The minute someone announces that they'll be moving abroad or taking an extended trip, people who want to "visit you" appear out of the woodwork! Friends and family and even nearly-perfect strangers all want to share in the excitement, intrigue, romance of travel and exploration! I've heard cries of "I'm soooooooo coming!" from my sister, mother, countless friends and even my hair dresser!

How to be a Houseguest

While I'm excited to go and travel solo, I'm also excited to have visitors! I've hosted numerous people, at sea, on land, et cetera; I've had enough experience with playing the host to have formed solid, reasonable expectations for a guest. Here are my tips for being a proper guest:

Research

Do your own research before you arrive. There is nothing more frustrating for a host than a guest who doesn't know what they want to do, and sloughs off every expectation for "having a good time" on their host. Keep in mind: Your host lives in the city you are visiting. He/she will know of some great things to do there, but he/she will not know what it is you are truly interested in. You may think that saying "I'll do whatever" means you're being flexible and trying to work with your hosts schedule, but it's actually quite stressful for the host. Spend a few minutes on TripAdvisor researching things to do in the place you're visiting and let your host know ahead of time so the proper arrangements can be made.

Time

Keep in mind that your host lives where you're visiting. While you may be on vacation and are feeling care free and out for non-stop fun, your host is probably not on vacation. (That's why he/she is still at home.) Sure the host may be able to get a day or two off from work to tour you around the region, but at the end of that time the host will have to return to work. Be respectful of your host's time.

I once hosted a guyfriend's girlfriend for the weekend. It. Was. Awful. I asked only that they text me to let me know when she would be dropped off each night, so I could let her into the house (I wasn't comfortable giving her a key). They would text me at half ten pm and not show up for four more hours. Really, really frustrating.

I'm not going to be working while I'm in Rome, but I will have personal projects going on -– reading, writing, learning the language, so don't expect that I can or will want to devote every waking hour to doting on you. I'm not a babysitter. I like my independence. You should, too.

Cleanliness

You may have just scored a free place to stay, but you are not staying in a hotel and there is no maid!! Clean up after yourself. Make your bed. If you're sleeping on a couch in a public room, fold up your blankets and sheets and pack away your suitcase during the day. Remember: You're in someone else's home.

Meals

Most hosts will provide breakfast for you, and sometimes feed you every single meal. (Personally, my lifestyle is not such that I can offer that to a guest, but I've had the good fortune of experiencing it before.) If your host offers to feed you, please let him/her know in advance if you have any food allergies or special dietary needs.

Tongseng, a type of Indonesian soup (and very delicious)

A couple of friends came to stay in my house for a few nights – I asked if there were any allergies or preferences for food before they arrived and the answer came back, "No." However on arrival (at 11:00 at night, I might add) I found out that one of the guests had a milk allergy and was just expecting a piece of toast in the morning. I don't usually keep bread in my house and had nothing to feed her in the morning, despite my efforts.

Resources

I am not independently wealthy. Sure, I have a good job, but I live relatively modestly. Don't expect me -- or any host -- to spend hard-earned resources on your vacation. Yes, I want to go and play with you and I can pay for my own tickets and meals, but I'm not going to pay for yours. This is especially true for the time I'll be abroad. My resources will be limited. You'll be expected to pay for your share of what you do.

Horror Story

I live in a duplex house and know the girls who live next door to me fairly well. They somehow ended up hosting a guest for several weeks. Every few days I'd hear horror stories about how awfully this guest was behaving. The guest, an RN (that's a nurse, if you didn't know) with a great job in the area, had her lease run out on her without the option to renew (the house was being sold). She knew it was happening but failed to actually go out and find a new place to live. Instead, she invited herself to stay with my neighbors because it was free. My poor, unsuspecting neighbors!! While the nurse was there, she also (without permission) ate their food. She ran up their utilities. She used their laundry soap. She used their shampoo and toiletries. She monopolized their living room, leaving her clothing and belongings strewn everywhere. She invited her boyfriend over to make out in the living room until the wee hours of the morning, and played movies very loudly. Then she took all the money she saved on rent, utilities, food and toiletries and went to Thailand for several months. To this day, she doesn't think she's done anything wrong.

I'm not sure why there is such a sense of entitlement among so many people these days, and so little willingness to work for what one does have. Mooches are not welcome.

As A Guest, Expect:

  • To pay for your own meals if eating out with your host(s).
  • That your host's home may be tiny and you may not have a private bed. You may have to share one, or sleep on a couch / futon.
  • To pay for your own transportation costs around town, such as buses, taxies and more interesting forms of local transport like ojeks and becaks and jeepneys (depending upon the country).
  • Realize that your host may not have wifi or access to internet, and even if they do, they may not have unlimited bandwidth for you to Skype all day and night or download your favorite TV show that you have been missing out on while on the road.

If you can't afford any of the above, then you can't afford to travel.

Now that that's all out of the way, we'll get along grandly, so let the good times roll!! (And no, sorry readers, this is not an invitation to perfect strangers or quasi-acquaintances to come and stay with me.)

