World’s Worst Places: Top 10 Places In The World You Do Not Want To Visit In 2013

islamist extremists in maliI’m the kind of person who can conjure up an excuse to visit just about any place. I grew up in Buffalo, America’s most unfairly maligned city, and so I identify with underdog destinations – places with bad weather, crime, ugly people, rude people, you name it and I probably still want to go there.

But there are some places on this planet that even I do not want to visit. Places where you might be taken hostage and have your head chopped off; places where extremists shoot teenage girls in the head because they want to be educated; places where you could be stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock; places where terrorists plant bombs in churches, places so polluted the local fish have three eyes.
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One can make an anecdotal case against visiting just about any place in the world. As we saw in Newtown, Connecticut, evil can happen anywhere. And today’s hellholes could be tomorrow’s next hot destinations. But you won’t find me in any of these places in 2013.al shabaab in somaliaAnywhere Near Somalia

In March, my colleague Sean McLachlan reported that the security situation in Somalia was improving, but I wouldn’t rush right out to your travel agent to book a holiday in what most people consider to be the world’s most dangerous country just yet. Mogadishu made our list last year, but after talking to Paul and Rachel Chandler, a British couple who were taken hostage at sea by Somali pirates a good 900 miles off Somalia’s coast in 2009, I would avoid a much wider radius than simply “Mog.”

There may have been some improvements in the security situation since the Chandlers were released after a year in captivity, but there are still plenty of reasons to stay away. In January, gunmen kidnapped an American man in the northern town of Galkayo, the same town where an American woman and a Dane were taken hostage last October. In February, the militant group Al-Shabaab, which has been pushed out of Somalia’s cities by the country’s U.N.-backed government but still maintains control of some rural areas, merged with Al-Qaeda.

The United Kingdom’s Foreign Office details at least nine other violent incidents since then in its most recent travel warning on Somalia. If you do brave the risks and visit Somalia, think twice before checking into the Jazeera Palace Hotel in Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab killed eight people there in a failed plot to assassinate the Somali president in September.




m23 soldier eastern DRC north kivu

North Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

At least five million people were killed in the DRC in what’s been called Africa’s First World War from 1994-2003, and a proxy war, waged between rebel groups backed by Rwanda and the Kinshasa government, continued through 2008. Sadly the situation in the eastern part of the country has deteriorated this year as several armed groups like M23 continue to vie for control of this resource-rich part of the country.

In the U.S. State Department’s recent travel warning on the DRC, travelers are cautioned against the continued presence of Lord’s Resistance Army thugs and armed groups who are “known to pillage, steal vehicles, kidnap, rape, kill, and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians are indiscriminately targeted.” The DRC is rated dead last in the U.N.’s Human Development Index for good reason: it’s a basket case in danger of becoming a full-on failed state. Other than aid workers, diplomats, mercenaries and shady businesspeople, no one in their right mind is traveling to the eastern DRC, and the rest of the country isn’t exactly the South of France either.

conflict in syria

Syria

Syria, with its ancient capital, said to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, historic souks, castles and impressive archaeological sites, was once a popular destination for backpackers. Now, nearly two years into a bloody civil war, the tourists are long gone with seemingly little hope of them returning anytime soon. More than 30,000 people have been killed in a conflict that has created nearly 500,000 refugees and about 2.5 million internally displaced people. But when peace returns to Syria, the tourists will certainly return to this interesting and hospitable country.




helmand province afghanistan ied

Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Last year, we recognized Kandahar Province as a distinctly violent, nasty place we had no intention of visiting in the near future but given the fact that nearly twice as many ISAF Coalition troops have perished in neighboring Helmand Province, extremists there could make a strong argument that they were snubbed.

And Helmand isn’t just a dangerous place for Coalition troops. A recent AP story asserted that despite a vigorous effort by the U.S.-led Coalition to rid the province of insurgents, residents are still afraid to go out after dark when bands of marauding criminals roam the streets. The province is a hotbed of poppy production, which finances the insurgents’ campaigns, and many residents support the Taliban.

And if you find yourself in Helmand, perish the thought; don’t expect the police to help you either. In 2012, at least 62 Coalition troops and 86 Afghans have been shot dead by Afghan police or soldiers, including fatal incidents in Helmand in August, September and October. Only a complete lunatic would plan a trip to Helmand Province, but Trip Advisor, God bless them, does indeed have a page entitled “Helmand Province Vacations” under the tab “Helmand Province Tourism” as though such a thing existed. Not surprisingly, there are no hotels, restaurants or things to do listed.

mali extremists

Mali

Mali, home to the legendary city of Timbuktu and one of the richest cultural and music scenes in West Africa, took several turns for the worse in 2012 and is now off limits to any traveler hoping to go home in one piece. Mali has had not one but two coups in 2012, and in April, Tuareg rebels declared an independent state called Azawad in the north of the country.

