2017 − Around the Indian Ocean

There are globetrotters ... ... whose goal is to see every country in the world as fast as possible. Their travels are impressive, even inspiring.

I plan to see every country in the world, too. But I'm not in a hurry. I think of my travels as a "Planetary Assessment". I want to understand the world, to meet as many interesting people as possible, to linger in places that I love, and to learn how to say "Thank you" in every language. Besides, it's hard to make much of a change in people's lives with just one meeting. This is why, after nine years on the road, I've seen only half the world.

For 2017, the journey begins in my village in northern Thailand. I'm starting with a map that includes a few Indian Ocean outposts and parts of east Africa that I've never seen. Let's see how far I can go this year.

November 15, 2016 − Life (and death) in Ban Pao

For the past two winters, I've been coming to a village in northeastern Thailand named Ban Pao. In this friendly little rural community, I've helped start a mushroom farm and a bakery, and taught informal English classes. I'm learning to speak Isaan (a dialect of Thai). I get invited to all the feasts and festivals. I eat wonderful foods that I didn't know existed. I have a comfortable home to live in. Ban Pao has become my oasis, far from the madding crowd.

The big news here is that King Bhumibol Adulyadej died last month. He was Thailand's spiritual father, revered like a deity, a calm and steady head-of-state for 70 years. He maintained Thailand's national composure through several changes in government, and 30 prime ministers. He will be missed.

Thailand is in mourning. Many bars are closed. Music and entertainment have ceased. Television shows and Thai websites have switched to black & white. Everyone is going to be wearing black or white for the next few months. I dropped by a nearby department store and found that the racks were filled with black and white clothes. Time to make some wardrobe modifications ...
... which brings me to my most essential bit of travel advice: Travel light, especially with respect to clothing. It's hard to anticipate what sort of clothing you'll need when you travel overseas. Who would have known that I'd need lightweight black and white clothes in Thailand? Most folks pack everything they think they might need. Yet, by definition, if you might need something, you might not need it.

Clothes for sale at a local department store
It's fun to shop when you're traveling. And clothes are sold in every country in the world. (Yes, really!) Locally-made clothes are often more appropriate for the climate than the ones you might bring from home. They're usually cheaper, too. My new wardrobe cost about $8.

In the photo to the right, the king used to be in the gilded frame. The woman shown now is the king's widow.

What to wear when a king dies

One of Ban Pao's well-maintained temples
About 95% of Thais are Buddhist. This makes life simple. Everyone knows the same chants, observes the same rituals, and agrees on how things should be done. I like the idea of a benevolent Universe where it's up to the individual to find enlightenment.

There are 3 temples within walking distance of my home. They're lovely on hot afternoons or moonlit nights.

Monks chanting at a housewarming ceremony
For every life event here, there's a ceremony associated with it. Births, weddings, housewarmings and funerals are all celebrated with community feasts. Some friends finished building their home. To celebrate the event, they had their home blessed by eight monks. It was a 2-day affair with hours of chanting, clouds of incense, and mountains of food.

Funeral breakfast
One of our village elders died recently. His family held a feast in his honor. Everyone in Ban Pao was invited. I think there were about 1,000 people there.

Because sunrise is the most auspicious time of day, weddings, births and funerals are celebrated at dawn. Thus, this feast was a breakfast. It takes a while to get used to parties with spicy food, beer, and fireworks at 6:00am.

Typical Isaan breakfast

Extracting silk from cocoons
Even with the king's death, life goes on. The silk must be harvested from the cocoons. Here's a neighbor boiling silk worms in the same way that the women in her family have done for generations. When she finishes extracting the raw silk, she will spin it and dye it. Then, another neighbor will put the colored silk on her loom and weave cloth. It's refreshing to see these traditional methods still being used.
Raw silk, ready for dyeing

Sugar cane truck
Ban Pao is an agricultural community. October and November mark the end of the long rainy season and time to harvest the rice and sugar cane. Now is when I get to see lots of farm vehicles going back and forth to the fields.

Most farmers make and maintain their own transports, customized for each farmer's needs and environment. It's fun to see the creativity and pride of ownership of some of these vehicles.

Rice field tractor

Sea grapes, fish and rice

Crabs, ginger and veggies

Mackerel, mango and peppers
And then there's the food! One of the best things to do in Thailand is to eat the amazing food. There are ingredients sold at the local markets that aren't on supermarket shelves anywhere else. I've seen combinations of foods here that I've never seen before. There are a lot of very good cooks in Ban Pao. Someone should start a cooking school here. Hmm ... my next micro-finance project, perhaps?
As much as I love Ban Pao, I decided to take a short trip to the island of Phuket, on Thailand's southwest coast, on the Andaman Sea. This is one of Thailand's most popular destinations. Many travelers have mentioned Phuket to me, and I'd never been there. I've also been curious about Phuket because it was the first place in Thailand to be devastated by the tsunami of December 26, 2004.

Patong Beach, Phuket (December 26, 2004)
Phuket is 500 km east of the earthquake epicenter. The tsunami took 2 hours to reach shore. The tourists and locals had no warning. The Thai government reported 8,150 deaths (compared to ~250,000 in Indonesia).

The tsunami washed away most of the low-lying structures on Patong Beach. Since 2004, Phuket has been rebuilt and the tourists have returned.

Patong Beach, Phuket (October 26, 2016)
I wasn't impressed by Phuket. The island has been rebuilt in the worst ticky-tack manner possible. The streets are lined with souvenir shops, mediocre restaurants, noisy bars and overpriced hotels. Traffic is terrible. Most of the tourists are Russians and Chinese looking for sunshine. The beaches are full of garbage and often smell of sewage. A bottle of Chiang costs 2-3 times more than what it costs in other parts of Thailand. You'll be charged $6 to sit under an umbrella on the beach. If you've been thinking of going to Phuket, you can take it off your "bucket list". Smart tourists go elsewhere.

... which reminds me of another bit of travel advice: Avoid being a tourist. Go places that tourists don't go. Spend time in real communities. Invest in people, not places.

After my visit to Phuket, I was happy to return to Ban Pao. There is no traffic here. A cold beer costs less than dollar. Roosters wake me in the morning. The only noises after dark are the dogs barking. I've renewed my visa for another 30 days and plan to spend most of those days here reading, writing, eating, and trying to be useful.

Traffic on Patong Beach Road, Phuket

December 27 − Touring Thailand

If you wanted to see Thailand and you had 2-3 weeks free, where would you go and what would you do?

I've been asked this question a few times. Now that I've spent about a year in this country, I think I'm qualified to answer that question. This month, two good friends trusted me to make all their arrangements, and to be their personal guide to Thailand, Their 18-day tour was a smashing success. From this experience, I'm posting this blog to offer travel advice and guide services.

If you've been following my travel blogs, you already know that Thailand is a colorful place, full of exotic sites, friendly people and delicious food. The infrastructure is excellent, the political situation is stable, travel is safe, and exchange rates make Thailand a bargain. Now is a good time to come to Thailand.

I recommend a balance between what most tourists come to see ... and some places that most tourists never find out about. The map to the right shows where I think you might like to go. To see all these places without hurrying, you'll need about 3 weeks.

Thailand is warm and friendly all year long, but the rainy season puts a damper on things from June through September. October to December is especially nice because that's the "cool" season when daytime highs aren't much above 90°F (or 32°C). I like this time of year best.

You'll start your tour of Thailand in Bangkok (BKK). That's where most international flights arrive. Take the train and BTS into downtown. Plan on spending about 3 days in the city. I like the Dawin Nana Hotel because it's centrally located, the staff speaks good English, and it's on a quiet street. After you've relaxed from your flight, here are Bangkok's highlights:
  • Wat Arun (one of Thailand’s most photographed landmarks)
  • Wat Phra Kaew and the emerald Buddha (the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand)
  • The Grand Palace (the opulent former royal residence and museum)
  • Wat Pho (with a 46m long reclining Buddha)
  • Wat Traimit (the great golden Buddha made 700 years ago with 5.5 tons of solid gold)
  • The home and gardens of Jim Thompson (a former CIA operative who made a fortune exporting silk before his mysterious disappearance in 1967)
  • The Dusit Palace Museum and gardens (King Rama V's vision of a European castle, transformed into a uniquely Thai expression)

A guardian angel at Wat Phra Kaew
Plan on using a variety of transportation in Bangkok. The BTS and Metro are clean, cheap and faster than taxis because of traffic. Use a riverboat to go up and down the Chao Phraya River. The canal system is served by water taxis. Tuk-tuks are a quick and easy way to get from one tourist site to another. (Always agree on the price in advance, and don't pay until you get to where you want to go.)
A tuk-tuk seats two with luggage or four without luggage.
To stretch your legs, take a stroll along Yaowarat Road through Chinatown. This is one of Bangkok’s oldest neighborhoods, packed full of food stalls and other vendors. It’s a great place to wander, to get lost in narrow alleys, and to soak up the local flavors – literally! Continue west from Chinatown into Little India and the vast flower market. When you've seen and shopped enough, sit down to a relaxing lunch at one of the cafés along the Chao Phraya River.

Wat Arun, one of Thailand’s best known landmarks

Bangkok's Chinatown at night
Bangkok is an exciting city with plenty of excitement − day and night. But if you're like me, you'll eventually tire of car horns and exhaust fumes. The perfect antidote is to take a 1-hr flight south to Krabi (KRB). Treat yourself to a couple of nights at the Railay Princess Resort & Spa. Railay Beach is one of Thailand’s many scenic beaches. What makes this beach special is that it's only accessible by water. There are no motorcycles, cars or trucks here. You'll go everywhere barefoot or in sandals.

Railay is a stunning location for kayaking, beach-combing, swimming in crystal blue waters, exploring the nearby limestone caves and cliffs, or just sitting under a palm tree. Follow your nose to the seafood restaurants tucked under the palm trees.

By now, you'll have seen what most tourists come to Thailand to see: Bangkok and a beautiful beach. (You've also seen a lot of tourists.) Now it's time to see the "real" Thailand, and to visit places where English − and sometimes even Thai − aren't spoken very much.

Railay Beach, a great place for sunsets

Ban Pao village, Chaiyaphum province, Isaan

My house in Ban Pao
Take the water taxi and van back to the Krabi airport. Fly to Don Mueang (DMK) Bangkok's domestic airport. Change planes to Khon Kaen (KKC), in northeastern Thailand. You're now in Isaan, a forgotten part of Thailand, rarely visited by western tourists.

If you make it as far as the Khon Kaen airport, I'll arrange for someone to meet your plane and drive you 110km west to the village of Ban Pao. Depending on when your flight arrives, we might stop for fresh, grilled shrimp at a locally-famous outdoor restaurant. In Ban Pao, you'll stay at my house, where you'll have a private bedroom with A/C and a bathroom with a hot shower. (You have to stay in someone's home in Ban Pao because there are no hotels or guest houses nearby. Tourists rarely − correction, never − come here.)