Published in Travel Tips

Honduras. The country of good intentions and genuine smiles. However marred by a bad reputation of drug wars, crime, and corrupt politicians, my one on one experiences with the people here is what I base my opinion on. And it looks good, because the people here are some of the nicest I have ever met. Everyone says hello when passing, and a warm smile is usually always exchanged.

I smile because it is the universal language of love.

Carlos giving us the 101 on coffee production at the La Finca de Cisne in Honduras
Carlos giving us the 101 on coffee production at the La Finca de Cisne

My Spanish is not the best, however it is not the worst, and I am practicing everyday. And, whenever I find myself at a loss for words I simply smile. Because everyone understands a smile. No matter what language you speak, a smile is a sign of good intention and kindness. With one motion, it melts barriers and taps into the innate bond that we as humans share. Because we are all here together, and are all striving and looking for the same things. Whether it be love, happiness, stability, or simply a hot meal. So next time your verbal communication skills fail you, simply tap into your nonverbal reserve. Smile.

A Little Bit About Gracias, Honduras...

Nestled in the mountains, shadowed by Mt. Celeque, surrounded by coffee plantations, and laced with streams that lead to the river...Gracias is truly a hidden gem. And a great off the beaten path destination. This town is one where the markets don’t sell fruits or veggies that are out of season, no ATM exists, and the futbol posts are fashioned from wooden branches. And even though Lonely Planet says it is a place that you can skip, I don’t think that one can get the full experience of Honduras without visiting this rustic, colonial town which resides in the poorest region of the country.

13 year old Luis David Pinto Zuniga. Kind soul and future restaurant owner.
13 year old Luis David Pinto Zuniga. Kind soul and future restaurant owner.

However, if all you want is a week beach vacation in a resort on Roatan, to be able to “tell” your neighbors that you experienced and roughed it in Honduras (I’m sure there was no television in your hotel room), then no, this place is not for you. But if your intention is to immerse yourself in the culture, and you have the genuine desire to get to know the people, then Gracias is indeed the perfect place for you.

I feel safe, at home, and at ease here. The air is fresh, the fruit plentiful, and the mountains are a perfect background for this new chapter. This time around, I will be teaching kindergarten at the Minerva Bilingual School for the next ten months, and in turn I am also looking forward to what this country and my students have in store to teach me.

  Featured photo via flickr // nanpalmero

Published in Honduras

Just south of where you are, in the middle of nowhere, somewhere, is an interesting 14 mile x 26 mile chunk of limestone over a million years old; floating regally in the Lesser Antilles and the minds of many a tourist who has visited there. It’s culture likened to that old, ever popular T.V. series Fantasy Island. Have you ever watched the flim (island term for film), “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”? Same concept.

This Windward, Caribbean Island is known as Barbados. B’dos or BIM to a local Bajan, though they can’t tell you exactly where the latter name originated. Here you will find the standard tropical beaches, fish markets, artisan markets and a secluded place tourist guides won’t direct you to, Crystal Waters. Steeped in rum, wrinkles and pretense, it’s a Seniors ‘Meat Market’ not to be missed by Social Scientists such as myself and those who just want to experience another level of life and living with no rules, boundaries or judgement before they transition to the afterlife.

Located a mere minutes from the ever popular party spot the St. Lawrence Gap, Crystal waters is THE place to go if you are of the elderly persuasion, retired, preferably widowed and on the prowl. No worries if you aren’t single. If your partner is open to a little, ‘get-what-ya-can-on-the-side’ you’re welcome to.

Kiteboarding and windsurfing in Barbados

A gap in the West Indies refers to a road or driveway one can turn on to. If you want to go to Crystal Waters, ”Turn left about six gaps passed the St. Lawrence Gap”. Hidden in the crotch at the end of the gap, tucked away on a beautiful beach where you can hand feed endangered hawksbill turtles and even hitch a ride to the sea floor if you can hang on (guide books won’t tell you this either), is a small, nondescript rum shack with an outdoor dance floor that erotically, explodes to life at 7:00 pm on Tuesday nights.

Every night is party night in B’dos, unlike weekends in Canada which are usually reserved for imbibing. Some Bajan nights are conducive to Liming (a Bajan term for relaxing) and others, set aside for hard-core partying. One particular Sunday night my friend ‘carried me’ (Bajan for the Canadian phrase ‘took me’) off the beaten path because another friend, an amazing local calypsonian, Mr. Impact (as tourists know him, Anderson Ward as I know him) was performing at a place called Crystal Waters.

In a mere fifteen gaps from my apartment my friend Sandrean exposed my emotions to a world where my ignorance about life and living had become as apparent as the effects of the Old Brigand Rum (four bucks Canadian a bottle) I was using as a crutch to survive this new environment. All of a sudden I didn’t know B’dos at all.

That's the Miami Beach in the distance. Miami Beach in Barbados, not Florida.

In my mid-forties, I was about to grow the hell up when it came to S and S! Seniors and sex, seniors and sexuality! Steupes! (a sound Bajan’s make by sucking air through their teeth when they are disgusted, shocked or surprised).

Imagine a setting on the clear waters of the Caribbean. You arrive promptly at 7:00 pm to indulge in the hour-long, two-for-one drink special; Canadians can’t pass up this marketing ploy. Mr. Impact is already on stage, his Calypso and sexy hip gyrations (whinin’ and wokin’ up) stirring a little somethin’ somethin’ inside your nether regions. Rum cascades down your throat quenching your thirst, your inhibitions float on the tropical breeze that licks and tickles your near naked, sweaty skin causing you to horripilate.

