Friday, January 29, 2010

Rough Truck Ride to Nairobi

This story is abridged. I'd love to put in all the good parts. Maybe in some other format some day. For now, we're just going to give you the basics.

Up to this point, I've refused to specify an ending date to my trip. This isn't just to keep people in suspense or some ear of commitment. This is because I knew that transport in a lot of Africa is notoriously unpredictable. I'd been warned. So when I found out that a 700km journey was going to take me three days instead of the seven hours it would have taken in any developed and most developing countries, I shouldn't have been surprised. The buses in southern Ethiopia leave when they are full, not before. They stop whenever someone inside or outside wants to stop them, be they passengers, chaat sellers, or the cops looking for a bribes. In a surreal moment, one of the cops told the driver he was fining him for having more passengers than seats. May seem reasonable back home, but if you've ever ridden any form of Ethiopian transport, you know this is a bit like ticketing someone for driving with only one hand on the steering wheel.

There was a stay in the closest thing I've ever seen to a wild west frontier town before I finally made the border, knowing I'd just finished the easy part. Getting from the northern Kenyan border to the capital of Nairobi over land was the legendary challenge, one that native Kenyans had tried and sworn off.

The road is a dirt road, corrugated by lack of maintenance with potholes big enough to hide a VW bug. A few years ago, Somali bandits made this road impassable without an armed convoy. Now the Kenyan army has cracked down enough so that you just pay your way onto a truck carrying cattle or beans for a day and a half to Isiolo, 3 hours north (by paved road) of Nairobi. You pay a bit more to sit in the cabin up front, otherwise you're out in back, sitting on metal bars above the truck's load. It's quite safe, so they tell me. They also tell me that the ubiquitous dude on each truck, riding on top of the cab, in camo carrying a rifle, is just another traveler going home.

I crossed out of the famously (mostly) unconquered African land into the ashes of the British empire. Slightly more infrastructure, cars on the left side of the road, and clunky UK-style electrical plugs are back. So is English as the dominant language. Except for trilingual Lebanon, this is the first English speaking territory I've been in since Hong Kong, back in July (though Amsterdam could make a case as well). Kiswahili is close on English's heels. You hear it everywhere, even if finding it written down takes effort.

Kids no longer stare at me or yell "you you you". Mzungus, as we're known around here, aren't an oddity anymore. We're just a cash machine. The best description I have seen of Moyale, Kenya was a fellow blogger who posted a picture of a seat-less overflowing toilet in his hotel, calling it a metaphor. Upon entering town, I was beset by seven touts (or “brokers” as they call them here) in less than twenty minutes. One cussed me out for ignoring him (and got really scared when I asked "if he wanted to speak to me"), another followed me into my hotel, offering to wake me up the next day for the truck he wanted to sell me a ride on, and another after that found me in an internet cafe and insisted it was time for me to get on his truck right then and there.

As usual, I got lucky and met people. The people this time were a Kenyan reporter doing an investigative piece on tribal conflict, an Israeli backpacker who'd fallen head over heels for the country, and a very quiet friend of theirs. We spent a little time trying to make a local NGO's internet connection work before the Israeli and I made arrangements to head south together on the same truck, the reporter acting as our negotiator for a fair price.

One of the brokers actually did track me down to my room at 7am the next morning to wake me up, insisting it was time to go on his truck. I politely told him to get lost, and another followed me to my room after seeing me across a balcony on my way to the bathroom. More hilarity ensued.

We made our way through it all and got on a truck at a fair price. With one thing after another, the Israeli convinced me it would be a better ride on the back of the truck instead of in the cab. We'd each save at least $13, and we'd get a better view.

At first I thought she was right. But I was picturing just the two of of us, maybe two other locals, on soft bags of... something. Turned out we were squeezing ourselves onto sacks of ginger or the metal crossbars above them with twenty-two other passengers, and though we didn't know it yet, we'd be picking up even more.