Before you rush out to apply for a tourist visa to Azawad, be warned that the territory’s economy revolves around kidnapping, most of them carried out by the thugs who run the place. There are ten European and three Algerian hostages currently being held in Northern Mali and there have been several other hostage-taking incidents involving tourists and diplomats in recent years, including an incident involving a Frenchman in Southwest Mali in November.

Edwin Dyer, a British tourist, was taken hostage and then beheaded in 2009, and Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old French aid worker was taken hostage in neighboring Niger and was then reportedly killed in Mali in 2010. In the north, Islamists are known to administer rough justice. In one case, a police chief sawed off his own brother’s hand, and in July, in the northern town of Aguelhok, a couple was stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock.




san pedro sula blight most violent city in the world poverty

San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Mexico gets all the bad press for its drug and gang violence, but on a per-capita basis, Honduras may be even more violent. Tourists flock to Roatán and other safe, idyllic beach getaways in Honduras, but San Pedro Sula ranks first in the world in per capita murders (1,143 murders in a city of just 719,447 in 2011) and Tegucigalpa ranks fifth. The Honduran districts of Yoro – with 110 murders per 100,000 – and Morazán – with 86 per 100,000 – both in the interior of the country, are also plagued by violence.

According to a 2011 UN Report, Honduras has the highest murder rate of any country in the world, with 86 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. I have a friend who used to teach English in San Pedro Sula in the ’90s and he said that the city used to be reasonably safe prior to Hurricane Mitch, which wreaked havoc on the country in 1998.

bomb blast in nigeriaNorthern Nigeria

Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that seeks to establish an Islamic state under Sharia law, is one of the nastiest terrorist groups in the world. Their late leader, Mohammed Yusuf, told the BBC in 2009 that he believed the earth was flat and said that education “spoils the belief in one God.”

Their targets have included the Nigerian military, the police, opponents of Sharia law and foreigners. Their tactics have included planting bombs in churches, attacking a UN compound in Abuja, taking hostages and engaging in extrajudicial assassinations. Boko Haram militants killed at least 186 people with a series of gun and bomb attacks near their base in Kano in January 2012 alone. On Christmas Eve this year, gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to their church in the northern province of Yobe.

And Boko Haram aren’t the only troublemakers in the region. Another Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group killed two hostages, one from Britain, and one from Italy, in the town of Sokoto in March, and a German engineer that was being held hostage in Kano was killed in a rescue attempt along with five others in May. According to the State Department, criminals have abducted at least 140 foreigner nationals in Nigeria, including seven U.S. citizens, since January 2009.




kazakhstan nuclear testing

Semipalatinsk Test Site near Semey, Kazakhstan

Intrepid, some would say ill-advised, travelers can now visit Chernobyl, and some hard heads have even returned to live in the off-limits Fukushima exclusion zone in Japan, but the area around the primary testing venue for the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, called “The Polygon,” remains closed, more than 20 years after Kazakhstan became the first country to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons in 1991. The Soviets used the steppes of eastern Kazakhstan to test more than 400 nuclear bombs during the Cold War and to this day, residents of the city of Semipalatinsk (renamed Semey) suffer disproportionately from cancer and birth deformities blamed on continuing radiation.

Although the Polygon itself is technically off limits, it’s an area the size of Belgium with poorly marked boundaries and farmers allow their animals to graze there, according to The Telegraph. Stay away and avoid ordering horsemeat from eastern Kazakhstan if at all possible.

ghost town near chernobyl

On Holiday with Andrew Blackwell

Andrew Blackwell is the author of “Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures In The World’s Most Polluted Places. The interesting thing about Blackwell isn’t just that he actively sought out and traveled to the world’s most wretchedly foul, contaminated places, it’s that he apparently enjoyed it.

“It’s not that I love grossness itself, but I did come to love many of the polluted places I visited,” he told the New York Times. “And I object to the outright disgust these kinds of places get saddled with, because once that disgust becomes entrenched, we’re more likely to give up on them.”

In his book, Blackwell even defends Linfen, a coal town in Shanxi province, China, which was named the most polluted city in the world in 2006 by the Blacksmith Institute, and was subsequently put at or near the top of every top ten most polluted places list all over the net. (Last year, a city called Ahvaz in Iran topped a World Health Organization air pollution list.)

But it turns out that the Blacksmith list wasn’t rank ordered, but rather alphabetized by country, so Linfen was merely one of the ten nastiest places in the world and not necessarily the nastiest. Still, even Blackwell had to admit that the dust and pollution gave him a nasty cough.

