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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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





A to Z of Adventure Travel: K is for Kenya

26 03 2009

gerenuk-giraffe-gazelle-mw        “Phone home…..”                                      (Gerenuk – Samburu, Kenya) 

 

Although there may be a better park or more prolific wildlife somewhere, nowhere else offers the variety and diversity of Kenya in such a compact and accessible area. In short, Kenya offers the one-stop-shopping of safaridom.

 

The East African country is of course best known for its wildlife and game parks. It’s most famous is the sprawling Masai Mara which lies along the Tanzanian border and is the Kenyan continuation of the Serengeti. For most visitors, the Mara is Africa: rolling amber plains filled with herds of elephant and antelope; rivers teeming with hippos and crocodiles; flat-topped acacia trees; rocky outcrops; mud-hut villages and resplendent warriors. When you’re in the Mara there is nowhere else on earth you could be than Africa.

 

The Mara is renowned for the annual wildlife migration which sees massive herds moving from one grazing rea to another while predators line up like rugby players at a buffet. Although the migration is every bit as great as any television documentary suggests, the Mara is just as awe-inspiring at any time. If you visit only one park or reserve and want a truly African experience, it must be the Masai Mara.

 

Further to the east and still on the Tanzanian border is Amboseli, a great wildlife park in its own right, but with Kilimanjaro in the background, one of the most scenic parks on the continent. Anything photographed standing before the snowcapped peak immediately becomes poster-worthy. Be forewarned, however…Kili can often be shrouded in cloud leaving nothing more than its lowest slopes visible.

 

For a different taste of Africa, try Samburu in the mid-north. Nestled in the semi-desert, Samburu is reminiscent of the Australian Outback…except with lions and leopard. For keen wildlife buffs, there are also species found here and not in parks further south, like the gerenuk or giraffe gazelle. Samburu is also home to the Samburu people who branched off from the Maasai many generations ago and have maintained their own traditions and customs.

 

The Rift Valley provides epic scenery from its origins in Mozambique until its demise in Jordan, but few countries benefit from it as greatly as Kenya. From soda lakes painted red by millions of flamingos to volcanoes and baboon-strewn escarpments, Kenya’s Rift Valley is a magnificent wonder.

 

Lake Naivasha was a playground for colonials before independence, but its tranquil waters and reed-lined shore belie the hippos that lurk beneath. “Born Free” author Joy Adamson’s home is now open for overnight visitors or just for afternoon tea, while Hell’s Gate National Park provides a rare opportunity to get out and walk amid the wildlife – thanks to the absence of most of the more dangerous animals!

 

If a week on safari has you yearning to stretch your legs, there’s always Mount Kenya to provide a challenge. Although conquering Africa’s second-highest mountain requires no technical skill, it is a much tougher trek than Kilimanjaro but every bit as rewarding. Climbs generally take 5 days with an additional day necessary to get to and from Nairobi.

 

Kenya’s Swahili coast is a wonderful mixture of relaxation and cultural enrichment. The palm-fringed beaches caress crystal clear waters while the towns bustle with busy markets and the call to prayer. For a truly tranquil experience, try to find a quieter property on the edge of town. Or, for a spot of adventure take the legendary “Man-Eater Express” sleeper train from Nairobi, so named for the lions that stalked the men who laid the track more than a century ago.

 

Whether starting or ending your trip in Nairobi, be sure to visit the dusty National Museum and the legendary Carnivore restaurant. And, if you want one last taste of wildlife that’s not as literal as that at Carnivore, take a spin through Nairobi National Park for the opportunity to catch some of the Big Five with the city’s skyscrapers in the background.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Just How Dangerous is Nairobi?

13 03 2009

nairobi-rhino-mw“Hand over your wallet or I’ll charge!”            (Nairobi National Park, Kenya)

 

 

The other evening I was watching a documentary on gun trafficking. In the course of the programme, the story described Nairobi as one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

 

Not for one moment would I dispute the Kenyan capital’s reputation, but I should say that in my time spent there I have never had a problem. In fact, it is amongst my favourite cities in the world.