That was an adventure. I'll cut the details and just leave you with the headlines and hooks. The lush greens did gradually give way to spectacular rock deserts. We had a very nice catholic Kenyan man who just couldn't believe there could be someone from Jerusalem who hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as the messiah. We blew a tire with a sound that prompted our armed man to load and ready his rifle, causing half of us drop from the crossbars and hit the ginger sacks. There was a long discussion of the merits of communism while sitting atop the spar tire, witching the stars. Then there was the dinner stop where they never turned off the engine, convincing me that we wouldn't have time to eat. Meaning I went most of the journey without any food.

In other brilliant moves by yours truly, when everyone set up to go to sleep, I noticed that nobody was going for the covered back area, they were all packing themselves into the front in uncomfortable positions. It did occur to me that there was something they knew that I didn't, but I figure they just didn't like being in the covered section. So I found a stack of cardboard and laid it out in the back. I realized my mistake when we started moving. My position put me right above the back axle, meaning every time it hit a bump (roughly once every ten yards), I would be shot up a foot into the air. Sleeping on cardboard I can grudgingly do. Sleeping while flying up into the air and landing on cardboard every few seconds is just a little too much. So I headed back forward. One of the Muslim girls helped me find a three-foot spot on the ginger sacks crunched between three people and a sack of hard-heeled shoes. If you've ever gone camping and found you'd put your sleeping bag on a root, you understand that this isn't very comfortable. Ginger is a root. Imagine sleeping on a sack of tree roots. Now imagine trying to do it after you've been bouncing up and down on a steel rail for ten to twelve hours. I gave up within fifteen minutes.

I ended up sitting in an improvised sling big enough for one modestly overweight person, strung out between the rails. I was sharing it with the guard, who was bundled up with about five layers against the wind chill, which I'm guessing was around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. I spent the night trying nod off with half of my extremely sore butt in a burlap sling with the butt of a rifle lodged across my lap, while four old guys chewing chaat leaves (a stimulant similar to coca) yelled at each other. The sling didn't rip in half until we'd nearly arrived.

The only upside was the scenery and the animals. Among other things, I saw tons of African hares, the smallest deer I'd ever seen, not much bigger than a large cat, lot of birds, and the silhouette of my first wild African Elephant.

When I finally arrived in Nairobi, twelve hours later, I was sunburned, severely dehydrated, and very very sore. I was also filthy. People in the microbus from Isiolo to Nairobi tried very hard not to look at me. I hadn't eaten in over twenty-four hours. I had slept about half an hour. I dragged my stinking unshaven body across to the first restaurant I found, spent what felt like an eternity just putting my bag down and sitting. When I washed my hands, the water coming off of them may or may not have stained the sink dust brown permanently. The chicken in my stew was the toughest, chewiest fowl I'd ever eaten, so I haven't been back to check.

I got information from my usual sources. I wasn't sure I was in good enough shape to pull off the stunt of getting a free tourist map and orientation from the local luxury hotels, but the internet cafe was the cheapest in town and gave me the number of a hostel, though it had no formal address. After a half hour hike uphill, I shoved past a group of evangelical Christians in residence, and finally got myself a much needed bed and shower.

And that was how it started. I've spent a lot of time since then getting errands done. My passport has had yet more pages added, right side up this time. After a lot of frustration wandering through camera shops full of nothing but Sonys and Kodaks, I scored big time and found a fantastic deal on a pocket Canon compact with manual controls and a 10x optical zoom. Combined with the 4x digital, that's a virtual zoom of 40x magnification.

And starting in about ten hours, I'm going to be putting that particular feature to very good use. Just how I'll do it is for you to guess. Until next post of course. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Check out this entry's old fashioned film camera Photos. Because we're blogging likes it's 1999 (...before blogging existed. Yes).

