The Death Of A Good Travel Companion

This 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.Here 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.

Trek the Colombian Andes in El Cocuy National Park with Mountain Madness

Acclaimed Seattle-based adventure travel company and guide service Mountain Madness debuts its newest trip on February 4th: an excursion to Colombia’s El Cocuy National Park. Although Colombia is often characterized as being mostly tropical jungle or coastline, the Andean Cordillera Oriental crosses a significant portion of the country. The El Cocuy trip will allow trekkers to explore glaciers, alpine lakes, and remote colonial villages.

Mountain Madness owner and president Mark Gunlogson has years of experience as a mountaineering guide all over the world, and the company is renowned for its reputable and distinctive trekking trips and alpine climbing schools, particularly in South America and the Himalayas. For this inaugural El Cocuy adventure, Gunglogson will lead five other trekkers and climbers as they “explore this area’s potential for adventure travel. The team hopes to dispel the myth of danger with travel in Colombia and open up a new, cutting-edge trip.”

Activities will include mountaineering, trekking, rock climbing, and cultural exchange, a Mountain Madness hallmark. Check out the company’s blog for dispatches from El Cocuy. Buena suerte, team!

Video: How to self-arrest with an ice ax

Explore the world with Trazzler’s new iphone app

Trazzler’s new free iPhone app, called Trazzler, allows people to explore the world through their smartphone.

When the program first opens, users will be asked to take a short quiz that will allow the app to get to know their personality. The test consists of a series of images in which the user will be prompted to click the photos that appeal to them the most. Through the user’s answers, Trazzler can delve deeper into the personality of the user and figure out who they are most compatible to travel with as well as ideal destinations that fit the personality type.

Like a social network, this app makes it easy for you to find your friends who are also using Trazzler and see how well you would fit as traveler partners. Not only that, but users will also be able to read expert recommendations on travel.

The app seems to be getting a lot of attention, as last week more than 30,000 iPhone users downloaded Trazzler. To download the app for yourself, click here. The app is also available on the iPad and iPod Touch.

Uncommon traits of a good traveling companion

Mike wrote about the top ten traits of a good traveling companion, and yesterday I suggested the types of travel partners you should avoid. But there are some little-known traits of great traveling companions. These might not make or break a trip, but they can make the whole experience much more pleasurable. Here are a few of them:

  • All the bugs bite them instead of you. I’m totally that person, and let me tell you, people loooove sharing a hotel room with me. I wake up swollen, blotchy and itchy, and whoever I’m with wakes up smooth-skinned and well-rested. Life isn’t fair.
  • They’re good with languages. Some of us have skills and some of us don’t. If you don’t, hang with someone who does; you’ll find your travels much easier. Body language counts.
  • They’re hard bargainers, so you don’t have to be. Besides getting you sweet deals, they’ll look like the bad guy as they fight for that one-baht knockoff. Reap the benefits without looking like an a$$hole.
  • They can eat and drink whatever they want. You’ll be certain to have the bathroom when you’ll need it, and you will also be more likely to sample unfamiliar cuisine.
  • They walk your pace. This trait is key — I’m a fast walker and my BFF is slow. We both get frustrated. Go shopping with your potential partner before your trip — if they plow through the mall like a lineman about to make a tackle while you stroll along, sidetracked by any shiny object, have a heart-to-heart about the realities of exploring a city together.

Galley Gossip: A question about flight attendant buddy passes

Hi Heather,

I had an intriguing conversation with my best friend yesterday. His mom is now a retired American Airlines flight attendant. I’ve always been enamored with his ability to just hop on a flight whenever he wants for virtually no money. Just yesterday he was telling me the story how his mom only gets one registered companion (or whatever they call it) and since his sister is her register person, his mom had to find a friend to put him on as that persons registered person. That got me thinking, I wonder if I can find a really cool chick that I can compensate nicely to have her put me on as her registered companion (or whatever). Then I thought of who I know that’s a flight attendant and I remembered your blog! Since I’m running my small company, I’m always forced to pay ridiculous fares for last minute trips, and the inability to be more flexible with my flights. Wanted to hear your thoughts on this. Do you know of this taking place? Or is it too good to be true? Anyway, great blog!….looking fwd to hearing from you.



Dear Jason,

Do you feel me smiling as I simultaneously shake my head slowly back and forth? Do you know this is a HUGE flight attendant pet peeve – asking for passes? You must have no idea how many times people ask flight attendants about their buddy passes, and these are mostly people we rarely even know, like people we just happen to meet in the course of our day! Like the mailman, or a taxi driver, or even a random colleague of the spouse. Just last month my son’s preschool teacher hinted around for a pass. And my mother, who is also a flight attendant, was hit up by a nurse at her doctor’s office.

