Rich Steel is a travel writer

Richard Simmons, travel writer

Rich Steel




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Africa Travel Writing

You need to see the real Johannesburg, Mr. Steel

Realizing my M-16 was empty, panic-stricken; I dived into the street using the foot-high curb as protection from return fire. My hands were shaking as I thought back to my two years in the army. Instincts took over as I loaded another magazine. I saw three men pile into the car behind the driver. Then I knew I had them (all eggs in one basket) and stood up and fired, carefully aiming at the top third of the windshield where their heads would be. I fired an entire magazine into the getaway car in less than ten seconds. As the grey Volkswagen came towards me I saw blood. It was as if red balloons were exploding inside the car. I shot the driver in the head and the car slowed. I saw his body slump over the wheel as it slowed to a crawl and finally stopped, hitting the curb in front of me. I circled to the right, sporadically emptying more rounds into the car then pulled the only living black onto the sidewalk and waited for the police to arrive.
Brian, a five-foot-one, 36 year-old white South African soldier-turned-tour operator related this story to me over a six-egg omelette and a cup of tea late one morning in Johannesburg. As he chained smoked his way through breakfast, he told me that he decided to carry his machine gun with him at all times since being mugged less than a week after his release from the army.
One afternoon in 1996 he went into his bank in downtown Johannesburg. He walked into a robbery in progress, ran out to call the police, only to find the robbers run out behind him and pile into their getaway car.
"Couldn't you have just remembered the license plate number and told the authorities later?" I asked over the mixed smell of cooked eggs and tobacco smoke. I studied his face; a weathered testament to his hard life. I knew he was not a racist or hateful man, but it was difficult to get past his white South African accent. His words were haltered, "Rs" pronounced and whenever he said "blacks" it came out "blecks." It reminded me of every apartheid leader I had ever heard. He took an impatient drag from his cigarette. I wondered where he had been, what he had seen. We sat in silence for a moment.
"Do you feel anything for those men you killed – sadness, remorse?" He again looked at me with impunity, "They robbed and would have killed for money – worthless blacks." He did not use the word in a disparaging sense. It was used merely as a descriptive term. As if to make a point, he crushed his cigarette in an already overfilled ashtray. I could tell this conversation was not going in the direction I had in mind. I changed my approach.
"Did you go to jail, were you arrested?" I asked. Brian looked more insulted than he did before. He leaned forward. His voice was serious, as he looked me dead in the eye.
"I saved the bank thousands upon thousands of Rand, and did the cops' job for them." He leaned back and sized me up. "I got charged with discharging a weapon in a public place, but the community and bank rallied behind me and, due to their support, the charges were dropped. The bank gave me a twenty-one thousand Rand reward." He said, smugly. "You need to see the real Johannesburg, Mr. Steel." His frown and wrinkled forehead showed no signs of pride in his declaration. He meant for me to see what a hell on earth Johannesburg truly was. We made an arrangement. In a few days he would show me around. I would pay him for it.
No longer eager to stay in the city, I booked a one-day safari for the nearby Lion and Rhino Park. I had been on several safaris by this time, and had seen a few lions but not one rhino. It's common for game seekers to safari for weeks on end without viewing any cats (the term, used among wildlife-viewers refers to cheetahs, lions, and leopards) so I was excited to see them up-close. The only way to ensure tourists see these most elusive animals is to restrict the territory available to them. This is exactly what the people at Lion and Rhino Park have done. The various species are allotted specific regions in the park (usually a few hundred acres) and are separated from each other by twelve-foot high chain-link fences that run for miles. Cars enter at the front gate and each is given a map and a stern warning to keep the car on the trail and the windows wound up. Our experienced guides, a young black woman and her middle-aged white South African husband informed us that the lions got ÏfedÓ at noon, so we would have to go in search of rhinos until then.
We immediately saw a group of large gray dots on the horizon and headed for them. As the nearest blur came into sight, I noticed its large armored flank, wide profile and that unmistakable meter-long horn. I realized that I was seeing for the first time an African rhino. It sent shivers down my spine. It was the quintessential safari scene. A mother cow with her calf grazing under the shade of an umbrella-shaped tree, both of them lifting their heads to stare us down. We must have stayed there for an hour watching these amazing beasts before we realized it was time to get in position for the lion feeding. As we drove back down the dusty trail I craned my neck to get one last look at the great rhinos, sadly knowing that I wouldn't be back to witness anything like this for years to come.

