Giant cockroaches and the Equator

May 20, 2010- Really sad to be leaving Kibale Forest after breakfast- I’ve grown so accustomed to hearing my little primate friends in the trees outside my banda. I’m on my way to Queen Elizabeth National Park for some game drives and a stop off at the Equator. I don’t know what the monkey situation will be, but I’m eagerly anticipating some lion sightings. It should be an easy hour-long drive to my safari camp, and I’m looking forward to having the afternoon free for adventuring.

Five hours later, we’re still driving. Apparently the safari camp I’ve booked is so new my driver has never heard of it. He neglected to mention that when we set out. Finally, in frustration, he pulls up to the Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge and asks if I wouldn’t just like to stay there instead? Ah, Africa. He finally consents to look at the map in my Lonely Planet guide (I’ve been offering it to him for at least three hours now) and stops for directions.

He’s obviously cranky when we stop at the Equator for my obligatory “look at what a giant tourist I am!” picture, but at least he doesn’t leave me on the side of the road.

Standing on the Equator!
Standing on the Equator!

It’s almost 2pm when I arrive at the Simba Safari Camp and, once again, I see no other tourists around. One of the employees tells me they have just recently opened and I’ll have the entire camp to myself for the duration of my stay. If you love solitude as much as I do, that probably sounds like a dream. It’s actually a little spooky once the sun starts to set, though. I’m out in the middle of the African savanna, it’s pitch black and absolutely silent. I would go into my banda, but there’s just one little problem.

One big problem, actually.

There’s a cockroach the size of a squirrel in my room.

No, I’m dead serious. It’s so big it probably drove here by itself. I think about going to find an employee to deal with it for me, but then I consider how that might be misconstrued (“Hi, I’m a tiny female here by myself, can you come back to my room with me?”) and decide… mmm, better not.

One hour later:  Leslie 1, giant cockroach 0.

Final tally of weapons thrown: 4 plastic coat hangers, 1 bottle of shampoo, 1 bottle of conditioner, 1 Lonely Planet guidebook, and 1 elephant-dung-encrusted hiking boot.

I doze off and on all night, but never really sleep. Partly because I’m worried about more rodent-sized insects swarming my room, and partly because even though we’re on the Equator, the safari camp has not seen fit to put air conditioning or fans in any of the bandas. At 6am it’s still dark but I step outside with a flashlight in search of a cool breeze. Instead I find a bettle the size of a tennis ball.

Giant Equator bug

I’m really hoping it was worth getting up at the crack of dawn to go on a game drive, and that I see more interesting things than horrifyingly giant insects. (Spoiler alert: it was, and I do. Stay tuned!)

African Adventure- from Hoima to Kibale Forest

May 17, 2010-  My African adventure gets easier and more enjoyable every day. Presumably the jet lag is lessening and improving my mood considerably. The ride to Hoima after breakfast is an easy one- a few small parts of the road are even paved. Wildlife is everywhere. On the drive I see countless baboons, vervet monkeys, one sweet black and white colobus monkey, Ugandan kob, Thomson’s gazelles, pigs, several roadblocks worth of Bunyoro cattle, and approximately six million goats. My driver laughs hysterically when I tell him how much I like goats. I tell him they should open a petting zoo here and tourists would pay to visit. He looks at me like I’m mocking him. I can’t convince him petting zoos are a real thing, and he changes the subject. He asks if I have air conditioning in my house, and I tell him yes. He marvels. He doesn’t believe me when I tell him I have it in my car, too.

Goats!
Goats!
Ugandan traffic jam
Ugandan traffic jam

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I learn an important lesson on this trip: never, ever, ever get stuck behind a flatbed truck carrying bags of fish in the 100+ degree heat. Never. OMG.

We arrive at the Hotel KonTiki early enough in the day for me to wander around and take some photos. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and full of horses and cats and almost no other tourists. My room is the largest I’ve stayed in so far and there’s even a double bed that doesn’t seem to be made of cinderblocks. I revel in the luxury. There’s a huge bathroom, too- with a hole in the ceiling, so I’ll probably find a baboon in there later.

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A pre-dinner nap would be awesome, but apparently there is construction work happening on the other side of the building. Power comes on just long enough for me to charge my phone, then goes off again. Did I fail to mention the random power outages in Africa? Yeah, it’s a thing. Enjoy your electricity and hot water when you can, and never take them for granted.

The hotel restaurant is a typical open-air, thatched roof cafe serving a few random curries and rice (I opt for the veggie). An emaciated little cat immediately sits next to me and starts mewing pitifully. I give it a curry mushroom, which it doesn’t eat, but it doesn’t ask for anything else, either.

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By the time dinner is over it’s dark outside, but the construction workers are still going strong. They’ve cranked up the generator so I have some spotty power with which to charge my laptop. I turn on the TV to try to drown out the hammering, but it only gets one channel, a fuzzy British sports network.

May 18, 2010- I wake up before dawn, too excited to sleep any longer. Today I’m heading to Kibale, the forest with the largest number of primates in Africa. There are no paved spots on the road today- I feel like I may have dislocated something. I wonder if it’s possible to have permanent nerve damage from a sunburn. My left arm feels like it’s been smashed several times over with a hammer. Even wearing long sleeves and keeping the car’s tinted windows up as much as possible (remember how there’s no air conditioning, though? Yeah… that’s problematic) I can feel my skin searing.

Somewhere on the way out of Hoima I see a man and woman with a motorcycle, standing in a ditch on the side of the road. The bike was up on the front wheel and the man seemed to be lowering it back down to the ground. I assumed they had wrecked, given the state of the road, but my driver said they had just run out of fuel and he was trying to eke a few more drops out of the tank to get to town.

Little kids still yell and wave from the side of the road when I pass by. Apparently I’m just as fascinating to them as they are to me.

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Kibale may be famous for its chimpanzees and various monkey species, but I’m astounded by the butterflies. Great clouds of them fly up every time you take a step and they land all over you whenever you’re still. One big one keeps landing on my phone. He must be attracted by his reflection.