The music and atmosphere are wreaking havoc on your nerve system but you refrain from letting loose. After all, there are seniors about and you respect your elders. As the sun goes down (it gets dark early in BIM) and evening shrouds your identity, the Crystal Waters spirit envelopes your senses. Charmed, like a cobra to a flute player, by a way of life you’re not accustomed to, but one Bajan’s and longtime visitors to the island are.

A mutually symbiotic lifestyle based not only on sex and self-indulgence, but economy and means. As suddenly as two-for-one ends and with tsunami force, those seniors, seated around the place looking frail and heat exhausted knock you aside without remorse as they grind their way to the dance floor. Most of them half-naked too.

A mutually symbiotic lifestyle based not only on sex and self-indulgence, but economy and means. As suddenly as two-for-one ends and with tsunami force, those seniors, seated around the place looking frail and heat exhausted knock you aside without remorse as they grind their way to the dance floor. Most of them half-naked too.

Elderly women are skimpily clad in bikinis and a wrap or, some of the sexiest evening attire you have ever seen, elderly men in speedos or shorts. They rule this place. They know it and they show it. When I say elderly, I mean a demographic ranging from late sixties to eighties and beyond. There are of course those younger, but when the ritual begins and these guests begin to unwind, none of them seem a day over 16. Arthritis is a mere question mark at this moment. And the moves! Prepare yourself for some of the most sexy, erotically charged bumpin’ and grindin’ that would put most youth I know to shame. And speaking of younger people – who do you think the elderly are kissing and cuddling up to, rubbin’ and wokin’ up?

For three hours this ensues. Drinking, grinding of asses and all kinda things I needn’t mention. At 10:00 pm sharp, it comes to an abrupt halt. After all, these sixteen year olds are seniors. The energy they expend in that three hours is equal to eight hours hard, hard labor in the workforce.

Seniors being silly is what you see on the surface if you are participating in the merriment superficially, with a rum-blind, right eye (strangely enough, when I drink Old Brigand, only my right eye gets drunk with double vision.) But alas, there is more to Crystal Waters than meets the eye, if you omit the rum and take a good hard look...

Published in Barbados

My trip to Pangani was 2 years overdue, coincidentally I got a number of a tour guide at a convenient moment. Pangani is about 45-50 kilometers south of Tanga town and is home to Digo, Shirazi, Bondei. Walking around town there are plenty of buildings that even though are reduced to ruins profess to the arab and German influence.

Panganidhow

It is about 4 hours to Zanzibar by boat and therefore there is good movement between the two cities.The main economic activities in Pangani are fishing and coconut farming.The beach of Pangani has nice shade of torquise, has a number of marine attractions, beautiful shells by the shore and clean soft white sand. Besides the beach, Pangani is blessed with a river of the same name, it is a major river of northeastern Tanzania. It has two main sources: the Ruvu, which rises as Lumi at Kilimanjaro, passes through Lake Jipe, and empties into the Nyumba ya Mungu reservoir and Kikuletwa that also enters into the Nyumba ya Mungu Reservoir. Just after leaving the Reservoir the stream becomes the Pangani that empties into the Indian ocean at the town. For much of its length the river flows along the regional borders of Kilimanjaro region and Manyara region, before flowing into Tanga region, which contains the 68MW Pangani Power Station and the Pangani falls dam. There are several inhabited islands within the river. The river is full of crocodiles; hippopotami are scarcer in its lower parts.

I wanted to go for a fishing trip and after checking out the itinerary from Tanzania Cultural Tourism Programme, I headed to Pangani from Arusha with a $50 USD budget -- which would be equivalent to about 78,000 Tshs.

Getting there:

It cost me 13,500 Tsh from Arusha to Tanga and a further 2000 from Tanga to Pangani. There is no straight bus from Arusha or Dar es Salaam, you have to pass by Tanga and make a connection. It's a little over an hour from Tanga to Pangani on a dala-dala. I left Arusha at 7am and arrived in Pangani about 6pm, having spent the whole day on the road.

The road to Pangani was dusty but I enjoyed the view and the conversation among the travelers in the mini-bus with me. Most of all, I love the accent, I regard the Tangan accent as the best Swahili accent in the country (don't hate me).

Where to sleep:

Down Pangani road there are quite a number of sign posts advertising different lodges. The accommodation options in Pangani are countless, from budget tents for rent at about $2 USD/day on a camping ground that cost $5 USD/night to average simple accommodation between 10-20,000 Tshs and luxury lodges at over $100 USD a night. I chose to sleep at YMCA at 20,000 Tshs/night because it’s familiar (there is a YMCA hostel in Moshi) and being a faith based organization I felt it was a safe option for a single female traveler late in the evening. I was not disappointed.

The hostel is in a quiet place just a few meters from 'Idara ya maji' stop and has a view of the beach- you can actually go down the slope to meet the sand and waves. It currently offers only five rooms that can accommodate two people at a time and the rest of the compound is under renovation. The rooms are simple, clean, spacious and well lit. They offer clean linen including blankets. It was well worth my money.

