The World is a Circus

I see many strange things when traveling, things I’ve never seen before or never imagined. I had one day on the road that felt like all the people around me were part of a circus set that I had accidentally gotten lost amidst. There was a guy walking around with a (live) bird in a cup, for no apparent reason. There was a huge and hairy transvestite wearing a belly dance costume dancing to hindi music, but not for money (there was no hat), just for fun. Beside him/her were amputees begging, each with a few euro cents in their hat, behind me was a midget making gigantic bubbles with two sticks, some string and a soapy bucket, and a fully covered Muslim woman walked passed without noticing any of this. When I thought I’d seen it all, a 9 year old gypsy kid carrying a drum lit up a cigarette. Before I could remember where I was, I turned to the next ATM to maybe withdraw some money, but a bird had chosen to nest there for the day. Since then, I saw an Oklahoma license plate in Kosovo, and learned that the garbage trucks in Prizren sing songs… just like the ice cream trucks in Canada.

In England a couple weeks ago, I heard people speaking English that I couldn’t understand a single word of. I couchsurfed in Liverpool in an old brick factory warehouse where 10 or 15 people live semi-illegally. I tasted dozens of sour beers at a beer-festival In Manchester, since apparently sour beers are ‘in,’ but it tastes like rotten cider without any sugar and I’m not sure why everyone’s making it. The alternatives weren’t all that better, since the English like warm, flat ales and really dark and heavy stouts, but thankfully there was an actual cider brewer where I could taste something yummy and familiar.

The ferry from Liverpool to the Isle of Man takes 2 hrs and 45 mins because it can’t sail in a straight line; if it wasn’t for all the windmill farms in the Irish sea, the ferry could avoid its zig-zag course and get there in less than 2 hours. Sailing past gigantic, white posts with rotating blades standing in the middle of an open sea made me feel like I was on another planet.

And beyond all the strange sights is the strange world of money. The cost of things here and there and the exchange rates of currencies from different countries seems like a game of monopoly, or a gambling game that has no explanation. For example, from Reykjavik it’s faster and cheaper to fly to Manchester 1000 miles away than drive to Akureryi 235 miles away. A return ticket on the Liverpool subway is £1.80 but a one way is £1.75. Carlsberg is cheaper than a local beer in England, and Tuborg is cheaper than a local beer in Montenegro, when Carlsberg and Tuborg both come from one of the most expensive countries in the world, Denmark.

In Serbia and around, bottles of wine are more commonly in 1L bottles, and get capped with a beer tap instead of a cork. You can eat a whole meal for €1 but a coca cola might cost you €1.60. In the Balkans, a carton of cigarettes might cost 15 euros on the street, but cost 35 euros taxless in the airport duty-free… ? The taxi ride to a bus station or airport might cost you more than the bus ticket or even the flight, with Ryanair, Easy Jet and Wizzair all serving the Balkans with flights starting at £15.

But, without all these idiosyncrasies, traveling wouldn’t be traveling, since it’s the weird and crazy, nonsensical things that make it fun, challenging, and different than sitting at home. So bring on the circus, I’m sure they have space for another clown.

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5 Lessons to Learn when traveling in West Africa

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1.) There are three questions you should never ask:
-how long does it take?
-where is an atm?
-where can I buy wine?
First of all, no one has any idea (or respect) of time, so 3 African hours can easily equal 6 normal hours, and you have better luck asking how many kilometers are left, although that still doesn’t help you guess how long until you’ll reach your destination. The roads are pretty terrible, and none of the stops along the way seem to be planned or timed. But Bon voyage anyway 🙂

Secondly, no one here seems to use banks, and almost no one I met has ever needed to use an atm. The idea of using a machine to make money appear out of thin air is another reality for them, and when they’ve never had to do it, they have no idea what kind of place your looking for. Most times we ended up at a cell phone credit recharge place, since that’s the most common way people share money, or a western union, which is one place they know cash can magically be wired to someone in Africa. I ran into one cleaning lady who had been sent to an atm to withdraw cash for her boss, and she needed my help to insert the card and type 80,000, since both were feats she couldn’t imagine doing herself.

Thirdly, in a majority Islamic culture, wine and beer aren’t sold just anywhere. And where it is sold, the sellers aren’t advertising it. So the shop right beside will have no idea to send you next door, and will usually send you instead to the nearest big city, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away. In St. Louis, we bought the alcohol from the city distributors, who supply the hotels, since we never found an actual store. So better yet, don’t plan to drink anything but dirty water and warm soft-drinks.

2.) Bring a lot if passport photos, atleast two per country, and expect to spend most of your budget on visas and random border or security check-point bribes. And try to get a visa for the next country as soon a you arrive in the neighboring country – sometimes it takes a few days and weekends don’t count.

3.) If you have time, you can save money, but if you have money, you can buy a lot of time. Transport is slow, hot and uncomfortable, but domestic flights are sometimes more expensive than a flight to Europe. So stick do the crappy roads, just remember not to ask “how long does it take.”

4.) If someone stares at you, especially if he does it for a long time with a serious face, all you have to do is say “Bonjour, ca va?” And his face will quickly break into a smile as he replies “bonjour ca va bien” and looks away shyly. But don’t ask too much more or else you’ll have a shadow following you for the next kilometer expecting more conversation, money or food.

5.) Always carry small bills and lots of coins with you, even if it weighs down both your pockets. Few vendors or taxis have change, or are willing to make change, and they’ll take ages to break your bills, asking every other vendor or driver around for change they also don’t have.