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I’m staying at the Primate Lodge, which is nice- I have a big private banda with stone floors and a nice little porch facing the jungle. I haven’t seen any other tourists here, either- it pays to travel in the off-season. I’m the only guest in the restaurant for lunch (a relatively edible ham sandwich and a blissfully cold Coke). Every few minutes I can hear things moving in the treetops and I cross my fingers that a monkey swings by to visit. On my way back to my banda I see a family of L’Hoest’s monkeys, one carrying a tiny baby.

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Torrential downpours seem to come out of nowhere in the jungle and the avalanche of rain, combined with my sheer exhaustion from the sun, knocks me out before dinner and I sleep all night. Did I ever mention it takes me a long time to adjust to being in a new time zone? I wake up when daylight starts peeking into my banda and discover something has eaten a papaya on my front porch in the night. Apparently I missed the monkey visitors I wished for.

After breakfast I hike my way out to the lodge’s famous treehouse overlooking the elephant wallow. Normally you can book the treehouse as your accommodation, and I would have, but it was closed for renovation during my visit. I climb up the steps for a great view of the jungle, though. No elephants here at the moment, but I hear one trumpet in the woods and there is fresh evidence of a recent visit. I can hear chimps hooting and grunting to each other in the woods nearby, too. I sit for at least an hour, in the middle of the jungle, just taking it all in.

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Random Impressions of Uganda

I won’t say “first impressions,” because let’s just say this trip didn’t have the most auspicious start. But once the motion sickness and what-time-zone-am-I-in wonkiness subsided, I realized Uganda is a fascinating place.

View of the Nile from atop Murchison Falls, Uganda
View of the Nile from atop Murchison Falls, Uganda

First, traveling in Uganda will make a tea drinker out of anyone. Maybe it’s just a throwback to British rule, but it’s hard to believe that in one of the biggest coffee growing countries in the world, all you can get is powdered instant blech. Everyone drinks tea, and it’s no wonder.

Birds have breakfast with you in the open-air, thatched-roof restaurants. And I’m sure I heard monkeys on my banda roof last night, along with a warthog rooting around outside.

Company for breakfast
Company for breakfast

Showering is an experience. No lights, cold water, thatched roof, millipedes on the floor. This is why every travel guide since the beginning of time has told you to pack flip flops for the shower, people.

Open air restaurants are vulnerable to random warthog attacks. No one at breakfast bats an eye when a family of warthogs storms the restaurant and knocks over all the trash cans, and half the chairs.

Solar chargers are crap. If I can’t charge my phone with this thing in AFRICA, I’m not going to be able to charge it anywhere.

At some point I realized I was sitting, by myself, in a thatched-roof hut in Africa, looking out on the river Nile, surrounded by babboons and warthogs. Oh my God, I’m actually here.

Hey, that's the Nile over there!
Hey, that’s the Nile over there!

The sun. Oh, dear God, the sun. You never forget you’re on the equator. As soon as you step outside you feel your skin start to tingle and burn. Even with long sleeves. Even slathered in the highest SPF sunblock you brought from home.

Many things here can kill you. Sailing down the Nile, I pass a thousand hippos- including one feisty one who rears up, opens her mouth wide, lets out and angry grunt, and launches herself into the air in the direction of my boat. You would never believe these fat, cartoonish looking animals could move so fast on such short notice if you hadn’t seen it yourself. She lands a few feet shy of the boat, but hard enough to send us rocking alarmingly fast from side to side. The woman in front of me loses her purse and water comes in over both sides. An elderly man near the front loses his grip and goes tumbling out of his seat, but doesn’t seem badly hurt. Luckily for us Mama Hippo seems satisfied with the point she’s made and contents herself with floating in the water and watching us sail away as we right ourselves.

Approximately three seconds before she tried to murder me.
Approximately three seconds before she tried to murder me.

THE LIST

The most common response I’ve received to my travel photos and stories over the years has always been, “You should be a travel writer!” The second most common, however, has always been a request to see what exactly is on a 600+ item bucket list. I’ve never published it before, and I don’t plan to publish it in its entirety now (there are a few things on it that aren’t travel related and I would prefer to keep them private for the time being) but I will list the ones that I have checked off, along with the relevant blog posts where applicable, and I’ll update it as we go along. Fair enough?