The next day, after breakfast on the veranda between the gardenia bush and the fountain, you'll walk past the lake to the local farmer's market to shop for ingredients for today’s meals. In the afternoon, you'll have cooking classes, featuring Isaan cuisine, which is a blend of Thai and Laos cooking styles. Get ready for spicy food because chilles and peppers are important components of almost every dish.

Shopping at the local farmer's market

Learn to cook Isaan food

Mango and sticky rice with coconut sauce
Besides cooking and eating − which are the most popular activities in rural Isaan − other fun and optional activities include ...
  • A walk to a nearby temple
  • Bicycle rides between rice paddies and through bamboo forests
  • A cock fight behind a neighbor’s shack
  • A drive to the ruins of a 1000-year-old Khmer temple
  • A visit to the golden pheasants near the Phu Khieo Wildlife Reserve
  • Grilled fish at the spring near the foot of the mountain
  • Drinks at the homes of western expats who have retired to Ban Pao
  • Dinner on a bamboo river boat at sunset
Ban Pao is a typical village in Isaan. This is the real Thailand where you'll see how most Thais live. People don't lock their doors. Everyone is related to everyone. Folks go to sleep soon after sundown. They wake up in the morning to the sound of the monks chanting and the roosters crowing. You may decide that Ban Pao is the highlight of your visit to Thailand. That's what my guests in December said.

Harvesting the rice

Cantilevered fishing nets
After a month or two (ha ha!) you may remember that you want to see more of Thailand ... and there's much more to see. About 3 hours north is the town of Chiang Khan on the Mekong River, which forms the border between Thailand and Laos. We'll figure out a way for you to get there by car. It's a scenic drive through farmlands interspersed with Karst topography. Until 10 years ago, Chiang Khan was a quiet and undiscovered fishing village. In recent years, some of the fishermen’s homes have been converted into family style inns. I recommend two nights at the Old Chiangkhan Boutique Hotel, overlooking the Mekong with a view across the river to the temples and campfires in Laos.

Spend a day exploring the charming old streets of Chiang Khan by foot or by bicycle. Take a river cruise on the Mekong. In the evening, sup on eels, catfish and other local delicacies. Then shop for souvenirs and more snacks from the friendly street vendors.

Bicycling through old Chiang Khan

An afternoon cruise on the Mekong River

A traditional Lanna dancer in Chiang Mai
From Chiang Khan, return to the Khon Kaen airport for a short flight over the Phetchabun Range to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital. In Chiang Mai, I recommend the Ban U Sabai. From there, it's a short walk to the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center for a Khantoke dinner and an evening of Lanna dancing.

The next morning, take a songthaew (a covered red pickup truck) into the old city for a walking tour of Chiang Mai. The old city is compact and pedestrian friendly. The highlights of your walking tour might include ...

  • Wat Phra Singh (Chiang Mai’s most revered temple, with startlingly realistic wax figures of meditating monks)
  • Wat Chedi Luang (an enormous ruined Lanna-style chedi built in 1391)
  • Wat Phan Tao (a carved teak marvel)
  • The Three Kings Monument (honoring the founders of the city)
  • The Chiang Mai Historical Center (to learn the history of the Lanna kingdoms)
  • Wat Sri Suphan (showcasing Lanna silversmith skills)
The last leg of your Thailand tour requires a car, which can be rented from the Chiang Mai airport. Drive 200km north through forested mountains to Chiang Rai, near the 3-way junction of Thailand, Laos and Burma. In the 19th century, this region was infamously known as the Golden Triangle, the center of Asia’s opium trade. Today, it's an artistic hub. One of the most remarkable artistic expressions in Chiang Rai is the privately owned Wat Rong Khun (White Temple). You will be awed by this temple, its construction workshop, and Chalermchai Kositpipat’s art gallery. At the end of today’s scenic drive, stop for some fresh oolong tea − or a beer − at the pavilion overlooking the Singha Tea Plantation.

Wat Rong Khun "The White Temple", Chiang Rai

A weaver at the Karen Longneck tribal village
My favorite place to stay in Chiang Rai is the Ban Lom Jen Homestay, a country-style inn located out in the rice fields and hill country of northern Thailand. Your Dutch and Thai hosts are wonderful chefs, but I recommend driving into town to feast on the local foods at the night bazaar.

The next day, take a full day to explore Chiang Rai and the surrounding countryside by car. Follow winding roads into the hills to visit the Mae Yao village. Hike through the forest to Huai Mae Sai Waterfall. Drive to the great statue of Kuan Im (Goddess of Mercy) at Wat Huai Pla Kung. Go north to see the foreboding Black Temple. Stop in at the Akha & Karen Longneck tribal village for photos and handicrafts.

Whew! That's a lot to see, but you're not quite done yet. If you've come all the way to Thailand and you've never seen Angkor Wat in Cambodia, please go see it. You'll be glad you did. It's a powerful archaeological site, and one of the largest religious buildings ever constructed. It's one of the Seven Wonders of the World, in my opinion.

You can get there with a short flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a very tourist-oriented town. Almost everyone speaks some English. There are lots of hotel options. It's easy to arrange ground transportation. The ATMs produce US dollars. The town of Siem Reap has a lively night market and a notorious Pub Street, full of − you guessed it − pubs. Relax with a cold beer while doctor fish nibble the dead skin from your tired feet. It's worth spending an extra 2 or 3 days at Angkor Wat − either at the beginning or the end of your Thailand tour.

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
In all, this tour of Thailand − plus a side trip to Cambodia − will take about 3 weeks. If you travel independently and buy your airplane tickets in advance, you can do this trip for about $1000 USD per person, double occupancy. On the other hand, if you're interested in having a guided tour − complete with a local interpreter who will ensure that you find all the best bargains and street food − please let me know. I'd be happy to be your guide and to customize a tour for you.

In any case, if you wish to come to Ban Pao to see the "real" Thailand, come stay at my house. For the past two years, I've been micro-financing various small businesses in my village. My newest business venture is to advertise my house on AirBnB. All proceeds from renting the guest room in my house will go to the folks who cook your meals, wash your laundry, clean your room, and are your guides. Click here to book your reservation today.

January 11, 2017 − Weddings & Funerals

If you want to get to know a culture, attend their weddings and funerals. This is when everyone in a community joins together. The families are all in attendance, dressed in their finest. Weddings and funerals are all about tradition ... with only a few modernizations to accommodate the 21st century.

New Years is a good time for weddings in Isaan. It's the coolest season of the year. The harvest is over. The weather is fairly dry. We had three weddings in Ban Pao this month. We also had two funerals.

In Ban Pao, when someone marries or dies, everyone who knows the people involved are invited. In a small village like Ban Pao, this means that almost everyone shows up for every wedding and funeral.

Dawn is considered the most auspicious time of the day because that's when the sun rises. Thus, weddings must start at sunrise. It feels odd to dress for a formal social event at 5:30am. Eating breakfast with 500 other people − accompanied by music, dancing, whiskey and beer − isn't what we're used to in the West. But that's how weddings work in Thailand ... and that's how you get to know the culture.

The bride and groom

Beautiful bridesmaids
The son of one of my neighbors is a doctor. He works in Bangkok. He married a nurse at his hospital. By tradition, the wedding took place at his family's home in Isaan. In order for all their friends in Bangkok to attend, the wedding party had to be transported from Bangkok to Ban Pao.

The groom's family pulled out all the stops to make this a wedding to be remembered. Thais love to talk about money. There was much gossip about how much the groom's family spent on their son's wedding.

As with all weddings, there were beautiful bridesmaids and gregarious groomsmen. They put on a good show with their costumes and rituals.

Groomsmen (click the photo see them dance)
Music was provided by a truck loaded with large speakers and amplifiers. It's basically a gigantic boom box on wheels, capable of rattling all the windows in the village when they turn up the volume ... which they do!

The wedding party and guests don't do very much dancing. Most of the dancing was done by paid performers on a stage constructed right in front of my house. (In the photo of the dancing girls below, do you see the number "2560" on the wedding poster in back of the stage? Thailand is 95% Buddhist. Buddha was born 2560 years ago. So, this is the year 2560 in the Thai calendar.)

Transporting the entire wedding party to and from Bangkok for this wedding required two buses like the one shown below. It's seven long hours from Bangkok to Ban Pao. These buses were the ultimate party vehicles − complete with in-flight karaoke, videos, food and drink. Well, it's a party!

The music truck

Dancing girls

Bus for the wedding party
The wedding ceremony was held in the livingroom of the groom's family home. There were monks and city officials present to bless and certify the event. Although there were lots of candles and flowers, this was nothing like a Christian wedding. The chanting and bowing lasted about 30 minutes.

When the ceremony was concluded, the feasting began. There were about 500 people having breakfast together that morning. The food was all Isaan food, of course, with dishes like spicy papaya salad, larp and sticky rice. There were a lot of other amazing dishes that I can't hope to identify − all delicious, of course.

The feasting, drinking, talking and laughing continued until about noon. By then, it was too hot to be outdoors dressed in fancy clothes. The music truck was unplugged. The stage was disassembled. The guests collected leftovers in plastic bags to take home for dinner. The bridesmaids and groomsmen got into their air-conditioned party-bus. And my neighbors staggered home for long siestas to sleep off the food and the alcohol.

The wedding ceremony

Preparing the feast

The wedding feast
The same weekend as this wedding, an elderly gentleman who lived on the other side of my house passed away. Here's a photo of his funeral procession going past my house. The monks leading the procession look as though they're pulling the pickup truck with a long string. Not really, but it's tradition that they go first and sprinkle water, rice and flowers to cleanse the route for the deceased. The truck is followed by all the folks who knew the deceased ... which in Ban Pao means most of the village.

A funeral procession
A pickup truck with black and white ribbons serves as the hearse. The coffin is inside a miniature temple in the truck bed. Since the weather in Thailand is often very hot, the coffin is actually a customized refrigerator, decorated with golden Buddhas and mirrors. The body won't be cremated for a few days, so it has to be kept cool to prevent decomposition. The coffin, shown to the right, has a small window in the top of it so that you can view the deceased.

Funerals in Isaan are held at sunset, because this is the end of the day. Just as with weddings, there's plenty of food and drink to be consumed. The funeral ceremony begins with a long blessing by a group of monks. There's lots of praying and chanting and candles and incense. Then everyone gets down to the business of serious eating and drinking.

With three weddings and two funerals to attend this month, I've gained at least two kilograms. But it's been a wonderful opportunity to get to know all my neighbors, their families and their traditions.

The refrigerated coffin
This will be my last posting from Thailand for a while. Tourists are allowed to be here for 90 days in a six month period and my time is up. If you'd like to experience the tastes, traditions and tranquility of my little village, my house will be half-vacant and available for rent for the next several months. Click here for details.