“Chronic respiratory disease and even lung cancer must stalk the city’s boulevards and alleyways,” he wrote.




Malala YousafzaiPakistan’s Tribal Areas

Pound-for-pound the Swat Valley and the seven semiautonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the border with Afghanistan might have more ignorant, violent extremists than any other place on the planet. One could fill a large volume with horror stories about bad things that have happened in this part of northwest Pakistan, but exhibit A of the brutality and extremism that pervades this area is the October 9 assassination attempt on 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai that wounded her and two others perpetrated by vermin who personify the word evil.

Yousafzai, who was shot in the head on a school bus and is now recovering in Britain, became a target for advocating on behalf of locals girls who want to be educated. In recent years, thousands of Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks in the northwest and despite the U.S. drone strike campaign, which has pushed U.S. favorability ratings in Pakistan down to 12%, the region is still a hotbed for extremists.

Pockets of ignorance and extremism exist in other parts of the country as well. On December 18 and 19, gunmen shot dead seven people working on a U.N.-backed polio vaccination drive, four were killed in Karachi, and the others perished in the northwest, most from gunshots to the head, fired at close range.




Notes: Special thanks to Jay Dunne and Bernard Londoni, security analysts at iJet, a risk-management firm based in Annapolis, for providing me with intel on some of the locales listed above. A previous version of this story incorrectly noted that Robert Fowler was taken hostage in Mali. He was taken hostage in neighboring Niger.

[Photo credits: Issouf Sanogo, AFP/Getty Images, AP Photo/Mohamed Sheikh Nor, AP, Getty Images, Freedom House, Al Jazeera English, Mahgrebia, CTBTO, and Tim Seuss on Flickr]

The Death Of A Good Travel Companion

travel, travel companion, HararThis week I learned the sad news that a friend and coworker in Harar, Ethiopia, had died. Mohammed Jami Guleid helped me out countless times while I explored the Horn of Africa. If you enjoyed my series on Somaliland or Harar, you have him to thank.

I first met “Dake,” as everyone called him, on my first visit to Harar in eastern Ethiopia as I was searching for a way to get to Somaliland, the breakaway northern region of Somalia. Everyone told me to meet with Dake. He was a Somali who had made Harar his home and had many contacts on both sides of the border. Within days I was riding through the desert with a couple of his relatives on my way to Somaliland. It was one of the best adventures of my life.

From that point our working relationship grew. Dake was an expert on Somali and Harari culture. He even wrote a book titled “Harar: A Cultural Guide.” My signed edition sits next to me as I write.

We meet lots of people on our travels. Most of them soon fade into the past, remembered only in old photographs and journal entries. Others last through a few emails and postcards before they, too, become memories. Only a few become lasting friends.

That was easy with Dake. He had an open, relaxed manner and was always quick with a joke. His deep interest in Harar’s history and architecture was infectious. Once he woke me up at five in the morning so we could photograph the town’s winding medieval alleys as the sun rose. I didn’t mind, even when his insistence on getting “one more shot” kept me from my morning coffee for far longer than I liked.travel companion, travel, HararHere he is in the narrowest of Harar’s alleys, called Megera Wa Wiger Uga, “The Street of Peace and Quarrel.” In local tradition you have to speak to anyone you pass here, even if you’re angry with them and aren’t otherwise talking with them. Since it connects two busy areas, a lot of people pass through this alley and a lot of arguments get resolved.

Dake had been an outsider to Harar once himself, so he sympathized with my efforts to adjust to the local culture. He was always ready to help out with advice at a moment’s notice and saved me from more than one cultural blunder. Having an insider who knows what it’s like to be an outsider is invaluable when studying a new place.

We also explored Ethiopia’s Somali region. Dake had big hopes of developing the region’s tourism potential as a way to expand his own tourism business while helping his people.

When we weren’t working at documenting eastern Ethiopia’s heritage, we spent many relaxed hours at birtchas or spinning tales in local cafes. Friendships can be fleeting when you’re traveling, but Dake and I became good friends and kept up a regular correspondence when I was back in Europe.

When you make a real friendship on the road, treasure it. Keep in contact and head on back to see them. I wish I had made it back to Harar at least one more time while he was still alive. As the list of my friends who have died relentlessly lengthens, I find myself more appreciative of those I still have, and more determined to pack as much life into the years left to me before my own inevitable end.

Authors note: my pay for this post will be donated to Glimmer of Hope, an NGO working to help Ethiopia’s children. Dake had a son about the same age as mine so I think he’d appreciate it.