It is vital to realize that most parks are not anything like Lion and Rhino Park. This park is essentially a huge zoo much like the one featured in the Jurassic Park movie. The experience is much different than seeing animals in the wild. This is a captive setting where the animals are fed and segregated. The most stunning example of this was the noontime feeding of the lions. We sat in the four-wheel drive as our guide drove right up to a pride of lions, and parked on the dry grass about twenty feet away. The scene was surreal. Two male lions and about eight females were waiting for a planned meal. Surrounded by cars, they yawned, walked, and posed for the multitude of cameras. We were so close; I could hear them breathing.
Then as if on cue, they all stood and started trotting after a truck that the rest of us, so focused on the lions, had ignored. The truck sped past at about twenty-five miles per hour, and as luck would have it, we were in position to follow it, unobstructed. There were two men in the back of this pick-up, one on either side of the huge dead horse that lay in the bed of the truck. There was a thick chain attached to the neck of the carcass. The truck, now well ahead of the pride pulled off the trail into a clearing about the size of a baseball infield. The two men jumped out, attached the free end of the chain to a foot-high post in the center of the field and jumped back in the truck. As the truck accelerated, the chain became taught and the carcass was pulled off the back of the truck, which promptly drove off. We were in prime viewing position, as the lions had to make their way to the carcass by passing right by our vehicle, just feet from my window. The lionesses got there first and immediately started attacking the soft parts: the underbelly, anus and neck of the animal. It was not a pleasant sight. The blood stained the lions' faces and wet the ground. There was no mistaking the pure redness that dominated the scene. The blood reminds one what these beautiful and powerful creatures do to survive. I could smell the flesh as the lionesses ripped it from the bone, an acrid and earthy fetid odor.
As I was recovering from the sensory onslaught of sight and smell, the males made their entrance. Taller than the females, their backs easily four and a half feet high, they strode into the clearing, which by this time had been completely surrounded by cars. They wedged themselves into the circle, one male roaring and swatting a massive clawed paw at a female who was reluctant to give up her spot. Once situated, he placed his paws in front of him, sitting like the great sphinx and plunged headfirst into the cavity left by the lioness.
It was incredible witnessing the power of the cats; their muscular necks flexing as they tore into the backbone, the sinewy fibers tensing under their golden coats. We watched, snapping pictures intermittently as these ten lions devoured every ounce of the carcass. It was the essence of the stereotypical African scene, and I loved every minute of it. Watching those lions was one of lifeÌs rarely offered perfect moments.
It amazed me how little patience the other cars exhibited. Thirty minutes into the feed, some cars started to back away. By three-quarters of an hour, almost all groups were gone and after an hour had passed, we were one of two cars left watching the lions. It made me wonder what priorities these tourists had, and what could possibly top this as the high point of anyone's South African trip. Were they that excited to get back to Johannesburg?
The day before I was to leave Jo'Berg, (crime-berg, as it had come to be known to us travelers) I took our machine gunning friend up on his offer. Not much of an offer, thought I, as I had to pay him the equivalent of three nights accommodation at Brown Sugar for a day's worth of driving around in his claustrophobically minute nineteen seventies Volkswagen Golf. He proceeded to drive, in silence, through the areas of Johannesburg that have some of the worst crime rates in the entire world. As he reached across and locked my door, he said that everyone we were seeing on the streets was a pimp, dealer, junkie, prostitute or gangster. The streets were filthy; ridden with rubbish, newspapers caught in eddying circles at the base of buildings. There was barbed wired – usually razor wire around almost all buildings, dwellings, and store fronts. All the shops had bars on the windows and seemed dark and imposing. There were no trees, flowers or grassy areas anywhere in the city. He directed my attention to a forty-story round building and informed me that it had the highest incidents of murder, rape and violent crime in South Africa.
We continued out of the city towards the poorest ghetto: Soweto. The "better" areas of Soweto consisted mostly of shacks of tin. There was the occasional one or two room brick structure about the size of a one-car garage back home. Only dust adorned the front yards of these poor dwellings. If the street was paved it was potholed and crumbling. We drove to an exhibit and memorial site that commemorated the student uprising of 1976 that marked the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa. We walked around the museum – four open freight train containers exhibiting photographs of the Soweto uprising. We moved on until we arrived in Kliptown – the worst of the worst of the Soweto ghettos. We drove past tents made of sticks covered by scrap cloth, stalls made of discarded wood and branches, erected by the side of the road in efforts to sell fruit to anyone who had the misfortune to have to travel this route. All eyes were staring at us as we drove into the ghetto, studying our clean clothes, cameras, and backpacks.
I got out of the car fearing for my safety. Brian introduced us to Bob Nameng, a Soweto local who proudly displayed his seven-year-old dreadlocks. He was a very talkative and amazingly positive young man, considering his surroundings. I felt instantly at ease in his company. I was to find out later that there are no tours that let one out of the car in any area of Soweto at anytime. As I walked through Kliptown with Bob I saw shacks made of scrap tin siding, boards, cloth and dirty cardboard. All had low ceilings, enough so that one had to duck even when inside. There was no running water, no electricity, nothing. Misery loves company, it is said, and the dust, heat and flies were only too eager to accommodate. We met some black children clothed in old rags, no shoes, nothing. I watched them play as children do, laughing, smiling, and sharing the one toy that they had; a bent metal bar with two wheels attached that could be used as a makeshift wagon. They took turns rolling each other along the dirt, laughing hysterically when one of the wheels would give and they both went tumbling.
Bob was the closest thing to a mayor that this town had. He quoted some shocking statistics to us as boys and girls passed us, returning home from school. "These young women," he said, of the students passing us, "one of the three of them will experience her first sexual experience through rape. Also the incidence of AIDS is higher here than anywhere else on the planet. Of the world's 34 million cases, seventy per cent occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, and our government turns a blind eye to our community." Bob explained. We later found out that he organized all community programs, everything including AIDS awareness, child abuse and rape prevention programs, a shelter for the neglected, charity collection, youth plays, soccer teams and even beauty pageants. He ran all these programs out of the back of an old tire repair shop. Bob showed us his "library" too, of which he was especially proud. It consisted of about 20 used books stacked in an old tire rack. He provided beds for children who needed to spend a few nights away from abusive parents - two rooms with old dirty cushions on the floor. We met Gordon, Tabo and Robert in this center, all community volunteers who worked with Bob. They walked us through their community; between dirty shacks, under clothes lines, over open streams of sewer water and through back alleys as they described what they hoped for their community. It was odd. I felt safer here with these men than at any other time since arriving in South Africa. There was a lot of activity in the streets and Bob seemed to know everyone. Old black women wrapped in shawls, despite the heat, waved and shouted greetings to him. Teenagers high-fived him as we walked by and children were constantly running up to him as one would a favorite uncle. Through all the poverty and filth, the dirt, depression, maimed and deformed, the shantytown shacks, the hungry and abused, Bob somehow made it seem not so grim. Every time he told or showed me something horrible or devastating, he also let me know how he was trying to improve it. Walking with these four young black South Africans through Kliptown; the worst slum in Soweto, supposedly the most dangerous place in South Africa, I felt more at ease than I had on any of my travels.
That afternoon a girl and three men came back to Brown Sugar; the hostel I had chosen. I met them the night before, a Dutch girl of about twenty: not pretty. Two German lads of about the same age, both fair-skinned and sunburned. The last of them was an Italian with dark hair and very tanned skin, not dark enough, though, to hide his fear. I could see some of the color had drained from his face. He was trembling slightly. The group shuffled over to the couches and recounted the day's events. The four of them had been walking, single-file in an open-air pavilion, a shopping promenade in Hillbrow. The Italian was the last in line as they walked and suddenly found himself at the mercy of three men who had come from behind, one now held a blade to his throat. The man with the knife whispered ÏDo not speakÓ as the others rifled through his pockets taking everything. They stole his backpack and wallet and robbed him even of his watch and rings.
Then, as quickly as they came, they had vanished into the crowd from whence they came. The Italian had only to run a couple of steps to catch up with his friends. The mugging had only taken a few seconds but had left an indelible mark on the young man. He left with a nick on the side of his neck but a scar for life.
Far away from Johannesburg, resting at the foot of the majestic Table Mountain lies Capetown. A mixture of old and new, poor and rich, a paradox of cultures, Capetown is a beautiful city. Blessed by the seafront and clean beaches, and backed by a ridge of mountains, Capetown has a right to enjoy its status as one of the worldÌs most attractive cities. Her history proves not so attractive, though as one looks east from shore to Africa's most infamous island. Off the coast of South Africa's Capetown sits Robben Island; a prison much like San FranciscoÌs Alcatraz.
The imposing prison was the primary holding facility of Nelson Mandella, keeping the former President behind bars for 18 of his 27 years incarcerated. Our guide had spent much of his time behind bars with Mandella, and shared some inspiring stories with us. Nelson Mandella, once locked up at Robben Island, vowed to turn the prison into a university. This remarkable man turned the worst and most helpless situation into a positive experience. Our guide told us how Mandella petitioned for years to get books and when he finally did receive them, how groups of student-inmates would study into the night. When the guards would turn off the main lights Mandella would instruct his students to go into the bathrooms and study using the single light bulb as their only source of illumination. He kept a positive frame of mind at all times and was a source of inspiration for all the inmates. Seeing his cell was a moment of shock for me. The Staff now running the island had the cell made up to look as it did when occupied by the South African leader. It was tiny. Grey walls, ceiling, floor, and bars. The only break for the eye was a light brown mat on the floor and a few books. That was the extent of his cell. It made me angry and I was suddenly overcome and surprised by this emotion. I felt myself lose some freedom for a few seconds. I could not transcend the prison or distinguish myself as a visitor. It was an odd feeling, and an uncomfortable one. I simply cannot imagine what these men, prisoners of conscience felt on a daily basis.
A former inmate who was once locked up on Robben Island for gun smuggling showed us around the prison. The inmate-turned-guide talked to us about the brutality the guards displayed when he was housed as an inmate there. They beat us. They would round us up at any hour of the day or night, bring us into the yard and beat and whip us. There was never any reason given for these beatings. I watched him as he lectured our group, his face black as night, his eyes inset deep in his skull. Our guide told us some startling statistics: they were not allowed beds until 1978. The black prisoners had to sleep on half-inch thick mats on the cold cement floor. He remembered not being served bread for 12 years. The only thing they were given to eat was a corn paste. Only water to drink. The letters they wrote to loved-ones were censored. Sometimes the guards would receive a letter addressed to one of the inmates and cut out its entire text, leaving only a salutation and the personÌs signed name. The white guards were, we were told, constantly doing these sorts of things in an effort to quash the spirit of the inmates. At times the guards would have a woman write to an inmate, mimicking that inmates wifeÌs handwriting and state that the wife was leaving him. He told us that this, at times broke their spirit.


