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Saturday, December 28, 2013

9 Things to Explore Before Exiting for an Exotic Excursion

To celebrate the end of the year, I present an updated version of my #2 blog post of the year. As #1 was about summer travel accessories, I am opting to reprise that once the weather gets warmer.

Despite the fact that I have traveled to more than 50 countries on six continents (I am missing Antarctica), preparing for a trip to an unknown and faraway destination is still perplexing. As I prepared for my trip to Namibia this fall, I pondered, among other things, logistics, medications, documentation, and fashion. Here's a list of 9 things I had to figure out before going to Africa...and things you should think about as well before taking off to distant lands.

1 Do I need a visa? Official media are supposed to have visas to enter Namibia, but your garden variety American tourist does not. Although I went to Namibia to write about The Jewel of the Desert train, I opted to go visa-less (please, Namibia's version of Mr. E. Snowden, don't tell on me). After all, as a travel writer, my mission is to have the same experience as regular travelers do. So, no visa for me, although I brought a VISA card...and an ATM card to boot.

2. Do I need more pages in my passport? Apparently, the answer is yes. For some reason, Namibia requires everyone to have 4 to 6 blank passport pages. As I am on Year 9 of a ten-year passport, I only have one blank page left. Should I wing it? According to a colleague at Solimar International, a firm that does tourism consulting work in Namibia, the answer is a definite no. Said colleague spent the better part of the day in Windhoek Airport, while one of his co-workers had to zoom over to the local American Embassy for pages. Thankfully, I live in Washington, DC (how often do you hear someone say that these days?), very close to the National Passport Center. So I ran downtown and spent $142 to add passport pages (versus $170 for a new passport).

3. Do I need shots or malaria pills? Shots--no. Malaria pills? It wasn't clear. I opted out and I was fine. Many of my fellow travelers who took the pills got very sick on the train. The train's doctor ascribed their flu-like symptoms to the malaria medication. So, pick your poison.

4. What about money, honey? The Namibian dollar is on par with the South African rand, and the latter is accepted everywhere in Namibia. As the Namibian dollar is not easily convertible on the world market, best to stock up on rand. That way, leftover money can be exchanged back into US dollars.

5. What do I wear? I am oft vexed regarding visitor vestments, particularly when I travel to the Middle East or Africa. When I went to Morocco in 2001 (geographically in Africa; culturally, it could be argued, the westernmost part of the Middle East), I had a two-fer on my hands. I was verklempt, as everything I owned was too tight, too short, or too colorful. I ended up purchasing a bunch of long, oversized schmatas.  The Moroccan men, unstereotypically, paid me no mind, but the women there didn't seem to appreciate my valiant efforts to mask my feminine wiles. Methinks hunting for safari clothing will be easier, but I still must find items that will cover me up (mainly to ward off  bugs and to protect against the scorching sun).

6. How do I allay the heat? As frequent readers will recall, during my most recent adventure, I swooned in the Forbidden City and had to spend the night in a Beijing ER. As a result, I am stocking up on electrolytes, bringing a huge sombrero, and slathering on suntan lotion.

7. What unusual items do I need? This type of journey requires gear not usually included on my packing list. Bug spray; a flashlight; a water purifier; a beanbag (to serve as a camera stabilizer in jittery jalopies); and the aforementioned electrolyte tablets are some of the extras I will stow.

8. How am I going to survive the 18-hour flight? Try to get an aisle seat in Economy Plus or an emergency row seat. I got both on my outbound flight on South African Airways from Washington, DC to Johannesburg--an 18-hour jaunt. I was able to stretch my legs and do yoga in my seat space. However, on the way home, I was left with a non-emergency aisle, which, for an 18-hour stretch, is uncomfortable any way you slice it. One thing that helped immensely on my 14-hour flight to Beijing in the spring--using my BackJoy Posture +. Sadly, I didn't bring it on my Africa trip, and my lower back paid the price.

9. How many days will it take me to get over jet lag? Fortunately, the time difference is, surprisingly, only 6 hours. Therefore, spending my first night in Africa at the Intercontinental Hotel at the Johannesburg Airport (smart move) and my second night at the Okapuka Ranch near Windhoek left me well-rested when my official exploration began.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Speaking in Tongues

Is learning a new language among your resolutions for 2014? If you live in the nation's capital, there are several spots to learn foreign tongues from native speakers. 

For example, Casa Italiana is like a little piece of the old country set smack dab in the center of the city.  Adjacent to the Holy Rosary Catholic Church, established in 1913 to serve the spiritual needs of Italian immigrants, Casa Italiana serves as a cultural mecca for Italians and wannabes alike. Aside from the full slate of language courses, you can also study various aspects of Italian culture, from literature to cooking to history.

Like the country it represents, the Russian Cultural Centre (RCC) looks imposing from the outside. But once inside this official home of Russian culture in the USA, things seem to thaw. Language courses are available throughout the year, mostly at the beginner and intermediate levels. Classes generally meet twice a week for four weeks and are taught by Russians residing in DC. As a special feature, you might be recruited as a spy.

Alliance Francaise has two locations, one near Dupont Circle and the other in Penn Quarter. Both host specialized classes, with sessions concentrating on writing or phonetics or corrective grammar. Also in Penn Quarter is the Goethe-Institut. The German cultural center has nine-week German courses and three-week intensive sessions.