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Craze Must Be Godly

I got to spend one of the biggest festivals in Africa, Timkat, in the
town most famous for celebrating it well, Gonder, Ethiopia. Timkat is
actually the Ethiopian orthodox celebration of Epiphany, the baptism
of Christ. For the purpose, the arc of the covenant is brought to a
place called the Fasil Baths, a pool constructed in the seventeenth
century by the king of Gonder. Vigil is kept all night by worshipers
in white shrouds. Come morning, a hour or two before sunrise, more
people start to come by candlelight. Those who have spent the night
sleeping next to the baths start to wake up and rise. Then comes the
singing. And that's just the beginning.

It was a wonderful sight, and for me it justified my having stayed so
long in town for the festival. For a few minutes at least, until one
of my few superstitions was unapologetically smashed to bits.

I'm not a superstitious person. I tend to walk around ladders because
I don't like things falling on top of me, I think breaking mirrors is
stupid and dangerous, and I avoid saying the name "Macbeth" when among
fellow theater people in a theater because it freaks them out. But
I'll open an umbrella indoors, I like black cats, and spilling salt
doesn't bother me except that it's a waste of salt.

But I did hold a superstition that a religious population would
refrain from committing crime on religious ground, during religious
ceremonies, or under the eye of religious leaders. So when I came to
one of the biggest Christian festivals in one of the most fervently
Christian countries I've come across, filled to the brim with priests,
on the most traditional spiritual grounds around in sight of what most
of the people there believed to be the true arc of the covenant, I let
my usual guard down.

I paid for that mistake with my camera.

Looking back, I'd walked right into a pickpocket's dream. Big jostling
crowd to distract people and explain the feeling of hands on your
pants, lots of rich farenji (foreigners) for targets. I had both my
hands full, moving up to a viewing platform, one with my water bottle,
another with a lit candle, both raised above my head to navigate. So
when I felt the hand go into my left pocket, I couldn't believe it. It
wasn't even a skilled pickpocket attempt, I've foiled half a dozen
much smoother ones, but this one got me by virtue sheer surprise. I
couldn't believe anyone could be so clumsily blatant, so I for the
crucial split second decided they weren't actually trying anything.Whoops.

And there went my camera, and with it all but one of my pictures of Ethiopia.
I suddenly felt a lot less respect or interest for what seemed like a bunch of
people in white sheets with candles jostling around a half empty pool
of water in the dark. Especially after I caught not one, not two, but
five more people trying to pick my pockets again within the next 45
minutes. One of them actually succeeded, but, when they found all
they'd come up with was a spiral notebook, they tossed it on the
ground in disgust, where a friend of mine found it moments later.
So much for that superstition.

I did manage to get some photos from friends I've made in town. I'm
very grateful, but it's not quite the same... especially since I'd
just lost all the pictures of the friends I'd made in Addis Ababa,
Bahir Dar, Lake Tana, and Gonder itself. If I wanted to spend another
week there, I could probably find them on the black market somewhere.
I'm learning this now back in Addis Ababa.I went camera shopping
today, and found out that the government puts crazy import duties on
all electronics. I was offered a point and shoot camera that would
cost maybe US$300 at the very most for US$787. And it was the only
camera the store had. The stores here know digital cameras are too
expensive for people who live here, and that anyone else would by them
at home. So they don't even bother stocking them.

By the way, I had yet another pickpocket attempt while I was at it. A
guy walking a couple inches ahead of me stopped suddenly, and I
crashed right into his back. I stepped around him, patting his
shoulder with my left hand while apologizing. He grinned, grabbed my
left wrist and started kicking my left leg. Not hard, just enough to
get my attention while I felt another guy reach for my right pocket. I
hadn't expected it, so I smacked the offending hand away instead of
grabbing, which meant both of them were able to escape. But at least I
still had all my belongings.

I didn't get so lucky as to find a cheap digital, but I scored some
inside info that Kenya doesn't have the same problem with taxes on
electronics imports. So I've got some shopping to do in Nairobi. In
the meantime, I was given an old pocket film camera with "Focus Free"
in big letters on the front. I'm not sure that's a good thing. But it
works. So, instead of buying a $787 camera, I went and bought $4 worth
of film, roughly 72 exposures. That's right boys and girls, we're
going old-school.