Interview With Paul And Rachel Chandler: British Couple Taken Hostage By Somali Pirates

paul and rachel chandler aboard the Lynn RivalNearly two years after being released by Somali pirates who stormed their sailboat and held them hostage for 13 months, Paul and Rachel Chandler are finally ready to get back on their boat, the Lynn Rival. This time they won’t be going anywhere near Somalia, but they refuse to rule out a return visit if the situation there improves.

The Chandlers have spent much of the last two years writing a book, “Hostage, A Year At Gunpoint with Somali Pirates,” and getting their boat, which was salvaged by the British Navy, ready to sail again. In a wide-ranging interview, we spoke to the Chandlers about their ordeal, how they feel about their captors, what they learned from the experience and why they want to continue living on their boat.

Where do you live now?

PAUL: We live on the Lynn Rival, our boat; we’re home at last. We don’t have a home on land in Britain at the moment. We have a flat in Kent, but we have tenants, and maybe when we finish voyaging, we’ll settle down there.

And what were you doing before you were taken hostage?

PAUL: I’m a consulting engineer; I’m now 62. Rachel is an economist; she’s 57. I had an engineering practice that I sold and Rachel was working for the government as an economist and that enabled us in 2005 to sail for half the year and work half the year.

How did you pull that off?

PAUL: If you’re good enough, they don’t want to lose you. Rachel’s superiors gave her six months off, so we traveled half the year in ’05 and ’06, and then we decided we wanted to sail year round and live on the boat.

In 2007, we set off around the Red Sea, across the Arabian Sea to India, cruised the coast of India and we enjoyed it enough to make it worth doing permanently, so we rented our flat out and planned on sailing full time. We wanted to see the western part of the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and Madagascar. Somalia wasn’t on our list.

We planned to sail from the Seychelles to Tanzania, and if it hadn’t been for that fateful evening we would have gone down to Madagascar, but that’s where it all went a bit awry.

It sounds like you found a way to escape the rat race before it all went south?

PAUL: Absolutely we did. When I turned 45, we decided that we’d go sailing when I turned 55 because we knew a lot of people who left it until they got too old and I didn’t want that to happen to us. So we worked very hard for those ten years to make this happen.

If you say, ‘I’ll just work another year and save another $5,000,’ you’ll never get around to doing it. You’ve got to go. We figured out that if we could do without all mod cons, we could sail and live for less than we’d spend on land. We’ve had friends who have died young of cancer, so we thought we had to take the chance while we could.

Take us back to the night you were taken hostage. Where were you?

PAUL: We were halfway between this ring of islands on the outer edge of the Seychelles and the main islands, perhaps 60 miles from the main islands of the Seychelles, not far from where Prince William and Kate went for their honeymoon. We were almost 900 miles from Somalia when we were taken hostage.

Were you aware of the danger of being even that close to Somalia?

PAUL: Of course we were. We’d sailed through the Gulf of Aden two years before. We did our research pretty well. We knew we were right on the fringes. There have been attacks as far as 1,500 miles away from Somalia. Official warning distance was about 200-300 miles off the coast of Somalia.

We thought it was an acceptable risk. There are worse risks you take at sea every day. It’s absolute nonsense when people say we were warned and we shouldn’t have been there. That’s with the benefit of hindsight. We went to four authorities in our checkout procedure and they all said, ‘Have a good voyage.’

And the pirates stormed the boat in the middle of the night?

PAUL: It was 2:30 in the morning, so I was asleep until I heard the gunshots. Rachel was standing watch.

RACHEL: I heard an engine in the distance and then I saw a boat with no lights approaching us very fast. I knew that it didn’t look good, so I shined a light on them and they responded with two gunshots.

I was in disbelief – my mind was racing. I knew we couldn’t outrun them. Our little auxiliary engine can only get to about six knots and they were coming at us at about 20 knots. They slammed into the side of the boat and I could see four men with guns, they were grabbing our handrails and shouting as they climbed onto the boat. Then another boat approached from the port side and another four men clambered on board. I was in a state of absolute shock.

They were sort of struggling to get on the boat and pointing a gun at me all the while. Paul had to struggle to put in his contact lenses and come up to find out what was going on. Eventually a bigger, open boat came with two more men on it. One of them was called Buggaf; he was their leader. He was a very nasty piece of work – very threatening.

Did you know immediately that you were being taken hostage?

RACHEL: We knew we’d be robbed, but we thought they’d go away in search of a bigger ship. We never envisioned that we’d be taken hostage, especially so far from Somalia. They could see that we had a small boat and probably weren’t likely to be able to pay a big ransom but they didn’t see it like that. Buggaf told us to set a course and steer towards Somalia.

Paul and Rachel Chandler Lynn Rival Hostage Somali PiratesAnd your boat was abandoned off the coast of Somalia?

