner of the globe than to fit in your latest country count, it is not really considered polite to directly brag about how many pins you have put in your world map. I guess it’s similar to bragging about how much money you make. However, like people who wear designer shoes, make upscale fashion choices or drive an expensive car to subtly remind you how much money they have, travelers usually find obscure ways of displaying our country count without being overly blatant. Our Instagram or Facebook pages no doubt feature pictures of ourselves standing in front of several of the obvious iconic representations of places we have traveled. Surely we are hoping to cause a little jealousy amongst our fellow competitors, without outright bragging.

So that I don’t come across as hypocritical or a wiser-than-thou smug, we have our country count clearly posted on this blogs “about” page. We even have a handy map posted that shows graphically how much of the earth we’ve traversed. Because we wanted to get credit for countries we had visited prior to starting this blog, we even conveniently color-coded the map for your easy use. We are not better than those we write about.

 

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National Museum of Ethiopia

 

Like any competitive game, fudging or cheating eventually comes into play. When we had just started this journey we were sitting in a tiny cafe in a tree-lined park in Guanajuato, Mexico. A couple set down next to us and we started up a conversation. They asked how long we had been in town. Although we had only been there for three weeks, we claimed 4. They were duly impressed, so I guess it worked. I don’t know why we did it. It just sounded better somehow. As we have continued to travel we have formed a better bond with the truth, but still find ourselves tempted to color our travel history with exaggerations occasionally.

In truth, ranking ourselves as travelers by country count is really counterproductive to the real goal of travel. One’s age, financial state, fitness and current life commitments probably have a more to do with our country count than the pugnacity, lion-heartedness or daring with which we pursue our travel dreams. If you really want to rank yourself as a traveler think more in terms of movement. That’s actually what travel is all about. If you are in any stage of the journey, whether it is dreaming, planning, actively traveling or just reflecting back on where you have been then you can consider yourself a successful traveler. The beauty of travel is all about stimulating your imagination. It’s probably beneficial to focus on how many places you haven’t been if you really want to be considered for elite status.

 

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Lucy Restaurant- Addis Ababa

 

All that being said, the purpose of this blog is, in the simplest terms, to brag about visiting our latest country, Ethiopia. We stopped here on an overnight layover from one country to another. To be honest we thought it sounded cool to say we had been here and wanted it included in our list of places we have been. Also, it puts us over the milestone of 50 countries since we left on this trip. Like when you turned 20, nothing really changed, but it still felt good to not be a teenager anymore. Passing this milestone just separates us into a little more elite grouping.

 

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National Museum

 

What did we see? Not much. How much can you see in 16 hours?
Our first flight on Ethiopian Air was not as scary as it sounded to our western ears. The plane was new and even though it arrived 45 minutes late, the flight was pretty good. Our welcome to Ethiopia was not quite so enjoyable. Anyone who has a long layover in Addis Ababa qualifies for a transit visa, free hotel room and transfer to the hotel. Sounds great in practice but the lines for this perk were unbelievably long. We booked our own hotel and were only interested in the transit visa. We found out that was not possible. If you don’t take the free hotel and transfer, you don’t get the transit visa.

 

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Haile Selassie

 

The airline ran out of hotels in town and the lines basically ceased to move. It took us several lines and a few hours to find someone who could authorize us to just obtain the transit visa. We estimated we would be in the hotel by 11 PM but didn’t arrive until 2 in the morning. Not a good start to our short stay.

We cut our sleeping time short so we could get the most out of our 7 hours of exposure to the Ethiopian culture. We grabbed a cab and attempted to make an express tour of the city on our own. First stop was the National Museum. A little rough around the edges the museum still did a good job of explaining the history of the country and explained some of Ethiopia’s contributions to the world.

 

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Addis Ababa

 
Known human history begins in Ethiopia and thus the country has the elite status of having the oldest human ancestors remains ever found. Nicknamed “Lucy” by the archeologists who discovered the remains, this tiny set of bones is located in the museum. An interesting exhibit that made the price of admission worthwhile.
We also made a brief visit to the Trinity Church, an ornate structure whose claim to fame is the tomb of Haile Selassie’s tomb. We found that many of his family members, as well as other leaders of the countries, are buried in the adjoining courtyard.