  1.  ???
  2.  ???
  3.  ???
  4.  ???
  5.  ???
  6.  ???
  7.  Take a Train Ride across Canada (completed June/July 2016)
  8.  ???
  9.  Visit the Scottish Highlands (completed November 2015)
  10.  ???
  11.  ???
  12.  ???
  13.  ???
  14.  Take an African photo safari (completed May 2010, Uganda)
  15.  Swim with dolphins (completed January 26, 2016 in Cozumel, Mexico)
  16.  ???
  17.  ???
  18.  ???
  19.  ???
  20.  ???
  21.  ???
  22.  Ride in a hot air balloon (completed March 2009, Bagan, Burma)
  23.  Take a cruise (completed several times over!)
  24.  ???
  25.  ???
  26.  Spend the summer living in a beach house (the summer turned into almost five years, and I still miss that house!)
  27.  ???
  28.  ???
  29.  ???
  30.  ???
  31.  ???
  32.  ???
  33.  ???
  34.  ???
  35.  ???
  36.  ???
  37.  ???
  38.  ???
  39.  Watch the launch of the Space Shuttle (I had VIP access to the launch of  Discovery on April 5, 2010, the last night launch. I may have cried. A lot.)
  40. Be an extra in a film.
  41.  ???
  42.  ???
  43.  ???
  44.  ???
  45.  ???
  46.  ???
  47.  Send a message in a bottle (and I got caught in a riptide and nearly died doing it. Someone in Fiji better find that damn bottle is all I’m saying.)
  48.  ???
  49.  ???
  50.  ???
  51.  ???
  52.  ???
  53.  Shower in a waterfall (May 30, 2011 in Cloudland Canyon, Georgia. So. Freaking. Cold. But my committment to the bucket list is unwavering!)
  54.  ???
  55.  ???
  56.  ???
  57.  ???
  58.  ???
  59.  ???
  60.  Visit the World Trade Center memorial. (October 4, 2015- Don’t look for a blog post about this any time soon. I was so overwhelmed I had to leave almost immediately.)
  61.  ???
  62.  ???
  63.  ???
  64.  ???
  65.  ???
  66.  ???
  67.  ???
  68.  Get a tattoo (Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check…)
  69.  ???
  70.  ???
  71.  ???
  72.  ???
  73.  ???
  74.  See a musical on Broadway.
  75.  ???
  76.  ???
  77.  ???
  78.  ???
  79.  Climb Mayan ruins.
  80.  ???
  81.  ???
  82.  ???
  83.  ???
  84.  Learn to ride a horse.
  85.  Live in a beach house (Damn, even early on there were duplicates on the list!)
  86.  ???
  87.  ???
  88.  ???
  89.  ???
  90.  ???
  91.  Sail down the Nile (May 2010, and I nearly died. Good times.)
  92.  ???
  93.  ???
  94.  ???
  95.  ???
  96.  ???
  97.  Visit Stonehenge
  98.  ???
  99.  ???
  100.  ???
  101.  Get a college degree
  102.  ???
  103.  Go to Disney World (see what a sheltered child I was? I was in my 20s before I could check this one off!)
  104.  ???
  105.  ???
  106.  ???
  107.  ???
  108.  ???
  109.  ???
  110.  ???
  111.  ???
  112.  ???
  113.  ???
  114.  Ride a cable car in San Francisco (October 18, 2009)
  115.  Visit Alcatraz (October 18, 2009- take the night tour!)
  116.  ???
  117.  ???
  118.  ???
  119.  ???
  120.  ???
  121.  ???
  122.  ???
  123.  ???
  124.  ???
  125.  Eat alligator (spoiler alert: it’s gross)
  126.  ???
  127.  ???
  128.  Explore a tropical rain forest (May 2010 Kibale Forest and Bwindi, Uganda)
  129.  ???
  130.  ???
  131.  Spend the night at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast
  132.  ???
  133.  ???
  134.  ???
  135.  ???
  136.  ???
  137.  ???
  138.  ???
  139.  ???
  140.  ???
  141.  ???
  142.  ???
  143.  ???
  144.  ???
  145.  ???
  146.  ???
  147.  ???
  148.  ???
  149.  ???
  150.  ???
  151.  ???
  152.  Watch silverback gorillas in the wild (May 2010 Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda- my #1, all time, most amazing travel experience ever)
  153.  ???
  154.  ???
  155.  ???
  156.  Visit Mt. Rushmore (September 2016)
  157.  Visit the Crazy Horse Monument (September 2016)
  158.  ???
  159.  Visit ancient Greek & Roman ruins ( March 2012, London; February & September 2013, Athens)
  160.  ???
  161.  ???
  162.  ???
  163.  ???
  164.  ???
  165.  ???
  166.  ???
  167.  Watch bald eagles in the wild
  168.  Eat cheesecake at Junior’s in Brooklyn (October 5, 2015)
  169.  ???
  170.  ???
  171.  ???
  172.  ???
  173.  ???
  174.  ???
  175.  ???
  176.  ???
  177.  Touch a whale (April 18, 2009)
  178.  ???
  179.  ???
  180.  ???
  181.  ???
  182.  ???
  183.  ???
  184.  ???
  185.  ???
  186.  ???
  187.  ???
  188.  ???
  189.  ???
  190.  ???
  191.  ???
  192.  ???
  193.  ???
  194.  ???
  195.  ???
  196.  ???
  197.  ???
  198.  ???
  199.  ???
  200.  ???
  201.  ???
  202.  ???
  203.  ???
  204.  See a herd of bison on the American plains (September 24, 2016 Custer State Park, South Dakota. Happy birthday to me!)
  205.  See the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum
  206.  ???
  207.  Eat beignets at the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans (too many times to count, but I never get tired of them!)
  208.  Hear wolves howl in the wild.
  209.  ???
  210.  ???
  211.  ???
  212.  ???
  213.  ???
  214.  ???
  215.  ???
  216.  ???
  217.  ???
  218.  ???
  219.  ???
  220.  Walk the Enchanted Trail near Chattanooga, Tennessee
  221.  ???
  222.  ???
  223.  ???
  224.  Listen to jazz and blues in Memphis
  225.  ???
  226.  ???
  227.  ???
  228.  Buy a painting from a starving artist
  229.  ???
  230.  ???
  231.  ???
  232.  ???
  233.  ???
  234.  ???
  235.  Tour Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina
  236.  ???
  237.  ???
  238.  ???
  239.  ???
  240.  Take a carriage ride through St. Augustine
  241.  ???
  242.  ???
  243.  ???
  244.  Visit the Acropolis (February 14, 2013)
  245.  Hunt for antiques at the West London Fair
  246.  ???
  247.  ???
  248.  ???
  249.  Visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (October 22, 2010)
  250.  ???
  251.  See the ancient bronze statue of the Delphic Charioteer in Greece (February and September 2013- once wasn’t enough! This thing is breathtaking)
  252.  ???
  253.  Eat cheesesteak in Philadelphia (July 3, 2015- Jim’s Steaks on South Street. Legendary.)
  254.  ???
  255.  ???
  256.  ???
  257.  ???
  258.  Have afternoon tea at the London Ritz.
  259.  ???
  260.  ???
  261.  ???
  262.  ???
  263.  ???
  264.  ???
  265.  Tour the Okefenokee swamp by boat (January 21, 2016)
  266.  ???
