Nepal Bans Pockets To Fight Bribes

2 07 2009

 

Staff at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan international airport are being issued trousers without pockets in an effort to eliminate bribe-taking. Nepal’s anti-corruption body said there had been a dramatic increase in public complaints against bribery and it was felt that trousers without pockets would help the authorities “curb the irregularities.”

 

Sadly, bribes are quite common in many parts of the world, although often – as in Kathmandu – they tend to be aimed at locals rather than tourists. However, that doesn’t mean that visitors cannot be subjected to this special treatment, and when they are it does present a bit of a challenge.

 

It’s all fine and well to tut-tut at home and say you would never give a bribe no matter what the occasion or location, but it’s completely different when face-to-face with someone of authority, wearing a uniform, in a strange land – or strange language – who has the power to make your life difficult. It takes a strong person to say ‘no’ and stand their ground. Or perhaps just a foolish or naïve one.

 

Not for one moment do I advocate giving bribes and certainly in my own surroundings, I would never contemplate it. We all know that bribery is wrong and that paying a bribe perpetuates the cycle, but no matter how distasteful it can be, declining to pay one can land you in serious trouble and a decision must be very carefully considered. Of course, offering a bribe when one hasn’t been solicited is considerably worse!

 

I have been in taxis in Cancun, Nairobi and Zanzibar and stopped by police. Upon command, the driver handed over his license with a small fold of notes sticking innocently from the corner. The officer checked the license, returned it – devoid of the cash – and waved us forward already looking for more victims. The exchange was made surreptitiously so as not to upset the tourist. But in remote Zambia, the tourists were the target.

 

It was late afternoon and we were approaching a very long, low bridge that spanned a languid river. A lone soldier waved us to a halt on the approach and walked menacingly up to the cab of our truck with a rifle slung over one shoulder.

 

“You can’t cross” he said severely. “Only one vehicle is allowed on the bridge at a time.”

 

Straining our eyes forward, we could see another vehicle broken down on the side of the approach road on the far bank.

 

“He’s not on the bridge” we attempted to explain, as friendly as possible.

 

“Yes he is” said our armed companion. “You can’t cross.”

 

We explained that we were trying to reach Lusaka before it was dark and asked if there was anything at all that he could do to assist us. He looked inside the truck, then back at us.

 

“I am a hungry man,” he said, matter-of-factly, stretching his arms in the air and arching his back leisurely.

 

Two tins of beans and a couple of cigarettes later, we were driving onto the bridge with our new friend cheerily waving good-bye and wishing us a good trip.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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Breakfast of Champions

8 06 2009

Oxpecker mw

“Can’t we go somewhere else for breakfast? I always feel someone’s watching me here.” (Masai Mara)

My Mum has always said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, although we didn’t always see eye-to-eye on just what constituted a good breakfast. For the record, I see nothing wrong with twiglets and Coke.

Many travellers would certainly agree that breakfast is extremely important. It is the fuel that keeps legs pumping during sightseeing, and a great way to avoid expensive lunches – or at least eat less at mid-day. There’s also a certain magic to breakfast that’s possibly due to the excitement of anticipating what wonders the rest of the day holds in store, or of finding yourself in beautiful surroundings so far removed from a quick stale muffin devoured on a cramped subway train on your way to work.

There are many breakfasts that stick in my memory as being nigh on idyllic. Anything on a sun-dappled terrace, patio or balcony overlooking the ocean always qualifies for instant consideration as a Top Ten spot. The daily ritual of a large platter of fresh fruit and miniature oven-warm pastries in Fiji still brings a smile to my face. Daily breakfast in the garden of the Pink Baobab in Victoria Falls accompanied by the roar of the water – and a nearby fence crushed by a wayward elephant during the night – will always be remembered fondly. And for a touch of civility, who could ever challenge a vast spread of cheeses, meats, jams and croissants in a palazzo overlooking a quiet canal in Venice with enormous French windows ushering in the fresh morning air and the sound of church bells?

But the most memorable breakfast ever was simple picnic fare in Kenya’s Masai Mara.

As anyone who has ever been on safari knows, the best wildlife viewing takes place in early morning and late afternoon. The higher the sun, the lower the animals stay trying to avoid the oppressive heat and conserve their own energy. Morning game drives generally set off in the dark, just as the orange glow of dawn seeps along the horizon. At such ungodly hours, a full breakfast is generally out of the question and a simple plate of biscuits and cup of tea is more customarily followed by a hearty brunch upon return. Occasionally though, there is an opportunity for a picnic along the way. Not only does it provide sustenance to quell growling stomachs that might otherwise scare away particularly nervous wildlife, but it also provides some of the most unique and memorable breakfast spots on earth!