South Africa Guidebook Reviews

Rough Guides

Rough Guides' South Africa is by far the best guidebook available today. It is as complete a guidebook as any traveler could ask for. Included is a sixteen-page full color guide to the wildlife of Southern Africa. They provide detailed accounts of all practicalities, as well as in-depth historical background and more than 70 maps. A thorough accommodation guide including all prices and contact details is included in every section. Adequate warnings and advice are provided in regards to dangers in the country. The only drawbacks were the lack of a highlighted edge-tab (which would allow the reader to thumb to a particular section of the book more quickly) and the last ten pages of the book that are plastered with advertisements. Other than these mild irritants, the guidebook is the best on the market. The well-organized layout of the guide makes it easy to follow. Found toward the back of the book is a section that includes quotes from some South African writers as they discuss the country's history. The Rough Guide is also more up-to-date than any of its competition. Definitely the guidebook to pack.


Let's Go

Let's Go South Africa is a good guidebook. The Let's Go staff is well known for its budget friendly itineraries, and up-to-date listings. I like the attitude behind the guide. The Lets' Go writers hold the same views that we, at Student World Traveler hold dear; that we are not tourists, but travelers. We create our own adventures, and avoid the tourist traps at all costs, seeking instead insights from local culture. Large maps (and tons of them) are an asset to this guidebook and the practical information can't be beat. The accommodation listings are fairly comprehensive for the larger towns and cities, but somewhat limited in smaller towns. The book is absolutely littered with advertisements, which I found annoying. They do include a language guide at the back of the book, which is always valuable. Well organized and well laid out, Let's Go is easily navigated and straightforward. The somewhat cursory section on historical background could be expanded, but is a good overview. All in all, the Let's Go guidebook is worth serious consideration, especially for the budget-minded.


Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet's Africa - the South was my bible for a month while travelling in South Africa. I found it to be a well-written and extremely well organized guidebook. It is probably the easiest book to use and read. The book's general information on all regions and concise historical overviews are invaluable if one is to discover the history behind today's South Africa. Lonely Planet does not allow advertising of any kind in this (or any) volume, a practice I found refreshing. Their occasional insertion of color photographs provides a rest for the eye, but also makes one wonder why they would choose to use these full color pages for simple landscape shots. A much more sensible venue for dynamic full color would have been their twelve-page wildlife section. Instead we are forced to make do with small black and white animal pictures, that just don't cut it while on safari. The warnings about the dangers of travel in Johannesburg were fitting, as was not the case with some other guidebooks. The Lonely Planet staff has done a good job here, but as I thumbed through my well-worn, dog-eared copy of Africa - the South, I found myself reliving moments of frustration. The book has not been updated since 1997, a fact that became obvious when relying on it this year. I would recommend it if it were current but as is, the book must be left on the shelf when it comes time to buy.



Fodor's Southern Africa includes relevant information on interesting sights and points of interest, but is not the book for the student traveler. The list of places to stay is limited to the more expensive hotels and bed and breakfasts. There are not as many maps as the independent traveler would need, and they tend to include lengthy descriptions of cuisine and atmosphere of every restaurant listed. I cannot recommend any travel guide that seriously suggests a visit to Sun City (a tacky gambling Mecca) as a possible day trip. I much prefer Lonely Planet's attitude toward the Vegas-like attraction: "an icon of glittery kitsch's pretty tacky". The worst aspect of this guide, however is the constant barrage of advertisements. Printed on thicker paper than the rest of the book, these ads constantly misdirect you as you are trying to find a specific page. A possible buy for those of you who slave fifty weeks per year in order to cram as much as you can into an expensive two-week vacation. For the rest of us, though, who want to delve into the culture of South Africa, this guide falls short on all fronts.


Hwange, Zimbabwe

Seeing is believing, and belief turns the soul loose - free from the prejudice of pre-conceived ideas. I went to Hwange National Park to see African wildlife with my own eyes. The park lies northwest of the city of Bulawayo, about three hours by car. The only way to gain entry into the park besides being part of a package tour is with your own vehicle (2 wheel drive cars are accepted). The entrance fees are $20 per person for a five-day pass (up 100% from last year). This sum will allow you access to the park from 6:30 AM to 6:00 PM. The rangers provide a map but you are on your own after that.
Late one afternoon I was pondering the landscape - parched and cracked after nine years of unrelenting heat and drought. I stood alone at the base of a hide (a small open room on stilts used to view wildlife) and watched as a herd of elephant crowded into a small water hole not more than fifty yards away. I had no way to predict what was about to happen: As the sun threatened to creep out of sight, the wind suddenly whipped up clouds of dust, and the herd fell motionless. The honey-colored filtered light defined the change between the cirrus and storm clouds as a massive clap of thunder rumbled over the scene. Then it started. Rain. Full, fat droplets pummeled the land, leaving saucer-sized craters in the dust. I stood, transfixed as the herd came alive.
Reassured that their drinking hole would be replenished by this onslaught, they began to splash each other, trumpet and slosh around in their ever-growing pond. I watched as the light disappeared, transforming these mammoth, wrinkled gray beasts into black silhouettes, delicately poised against the African horizon. I only noticed that the rain had drenched me head to foot when I, in a barely audible whisper, mouthed the only word I could think of to describe this incredible scene, "magical."
If you hope to have one of these encounters during your stay in the park, but are worried that it might not happen, here are some numbers that might reassure you: Hwange is the largest park in Zimbabwe, covering 14,651 square kilometers. It is home to 22,000 elephants, 15,000 buffalo, and over 300 giraffe. Rest assured, you will leave satisfied.


Travel Writing: Asia


Driver on Coke

Our Thai driver stacked our bags in the back of the minibus, and the five of us settled in for the eight-hour drive from Penang, Malaysia north to Surathani, Thailand. With two Scottish lassies in back, my Irish friend Niall and myself in the middle and an English lad sprawled out on the bench seat in front of us, we were a motley crew. Halfway through the trip, I leaned over the now sleeping Englishman in the front seat and asked the driver to pull over so one of the girls could go the bathroom. We were going about sixty miles per hour at the time. He yelled "NOOOOO!" And slammed on the brakes in the middle lane of the freeway. I went flying headfirst into the back of the driver's seat, the Englishman was slammed onto the floor under the two front seats and the girls crashed into us. The driver then let his foot off the brake and took off again. Before I had a chance to say anything or even to get settled into my seat the Thai started yelling and swerved TOWARD oncoming traffic and barely missing huge trucks and busses. We all started yelling and screaming for him to stop; he replied to our pleas by pulling alongside a massive dump truck and swerving into the side of it. Our bus barely missed the back of his front tire before Niall grabbed the wheel and steered the van back to the left hand side of the road as I managed to grab the skinny Thai's arms and restrain him. He had no choice but to stop. We hauled our bags from the bus and let this crazed young driver on his way. I got one last look at him before I let him go and only then noticed the ring of pearl-white powder around his right nostril.


