Difficulties

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Our trip has not been all sunshine and rainbows. We get lost, have misunderstandings, miss our transport connections, or waste time. Sometimes the weather is bad, the AC is broken, or the wi-fi connection is out. At times, we forget things in hostels, have trouble finding good places to eat, or can’t figure out how to open the rental car’s gas tank and it’s due back 30 minutes ago. Here are some of our worst travel experiences:

  • In Cambodia, we decided to travel by boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. The trip is up the Tonle Sap river, a tributary of the Mekong, and we thought it sounded very romantic. When we booked tickets (at US$35 each,) we were told we were lucky, because the day we were traveling just happened to be the last day the boat was running until next season. During the dry season, the water level gets too low and the boat doesn’t run. I tell you what: the water level was already WAY too low. The large boat couldn’t travel far enough upstream, so we had to take a tiny boat to a smaller boat to the large boat. The trip, which was supposed to take five hours, took ten. We had no food besides a few raisins, and none was available for sale. The smaller boat didn’t have enough seats for everyone, and don’t even ask about lifejackets. Almost all the other passengers were German, and they had brought beer, which they started drinking heartily at 9 a.m. It was a rowdy ride.

While on the boat, I read my dad’s Cambodia guidebook. It recommended taking the bus instead of the boat, as the road between Siem Reap and the capital has recently been improved and the fare for the five-hour ride is only $6. Ugh.

Cambodian boat ride

But at least the scenery was nice.

  • In Lijiang, China, we returned late from hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. Chinese restaurants tend to close early, so after putting our bags in the hotel room, we scurried out to look for a bite to eat. We’d been in Lijiang a few days before, so we had seen some places we wanted to try, but they were all closing up. Even the street vendors had gone home. In desperation, we went in a restaurant that happened to have an English menu. Everything was more expensive than we were used to, so I chose the cheapest chicken dish there was: chicken Jane. It was less than half the price of the others, which should have clued me in. When it arrived, it looked nothing like chicken. It tasted nothing like chicken. The texture was of rubbery mushroom caps—it was like chewing a ribbed balloon. We had no idea what part of the chicken it was. It was stir-fried with green onions, so I picked out those and ate them with white rice.

About a month later, we were on a train with a Scottish couple who had also been traveling through China. They described eating something very similar. “And did you find out what part of the chicken it was?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” they said. “It was chicken ovaries.”

  • From Yangon, Myanmar to the ruins of Bagan, the only way to travel is by bus or plane. Naturally, we opted for the cheaper (and probably safer) option: the overnight bus. The road to Bagan is paved all the way, but it was so bumpy it was like riding on a rumble strip for 10 hours. The driver had cranked up the AC as high as possible, and of course our jackets were in our backpacks, stowed under the bus, so we huddled together for warmth. To make matters worse, he never turned off the interior lights, so it was bright as day inside. Once or twice we made pit stops, and when the engine was off, the bus was quiet, still, warm, and dark; that was the only time we could get to sleep. At about 4:30 a.m. we made another pit stop. We happily curled up on our seats while everyone else filed off. Five minutes later, the driver came to get us. “Nyaung U,” he said. “No,” we said, “we’re sleeping,” and closed our eyes again. He tapped one of us and told us the name of the town again. We willfully ignored him. Another man boarded the bus and also told us we had to disembark. Grumpily, I asked why. “We’re here,” he said. “Get off.”

Thanks to that bus ride, our first day at the beautiful ancient ruins of Bagan was spent catching up on lost sleep.

  • Driving in Melbourne is one of the worst things one can ever do. There’s the normal city craziness, like one-way streets and hellish traffic, but Melbourne’s main streets have a weird system of putting medians between lanes that are traveling in the same direction. So, for example, a four-lane road will have with three medians across it. If you’re on the far side, you can only go straight or turn left. If you’re closer to the center, you can only go straight or turn right. God help you if you realize you’re in the far lane but need to turn right.