I'm sorry I didn't get it before. Festival aside, I got an inside tour
of the farmers' market of Gonder. Now when I say "farmers' market," I'm
not talking about the free-samples of fruit-flavored honey and garlic
spread in the city summer street under colorful awnings. I mean the
dust, tarp and stick maze where the farmers come to buy live goats,
chickens, oxen, and spread out their produce on burlap to hawk to
families there. My trigger finger was itching to take pictures of
everything I saw, just to share it.

The 25-year old tenth grader (no joke) showing me around was confused
as to why I wasn't taking pictures, and didn't quite have the English
skills to understand my explanation. It wasn't the only point of
confusion-- he also couldn't wrap his head around the idea that I
didn't know the market price of an ox in my hometown.

Like a lot of beginners at the English language, he asked a lot of
weirdly formed, personal and sometimes profound questions, following
them up with his answers as examples. For example, what was most best
person in Ethiopia or out of Ethiopia (his was Barack Obama). Or what
was the most hated people and most liked people (for him, gangsters
and religious people, respectively), what did your parents do (his
were farmers) and what was the economic situation of your family (his
was "very well off").

He invited me to his place for lunch. It was another two or three room
cement and mud structure with very dirty dogs and cats wandering
around. I was served the same things every Ethiopian serves me and is
sure I'm trying for the first time, injeera bread and a coffee
ceremony. Looking at the dust, the number of kids and people that had
to fit into all these rooms, I felt like I should do something to help
them out. Maybe offer them a little money, at the very least to cover
the bottles of coke they sent the little kid out to get for us. But
then I remembered one of the answers he'd given me to his questions.
His family is "very well off." Giving them money, would probably
offend them. I did later take my main host out for a couple drinks,
but still, this put things in perspective.

To my Developed world eyes, the home would have been a poster for a
third world charity with the title "help us fight poverty." But they
were very well off. It made me think about all the other people I
wasn't seeing who were so much less fortunate. The little kids in the
middle of the countryside getting into fistfights over the plastic
bottles tossed out of buses, because of the money they get for
recycling them. The people sleeping wrapped up in tarps on the streets
of Addis Ababa, creating a more than passing resemblance to the
mummies in the Egyptian National Museum. The stories of the crowds
sleeping outside the lonely spots where the UN might do food drops for
the holidays the next morning. The ones who have no other way to

And all I have to worry about is that I won't bring home the pictures
I took of some of them.

Keeping things in perspective doesn't always make you feel good.
Photos pending the miraculous return of my stolen Canon SD1100. Don't
hold your breath.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Hello, you.

There's a funny thing that happens in developing countries where you don't look like the rest of the population. You'll walk down the street, people will look at you as you pass, and right when you're about to pass them, or just after you've passed them, one of them will burst out "hello!" It's always a little too late to reply to without twisting around and trying to stop them, because at this point they've usually started scurrying away, giggling.

Small town Ethiopia isn't like that. At first I thought the little kids were yelling something at me in Amharic, or one of the other local languages. But then I realized what they were really saying: "You! You! You you you! Youyouyouyouyouyouyouyou!"

Every time our 11-seat minivan with 18 occupants stopped somewhere on it's ten-hour route, the kids of the town would be out, following, waving, trying to touch my arm through the window and yelling "You!" If I waved or said hi back, some of them would stop, shyly. Others would act like I'd just thrown them a fistful of candy.

In the cities, the "Yous" change back to "Hello," but there's nothing shy about it. They'll yell it from far away until they get an answer. If you say hello back, they get really excited and say it again and again. If you say "selam" or "ishi" (hello or hi in Amharic) they become really shy. Sometimes. Last night I had a pair of six or seven year old kids follow me down three or four unlit, suburban, dirt road blocks, just so they could keep saying hello every few minutes.

