Travel places to avoid

30 04 2012

Some people collect countries like scalps. And not every country has the same value. The more touristy, the less value. The more perceived danger, the more value. Even if you missed the “danger” period by a decade or more. And so I claim Egypt, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa – more exotic and exciting than England, New Zealand, Singapore (but no less enjoyable). We did manage to time our visit to Egypt six months after the hand grenade attack on the tourist bus outside the Cairo Museum, and six months before the machine-gun attack on the tomb of Hat-sep-Chut (which I know I have misspelled). The most exciting thing that occurred while we were in Egypt was the 18-year-old armed youth on National Service as tourist police who tried to pick me up in the Cairo Museum (“Come with me and I’ll show you the Tomb of Ramses II” – an original line, if nothing else.) The fact that I was walking with my boyfriend seemed to be irrelevant. (NB: Tourist Police are supposed to guard the tourists – most of them seemed to be 18, carrying loaded weapons and on National Service. Their impressions of western women – and I generalise here – seemed to be somewhat jaundiced. While as Australians, we were somewhat nervous being watched and guarded by armed guards, the South Africans we were travelling with were relieved and said they would be much less comfortable of the guards had not been there.)

The following picture was sent to me at work. I can’t quite work out the “logic” or criteria for allocating each cause of death to each country, but I note that China does not feature as having a notable cause of death. Perhaps the source of their longevity? Not sure the same can be said for much of Central Africa, which also appears not to have any specific notable deaths. And in sheer numbers, shark attacks really do not feature that highly in Australia, despite what we might tell tourists. (Diabetes, cardio-vascular disease and cancer feature more highly, as in many western countries, including England, another notable left off the list.)

And seriously – death by lawnmower in the US? Is that not an episode of Six Feet Under?

Like some more Australian KULCHA (culture) abroad? Try Australians abroad.


Travelling with a doctor

12 01 2012

portable blood transfusion unit (Japanese circa WWII) photo credit: otisarchives3

Yes, working in the medical industry does tend to make you super-aware (read: paranoid) of potential health hazards in any exotic locale. And the more exotic, the more medical supplies required. The amount of medical supplies carried is limited only by the baggage allowance – and the need to also carry a clothing and toiletries. As they say, 40lbs of medical supplies and a change of underpants…..(well, people I know say that, anyway).

1. Top level health insurance is obviously required for all overseas travel – particularly if you are used to socialised medicine as we are in Australia. While I have never had to use my travel-medical insurance, my stepfather got his money’s worth. Holidaying in Bali, he came down with what they thought was a severe bout of gastro. Luckily they medi-vacced him to Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, because it turned out to be a bowel obstruction which burst on the operating table. He spent months in hospital with tubes sticking out of him, had a bout of MRSA (multi-resistant staph aureus, aka super-bug) which complicated his recovery considerably and an enormous amount of very expensive medication to try to clean up the resulting infections. My mother was flown over and put up in a hotel and when they eventually returned home he was accompanied on the plane by a doctor.

Kaching kaching! (the sound of cash registers ringing) This would have cost an enormous amount (Mount Elizabeth Hospital is reportedly a favourite of very wealthy Arab sheiks for their surgical and medical needs) but luckily was covered by the health insurance.

2. Immunisations are also important. When we travelled to Kenya and Zimbabwe, I spent six months with large inflamed patches on both arms from the series of immunisations – Yellow Fever, Hep B, typhoid, tetanus – I can’t even remember what they all were but i reacted to each and every one with a swollen and red upper arm. Yellow fever was particularly important because, as we were told, if you have been in a Yellow Fever area and are not immunised, you will not be allowed back into Australia. Hmmmm…that’s worth knowing in advance.

3. There are some medications you can travel with and some you can’t. It is really worth knowing what they are to avoid unfortunate experiences at customs. In the 1990s there was a woman flying into Greece with a packet of over-the-counter purchased pseudoephedrine (used for sinus congestion). She was arrested at the airport and I believe detained until her GP in Australia could provide her with a prescription. So the moral of the story is any medications you need to take with you, make sure you have a prescription and do a little research to see if there is likely to be a problem. Many over-the counter drugs such as paracetamol are available in pharmacies in many if not most countries, and the name of the drug is pretty similar, so you may not need to carry those with you. Anti-gastro tablets are a good one to carry though – a good bout of gastro does not enable you to wander the streets looking for a pharmacy that will stock your requirements. Likewise travel sickness tablets.