After several hours of exploring the Mara’s savannah and being captivated by prides of lions and herds of elephant, we pulled to a stop in the shade of a large acacia tree. The engine was turned off and a large picnic basket removed from the back of the Landcruiser and placed on the hood. From within were withdrawn foil-wrapped cold sausages and hardboiled eggs, bread and jams, bananas and pastries, juices and flasks of tea. No champagne, no gourmet omelettes – but who needed luxuries with such a view?

All around us the great African plains rolled to rocky outcrops and thickets of trees. With naked eyes we could see elephant and buffalo, giraffe and impala, zebra and Tommies. Apart from the metronomic ticking of our cooling engine, the only other sounds were the lonesome song of African mourning doves and our silent devouring of breakfast. Even now, I can still taste those cold sausages and remember the wonder of that perfect morning.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





The Great Lake Robbery

4 06 2009

Naivasha

                   “I have this strange craving for a salad…”     (Lake Naivasha, Kenya)

Being a city boy subjected to constant noise, I relish the near that comes in the wilderness. There’s a magic to hearing nothing more than the rustle of trees and the trill of cicadas or crickets or of staring at the heavens and catching a glimpse of infinity. It’s that escape from the constant sensory assault of everyday life that’s always one of the most rewarding aspects of travel, but sometimes the things that go bump in the night tend to go bump in a way that put even cities to shame!

 Lake Naivasha is a serene spot in the Great Rift Valley. With a comfortable climate and the blue waters of the lake as a backdrop, Naivasha became a popular spot with Kenya’s Happy Valley white settlers. The lake’s shorelines are filled with swaying reeds while the lapping waters gently nudge at moored boats and rickety wooden jetties. Hippos wallow from the heat and come ashore to dine on the grasses at night. The surrounding plains are full of antelope and gazelles while the trees are filled with colobus monkeys and hundreds of colourful birds. Naivasha is a delicious escape from the heat and dust of safari.

After dinner and a campfire chat, we retired for the night. We were pitched on a large tree-shaded lawn with the lake at one end and farmland on either side. Serenaded by snorting hippos, I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.

The noise began just after 2am. I awoke with a violent start to the sound of a man shouting. He was very agitated and closeby. I lay on my back staring into the darkness of my tent. The shouting continued and was soon accompanied by shrill blasts on a whistle…and then more shouts. I could hear people running and soon the performance escalated into an absolute cacophony as though the world had exploded. Vehicles started racing around, their horns blasting.

Clearly, we were under siege.

Lying flat on my stomach I inched towards my tent flap and silently undid the zipper. I was about to poke out my head when pounding feet raced through our campsite and around our tents chased by more shouts. The vehicles continued to roar around, the shouts and whistles and footfalls increased. I quietly dressed and once again edged to the flaps and poked out my head.

All was silent. Everything was dark. I eased myself out and, staying low to the ground, continued my survey. Even in the eerie half-light of a waxing moon, everything was still. There was no sign of the earlier turmoil and drama. Confused, I used the opportunity to visit the toilets, carefully watching as I went…but still nothing. After completing my inspection I returned to my tent and fell fast asleep.

The next morning we all gathered for breakfast and the obvious topic of conversation was the night’s entertainment. Our guide joined us over a mug of hot tea.

“Asparagus thieves,” he explained as though it was the most normal event in the world. “The night watchman on the farm saw someone in the fields and blew his whistle. All the pickers raced out to protect their livelihood. They chased them with the farm truck and they ran off through our campsite.”

“Happens all the time.”

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Possessions or Experiences?

18 05 2009

Serengeti sunset mw

                 “Do sunsets usually growl?”                           (Serengeti sunset)

If you were given the choice between a 60” high definition plasma flat panel television with Dolby Surround Sound or a luxury two-week South African safari with private guide, which would you choose? If you said ‘both’, you are a person after my own heart. But greed aside it does raise the interesting question of whether you cherish experiences or possessions more.

Of course, there are some people out there who do have both, but we don’t like them much. For the rest of us mere mortals, if we are very lucky we might be able to pick one or the other once every 5 or 10 years. So what provides the greatest satisfaction in the short-term…and in the long-term?