RACHEL: Yes, we were towing their boats and our engine couldn’t cope. At that point they realized that the value was in us two and not our boat, so it was abandoned.

How long did it take to reach Somalia?

RACHEL: It was six full days at sea on our boat, then another 36 hours on their boat.

Were you more or less fearful when you reached land?

RACHEL: I was more fearful because they were taking us into a lawless country and I felt there was no hope of getting out of there. Some of the gang was saying we’d fetch $4 million, no problem. I wanted them to realize they’d got a pair of lemons who were a waste of their time. That kind of kept me going.

How were your living conditions in Somalia?

RACHEL: They bought us a thin mattress and a blanket and fed us. We were taken to a one-room mud village hut with a tin roof. They were always threatening us that other Islamist militias or al-Shabab would take us from them. They gave us water from a reservoir to wash with and bought us bottled water and fed us bread and rice and we started to get used to eating goat stew for breakfast.

When you live on board a sailboat, you’re used to living very basic, so I think that helped us deal with life in the bush. They knew they had to keep us alive if they were to make any money out of us.

And I understand they separated you. After that, how did you pass the time?

PAUL: During all my time in Somalia, I only slept badly a few times. So that was half the day. You wash up, and then read. We had five books and we divided them between us when we were split up. I took to reading them aloud because it takes more time. You get more out of books if you read them several times. We listened to the BBC and the VOA.

Rachel had cards; I spent time compiling crosswords. We were split up the first time and were kept apart for ten days, that’s when they put pressure on me to come up with money, so I was commanded to start making begging phone calls to my friends and relatives.

Later they separated us again and Rachel was beaten and whipped and we were kept apart for three months. They dragged us apart kicking and screaming. I had a choice, I said, ‘I can either sink into a well of despair or I can survive.’

The gang leader was a criminal and the rest of them were all along looking for a free lunch. None of them had seen white people or been out of Somalia. The eight gangsters guarding me eventually became relaxed and to some extent there was a bit of, sort of, friendship. They couldn’t understand why I was so depressed to be separated from Rachel – they had no idea how close we were. We’ve been married 31 years now.

And finally, after being in captivity for more than a year, a Somali man living in London secured your release?

PAUL: That’s Dahir. A wonderful man and a honorary member of our family. One morning, we had a long drive across the country and we hoped we were going to be released. Our hopes had been dashed before though, so we didn’t want to get our hopes up too high. We had to sleep overnight in the car out in the bush and we woke up the next morning and a man walked towards us holding what looked like a British passport.

He said, “I’m Dahir, I come from East London. I’ve come to take you home.” It was quite amazing – brings tears to my eyes even now. We found out that eight months before, his 12-year-old son came home and told his father ‘I’m ashamed to be Somali, can’t you do something to help?’ (to help the people who were taken hostage.)

He’s from the area we were being held in. He had the contacts to help us and he moved to Mogadishu and got to work using his contacts to help us. It took him eight months to arrange our release and our families knew nothing about it until a few days before he arrived to get us.

How much was paid for your release?

PAUL: Our family raised $440,000, which they dropped to the gang by plane in June 2010. And then we weren’t released.

They just kept the money?

PAUL: They decided to keep us and the money and we heard nothing for months, meanwhile, this chap Dahir was working for our release in the background and we had no clue.

How did your family raise the money?

PAUL: They wouldn’t tell us the source of the money. They were so supportive; they just wanted us to get our lives back. They said, ‘Don’t worry about the money.’ But we have paid back all the expenses they incurred. Their expenses in paying the $440,000 ransom were about $150,000 as well.

And did Dahir or someone else pay additional money to secure your release?

PAUL: We don’t know. He told us he didn’t raise any money. Whether that’s true, we don’t know. We’ve met him several times since and I don’t see why he’d lie to us, but he must have had considerable expenses in securing our release. There have been suggestions that the Somali government paid some money, but we don’t know. I think it would be very unlikely if no more money changed hands.

What have you been doing since you were released?

PAUL: Settling back in, coping with my father’s death – he died at 99 while we were in Somalia. The Royal Navy salvaged our boat and we had it taken to Dartmouth, so we could work on her. Now she’s in ship shape again. Our families said ‘You ought to be write a book,’ so we did. We’ve been working hard on the boat and last week we finally moved back on board.

What are your plans now?

PAUL: We’re going to head south and resume traveling to exciting places, meeting different people. We’re going down the coast of Western Europe, taking in Spain, Portugal, Morocco, the North African coast, Cape Verde, and then head down to Brazil. We’ll keep going as long as we’re fit. Who knows where we’ll end up?

Will you ever go anywhere near Somalia again?