  267.  Walk the entire Freedom Trail to visit the landmarks of the American Revolution (September 17, 2010)
  268.  Explore a bat cave (May 23, 2011- Carlsbad Caverns)
  269.  Buy a book in San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore (October 17, 2009- “American Chinatown” by Bonnie Tsui)
  270.  Visit all 54 African countries (OK I’m still working on this one- Uganda and Rwanda down, 52 to go!)
  271.  ???
  272.  ???
  273.  ???
  274.  ???
  275.  ???
  276.  ???
  277.  ???
  278.  See the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery
  279.  Travel the Road to Mandalay (March 2009)
  280.  ???
  281.  ???
  282.  ???
  283.  ???
  284.  ???
  285.  ???
  286.  ???
  287.  ???
  288.  ???
  289.  ???
  290.  ???
  291.  ???
  292.  ???
  293.  ???
  294.  ???
  295.  ???
  296.  ???
  297.  ???
  298.  ???
  299.  ???
  300.  ???
  301.  ???
  302.  ???
  303.  ???
  304.  Drive a tank! (June 25, 2010 in Kasota, Minnesota. This got me a mention on CNN Money, and was dope as hell.)
  305.  ???
  306.  ???
  307.  ???
  308.  ???
  309.  ???
  310.  ???
  311.  ???
  312.  ???
  313.  ???
  314.  ???
  315.  ???
  316.  ???
  317.  ???
  318.  ???
  319.  ???
  320.  ???
  321.  ???
  322.  ???
  323.  ???
  324.  ???
  325.  ???
  326.  ???
  327.  ???
  328.  ???
  329.  ???
  330.  ???
  331.  See a blue iguana in the wild (Mexico, Burma, and Uganda. Who knew there were so many of them?)
  332.  ???
  333.  ???
  334.  ???
  335.  ???
  336.  ???
  337.  ???
  338.  ???
  339.  ???
  340.  ???
  341.  ???
  342.  ???
  343.  ???
  344.  ???
  345.  ???
  346.  ???
  347.  ???
  348.  ???
  349.  ???
  350.  ???
  351.  ???
  352.  Hear Big Ben chime.
  353.  ???
  354.  ???
  355.  ???
  356.  ???
  357.  ???
  358.  ???
  359.  ???
  360.  Visit Gillette Castle in East Haddam, Connecticut (September 19, 2010)
  361.  ???
  362.  ???
  363.  ???
  364.  ???
  365.  ???
  366.  ???
  367.  ???
  368.  ???
  369.  Visit the grave of Benjamin Franklin in Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia
  370.  Eat a 6″ sandwich at Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh
  371.  ???
  372.  ???
  373.  Visit the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.
  374.  ???
  375.  ???
  376.  ???
  377.  ???
  378.  ???
  379.  Pizzeria Uno, Chicago (and why I get free pizza for life)
  380.  ???
  381.  ???
  382.  ???
  383.  ???
  384.  Little Bighorn Battlefield, Montana (September 23, 2016)
  385.  ???
  386.  ???
  387.  Explore Badlands National Park, South Dakota (September 25, 2016)
  388.  Mt. Rushmore & the Crazy Horse Monument (oops, another duplicate. It happens!)
  389.  ???
  390.  Buy a souvenir magnet at Wall Drug in Wall, SD (September 25, 2016)
  391.  ???
  392.  Hear a concert at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheater (September 26, 2016)
  393.  Explore Carlsbad Caverns in Carlsbad, New Mexico (May 23, 2011)
  394.  ???
  395.  ???
  396.  Find the best Chinese food in San Francisco’s Chinatown (October 17, 2009- City View Dim Sum was my final choice!)
  397.  ???
  398.  ???
  399.  ???
  400.  ???
  401.  Watch orcas off the coast of British Columbia (July 4, 2016- second only to seeing wild mountain gorillas in Uganda on the Highlights of My Life list!)
  402.  ???
  403.  ???
  404.  ???
  405.  ???
  406.  ???
  407.  ???
  408.  ???
  409.  ???
  410.  ???
  411.  Stand on the Equator (May 2010, Uganda)
  412.  ???
  413.  ???
  414.  Ride in a helicopter (September 18, 2010- Boston)
  415.  Visit Gettysburg (October 23, 2010)
  416.  ???
  417.  ???
  418.  ???
  419.  ???
  420.  ???
  421.  ???
  422.  ???
  423.  ???
  424.  ???
  425.  ???
  426.  ???
  427.  ???
  428.  ???
  429.  ???
  430.  ???
  431.  ???
  432.  ???
  433.  ???
  434.  ???
  435.  ???
  436.  ???
  437.  ???
  438.  ???
  439.  ???
  440.  ???
  441.  ???
  442.  ???
  443.  ???
  444.  ???
  445.  ???
  446.  ???
  447.  ???
  448.  ???
  449.  ???
  450.  ???
  451.  ???
  452.  ???
  453.  ???
  454.  ???
  455.  ???
  456.  ???
  457.  ???
  458.  ???
  459.  ???
  460.  ???
  461.  ???
  462.  ???
  463.  ???
  464.  ???
  465.  ???
  466.  ???
  467.  ???
  468.  ???
  469.  ???
  470.  ???
  471.  ???
  472.  ???
  473.  ???
  474.  ???
  475.  Explore ancient temples in Indonesia
  476.  ???
  477.  ???
  478.  ???
  479.  ???
  480.  ???
  481.  ???
  482.  ???
  483.  ???
  484.  ???
  485.  ???
  486.  ???
  487.  ???
  488.  ???
  489.  ???
  490.  ???
  491.  ???
  492.  ???
  493.  ???
  494.  ???
  495.  ???
  496.  ???
  497.  ???
  498.  ???
  499.  ???
  500.  ???
  501.  ???
  502.  ???
  503.  ???
  504.  ???
  505.  ???
  506.  ???
  507.  ???
  508.  ???
  509.  ???
  510.  ???
  511.  ???
  512.  ???
  513.  ???
  514.  ???
  515.  ???
  516.  ???
  517.  ???
  518.  ???
  519.  ???
  520.  ???
  521.  ???
  522.  ???
  523.  ???
  524.  ???
  525.  ???
  526.  ???
  527.  ???
  528.  ???
  529.  Ride the St. Kitts Scenic Railway
  530.  ???
  531.  ???
  532.  ???
  533.  ???
  534.  ???
  535.  ???
  536.  ???
  537.  ???
  538.  ???
  539.  ???
  540.  ???
  541.  ???
  542.  ???
  543.  ???
  544.  ???
  545.  ???
  546.  ???
  547.  ???
  548.  ???
  549.  ???
  550.  ???
  551.  ???
  552.  ???
  553.  ???
  554.  ???
  555.  ???
  556.  ???
  557.  ???
  558.  ???
  559.  ???
  560.  ???
  561.  ???
  562.  ???
  563.  ???
  564.  ???
  565.  ???
  566.  ???
  567.  ???
  568.  Go back to Greece (sometimes I love a country so much I put it back on the list even after I’ve been there. Sue me.)
  569.  ???
  570.  Visit the tomb of St. Luke in Thiva, Greece
  571.  ???
  572.  ???
  573.  Visit Thessaloniki
  574.  ???
  575.  ???
  576.  ???
  577.  ???
  578.  ???
  579.  ???
  580.  ???
  581.  ???
  582.  ???
  583.  Borobudur Temple Compound, Indonesia
  584.  ???
  585.  ???
  586.  ???
  587.  ???
  588.  ???
  589.  ???
  590.  ???
  591.  ???
  592.  ???
  593.  ???
  594.  ???
  595.  Explore Gilmerton Cove, a series of underground passageways beneath Edinburgh (November 13, 2015)
  596.  ???
  597.  ???
  598.  ???
  599.  Marry Eric (December 31, 2015)
  600.  ???
  601.  ???
  602.  ???
  603.  ???
  604.  ???
  605.  ???
  606.  ???
  607.  ???
  608.  ???
  609.  ???
  610.  ???