This place isn't timid. Ethiopia is a proud country. It was the second Christian nation after the Armenians, the only African nation never to be colonized (except when it sorta was for five years, but we don't discuss that) and it doesn't mind doing things differently from the rest of the world.

For example according to the local clock and calendar, it's about 2:30 am, and the sun is shining on this bright day in 2002. Christmas was about a week ago, and the feast of the Epiphany is in four days.

I thought it was funny when I learned that the State of Arizona doesn't observe daylight savings time, but that the Navajo nation, inside its borders, does. I thought it was a bit odd to find that the capital of Argentina observes daylight savings time while most of the rest of the country does not. I thought it was weird of China to maintain one time zone for its entire nation, leaving large chunks a few hours off from the neighbors directly to the north and south.

But that was all before I learned that, in Ethiopia, time is roughly eight years and six hours behind everyone else in its time zone.

I've been to other places where there are alternative calendars to ours. The Jewish Calendar, the Chinese Calendar, and the Islamic Calendar are all in different years. But in the countries they're used in, they mostly seem to be there just to calculate when the holidays occur on the calendars everyone else uses. In Ethiopia, the Julian calendar is used for just about everything, and our calendar is referred to dismissively as "European time."

Same with our time of day. Ethiopia being so close to the equator, daylight almost always lasts twelve hours. So dawn happens at 12:00am, noon at 6:00am, dusk at 12:00pm, and midnight at 6:00pm. It makes sense. At 3:00am you've had daylight for three hours. Four at 4:00am, etc. I still haven't gotten a straight answer as to what time the date officially changes, dusk, midnight, or dawn.

History too, doesn't follow our little rules. I bought and downloaded a pdf guide from Lonely Planet on Ethiopia. This is from page 30, the history section: "The following chapter contains the factual 'real' history that historians like to use, but it's important to remember that for the majority of Ethiopians this isn't the history they believe in. In Ethiopia, like in much of Africa, legends concerning magical deeds, ghostly creatures and possibly nonexistent folk heroes are not just legends, but are taken as solid fact and who cares if the historians say the dates and places don't add up."

These are not the only things that've made me stop and think for a second. I was hosted for my first day in the country. As we walked from the airport into town, I was given the usual modest spiel of "I mean the place isn't too fancy, I hope you don't think it's too..." etc. And I just gave my usual reply to put them at ease: "Don't worry, all I want is somewhere my stuff is dry and secure and somewhere I can wash myself off."

Instead of being a reassured, my host looked worried. He didn't have running water that day. I would later learn that a shower is something he gets about once a week. It's a clean culture otherwise, all people wash their hands with soap both before and after every meal, but body odor here is a fact of life.

Parts of Addis Ababa, the capital city, look like the rural areas of Central America. The neighborhood is made up of little compounds of mud and plaster houses, encircled in tin fences. The toilet is a hole in the ground, covered by a curtain. There is electricity (most of the time). When unplugging a phone charger from my room, I accidentally pulled the outlet halfway out of the plaster wall. The next place I stayed, in the town of Bahir Dar, the way to turn off the light was to gently tug on one of the wires sticking out from behind the sheet of plywood that comprised half of my wall. I was warned sternly not to touch any bare ends that came out.

My first night in town, my host took me out to a bar with traditional music and dancing. It was a great night, some amazing dancing from people just getting up from the crowd, and what looked like the great grandfather of battle rap taking place between a female singer and one of the male musicians, taking turns calling each other goats and saying the other is so cold they don't need to buy a refrigerator. On the way there, my host wanted my opinion on something. Why was it that in Ethiopia, they are poor but happy, while in other countries they are rich and unhappy. The truth was that I didn't think people were all that unhappy in rich countries, but I didn't say so. The question was more of a lesson. Ethiopia may be poor, but it's happy.

And it's working to better itself. I spend a couple days with a 21-year-old woman from Bahir Dar who did something very similar to what I did. From a young age, she saved everything she earned for a cause. But instead of traveling around the world, her cause was much more noble. Her money goes to helping women and children affected by HIV. She's already founded and registered a local charity to help the staggering number of HIV/AIDS victims in her area.