Need more options? How about taking Urdu or Farsi at the U.S. Graduate School? That's right, the USDA Grad School, located near the National Mall, is a well-regarded foreign language instruction farm. Its fields of language study include  Arabic, French, Hindi, German, Korean, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Farsi, Turkish and Urdu. Introductory courses cover listening, speaking, reading and writing with equal emphasis, while conversational tracks focus on speaking and listening skills.  

Of course, if you don't feel like leaving your house, there are always on-line options and Rosetta Stone. But when possible, let those options be complementary to your language study. After all, taking real life classes provides the human touch to the art of speaking in tongues.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Great Train Trips: Namibia

To watch my report on Namibia, click here, and go to 12/12 show. My segment runs from 35 minutes in until the end of the show.

Loyal listeners and readers know this has been quite a year of long-distance train travel for me. In the spring, I had a great adventure on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  In October, I headed off to Africa to journey on The Desert Express, a little-known upscale train that travels around Namibia.

First, a little geography lesson. Namibia is located in the southwest of Africa. If there is such a thing as a typical sub-Saharan African country (and there's not), this is not it. Yes, there is wildlife, including elephants and giraffe and lions, but what distinguishes the country is the Great Namib Desert, dating back 55 million years. The oldest desert in the world also contains some of the world's highest sand dunes.

There are no non-stops flights from the United States to Namibia. The "easiest" ways to get there:

1.You can travel direct from New York or Washington, DC into Johannesburg on South African Airways and then hop the short flight to Windhoek or
2. Fly to Frankfurt and transfer to Air Namibia.
Either way, you are talking more than 20 hours in flight (from the East Coast), but that's the price you pay for a unique travel experience.

For 11 days, I wandered the country on the
Desert Express. The Namibian-German-engineered train, circa 1998, is a marvel of clever design. The train contains four sleeping cars, a lounge car, and a dining car. Each of the sleeping wagons is nature-themed--there's Springbok, Oryx, Kokerboom (Quiver Tree) and Meerkat. Unlike the Trans-Siberian, which contained separate classes of compartments, the Desert Express offers all guests the same experience, including the pleasure of a bathroom en suite.

Desert Express Bar Car
Speaking of which, you have never seen a more efficient use of space, although I suppose anyone taller than 6 feet 2 or heavier than 160 pounds might disagree. The wee space (so to speak) has a toilet, a shower with a door that prevents water from spraying, and a magnificent rotating sink.

Other features of the interior design include rock sand paneling; extensive use of red golden woods; handmade amber-colored furnishings in the bar car; and comfortable seating areas in the compartments that convert into up to three beds at night.

The Desert Express belongs to Namibian TransNamib Holding Ltd. and is chartered by Lernidee.de for the long-distance trips. For those looking for a shorter ride, weekend trips are available between Windhoek and Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast. The one-way weekender, which includes stops at game lodges and the dunes, starts at $350 per person/double occupancy.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Of Doughnuts, Bananas, Prozac and Typefaces

Every January, I ponder cataloging all the books I read that calendar year. But somehow, about 10 books into the equation, I drop the ball. Nonetheless, given the amount of time spent on planes and trains this past year, I've managed to polish off at least 40 books, chapter and verse. Most have been non-fiction, although I managed to add a couple of classics into the mix. Here are brief reviews of some of my faves, along with recaps of a few of the duds.

Despite the fact that I cannot ingest gluten, in past years, many of the books I've gotten a rise over have been about bread and other wheat products. Go figure. I savored White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf; 52 Loaves; and Glazed America, which is a treatise on doughnuts. This year, though, I decided my food-related reads should be gluten-free. So, I tackled ginseng and bananas.

One of the first books I read this year was Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel. Koeppel traces the fruit's history from the Garden of Eden (that apple, according to the author's research, was actually a banana) through the creation of banana republics in Central America to the current state of the fruit today. I found the read most appeeling . It was informative and witty at the same time.

On the other hand, Ginseng: The Divine Root by David A.Taylor ...frankly, not so divine. Yes, Taylor's tome explores the history of ginseng by visiting places like China, Canada and Wisconsin. He discusses health benefits attributed to ginseng and he uncovers some interesting facts. However, the root of the matter is that Taylor's dry and slow writing style makes what could have been a diverting dose into something a bit more medicinal.

Speaking of medicine, Manufacturing Depression: A Secret History of a Modern Disease by Gary Greenberg perked me right up.  Greenberg, a science journalist, a psychotherapist, and a depressive himself, takes the reader on an entertaining tour of mental health history, from the discovery of seratonin to the development of Prozac and its ilk.  In no way prozaic. Greenberg presents provocative insights into the development of the "depression industry". 

The book I most recently read was Don't Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. Don't bother considering it. It should be stirring, as it covers the evolution of the fork, the chopstick, measuring cup and other cooking implements. Yes, the facts are intriguing, but the writing just doesn't measure up

On the other hand, do consider Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield. Even if you are not one to mind your p's and q's, Just My Type is a helvetica of a read. The book considers the ampersand; ponders the idiosyncrasies of serif and sans serif; and explains the artistry behind the font design of the the London Underground (which has inspired its own typeface--appropriately dubbed Underground). If you can only read one of the books listed here, this is the pica of the letter.

More recommended reads coming next week in a piece entitled On Trains and Brains.