 

So there you have it- everything I’ve checked off my bucket list so far. Next up on the list? #542- explore ancient temples in Sri Lanka. Stay tuned!

Travel Sucks and I Want to Go Home

There’s a dirty little secret in the world of exotic travel, and most people don’t want to talk about it. No one wants to detract from the glowing descriptions of fabulous adventures and sunny photos of tropical splendor, but I’m always going to tell you guys the truth. Sometimes… travel sucks and I want to go home.

 Nowhere in my travels was this more evident than at the beginning of my trip to Uganda and Rwanda in May 2010.

I work until almost midnight the night before I leave- not unusual for a funeral director. We can’t just up and leave when the work isn’t done, vacation or no vacation. I have an hour drive home in the rain and then I still have to do laundry and pack, not having had a day off in weeks before my trip. Again, not unusual for a funeral director.

I wake up still groggy on departure day, but also excited. I’m on vacation! I’m going to Africa. I’m going to see GORILLAS! 

My first flight from Orlando to Detroit is delayed. I have tight connection times in Detroit and Amsterdam to begin with, so this doesn’t bode well. I make it to Detroit with literal minutes to spare and run like a crazy woman to my gate. I’m the last one to board before they close the doors. I get sick on the plane. I’m already over this trip.

The flight into Amsterdam was also late and I have to run again. Damn it, I’m wearing flip flops. I get sick on the plane again and spend an hour crying into my scratchy little airplane pillow.

I land in Entebbe, Uganda a few minutes before midnight, a day after I left home. My luggage does not. When I arrive at baggage claim there is a large handwritten sign with the names of 10 or so passengers whose belongings didn’t make the journey with them- mine included. After waiting a small eternity at the lost luggage counter and filling out forms, I’m told my bag will be delivered to my hotel by 10 a.m. tomorrow. After the last 36 hours, I’m not holding my breath.

Wifi isn’t working at the hotel so I have no way to get a message home that I’ve arrived. I feel slightly better after a hot shower, but freak out at the sight of a huge insect crawling on the mosquito netting over my bed. I’m utterly exhausted but wake up every few minutes, groggy and disoriented. I already want to go home. I finally doze off for a few hours, wake up at 9 a.m., still feeling sick. I try to eat something but there are ants crawling all over the outdoor breakfast table. My driver arrives at 9:30 and I explain about the luggage. It’s nearly 1 p.m. before my bag is delivered by an airport employee. I look at the new tag on it and see it has apparently spent the night in Nairobi without me.

My first glimpse of Africa in the daylight

My first glimpse of Africa in the daylight

The highlight of the day- I finally reach Kampala and pick up my gorilla tracking permit! This is actually happening.

Downtown Kampala is hectic, dirty, hot, and overcrowded. The traffic is terrifying. My hotel is not exactly the gleaming oasis that the travel guide has made it out to be, but there’s (mostly) hot water and (mostly working) wifi. I take a shower and collapse into bed without eating. That seems like a terrible idea when I wake up ravenous at 10 p.m., just as the hotel restaurant is closing. By the time breakfast is served at 7 a.m., I’m shaking.

Downtown Kampala: utter chaos

Downtown Kampala: utter chaos

You may be wondering at this point if I’m just going to throw in the towel and go home. If I did, could you blame me? This is not shaping up to be a peaceful and relaxing holiday.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking I’m a spoiled brat, whining about a trip some people only dream about taking. Maybe I am. But travel can be difficult and disheartening and I think it’s important to tell the whole story. If you’ve ever found yourself feeling guilty for not having a fantastic time on what’s supposed to be a dream vacation, know you’re not alone. It’s OK to admit when you’re not having a fantastic time.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it does get better. Once I adapt to the time change and get over the motion sickness and adjust to the African way of life, I have a (mostly) fantastic time. Including the most magical experience of my life with a wild mountain gorilla, that still ranks as the highlight of my life to this day. Stay tuned.

The beautifully landscaped grounds of the Boma hotel in Entebbe
The beautifully landscaped grounds of the Boma hotel in Entebbe

Back on American soil

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April 5, 2009- I land in the United States sick and miserable. I’m covered in bites (flea? rodent? I may never know for sure) that will take nearly six weeks to fully heal. I’ve lost at least 15 pounds. I have heat rash and a wicked sunburn; I definitely look like I’ve just spent weeks in a third world country. It feels like I’ve been gone much longer and I can’t wait to gorge myself on every American thing I can find- cheeseburgers, pizza, air conditioning, really long showers.

You might think I wouldn’t be in a big hurry to take another trip, but you’d be wrong. As soon as I get home, shower, and relax on the couch with a cup of tea, I fire up the Random Bucket List Picker again- I’m already itching to go on another adventure.

#152- Watch silverback gorillas in the wild.

Shit. I’m actually really nervous about this one. I think about drawing a new number, but don’t. I can’t even remember when I added this entry to the list. Probably while watching a special on National Geographic. Where am I going to have to go for this? (East Africa, as it turns out.) Are gorillas dangerous? (Nope. They’re peaceful vegetarians.) What’s a trip like this going to cost? (Not as much as you might think.) It takes less than 30 minutes of Googling to turn my initial apprehension to excitement. I order a new Lonely Planet guide from Amazon and start planning my next adventure.