 

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National Museum

 

We returned to our hotel for a break before our transfer back to the airport. We retreated to the shady veranda to watch the adjacent busy boulevard and all the interesting passersby. Ethiopia is the home of coffee and we couldn’t let the opportunity go without sampling our favorite drink in its homeland.

The coffee was strong and delicious and the entertainment on the street filled the rest of our afternoon visit to Ethiopia. We struck up a conversation with a couple of guys from Holland and after a few minutes of swapping travel stories we mentioned that this was our 50th country visited since the beginning of our trip. They quickly countered with their total of 110 countries visited. Very impressive indeed. A good reminder that even when you think you have accomplished something remarkable by passing a milestone, there are plenty of others who have surely bested anything you have done.

 

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Kaleb Hotel- Addis Ababa

 

We enjoyed our brief visit to Ethiopia and regret we didn’t have longer to visit. Our journey continues. As everyone who travels knows, it is not where you have been, but rather where you are going.

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The Garden of Good and Evil

We have basically changed our residence each month for the last seven-plus years. That has usually involved renting an apartment in some part of a city in a far away country that we have never been to before. We do our research, learn what we can and then hope for the best. We try to make sure we have access to groceries, money and public transit if we aren’t traveling in our own vehicle. The internet has made our reliance on third parties minimal. We have our favorite sites and use them to help us make the best decisions we can. Because we change venues so often there are time limitations to our research. Our budget sometimes forces us to make a few compromises that people with more money might be able to avoid but these have mostly involved inconvenience rather than safety.

 

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Muizenberg Beach Huts

 
I can’t say that we have ever done anything dangerous, daring or courageous during our travels. We have however travelled in many places that some might avoid due to a perceived vulnerability. We have navigated our way past political unrest in Turkey and Israel. We have managed to avoid violence in Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras. We have found our way around the petty crimes and scams of Morocco and avoided issues caused by poverty in South East Asia and Eastern Europe. We are not brave and rely on dumb luck as much as travel savvy. We have become increasingly confident, not due to ability so much as the fact that we have been doing this for a while and, so far, have survived.

 

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Table Mountain Views

 
At times, we have even found ourselves entertained by the frightened look on less experienced travellers as they cross crazy streets in Vietnam or the white-knuckled way package trip visitors clutch their belongings while walking through the crowded bazaars of Egypt, Turkey or Morocco. The wide-eyed nervousness displayed by cruise ship passengers circled like wagons in the middle of an old town square seemingly waiting to be attacked by an unseen enemy has caused us to chuckle at times. We pat ourselves on the back and feel good that we have overcome their worries. Of course, they are experiencing the shock of new cultures and are having a normal, if slightly amusing reaction to it. While entertained by others, I don’t overlook the insecurity I show when shifting a hand to cover my wallet on a crowded subway or the quickened step I adopt when traversing a darkened alley on evening walks in unknown territory.

 

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V&A Waterfront

 
If we have any secrets to share they would be basically don’t be too flashy, stay away from drugs, excessive drinking, illegal activity and to just keep a general awareness about what is happening around you when you are out. Remember most people are good everywhere and if you don’t look for trouble it probably won’t find you.

 

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Abbey Road

 
An underrepresented continent during our travels is Africa. We made our way through Morocco recently and explored Egypt with guides during earlier days of our travel life. Brief stops in younger days in Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and Cape Verde Islands summed up our experience in this part of the world. As our journey gets closer to its end, we realize the need to get to a few of these unexplored areas before we lose the chance to go.
Cape Town seems to be the gateway city for most travellers who want to experience sub-Saharan Africa. It has physical beauty, an interesting history and has certainly been a city in the news for most of the past 30 years. It seemed to offer everything we look for in a travel destination. The cost of living was economical and we found affordable flights from Dubai. It was time to begin our research.

 

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False Bay

 
Escorted travel was not going to be a possibility. This meant getting to see animals in the wild was going to be most likely impossible. Also, we would have to rely on public transportation, not the best option in Africa. We were a little worried that nearly every internet search seemed to contain warnings on crime and safety in Cape Town specifically and South Africa as a whole in general. Even most of the official tourism websites urged caution. Personal websites ranged from “don’t go for any reason” warnings to a less threatening “if you get past the crime, it’s a pretty nice place” variety. It wasn’t encouraging and the more we read the worse our trepidation became. In the end, our confidence and excitement outweighed our insecurities and we booked flights and rented a really nice 15th-floor apartment in the center of Cape Town.