May 11, 2017 − Micro-financing in Thailand

Travel is exciting and invigorating. However, sitting on a beach under a palm tree or being a tourist with a guide just isn't my thing. I spent 30 years being self-employed. So, wherever I go, I like to have something to do.

Two years ago, when I first came to Isaan (northeastern Thailand), I got involved in hands-on business incubation and micro-financing. My most successful project so far has been a bakery in the village of Ban Pao.

I timed my return to Ban Pao for Thailand's week-long New Year's party, known as Songkran. This is Thailand's hottest time of the year, celebrated by eating, drinking, dancing and throwing water on one another.

Songkran (New Year's) parade in Ban Pao

Monk ordination party in front of the temple, adjacent to the bakery
Songkran was also when my bakery decided to relocate from a car port to an actual store front. I wanted to be on hand to advise on the choice of location and to help with the move. We got lucky finding a new location: It's between a high school, a government office, Ban Pao's biggest temple and a police station − a great place to sell donuts and coffee. With daytime highs of 40°C (100°F), cold drinks sell fast!

Starting with the Songkran parade, the bakery received lots of foot traffic. During April and May, there were four monk ordinations. Each ordination is a village party with loud music and dancing, all happening at the temple, and in front of the bakery. The enterprising bakery staff jumped on the idea of selling flowers and offerings for the temples.

Not all micro-financing projects in developing countries are successful. A friend gave a family $1000 to start a business in Niger. After all of the money was spent on a village feast, the family asked my friend for more money to start their business.

In contrast, Isaan turns out to be an excellent place for micro-financing. The people here are surprisingly capitalistic. Thais in general are very money-conscious. One night, a woman in Ban Pao couldn't start her car. She phoned a friend to ask his help to drive her and her children home. Her friend replied "I'll be glad to help you ... for 200 baht (~$6) to pay for my gas and my time."

There's plenty of business talent in Isaan. All that's missing is the capital. To get this bakery started, I bought a gas oven for $1000. The oven gets used about 10 hours a day to produce pizzas, muffins and other baked goods.

The staff of the M.Bakery

Noi making muffins, the new oven in background

Tan, Noi and Pat selling muffins at the temple

Duantem selling cold drinks and smoothies
The fields around Ban Pao grow rice and sugar cane. Most of the employment is the seasonal and back-breaking work of cutting cane or harvesting rice. Field laborers are paid about $1/hour.

The staff at the bakery pay themselves $7 per day, plus breakfast, lunch and dinner for anyone who works late. Once a week, someone emails me a P&L. With $7/day in steady income, the four women working at the bakery can live in Ban Pao, keep a roof over their heads, and send their children to school. They and/or their daughters don't have to work as prostitutes in Bangkok.

Mango popovers

Pizzas to go

Banana muffins

Fresh veggie sandwiches
I haven't asked to be paid back for my initial investment yet. Growing the business is more important to me than getting my money back right away. So, I've told the bakery to invest their profits into fixed assets like chairs, tables, refrigerators and cooking equipment.

Having a temple next door to the bakery is a positive omen. The temple generates lots of foot traffic every day. At new moon and full moon, everyone brings offerings to the temple. When a monk is ordained, the village dances and drinks all afternoon. When someone dies, the family has to provide food for the monks. In addition to making pizzas and muffins, these entrepreneurial bakers are doing a brisk business selling flowers for the temple and offerings for the monks, providing food and drink for revelers and pilgrims, and catering Buddhist celebrations.

The monk next door

Buddhas on the hilltop, overlooking the valley
I try to avoid being a tourist. There's not much point in travelling merely for the sake of traveling. However, teaching, building things, helping people and volunteering are satisfying. Besides, working with people is a great way to get to know them.

It's been a huge pleasure to see this bakery project start, grow and take off. My work is almost done here. The bakery is not only self-sustaining, it's expanding. The staff is already talking about taking their business to the next level with pizza delivery and a sit-down restaurant.

Will I get my money back? Maybe. But if not, I'll have been more than compensated with good food and the satisfaction of knowing that I've helped people, and learned a lot about a culture that I knew little about before I came here. This may be my last visit to Thailand for a while. It's time to look for my next project.

December 13, 2016 − Taipei: A Great Place to Eat

For the past 3 months, I've been in Thailand on tourist visas. There are various ways to extend a tourist visa, but my favorite way is to do a visa run, i.e. to leave the country for a few days. I like being required to travel, especially if it means crossing an international border.

I've been to all of Thailand's neighbors, so it was time to go someplace new. A quick internet search with my preferred airfare search engine (kayak.com) turned up a bargain-priced round trip to Taipei. Note: One of the reasons I love living in Thailand is because Bangkok is an excellent travel hub.

In 2008, I enjoyed half-day city tours of Taipei on long layovers. But when it comes to counting countries − as I do − I don't count merely having lunch somewhere as having been there. After a quick look through my Lonely Planet guide, I reckoned that Taiwan was worth a week of exploration.

I flew to Taiwan with few expectations, and was thoroughly impressed. It's a delightful place with clean streets, excellent public transit, great museums, natural beauty, friendly people and fantastic food. It's also a bargain compared to Japan, South Korea or China. If you haven't been to Taiwan yet, go!

Taiwan is a little bigger than Illinois ... and like Illinois, Taiwan has one really big city at the north end. With only a week to work with, I confined my travels to the north end of the island. This worked out to be about right. Taipei and its surroundings have enough wonderful things to see and do to keep one entertained for a week.

One of the first places I went was the iconic 101 Taiwan tower. It was the world's tallest building when it opened in 2004. It's only #5 now, but it still has the world's fastest elevator, taking only 37 seconds to ascend to the observatory on the 89th floor. The elevator ride costs almost $20, but there's a million dollar view from the top.

National Palace Museum

Crowds of tourists pressing to see the treasures

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial
Another amazing thing to see in Taipei is the National Palace Museum. Here's why: For centuries, China's emperors collected Asia's finest paintings, calligraphy, porcelain, and jade and bronze sculptures. At the end of the empire in 1925, these treasures were removed from the Forbidden City for safekeeping. From then until 1949, about 20,000 crates of invaluable art − about a million objects − were moved secretly around China, between Shanghai, Nanjing, Anshun and Leshan to keep them out of the hands of the Japanese Army and later the Communists. (Try this mental challenge: Imagine transporting and hiding a million fragile items for 25 years.) Eventually, Chiang Kai-shek evacuated the most prized items to Taiwan.

These treasures are all on display in the fabulous National Palace Museum on the north side of town. Busloads of mainland Chinese come here every day to see what they feel are their treasures. This museum is said to be the finest museum of art in all of Asia, and I would believe it.

An interesting technical note: At 12:09pm while I was admiring the ancient treasures in this museum, every single mobile phone in the building started beeping and vibrating, including my iPhone − which didn't have a Taiwan SIM card and which wasn't connected to the museum's wifi network. The reason? A magnitude 4.6 earthquake had just occurred 50 kms east of Taipei. An impressive, 21st century, emergency alert system!

Resident gods at Bao'an Temple
If you like old stuff, Taiwan is full of temples, packed with sculptures and covered with murals. The Ministry of Interior says there are 14,993 temples in Taiwan. That works out to be one temple for every 1500 residents. Actually, new temples are being built all the time. The incense and the smoke from the burning candles make them look ancient in only a few years.

Most of the temples are Taoist. Some are Buddhist. Many are dedicated to the goddess Guanyin. The artwork is impressive and the temples are easy to find. Just follow your nose to the incense.

Jinshan Temple, dedicated to ancestor veneration
Like many of the islands around the Pacific Rim, Taiwan is scenically beautiful. The Ring of Fire creates exciting geology, which in turn creates stunning landscapes.

An hour north of Taipei, conveniently served by a subway line, is a valley full of hot springs called Beitou. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945), Beitou was developed as a resort with inns and hot mineral baths, very much like those found all over Japan today. Today, Beitou also provides aroma therapy, massage, acupuncture, hydrotherapy, and excellent cuisine. I was surprised to see how Japanese this corner of Taiwan still is today. I ate lunch at a restaurant where no English was spoken ... but I was able to order everything I wanted because the staff spoke Japanese. (A good language to know.)

Another geologic wonder on Taipei's north coast is the Yehliu Geopark. Here a durable sandstone layer has been eroded into ... well ... they look sort of like mushrooms. The surge of powerful Pacific waves crashing nearby makes this penninsula a dramatic spot for a hike or a picnic.

Hot springs at Beitou

Yehliu Geopark

A sandstone "mushroom" at Yehliu Geopark
Now that you've had the patience to wade through this much of my blog, I'll tell you the real reason to come to Taiwan: TO EAT.

After one week on this island, I'm going to go out on a limb and claim that Taiwan has The Best Food in Asia. I realize this is a pretty big claim to make. Taiwan's kitchens benefit from influences from all of eastern Asia. There are more types of cuisine in Taiwan than I've seen elsewhere, and they're done right.

Taiwan's cooks start with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and fish. There are many unique specialties. In Jinshan town, on the northeast coast, there are seven ways to serve duck, and dozens of restaurants competing with each other to produce the best flavor. I should mention that there was one specialty that I couldn't touch: Stinky tofu. I wasn't even able to stand downwind of a stinky tofu vendor. Try this item at your own risk.

In Taiwan, food is absolutely everywhere. I don't think I was ever more than 20 meters from food the whole time I was there. There are food vendors on every street, in train stations, bus stops and parking lots, inside temples, and even at elevator stops in tall buildings.

Every town has a night market, with rows and rows packed with street vendors. What's fun about these night markets is that the vendors offer free samples of what they're selling. You can walk from one end of the market to the other, taking a bite from every counter, and end up having a pretty good meal for free. Of course, with many of these delectables, you can't resist having just one. (The vendors know this, which is why they offer free samples.) The seaport of Keelung gets my vote for the best night market I've ever seen.

The other wonderful thing about Taiwan's cuisine is that it's cheap: Less expensive than Japan, China or South Korea; priced about the same as street food in Bangkok.

Night market at Tamsui

Night market at Keelung

Hot noodles any way you want 'em

A happy sushi chef

Many types of fried crispies

Just point at what you want to eat

Fresh crab and garlic noodles
Taiwan is in an awkward political situation these days. They'd like to be independent from China, yet be able to do business with their largest neighbor. At the National Palace Museum, I learned that the museum's contents are so treasured by both China and Taiwan that Taiwan has offered the museum's contents to China in exchange for independence. In the coming months, we'll see whether the new U.S. leadership complicates Taiwan's delicate position.
The best sushi outside of Tokyo
In Taipei, I was fortunate to find an excellent AirBnB apartment. When I get hungry for Taipei cuisine again, this is where I'll sleep off my wonderful dinners.