You mentioned that your friend, the one whose mother is an ex flight attendant, is able to fly back and forth whenever he wants for “virtually no money”, but that little bit of money is actually a lot of money to a flight attendant who is probably making on average 40K a year, and that’s only if he/she works for a major airline and has decent seniority with the airline. Keep in mind that money is automatically docked out of a flight attendants pay check, which, after we pay our bills, could be described as “virtually no money” leftover for anything else. Did you know that flight attendants also get stuck paying the taxes on your trip at the end of the year? We do.

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “Marry me, fly free?” That has since been changed to “Marry me, fly standby!” Have you flown standby recently? Do you really want to spend your day running from gate to gate, waiting for an agent to call your name, praying each time the agent picks up the phone that they’ll please call your name, please call your name, please call your name, only to feel as if you’ve just won the million dollar lottery when your name is actually called?

When I mentioned on Facebook that someone I didn’t know had asked about compensating a flight attendant for a buddy pass, Tom, a flight attendant, wrote, “I can get you a standby pass, which will allow you to ‘stand’ around all day then drive home mad at me!” Bob, the singing pilot, added, “I only give buddy passes to people I hate. Then I can gleefully relish when they get stranded in Senegal for 10 days.”

Every airline is different when it comes to how their buddy pass system works. Flight attendants, spouses, and immediate family members are able to travel for next to nothing. Whereas it costs a flight attendant almost as much to give a friend a pass as it would if that same friend had just bought the ticket outright. Now it’s a totally different story if the friend traveling on a pass gets upgraded to a first or business class seat, because then the pass becomes quite a steal, but our VIP travelers can’t always get those premium seats and they’re on the standby list way ahead of you!

As far as compensating a flight attendant for a travel pass, I do not know any flight attendants who’d be willing to put their jobs at risk like that. Most airlines state that it’s against company policy to use travel benefits for work related reasons.

Jason, have you seen how cheap airfares are today? They’re so cheap that whenever I fly with my son I almost always buy a ticket, just so I can get where I need to go without any stress. In order to save money these days, airlines are cutting back routes, which means most flights are going out full, which means if you want to fly standby, you better be prepared to do just that – stand by – All. Day. Long. Now if you have a business to run, or someplace you really need to be, can you afford to take a chance on not making it to your final destination?

Seven years ago I met my husband on a flight. Eight months later we were engaged. Things moved pretty quickly for us. But even so, I did not make him my travel companion until three months into the relationship – and I loved the guy! Why? Because those passes must be earned. There’s a reason we don’t give them out to just anyone, the most important reason being that if you act up on a flight and someone reports it we can actually lose our flying benefits! And that’s the reason most of us became flight attendants in the first place.

If someone does sign you up as a travel companion, it’s a pretty big deal. Before 9/11 all a flight attendant had to do was hand someone, anyone really, a paper ticket, and that was that! Off they went. Times have changed and now that everything is computerized you’ll have to fork over your social security number, along with some other pertinent information about you, in order to fly on that very same pass. Not to mention, at my airline, once we pick a travel companion that person is locked in as our companion for a year, and we’re only allowed a certain number of travel companions per year.

For those of you who think air travel today sucks, try traveling as a “non-rev” (non-revenue passenger). Non-rev’s have no rights – none, zero, zilch! And are quite familiar with the phrase, “I’m just happy to be here,” even if here is a middle seat in the last row of coach next to a screaming child on a flight that has been delayed for hours – three days after the original departure date.


  1. Go for the first flight out. Even if the flight is booked full, the first flight out is notorious for passenger drop off. So set the alarm and get to the airport early.
  2. Back away from the gate! The agent is busy trying to get the flight out on time, which is a huge priority for airlines, so sit down and try to relax. You’ll only make things worse if you hover over the one in control of the empty seats
  3. Pack light – And don’t check your bags. You really don’t know which flight you’ll actually get on, or if you’ll even get out at all. Once the bag is checked you won’t get it back.
  4. Come prepared and be flexible- There’s a very good chance you’ll get stuck at the airport all day, especially during weekends, holidays and summer months. It will make your life a lot easier if you’re familiar with the flight numbers and departure times to your final destination. It’s also a good idea to have a back up plan. For instance, when I couldn’t get to Dallas from New York, I flew from New York to Boston to Dallas. It doesn’t always have to make sense.
  5. Don’t make special requests. Oh, no, no no, don’t even think about ringing the flight attendant call button! Unless it’s an emergency. Repeat after me, “I’m just happy to be here, I’m just happy to be here, I’m just happy to be here….” And try to mean it!
  6. Don’t push it! If you have to be somewhere important, give yourself at least a day or two to get there. Just in case. I recently ran into a teary eyed standby passenger who had missed her son graduate from military academy due to not being able to get out on the last flight of the night.