YMCA

If you prefer the great outdoors most of the hotels and hostels have camping grounds. I particularly liked the one owned by the nuns of Pangani. They have their game right, their facility is fenced has showers and toilets, outside showers where you can wash off after a swim, hammocks, thatched huts that keep off the heat but not the breeze and a restaurant.

Things you can do in Pangani:

With a good tour guide, the list of activities is overwhelming. From walks and bike rides on dry land to swimming, snorkeling, paddy diving, fishing and a boat ride on the Pangani river and Indian ocean.

You can even have camp by the beach, light a campfire and enjoy a fish grill from the catch of the day. I love tour guides because they have not failed me to date even with a short available time they always find an activity that leaves my heart content and their social skills have helped me talk to people I would have otherwise had no courage to, I have learnt quite a number of things such as it costs about 10 million Tshs to make the traditional dhow. Even though I intended to go for a fishing trip I opted for a bike tour around Pangani town with Rasta Ally because I was running short of time and the fishing tour is best done with a large group to lower the cost of hiring the boat which is at $75 USD flat rate. I learnt a little history, met interesting people, was disappointed that the council was letting the historical buildings fall to ruin and got tips on how to travel on budget from a fellow traveler who had quit his job to travel. My tour guide, Ally even saw me off at the bus station when I started my trip back home.

tourbikes

After all the travelling hassle and having just 3 hours to enjoy a guided tour my trip was well worth it. I saw some monkeys and a rainbow after a long time. Even though most tourists pass by Pangani town to Zanzibar and Saadani national park, this is a destination that is worth exploring and well worth your while.

I spent 81,000 Tshs which was about 3,500Ths above my planned budget and learnt the following travelling tips from a Portuguese traveler named Petro:

  1. Always talk to the locals they know all the best deals.
  2. Eat where majority of the locals eat, you'll save some money.
  3. Just because someone suggests something you don’t have to buy it or pay for it, it's your money so you don't have to pay for anything that you feel is above your budget.

Next time you are planning a trip, think of Pangani.

coconut harvesting

  Featured photo by Christiane Birr via Flickr.

Published in Tanzania

I am the type of traveller who loves to get off the beaten track. I head to a destination keen to see the famous sights and the not to be missed attractions, but the highlights for me are always the ones you can’t plan. The experiences you cannot predict in advance but end up enjoying because you are open to having them. The highlights that occur because you take the road less travelled, you engage in conversation with the locals, you travel on local transport or you try food you have never eaten before.

These experiences that appear insignificant at the time can end up creating a collection of memorable and magical moments.

My “memorable moments of insignificance” in Myanmar seemed endless, but here are a few of my favourites.

1.   A hike, a monk and a flower

Whilst most of the highlights of the Inle Lake region are accessed via boat, there are a number of hiking trails starting from Nyaungshwe that provide the opportunity to explore the nearby hills and villages without other travellers. Breathing in the fresh air and enjoying the stunning scenery in relative solitude is an incredibly energising experience and the few interactions we had with locals who were returning with their cows from the morning market in town or who lived in the small and isolated villages we passed through, provided the icing on the cake of a magical day.

I joined a local guide on a hike that provided countless moments that were as unforgettable as they were insignificant. We hiked to a cave monastery to meet a 70 year old monk who had lived there on his own for twenty-five years. He spoke no English but greeted us with tea and a plate of snacks as the three of us sat in comfortable silence. We unintentionally interrupted a formal meeting between the elders of two nearby villages who were discussing the proposed marriage between their children, but immediately called a break to make us tea. And we met a local woman who sat cutting kernels from corn cobs, a task she performed every day, who wanted nothing more than her photo taken.

But the highlight of the day came from the simplest moment of all. As I was walking along a narrow dirt path a small boy who looked to be around four years of age, ran out from the trees and stopped in front of me. He shyly handed me a small hand-picked flower as he watched my face intently. I smiled and replied with the Burmese word for thank-you (jez-u-beh) and felt my heart warm as his face completely lit up and he turned around and ran back into the trees as quickly as he had arrived.

I carried the flower with me for the rest of the day.

Life in Mrauk-U, Myanmar
Mrauk-U via insmu74

2.   Turning left instead of right

After a long but tiring day exploring the Bagan temples, I decided to spend the next day with no itinerary and started the day on a bicycle at an intersection where a right turn would take me to the popular Bagan Temple area. I turned left.

After half an hour of directionless cycling I came across a narrow dirt path and decided to follow it to what I later learned was the village of West Pwa Saw. As I cycled past a row of small wooden houses, sometimes sharing the path with dogs, cats, cows and goats, I looked up to see two small children running as fast as they could towards me. They stopped abruptly a metre in front of me, excitement turning to apprehension until I greeted them with the one Burmese word I knew, min-gala-ba. Their faces lit up, they giggled and they pointed to my camera.

Hence began a day of short, insignificant, but incredibly memorable local interactions with the villagers.