I am a homebody who has the unenviable burden of also enjoying travel. I say unenviable because while some of my acquaintances are quite happy to live in a shoebox over a subway grating with 43 roommates and live on day-old birdseed in order to pool all of their money into travelling the world, I really do like a few special home comforts and lots of travelling. Alas, not being married to Donald Trump’s daughter, I usually have to pick between the exotic trip or the slab of apple-smoked cheddar.

As I get older I find that experiences seem to be gaining more and more importance. Perhaps it’s a taste of my own mortality, but when I reflect on my life the things that give me the greatest satisfaction and fondest memories are not things at all, but experiences. I rarely sit back and think to myself “Wow, I loved that triple-speed pastel-green mixer with ice-crusher”, but I do remember the first time I smelled the heady scent of eucalyptus in Australia, standing in a jungle-clearing in Costa Rica watching lava cascade from a volcano late one night or hearing a leopard prowling around my tent in Kenya. I will never forget the first glimpse I had of a wild mountain gorilla after several hours of arduous trekking, of waking to a spectacular view of the pyramids from my Giza hotel room or of a wonderful evening in a small basement jazz club in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

When I’m 80 years old, I can probably still have a pair of 2,000 watt speakers with 12-inch aluminium woofers, titanium mid-range drivers and .75 inch tweeters… but I may not have the ability to trek the Himalayan foothills, photograph Angkor Wat at sunrise or camp on the farthest reaches of the Great Wall of China.

I think for now I’ll make do with my 18” TV and continue to indulge my passion for adventure.

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009





Battle at Kruger – The Best Travel Video Ever

4 05 2009

 

Anyone who’s watched National Geographic documentaries would be forgiven for thinking that Africa is just one big soap opera of sex and violence. Turn left to spy a leopard devouring an impala in a tree, turn right to see an elephant giving birth to twins, while straight ahead a pride of lions is engaged with a clan of insurgent hyenas. While it’s usually quite easy to see some pretty stunning wildlife in most game parks, the reality is that those spectacular Discovery Channel scenes are likely the result of months and months of intense effort and hard work. However, travellers sometimes do even better than the pros!

 

One of the most moving sights I saw was a confrontation between a herd of elephant and a pride of lions over the carcass of a dead elephant (Adventure Zone – July 29, 2008). It was the sort of scene that wildlife documentary makers spend years attempting to catch without luck. I’ve seen a giraffe giving birth, lions and buffalo mating (not with each other: Africa is still a bit too old-fashioned for that) and rhino, lion and elephant sharing the same floodlit waterhole at the same time. However, I’ve also spent 4 hours driving around and around the Masai Mara and quite literally seen nothing more than a hand-full of zebra and one or time indeterminate antelopes known colloquially as ‘brown-jobbers’.

 

The bottom line is that whether you’re in the jungles of the Amazon or Borneo, the plains of East Africa or on Hollywood Boulevard, there’s no guarantee you’ll see anything…but with a good guide, plenty of patience and a lot of luck, you might just be like the guy who filmed the following video.

 

I am a wildlife documentary junkie and feel as though I’ve seen every one ever made, but this 8 minute home video from a Kruger safari is arguably the most dramatic and incredible film I have ever seen. The camera is a bit jerky and not always focused, there’s no stirring music or famous actor narrating but it’s as gripping as anything I have ever seen elsewhere – and it was shot by a regular traveler like you and me, with a hand-held digital video camera and a whole lot of luck.

 

It’s a long video but keep watching right until the end…this is awesome stuff. If I sound overly excited, I am. To paraphrase Billy Bob Thornton, I’m a bit of a hump-backed geek when it comes to these things. So, enjoy…and then empty the penny jar and book that trip to Africa you’ve always dreamed of.

 

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Of Pandemics, Quarantine and Monica Bellucci

30 04 2009

 

Getting caught in a pandemic sounds pretty exciting…until it happens.

 

Our impressions of disasters often tend to be influenced by Hollywood and the idea of being caught in an outbreak of Tropical Galloping Gob Rot usually includes a nurse who looks like Monica Bellucci, a doctor like George Clooney…and a closing scene in First Class with champagne in one hand and Monica or George by our side. Reality is a little more sobering and I’m sure there aren’t many people in Mexico right now who are finding the experience particularly romantic.