 

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Camps Bay

 
The sun was setting as we arrived. These first aerial views over the sea and land around Cape Town were stunning. The water was bright blue and the earth was a wonderful reddish brown with jagged mountains prominently dotting the landscape. Immigration was easy. Some areas we passed near the airports looked rough and extremely impoverished but as we neared the downtown area and Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Signal Hill came into view our excitement increased. Our taxi driver gave us an excellent description of the town and its history during the 25-minute drive. He wished us well for our visit, but he also made very clear that there were dangers to avoid and things we should and shouldn’t do. The warning was friendly but stern. We enjoyed the ride but our nervousness was peaked by the time we arrived at our new apartment.
The next day we made our way out for groceries. We found that the store was nice. Prices were low and selections were good. Vegetables were summer fresh and local, baked goods were cheap and meats seemed geared around South Africans love of grilling. We noticed lots of homeless people on our 4 block trip to the market. Around boarded buildings, on sidewalks and in fields between buildings people were encamped everywhere. While a few asked for money nothing was threatening, but it did build on our wariness from the night before.

 

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Hout Bay

 
After eating we decided to check out the local area. As the name describes, the Central Business District (CBD) is the economic, transportation and historical center of the city. Modern tall buildings are equally mixed with classic early 20th century buildings in a British style. The Dutch heritage is somewhat displayed in the architecture as well. A good mix of warehouse and industrial use buildings, some repurposed as apartments are mixed with newer high rise apartment buildings. It gives off a gritty, somewhat chic, urban vibe reminiscent of inner cities in the formerly industrial cities of America. During weekdays, hip cafes, coffee shops, boutiques and a few bars do brisk business as workers make their way through their days. On weekends and at night when businesses close the area is more deserted and the area takes on a more threatening atmosphere. The homeless become more prevalent, streets look less inviting and an ominous feeling overtakes the area.

 

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Lion’s Head

 
We made our way to visit the District 6 museum near our house. The interesting display of life during Apartheid gave a good background on the formerly segregated country. We had coffee at one of the many cool cafes nearby. We found ourselves chuckling about some of the obviously nervous groups and independent travellers we came across. We thought the grittiness and racial makeup of the area probably were causing a bit of uneasiness for these obviously new visitors. We made our way towards the Castle of Good Hope, the original fort that defended the city during the times it was a colony of the Dutch or English. The fort is next to the Parade Ground, an area that is filled with homeless people and probably was the reason for the tourists’ nervousness. We wanted to see the gorgeous City Hall next door that displays a statue of Nelson Mandela waving to the crowd. This was where he made his first speech after being released from prison.

 

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Boulder Beach

 
While the recently rebuilt City Hall was beautiful, the street crowd around it was anything but. The sidewalk was filled with lingering people who frankly seemed surly and a little predatory. We probably should have turned around but we felt confident. That’s when I felt a tug on my camera bag. I turned to see an obviously drugged homeless person with his hand on the camera. I don’t know if he was trying to unzip the bag or just take it. I yelled at him and he stopped. He stepped back and I looked around for help. No one seemed to care. Faces looked unfamiliar and unconcerned. There were police nearby who did not seem interested. This was not something we hadn’t experienced before. Similar incidents had happened in Marrakech, Sarajevo and Barcelona. While it really wasn’t that bad, it scared me. Suddenly all of the warnings that I had scoffed at while researching the city became real. The cab drivers warnings echoed loudly and I questioned why I had even come here. It was the first day (of 30) and I didn’t want to be here anymore.

 

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Lion’s Head from Table Mountain

 
Because we really didn’t have any other experiences to counteract our unpleasant first day, it was difficult to find the enthusiasm to get back to touring the city. In order to get around, we would have to ride the bus. Buses are regularly scheduled and nice but not punctual. We were hesitant to spend long times waiting for buses in our area. Nevertheless, it was necessary so we made our way. One of our first stops was the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. It is a gorgeous former shipyard and dockyard area that has now been transformed into a shopping, entertainment, hotel and museum area. One side fronts against the beautiful Table Bay and the other provides spectacular views of Table Mountain nearby. The buildings are architecturally interesting and there are always musicians, dancers or other entertainment on display. Our visit (one of several) left us with better feelings and restored our faith that our visit could be salvaged.