Penang Hill, Malaysia

After visiting one beach, two temples, and a bevy of backwater eateries, my Irish friend and I decided to venture up Penang Hill to catch a legendary Southeast Asian sunset. We argued back and forth about whether to hike or take the funicular railway up the 800-meter hill. After taking inventory of our run-down bodies, and deciding it was not the years that had taken their toll, but the mileage, we sided with the majority of lazy adventurers the base of the hill and got in line.
We had heard of the hill top teahouse, Indian temple and mosque that wait in anticipation of tourist dollars each day. What really surprised and amazed us about Penang hill, though, were the 89 species of birds, 55 species of mammals and the untouched primary forest that covers its northern sector.
The cable that draws the old cars up the small mountain can only withstand so much pressure per hundred meters so the railway journey is a slow two-stage process that allows plenty of time to view the hill's wildlife. We watched as butterflies fluttered around us and saw flying lemurs and even the occasional pangolin on our ascent. We listened as birds sang foreign melodies, and stared in wonderment at families of monkeys as they contemplated our tram's cargo.
When we reached the summit, 40 minutes later, the temperature had dropped about 7 degrees Celsius from the humid 25 degrees we had fought at sea level. We were suitably impressed by the view of Georgetown and the 13.5-kilometer bridge that connects Penang to the mainland but were more so with the unexpected zoological treasure of the journey itself.
Surprise is one of the best attributes of travel. It is always the unforeseen that amazes and intrigues us. At the summit we found one of the most exotic and comprehensive bird parks outside Singapore. We saw macaws, parrots, bizarre peacocks, and a host of other species only found in the immediate region that, unless viewed in this setting would probably never be seen by any traveler. I believe that the unplanned, spontaneous adventurers are the life-blood of the dedicated adventurer. Penang Hill proved a great and unexpected treasure.
If you want to go, tram tickets cost under $4.00 roundtrip and the tram is located on a street named Air Itam - easy to find. Be sure to talk to the cable car driver as they have some great stories and information for the curious traveler.


Beware of Balinese Bearing Gifts

The middle aged, dark-skinned Indonesian man opened his trunk and lifted a fifty-pound boa constrictor around my neck. Before I realized what I had gotten myself into, another huge serpent was added. I had collected snakes as a boy but hadn't come into contact with them for years before I found myself at the Besakih Temple in Indonesia. Unnaturally cool to the touch, the smooth underbellies of the boas passed through my hands and wound themselves around my arms and neck. The Temple, Bali's most venerated religious site sits at the base of the island's highest mountain, Gunung Agung. The snakes are not part of the temple, but the man who sells the experience is rumored to turn such a good trade in fear, that he has remained there for years. The combined weight of the boas pressing down on my shoulders was impressive and I could feel their muscles flexing as they wrapped around me, trying to secure themselves. They had more than enough strength to crush me at their will.
An intense fear of snakes usually does not stem from the crushing power of these non-poisonous boas, but from the potential bite, ensuing pain and sometimes death that an unfortunate encounter with the poisonous variety may produce. The cold-blooded uniform body and strange protruding tongue also play major parts in our fear of nature's most "unnatural" child. Since the beginning of time man has been paralyzed by Ophidiphobia, the fear of snakes. From the Adam and Eve fable to the Indiana Jones.


Travel Writing Australia

So, You Want to Work in Australia?

There is no motivating factor like desperation and, as the money ran out, I was desperate to extend my stay in Sydney. I followed my dad's advice and "got a job." The jobs I held in my year in Australia were some of the best and strangest I have ever had. It was easier than I thought it would be, and you can benefit from my experience because there were some snags along the way that you can avoid. So for those of you who think that you have to save up for months in the U.S. before starting your journey, don't wait, throw some clothes in a bag, buy the ticket and just leave!
I worked as a waiter in the oldest restaurant in Sydney; the last place in Australia to conduct public hangings ñ ghosts were rumored to haunt the attic. I taught little kids how to swim three mornings a week in a pool overlooking Bondi beach, the world-famous surf spot. I met two girls who spent three months working on a farm in Queensland. I spent a few weeks packing wine for a merchant in Double Bay (the Beverly Hills of Sydney) where we savored a few rare vintages in our spare time. Considered an expert simply by virtue of my Americanism, I was chosen to coach a softball team and lead them to their grand final. I spent a few months behind the bar at a pub, serving drinks and drinking with the locals who were all too eager to include me in their crazy Australian lives. I also worked as a tour guide in the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere for a few months. Seeing the bewildered faces of the visitors as they tried to figure out what an American was doing up there was just too good, not to mention the view from my office. All this was borne of desperation and accomplished in a few fleeting months!
Sound like your idea of a working holiday? It was a fantasy come true for me. I would have to say that working is Australia is the way to go. There is no better way to immerse oneís self in the culture than to work with the Aussies. If your goal, when travelling is to gain an appreciation for the culture, the people and their way of life, you must surround yourself by them in the working environment. Gaining the level of trust, companionship and familiarity needed in order to be accepted is an impressive accomplishment, and one worth vying for. The Australians are outgoing and friendly by nature, but it takes time and effort to reach beyond their exuberant exteriors and forge true friendships.
Pay rates in Australia are higher than in the United States, which make for a higher general standard of living for the working traveler. Affordable things like rent, modest dinners out, drinks at the pub, and taxis all combine to make for an increased level of comfort and happiness. Australia is a very livable society. There is a large working class, and an infrastructure in place to accommodate this class. The Aussie dollar fluctuates around 65 cents to the U.S. dollar but constantly figuring out the difference is pointless; when earning and spending Australian money, you soon learn your budget. Rent is paid by the week, as are you. I found it is actually easier to figure out your expenses this way. Remember what you will be spending your money on, though. Groceries are inexpensive, gas is costly. Public transportation and taxis are affordable, clubbing is not. he standard of living for the average Aussie is great, for the working traveler it can be just as good.
Working in Australia is fantastic, and to extend your stay, the easiest thing to do is subsidize your tour by getting a job. You will need a job that pays under-the-table (the Aussies refer to them as cash-in-hand jobs) if you hold only an American passport. These jobs are easy to find if you know where to look. If you have any contacts in Australia, use them! Ask around, and be persistent; network yourself as best you can. Do not be fooled into thinking that cash-in-hand positions are limited to the jobs that no one else wants. Laboring, child-care, restaurant or bar (pub) work, farm work, and any businesses that have odd-shift hours are all good bets.
If you can stand hard work and the heat of the Australian sun, laboring is the best way to earn great money fast. They will usually pay a flat rate of one hundred dollars per day (about 65 U.S.), but forewarned is forearmed, so remember laboring work starts at 7:00 am and is backbreaking. To find this type of employment, your best bet is to go to the closest pub any weekday between three and four oíclock in the afternoon and look for the dirtiest men in the place. These are the guys youíll need to speak with. The Aussies love a schooner at their local pub after work, and usually frequent them every day. Remember too, that it is best to establish a repore with anyone before simply asking for a job. The division of labor in the laboring trades is typically spread between painters, general on-site day laborers, and ìbrickkiesî. The latter being masons. You might easily find work with any of these tradesmen.
If gritty manual labor is not your cup ëo tea, try the pub route. Australian pubs are open all day until the early hours of the morning, so there are usually split shifts available as a Barman or Barmaid, (the p.c. terms have not made it to Oz yet). You could also apply as a cellerman and take in the dayís orders of beer, wine, and spirits - all by hand, though. There are usually shifts available in the gambling booths (known as the TAB) which are the mainstays of Australian pubs. Gambling is legal in Australia, and the horse races are broadcast to the pubs via satellite TV all day long while punters (gamblers) place and loose their bets. Another service industry you might consider is the restaurant business. There are usually many restaurants willing to hire travelers as long as they can handle a tray and know their drinks. Since tipping is not required or even common, the hourly wage for restaurant and pub work is between 11 and 15 dollars per hour.
Still not satisfied? If you have worked with children in your life, you will always have a marketable skill. Put this to work for yourself in Oz. The greatest concentrated source of potential earning is in the classroom. If you can coach a sport, teach an activity, or just be a responsible caregiver and make a healthy lunch, you will find cash soon enough. Parents are always on the lookout for babysitters and tutors. I was fortunate enough to have coached two schoolsí softball teams, instruct swimming at another private school and get further contacts from those jobs which led to other after-school jobs and even some private tutoring. Your approach to the schools should be well thought out. They will be receptive, but you must show exactly what benefits you can bring to their program. Strike up a conversation with a teacher or administrator and find out what the school is lacking, then offer exactly those skills to the school official who can make the decision to hire you.
As a working traveler, you should plan to stay in a city or town for at least a month if you want to work. Most travelers who work in Australia start in Queensland, the North-Easternmost state in the country (where there are many farm and laboring opportunities) and work their way south, along the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sydney, and finally reach Melbourne. But before this working journey can begin, there are some points to take into consideration. Americans can not work in Australia. Well, not legally anyway. The Australian Government requires visas to enter the country. These electronic visas (which allow the visitor to remain in Oz for three months) can easily be obtained free of charge from your travel agent when you buy your ticket, but do not permit work of any kind. Do not let these regulations deter you in planning your trip around some work though. There are, as with any regulatory restrictions, ways around the system.
If you have the good fortune to hold a Canadian or British passport, you are eligible for a one-time, one-year work permit which enables the holder to work for only three months at one job before requiring the holder to change jobs. The visa is valid for a total of twelve months. Again, there is little enforcement for these regulations and most employers do not know the intricacies of the rules. Apply to the Australian High Commission (310) 229-4844 for a working holiday visa and allow at least six weeks for the application process. You will be required to produce: bank statements that show you have access to a minimum of three thousand dollars, letters of recommendation from community leaders as to your character, a trip itinerary, a valid passport, two passport photos, and a host of other information.
Besides the working holiday visa, employers will ask any non-Australian if they have a tax file number (TFN) as well. This important tax information is only used at the end of the fiscal year (June 30th) but must be produced before your first pay-day, so plan ahead. A TFN is a nine-number code broken up into groups of three digits. You may apply for one at the Australian Taxation Office only after your arrival in Oz. The office is located at 100 Market Street GPO Box 9990 Sydney NSW 2001. They can be reached by phone at 132 869, fax (02) 9374 8150. The red tape and bureaucracy are worth the payoffs for the visa-holding traveler, and the challenge of finding cash-in-hand work only enhances the adventure for the traveler without a work visa.
There is no better way to immerse yourself in the culture while having the time of your life than to work with the Australians. I found that I learned most about their attitudes and values while working with them. There are no sure things in life and certainly none while on the road. The only thing I can guarantee the working traveler, however is a great time.