 

Over the years I have heard the stories of people mugged at knife point or car-jacked at the end of an AK-47. All are apparently true, but then again Saskatoon is officially the most dangerous city in Canada and a friend of mine was once mugged in a Swiss village of less than 700 people. I should also add that apart from one pick-pocketed backpack, I have never personally known a single traveller who actually had a problem in Nairobi.

 

So, just how dangerous is ‘Nairobbery’?

 

Well, very…apparently. Although much of the crime afflicts residents rather than tourists because we have the luxury of frequenting better parts of town and travelling by taxi.

 

I am undeniably a cautious traveller. Although I don’t barricade myself in my hotel room, I do take sensible precautions especially in unfamiliar cities or ones with dubious reputations. These are the customary practices of knowing where you’re going, not flaunting wealth, flashing money, wandering into quiet areas or strolling in drunken pride late at night singing ‘Bay City Rollers’ songs. Although all quite sensible, they of course do not guarantee that you’ll end up unmolested…but they help.

 

Nairobi is a big, busy city. Its sidewalks are constantly jammed with people and there’s a steady vibrancy. The Kenyan people are wonderfully warm and friendly. By day, you can stroll the markets, shops or city centre free of fear…unless scared of aggressive souvenir sellers or people just wanting to make conversation with a visitor. If you don’t mind a bit of mild adventure, you can even ride the public buses or shared taxis.

 

Nairobi changes by night, however. Although its sidewalks still bustle – especially on a Friday or Saturday evening – it’s always advisable to travel by taxi. But don’t let the darkness leave you locked in your hotel eating room service spaghetti because Nairobi should not be missed after sundown.

 

Tourist haunts like Carnivore aside, Nairobi has great restaurants including one of my favourite Italian places in the world – and that includes Italy. Restaurants will always happily call a taxi at the end of your meal, although most taxis will either offer to come back once you’ve finished or actually wait outside until you’re done…at no extra charge!

 

There are plenty of other places to eat including traditional Kenyan establishments and superb curry houses. There are also fast food outlets and even decent pizza places. After dinner, you can head to a club for dancing, socialising or people-watching and see what affluent young Kenyans do after work…which is pretty much the same as anywhere else in the world: dancing, socialising and people-watching.

 

And there are always the legendary bars and watering holes for a nightcap, like the Lord Delamere Terrace at the Norfolk Hotel.

 

Although by no means a perfect country, Kenya’s newspapers are as critical and honest in their assessment of their leaders as any in the west and its citizens proud of their democracy. The people waste no time in sharing tales of untrustworthy politicians, are courageous in the face of systemic corruption and love meeting visitors. If passing through Nairobi on the way to or from your safari, don’t be put off by its reputation and be sure to spend a few days in one of the world’s great cities.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan





Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 5

10 11 2008

“Now, where’s my flashlight…”                      (Masai Mara, Kenya)

Don’t panic!

 

We had checked-in for our flight, cleared Kenyan Immigration and airport security and were resting in the Nairobi departure lounge awaiting our overnight flight to London. We had already done the circuit of souvenir and duty free shops and settled into two well-worn plastic chairs that faced the windows and the dark African evening beyond. It is always sad to bid farewell to a great adventure and we sat in contemplative silence sorry to be leaving but eager to get on our way, when we were suddenly paged.

 

The gate agent inspected our tickets and passports before handing us over to a sombre-faced security agent who muttered an ominous “Follow me” and led us through a key-pad controlled door.

 

I have often wondered what lies beyond those doors, but now that I was being led into the bowels of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport by a severe and unsmiling armed officer I dearly longed for the comfort and boredom of my chipped and cracked plastic bucket seat.