January 24 − Island hopping across the Indian Ocean

If you wanted to get as far away from the USA as possible − without leaving this planet − where would you go? The Indian Ocean, of course. Lebanon, KS is the geographic center of the continental US. If the folks in Kansas were to use their fracking equipment to drill a hole straight through the Earth, they'd come out 12,472 kms later in the middle of the Indian Ocean. That's something to think about ....

I'm crossing the Indian Ocean en route to Africa. If I had a boat, I'd sail. But, I don't. Happily, every island has an airport. With a bit of bargain-hunting on the web, I've found an economical way to hop from island to island across almost 8000 km of ocean. Read on and I'll tell you a little bit about what's on the far side of the world.

Sri Lanka

  • Population: ~20 million
  • Religion: 70% Buddhist, 13% Hindu, 10% Muslim, 7% Christian
  • Area: A little bigger than West Virginia
  • History: Thousands of years of maritime traffic passed through its ports
  • Known for: A diverse and multicultural country; cinnamon, rubber, tea, spices and elephants
In 2009, I spent two weeks in Sri Lanka. This recent visit was only five days. I spent most of my time walking around noting what had changed in eight years − and what hadn't.

Traffic in downtown Colombo

The mosque, the lighthouse and the fortress wall of old Galle
Colombo, the capital, is still big and crowded. Like many of the mega-cities of Asia, the traffic is oppressive and the exhaust fumes are unhealthy. I left Colombo as quickly as possible heading south, hoping to find some of the quiet beaches that I remembered from 2009.

The old fortress town of Galle hasn't changed much since the Dutch East India Company built a fort here in 1663. Its massive walls saved the old town from the tsunami of 2004.

Nearby Unawatuna Beach was a tranquil escape from traffic and tourists eight years ago. Now, it's wall-to-wall hotels, with a continuous strip of beach chairs and bars in front. Oops! There went one of Asia's loveliest hide-aways. Time to search for a new place to disappear to.

Unawatuna Beach, south coast Sri Lanka


  • Population: 400,000
  • Religion: 100% Sunni Muslim
  • Area: 26 atolls, less total area than the US Virgin Islands
  • History: Inhabited by seafarers for 2500 years, became an Islamic sultanate in the 12th century
  • Known for: White beaches, blue water, and fishing
The Maldives is the smallest country in Asia, both in population and area. The Maldives is also the lowest country in the world. Its highest natural point is only 2.4 meters above sea level. As the oceans rise, the Maldives will be the first country to disappear. Better see it now!

Malé (the capital of the Maldives) and two harbor ferries

Thousands of motorcycles in Malé
The largest island in the Maldives is about 2km across. The weather is warm and sunny. There are no hills. Everything − especially gasoline − must be imported. With these conditions, I expected to see lots of bicycles and bike taxis. Instead, I was constantly dodging motorcycles.

Tourism is big here. Emirates, British Airways, Air China, JAL and Korean Air (to name a few) deliver more than a million tourists a year to the Maldives. Tourists come here for fun in the sun, for which they pay $500 or more per day for all-inclusive plans at exclusive island resorts. The result of this much money and this many people coming into such a small country has been to overwhelm the economy and the natural environment. Not much thought has been given to the long-term consequences of traffic, pollution and garbage disposal. Meanwhile, the lines at the gas stations are very long.

At least there was good public transit between the islands. I hopped from island to island by ferry. The ferries were inexpensive, a good way to meet the locals, and a pleasant way to see lots of blue water.

Kite surfing near Maafushi

Snorkeling with a Green turtle

Maldive women in their swimming attire
I spent four days on the island of Maafushi, which is 90 minutes south of Malé by ferry. I found a budget guesthouse for $80/night (Holiday Lodge). They served a dinner buffet on the beach for $10. Considering how expensive things are in the Maldives, I figured I was doing pretty well.

So, what does one do on a tiny island made entirely of sand, with a few palm trees. You go to the beach. You swim in beautiful water. The snorkeling and diving are pretty good, too ... although I've seen more colorful reefs and bigger fish populations in Indonesia. The Maldives have been a victim of coral bleaching due to rising water temperatures in the ocean. Besides snorkeling and diving, there's also sailing and kite surfing.

Since this country is 100% Muslim, you can't buy alcohol here, unless you're staying in one of the expensive resorts. At public beaches, you'll see Maldivian women swimming and snorkeling fully covered. For westerners, Maafushi has a segregated beach, fenced-off from view so the locals don't have to see tourists in bikinis and Speedos. After a few days on the beach with the tourists, it's time to move on.


  • Population: 92,000
  • Religion: 76% Catholic, 10% Protestant, 2% Hindu
  • Area: 115 islands, total area 50% larger than the Maldives
  • History: Uninhabited until the 18th century
  • Known for: Golden beaches, blue water, giant turtles and unusual coconuts
When I arrived in the Seychelles, my first thought was that I'd been somehow transported to the Caribbean. People speak Creole. I passed a church and heard enthusiastic gospel music being sung. Around town, people looked and dressed like Jamaicans − in contrast to Sri Lanka or the Maldives.

Downtown Victoria, capital of the Seychelles

A Hindu temple and granite cliffs above

Beau Vallon Beach, north coast − the busiest (!) beach in the Seychelles
The Seychelles has 25% the population of the Maldives, and receives 25% as many tourists as the Maldives do. Consequently, it's much quieter here than in the Maldives. It's even possible to find a beautiful beach all to yourself.

Still, the cost of living here is high because almost everything is imported. The Seychelles are famous for luxurious resorts that cater to folks with more money than time. I avoided the resort scene by staying at an AirBnB apartment near Beau Vallon beach. I got around on public buses instead of taxis.

Giant Aldabra tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea)
Because the Seychelles remained uninhabited until only a couple of centuries ago, some of its rare and unique species avoided extinction. The first is the giant tortoise, which I'll say more about when I get to Mauritius.

The second is the peculiar Coco de Mer. It's a coconut whose shape reminded the early European sailors of their loved ones back home.

Provocative Cocos de Mer (Lodoicea maldivica)

January 31 − Mauritius

  • Population: 1.3 million
  • Religion: 52% Hindu, 31% Christian, Muslim 15%
  • Area: A little smaller than Rhode Island
  • History: Visited by the Arabs (975), mapped by the Portuguese (1507), colonized by the Dutch (1638), inhabited by the French (1715), captured by the British (1810), and proclaimed independence (1968)
  • Known for: Its strategic location, sugar, rum, textiles, and French-Indian cuisine
  • National animal: The Dodo (last seen in 1662)
Mauritius is a beautiful, friendly island with a stable, democratic government, little traffic or pollution, no visible poverty, a low crime rate, free education through high school (resulting in 90% literacy), free bus transport for students, disabled and seniors, free health care for both residents and visitors, a flat 15% tax on personal income, a modest cost of living, and a Mediterranean climate.

If Mauritius isn't someplace that comes up in daily conversations, it's easy to see why. When was the last time Mauritius made international headlines? Mauritius has no earthquakes, volcanoes, famines, coup attempts, mass murders, refugee problems or environmental disasters. The last time there was a war here was 1810, when the French navy briefly got the upper hand on the Royal British Navy. At the end of their conflict, the French and the British settled their terms amicably, with the result that Mauritians speak French and drive on the left side of the road. (Mauritians also speak English and Creole.) Before coming here, I told a friend that I was going to visit Mauritius. He asked me "Mauritius who?"

Mauritians spend their time fishing, swimming, running their businesses, raising their families, and eating really good food − whose recipes are a mixture of French and Indian cuisines.

"Mauritius was made first and then Heaven, Heaven being copied after Mauritius." − Mark Twain, 1896
"Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens." − Talking Heads, 1979

The Mahébourg Lagoon, as seen from the top of Lion Mountain

A catamaran sailing past Île aux Aigrettes nature reserve
Much of Mauritius' coastline is protected by a reef about 2-3 kms offshore. Inside the reef are wide beaches and calm, sapphire lagoons full of corals, fish and sea turtles.

If you look carefully in the photo above, you might see a lone catamaran sailing across the lagoon. Better yet, here's a zoomed-in image to the left. Anyone up for a sail this afternoon?

Mauritians and visitors from around the world enjoy this tranquil paradise. Yet tourism isn't the only industry here. Mauritians tend to be well-educated and well-traveled. Textiles, import/export, financial services, property development, healthcare, renewable energy, and IT are some of the growing industries here. If you've purchased any products from Ralph Lauren, Pierre Cardin, or Lacoste, there's a good chance they were made in Mauritius.

Mauritius is vast compared to the Seychelles or the Maldives. So, I rented a car. The roads are narrow, but well-maintained. Driving the 2-lane highways along the coast or through the forested mountains is a pleasure. I've been surprised by how little traffic there is here.

Having a car makes it easy to visit some of the world's most beautiful beaches. Did you know that Mauritius has won World's Leading Honeymoon Destination for the past four years?

I spent an afternoon at La Vanille Nature Park learning about Mauritius' endemic species. Although several unique birds and reptiles were made extinct within the first century of Mauritius' discovery by Europeans, Mauritius Wildlife Foundation has done an admirable job preserving those that are still alive.

The south coast of Mauritius, soft clean beaches and calm waters

Giant Aldabra tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea)
Long ago, every continent except Australia and Antarctica had giant tortoises. Most were eaten and exterminated by early humans, but a few survived on uninhabited islands like the Galapagos and Mauritius. Today, Mauritius has a breeding center to preserve the only species of giant tortoise left in the Indian Ocean.

The Dodo had a less fortunate fate. Legend says that the curious Dodo, having never seen humans before, trotted down to the beach to greet the first Europeans who arrived here. The sailors were hungry. In less than a century, Europeans ate every single Dodo.

The extinct Mauritian Dodo
La Vanille Nature Park also breeds crocodiles − which are not endangered − for research and for other uses. What does crocodile taste like? There was only one way to find out. Crocodile is delicious! It's like chewy lobster, about halfway between chicken and halibut.

I like Mauritius. This is the antipode of southern California. There's lots to see and do here. Mauritius is much less expensive than the Maldives or the Seychelles.

I bought a one-way ticket here and I don't have an onward ticket to anywhere. So, I might stay here for a while. Incidentally, the immigration laws for Mauritius are fairly relaxed compared to other countries. If you're over 50 and have an income of $40k/year, you can qualify for a retirement visa. After three years, you can become a permanent resident. Something to think about, if you want to get as far away from the USA as possible ....

Grilled crocodile for lunch

February 16 − Mauritius and Rodrigues

I stayed in Mauritius longer than planned. Why? Because this little island is more interesting than I expected. I could live here.