Australia travel guide book reviews

Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet's Outback Australia is simply the best because it is a complete guide specifically tailored to the Outback, rather than just being a section in an otherwise comprehensive country guide. Rarely do we find fault with Lonely Planet's format, practical advice, organization, or insight. This edition, printed in early 1998 still holds excellent information, if not totally up to date. Valued inclusions like the compact Geology sections and flora and fauna descriptions are to the point and interesting. The fact that Lonely Planet started in Australia is not lost on us here; they really make use of their local knowledge and produce the most outstanding and comprehensive book. The guide is packed tight with information, has excellent desert maps and even includes a special section on how to prepare for an Outback four-wheel drive adventure. They mention everything on their checklist from tea towels to gasket cement. I can rest assured that student travelers will feel at home with a Lonely Planet guidebook nestled in their packs. It is well worth its price.
ISBN: 0-86442-504-X $21.95

Let's Go

Produced by Harvard students, Let's Go Australia is a good guide to Australia, but better left in Sydney before venturing around the Outback. While not nearly as comprehensive as the Lonely Planet guide, the Let's Go book is adequate for getting around Alice Springs and Uluru. Let's go is better than most with their current listings, and we are assured that their team of on-the-road researchers reviews every listing, every year. Harder to navigate than Lonely Planet, Let's Go is still well organized. The lack of any color in the guide except for the annoying advertisements is a drawback and makes poor quality maps even worse. Exacerbating this annoyance is the fact that the ads are on a thicker paper stock, and therefore tend to stand out when one thumbs through the guide. I do value the budget-minded viewpoint of the authors, and the list of fun (and cheap) activities they include will welcome to the frugal traveler. Other than that, there is little reason to purchase this volume. Leave this one on the shelf when it comes time to buy.
ISBN 0-312-24345-6 $22.99

Rough Guides

Rough Guides publishes the most readable guidebook, with the more detailed descriptions of Australian culture and history than its competitors. Heavily laden with text, there is a reasonable amount of useful information in this guide. Included are simple and easy-to-follow accommodation listings and up to date information on activities. The book is a guide to Australia in its entirety and has only so much space for information on the Red Center. Thankfully lacking in distracting advertisements, the main oversight I found in this otherwise adequate guidebook was the need of a highlighted edge tab, which would allow the reader to thumb to a particular section faster. Rough Guide's consistent brash style and brutally honest reviews are well appreciated and have made them a favorite among young travelers. This is a decent handbook for the traveler looking to explore only the main highlights of the Outback.
ISBN 1-85828-461-9 $21.95


Fodor's Exploring Australia promises a smart, fun and informative read - for an eight-year-old! Stuffed with pictures, the book makes one wonder why even go, it's as if we had seen it all already after perusing the guide. Most of the text is a cursory listing of interesting sites with little or no helpful detail. There are a lot of color pictures throughout the book that try to make up for the flat text and, unfortunately, the guide falls short on most other criteria as well. While reasonably easy to navigate, it (like the Rough Guide) lacks the highlighted edge tab, which would allow the reader to thumb to a particular section quicker. It is a pretty book; fun, colorful and concise. But with only twenty-two pages devoted to the Outback (a dollar per page as it turns out), save yourself a nickel and buy the Lonely Planet version instead. This volume might get you excited to go, but it is hard to recommend it for anything more than the coffee table. We had expected more from Fodor's.
ISBN 0-679-00472-6 $22.00

Fear of Laundry

One of a three part series on fear. See also Fear of Pancakes (N. America) and Fear of Snakes (Asia)Spiders. Just the word sends shivers up the spines of millions who suffer from arachnophobia. The daddy long legs, the little dark ones, the fat hairy ones, those fiendish tan colored ones we find weaving their webs in our back yards - we hate them all.
When I moved to Sydney, Australia a few years back, I had heard vaguely of the native species, but never worried. After all, I was in a large city, not out in the bush. Home to stunning beaches, a beautifully cosmopolitan city, and excellent night-life, I soon found out that Sydney was also home to the world's most dangerous spider: the funnel web spider. And the most feared species of the funnel web family is, specifically, the Sydney funnel web. It is the only spider on the planet whose bite calls for the same first aid measures as those used in response to snake bites! According to Dr. Nick Jones in his book, The Rough Guide to Travel Health, "The funnel web can be very aggressive and may inflict successive bites. There is usually intense pain at the bite site after which the venom attacks the central nervous system, causing tingling and rapid-onset breathing difficulties, a quickened, weak pulse, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, mental confusion, loss of consciousness, and death."