 

The officer led us down a corridor to another secure door. He again punched in an unseen combination and we found ourselves at the top of an exterior stairwell that led from the terminal building and down onto the tarmac. Leaving behind the tinned music and muffled loudspeaker of the lounge, our ears were assaulted by the din of generators and engines, the buzz of enormous arc lights, the hum of activity, the racket of transistor radios and the shouts of baggage handlers and mechanics. The night was sticky warm and I immediately felt perspiration beading on my neck and along my hairline – whether from the sudden heat or my fear of the unknown, I wasn’t sure. Carefully watching my feet on the metal stairs, I saw my long jagged shadow stagger before me and glanced upwards at the blinding light and the hundreds of giant moths swirling around it and the hungry bats pursuing them.

 

Having reached the tarmac, a new world opened up beneath the terminal: a cavernous oasis of artificial light and machinery with mountains of luggage and an army of men in coveralls working feverishly. We walked beneath the enormous nose of our aircraft and the network of cables and hoses which connected it to its life-support and I spied my bag sitting on a table against the wall guarded by another security officer.

 

“Would you mind opening it, Sir?” he asked politely, while the original officer stood silently behind us.

 

I fumbled for my keys and opened the miniature lock, my palms sweaty with apprehension and my mind running into overdrive. The officer reached inside purposefully and quickly emerged holding my enormous black metal flashlight.

 

“Ah” he smiled with understanding and perhaps a hint of relief, “A big torch.” He flicked it on and shone the bright beam at the ground. “It is bright too” he grinned.

 

I nodded enthusiastically and re-locked my bag. The first officer, now warm and friendly led us back up the staircase and to the departure lounge. All eyes turned to survey us as we returned from the netherworld beyond the security doors.

 

“Have a good flight” our new armed friend said, “and come back soon to Kenya” he added with a smile while I considered myself lucky that my mysterious long metal tube containing three large D-cell batteries hadn’t been subjected to a pre-emptive strike instead of a courteous inspection!

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Writes and Wrongs

19 08 2008

All penned-in:          The military prison – Paramaribo, Suriname

My name is The Adventure Blogger and I have a problem: I am a pen thief.

 

Actually, I only liberate them from hotel rooms along with the odd envelope and perhaps a few sheets of stationery (and maybe a bar of soap, a map or two, a sewing kit, shoe cloth, and shower caps that I never use. And a face cloth once…but that was an accident). It’s not as though I hide the flat screen television in my garment bag, the TV remote in my backpack or wear the luxuriously plush bathrobe beneath my raincoat as I sneak Michelin man-like towards the lobby’s revolving door. But I do have a penchant for pinching pens and pencils.

 

What particularly worries me is that I don’t need these pens and have so many that I don’t even use them all. It’s not even as if I carefully preserve them in a documented collection.  Instead, I have a pot on my desk that overflows with all sorts from plain old biros to more stylish stylos. Clearly, my thievery is a sickness.

 

I suppose that by light-fingered experience I have become somewhat of a connoisseur and can spot an especially good hotel pen all the way from the trouser press. Sometimes, the least likely examples are the best and write better than even the finest pen in your local stationery supplier.  They’re not quite Mont Blanc, but they certainly put your average Bic to shame.

 

My current favourite is from a hotel in Perth, Australia. It is brown with a faux-metallic tip, a plastic push button on the top and a combination pocket-clip/release. It is singularly unspectacular and would be right at home chained to the counter-top of your local tax office, but it writes perfectly. Fortunately, I discovered its merits on the second day of a recent stay and three of them had somehow found their way into my bag by the end of the week.

 

My pot contains pens from all over the world and although I am often tempted to use the more exotic examples just to impress – like Cairo, Nairobi or Kuala Lumpur – I am always concerned that a vacationing house detective will spot his purloined wares, clamp a heavy hand on my shoulder when I least expect it and cart me off to the nearest penitentiary.