"I don't want outside help." She told me. "Ethiopia has to help itself. We need to solve our own problems."

I've only spent a week in this proud place, but already it's proving to be a little bit different from anywhere I've been.
Well, my camera was stolen before I could save my photos, but I at least put this together.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Last Missive from Cairo

I've been doing a little homework on my trip to Ethiopia. I've looked at a few countries where communication was tricky, but if my guidebook is to believed, this could be one of the toughest I've faced. Telephone service is such that even with a full cell signal, calling is often impossible. Post service is reliable, if slow. Internet service in the capital, Addis Ababa, takes “five minutes for a two line text email.”

This means I can't guarantee any updates after this one for some time. If and when they do come, they will likely be without photos. My email access will be limited. Also those of you who know how to reach me by phone will have a harder time doing so.


I've had warnings like this before and sometimes found them completely overblown. There's still a chance I'll be able to find broadband internet access and plenty of cell service. But it doesn't look likely.

In the unlikely even I am cut off completely, I'm leaving my plan up here: I am headed south. My ideal plan would be to spend time exploring southern Ethiopia on my way to the border crossing into Kenya at Moyale. However, this border crossing is a bit risky and sometimes gets shut down. I will not proceed across unless I am satisfied that I can do so safely (possibly with a convoy). If I cannot cross via Moyale, I will most likely get a flight into either Kampala, Uganda, or Nairobi, Kenya, whichever is more convenient/affordable.

Transport in this region of the world can be very slow. If nobody hears from me for a long time, please don't be too concerned, I am probably happy and healthy, just sitting on a slow bus in the Omo valley playing cards with an Ethiopian family and wondering when my stop is coming. Infrastructure is poor, but the country is very safe. The national airline is one of the best in the continent, and I'm traveling in the most cool, dry season there is to travel.

In the meantime, I'm posting a few more photos from Cairo and the Pyramids. Enjoy!

Check out this entry's Photos.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Egypt Express

Luxor. If your first thought was "Las Vegas," you need to get out more.

Yes, everybody, I've made it to Egypt. After a moving learning experience or two in Ramallah, I made an impulse trip to float in the Dead Sea, rushed my way across to Amman, Jordan, and dropped down to see the cliffs of Petra by night, surrounded by candles, the echoes of a flute and Bedouin singing. Then it was across to the Sinai, New Year's Eve party on the beach, and then some diving in the Red Sea. Then a desert haul across the Suez canal and down the Nile river to the the town you see here.

Man, that was fast.

After celebrating officially having hit all seven continents, I teamed up with a Belarus-born Canadian to get from one town to the Valley of the Kings. For about $1.75 each, we rented two rusty rattletraps that almost passed for bicycles, pushed past the touts onto the ferry across the Nile, and rode past the donkey carts out towards the Sahara, to the tombs of the pharaohs.

Pretty cool stuff, but I'm sorry to tell you that the most obviously Egyptian things I've been seeing so far, the tombs of the pharaohs, did not allow photos. My friend got nailed for taking a picture inside the tomb of Thutmoses III-- the flash went off right in front of the irate attendant, who tried to take her camera away. If you do a little searching, I bet you'll find a couple pictures, though.

I spent a lazy day or two on the hotel rooftop with Swiss, German, Finnish, and Quebecois (edit: thanks Count C.) travelers, eating koshary and banana pancakes, talking and laughing about a lot of nothing in particular, and then I left for an overnight train to Cairo. It was scheduled to leave at 11:00pm, so naturally it arrived in the station at 11:40 and left a little before midnight. Welcome to Egypt.

Speaking of a welcome to Egypt, I'd been warned about Cairo. Everyone who'd been there seemed to have some warning to give about the place. The traffic is awful, the touts are unbelievable, the pollution is absurd. It's dirty, smelly, ugly, and you just want to leave.