Mauritius is a delicious mixture of French, British, Indian and East African cultures. (Mauritian baguettes are as good as those in Paris.) Its rich history includes pirates, slave rebellions and naval battles. Its lush national parks are full of wildlife and waterfalls. Its beautiful beaches are protected by a barrier reef that surrounds the island, which means no sharks. Its shopping malls and capital city (Port Louis) have everything that you might need. The unhurried and friendly Mauritians are très sympathique. And Mauritius isn't expensive.

The Mahébourg Lagoon with Lion Mountain in the distance

Central Mauritius, Curepipe in the foreground

Le Mourne Brabant (556 meters)
The landscape of Mauritius is dominated by remnants of extinct volcanoes, which create steep basalt peaks that jut up out of tropical forests − or in the case of Le Morne, rise up directly behind a stunning beach. "Although almost totally uninhabited by locals, Le Morne has a deep resonance in Mauritian culture. According to legend, a group of escaped slaves fled to the peninsula in the early 19th century, hiding out on top of the mountain to remain free. The story goes that the slaves, ignorant of the fact that slavery had been abolished just before their escape, panicked when they saw a troop of soldiers making their way up the cliffs. Believing they were to be recaptured, the slaves flung themselves from the cliff tops to their deaths in huge numbers. And thus the crag earned its name − Le Morne means Mournful One." (Lonely Planet Mauritius Réunion & Seychelles)

I climbed this peak and was careful not to meet the same fate. Today, it's a climber's paradise, with a great view to reward one at the summit.

The view from the summit of Le Morne

The traditional art of model ship building

School girls in Port Louis
What makes anyplace interesting and colorful are its people. In Mauritius, you'll hear people speaking Creole, French, English and Hindi. You'll see Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist temples, Anglican and Catholic churches, Sunni Muslim mosques, and even a Jewish synagogue ... and you're welcome to enter any of these sites to look around and say hello.

Mauritius has an artistic tradition of building miniature scale-model ships, carved in exquisite detail. I learned that this tradition evolved from the fact that the early settlers in Mauritius sometimes had to wait a year or two for supply ships to return from their home country. It's also possible that the Mauritian settlers wanted to remind themselves of the differences between British and French warships.

Thanks to its excellent school system, Mauritius has a 90% adult literacy rate. It's a pleasure to visit someplace where almost everyone speaks three languages and has something interesting to talk about.

Because of three centuries as a European colony, Mauritius has a lot of familiar elements, such as its architecture, its government, and its creature comforts (French bread, real coffee and imported wines).

There are also elements of Mauritius that are exotic to westerners. 60% of the population are Hindu, and are descended from indentured servants brought from India. There are temples everywhere. Parts of Mauritius feel like India.

Some of the plants are pretty exotic, too. The guides at the botanical garden will warn you that, if you fall into this pond of giant water lilies, you'll drown. Barbs on the undersides of these giant lily pads will hold you underwater. Your decomposed body will provide nourishment for the next generation of lilies.

Giant lily pads at the Botanical Garden

The restored estate house of Labourdonnaise
As a French and an English colony, Mauritius was an important producer of cane sugar.
The parlor of Labourdonnaise
During the 18th and 19th centuries, sugar was a valuable commodity for which countries were willing to support colonies months away by ship. The grand blancs who owned and managed these sugar plantations lived like kings. Several of the sugar plantations have been preserved and restored. Here you can see where wealthy colonists sat on their verandahs and sipped tea, while their slaves − or later their indentured servants − worked in the fields.

Approaching the remote island of Rodrigues
Mauritius, as a country, consists of several islands. The largest of these other islands is the remote outpost of Rodrigues, located 600 km northeast of mainland Mauritius.

Rodriques could be nominated as one the "ends of the earth". It's in the middle of the Indian Ocean and a long way from anywhere. The prevailing trade winds made it difficult for ships to sail here. So, Rodrigues was never a sugar producer, nor was it actively colonized. It's a little easier to get here now. There are two flights a day from Mauritius.

The 40,000 inhabitants of Rodrigues don't see a lot of visitors. Life here is the way it was 30 years ago on Mauritius. Everyone knows each other. No one locks their doors. At dinner time, everyone eats together. For someone who travels alone like me, it's a nice change to have dinner companions.

Crystal clear waters at Le Trou d'Argent
Rodrigues is where the really beautiful beaches are, but you might have to walk to them because there aren't many roads.
Traditional table d'hôte at Chez Ronald
I plan to return to Mauritius someday − which for me is saying something. I'm making a note to remind myself of three wonderful places that I stayed while I was here: Mauritius has plenty of all-inclusive resorts. But if you're interested in a more authentic Mauritian experience, I'd recommend any of the three places above. Mention my name if you stay there, and maybe you'll get an extra glass of rum.

February 23 − La Réunion

  • Population: 850,000
  • Religion: 81% Christian, 11% Hindu, Muslim 2%
  • Area: A little bigger than Mauritius
  • History: Visited by the Portuguese (1507), claimed by the French (1638), occupied by the British (1810-1815), became an overseas départment of France (1946)
I came to La Réunion thinking that it would be similar to Mauritius. It's not.

Mauritius has rolling farmland, forested valleys, large towns throughout the island, extinct volcanoes, and sandy beaches all around. Réunion has an active volcano, a few coastal towns, quaint hamlets in the interior, and rocky shores (mostly). You can think of Réunion as a French Hawaii of the Indian Ocean.

While Mauritius is an independent nation, Réunion is part of the European Union, i.e. France. The French spoken in Réunion is easier to understand than in Mauritius. Réunion feels like a little piece of France that somehow broke off of Europe and sailed away into a deep blue sea.

Réunion is physically very different from Mauritius because of its two volcanoes:

Piton des Neiges dominates the northern half of Réunion. At 3071 meters, it's the highest point in the Indian Ocean. When this volcano stopped erupting 20,000 years ago, its sides collapsed, creating three deep canyons, or cirques.

Piton de la Fournaise, on the southeastern end of the island, is one of the world's most active volcanoes, with more than 150 eruptions in the past 300 years. These eruptions have created lava flows extending down to the coast, and a shoreline of basalt cliffs and boulders.

The result of both recent and on-going geologic activity is a dramatic landscape with towering peaks, deep valleys, lava caves, waterfalls and vistas. Every day that I was there, I either climbed a peak or swam in the pool at the bottom of a waterfall. Some days, I did both.

Réunion's east coast (Cascades de Sainte-Rose)

Réunion's south coast (Puits aux Arabes)

Réunion's west coast (Saint Pierre)

Réunion is not as perfect for swimming as Mauritius is. The coastline is beautiful to look at, but only the west coast is sandy. Also, there are few offshore barrier reefs to keep the sharks away.

I spent most of my time in the interior of Réunion, where charming villages are perched on the slopes of the volcanoes. The homes, the gardens, the cafés and the boulangeries drift in and out of the mist. It rains enough in Réunion to fill everyone's gardens with flowers.

Cilaos village in Cirque do Cilaos
Réunion's hill towns reminded me of Provence, southern France.
Typical home in Entre Deux
Réunion is a hiker's paradise with well-maintained trails and major attractions.

Réunion's active volcano, La Fournaise, is its biggest attraction. There's a road to the rim of the collapsed caldera. From there, trails follow along the rim, from which you can gaze across a gigantic lava-filled crater 8 kms in diameter.

It's pretty impressive to see such a huge volcano on such a tiny island.

The collapsed caldera of La Fournaise
La Fournaise is one of the world's most active volcanoes along with ...
Kīlauea in the Hawaiian Islands Stromboli and Etna in Italy Mount Erebus in Antarctica

La Fournaise erupts every couple of years. By chance, it erupted while I was there. Yes! Naturally, I had to go see it close up. A 6 km hike along the caldera's ramparts took me out to the viewpoint where I was able to safely view hot, liquid rock spewing out of the volcano's vent and forming a cone. There were lots of other folks there, too, to see this remarkable display of nature's power.

Active eruption, February 2017
The current eruption started at the end of January, and lasted about a month. Each eruption adds more territory to the southeastern corner of the island. Due to the frequency of these eruptions, many of the rocks on Réunion's southeast corner are hot to the touch. Click here to see what La Fournaise is doing today.

Are you curious to know why the volcanoes in Mauritius are extinct, and the volcano in Réunion is currently active? It's because there's an upper-mantle hotspot beneath the floor of the Indian Ocean. A few million years ago, this hotspot was underneath Mauritius, and produced volcanoes there. Then, because of the north-eastward movement of the floor of the Indian Ocean, the hotspot moved 200 kms southwest from Mauritius to Réunion. Now, Réunion sits on top of the hotspot which produces the magma for La Fournaise.

A similar hotspot together with seafloor motion is what created the Hawaiian Island chain. Perhaps someday, a new island will form southwest of Réunion.

Réunion's other volcano is extinct, but it's still a highlight because its collapse created three steep-walled valleys, or cirques, named Cilaos, Mafate and Salazie. The outer walls of these cirques are about 1000 meters high. The inner canyons drop another 500 meters. The result is lots of waterfalls and challenging hiking.

The drive into Cirque Cilaos involves about 400 hairpin turns as the road climbs up and down the almost vertical walls of this valley.

Cirque Mafate is remarkable for the fact that the relief is so extreme that no one has ever built a road into the valley, and probably never will. Villages in Mafate are only accessible by foot, or by helicopter (used to deliver critical supplies and emergency services).

Looking down into Cirque Mafate from the viewpoint at Le Maïdo (2190m)

About to start my descent, warnings noted!
Cirque Mafate is inhabited by the descendants of slaves who escaped from their plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this Shangri-La, they've created an almost 21st century world, with solar panels for electricity, solar-heated showers and modern appliances like TVs − yet without roads or vehicles.

To get there, I had to descend more than 1000 meters, along a steep and narrow trail. Sections of the trail are posted with warnings not to stop to rest because of the risk of falling rocks.

Hiking down, the scenery is breathtaking. The air is perfectly clean and fresh. At the bottom of the cirque, the only sounds are the birds, the waterfalls − and the occasional rock fall. I spent a night at a guest house with a hot shower and a home-cooked dinner made from locally grown meats, fruits and veggies. Even the rum was home-made. Wow, truly a magical and beautiful place!

Like Mauritius, Réunion is someplace I'd like to come back to. There are many more trails to hike here when I return. Maybe La Fournaise will erupt for me again, too.

March 10 − Madagascar

A telephone conversation overheard in a hotel lobby:
Hi, I'm in Madagascar ...
Yes, really ...
No, I really am ...
Yes, it's a real place, not just a movie.

The market in Antananarivo
Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world. How big is that? Almost as big as Texas. Madagascar's capital is Antananarivo, called "Tana" for short. It's a crowded, hilly city with lots of people and cars. The streets are narrow. Traffic is bad − so bad that walking is often faster than driving. Something that I didn't know about Madagascar is how strong the French influence is here. Madagascar was a French colony from 1896 until its independence in 1960. Although there are at least 18 dialects of Malagasy, French is the country's common language because everyone who has gone to school speaks French. Ah bien, un autre pays pour pratiquer mon français!