 

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12 Apostles

The first truly stunning look at the best of the Cape Town area was when we made our way to the other side of Table Mountain to Camp’s Bay. Tucked beneath a part of the mountain called the 12 Apostles it looked as breathtaking as anywhere we have ever travelled. The blue-green water was translucent and the giant rocks that surrounded the sandy cove set the perfect picture. The white buildings of the town shown like pearls against the abruptly rising monolith behind. We walked the main beach street lined with cafes and trendy shops and enjoyed strolling the walkways along the main beachfront.

 

 

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Boulder Beach- Simon’s Town

 
Another day we rode another bus south through the trendy Seapoint and luxurious Clifton neighborhoods. Following the coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, we wound our way to the tiny town of Hout Bay. We were greeted by another gorgeous bay with a beautiful beach. We enjoyed exploring the working area of the port and watching seals cruise the area looking for easy meals from the fishing boats that call the bay home. The breeze was cool and coffee in one of the tiny restaurants was a welcome treat.

 

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Sunset Beach

 
We were warned about the train station area of the town. Commuter trains here are said to be improved but still present an uncomfortable option for travel. While most trains transit no-go areas for tourists, one route called the Southern Route makes its way (slowly) toward its most southern terminus called Simon’s Town. Home to the South African Navy, Simon’s Town gives off the atmosphere of the perfect early 20th-century summer beach destination. The buildings lining the main street have wide verandas and Victorian architecture. Of most interest to the foreign visitor is the opportunity to view the penguin colony of nearby Boulder Beach. Although overcrowded with hordes of bus tour visitors, it still provided an up-close view of these odd birds. This was our first encounter with wild penguins on our travels and was a real highlight of our South African visit.
The train was virtually empty on our outbound journey but was filled with passengers returning from their work or school days towards town. Listening to the conversations of several uniformed college-age students that sat near us on the standing room only train provided us with a great opportunity to listen to South Africa’s future discussing their studies and plans for their future. It restored our sense of hope that what today may seem bleak will most assuredly be brighter in the future.

 

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Colorful Beach Huts

 

 
We also enjoyed another day trip to the Woodstock neighborhood. This industrial neighborhood has been discovered by young professionals, artists and hipsters and has many shops and cafes worth visiting. We visited on Saturday when a repurposed warehouse area called the Old Biscuit Mill comes alive with a farmers market and food stalls. The looks and smells of the delicious items for sale were mouth watering. Music was provided and the crowds of young urban dwellers enjoying a day off were reminiscent of our own home of San Francisco.

 

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Camp’s Bay

 

 

We made our way another day to the beach areas north of the city. The Sunset Beach, Bloubergstrand and Table View areas were each slightly rural areas of the city that featured modern designed beach houses with toney malls and restaurants. Again reminiscent of Southern California beaches we watched surfers, kiteboarders and sun seekers enjoying the spectacular weather and picture-perfect views of Table Mountain in the distance.
Of course, the highlight of our visit was the day we made our way to the top of Table Mountain. A cable car whisks visitors rapidly to the top of the 3400-foot peak. Descriptions of the views include any superlatives you could imagine. Jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, stunning, and otherworldly would not be exaggerations. A trail leads in a circular fashion and provides an incredible 360 view of the entire Cape area. As the mountain is often covered in a shrouded mist, we felt lucky that we were able to visit on a beautiful blue sky day.

 

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Penguins

 
I think we will always look back on South Africa as a bit of a missed opportunity. Perhaps limiting ourselves to one area of the country was not the best travel idea we have ever had. We saw such a small area of the country and even though it ranks as one of the most beautiful we have seen anywhere it really wasn’t enough to overcome our bad experiences. Because of limits we imposed on ourselves, we weren’t able to get out and experience all there is to offer. This country is attempting to overcome a troubled past that has been well covered. They are making a good effort. Unemployment and homelessness are still things that need to be overcome. If the young people we were exposed to get there way, I know they will be successful someday. I would love to come back in the future if I get a chance. Hopefully, we could get a chance to see everything this country has to show us.