Whilst playing with the children, I noticed a woman in the distance holding a small boy who was waving me over with her palm facing down. The more traditional ‘come over’ wave that we use (palm facing up with fingers curling towards you) is a form of aggression in Myanmar so I was relieved to receive a friendly invitation and walked towards her. She didn’t speak any English but invited me into her home, offered me some nuts to chew on as she made some tea and asked if she could paint my face with Thanakha (the local sandalwood paste worn by woman and children in Myanmar). We sat together in comfortable silence exchanging nothing but smiles, as she shared a piece of her culture with me.

As I left her home I found an old lady standing outside with her little grandson, patiently waiting for me to walk past her. Word had spread – there was a foreigner in the village and all the locals wanted to come and play!

Again she spoke no English and again she offered me nuts to chew on as she made me some more tea. Through our game of charades I learned that she had five children, nine grandchildren, had a small shop at the front of her house, was 65 years of age, had lived in the same house her entire life and had never left the Bagan area.

It wasn’t long before we were joined by her family and neighbours and suddenly I was surrounded by two of her daughters, four of her grandchildren and two of her 70 year old neighbours. It felt like a secret society meeting for women – and I was the guest of honour! I binged on tea as we explored different communication techniques, finding charades to be the most effective (and enjoyable) and exchanged details about our lives.

I am often reminded whilst travelling that not having a common language does not prevent communication. This memorable afternoon was proof of that. We didn’t need words to understand that we whilst we came from different countries and led different lives, we still had some things in common - we were all women and we were all human beings.

3.   Bubbles at a Bus Station

Local bus stations in developing countries are usually hectic, aggressive and stressful but often provide some great people-watching opportunities and local interactions. The bus station in Monywa, from which I was boarding a bus to Pakkoku was no exception.

After awkwardly stumbling from the trishaw I had arrived at the station in, that was basically a bicycle with a chair attached, I sought out a local vendor selling bottled water to prepare for the bus ride ahead. After handing over what I thought was the equivalent of the £0.15 due for the large bottle of water, I started walking away only to hear the sound of footsteps and call of ‘lady, lady’. I had given him a 200 Kyat note instead of 100 and he, an honest vendor, had change to give me!

Being the only foreigner in a local bus station has inevitable consequences and I was immediately targeted by beggars, vendors and even nuns asking for donations. One dishevelled looking woman was holding a small, thin and dirty child and kept tugging at my sleeve. The heart breaking conflict I feel in these situations never gets any easier, knowing giving money to beggars is not the long term answer, but feeling helpless and selfish at the same time. Feeling rather useless, I suddenly remembered I had a bottle of bubbles in my bag and I took it out and started blowing bubbles in the direction of the child. His sad little eyes opened wide in terror as a bubble floated towards him and I feared my attempt at a little fun may have been a tactical error! But as it popped on his nose and he screamed in delight, I breathed a sigh of relief. I handed the bottle to his mother and watched her blow bubbles at her giggling son whilst for a few minutes she simply enjoyed the moment and forgot her troubles. I left them to it and boarded my bus.

A few minutes later I heard a knock on my window and looked out to see the mother (still blowing bubbles) waving at me and say jez-u-beh over and over. She eventually walked away and my heart warmed a little with the knowledge that a small bottle of bubbles had made them smile for a few minutes. I thought I’d seen the last of them until I heard knocking at the window again and saw her reach up to hand me half of the orange she had been eating, with tears in her eyes – her way of saying thank you.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda

4.   A negotiation by the river

One of the most entertaining conversations I had in Myanmar was by the side of the river in Monywa. I had just returned from exploring Hpo Win Daung Caves, paying ten times more than the locals for the ‘special’ tourist boat across the river which I was forced to take, which turned out to be the same type of boat the locals were piling into but with me as the solo passenger.

I was looking for a motor-trishaw to take me to a few sights in the afternoon and it didn’t take long for one to find me instead. The driver only spoke a few words of English but seemed to understand where I wanted to go. Our challenge began when we tried to agree a time to meet. He kept holding up three fingers, I kept holding up two whilst pointing to ‘2 o’clock’ on my watch. Before long we were surrounded by another ten men who were offering to help translate our conversation, despite none of them speaking any more English than my driver.

Every time I tried to say ‘can we meet at 2pm’ he would nod in agreement and then hold up three fingers. I tried a game of charades, I pointed to my watch, I imitated taking a nap and eating lunch first, but still he held up three fingers as he nodded in what he thought was agreement. Finally, a man joined us who spoke a little more English than the others and translated something to him in Burmese before explaining to me that he was nodding in agreement to the 2pm meeting time and was then telling me the trip would take 3 hours. When the penny dropped and we finally realised we understood each other, the crowd that had grown in size starting cheering, slapping each other on the back and high-fiving me!

Before I left for my lunch and nap, our newly appointed translator asked ‘how will you remember him, we all look the same to you don’t we?’ I started to feign offense at his question before I realised he was right and I pointed to the word ‘Dunlop’ that was written on the shirt of my driver. “Mr Dunlop” I said, “I will remember this is Mr Dunlop”. The crowd burst out laughing and kept repeating “Mr Dunlop” as I realised I had inadvertently given my driver a new nickname.

Sure enough, my driver was waiting for me at my hotel on time, shook my hand and re-introduced himself as Mr Dunlop whilst proudly pointing at his watch as he said “2pm”. It was the start of an incredibly enjoying afternoon with my driver and new friend.