A game of pétanque in the park, played the same way that it's played in Avignon
I didn't spend much time in Tana. The food's good, though. The markets are busy and colorful. The parks are full of folks picnicking and playing sports.

I found an excellent guest house (Hotel Niaouly) on the top of the hill in the old city. At the Hotel Niaouly, I was introduced to a travel agent named Justin (justindecouverte@gmail.com) and his brother Samy (samzafzozefa@gmail.com), who offered to be my guide to Madagascar's best parks and countryside. When they told me that car + driver would cost €30/day, I didn't even think of renting a car or trying to take public transportation.

So, after spending just 36 hours in Tana, I left town with Samy for what turned out to be an exhilarating 2000 km roadtrip.

Madagascar's first settlers are thought to have arrived from Borneo about 1500 years ago in outrigger canoes. (That's a long way to sail in a canoe!) These folks were joined around 500 years later by Bantus from East Africa. Other groups continued to settle on Madagascar over time. The result is the Malagasy ethnic group, which is neither African nor Asian, but something in between.

The Malagasy people divide themselves into 18 tribes, each of which has its own dialect, clothing, foods and traditions. Samy, my guide and driver, was from the Betsileo tribe in the southern highlands. Since our plan was to drive Route Nationale 7 from Tana (in the middle of Madagascar) to Toliara (on the southwest coast), Samy was the perfect guide because our route took us right through his territory. Samy knew all the best guest houses, restaurants, park guides and ... policemen. The police in Madagascar tend to extract money from people they don't know, so it's good to have a local guide.

If you'd like to experience Betsileo hospitality and you find yourself in Fianarantsoa, I highly recommend staying Chez Julienne et Patrick.

Samy (center) and his family, wearing trilby hats

Students hanging out before school

Walking to the market to go shopping

Madagascar has lots to see and do, but its main attraction is its happy, helpful and sociable people. In markets, folks were glad to show how products were made or how they tasted or worked, even if I didn't want to buy.

One reason that they're so friendly and open may be because Madagascar doesn't see a lot of tourists. Madagascar gets 1/100 as many international tourists as Thailand or Greece.

Two students after school

Rickshaw driver waiting for passengers

The fruit and vegetable market in Ambalavao

Madagascar is a poor country. 2/3 of the population live on less than $1/day. The infrastructure is limited. Industry is primitive. Madagascar is so poor that they don't have garbage beside the highways. Empty plastic bottles are used for carrying water or storing liquids. Aluminium cans are considered valuable. Everything is recycled.

In two weeks, I never saw an aluminium can beside the road. If there were any, they were picked up right away and taken to the nearest back-yard aluminium smelting and casting operation. Shown below are four guys casting a 60-litre aluminium pot using a sand mold. I watched the whole process, which took 30 minutes. They start with a sample of what they want to cast. They pack sand around it. Then, they carefully remove the pot from the sand mold. After reassembling the sand mold, they pour liquid aluminium (at ~700°C) into their mold. I was stunned to see them working without gloves or shoes as red hot liquid metal splashed here and there. The pot will be sold in the market for about $20.

Casting an aluminium pot in a sand mold
The zébu is Madagascar's beast of burden and its main source of meat.

Samy and I often had to stop on the highway to make way for herds of zébu moving to and from the markets.

The zébu market in Ambalavao

Typical brick and mud homes in the central highlands
Madagascar's first settlers brought rice with them from Borneo, and terraced the hillsides throughout the central highlands.

Today, the Betsileo tribe produces 2 or 3 crops of rice every year.

Tending the rice fields

The Rock of Ifandrana (~500m high) is a challenging climb in the central highlands.
Madagascar's central plateau has a unique look. Huge granite plutons rise up between rice fields and zébu pastures. The few alpinists who come here compare these rock domes with those in Yosemite − but without the tourists.

Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot. 90% of its plant and animal species are endemic, that is, they're found nowhere else on Earth. In particular, Madagascar has 103 species and subspecies of lemur. These rare creatures are what most tourists come here to see. Many of these lemurs have become so used to seeing tourists with cameras that they pose for their pictures.

A wild ring-tailed lemur

A tame ring-tailed lemur

A chameleon, trying to change to flesh color

A baobab forest near Ifaty

A traditional fishing pirogue by the Mozambique Channel
Six of the world's nine baobab species are found in Madagascar. Baobabs are weird trees, without much commercial value. Their lumber is too fibrous to be used for construction or furniture. They're fruit is marginally edible. They're not good firewood. But they provide shade, make good nesting sites for birds, and store water for use during droughts.

On the southwest coast, I went for a sail in a traditional pirogue, made from a hollowed-out tree trunk. It has one lightweight outrigger for stability. It was a totally home-made affair. I was impressed by how fast and stable it was on the open water.

My final errand in Madagascar was to visit a witch doctor to see if he had any ideas about how to solve America's problem. Click here to see a video of his solution.*

After two weeks in this exotic island nation, I've learned a lot about a people and a place that I knew nothing about before I came here. Many people opened their homes and shared their lives with me. To all the Malagasy who helped me along my journey, I say MISAOTRA TUPUKU (thank you)!

A witch doctor's solution to America's problem*
* Disclaimer: I explained in English to my guide that I feel that America's problem is that the current president needs to behave differently − or that America needs a different president. My guide translated my request to his friend in French, who then spoke in Malagasy to another fellow, who translated the message into the local dialect to the witch doctor's wife, who relayed my request to the witch doctor. The witch doctor had never heard of Donald Trump, and I doubt that he knew what impeachment is. As the video shows, this witch doctor knows only one way to change a president.

Cyclone Enawo heading for Antananarivo, Madagascar

March 7 − Cyclone Enawo

Until last week, my journey across the Indian Ocean has been event-free. While I was in Mauritius, I had a day of rain and wind when a cyclone passed by − which was no big deal. A volcano erupted while I was Réunion − which was excellent timing. Every plan I made went according to schedule, or close to it.

Cyclone Enawo was a different story. A storm like this would be called a hurricane if it were in the Caribbean, or a typhoon if it were in Japan. But because it's in the southern hemisphere, it spins clockwise. So, it's called a cyclone. Cyclones are just as destructive as hurricanes or typhoons. This one flooded northern Madagascar, washed away a few villages, and closed the airport in Antananarivo for two days. I was glad to have had someplace safe and dry (with cold beer) to wait out the cyclone, but the storm shortened my time in the Comoro Islands.

March 16 − The Comoro Islands

Between Madagascar and mainland Africa, there's an archipelago of four small, volcanic islands. These islands have been known by various names:
  • Islands of the Moon: Comoro comes from the Arabic word qumr meaning "the moon". An ancient legend says these islands are where the moon hides once a month at new moon.
  • The Perfume Islands: The Comoros produce vanilla, cloves, jasmine and most of the world's Ylang-Ylang essence for the perfume industry.
  • Cloud Coup Coup: Since becoming an independent nation in 1975, the Comoros have had 20 coups or coup attempts. The last coup was in 2011.
  • The Forgotten Islands: After the opening of the Suez Canal, few ships had any reason to stop here, and the Comoros lost their strategic value. These islands are still forgotten. They get so few US and European tourists (~3000/yr) that there are no major guidebooks about these islands.

Approaching the airport in Mayotte

The ferry from Dzaoudzi to Mamoudzou


After Cyclone Enawo passed and the skies cleared, I flew to Mayotte, the nearest of the Comoro Islands to Madagascar.

Mayotte is different from the other Comoro Islands because, when the other three islands voted for independence in 1974, Mayotte voted to remain part of France. Mayotte was promoted to being a French department in 2011, which makes it part of the European Union. Although the infrastructure and services on Mayotte are basic, they're more developed than on the other Comoro Islands.

Mayotte is actually two islands about 2km apart. The airport is on the smaller of the two islands. After landing, you take a shared taxi to Dzaoudzi, where you can catch a ferry to Mamoudzou, on the main island. Dzaoudzi and Mamoudzou are Mayotte's two largest towns. I enjoyed saying the names of these towns.

The beach in front of my bungalow
Mayotte reminds me of what the Caribbean islands were like 50 years ago. Simple, natural and unspoiled.

At the tourist bureau, I was referred to a great place to stay: Le Jardin Maoré, with one of the best beaches in the Indian Ocean ... and maybe in the world.

A Green Turtle in the reef just offshore
Here's what makes the beach at Le Jardin Maoré one of my favorite all-time beaches:
  • There are two offshore reefs. The outer reef is 8-10 km offshore. It creates a large, calm lagoon, free of big waves and sharks. The inner reef is about 150 meters offshore, and is very accessible for snorkeling.
  • Both reefs are healthy. They haven't been over-fished or bleached by warming ocean waters. The coral is colorful and varied, and teeming with tropical fish. The snorkeling and diving are excellent − comparable to what I saw last year in Indonesia. One day, I spent four hours in the water, diving and snorkeling.
  • The lagoon is full of Green and Hawksbill Turtles. On an average dive, I saw 10 of them, sometimes in groups. They're protected, not hunted. They're used to seeing humans and being photographed. They don't swim away when approached. Sometimes, curious turtles swam right up next to me.
  • The beach is long, wide and clean. There's no garbage or litter on the beach or in the water. At night, the beach is totally safe.
  • The dive shop is professional. The bar and restaurant are delightful. The bungalows are 20 meters from the high water line.
  • While most tropical beaches are lined with palm trees, this beach is different. It's lined with gigantic baobab trees.
  • The baobab trees are full of lemurs. That's really different.

A family of Brown Lemurs in a baobab tree
The lemurs are cute, friendly and harmless. However, you have to keep an eye on them because they are sometimes mischievous.

I stepped away from my breakfast to get another cup of coffee and returned to find this one finishing my yoghurt.

From Mayotte, I continued west to the next island in the Comoro chain.

A brown lemur trying to steal my breakfast

Hi-speed SGTM Comoros ferry


Hi-speed ferries run between all the Comoro Islands twice a week. Tickets can be booked on-line at www.sgtm.com. I was very pleased to be able to travel through the Comoros by ferry. (I get tired of airplanes.)

Note: Although the ferries are modern, fast, clean, air-conditioned and smooth even on rough water, the in-port services suffer from typical African bureaucracy and inefficiency. Your ferry might not leave the dock until 3 hours after its scheduled departure time.

My fellow passengers, waiting for our ferry
A delay in the Comoros is hardly the end of the world. I enjoyed the opportunity to chat with my fellow passengers, and play with their children. Many of them (the adults, that is) spoke excellent French.

I learned all about their families, jobs, traditions, religions (most Comorians are Muslim), and political views. I was surprised and pleased by how open and welcoming everyone was.