They exaggerate. A little. It was a remarkably clear day and there wasn't *that* much trash in the streets. The cars do slow down for you to cross, if you're standing directly in front of them and if they're in a generous mood. But they were right about some of those touts. Those of you who know me know that I'm normally a patient guy, usually quite friendly, rarely if ever angry. I came very close to clocking two separate touts this morning because they simply would not leave me alone. They followed me into and out of shops and around whole city blocks. The second one was very lucky he didn't try grabbing my arm a third time.

After refusing half a dozen persistent taxi rides and shoving past two more touts convinced I still needed a hotel/tours/perfume, I hopped a bus to the suburb of Giza. The bus was stuck in traffic for only twenty minutes before moving. There would've maybe been enough leg room for me if I had stopped growing at age six. There was one overpowered A/c vent in the bus and it was pointed right at the only seat left. I scrunched up sideways and shivered for about half an hour, when other people finally started getting off.

I gratefully slid to an open window seat on the left side, watching the sunset over the buildings, thinking: What a day. This is the first productive thing I've tried to do since getting a hotel room and it's already sunset. Oh well. I still need to figure out what I'm doing after my flight to Ethiopia this weekend. I have a couchsurfing host, but no guidebook. Maybe I can wing it when I get there. I wonder if--


I only caught a brief glimpse of them rising behind some of the apartment buildings, but that was enough. Whatever I'd been worrying about before had been jarred out of my head. I knew they'd be here, I knew I'd see them, but knowing doesn't always prevent awe.

You can't blame me. It was my first glimpse of the pyramids of Egypt.

Some things are over hyped. Others are hidden gems that should have more hype than they get. But there are some things in this world that are so famous that, no matter what they are really like, seeing them floors you. There are many places claiming to be “wonders of the world”. There are even seven new ones because they got a lot of votes on the internet (to date, I've seen six of them). But only one original wonder of the world stands today: the Pyramids of Giza.

I got out, shook off a few more touts hawking horse rides, and walked up as close as I could for the time of day. Maybe without the title, I wouldn't stand in so much awe. They're just triangles of bricks, really. Ridiculously huge triangles of bricks, even bigger than I'd imagined, but still. Triangles of bricks. However, one of the really rewarding things about travel is the feeling of finding something you've heard about and seen imitated all your life. The felling of standing there, breathing it in and thinking “this is it.” And whatever else I'd had to deal with that day, that feeling made it worth it.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Travel Tip: Bargaining for Beginners

In many places in the world, prices for just about anything are negotiable. At first, when you realize that the prices you're being offered as a foreigner have been jacked up, and you have to constantly bargain them down, it will feel like a hassle. But if you practice a few techniques and get good at it, something weird will happen. You'll actually start to enjoy it.

Bargaining, when done properly, is a lot of fun. And you can get yourself bargains you couldn't dream of in fixed price institutions at home. It becomes a game, and if you do well, you get prizes at the end.

Now, bargaining is a huge concept that many full books have been written on. There are many many different techniques on bargaining that are all quite valid (and some that aren't). For this post, I'm just going to share a few principles specific to travelers, who are almost always in the buyer position, trying to buy stuff you buy on the road, like bus tickets, room rates, or just little gifts for friends back home.

First up, we'll talk about the advantages and disadvantages for the buyer and seller. The seller is always the one who needs the deal to go through. Without selling, the seller has no job. It's usually in the seller's interest to close a deal as quickly as possible, because that way s/he can sell more deals in the day, and get something closer to the original asking price. The key advantage the seller has over the buyer is that the seller knows the exact worth of what s/he's selling. No merchant on the ground will ever sell at a loss, so no matter how much they mope, don't feel bad about it, they are making money off your purchase. The main disadvantage is that the seller can't control when bargaining ends-- the buyer can walk out any time.