4. Pressure bandages. Maybe its just me, but pressure bandages for ankles are great for on the plane.

Now I have heard some stories of medicos travelling and working in remote areas of Africa who have done their own surgery (or done surgery on each other) when emergencies have arisen, but this is not recommended except in extreme circumstances…however it does explain some of the excess baggage that they were carrying with them.

Six reasons why an International Driver’s Licence is a waste of time

10 11 2011

Reason 1.
Locale: England
Vehicle: Grandparents’ car
Location: outside Birmingham

Visiting my English grandparents as an eighteen-year old, after having not seen them since we migrated to Australia when I was two, was an experience. They were, of course, very elderly by this stage, and my grandfather was dying of throat cancer from lifelong pipe-smoking. He had had several operations including one to remove his voicebox, but despite being very frail, insisted on driving. The last remnants of independence that would soon leave him entirely.

I would sit in the back seat, behind my grandmother in the front passenger seat. Grandpa knew he was not a good driver any more. He knew his reactions were not good and that his hesitation made other drivers impatient. He did his best not to get in the way.

We would start on our way, slowly, slowly, slowly. He would hug the kerb. Signposts and light poles would flash past my ear, so close that I held my breath for fear we would hit them. In the front seat my grandmother would start humming, a distracted tuneless hum. Hum-hum, hum-hum.

A parked car ahead. Grandpa would pull right up to the car, check his mirrors then bunny hop around the car. Hum, hum-hum, hum. Then back to the kerb-crawling. Cars would come up behind him impatiently then swerve around him without indicating. Hum-hum-hum.

He really shouldn’t have been driving, but we didn’t have the heart to tell him he was too old. He had been one of the first men in the neighbourhood to get a car after the war, and teaching his son, my father, how to look after an engine, was something he was proud of – a man thing. Looking after his car and driving his female relatives around, was part of that.

He was dead in six months.

Reason 2
Locale: Florida
Vehicle: Bus
Location : Everglades

After attempting to drive on the right (wrong) side of the road and ending up facing the wrong way on an interstate, we decided it might be a good idea to take a guided tour – by bus. The tour took in the Everglades, then on to a crocodile farm where a huge crocodile lay across the bottom of a cement pit (think swimming pool with the water let out) for the express purpose of being wrestled several times a day for the entertainment of tourists. On the trip home our friendly tour leader had already established who we all were and what we did for a living (my husband, a prison doctor and myself, at that time the manager of a palliative care agency, had thereby alienated all members of the tour group. Mental note to say I am a kindergarten teacher in future.)

While my driving efforts had not been incident free, the locals apparently were not so forgiving. Taking affront at some imagined slight on the part of our bus, a huge Ford four wheel drive truck, complete with shaven headed driver and his bleached blonde, talon-fingered passenger suddenly swerved at the side of our bus. Our bus driver gave chase. Now this was a trip to the America like we saw on TV! Soon we were weaving up side streets that were probably not designed to take a bus, swaying marvellously from side to side. Where were the news cameras when we needed them? Our erstwhile attacker, presumably surprised to find a bus giving chase, crashed through a dilapidated picket fence and across a field. And they say that city drivers shouldn’t have four wheel drives they never use.

Message to the man in the four wheel drive: we have your number plate – we know who you are and we’re coming to get you!

Reason 3
Locale: Singapore
Vehicle: Taxi
Location: Shopping district

Who would have thought that I would be the one getting sick and leaving my husband shopping while I went back to the hotel? A very mild dose of gastro picked up in Africa turned into a disaster when the humid Singapore weather meant I was unable to lose heat. The shopping centre air conditioning proved inadequate to the task rather quickly and hence a taxi was summoned by a very concerned looking shop keeper (don’t be sick in my shop!) and I was dispatched back to lie down in our hotel room, air conditioning set on ‘Arctic’.

Our window overlooked a freeway. All day and all night cars zoomed up and down. At night, in the silence of our room behind our double glazed windows, we watched as this private light show, as fascinating as the laser show on the pyramids at Giza, pretty yellow, red and white, whizzing past endlessly. Almost hypnotic in its steady pace, constantly changing, always the same.

