Ten things adventure travel has taught me

The adventure travel bug bit me early, back when I was twenty years old. That was, I shudder to say, more than half my life ago. In that time I’ve been to many places generally considered dangerous–Somaliland, Syria, Iran–yet I’ve come through just fine and made lots of great friendships on the road. I’ve learned some things too. Here are ten things you might want to remember when you go on your own adventure trip.

1. Always shake out your boots before putting them on.

2. Never trust a fat man in a thin country.

3. The more obscure the language, the more people will appreciate you trying to learn it.

4. If you’re a First Worlder visiting the Third World, it doesn’t matter what your social status is back home, here you are rich and everyone knows it.

5. You are far more adaptable than you think.

6. Being there doesn’t make you special. How you handle yourself determines that.

7. Treat the old with respect, the young with affection, and everyone as an equal, and any culture worth visiting will welcome you.

8. You are not a member of the tribe and never will be. That’s not an insult, simply a fact.

9. You can’t fix all the world’s problems, but there are many little things you can do to push it in the right direction.

. . .and most important of all. . .

10. No matter what country you’re in, the majority of people are decent. Many folks who have never been anywhere believe this, and that speaks well of them, but the only way to really know it’s true is to go and check.

I have, and it is.

Ethiopia’s Somali region: a potential adventure travel destination?

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region. While my quest for Ahmed Guray’s castle was a failure, I did see potential for adventure travel in the region.
Adventure travelers generally are looking for three things: historical sights, interesting cultures, and natural wonders. The Somali region is a bit short of historical sights, although there are a few of interest, but it’s strong on culture and nature.

First, the historical sights. The main one is Alibilal Cave in the Erer District, about 10 km (6 miles) from Erer town. This cave is covered with prehistoric paintings of cows, giraffes, gazelle, and other figures. Last year I was amazed by the prehistoric cave art of Laas Geel in Somaliland, and I’m really curious to see this cave. I’ve seen some video footage and it looks impressive. Other historical sights include the mosque I wrote about yesterday, and some colonial buildings scattered about the region.

The Somali Region is much stronger on cultural attractions. There aren’t many places left in the world where you can see camel herders living much as they did centuries ago. You can drink fresh camel milk in traditional domed huts made of mats. Try shay Somali, Somali tea that’s mixed with sugar and camel’s milk and tastes a lot like Indian chai. The culture here preserves itself by oral traditions. Sitting with a clan elder and listening to his stories can be a one-of-a-kind experience. The Somali region is the easiest place to experience Somali culture, being cheaper than Somaliland and far safer than Somalia.Most Somalis don’t speak English, of course, but I know of at least one Somali tour guide in Harar, Muhammed “Dake” (guleidhr @yahoo.com). He even spent some of his youth herding camels in this region! Harar makes the best base for seeing the Somali region. It’s much cooler and more interesting than the dusty lowland regional capital of Jijiga, and only adds an hour to your trip.

Because the Somalis are unused to tourism, adventure travelers will be free from a lot of the usual hassles like touts and pushy vendors. Expect plenty of attention though, and a large dose of curiosity. This isn’t a bad thing. You’ll get into lots of interesting conversations that will teach you about the local culture. Virtually all foreigners they see are working in NGOs, so expect a lot of questions about your development project.

Ethiopia’s Somali Region offers plenty of natural attractions for adventure travel. There are five regional parks with various types of wildlife. The Somali officials I spoke to recommended Dado Park, which has lion, giraffes, and elephants. I also got to see three families of baboons on the highway between Harar and Jijiga. Another attraction are the Somali Region’s many hot springs. Like hot springs everywhere, they’re reputed to have healing qualities and people come from all around to “take the waters”. The easiest to get to from Harar or Jijiga is in the Erer district near Erer town, not far from the Alilbilal painted cave. The town is 113 km (68 miles) from Harar and the cave and hot springs together would make a good day trip from Harar. The Erer-Gota hot springs are located on the grounds of one of Haile Selassie’s palaces (now gone to ruin) and it’s still popular with people looking for cures of various diseases. Hot springs are popular with herders too, who wrap their lunch up in cloth and stick it in the water to cook it! Reminds me of wrapping potatoes in aluminum foil and sticking it in the coals of a campfire.

Let me stress that while I’ve been through the Somali Region twice now, I haven’t seen many of these attractions myself, only heard about them from Somalis. Hopefully next year I’ll have a chance to explore this region more thoroughly. In the meantime, if you go to the Somali Region, please drop me a line and tell me your experiences. One person already has. A member of the Ethiopia-U.S. Mapping Mission wrote to tell me that he spent a year there in 1967-68 mapping the region. He had lots of fun hunting and exploring, even though he often didn’t bathe for up to two weeks at a time! Veterans of the mission have a website called the Ethiopia-United States Mapping Mission with lots of information and photos. Be sure to check out the “Stories and Memories” section.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Not sure yet. Wherever my travels in the Harar region take me!