5.   A hair salon in Monywa

Using charades to have conversations with non-English speaking locals can be useful and entertaining. When you are using charades to ask for a hair wash at a salon that also has scissors it can also be risky.

After arriving in Monywa and making my way into town from the station, I found a pleasant and relatively cheap room at one of the few hotels that are registered to accept foreign guests. I enjoyed a plate of chicken noodles for lunch and the first can of coke I had seen in the country and with the burst of energy supplied from my sugar fix I started to wander along the streets to explore this quaint little town.

When I came across a local hair salon, my girlie DNA came to the forefront and I realised how long it had been since my naturally curly hair had felt clean, straight and soft. How do you ask two young employees who don’t speak English for a wash and blow dry without ending up with short hair instead? Charades of course! Once we established scissors would not be necessary, they had a five minute conversation before deciding to charge me the equivalent of £4. I suspect the conversation went something like this:

“What do we normally charge foreigners?”
“I have no idea, we’ve never had a foreigner ask for a wash and blow dry before!”
“Well, what would we charge a local? 500 kyat? Yes? So let’s charge her ten times that amount!”

Ten times that amount was still only £4 so I happily accepted the price and sat back to enjoy what felt like an extravagant treat, sitting in silence for an hour, being pampered and having clean hair for the first time in weeks. It was only when I paid and opened the door to leave that I realised a foreigner having their hair washed at the salon was not a common sight and I had attracted a crowd who smiled at me as I left, touched my hair and said “beautiful, beautiful” over and over! I returned the smiles and stayed outside the hair salon for another half hour enjoying some banter and conversations with some of the friendliest people in the world.

It doesn’t take much to have a memorable moment of insignificance. Turning left instead of right led me to an unplanned afternoon of charades with the local women of West Pwa Saw. A small bottle of bubbles raised a smile on the face of someone who had previously been tugging at my sleeve in desperation. Negotiating a trishaw ride led to a round of applause and a new friend.

And a hand-picked flower from a little child I never saw again was better than any souvenir on sale in the country.

Published in Myanmar
Antonio Guest House Ohrid MacedoniaThe Antonio Guest House Ohrid Macedonia

When I decided to take a road trip to Lake Ohrid Macedonia I checked online to see what the hotel prices were. The last few years I have tried to stay away from hotels, preferring instead to rent a condo or apartment. I find it not only less expensive but in a lot of cases you get added benefits that you wouldn’t at a hotel. After all I spend most of the day away from the room and no need in wasting a bunch of money on something I am not going to be using much. I have never been a Hostel kind of guy. I snore enough I don’t want to listen to someone else doing it. And I don’t particularly like sleeping in a dorm setting.

After a little research I found Antonio Guest House consisting of 6 rooms for rent and the price was great. For 15 Euros I had my own room at a place that had great reviews from multiple online sites. I booked through the internet and got my confirmation and was ready to go.

Upon arriving in Ohrid I found the place with no trouble. I am not sure what I expected but the place is basically a house. The door was locked so I rang the doorbell and Stojna, the lady of the house answered the door, pointed her finger at me and said “Robert”? I answered yes and she waved her hand and said “Come”. Entering the house she pointed to my shoes and then pointed to a shoe rack. I took my shoes off and closed the door and she started pointing at the door, then a button that unlocks the door. Then she waved her hand again and said “Come”. She took me upstairs and opened one of the rooms with a skeleton key, she pointed to the two single beds and then opened a window that looked out over the garden and said “smoke”. Then she waved her hand again and said, yep you guessed it, “Come”. She pointed at the common use bathroom and then we went downstairs where she took the other key on the ring and showed me that it unlocked the front door from outside and then waved her hand and again said “Come”. Now by this time I was starting to like Stojna, something about her said we were going to get along okay.

The GardenThe Garden

We went into the kitchen downstairs and sitting at a table was her husband Trajce who seemed to be waiting for the door to open and next to him was a well used notebook. Trajce tells me he speaks a little English. His son Antonio, who speaks good English, is currently giving a tour of the city to some Japanese tourists.

Stojna looks at me and asks, “drink?” To which her husband asks if I want brandy, juice, coffee or water. Trying to be polite and not go for liquor just yet I said water is fine. At this Stojna points and says, “Brandy”. She quickly produces a clear glass pint bottle with no label and clear liquid. Now having had more than one drink out of a no label liquor bottle I knew what was about to happen. She proceeds to pour me two ounces and then gives her husband about a teaspoon full in his glass. He smiles and says to me, “It is good brandy almost like schnapps, drink.” Drinking about half the glass and feeling molten lava run down my throat, with just a hint of fruity flavor, he smiles again and says “good, finish.” Always being one to please I drink the rest of the liquid fire and before I can put the shot glass down Stojna pours me another two ounces.