Seven Straight Years of Travel

In July of 2011, we made the decision to leave our comfortable jobs in Northern California to see the world. We had always enjoyed travel and for years had dreamed of traveling full time. Careers, family and other commitments took precedence over adventure and we could never really find the right time to make our move. Our youngest son had recently left for college and had made the decision to stay at school for the summer. Our house felt empty and we realized our lives had become routine. We really wanted an adventure. We wondered if now was the time.

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Istanbul, Turkey

We weren’t old enough for traditional retirement. We had been good savers for several years and had a decent amount of savings. We both had a small pension from previous jobs. We definitely weren’t rich but if we could live modestly and watch our money, we felt we could manage. We exchanged luxuries for experiences and made our decision to take on the world.

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Fenghuang, China

We would travel slowly, staying in cities and towns for longer periods than most tourists have time for. Hopefully, it would give us an opportunity to observe local life in a unique way. We would live in small apartments and cook the majority of our meals at home. We would live like residents instead of visitors.

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Amsterdam, Netherlands

Within a fast-paced two weeks, we had rented our house, sold or given away most of our things and put a few collected treasures in storage. Our children thought we were crazy, although growing up as travelers themselves, probably understood. We packed our car with the minimum amount of things we thought we needed and headed south to Mexico, our first destination.

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Mendocino, California

It was challenging in ways we never expected. Languages, customs and traditions were different. We found we needed to rely on each other more than we ever had in our lives. Every day was different from the last. Food, weather and lifestyle were radically different. We did not have the large budget that most tourists use to overcome challenges. With patience, we began to discover that most everyone in the world has more commonalities than differences. Our map skills got better and our world expanded. Eventually, we went further south, crossing into Guatemala and the rest of Central America. We spent almost two years traveling over 30,000 miles of some of the roughest roads in North America. Stopped only by the end of the road in Panama, we saw the biggest towns and smallest villages and learned a new language and a new lifestyle. We learned to live for experiences and not possessions.

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Essouira, Morocco

We did miss our children. They enjoyed coming to visit as often as they could. We found inexpensive flights are plentiful these days. Because we had rented apartments and cooked at home it was not that expensive to have them spend time with us wherever we were. Video calls and Facebook allowed us to stay connected better than we ever expected.

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Rome, Italy

Eventually, we realized that our new lifestyle could take us nearly anywhere we wanted to go. With the use of websites like Airbnb, we found affordable apartments easily accessible everywhere in the world. Discount airfares were plentiful with minimal shopping. Our world suddenly was greatly expanded. We put our car in storage and left for Asia. We learned to use public transportation and frankly walked the shoes off our feet. We literally learned to live with what we could carry. If we couldn’t fit it into our backpacks, we didn’t need it.

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Procida, Italy

Europe seemed unattainable because of costs. We found that by choosing small apartments and taking advantage of excellent public transportation we could get by even on our small budget. Of course, we loved seeing France, Italy and Spain but the surprises came when we saw less touristed but equally interesting countries like Poland, Czech Republic, Croatia, Romania and Ukraine. Even exotic locations of Turkey, Morocco and Israel were possible for us.

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Sedona, Arizona

 

Photographs became our main souvenir of the places we visited. While we still enjoyed perusing the many markets we encountered, our vagabond lifestyle did not permit us to buy as often as we would have liked. We enjoyed looking at photographs of the most beautiful places on earth and figuring out ways that we could capture the images for ourselves. Rather than countries leading us to photographs, we found the photographs leading us to countries. We spend many an evening on a pristine hill overlooking unbelievable cityscapes transformed as sunsets illuminate our newly discovered surroundings.

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Joshua Tree National Park

We have just begun our 8th consecutive year of travel. Despite our glacial pace, we have now traveled to 47 countries on 5 continents and have no intention of stopping. We have returned home for major occasions such as weddings, graduations and a few celebrations and even had an opportunity to see some of our own country. The farther we travel the more we realize there is to see. The world is an incredible place and our life would not have been complete without sampling a good chunk of it. Our lives have forever been changed for the better. We appreciate what we have seen and look forward to each new place with great anticipation. Isn’t that how life is meant to be lived?

Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto, Japan