These streets are impossible to avoid, because the fastest way into town is to take the toll road, but the tollbooths don’t accept cash, only prepaid electronic cards like SmarTrip, and cars that attempt to pass the tollbooth without one will be fined hundreds of dollars. So tourists are pretty much screwed. In two months in Australia we never did figure out where to buy one of those cards.

And if you arrive in Melbourne on the first night of Sexpo, and the convention center is right across the street from your hostel, I repeat: God help you.

Sexpo
Unhappy campers
  • In Bordeaux, France, we had planned to couchsurf the entire time, two nights each with two different hosts. However, by the day of our arrival, our first host hadn’t gotten back to us. We were getting in on a Sunday night, when *everything* in France is closed, so we booked a hotel and emailed to let them know that we were getting in late. We never got a response, and on arrival, found that there was no one at reception and that the door was locked. Luckily, after a few minutes of waiting, another guest came out, so we could get into the lobby. There was an emergency telephone with a contact number posted next to it, which we tried to use, but (of course) it wasn’t free, nor did it accept coins. We needed a French phone card, which is (of course) impossible to buy at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday. Plus, we didn’t even know how to dial the number. We tried several variations, accidentally called the police, and gave up. We were seriously going to sleep in the lobby, and had already moved our backpacks over to a nice cozy corner when another guest came through, saw us waiting, spoke a little English, and had a cellphone. She was our savior.

Did we get any apologies from the staff? Hardly: in the morning, when we checked out, they tried to charge us the full rate for the room.

Whenever we have one of these days, we say to each other:

“Today was difficult. Tomorrow will be better.” –Mr. S, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, by Kevin Henkes

Potty Talk

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toilet seat Unfamiliar toilets can make us do strange things. At the risk of embarrassing my sister Jennie, I will relate this tale of toilet woe: when I was eight years old, my parents, sisters, and I traveled to Paris (a trip I am surprised that my parents don’t regret, due to our misbehaving most of the time and demanding to eat Domino’s Pizza.) Jennie, who had her fourth birthday on the trip, was of course toilet-trained, but still had some potty-related issues. Specifically: she did not like to use any toilet that did not have a white seat. That meant no beige seats, no pastel-colored seats, and no black seats. At home, all of our toilet seats were white, so this did not pose any issues. In Paris’ public WCs, has anyone else ever noticed what color the seats are? We checked several different toilets. They were all black, every last public toilet seat in the city. Jennie refused to sit on any of them, and ended up wetting her pants in public.

Jennie’s Parisian toilet trouble is minor league compared to how some Western travelers feel about Asian-style toilets, aka squatty potties. They may be intimidating at first, but they’re really not that bad. They do require a certain degree of balance and flexibility, but with practice (lots of squats at the gym?) it gets a lot easier. They are often dirty, for myriad reasons- but even if the toilet itself is dirty, I think it’s more sanitary than Western-style toilets, since no part of the body needs to ever touch the toilet. (If there is a flush, do what I do and use your foot to press down on it.) The most common complaint I hear is that it’s too hard to aim. Foolproof tip: make sure your feet are flat on the ground, or as close as possible. Balancing on the balls of your feet is a surefire way to pee on your hem.

I’ve been asked before: where in the world has the worst toilets? Rural Chinese and Mongolian toilets are the most horrifying I’ve seen so far. One fellow traveler we met called them “Chinese splatter trays.” Most rural public toilets are just troughs in the ground. There are two or three low partitions over the trough, to demarcate three or four “stalls,” and one side remains completely open; there are no doors. Train station toilets

If you want to preserve your modesty, travel with an opaque umbrella. Open it up to create a fourth wall for yourself while you do your business. These same toilets may not have plumbing, either. To put it delicately: breathe through your mouth and don’t look down. It sounds bad, but I think there is a cultural reason behind it. The Chinese are extremely pragmatic people, and tend not to dress things up. The attitude concerning toilets seemed to be “Why bother? It’s just a toilet.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to not install plumbing in public toilets, I can kind of see their point. The most important thing is that it works, not how it looks.  Toilet troughs

I don’t mean to scare people away from traveling to China. Generally, in bigger Chinese cities, all the toilets I used had proper stalls and doors, but not in Yunnan, especially in the city of Jinghong and along the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. In well-traveled areas, nicer public restrooms can be found, but those are for the benefit of the tourists, not the locals.Toilet tourism; Dali, China

If you are particular about what kind of toilet you use, I recommend using the facilities in shopping malls, nicer restaurants, or at tourist attractions that charge an admission fee. Everywhere in the world, train station toilets are the worst.