Trajce asks how many nights am I staying, after answering 3 he says “Good” and pulls out a sheet of paper with a map of the city. The map has all the famous tourist sites listed and he starts by showing me where we are. Then he tells me we are 700 meters from the old town and shows me the route I need to take. He circles several churches and tells me why they are famous drawing a route along the old town and back to the guest house. He then says “You take this tour, it will take you 3 to 4 hours”. He then tells me we are 15 Km from the town of Struga. He circles the bus stop where I need to be and turns the paper over which has all the bus times to various locations. He tells me Struga will cost me 40 Denar or about .80 USD. He then tells me we are 30 Km from St Naum Monastery and it will cost me 120 Denar or about 2.50 USD. He then circles a couple of banks and money exchange places along with a few restaurants. After this he asks for my passport and opens his notebook and dutifully writes down my name and passport info, then begins looking through the passport. He points and shows his wife my Cambodia Visa and tells me his son was recently in Cambodia and then he points to my shot glass and tells me to drink. I am really starting to like these folks. After downing the last of the brandy his wife comes at me with the bottle and now it’s my turn to wave my hand and tell her no thanks I have had enough.

The next day after a couple of British backpackers leave Trajce moves me into their room, which is a little larger and has a balcony. The rooms have free wi-fi, television a small table and a couple of chairs. Outside the room there is a refrigerator a couple of electric burners with a few pots along with silver ware, glasses, instant coffee and tea bags.

I spend the next couple of days getting up early and seeing the sights of the Old Town and having a few beers in the evening.

The last day I go downstairs in the morning and tell Trajce I will be checking out. I have someone coming to pick me up in the early afternoon so I ask if I can I keep my pack downstairs while I walk around town a bit. Trajce puts my bag in the corner and Stojna appears asking if I want coffee or tea? Having just had a couple of cups of coffee upstairs I tell her no thanks I am going to walk around a bit. Stojna doesn’t really seem to like that answer, points outside to the garden and tells me “Sit”. Trajce and I sit down and start to chat when Stojna comes up from nowhere and pours me a double shot of morning Brandy along with a slice of her home made walnut cake drenched in Brandy. So here we are at 7 am chatting and drinking Brandy. That’s when Trajce tells me he made the Brandy from the grapes growing in the garden. He also tells me he has 80 liters of the fire water and sometimes sells it to guests at a whopping price of 5 Euros per liter. Now for my American buddies that is roughly $6.20 a Quart for some high quality Moon Shine.

Trajce's Home Made WineTrajce's Home Made Wine

After a few drinks I leave and walk around town for the last time picking up a few things to take with me. Returning to the Guest House I still have about an hour or so before my ride shows up. I tell Trajce I will just sit in the garden and wait. Trajce sits down with me and we begin chatting about his life, he used to work at the train station and also at a travel agency, and Stojna worked in a garment factory. Now they run the Guest House while their son Antonio promotes the Guest House and works as a tour guide in town.  At this point Stojna pulls out a bottle of wine pours me a big juice glass full and gives Trajce a little. Trajce asks me how the wine is and I respond pretty good. He smiles and says "I made that too I have a lot." Well of course you do ya little moonshiner. So for the next hour we chat and drink wine until my ride arrives and just like family they walk me to the car wave goodbye and tell me to be careful on the road.

Now you tell me of a hotel where you can have that kind of experience.

Stojna and TrajceStojna and Trajce
Published in Miscellany Articles

Translated as "Drunkards Alley" or "Alley Of The Drunkards," Nonbei Yokocho is two parallel alleys in Tokyo that contain a grand total of somewhere around 50 miniature bars, although sometimes it is mistakenly cited as having 200-250. However I certainly did not count anywhere near that many.

What do I mean by mini bar? Well, each one measures at most ten feet by ten feet, hardly enough room for more than a small bar with bartender and 4 or 5 barstools. Many actually feature a narrow staircase and an upstairs as well, which will hold a couple tiny tables to fit a few additional (skinny) people.

The best bar in Nonbei Yokocho, Tokyo!

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Located just north of the bustling Shibuya station and lined against the eastern side of the train tracks to Harajuku, this neighborhood was built over 50 years ago but quickly became a prostitution hotspot. Businessmen would take the edge off with a drink or two in the lower level before making their way upstairs to the "tatami room," where their lady of the night was waiting. Nowadays the area has long since done away with the working girls but the bars not only remain, they have even developed their own one-of-a-kind charm and an almost cult-like following.

  Despite the proximity to the rest of the action in Shibuya, this area has been overlooked by many a Tokyo resident. Interestingly enough, it is fairly common for a visiting foreigner to be the one taking their Japanese friends to Nonbei Yokocho for the first time, rather than vice versa. How come? Because legend of this unique and hallowed nighttime location has permeated the world wide web. Any traveler who does even cursory research on Shibuya will undoubtedly stumble across the Alley Of The Drunkards. After all, this is the type of place which you never stop telling others about once you've experienced it for yourself.