On arrival in Anjouan, the friendly immigration officer noted that he and I share the same birthday. I paid €30 for a Comorian visa that even has a color photo of me on it. Why is it that the poorest, most isolated countries always have the most impressive visas?

Comoros visa

The waterfront in Mutsamudu, Anjouan

The view from my hotel balcony
Unlike Mayotte, Anjouan and the other Comoro Islands don't have France subsidizing their development. Consequently, they lack government services and infrastructure. The streets are full of potholes. Ships that run aground remain on the beach until they rust away. Garbage accumulates where it falls because there is no waste management. Yet, if you walk a mile out of town, you're in a tropical paradise. The beach outside my hotel room was pristine. The palm trees were full of bats. I think I may have seen a Livingstone fruit bat, which has a 1.4-meter wingspan. There was one thing I didn't see in Anjouan: Western tourists.

Grand Comore

This is the largest and most populated of the Comoro Islands. Moroni is its capital, but it's not much of a city. It has several mosques, some 3- and 4-storey buildings, and a busy fishing port. Its raucous market, known as the Volovolo, is like a souk an Arab country.

In the middle of the island is an active volcano, Mt. Karthala (2361m). Its eruption in 2005 caused the evacuation of 30,000 residents. There are lava flows on all sides of the island all the way to the shore, as evidence of previous eruptions. The coastline consists mostly of basalt boulders, with occasional beaches of golden sand.

Because of the cyclone, I spent only one night in Anjouan, one night in Grand Comore, and I missed getting to the island of Mohéli entirely. In spite of my brief visit to these islands, I liked the Comoros and hope that I can return some day. A place that gets so few visitors, that is so unknown to tourists, is hard to find these days.

A mosque by the harbor at Moroni

The Volovolo (market place) in Moroni
To the left is a woman with a yellow face. Comorian women paint their faces with a yellow powder made from flowers. This is a form of sunscreen.
Volcanic shorelines around Grand Comore
I came away from my short visit to the Comoros with two observations:
  • When people don't know much about something or someplace, they tend to be afraid of it, often for no good reason. Before coming to the Comoros, people who had never been here before warned me about this country. They said that it's very African and dangerous. They reminded me that this is an Islamic country. These concerns are entirely unfounded.
  • The fewer tourists someplace has, the friendlier and more welcoming the people will be.
The Comoros are a safe, friendly and beautiful place to live or visit. Although power failures and few street lamps mean the streets are dark at night, it's safe all the time because everyone knows everyone. The form of Sunni Islam practiced in the Comoros is very relaxed. The only religious rule that's enforced is no nude bathing. Although the Comoro Islands are populated by people who speak a dialect of Swahili, these islands have few of the problems that mainland Africa has. Their isolation frees them from HIV, drugs and violence.

Of all the countries I've visited in the past nine years, the Comoros − excluding Mayotte − are the most undiscovered places I've seen yet.

Young male African Lion
March 24


Our planet's biggest wild animals live in Africa, and Kenya is one of the best places to see them.

Enjoy the photos.

Adult male, looking for his next meal perhaps?

Four lions indifferent to the tourists in a safari van
Going on safari means riding in a 4x4 van or a Landcruiser with a pop-up top. Your driver/guide takes you to where he thinks the animals are. He uses a radio to talk with other drivers in the park who may have already spotted wildlife.

Although all of the animals are wild, they've never been hunted. They don't react when they see a slow-moving vehicle. So, it's easy to get close to the animals to observe and photograph them.

The main goal of most safaris is to see the Big Five. These are the five animals considered the most dangerous to hunt: Lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhinoceros. With luck and a good driver, you might see them all in a week as I did.

All the photos here were taken with a Nikon Coolpix S7000 or with an iPhone SE. The fact that these photos are as good as they are is because they were shot at close range.

Adult male African Elephant, Mt.Kilimanjaro in the background

African Leopard, looking for some shade on a hot morning

Male Cape Buffalos
Though vegetarians, hippos and buffalos are the most dangerous animals in Africa because they're aggressive, territorial and fast.

Weighing up to 8,000 pounds, a hippopotamus can gallop 18 mph and are known to upset boats for no reason and bite the passengers with their huge, sharp teeth. Hippos kill 500+ people annually in Africa.

The buffalo, known as "the Black Death" kills 200+ people per year in Africa.

These are two good reasons why you must not get out of your safari van while you're inside a Kenyan game park.

The rhinoceros is the hardest of the Big Five to find. Like the fabled unicorn horn, rhino horn is believed to hold medicinal properties. A rhinoceros horn sells for $300,000 in Vietnam on the black market because it's believed to cure cancer.

Due to poaching, there are only a couple thousand black rhinos alive today. The white rhino exists in larger numbers, but in only a few of Africa's wildlife reserves.

Although it's not official policy, the rangers at some of Kenya's parks shoot and kill poachers. The poacher's body is left where it falls. Lions and hyenas dispose of the evidence by morning. In this way, the park rangers prevent wealthy Chinese from bribing judges to allow the poachers to go free.

I was very lucky to see seven rhinos one morning in Lake Nakuru National Park.

White rhinoceros, mother and child

A herd of hippos in shallow water
March is one of the best months to visit fabulous Kenya because it's the end of the dry season. There's less grass so the lions and cheetahs have fewer places to hide. The elephants and herd animals tend to congregate around the few remaining water holes. Water levels are low so it's easier to spot the hippos.

Curiously, March is low-season for tourism in Kenya. Consequently, it's easy to find accommodations and prices are lower. In the parks, there's less traffic because there are fewer safari vans seeking the same animals.

Female cheetah with two young males

Wildebeests crossing the road

A Hartebeest standing guard

Two male waterbucks about to spar

Topis running up a hill

Male impala

Thompson gazelles

Masai giraffes



Spotted hyena guarding his breakfast from two black-backed jackals

Black-eared fox


Vervet monkey


Leopard tortoise

Grey crowned cranes

Marabou stork

Pink flamingos at Lake Nakuru

Helmeted guineafowl


Martial eagle, the largest eagle in Africa

Masai warriors performing their "jumping" dance

My fellow safari adventurers
Kenya has two major cities, Nairobi and Mombasa. Both cities are plagued with dirty streets, pushy vendors, horrible traffic and questionable safety. I came to Kenya to see the animals. So, I spent as little time in the cities as possible. I took three safaris, back to back, visiting six of Kenya's best national parks: For my first safari, I opted for luxurious accommodations. It's amazing to experience elegant comfort, yet feel like you're out in nature. Check out the websites for these resorts. They're gorgeous.

For my second safari, I joined two Germans, two Iranians, one Turk, one Japanese and another American for a budget adventure involving tents and picnics. The sorts of folks who sign up for this type of trip are often lots of fun. This was a great way to make new friends.

For my third safari, I went alone with my own driver, negotiating accommodations and park visits as we went.

If you have any interest in Kenya, I can recommend one particularly good driver/guide: Nazir Kahn (nasskahn@yahoo.com). You'll ride in a comfortable Landcruiser and stay at the best luxury safari lodges.

April 10 − Uganda & Rwanda

Due to habitat loss and poaching, there are now only about 800 Mountain Gorillas alive on our planet. If you want to see them in the wild, you must visit the remote mountains between Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

Travel in the Congo can be problematic in terms of visas, transport, and political stability. On the other hand, Rwanda and Uganda are easy destinations thanks to good tourist services and the East African Tourist Visa, which allows free travel for 90 days thru Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda for $100. Half of the gorillas live in Uganda, so that's where I decided to visit them.

Visiting these gorillas was a lifelong dream, even more than seeing lions, leopards, elephants and rhinos. I had hoped to organize a group tour to share transportation and guide fees. When I couldn't get anyone to join me, I ended up "winging it". Traveling independently through Uganda and Rwanda turned out to be the way to go.

I traveled by public buses, local taxis, motorcycles, and even hitch-hiking. I stayed in guest houses and people's homes. I saw lots of things that most tourists don't see, met wonderful people, and saved a bundle of money. (One tour company quoted me $6000 for a two week Uganda-Rwanda safari. My 16-day jungle adventure cost me about $1600, including everything.)

The central business district of Kampala, Uganda
My first stop was Kampala, Uganda's capital. I arrived there by overnight bus from Kenya. Crossing the border into Uganda was a breeze, thanks to my East African Tourist Visa.

I had no idea what to expect in Uganda. All I knew was what I remembered from the 70's about Idi Amin and his repressive regime. I was pleasantly surprised. Kampala, in contrast to Nairobi, is a friendly and comfortable place. Kampala's only major drawback is its traffic. I did a lot of walking in Kampala because it was often faster to walk than to drive.

Kampala's Owino Market, one of the biggest in East Africa

Gridlock in Kampala

Bride and bridesmaids at Kampala's national mosque
In Kampala, I visited the Ugandan Wildlife Authority to purchase my Gorilla Trekking Permit for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. (Only about 100 are issued per day, and you have to buy yours from the UWA.)

I'd been warned by tour operators that it would be necessary to buy my gorilla permit months in advance. This is not always true. On March 27th, there were plenty of permits available for April 1st. I choose April 1st because gorilla permits are reduced from $600 to $450 during the low season: April and May.

With that errand taken care of, I enjoyed a couple of days of walking around Kampala visiting mosques, temples, cathedrals, museums, malls and markets. There aren't a lot of pale-skinned tourists in Kampala. Maybe this is why everywhere I went people smiled, said hello, and made genuine offers to be of assistance. During a rainstorm, a driver stopped her car by the road and offered me a ride.

Palace of the king of Buganda (1922-62), later Idi Amin's army barracks (1971-79)

Idi Amin's torture/execution chambers
The last major news I remembered about Uganda was Idi Amin's reign of terror during the 70's. He was infamous for his human rights abuses, political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, corruption, gross economic mismanagement, etc, etc, etc. Honestly, I hadn't been following the Uganda news since then. One of the main things I wanted to see was the palace where Amin billeted his troops, and his torture-execution chambers, where he personally oversaw the torture and execution of more than 17,000 political prisoners. This is a gruesome sort of thing to want to see, I know. But it's history.
While in Kampala, I stayed at the Red Chilli Hideaway. One of the great things about hostels is that the staff has the best travel tips ... such as, how to cross Uganda in seven hours by public bus for $5.

I also got one other excellent bit of advice: En route to Bwindi, stop at Lake Bunyonyi. Here I found the Lake Bunyonyi Rock Resort. I felt as though I'd discovered a dream land on another planet. It was so magical, I stayed an extra night. I borrowed a dugout canoe to spend a day exploring islands and photographing birds, including the Grey Crowned Crane. The Ugandans will tell you it's the world's most beautiful bird. They like this bird so much they put it on their national flag.