One neat feature on many toilets around the world is the option for a “big” or “small” flush. I’ve never seen that in the States—all of our newer toilets are low-flush, but anyone who’s used these knows the inherent problem with them. Low-flush toilets do save water… unless you have to flush two or three times to get everything to go down.

Where in the world have you found interesting toilets?

What’s new?

Aside

August 2011: The theme of the blog has been changed, and I’m starting to put up more pictures. I’m not putting up ever photo I’ve taken (nearly 10,000 so far,) but I’m trying to choose some of my favorites and some of the most representative photos so you armchair travelers can get a feel for a country. So far, the Mongolia pics are up. Check them out!

Want a postcard?

For the past two and a half years, I’ve been an active member of the Postcrossing community. Now that we’re on the road, I can’t participate (since I don’t have a fixed address.) I still enjoy sending postcards, though; and I plan on sending many while we’re traveling. I think they’re a fun, easy, accessible way to see a little part of the world. While I was an active member of the Postcrossing site, I collected over 200 postcards from about 40 different countries. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in sending and receiving postcards from all over the world.

I know a lot of people prefer just to receive postcards, so I had an idea to start a postcard club. We’re going to visit a lot of countries, and while I’d love to send each and every one of you a postcard from every single one, our finances don’t allow that. I’m okay with sending one or two a week, but postage does add up. So before I go spend a lot of money on postcards and stamps, I thought I’d ask my friends and family what kind of postcard they’d like to get. On Postcrossing, most members list their postcard preferences on their profiles, specifying if they like typical tourist multiview cards, pictures of animals, cartoons, or so on. I can do that for you: if you’d like a postcard of a specific thing (Sydney Opera House or Angkor Wat, for example) or from a specific country, let me know and I will try to find one to send to you.

Here’s the second part of the plan. I would be happy to send you a postcard from every country we visit- my best estimate is approximately 25 countries, but maybe even a few more! If you’d like to get a postcard from every country, I do have to ask for a small donation, which you can send to me through PayPal.

Please send any postcard requests to me at kamorgans at gmail dot com, or leave it in the comments.

Welcome to our travel blog

 

At the sand dunes, Tottori, Japan

 

Katie and I are just about ready to embark on our round-the-world adventure, but inevitably we’re faced with the problem of how best to keep in touch with our friends and family back in the States. When we were living in Japan, we could easily call home using Skype or even our land line, but that had its own set of problems: you don’t really want to have to call more than a couple of people each week. We would talk to our parents only, and pass on to them the burden of keeping our extended families up-to-date on our goings on. Partially because we’re stepping out into the unknown (where things like cheap telephone service and Skype may be hard to come by) and partially because we want everyone to be able to share in this journey with us, we decided to start a blog.

How to use this blog

Here are a few tips for you, our readers, to get the most out of this blog:

  • Subscribe. Please click on the “RSS” button to get updates sent directly to your RSS reader or e-mail. That way, you won’t have to keep checking the site to see if we’ve updated.
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  • Tell your friends. Can’t remember what we’ve been up to our what country we’re currently in when talking to your friends and coworkers? Send them here!

What’s next

We can’t promise we’ll update as much as professional bloggers do (at least several times a week), but we’ll definitely try to update as much as we can. We’re not taking a laptop on the road, so we’ll be forced to use computers in internet cafes, public libraries, hostels, the homes of people we meet, etc. So our updating schedule may be, in a word, “spotty”. Just please bear with us, check back every now and again, subscribe, and let us know that you’re reading! Knowing that there are people out there who want to hear about our journey will encourage us to update and provide you with quality content.

Thanks for stopping by!