 

Thankfully, I’ve never been caught in a pandemic and I hope I never am, but there was one occasion when it seemed that I might and I wasn’t really thinking of Monica or George at the time!

 

While in Africa some years ago, news filtered through of an outbreak of plague in India. Plague seems such a dark, ancient and deadly disease but according to the World Health Organisation, there are 1,000-3,000 new cases each year. Despite being treatable with antibiotics, a plague outbreak is still not a thought that warms the cockles of most hearts…especially when on the other side of the planet.

 

Although on a different continent, we felt strangely vulnerable. If the plague outbreak did become a pandemic as was being suggested, we were in the wilds of a country that could easily be ravaged and which had a poor medical infrastructure and inadequate antibiotics – and we were several days drive from the nearest airport. Admittedly we were leaping miles ahead of what little we knew of the situation, but it was difficult not to have such thoughts when passing through very poor towns inhabited by children with distended stomachs, permeated by the smell of baby vomit and open sewers and just a single flight away from India.

 

A local newspaper didn’t really help matters either. A small piece on the front page reported that suggestions had been made to restrict air travel from infected areas. If the plague crossed the Indian Ocean, would we even be allowed to travel home or would we at best be subjected to lengthy quarantine?  Another overland truck we passed had heard that the WHO and local authorities were acting quickly, but that the outbreak was not contained and there were concerns of it spreading beyond India. Tanzanian and Kenyan officials were reportedly screening people at the airports already. We had never felt so far from home or out of touch.

 

As the fragments of information slipped from the news, so the threat receded from our minds. By the time we arrived in Nairobi several weeks later, our worries seemed silly and overblown, but I will certainly never see anything romantic or exciting in pandemics, quarantine or government airlifts again…with or without Monica Bellucci!

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Gerald Ford Slipped Here

28 04 2009

livingstone-plaque1

“That’s nothing that flossing and a good dental hygienist can’t remove.” (Stone Town, Zanzibar)

 

On buildings all over the world there are plaques and signs commemorating famous people who were born, died, lived or sometimes just fell over therein. Some are quite fascinating, others utterly bemusing. If it’s a house in which Michelangelo sculpted, Machiavelli schemed, Casanova seduced, Beethoven composed or Hemingway wrote, they are well worth a detour and a photograph, but if it’s somewhere that Paris Hilton once lost her chihuahua, not so much. Sometimes the buildings don’t have signs and it’s only local knowledge that identifies them – like the building in the backstreets of Zanzibar where Farrokh Bulsara – later better know as Freddie Mercury – grew-up.

 

Few people plan their travels solely around these spots, but if in the neighbourhood many of us swing by for a glimpse or possibly even a visit if the building now houses a museum, no matter how modest.  However, there are some people who do follow the trails of their heroes and tour companies who make it easy to do so.

 

Of course, it would be possible to read Che Guevara’s ‘Motorcycle Diaries’, pick up a detailed Michelin map of South America, hire a motorbike, pack a sleeping bag and tent, a wad of pesos and follow the route yourself, but that’s a lot of work for the average person with two weeks annual vacation. Instead, there are companies who are more than happy to lead you on at least part of his route and show you a few iconic spots along the way. An air-conditioned minibus doesn’t quite capture the spirit of Guevara and Granado’s adventures aboard La Poderosa, but for those with a keen interest in the Argentine revolutionary, it at least gives them a taste of what he saw several decades ago.

 

There are trips that take you to spots that were inspirational for artists or poets, or that follow in the footsteps of adventurers or explorers…but not that many for famous tax collectors or politicians, possibly because tax and politics are two of the last things people like to think of when on vacation. However, there is one new one that is an exception.

 

Earlier this year the “Roots of Obama” tour was introduced in Kenya. In addition to visiting the usual sites like Nakuru National Park and the Masai Mara, the trip heads to western Kenya and its towns and markets before landing in ‘Obama land’. There are visits to Kogelo, the birthplace of Barack Obama Senior. A member of the family leads visitors through the village to discover the family’s roots and to visit the household. There’s a walk to Nyangoma to visit Senator Obama High School and all along there are tastes of the local warmth and hospitality and plenty of traditional food!

 

Even without the connection to the 44th president, this trip provides a glimpse of real Kenyan life that passes completely unnoticed for almost all visitors – even if you don’t get to see where Gerald Ford fell down.

 

 

Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009