PAUL: I wouldn’t go north of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. I’d want to be at least 2,000 miles away. But who knows, maybe by the time we get around to that part of the world again, the situation in Somalia will have changed. Maybe it will be safe to go there again.

Has it taken a long time to build up the courage to get back on your boat?

PAUL: No, not at all. I lost upper body strength and you need that in sailing. But mentally we have no problems at all.

What lessons did you learn from this ordeal?

PAUL: It strengthened our relationship, which was already strong. It reinforced the values we both hold. It made us far more appreciative to have been born in the small faction of the world that is safe and secure.

Do you feel hatred, forgiveness or some other emotion toward your captors?

RACHEL: I never felt hatred toward them. I felt sad that they are in the position they’re in, that they’ve stooped so low. A lot of people are very poor but don’t stoop to kidnapping. But I can see how they were drawn into it. People like Buggaf who make a living from piracy and direct others to do it, I despise them. They haven’t asked for forgiveness, so I don’t think I need to forgive them. I just hope that the law might catch up with them someday.

Do you think that the same pirates who took you hostage are still out attacking boats right now?

RACEHL: I’m sure they’re trying to do the same thing right now. But it’s become more difficult because ships are really increasing their security. Seven of the gang members who attacked us left after five days at sea to attack a French fishing trawler. They were apprehended and have been in jail in Mombasa for the last three years. They were just found guilty and were sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Did you have a hard time adapting to life at home after being released?

RACHEL: It was very strange. There was a lot of media attention. Our muscles had degenerated. Mentally, it was a process of getting used to normality. When you live with so little for so long, it’s a shock coming back to our complex world. Some people were wary of us because they assumed we must have been really scarred.

Did you get tired of people asking you why you strayed too close to Somalia?

RACHEL: People in the sailing community knew the situation. Lots of people stood up for us. Those who criticize don’t know anything about sailing or the situation at the time. On the Internet, people hide behind their computers and say nasty things.

Does the British Foreign Office now recommend against sailing in the area you were in?

RACHEL: Now they recommend boats don’t stray more than six miles off the main islands in the Seychelles but they still don’t tell people not to go there or charter yachts. If we’d left an hour earlier or an hour later, they would have missed us – it was very bad luck. You’re taking a chance sailing anywhere in the Seychelles.

Has your experience diminished your love of sailing?

RACHEL: Not at all. Cruisers tend to be very resilient people. If you’re adventurous, that doesn’t change. We don’t want to wrap ourselves up and stay home. We want to get back to the life we imagined, so it’s important for us to get back on our boat.

[Photo credits: Gary Shore, and Andy Kyle courtesy of Paul and Rachel Chandler]

Getting Out Of Quito, Ecuador: Day, Weekend And Weeklong Excursions

mindo While Quito, Ecuador, offers many opportunities for Inca history, diverse architecture and trendy restaurants, my favorite part about visiting this busy city was its side trips. In less than three hours you can be hiking through waterfall-filled forests, climbing one of the world’s tallest volcanoes, browsing an important cultural market and even standing in the actual middle of the world. If you have more time, you can do majestic lagoon hikes, immerse yourself in adventure sports or visit one of the most ecologically diverse destinations in the world. When taking a trip to Quito, I would recommend incorporating the following trips into your itinerary:

Day Trips

Mindo

Mindo is the exact opposite of Quito. While Ecuador’s capital is fast-paced, Mindo is a relaxing nature destination where you can immerse yourself in the outdoors and forget about the world. You can catch a bus from Quito’s Terminal Terrestre Norte, La Ofelia, which takes about 80 minutes. Tickets are $2.50 each way, although you can’t buy your return ticket until you get to the destination. Purchase it immediately upon arrival, as buses tend to get crowded.

If you want to immerse yourself in the area’s famous cloud forest, visit the Waterfall Sanctuary and Tarabita. For $5 including the tarabita (cable car), you’ll be granted a bird’s-eye view from above the trees and access to a picturesque hike through seven different waterfalls. For a bit more adventure, you can also zip-line your way through the cloud forest, with the highest cable being over 1,300 feet. At Mariposas de Mindo, you can interact with 1,200 butterflies while feeding them banana. What’s interesting about this place is you’ll see myriad different pupae, which have camouflaging properties depending on where the butterfly would live. Some look like leaves, sticks, stones and even shiny pieces of metal that I first thought were earrings. While all these activities are worthwhile, the most popular reason people visit Mindo is the superb bird watching. There are many places you can go for this; however, I highly recommend El Descanso. It costs $2, and no matter what time you visit you’ll be able to see a variety of bird species like hummingbirds, toucans, parrots and Golden-Headed Quetzals.volcan cotopaxi Cotopaxi Volcano