24 Things I Loved About Burma

Sometimes I feel guilty about writing the negative aspects of my posts. Even though honesty demands that the negative be included along with the positive, I tend to feel like an ugly, entitled American when another country doesn’t live up to my expectations. To help combat that feeling, here is a list of 24 things I absolutely loved about Burma.

  1. The people are so nice, and genuinely try to be helpful to lost foreigners.
  2. Tiny monks everywhere.
  3. Gorgeous temples everywhere.
  4. The food is pretty good.
  5. I felt completely safe nearly everywhere as a solo female traveler. Being a Buddhist country, there is very little crime, especially against tourists.
  6. Many people have learned a little bit of English, either in school or free classes taught in the monasteries, and are very eager to try out what they know. Especially cute are the shy little kids who will run up to you and yell, “Hello-goodbye!” before running back to their parents.
  7. Women and children wearing thick yellow thanaka paste on their faces as sunscreen.
  8. People here have a charming affinity for western cartoon characters. Even grown men will travel with a Mickey Mouse or Snoopy duffel bag.
  9. The hot air balloon ride in Bagan. Pure magic.
  10. Children are remarkably well behaved here.
  11. The Islamic community in Mandalay. My hotel was right next to a large mosque and I loved to sit in the window and list to their calls to worship.
  12. Chapatis and Nepali food in Mandalay.
  13. Horse carts in Bagan.
  14. Going barefoot in all the Buddhist temples and monasteries. Somehow the act of removing your shoes makes the experience so much more reverent.
  15. My first day in Yangon, a toothless old woman approached me on the street and handed me  a beautiful white flower. Thinking she was selling them, I shook my head ‘no’ but she pressed it into my hands anyway and said, “Gift!”
  16. The way people worship their Buddhas, lovingly covering them with gold and flowers, washing them and making offerings of rice and incense. Misdirection of time and resources that it might be, I think almost all forms of worship are beautiful to witness.
  17. Little nat (earth spirit) shrines hidden in tress and other surprising places.
  18. Even though so many people here are going hungry or lacking basic necessities, there is virtually no theft. I watched a homeless man sitting on the dirty street pick up money and go chasing after the German tourist who had dropped it.
  19. The pervasive smell of jasmine.
  20. Making a wish at Shwedagon Paya in the ‘wish fulfilling place’.
  21. Nylon Ice Cream Bar, Mandalay.
  22. The beautiful, if chilly, boat ride across Inle Lake.
  23. The smell of incense.
  24. People who speak some English eagerly try to communicate with foreigners. Those who don’t just smile and laugh a lot.

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36 Hours on the Burmese Death Train

March 29, 2009- Welcome to the worst travel experience of my entire life. I have spent the last 36 hours in bed in a room without electricity due to rolling blackouts, consuming nothing but cans of tepid orange Sunkist from the mini fridge. Pretty sure I have malaria, even though I have been on Doxycycline since before leaving the US. I’m lethargic, having cold sweats, and feel like I have a fever. It’ll surely be hours before my driver picks me up to take me to the train station and I remembered passing a wooden shack with a “pharmacy” sign on the way into town, so I gather up all of my strength and make the two mile walk to see if I can buy a thermometer. It costs $1.00 and I tuck it into my green quilted tote bag for safe keeping during the long trudge back to my hotel.

The thermometer doesn’t work. I don’t have the time or energy to walk another four miles to take it back. I try to get online to check WebMD for early symptoms of malaria, but the Internet is down again. I try to eat breakfast but can’t keep anything down. I’m definitely dying.

I schlep to the hotel office to see if any of the employees know when my driver is picking me up. The older of the two women behind the counter tell me they expect him at 9:00 a.m. since the train leaves at 10:00. I show her my itinerary from the travel agent which shows the train leaves at 8:00. She shrugs. I panic. “Can you possibly call someone to check? I can’t miss this train.” She shrugs again.

“No phone today. It’ll be OK.”

“No, seriously, I can’t miss this train. If I miss this train I’ll miss my flight home.”

She smiles and nods. She has no idea what I’m saying.

The driver finally comes and delivers me to the train station office. After the ticket agent yells at someone for nearly 20 minutes, he hands me my ticket and says the train now leaves at 11:30. No one seems to know what to do with the strange white girl, so they finally deposit me in the empty stationmaster’s office with my suitcase for the two hour wait. I watch the platform from the grimy window and hope I know what train is mine as they don’t seem to have any numbers on them.

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On the train. Because it has worked so well in the past, I employ the “look small and helpless” technique to encourage someone to help me find my seat. Looking helpless is easy; small, not so much. At 5’4″ tall, I tower over most people in this country. A tiny monk helps me put my suitcase on the overhead shelf. I’ll be on this train for at least 20 hours- my first ever long-distance train ride. And, um, I’m pretty sure I just saw a rat run across the aisle. Suddenly I’m questioning the wisdom of everyone in this country wearing sandals all the time.

At least the windows open so I can take pictures during the day.

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Correction- it was a mouse, not a rat. I know this because he is currently rummaging around in a bag of crackers belonging to the Indian man seated facing me. I point it out to him, but he seems completely unconcerned. I don’t know if that’s because he doesn’t care or he just doesn’t understand what I’m saying. Maybe it’s his mouse.

Now there are two mice. Apparently word is out that the nice Indian man is giving away free crackers. I’m not eating anything on this train.

We haven’t pulled out of the station yet, and Indian Guy’s rodent count is up to three. Now they’re crawling up on his seat with him and he doesn’t seem to mind that, either. I wonder how many more mice can fit in his bag before they start coming over here to stretch their legs.

(Final rodent count = 6)

It’s about 8 hours into the trip that I discover the “bathroom” on this train is a plastic bucket in the corner in full view of everyone else on the train. And that’s in the first class car. I wonder what the people in the cheap seats have to do. Actually I don’t wonder too hard. I’m definitely going to hold it for 20 hours. I’m probably dying anyway.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, the train pulls into a station (let’s be clear, they’re not real train stations- just sections of track where people gather to sell things like reused water bottles and fried crickets from baskets on top of their heads) and stops. I’m dozing, not really sleeping, but I notice the stop and wait for the train to start up again as it has at a dozen other stops.