Top five travel gadgets NOT to take on your next trip (and what to pack instead)

I’m in the throes of packing for a two-month journey to Ethiopia. I try to pack light, other than the inevitable pile of books. While some tech freaks pack a lot of travel gadgets, I find these to be more of a hindrance than a help. Here are five things that you might want to leave behind if you’re heading out for some adventure travel.

Yes, these are handy, but they can break with rough handling and are very attractive to thieves.
What to bring instead: A compass. It’s cheaper, much less likely to break or be stolen, and with a good map is just as useful. It also makes you notice the terrain more and become more aware of the lay of the land.

Ebooks certainly save space, and many travelers like ebooks, but ereaders are far more stealable than some tattered old paperback. Plus you need to recharge your device and you can’t give or exchange books with the locals.
What to bring instead: A paperback or three. Preferably something you don’t mind trading or giving away.

Music is fun to have on the road, but it cuts you off from the sounds around you. I want to hear the muezzin’s call, the chatter of foreign languages, the local tunes blasting from shops and cafes. My playlist is part of my life back home, so I don’t need it while I’m away. I can listen to it when I get back.
What to bring instead: Nothing.Translation software
Translation software has improved a lot in recent few years. There’s even Word Lens, an iPhone app that overlays English onto foreign writing. When Jeremy Kressmann visited me in Madrid earlier this month we tried it on a menu. It was impressive but didn’t translate some of the culinary terms. I prefer learning a language the old-fashioned way. Except for France, all of the 31 countries I’ve visited are filled with people who want to help you learn their language. What better way to hook up with locals?
What to bring instead: A good dictionary and phrasebook. Also pack a good attitude.

To be honest, I do take a laptop on some of my trips, but not on an adventure. My laptop means work, and while part of my work is travel writing, the best way for me to do that job is to focus on what’s going on around me. Computers can be a huge distraction and you always have to worry about them getting stolen or blasted by a power surge. If you do take your laptop to a developing country, pack a voltage regulator.
What to bring instead: A notebook and pen. Don’t worry, even Ethiopia has Internet cafes.

If there’s a theme to this, it’s that all of these gadgets distract you from the place and people you’re visiting. Doing without them for a month or two can be a welcome break, and your trip will be richer because of it. I didn’t need any of these things twenty years ago when I started doing adventure travel, and I don’t need them now that they exist.

[Photo courtesy user rkzerok via Gadling’s flickr pool]

How to Take a Bath in Half a Bucket of Water

When I went on a nine day trek in Ladakh , India a few years back there were adolecent girls on the trip. Somehow, no matter how remote a location we were in when we camped for the night, they managed to wash their hair. All I know is, they would head off somewhere into the distance and come back with towels wrapped around their heads. It was amazing.

When I was in the Peace Corps, though, I could take two or three decent baths with one regular size bucket of water. One of the assistant Peace Corps directors did show us some tips while we were in training by doning a bathing suit, filling a bucket and grabbing a large plastic cup with a handle. Since I lived in a village for two years with no running water–I hauled water from a well with a vegetable oil can bucket and a long rope, I became pretty savvy with water use.

Here are some bucket bath tips:

You will need.

  • One regular size bucket (not so big that you can’t carry it) filled with water
  • One large plastic cup or a small plastic pitcher that has a handle

The technique:

1. Stand close to the bucket, and dip your cup in the water. Stretch out your other arm (the one not holding the cup) so that your hand and fingertips are over the bucket of water. Pour the water over your head so that the water runs off the opposite side of your head over your shoulder, down your arm and back into the bucket. Keep repeating this proceedure lowering your arm little by little each time until one side of your body totally wet. To wet your back, stand with your rear almost over the bucket and pour the water carefully onto your upper back allowing it to roll over the rest of you. Some of the water will find its way back into the bucket.

2. Once one side of your body is wet, repeat the process but switch arms. When your body is totally wet, wet the soap by pouring water over it. Do not put the soap in the bucket. The idea is to keep the water soap-free.

3. Soap up. For the body rinse cycle, repeat the process in step 1, but don’t put your hand over the bucket. Let the water fall to the ground. Again, keep the soap out of the bucket. For best results and low water use, start rinsing at the shoulders and angle your arms and hands so that the water will roll off to another part of your body. Keep repeating the process until all the soap is gone.

4. To wash your hair–lean you head over the bucket and wet your hair by pouring water over it, but making sure the extra water goes back in the bucket. Shampoo and then rinse with your hair over the ground instead of the bucket.

If you follow this method you may have a half a bucket of water left–more than enough to wash the dishes or take another bath. The photo is thanks to Zac Shepherd on Flickr. If you click on his photostream you’ll see some shots of The Gambia and Senegal with captions. The bed in the photo is the kind I had as well which drew me to this picture. The caption mentions how bucket baths helped Shepherd survive the Gambian dry season. Yes, those were the days.

For an overview of people’s experience bathing in Ghana, check out World Wise Schools Water in Africa page. World Wise Schools is a Peace Corps program designed for use by educators.