Located about an hour and a half outside Quito, Cotopaxi Volcano is the second most popular adventure destination in Ecuador. The volcano is 19,347 feet in altitude, and is a perfect, snow-capped cone that makes for great climbing. It is also sacred, as the volcano was once worshipped by Ecuador’s ancient civilizations, who believed Cotopaxi had the power to bring rain and a successful harvest. Cotopaxi Volcano is located in Cotopaxi Volcano National Park, the second largest national park and the second most visited after the Galapagos Islands. Here you’ll find numerous lagoons, lookout points, other volcanoes, Inca sites and even a museum. Many companies offer one-day tours, like CotopaxiTours.com, which mixes hiking and 4×4 driving to get to the top, and Gray Line Ecuador, which allows you to explore the Cotopaxi Volcano National Park. You can get to the volcano from Quito without a tour, although you will need to combine bus transport with taxis that could become pricey.

middle of the world Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World)

Ecuador gets its name for its proximity to the equator, so it’s not surprising this is also where you’ll find the center of the Earth. Located about an hour and a half outside Quito, the Mitad del Mundo was discovered by French scientists in the early 1900s. When visiting the site, which is also a park, you’ll see statues of these hardworking men, as well as a monument and line marking the 0′-0′-0′ latitude (shown right). Be aware, however, that since the invention of GPS, it has been discovered the real middle of the world exists about 800 feet away from this line.

The Coriolis Effect, the apparent deflection of winds, oceans, airplanes and anything else that moves freely across the Earth’s surface, occurs due to the rotation of the Earth on its axis. An example many people use for a visual is a sink draining; in the northern hemisphere the water will turn counter-clockwise, while in the southern hemisphere it will turn clockwise. On the equator, the effects of this law are almost completely vertical. Many visitors like to test this out by doing various tricks. The most popular ones are balancing an egg on a nail and draining water in a moveable sink. It’s pretty amazing, but you can witness the water drain straight down on the equator, counter-clockwise on the northern side of the equator and clockwise on the southern side.

Along with the monument, there are shops, restaurants, gardens and a museum. When I went, I took a group tour with Gray Line Ecuador; however, a public bus is your cheapest option.

otavalo market Otavalo Market

Possibly the most famous market in Ecuador, locals come from miles and miles away to sell their handicrafts. Located less than two hours north of Quito, you can take a bus for about $2 from Terminal Carcelen, or opt for a group tour to have a more educational experience. The market is busiest on Saturdays, although it is open everyday. You’ll browse numerous vibrantly colored stalls, perusing scarves, hats, clothing, jewelry, instruments, blankets, masks, socks, handbags and more. Remember to bring your best bartering skills, as the first price the sellers give you is almost always above what they’re willing to sell for.

On the way to the market, there are various stops you can make along the Pan-American Highway. The first is the village of Calderon, a small parish of Quito. In the past, women would honor their dead husbands by being buried alive with them. Luckily, the ritual has changed, and today they commemorate their dead annually on November 2, The Day of the Dead. On this holiday, indigenous people visit the cemetery to have colada morada, a red drink, which represents blood, and wawa de pan, a girl-shaped bread, with their deceased loved ones. You can see wawa de pan being made at special shops and see how the people make a living turning it into a handicraft. The bread is coated in glue, giving it a clay-like texture, and creating masapan. Locals use the mixt
ure to create all types of figures to sell, and it is a local specialty of the area.

The other stop is at a big green building that appears to be an informal rest stop labeled “Mira Lage Parador Turistico.” In this small village complex, you can visit Odaly’s and see authentic Panama hats being made. Make sure to also spend some time in the green building sampling a typical snack, fresh cow cheese and dulce de leche on a crispy biscuit. In the backyard where the bathroom is, you’ll be given excellent views of Sambo Lake, Imbabura Volcano and the surrounding mountains.

A Long Weekend

banos Baños

Located about three and a half hours south of Quito, Baños is the perfect adventure destination for the budget traveler. Here you’ll be able to bungee jump, zip-line, hike, cycle a waterfall route, white water raft, canyon, climb volcanoes and take trips into the Amazon Jungle, all usually for under $50. For example, my companion and I took a trip into the Amazon Jungle for two full days, with it costing $35 per day including all meals, water and accommodation. Moreover, you can rent a bike for a full day for $5, go white water rafting or canyoning for $30 and bungee jumping for $15. Along with cheap adventure, the town is also home to two relaxing hot springs. At night, you can choose between local eateries serving three course meals of local food for $1 or more touristy fare like the popular Casa Hood. It’s also a great place to try traditional guinea pig, or cuy, for a decent price on the street, as it is usually expensive to order in restaurants.

hiking ecuador Latacunga

Located about an hour and half south of Quito, Latacunga offers worthwhile experiences for any traveler. First, they have an excellent outdoor market and eateries where you can sample delicious local food. Moreover, they have an interesting cultural museum, Casa de la Cultura, where you’ll see festival masks, pottery, weavings, artifacts and more. Beautiful churches and picturesque parks give the city a charming ambiance.