It doesn’t.

After an hour or so of anxious glancing about by the passengers, a short man in wrinkled white shirt speedwalks through the train car, shouting something in Burmese. Everyone gets up and starts grabbing their things. I stay put. The train car begins to empty out. Two young monks seated across the aisle point at me and one asks, “Where you go?”

“Yangon,” I answer.

They laugh. “Yangoooon,” they mimic in unison, mocking my accent. One grabs my suitcase from the overhead shelf while the other beckons me to follow. “Change train!” he calls over his shoulder as they hop out the open door, not waiting for me to follow. They have my stuff, so I do.

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I’m absolutely terrified that I’ve made the wrong move, but I’m also starving, battling either the flu or malaria, and covered in flea (??) bites. Maybe they’re rodent bites, I don’t know. My legs are absolutely covered in little purple marks that weren’t there when I boarded the train. I don’t know what else to do, so I curl up and go to sleep.

Monday, March 30th at 4:30 p.m.- 29 hours into what was supposed to be a 20 hour train ride. My flight from Yangon to Singapore is leaving right now and obviously, I’m not on it. I know the next flight is in two days. I’m not going to cry on the train. I’m not.

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We finally pull into the station in Yangon 16 hours late. I’ve spent 36 hours on this rodent-infested train. I’m dying of thirst because the only water options were dirty, discarded bottles I watched little kids refill from garden hoses at the “stations” along the way. With the only bathroom option being an open bucket in the corner… no. Just no. I’m covered in heat rash and flea bites and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to drink enough water to not be thirsty again.

A driver from my travel agency is waiting for me on the platform. “Hello! You miss your flight!” He’s utterly gleeful. I may kill him.

“Train from up north always very late,” he chirps as he loads my suitcase into the back of his car. “Everybody miss flight all the time.” He’s practically skipping. “No more flights to Singapore for two days- you may be stuck in the airport all that time.” He never stops smiling.

Dear God Please Don’t Make Me Deliver a Baby in This Hatchback

March 27, 2009- There’s really no public transportation option from Mandalay to Inle Lake in Nyaungshwe, so I’ve hired a private driver to deliver me to my next hotel. He arrives at 8:00 a.m. on the dot, but doesn’t speak a word of English. I can’t complain- I’ve been super lucky so far with all of my drivers and guides speaking English, and as long as he knows how to get me to my destination I don’t care if he’s not chatty. One of the hotel porters takes my itinerary and goes over it with the driver to ensure he knows where to take me. I have no idea if he understands or not, but he nods and we take off into the crazy Mandalay traffic. Along the way we stop in an alley to pick up a local man and his two teenage daughters. Maybe “private driver” doesn’t mean what I think it means. None of the three new passengers speak any English, either, so it’s a quiet ride. That’s fine with me- I’m absorbed in the scenery.

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Soon we pass out of urban Mandalay into the countryside and into the foothills of an impressive mountain range.

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The road quickly becomes rutted lanes of rocky soil where the driver maneuvers around horse carts, children pulling cattle, and flat bed conveyances powered by what look like lawnmower engines.

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Two hours into our trip, on an extremely secluded stretch of mountain road, we get a flat tire. The driver pulls out his spare from the back, but it’s also flat. Without a word he takes off down the road, awkwardly rolling the flat spare in front of him. Gas stations in this part of the world are nothing more than random wooden pallets stacked with plastic petrol jugs, so I have no idea where he’s going or how long we’re going to be sitting here on the side of the road.

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Our driver, he went that way...
Our driver, he went that way…

11:00 a.m.- we’ve been sitting here on the ground for over an hour. Still no sign of the driver. The father of the two teenage girls has flagged down a couple of passing motorists in what I can only assume is an attempt to find the guy a ride back if he ever gets the tire refilled. Only a few cars have passed us in the last hour, so mostly they sit on our collective pile of luggage and read their Bible. I think they may be missionaries but have no way to ask.

11:15 a.m.- a young guy on a motorcycle stops to deliver our driver and his newly repaired tire, and the men get to work fashioning some sort of jack out of a pile of rusty metal pipes.

At 1:00 we stop for lunch in a little mountain town and a barefoot boy with a crowbar fixes our flat tire for a spare. Against my better judgment I pick at some fried noodles, but if the next two hours are anything like the last two, they’re not going to stay down. The road the winds around the mountain is just a pile of rocks, and I’ve taken to calling our car the Vomit Comet. I don’t think a 70’s era Toyota Corolla Hatchback (with no air conditioning!) was meant for these conditions.

2:00 p.m.- Less than five miles down the road from our lunch stop, we get another flat tire.

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Good thing the boy at the restaurant fixed the last one. Not sure what we’ll do for the next (oh, you know it’s coming…)

While he’s fixing the tire, a very, very pregnant girl approaches the driver and, apparently, asks for a ride. She’s clutching her lower back with both hands and breathing through her teeth, obviously in great distress. The fact that we don’t have any seats left doesn’t seem to phase either of them. He wedges her in between himself and the gearshift, and away we go. I feel horrible for her. She’s perched on top of the emergency brake and crashes into my shoulder every time we hit a bump. So, about every four seconds. Every time she apologizes desperately. “Sorry, sorry!!” seems to be the only English she knows. Every time I tell her it’s fine and try to make more room for her. There isn’t any more room to make, however, and I can’t help but notice she’s breaking out in a cold sweat and clutching her stomach more frequently. Oh, shit.

Twenty minutes into the ride she starts to vomit. (I’m surprised it took that long.) The driver has scrounged a plastic bag into which she can be sick. (Burmese people are endlessly resourceful.) He asks her a tense question I don’t understand. Her eyes fill with tears and she clutches her stomach even harder. He turns and says something I don’t understand to the man in the back. They look nervous. The possible-missionary man leans forward and asks me tentatively, “You know…deliver…?” He crosses his arms and rocks them in a universal sign for cradling a baby.

“No!” I shake my head forcefully. I did not sign up for this. I’ve never even held a baby. He seems to understand and pats the pregnant girl on the shoulder, saying something that sounds encouraging. I hope he’s encouraging her to please not have a baby on my lap. It must have worked, because she’s still miserably pregnant an hour later when we deposit her at the end of a dirt road. I watch her retching miserably onto the ground as we drive away.