A taxi driver told us cars were at a premium in Singapore, only a certain number allowed on the island. You had to wait until someone gave up their car or died, and even then registration was very expensive. Who would drive in Singapore? Apart from the constant rush-hour traffic, when you get where you are going, there’s nowhere to park. Much better to live centrally and walk, or taxi, door to door.

tourist traffic at Equator Village, Kenya

Reason 4
Locale: Kenya
Vehicle: People-mover
Location: Samburu Wildlife Park

Having had road safety message drummed into my head since I was old enough to listen (perhaps even before then), who would have thought that standing up in a people-mover whizzing along a bumpy dirt track in the middle of nowhere, with your head sticking out of the pop-top roof could be so much fun? On holiday the normal rules don’t apply.

In the middle of the day we would lounge around the resort pool being served Gin and Tonic (for its anti-malarial qualities), or sleep like the lions, or travel from one game reserve to another. Every dawn and every dusk we would drive out of the resorts in the middle of the game reserves and go on the hunt for the precious wild animals we had only seen in zoos. The drivers chat to each other in Swahili on their two-way radios, then suddenly the magic word – simba! Emerging from the dense undergrowth all over the park, twenty or thirty of tour vans like crazed vultures would race over bumpy half-wild dirt roads in a mad race to get to the lion first. Each van, like ours, would have half a dozen tourists hanging out the top with vice-like grips on their cameras, grinning like crazy.

The trips between the parks were as adventurous as within. The roads in Kenya were shocking. The pot-holes eat away at most of the tarmac, so the drivers drive along the soft shoulder of the road. How fast? I stopped looking at 100kph. The amazing thing about remote Kenya is that no matter how far from any visible form of civilisation that you are, there are always people walking on the side of the road. Not just one or two, but a steady stream. And whenever and wherever the vans stop, swarms of hawkers, desperate to sell their wares would descend on the vehicle and place necklaces over our head, drop carvings and trinkets in your lap and demand money. Hard to refuse someone aggressively demanding the equivalent of forty cents Australian.

Reason 5
Locale: Egypt
Vehicle: tour car
Location: Cairo

The interesting thing about driving in Egypt is that stopping at red lights is optional. If you flash your lights and you don’t think there is anyone coming through from the cross road, you just drive through. Speeding up is optional but advised. Just don’t try this at the checkpoints, manned by eighteen-year old boys with loaded rifles, serving their National Service as Tourist Police.

If the traffic in front of you is too slow, you can drive on that other side of the road. If the traffic is heavy and you think you might be able to wedge yourself in between the two cars in the lanes painted on the road, then do it. The neatly ordered lanes of traffic jams in Australia have nothing on the denseness of an Egyptian traffic jam.

Every car on the road is covered in minor dents. But the number of people killed on the road is reputedly almost zero. Something to do with being charged with murder if you kill someone on the road.

So in downtown Cairo we were completely safe when a local man came up behind us, grabbed our hands and dragged us into the middle of the heaviest traffic I have ever seen. The Red Sea parted and the drivers avoided us. We would probably be standing there still waiting for a break in the traffic, if he hadn’t helped us.

Of course, we were obliged to visit our rescuer’s shop and purchase “exotic perfumes”, “ancient trinkets” and the like.

Reason 6
Locale: South Africa
Vehicle: private car
Location: Johannesburg

I met a South African lady who worked for Coca-Cola, marketing for the whole African continent. (You may not be able to get fresh water wherever you travel in Africa, but you can always get Coke. Diet Coke is another matter – not much call for the diet variety in Africa apparently.)

Every day on her email system at work she would get messages telling her which way was the safest way home, which highways to avoid because armed gangs were working in the area at the time. She said she always drove with a loaded gun in her lap, and at night, she didn’t stop at traffic lights for fear of being car-jacked.

As we travelled in Egypt, laser beams were being installed in the roof cavity to complement her already extensive home security system. Her house was in a walled compound, with electrified wires on top of the walls. Some time back they had to put live wires inside the wall because someone had come along with a bulldozer and punched their way through the wall.

Her son couldn’t believe the freedom he had travelling in Egypt. In South Africa anywhere he went he was escorted inside and picked up from the door (security guards to make sure there were no gatecrashers). No sneaking outside a party for a quick kiss and a cuddle.

A security guard also accompanied her from the supermarket to the car so she wasn’t held up and her groceries stolen on the way. Despite this she had a crooked finger where someone had yanked a ring off her finger breaking the bone, and had had a punctured lung from a stabbing. She was trying to migrate to Australia.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like some of my other travel posts:
Caves of Lascaux
International Airlines: Compare and Contrast
Sorrento – an afterthought
A childhood dream
Tom Tom Abroad