The main reason people visit Latacunga is to do the Quilotoa Loop. The journey is done via a mixture of taking buses and hiking. It’s educational and enjoyable, as you pass through indigenous villages like Zumbahua, Quilotoa, Chugchilan and a crater lake, Laguna Quilotoa. The great thing about this loop isn’t just the scenery, but also the fact you’ll have many opporuntities to interact with indigenous locals. Because transportation is infrequent and unreliable, you may end up hiking for long stretches of the loop. To start the journey, take a bus from Latacunga to Zumbahua, where you’ll walk to Quilotoa to see the impressive and serene crater lake. Afterwards, you will begin heading down the crater rim and hike five hours to Chungchilan, where you’ll find a plethora of accommodation options for the night. The next morning, you’ll begin making your way for five hours to Isinlivi while seeing rivers, eculyptus groves, wooden bridges and white cliffs along the way. Once you reach Isinlivi, you can choose between staying at Hostal Llullu Llama or a locally run hospedaje. The next day’s trek will take you about three and half hours as you make your way to Sigchos, where you can catch a bus back to Latacunga around 2:30 p.m. The entire hike will take you through beautiful nature, wildlife, rural landscapes and local farms, giving you a close look at the many faces of Ecuadorian culture. For detailed track notes, click here.

A Week Or More

galapagos islands The Galapagos Islands

A visit to the Galapagos Islands is something everyone should do once in their lifetime. The destination is truly unique, with myriad endemic species, unique lava caves, crater lakes, warm crystal waters and wildlife everywhere you turn.

While many people assume you need to be rich to be able to visit the Galapagos Islands, this simply isn’t true. When I backpacked through South America for three months, I ended my trip on these islands, sticking to a strict budget while still enjoying the pleasures of the national park. The expensive part is getting to the island, which includes the $100 national park fee and the $500 round trip flight from Quito. However, once you pay this it is possible to explore the Galapagos Islands on a budget. First of all, budget hotels exist offering single rooms for as low as $15 a night.

Additionally, there are various free activities to do on the islands, like hiking, visiting animal preserves and relaxing and enjoying wildlife on the beach. Even the tours are reasonably priced. For example, I went on a snorkeling and diving tour of Isla Lobos, León Dormido/Kicker Rock and Puerto Grande. The group got the chance to swim with sharks and sea lions as well as take in beautiful scenery and wildlife while learning about the ecology of the area. For snorkelers the tour was $50, while divers paid $120, both including lunch. Moreover, a tour of the highlands of San Cristobal, including El Ceibo, a 300-year-old treehouse and bar, El Junco, a crater lake in a volcano, La Lobaria, a white beach littered with sea lions, Puerto Chino, a soft-sand beach with crystal clear water and the Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Center of Giant Tortoises was $35 including lunch. If you’re looking to do a cruise and are a bit flexible with the dates, fly into Baltra Airport and head over to Puerto Ayora to see what last minute deals they can give you. Usually, you can get more than half off the advertised price by booking this way.

Somali National Theatre reopens in Mogadishu

Who ever thought going to a play could count as adventure travel? Now it can, because the Somali National Theatre has reopened in Mogadishu, Somalia.

This is the latest sign of growing normalcy in the battered capital. Traffic cops have returned to the streets, the markets are thriving and there are now regular commercial flights to Somalia from Turkey.

The theatre closed in the early ’90s when Somalia spiraled into civil war. With rival clans fighting over every block, going to the theatre wasn’t a big priority. Al-Shabab certainly didn’t try to reopen it during their brief control of Mogadishu. The Islamist terrorist group banned all public entertainment as well as Western music, foreign food aid and bras.

Now Al-Shabab is on the defensive, being attacked on several fronts by the Transitional Federal Government, the African Union, Kenya and Ethiopia. This has allowed a period of relative peace in Mogadishu, although bombings do still occur. Somalis have been quick to rebuild and the theatre is the latest sign of renewed life.

The Somali National Theatre celebrated its reopening by entertaining an audience of about 1,000 with a night of music, drama and comedy. That’s right, comedy. The fact that Somalis are laughing is a good sign. Who knows, perhaps tourism will be next!

As further proof that absolutely everything ends up on YouTube, here’s a clip of a concert at the Somali National Theatre in the 1980s. It’s obviously transferred from an old VHS tape, so the quality isn’t the best, but how often do you get to see something like this?