Rudyard Kipling is a Terrible Travel Agent

 

“This is Burma, and it is quite unlike any land you know about.”

                                                                                                 – Rudyard Kipling

March 25, 2009- Today’s the day. The entire reason I’m on the other side of the world. My driver, Zaw, will be picking me up early (surprise) for the 7 a.m. train to Mandalay. Yes, I know it’s “Travel the road to Mandalay,” but the poem was talking about a boat, anyway. Traveling the railroad tracks to Mandalay will be just as good, I’m sure. On the ride to the station, Zaw expresses amazement that I would rather take an 8 hour train ride than a 30 minute flight to the former capital. “Your airlines are run by the corrupt government and I won’t give them any more money than absolutely necessary. Also they have horrible safety records.” He’s astounded that an outsider knows so many things about his country.

We arrive at the train station only to find out that the overnight train from Mandalay has not appeared. Zaw goes to find out how much of a delay to expect while I wedge myself into a tiny plastic chair and swat mosquitoes. Finally he returns. “Now they do not expect the train to arrive until 2:00 p.m. and leave again for Mandalay at 4:00. Will that be OK for you?” Um, no.

Apparently my only other option is a 7 hour bus ride, so we race to the bus station in Nyang U, thinking this also departs at 7:00. The bus actually doesn’t leave until 8:00 a.m., so I’m there in plenty of time. Seated next to me on the bus is a very old Burmese woman with obvious motion sickness. She keeps a handful of jasmine pressed over her face the entire time. At ten a.m. we stop at one of the ubiquitous roadside curry stands for lunch. I have a remarkably good beef curry and a Coke for $1.80.

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We finally pull into the Mandalay bus station (actually just a large dusty parking lot) at 2:30 p.m., where another driver is waiting to take me to the Silver Star Hotel. The road to Mandalay? Not that impressive, actually.

The view from the bus
The view from the bus

The first thing I notice about Mandalay is the pervasive dust everywhere. Everything is so dry and covered in dust- cars, buildings, people. Everything. I don’t know where Kipling’s flyin’-fishes are, or the misty rice paddies. I’m coughing like crazy from the dust and feeling absolutely disgusting from the long sweltering bus ride. As soon as I check into the hotel I take a desperately needed shower- with ice cold water. The hot water heater isn’t working, the front desk clerk tells me with an apologetic smile. Oh, and the Internet is out- has been all week. Probably won’t be up any time soon. Welcome to Mandalay!

Turns out, that jerk Kipling never even visited Mandalay. That’s absolutely the last time I take travel advice from a long-dead English poet.

My first impressions of Mandalay don’t get any better after I leave the hotel and wander down to the local market. The streets are so full of garbage and human waste, I actually gag a few times. I’m shocked to see stalls full of adult videos and magazines; being a Buddhist country, this is very unexpected. It’s getting dark and the male stall keepers are openly leering at me, so I hightail it out of there.

I’m hungry, though, and not ready to call it a night until I find two places recommended by my Lonely Planet guide. One is a no-name chapati stand on the side of the road and I spot it from a block away. There is a throng of people crowding around to watch the chapati-maker flipping the hot bread on his griddle. Smoke rises up to mix with the clouds of dust from the street. There are no signs and I have no idea what the ordering process is, so I stand on the edge of the crowd looking hungry and hopeful until a boy of about 8 or 9, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, comes over and points to an overturned plastic bucket in front of a tiny table. I feel like I’m sitting on dollhouse furniture. Food magically appears in front of me: a big bowl of chicken curry, steaming plate of chapatis, and some sort of unidentifiable (but amazingly good) vegetable curry.  I could sit and eat this all night. There is traffic whizzing by right next to the cluster of rickety little tables, but no one seems to notice. We’re all just eagerly shoveling chapatis and curry into our faces with wild abandon. I’m heartbroken when I get so full I can’t eat any more. This was the best meal of my life, eaten on an overturned plastic bucket on the side of a dirty road in a filthy town, and it cost $1.36. This is what you should be writing poetry about, people.

I still dream about this meal.
I still dream about this meal.

Walking three blocks from the chapati stand gives me enough room for ice cream, though, and this is the second redeeming quality of Mandalay: Nylon Ice Cream Bar. Probably the closest thing to a western ice cream shop I’m going to find in this country, it is a welcome oasis from the brain-melting heat. Apart from the fifty cent dish of strawberry ice cream, I also take my life into my hands with a glass of water from the jug on the table. Not on purpose- it’s just so hot and dusty my brain isn’t working properly and the jug of ice water looked like a mirage in the desert. I have a stomach ache for about ten minutes, but that’s it. Apparently I’m invincible.

Thursday morning I meet my driver for a tour of Mandalay’s most famous sights. Our first stop is Mahamuni Paya, one of the most famous Buddhist sites in the country. It’s a major pilgrimage site and the center of a huge annual festival. Or so the guidebook says- what I saw were homeless people sleeping on festering piles of garbage and crying, hungry children begging for food while oblivious men rubbed more gold leaf on a statue.

We also go to Kuthodaw Pagoda, or “The World’s Largest Book” and Shwenandaw Monastery. The pagoda is interesting, but hard to appreciate when you have to push your way through crowds of beggars and step over piles of maggotty garbage to get in. The monastery itself is an incredible series of intricate wood carvings, but it’s still an active monastic site and I have no interest in shoving my camera in some poor monk’s face while he tries to eat, as I saw another tourist do.

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Driving from the monastery to our next site, a small child in rags approaches my side of the car. His face is a mass of horrific burn scars and one eye socket is glaringly empty. He grabs at the side of the car with one disfigured hand while holding out a cup with the other. “Try not to look,” my driver says quietly. “You can’t give him money- if you do, hundreds of others will swarm the car.”

I’m sure he’s right, but I can’t look away from the poor boy with the ruined face. “His parents did that, you know,” the driver says as we pull away. He shrugs at my horrified look. “With boiling water. The more badly disfigured they make their children, the more pity foreigners will have and will give them more money.” Imagine the utter desperation that would make you resort to pouring boiling water on your own child in hopes it will result in enough handouts to feed him.