Late one evening, I reached for a dress sock that had slipped behind the dryer. My hand was about six inches away when my brown dress sock scurried toward me! Only then did I recognize it as the dreaded Sydney funnel web! I leaped back, ran upstairs, checked myself a hundred times over for anything even resembling a spider, took a shower and never went back into that laundry room again. Ever. This is one fear I am happy never to face again


Red Rocks and Hot Air

What made my journey so special? For that matter, what makes any journey special or unique? How does your visit to Paris or my visit to Australia's outback compare with those of the hundreds of thousands of other tourists who visit these sites each year?
Does your trip need to be different, unique, or better than anyone else's? Mine does. I have to have what I feel is a unique experience when I travel or I don't feel as though I am worthy of the trip -- of any destination. A trip is an opportunity for metamorphosis, evolution, enlightenment. I have to make it mine.
This was my challenge when recently sent on assignment to central Australia's outback. In order to "own" the experience, I had to start out with specific goals in mind. I had to absorb the majesty of Ayers Rock, and feel the bush landscape, the outback as though it were my internal landscape, my veins, my blood. I had to become part of Australia as a unique and beautiful place, and it had to become part of me. The challenge of turning a Contiki trip into a unique personal journey was compounded by the nature of the tour itself: A Group Tour - the same people twenty-four hours a day for eight days. Little time for reflection, less for peace of mind. The theory behind Contiki’s mission is simple: get a bunch of young people (aged 18 - 35) from all over the world and put them together on a bus that takes them to some of the worlds’ most exciting places. Great idea, but as always, easier said than done.
Travel by definition is meant for the unexpected. Whether good or bad, the experience of the unfamiliar throws us curves and it is how we deal with these curves that makes or breaks our trip. When it was announced to the group that the bus-ride was going to be about six hours on one of the days leading up to our final destination - Ayers Rock, there were the usual moans and groans. But I thought to myself what better way to see the outback -- six uninterrupted hours to burn the image of the vast bush landscape into my memory. Those six hours scrunched alongside seventeen other hot, tired westerners ended up being some of the best alone time I had the entire trip. Blocking out the chatter, music and road noise, I sat absorbed and silent, studying the landscape; a vast rust-colored sand desert covered with spiny tufts of pale green and gold spinnaker grass, sparsely connected by stunted gum trees, their white trunks stunningly bright against the blue expanse of sky and red rock outcroppings.
Traversing the outback's distances was a pleasure in Contiki's odd vehicle. An innovative marriage of half school bus, half luxury coach mounted on an impressive four-wheel drive chassis, the uni-mog was our home for eight days. Except for freezing cold nights in our two man tents, and hiking during the day, we got to know our bus pretty well. The jerky suspension and non-adjustable bucket seats were never enough to dampen our spirits, especially when our guide broke the monotony of the journeys by involving us all in guessing games, face painting and gambling on our arrival times. Their Aussie accents and wit made the time fly.
Miles, the driver of the beast, had an engaging and enlivening sense of humor, and wielded it well. An hour and a half before dawn, one morning we were woken by Miles blasting a tape of Robin Williams’ self-introduction to the troops in his film “Good Morning Vietnam.” Imagine a herd of sleeping campers emerging bleary eyed from their tents into the freezing cold, trying to make sense out of the wild Australian darkness hearing Williams blare "Gooooood mooorning Vietnam...hey is it a little too early for being that loud, well it's oh-six-hundred; what's the oh stand for? Oh my God it’s early!" It was not even close to that hour of the morning for us, it was more like four-thirty a.m.
Actually, we were up at that hour in order to catch a hot air balloon ride before sunrise. It was a short ride to an open field in total darkness, all of us shivering the entire way. The balloon material was laid out along the field and unfurled by three Aussies in yellow jumpsuits. They asked for a couple of volunteers, and I, ever ready to experience something new, raised my ice-cold hand. I was instructed to hold open the base of the balloon while they inflated it -- a nice warm job I thought, envisioning the gas jets used to heat the air. Little did I know the balloon had to be inflated first for risk of the material getting burned, being too close to the flame. The jumpsuit clad Aussie returned with an industrial fan, four feet in diameter, placed it behind me and turned it on full blast. Now I’m not sure exactly how to calculate wind chill factor, but considering it was about 38 degrees Fahrenheit in the darkness of the sunless desert before the introduction of the gale force fan, I’m able to say without exaggeration that this was a "learning experience." [I have since stopped volunteering quite so blithely.]
Eventually the gas was turned on and everyone jockeyed for position warming their hands and behinds in the glow of the flame as the balloon began to swell, rising from the ground like bread baking in an oven. The balloon filled quickly once the gas was on and we all clambered in, our faces aglow under the flame. Take-off is an effortless procedure and we soon found ourselves over three hundred feet off the ground, the sun slowly rising behind us, gently illuminating the red landscape below. We were all happy to see the sun - more for her warmth, to be honest, than anything else, but the scene was inspiringly beautiful. None of the eight people in our sturdy wicker basket said a word as the sun rose over the horizon. The amazing thing about being in a balloon as opposed to any other form of flight is the silence. Unless someone is talking, or the gas jets are turned on, there is no sound. Or rather, there is a sound, in a Zenlike way, silence is its own presence, and dominates the sky.
In addition to this peace there is absolute stillness, no wind at all. Because the balloon travels at the exact same speed as the wind, we as passengers feel nothing at all. It is as if we are being suspended in time and space. This was an unexpected pleasure, as were so many things in this empty, red landscape. The morning air, cool on my face and the shadows racing across the land awaking the plains below. It was as if the red landscape would never end. Some people talk about the ìbig sky countryî feeling of the plain states back home, this seemed like "big land country" the rust colored bush land disappearing past the horizon. Anyone exploring the outback must learn to respect its size and appreciate the fact that it takes enormous amounts of time to cover her vast distances. I asked myself how it was possible to have a meaningful, soulful trip when I was experiencing the exact same thing as all those around me. I made the experience mine, not asking if anyone else felt the same way, for fear of diminishing the experience by analysis. This time, suspended in the middle of the outback, was mine to cherish.

After traveling twelve thousand miles, camping for six days, fighting the bitter cold and the scorching heat, late nights followed by early mornings, we were finally there -- Ayers Rock, Uluru. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the planet come to this place to see, photograph, paint, hike around, meditate at, and climb "The Rock." As a group, we had been talking about the rock, its religious significance to the aboriginal people, its supposed majesty and mystery for the first few days of our trip. Our guide and driver, Miles (nicknamed ìKilometersî by some of us) was always careful when talking about the rock to be impartial when discussing the ongoing controversy that exists between the non-indigenous and the aboriginal people -- particularly, whether or not foreigners should climb the rock or abstain from this practice, which the aborigines find offensive.
Miles explained that the native people prefer that visitors do not climb the rock. Yet at the same time they understand that some of us come from cultures where climbing rocks is a normal activity, even a sport in some countries where people hike and rock climb for recreation. The native peoples' understanding of visitors, as described to us by Miles had a lasting impression on the majority of the group. It was amazing to us that a culture so sensitive to the earth and on the verge of extinction had such compassionate understanding. I think it was the respect demonstrated to us that engendered feelings of mutual respect that led to seventeen of the nineteen people in our group deciding not to climb Uluru. While there was no stigma attached to anyone’s decision to climb or not to climb, and no general discussion before we reached the embarkation point, most just followed our guide as he began an informative 9.2-kilometer hike around Uluru’s base. The massive structure itself was impressive. Purple in the pre-dawn light, revealing orange and rust pigment as the sun rose, it was inspiring to see the colors change as the morning drew on.
I was aware, during our hike, of the recent closure of the climb as a sign of honour for a recently deceased member of the community (respect for aboriginal traditional prevents me from printing the name or picture of the recently deceased traditional owner of Uluru). I thought it strangely fitting that we should be walking around instead of climbing up the religious site. Only a few weeks before we had arrived, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park had been closed. What a perfect way to experience an important part of the culture. Being there during a part of living history would be a great experience - once in a lifetime for most people. I was thinking, as we trekked in the shade of the West Side of the rock how glad I was that not only I, but also the majority of our group had decided to have a more "meaningful" experience. We all chose respect for the traditional owners that morning.
Contiki offers the Alice & Wonderland tour for $ 349.00 (price does not cover airfare through Alice springs where the tour starts)
Maximum 20 passengers
18 - 35 years old only
Tented and hotel accommodations and most meals are included.
Optional extras include: helicopter ride around Ayers rock, Harley-Davidson ride around the rock, camel rides, horseback riding, and All terrain vehicle romps in the bush.