Lake Bunyonyi in southwestern Uganda

Paddling a dugout canoe on Lake Bunyonyi

Grey crowned crane, Uganda's national bird
From Lake Bunyonyi, it was 2 hours by motorcycle, private taxi and hitching to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I was surprised by how easy it was to travel independently in Uganda, with little planning or organization.

Here's how gorilla trekking in Bwindi works:

First, you can't go by yourself. The Bwindi Forest is quite impenetrable. I wouldn't have made it more than 100 meters into the forest by myself. I certainly would never have found any gorillas on my own. I don't know how Dian Fossey found her Gorillas in the Mist.

Second, when you arrive at the park entrance at 7:00am, you'll be assigned to a group of no more than eight tourists. Groups are small in order to limit the impact of tourism on the forest and on the animals.

Third, to ensure your safety and the success of your trek, you'll be accompanied by at least four guides. One will lead the way, clearing a path with a machete. One will follow your group with an AK-47 in case your group is attacked by a rogue elephant or an angry buffalo. Two others will have started at dawn to follow yesterday's trail of scat and broken branches to locate where your gorilla family is today. They'll communicate by radio with your first guide to let him know which direction to go.

Finally, when you find your gorillas, you'll be allowed 60 minutes to view and photograph them. You must talk quietly and move slowly. You can't eat or drink in their presence. You're supposed to stay at least 5 meters away from them.

There are five habituated gorilla families in the southern end of Bwindi. Our team was seeking the Kahungye group. With 18 members, this is currently Bwindi's largest habituated family group. I requested this group, knowing that it was the largest of Uganda's habituated gorilla families. I'd also heard that this group was the most remote, so I was guaranteed a long nature walk in the jungle.

The tourists in my trekking group were 2 Germans, 2 Mexicans, 1 Belgian, 1 Israeli, 1 Hungarian, and me. Even though April 1st is the official start of the rainy season, we were blessed with a beautiful, cool and sunny day. There hadn't been any rains for 3-4 days. The two steams we had to cross were shallow, with stepping stones exposed and dry. There was no mud to slog through. Yay!

To find our gorillas, all we had to do was to climb up and down very steep ridges, through impenetrable thickets of vines and nettles for 2.5 hours. We followed a trail for the first hour. After that, we followed our lead guide as he cut a trail through the brush with his machete. Every few minutes, he had a brief chat on his radio with our two trackers. As we got closer to the Kahungye group, our trackers whistled discretely to guide us through the underbrush.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Hiking into the impenetrable forest
As we hacked our way through the underbrush, we heard some low grunting noises nearby. When our guide pulled aside some of the underbrush, we were face to face with a mother gorilla and her baby. They were right in front of us, at a distance of maybe 2 meters. So much for the 5 meter limitation! The mother and baby looked up at us briefly. Then, the two of them resumed playing and grooming each other, completely ignoring us. Clearly, they were less interested in us than we in them.

We spent the next hour following our guide and our trackers through the brush finding eight other gorillas. The gorillas generally ignored us. This is what is meant by "habituated". They get human visitors for 60 minutes every day. The humans are all quite predictable. They huddle together, whispering as their cameras go click, click, click. The gorillas seem to have become quite used to this. They go about their business doing whatever they want to do. The mothers feed and groom their infants. The silverbacks, of which we saw three, lounge in the shade using their long arms to pull branches of leaves into their mouths. The adolescents chase each other through the underbrush and frequently swing from low tree branches like ... well ... gorillas. Fascinating! Exciting! Amazing!

Click here to see a wonderful video made by one of the members of my gorilla trekking group. There're some good shots of the gorillas we saw in Bwindi, as well as lots of other footage showing what Uganda today is really like.

Male silverback mountain gorilla

Adolescent gorilla (5-6 years old)

Golden Monkeys in Volcanoes National Park Rwanda
Uganda has lots to offer, such as the tallest mountain range in Africa, and Lake Victoria − Africa's largest lake and the source of the White Nile. In terms of wildlife, Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park is equal to any of Kenya's national parks. But, it was time to go south into Rwanda.

Forming the border between Uganda and Rwanda are the Virunga Mountains. This is a chain of forested volcanoes, with elevations from 3000 to 4500 meters. The southern slope of these volcanoes is where Dian Fossey set up her Karisoke Research Center to study the mountain gorillas. Having seen gorillas, my new goal was to find the rare Golden Monkeys.

From Bwindi, I caught a ride to the Rwandan border. With my East African Tourist Visa, I breezed into Rwanda and changed my Ugandan shillings into Rwandan francs. From there, I paid $1 to ride public buses 50 kms to the entrance to Volcanoes National Park.

At this point, I had no trekking permit and no lodging reservations. I used my own two feet and my favorite iPhone app (maps.me) to find the Kinigi Guest House and the national park ticket office. There, I bought a monkey trekking permit for $100. Easy!

Visiting the Golden Monkeys was much like tracking gorillas. We were a group of eight tourists, led by two machete-wielding guides. Ahead of us, trackers radioed our guides where to find the monkeys. Behind us was a soldier with a high-powered rifle to protect us from elephants and buffalos.

We climbed through a bamboo forest for about an hour, and then ... voila! We were surrounded by a troop of about 50 Golden Monkeys, eating bamboo shoots and chasing each other through the forest.

What makes these monkeys special is that there are only ~3500 of them left. Most of their former habitats have been eliminated. Today, they live only in the bamboo forests of the Verunga Volcanoes. Amazing to see such rare creatures!

After seeing Mountain Gorillas and Golden Monkeys, I turned my focus to the Rwandans, their rich culture and their tragic history.

Rwandan singing, drumming and dancing is passionate and exciting. Public performances keep their traditions alive. I attended church services on Sundays for their joyous gospel music.

Sacola traditional singers

Sacola dancers at Volcanoes National Park

Walking to the market

Boating on the shore of Lake Kivu

Moto taxis waiting for passengers

Kigali, Rwanda, with a genocide memorial in foreground

Rwandans are open and sociable. It was easy to strike up conversations in English or French. Everyone wanted to say hello, ask where I was from, and offer suggestions about where to go and how to get there.

Rwanda's roads are excellent. Public transit is comfortable and cheap. One morning, I rode halfway across the country (~200 km) for less than $4 in a clean bus with padded seats. I learned to use the licensed motorcyclists. They'll put you on the back of their bikes, provide you with a helmet, and take you anywhere you want to go. The drivers' yellow jackets and specially-marked bikes show that they're legitimate and insured, and that they won't overcharge.

In Rwanda, I was glad not to be part of a safari tour, cooped up in a Landcruiser and staying at luxury lodges. Traveling by bus, riding moto taxis, walking, and sleeping in guest houses are natural ways to meet people. In Kigali, I met Jean Luc Rushema who was an excellent local guide and a great guy, too.

My visit to Rwanda coincided with the 23rd anniversary of the Tutsi genocide. On April 7th, 1994, Rwanda exploded into one of most horrific and violent bloodbaths of the 20th century. About 1 million people − both Tutsis and the Hutus who tried to help them − were killed in 100 days. Many Rwandans were intent to tell me their story about how they survived, while their friends, neighbors and family died. 80% of Rwandans lost a family member in this tragedy.

The Rwandans' stories sent chills down my spine. In some of the most horrific events, people went to churches for protection and safety. The priests packed their congregations into their churches, locked the doors, and then told the Interahamwe where to find the Tutsis. At Nyamata, an estimated 10,000 people were killed inside the church by grenades and machetes.

Last stand of the Belgian peacekeepers / start of the Tutsi genocide

Unburied human remains at the church in Nyamata
At the Kigali Genocide Memorial, I learned how this national tragedy unfolded:
  • An ID card system was implemented which included ethnicity. Every Rwandan was registered as a member of one of three ethnic groups: Hutu (84%), Tutsi (15%) or Twa (1%).
  • When Rwanda declared its independence in 1962, a Hutu government was elected. One of the policies of the new government was to set quotas for Tutsis in terms of education and work.
  • Radio stations critical of the Hutu government were replaced by pro-government radio stations.
  • These radio stations promoted the beliefs that Tutsis were an immigrant group from Ethiopia and the source of Rwanda's problems. Tutsis were referred to as inyenzi (cockroaches).
  • Incidents where Tutsis protested − sometimes violently − against Hutu discrimination and repression were branded as terrorist attacks and were dealt with severely by government forces. In contrast, there was little effort by the government to police or prosecute Hutus who committed crimes against Tutsis.
  • Politicians and military leaders held orchestrated rallies to show support for their policies. At these rallies, the Hutu leaders claimed that the way to make Rwanda great again was to eliminate the Tutsis.
  • In the media, there was a lot of fake news in which thefts, robberies, drug smuggling, rapes and murders were blamed on Tutsis.
  • The government created a database of the names and addresses of all Tutsis.
  • Young men who wanted to fight Tutsis were organized into a group called the Interahamwe. They were provided with weapons, a communication network, training on the use of machetes and grenades in combat, and plans for an emergency response network involving roadblocks and ID checks.
  • Finally, on the night of April 6, 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi − both Hutus − died in an airplane crash. Within an hour of this crash, and before any investigation could be performed, Rwanda's radio stations reported that Tutsis had shot down the airplane, and urged Hutus to take action against the Tutsis.
  • The Tutsi genocide began the next morning. Tutsis were stopped at roadblocks. They were led to staging areas where they were slaughtered, men, women and children alike. In 100 days, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis plus about 200,000 Hutu moderates were killed.
Dear Readers, if any of these events seem parallel to things happening in your community, state or country, please don't ignore what's happening today. Take action now.
Rwanda has abolished racial discrimination. Ethnicity has been removed from ID cards as well as from politics. In 1997, radical militants raided a primary school and demanded that the children separate themselves into Hutu and Tutsi so that the Tutsis could be executed. The children held their ground, and refused to be divided, saying that they were all Rwandans. Rwanda has learned its lesson well.

April 7th is Rwanda's Day of Remembrance in which the people acknowledge what happened, speak about forgiveness, and promise to live in peace as one people. I was invited to join in the Walk to Remember in which 25,000+ people march from parliament to the national stadium for speeches, parades, dances and music. This is an all-night event in which Rwandans hold a candle-lit vigil until dawn. April 7th will not be forgotten in Rwanda. I certainly won't forget this night.

Kwibuka-23 (Rwanda's 23rd annual memorial ceremony and vigil)
This posting is the end of an amazing journey across southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and into Central Africa. This final chapter in Uganda and Rwanda has been a life-changing experience, which has given me renewed hope for environmental preservation and world peace, as well as an awareness of what our challenges and dangers are.

"There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew." − Marshall McLuhan

Having visited about 100 countries, I'm often asked which one I like the best. I can't choose just one place, so I've nominated my favorites and posted a music video on youtube. Click here to see my Top 15. Click here to return to the world map. Feel free to email comments or questions.