 

By way of rationalisation of my nefarious ways, I always remind myself that if they weren’t meant to be ‘borrowed’, they’d be chained to the desk as the TV often is to the credenza. In addition, housekeeping carts are always overflowing with boxes of pens for replenishment which only further proves my innocence…although this rationale ignores the fact that the same trolleys also contain stacks of towels, bedding and rolls of toilet paper which are generally not intended to be souvenirs.

 

Even that tacit assurance doesn’t prevent pangs of guilt however, or erase the feeling that staff are tsk-tsk’ing me as I return to my room. I try to assuage my guilt by telling myself that by spreading these items throughout the world like pollen from a blossoming flower, I am actually helping to publicise that property and thereby assist in their marketing efforts. It would be a good argument, except that I never actually allow anyone to borrow them and therefore my promotional activities are restricted to myself and my non-travelling pot.

 

So, next time you’re staying in a hotel and find the pen missing when you go to write on your postcard, check at reception to see if The Adventure Blogger was there just before you!

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan





Things That Go Bump In The Night

9 04 2008

Kariba

Lake Kariba, The just-before-dark Continent

 

When the 19th explorer Henry Morton Stanley wrote “Through the Dark Continent” on his travels in Africa, his title referred to the large uncharted area in the centre of the continent that hadn’t yet been reached by Europeans. When the lights went off in my Nairobi hotel room and I tripped over my backpack and fell flat on the floor while looking for my flashlight, I couldn’t help but wonder if Stanley had actually been inspired by a similar experience a century earlier.

 

I consider myself to be a fairly perceptive person, but the large plastic garbage bin of water that I had found in the bathroom when I’d arrived several hours earlier had had me stumped. In my jet-lagged state, I reasoned that the cleaners had left it behind when they prepared my room. Just quite why they wouldn’t simply have used the water from the taps didn’t occur to me. When I unpacked and found a stack of long white candles and a box of matches in my bedside table, I still didn’t make the connection between these provisions and the reliability of the power supply.

 

It was only when the lights went off that evening that I saw everything clearly – while actually seeing nothing at all!

 

There I stood, like a deer in the headlights – except without the headlights – listening to the ebbing-creak of the ceiling fan as it ground to a halt. Outside the window I could hear insects and the hum of traffic, and watched as a sea of candles gradually flickered to life in the neighbouring windows and surrounding buildings. Kenyan life had barely missed a beat, but unfortunately I hadn’t missed my luggage and now had my nose pressed against the wooden floor. I eventually found my flashlight, climbed to my feet, and lit several candles – just in time to see the electricity return.

 

Nighttime is very special in Africa. There is a gentle scent of wood smoke that drifts from every village and even seems to permeate most cities. It mixes with the ever-present smell of dry-earth and the occasional blossom to provide an unmistakable aroma. Once away from the cities, you can follow the embers of your campfire as they dance skyward and join a myriad of stars, planets and galaxies.

 

If you’re well off the beaten path you may hear laughter or singing from distant villages carried through the cool air, and occasionally even the beat of drums. But for me, the greatest allure of an African night is one particular sound heard while sitting around that campfire, warming your hands as the hard dry ground quickly surrenders its daytime heat, or when separated from it by only the thin canvas of a tent.

 

There is something utterly primeval about the mournful roar of a lion at night. The sound starts as a low bass roll that grows louder and more forceful, somehow pitching in your chest before reaching a crescendo and dissipating into the air. It is infintely more powerful, more solemn and more blood-curdlingly fearsome than anything Hollywood has ever produced. There is a physicality to this sound that seems to scythe through the canvas, pummel your lungs and raise every goose bump, yet it is a sound that I love for reasons that I do not quite understand. If I was standing outside alone and unprotected I would be rightly terrified, but in the sanctuary of my tent, I lie open-mouthed and open-eyed relishing every breathy grunt and exhalation with utter wonderment and fascination.

 

It is these moments that provide experiences that last a lifetime and which have made me an addict for adventure travel.

 

Unfortunately, it is also invariably these moments that my bladder chooses to remind me just who is boss and dispatches me into that very darkness.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008