Europe travel writing

Romance on the road

It is rumored that one can easily find romance on the road, providing the right road is chosen. We've heard of a few good roads and thought we might encourage an aspiring seductress or Cassanova.
If you find yourself in Greece on the island of Corfu, romance can be found for 280 drachma. I am not insinuating that you pay for it (especially because that's equivalent to about 90 cents U.S.) but rather pay the bus fare from Corfu Town's New Fortress to Agios Gordios where, among inspiring rock formations and sheer cliffs you will find the legendary Pink Palace. The resort is a hedonistic playground: toga parties every night, cheap ouzo at the bar and English-speaking backpackers weary from city travel out to hook it up with no strings attached. Women - this is your spot, togas leave little to the imagination so you know what you're in for!

And what of the City of Light, and love? Acclaimed for centuries as the most romantic city in the world, Paris has stood up to rivals Venice and San Francisco as the most enchanting destination for romance. The Eiffel Tower at sunset, the Louvre at night, the Seine, the Right Bank bathed in morning light, the Left Bank's shops and cafes, the grandeur of Notre Dame, Place Vendome's architecture; all conjure up images of the quintessential Paris. If you are looking to meet that special someone to share Paris with (if even for a night) rumor has it that Le Balajo is the place. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday beginning at midnight, for about 17 dollars, you can hit the hottest nightspot in Paris. Now listed in the more mainstream guidebooks, the crowds have grown and you will find it more difficult to get in and mingle with the Parisians. On the other hand, you might find yourself chatting with another lone traveler looking for some company in the city of love. If you finish dancing at closing time (6 AM) you will find several small, romantic street cafes just outside the club. The perfect place for starting another day practicing your Parisian accent on "Voulez vous couchez avec moi?"

Going along with the Crowd.

The Tour de France is a grueling bicycle race that covers 3,462 kilometers of the steepest terrain (including seven mountains) and fastest downhills in the sport. Tens of thousands of people line the Champs-Elysees in Paris to witness the dramatic and emotional culmination of 23 days of intense racing. Race fans battle police barricades and jostle for position to see their favorite cyclists. The French are different from the English and Spaniards in their mob mentality though, as they maintain a sense of propriety and personal space even in tight quarters. As I pushed my way through crowds, I felt not as one against the masses, but instead an individual as part of a whole. One imperceptibly feels and assumes, as one's own, the camaraderie of the French crowd. As the tension built and cyclists came nearer and nearer I gave into my urges. This realization came only after a gendarme politely asked me to climb down from the tree I had situated myself in ñ my photojournalistic instincts had taken over.

The hooligan in all of us

The biggest and most popular sport in Europe is Soccer (known as Football everywhere in the world except America). And English Football hooligans are most well known for their drunken antics and are considered infamous in Europe's Football circuit. They have rioted in every major European City that hosts a professional team. Countless soles have been beaten and even died at the hands of drunken rioters from various countries. It is a fearsome sight to witness hundreds of young men wearing England's traditional red and white make their way from pub to pub before a game. Because of their vandalism and violence, some countries have had to resort to restricting the number of tickets sold to overseas fans, which has slightly alleviated the effects of the rioters. As an independent observer, the actions of the mobs seem unthinkable. Actually being a part of the crowd, though, does make one reevaluate preconceived notions. In the crowd, one gains a sense of omnipotence - as though you have a hundred brothers who will back you unconditionally. This, combined with the effects of alcohol and the anonymity that a completely homogeneous crowd provides, facilitates a loosening of individual morals and eases the mind enough to let it begin to surrender to the mob mentality. This can happen, so much so that one might find oneself eager to learn the words to the ethnocentric chants that seem to well up from the belly of the seething crowd. Mob mentality is a powerful force especially when mixed with passion for country and sport, and fueled by alcohol.Crowd (out of) Control
Every year in Pamplona, Spain hundreds of people run with the bulls during the festival of San Fermin. This dangerous race, which is run every morning between the 7th and 14th of July, has claimed 14 lives and injured over 200 in its 76-year history. As we made our early-morning pilgrimage to the race, we saw people emerge from laneways, terra cotta roofed houses and Spanish hostels dressed in white pants and white shirts with red handkerchiefs tied round their necks, all of whom carried rolled-up newspapers. We nervously waited as the masses started to pour in. As the morning progressed, more and more handkerchief-clad Spaniards and tourists crammed into the first 80-meters of the cobblestone street. Being toward the front of the mob, I could see the street ahead guarded by paramedics and ambulances, lined with wooden fencing, (to prevent bulls or runners from going astray). By the time an hour had passed, there was no room to move. At eight o'clock, a rocket shot off; signaling the first six bulls had been let out. The mob immediately started its frenzied and panicked 825-meter sprint from the Santo Domingo corrals to the bull-fighting ring at the end of the walled street. As a sign of bravado; proving they were close enough to make contact with the bulls, the runners would bat the bulls' flanks with their rolled up newspapers, then skittishly jump away, terrified. This crowd was definitely an "every man for himself" mob. There was no camaraderie among runners, and the only helping hand I received was that of a spectator helping me over the wooden fence as I leaped out of the way of an angry bull.


United States Travel Writing

Viva Las Vegas

Possibly the only place for a drive through wedding, Las Vegas is the city for instant romance. When you're three weeks into that two-month road trip and are looking for more than a driving partner, cruise on into Vegas. The odds of finding love there are at least as good beating the dealer with 16 showing. Sin City has several locations to get married on the spot. Even if you are not planning to get hitched, these two deserve at least a drive by, not necessarily a drive through! Located at 1301 Las Vegas Boulevard, Drive Up Wedding Window (702-382-5943) is the place for the convenience-minded couple - where you don't have to get out of your car to become man and wife! The second is a Vegas legend: Elvis' Graceland Wedding Chapel (where you can see the King minister a ceremony) can be found at 619 South Las Vegas Boulevard. Call ahead to be an official witness for Mr. Presley (702-474-6655). After you've been at (or in) a ceremony, why not take your love out for a romantic night on the town? If you get lucky at the roulette table, you might be able to afford the monstrous hotel, The Venetian. Fashioned after Italy's most romantic city, the hotel boasts canals and serenaded gondola rides. Don't forget to take your love to the replica of the Rialto Bridge, where it is rumored Italian couples go to kiss in order to ensure everlasting love. And for those who've not had Lady Luck with them, nor any lady, there's the last resort - the famed Mustang Ranch outside of town. Just make sure you've not gambled your last dollar, because you'll need it there. Hopefully though, the King will look kindly on your Vegas trip from up above, and you'll be peeling out of the drive-thru wedding chapel with your new love and heading into the sunset.