As the buyer, the seller's disadvantage becomes your advantage. Bargaining will never end until you end it, either by accepting an offer, or making an offer you're willing to pay that the seller accepts. You may get stuck on a price, but the decision to either buy or walk away is always yours. The disadvantage you have is that you usually don't know the actual worth of what you're shopping for. If you can change that, you will be in a much stronger bargaining position. Find out how much you *should* pay for something and gun for that target price. Keep in mind that guidebooks are mediocre resource for these things, especially the price of lodging and transport. Much better is asking some local person who isn't trying to sell you anything (or who has already sold you something completely different and can't sell you what you're asking about).

Next principle is middle men and touts. This lesson is easy: avoid these people like the plague. Actually, that's not strictly true, on rare occasions these people can be a good source of information, but in general, you want to avoid middle men at all costs for the simple reason that no middle men would be middle men unless they make money doing it. If you buy a Colombian bus ticket from the guys running around the entrance yelling "Where you go my friend?!" You're paying his salary, probably a friend's salary, the people behind the ticket counter, and the driver. If you go to the counter, you're just paying the counter and the driver. If you're good (depending on the country), you can sometimes get around them all and haggle directly with the driver. The fewer people you have to pay, the less you'll have to pay total.

Next is subtlety. If you ask a seller for a price out loud, in front of other customers, he'll probably turn you down. The reason being that while he might sell one item at that price, he won't want to sell to everyone at that price. This gives us the modern international symbol for bargaining: the calculator. From Bangkok to Bogotá, this little device showing up is how you know a price is open to bargaining. When you ask how much, the seller will think for a moment, punch something into a calculator and hand it to you. That's his first offer. From then on out, no numbers should be said out loud. Make any counteroffer by punching it in and handing it back. That way the offers stay private (though feel free to quietly tell your friends after so they know what they should aim for, price-wise).

If you're going for an item in a shop, don't walk right up to it and stare at it. Sellers watch for this, and know that you really want it and will probably pay more. Browse a few other things first. Ask about them, ask about the prices of several things. Feign disinterest and point out defects. Basically make the seller think (s)he really needs to convince you.

This is more personal style, but I always make the seller make the first and second offers. After the first offer, I usually either nod slowly or fake disbelief (depending on what makes more sense in the local culture), thank them, and start to leave. 99% of the time I will be stopped at this point by the seller, who will say something that usually involves the phrase "special price." I pause, look conflicted, and ask what their "real offer" is, refusing to make one of my own, casually starting to leave again if they balk. Once I have a second offer, and if I think I'm going to buy, then I'll make one of my own offer, a good deal less than my target price. The seller will then laugh, call me crazy, etc. I challenge them for another offer, and the haggling begins. It might seem harsh, but it's all part of the game, and they know that. If you get stuck on a price you don't like, don't be afraid to leave, even if you feel like you've struck up a friendship or started a precedent. Time is on your side, and the bargaining won't end until you decide you want it to.

Also, most sellers will be quick to tell you this themselves, but if you buy many items (or even just two) you can get a better price on each one. But keep in mind how much you're spending total, and whether it's what you wanted to spend in the beginning.

This is just a start. A few other things you can try are playing multiple sellers off against each other, recruiting a friend and playing the good cop/bad cop routine to your advantage, and haggling down a bigger item before changing your mind and asking about the smaller or less expensive one (for an even better price). All of these tricks and more can get you some great deals.

Two last things to leave you with. Don't get too caught up in getting a lower price. Keep how much the local currency is worth in mind and ask yourself if it's really worth holding out over. 5,000 Vietnamese dong more than you offered may sound like a lot, but it's actually about US$0.25. Chances are you can afford that more easily than the person you're buying from. And don't lose your cool. If you're getting angry, walk away from the bargaining and cool off. You'll offend people, and you won't get the deal you want. This is supposed to be fun, they're not all out to gouge you, and insulting people helps nothing. Keep the tone around the same as a friendly arm wrestling match, maybe they'll throw some taunts or jibes here and there, but it's all still a game you could shake hands and smile after. Good luck!