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

After trying a couple dozen of the bars, a few charging "seat fees" and others decided anti-gaijin, my unquestionable favorite in all of Nonbeiyokocho was the aptly named Non. Without a doubt this cozy little establishment takes the gold medal all around, not just for atmosphere but also because we consistently met the absolute best people here. And trust me, we did a lot of exploring and experimenting with every new place we saw. That is one of the best things about this city: there is just so much of everything, you can constantly keeping trying new bars and clubs and restaurants and never have to repeat anything. It's simultaneously both fantastic and even a little overwhelming for some. Only the places which truly impressed would be deemed worthy of repeat visits, such as Club Atom and ShibuyaNUTS. Yes, this little bar indeed earned a large place in my heart. We would stop by usually three to four times a week, believe it or not. Most often our visit would only last an hour or two tops before moving on, but a few nights were spent entirely up and down Drunkards Alley. It was the best starter spot, without a doubt. Ridiculously close to my flat too ;)

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

It was not that this one bar was fancier or offered anything that its' neighbors did not -- I mean just look at the photos below...it is so small! Much of the conversation actually happens in the alley itself and not the bar. However the one thing that this particular bar was never in short supply of was the hands-down best patrons. All of the interesting people we met and became friends with were initially introduced there. Everyone. There was Austin, the 20-year-old half-Japanese half-French local we became good friends with; Suzuki, the guy who owned his own jewelry design business and shop (which he had recently expanded to Hong Kong and New York); Isao, a local actor; the two cougars that Jared and I hooked up with, Mayu and Yuka; the Swedish fashion designers; the Canadian video game creators; several local businessmen and Yakuza guys we partied with; the list goes on and on.

Non was an impressive and unmatched hot-bed of friendly, out-going, and fun-loving people.

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Even the bartender, Yoshi, was laid-back and unbelievably talkative. He made you feel appreciated and as such it was always very difficult to leave. That is probably a good part of the reason he always Tokyo friends, including the ones mentioned above, our first encounters with each all happened on different individual nights -- wild, huh? Amazing that such a little place could pack such a big punch.

The restrooms at Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan

Finally, no article on Nonbei Yokocho would be complete without discussing the restrooms. Due to the fact that the bars are so small they do not have any individual bathrooms, there simply is not any space. Instead both customer and yes bartender alike must exit the bar and head to the most northern part of Nonbei Yokocho, where the two main parallel alleys are connected by a small perpendicular sidestreet, similar to an upside-down U. It is on this narrow connecting street that you will find a male restroom, three side-by-side urinals behind a pair of swinging doors a la American-Western style, as well as two locking female restrooms, of which each bar has a copy of the keys to.

And yes, the bartender does abandon his post and leave the customers alone if he must use the restroom. However as Japanese society is very polite and honest I never once saw anyone abuse this momentary lapse of freedom.

  Oh and a heads-up note for the ladies: it is best to familiarize yourself with squat toilets before visiting Nonbei Yokocho, lest you have a drunken learning experience you won't soon forget ;)

  And if you really want to experience all that the Tokyo nightlife offers, the local clubs are spectacular!

  Have you been to Nonbei Yokocho before? Curious to visit it now? What are your thoughts?

Published in Japan

We turn away from the airport onto a quiet, winding road. Tiny towns are scattered across the desolate landscape, each one filled with partially constructed buildings that seem to have been abandoned as hastily as they have been built. The structures look new and untouched, as if the owners might return any moment to re-inhabit them.

Bedouin camps dot the landscape between the ghost towns. The makeshift structures are made of tin, cardboard, scraps of cloth, and bits of goat hair; in sharp contrast to their concrete counterparts these portable homes are bustling with life. Children play, goats graze on tiny patches of grass, and women hang clothes on the line. Everything and everyone is covered in dust.

Bedouins ride their camels on the side of the road, and, as the signs predict, goats appear out of nowhere, seemingly unaware of the cars speeding by. We stop and wait while children cross the street on tiny, exhausted donkeys with patchy fur. They tow wooden sleds loaded with brush and scraps. It is startling to see the children working in the hot sun, and we realize yet again that we are a long way from home.

The landscape changes as we turn onto the road for the Dead Sea. There are still Bedouins with camels, but they stand on the side of the road offering rides to tourists. Ramshackle food stands with giant umbrellas are scattered along the beach, accompanied by Coca-Cola signs and plastic chairs. The strange scene reflects the paradox of Jordan; a country steeped in culture and tradition, both blessed and cursed by the natural resources and tourism it attracts.

The road to Madaba brings us back to reality. There are no signs of life, except for a few lost goats that casually cross the road in front of our car. We see a military checkpoint up ahead, and wonder if we should turn around, but it is too late. The guard comes out to meet us, sees that we are tourists, and breaks into a warm smile. He greets us with the usual Jordanian questions. “Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have children? Are you pregnant? Do you like Jordan?” Jordanian hospitality comes second only to their obsession with family. “Insha’Allah,” we reply. He smiles and points the way to Madaba.

Jordan road trip

We follow the 3,000-year-old King’s Highway for nearly two hours, passing through town after town on an endless stretch of highway. Locals stand on the side of the road warming their hands over makeshift heaters, and most offer a friendly wave as we pass through. Every town looks the same; a small mosque in the center, roving bands of dogs crossing the road near vacant lots, and women going about their daily business of shopping and child rearing.

The King’s Highway leads us to Wadi Mujib, proudly referred to by our guide in Amman as “The Grand Canyon of Jordan.” We follow the highway along hairpin turns, stopping occasionally to gawk at the crater below. We agree that this is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing the moon, if the moon were inhabited by shaggy goats and laughing Bedouins.

Published in Jordan

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