Fear of Pancakes

Claustrophobia is usually described as a fear of enclosed places. A more accurate definition might be a fear of not having an easy escape route because, for anyone who experiences this phobia this is the dominant feeling ñ a need to be able to get out quickly. Claustrophobia is powerful, uncomfortable, embarrassing, inconvenient, debilitating, and at times paralyzing. So how does one overcome it? You simply have to deal with it. Face your fear head-on.
Claustrophobia can be experienced in no more gripping and terrifying detail than at Moaning Cavern, California. While the main chamber is large enough to hold the Statue of Liberty, that is little consolation after stepping off the hot-tub sized opening in the ground, repelling by rope straight down 165 feet, never knowing how far you are from the cavern floor. As your eyes adjust from the mid-day sunshine above ground to the complete darkness of the cavern you feel blind and helpless, as if suspended in space. The repel, however, is not the most nerve-racking aspect of the Moaning Cavern experience. True claustrophobic feelings come through the exploration of deep chambers and tight passages that wind there way outward from the main chamber. Most of these areas are undeveloped, and there are no lights, or established tracks. We explored the passageways by crawling, slithering, and squeezing our way through the tunnels. It was so tight at one point in the passage, known as the pancake, that I had to lay on my back with my arms stretched over my head, grip a ledge on the ceiling of the rock, and breathe out as I pulled myself through the gap. This is where you can truly face your fears.
Moaning Cavern got its name from the sound created by drops of water that fell into a bottle-like rock formation. The drumming sound that resulted echoed throughout the cavern, and, to early explorers, sounded like someone moaning in the distance.
No experience is necessary. Gloves, a hardhat with light, coveralls, and rappelling gear are provided. Guides are available to explain the history and geology of the cavern and usually end their tours on the spot were scientific excavations revealed the bones of prehistoric people who had fallen into the cavern thousands of years ago. Moaning Cavern is open all year long, every day and prices are on the inexpensive side of reasonable.
Winter hours are 10:00am - 5:00pm Pacific Standard Time.
Call 209-736-2708 to make a reservation.


New Orleans

Late February in New Orleans means one thing to most people: Mardi Gras, and, I must admit, that is exactly the reason I was there. I flew there with a friend who had local knowledge, in hopes he would find us the best party spots. After a few nights of debauchery on Bourbon Street, he took a friend and I to his uncle's house; a shack on the shore of some brown, lifeless river. His uncle (nicknamed Red because of his short red hair) was going up to another relative's house and asked us if we wanted to come along for the ride – by airboat! I jumped at the chance, and soon we were all piled into his flat-bottomed airboat. It looked like a large rowboat with a huge fan welded on the back. There was a captain's chair immediately in front of the fan, and seating for five. I was startled as Red (pronounced by southerners in two syllables - Reh-ed) started the motor; it was so loud. We were instructed to wear ear protection and were suddenly on our way. Skirting over the water, I realized I was the only one amazed at this bizarre commute. We blew ourselves along, Red casually steering us left or right by pivoting the propeller with hand controls. Then, suddenly we were headed straight for the bank of the river, and before I had time to react I felt the boat rise with ease over the curve of the bank. As it forged its path overland, I felt the shrubbery, mud and tall grass lightly scrape along the flat hull, under my feet. It was after I realized this skiff could cover any terrain, that I sat back and enjoyed the ride, inspired by the ingenuity of the river-culture.


San Felipe:

Mexico's San Felipe, which lies on the northern coast of the Sea of Cortez is the favored breeding ground for thousands of American students during spring break. One of the most popular outdoor activities (besides beer boat races in the pool) is cruising around on All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) which can be rented from Bahia ATV on Malecon road #122. Be sure not to ride them on the dunes, unless you are prepared to pay the $100.00 fine. Pretty much just stay in town and get hammered, beware of mechanical bulls, and eat a lot of tacos. The bars have cheap beer, but the best values can be found in supermarkets. So if you are a real cheap-ass, go buy a twelver of Tecate Light and get to it. Forget the responsible, eco-tourist deal and get your groove on to overplayed top forty songs in the dirtiest clubs south of the border and remember the phrase "dos mas cervesas por favor, senor!"


Rich Steel

Rich was bitten by the travel bug the first time he went to visit his Dad in Thailand in when he was a kid and hasn't stopped travelling since. His pursuits/interests are eclectic. They range literature to sports, art, philanthropy and theatre. He currently spends much of his free time watching baseball, playing tennis, and reading everything from The New Yorker to Neiztsche. Rich is currently planning an Egypt / New Zealand trip and, as always, is looking for adventurous, road-savvy vagabonds with whom to share the journey.

Age: 29

Countries Visited: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, India, Australia, The United States, Canada, Mexico, England, Wales, Ireland, France, Monaco, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, The Czech Republic, and Hungary.

Next Trip:
North Africa and on to New Zealand.

Why Travel: One word - evolution. There is no better way to discover hidden dimensions of yourself (and others) that you never thought existed an to grow from that discovery. Situations and sights, interactions and events crop up that just don't exist in one's "regular" life - everything is an evolutionary and deepening experience. Travel also puts into perspective the material and qualitative bounty we are privileged to share in the USA and truly broadens and deepens daily life here.

Favorite place: An unanswerable question... although favorite moments are easy to pinpoint. One of those moments for me was watching a herd of elephants move majestically against the dramatic sunset of Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park.


Power to the People

Nepal's six-year-old conflict between the Maoist Communist Party of Nepal and government forces has generated a human rights crisis in a land once renowned for its peace and tolerance According to reports by Amnesty International, both government security forces and the Maoists have committed grave human rights abuses. These include unlawful killings, "disappearances," torture, rape and arbitrary arrest and detention.
What you can do: Send appeals to arrive as quickly as possible asking US Authorities to urge the Nepalese Government to:
- Ensure that human rights are protected during this conflict.
- End impunity by prosecuting security forces responsible for human rights abuses and pass laws making torture a crime.
- Strengthen the National Human Rights Commission, including the establishment of regional offices.
- Ensure that those implicated in human rights abuses are not provided with military training or weapons.
- Ensure that U.S. military aid does not contribute to further abuses.

Send your appeals to:
Ms. Christina Rocca
Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs
U.S. Department of State
2201 C St. NW
Washington, DC 20520

Amnesty International
Amnesty International has some basic Tips for Writing Appeals to Government Officials; If you are a member of Amnesty International ($25) read the "Recommended Action" section of the Urgent Action to familiarize yourself with the specifics. Then just write, remembering to be: brief, factual, polite, unequivocal in the expression of your concern for the victim, and respectful. Write in English and write clearly, but most importantly just get writing!

Double Click to a Better World
Scared of your Senator? Here are some more ideas on the most popular and diverse ways to give back to the world. Get involved with UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) or visit to learn about other volunteer opportunities in your community. Hey, cyber geek - fight global issues from your computer! Take online action against extreme poverty via where you can donate your time as an online volunteer or give school kits, educational kits or other tools to aid local development. Practice ethical consumerism. Your sweatshop Kathie Lee Gifford handbag or stylin’ nike running shoes may look cool but you need to find out how goods you buy here affect people and environments around the world. Look for organizations that produce goods that positively affect world communities. Be like Miss America and end world hunger, not by starving yourself but by joining, a grassroots lobbying group with chapters in communities throughout the United States. They are committed to generating the political will to end hunger and the worst aspects of poverty. is founded on the principle that every individual can make a difference. We agree. How about organizing a Famine for a Night Fundraiser? During a Famine for a Night, groups of people do not eat for 24 hours to raise awareness of issues related to world hunger and poverty. Have no time but got the cash? Support your cause financially. There are thousands of organizations that you can support that are working for positive global change. For a great place to get started visit Remember - just do it!

©2004 Rich Steel | Site design: MINE™