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One great perk of being a nomad is that you get to see great shows all around the world that you otherwise may not have access to. I've seen Les Miserables in London, Paul Potts in Japan, and a number of shows on Broadway in New York.
Trips through Vegas, which seem to happen at least once a year, always mean seeing a Cirque du Soleil show. As you may have guessed from my previous write-up on KA, I've become a huge fan.
Although Cirque has now become a quintessential staple of Las Vegas, the troupe was originally founded in Montreal. So when I heard that a new show, Ovo, was opening in the famous Grand Chapiteau on the waterfront of Old Montreal, I knew I had to go. Luckily I was scheduled to visit my girlfriend, also a Cirque fan, in nearby Toronto, so we made plans to head to Montreal.
After a spectacular cup of tea at nearby Ming Tao Xuan, which nearly warrants its own post, we walked through Montreal's pleasant weather to the tents.
I have a lot of great things to say about Morocco, and I'll get to those soon. Today, though, I'm going to talk about an insane part of the culture that can be found everywhere from Tangier to Marakkech: the hustle.
As a visitor who doesn't speak the language, I'm only really able to interact with a small percentage of the population. Of those people I interacted with, I'd say that a good ninety percent of them are full fledged hustlers.
What do I mean by hustlers? I mean people who are hell bent on getting money from you, whether it's through lying, aggressive salesmanship, or cheating. They don't cross that fine line from cheating to stealing, though.
The biggest scam is the outright price change. We became so used to this one that as shocking as it was the first time it happened, we had come to expect it by the end. Here's a real life example of how it works:
The Price Bump
Determined to ride camels in the desert, we hired a taxi driver to take us seven hours south of Fez to the edge of the desert. On the way we made phone calls to different tour companies and arranged for a one night camel ride into the desert, including lodging, food, and return by minibus to Marrakech the next day. Already brutally familiar with the Price Bump, we three times clearly articulated how much we were to pay, 300 Dirhams each, and what we were to receive.
To get the world moving in the direction, I'm posting -- free of charge -- the blueprint for a new country that does everything perfectly. Let's call it Gadlingland.
Police of Panama
The police in Panama are great. They're friendly and helpful, they seem to a good job of deterring crime, and when you do get caught slightly on the wrong side of the law, they treat you with respect and accept small bribes. An example: I decided to "surf" on the roof of the car crossing the Bridge of the Americas. They laughed about it when they stopped me, took a $15 bribe, and then cleared a lane of oncoming traffic for us to drive across the bridge in!
Tokyo police are a close second. They're just as friendly and are too polite to stop you for minor infractions like riding your bike like a maniac.
An example: a couple days ago I spent the day working at my favorite UK restaurant, Inspiral (amazing veg food). I met a couple fellow nomad friends there for early lunch, and we spent the day working by the window overlooking the canal, waiting to be hungry enough for dinner. In between our two meals there we considered what we ought to do after dinner.
In our home cities, our options would be limited. We would have already done everything really exciting, so second tier activities like watching a movie or going for tea would be the likely options. Boring. But London is relatively unexplored and exciting, so we ended up going to see Les Miserables, one of the greatest musicals of all time.
Not a bad way to end the work day.
I hold a strong belief that any bad situation can be turned into a good one. The thing about this belief is that it's only true if you believe it. It's easy to think this when everything's going swimmingly, but when plans get derailed and blow up in your face, it gets put to the test. Case in point, here's a situation I found myself in recently:
- I got mugged and was robbed of my passport
- The embassy promised to get me my passport before my 14 day transatlantic cruise left
- They didn't get it to me in time, so the boat left without me.
Imagine that. I'm stuck in Santo Domingo and my ride to England is sailing away without me, putting a serious body of water in between me and my British plans.
Step one: deep breath. Step two: examine options. There's the boring option of flying straight into Saint Maarten two days later. It's the ship's only stop before the five day transatlantic push, and a call to the cruise line confirms that I can meet them there and get on the ship. Almost as bad as being boring, it's expensive. Five hundred thirty seven dollars for a one way ticket.
I could book it and make it on the ship, but that's not turning a bad situation good; it's just turning a bad situation into a solved situation. I check a map of the Caribbean and notice that there are a few islands near Saint Maarten. Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla. I'd never even heard of Anguilla before, but a quick check online offers a $325 fare from Santo Domingo.
That's the kind of situation I like. Two hundred twelve dollars cheaper than my only other option means that if I can spend less than that and turn it into an adventure, I've come out ahead. The ferry between the two islands seems to cost only twenty dollars, which is all the US currency I have in my pocket. That's enough confirmation for me; I book the ticket to Anguilla, which should give me a full 19 hours from landing to boat departure to make my way to the cruise ship.
Ahoy! Here's a quick followup on my last post about cruising, posted from Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas. I've been on a bunch of cruises now, and have come up with a few tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your cruise.
1. If you're really into safety, go to the "mandatory" lifeboat safety drill. If you've been to one before or think that you can handle following the green arrows and putting on your life vest, stay inside your cabin. They don't actually check names or your cabin to make sure you go.
2. Never go on official shore excursions. If you just walk off the ship you'll find lines of touts waiting to give you the same thing for half the price, usually with more flexibility if you want something slightly different. Walk past the touts and you'll usually find stores offering the same tours for 25-30% of the cruise line quoted price.
3. When choosing your cabin, choose one near the stairwells and elevators. You'll be making that walk many times every day.
4. At dinner you can order as many things off the menu as you want, not just one appetizer, salad, and entree. My record is 31 plates divided between a friend and I.
When I was a kid, my breakfast cereal of choice was Kellog's Corn Flakes. The back of the box, which I relied on for breakfast-time entertainmant, sometimes had contests to win cruises on Carnival Cruise lines. I guess advertising works, because since then I had always wanted to go on a cruise.
I had no idea how much cruises cost. I never saw prices advertised, so I assumed that they were like first class air travel - too expensive to actually consider.
As I found out many years later, cruises aren't expensive at all. In fact, if you know what you're doing, you can stay and eat on a luxury cruise ship for less than a hostel.
Here in Santo Domingo I eat at the same restaurant, Ananda, every night. It's an amazing vegetarian restaurant that bears a startling resemblance to my favorite restaurant in Austin, Texas (Casa de Luz). It's an eleven minute walk away through the main roads, or a ten minute walk with a shortcut.
The shortcut goes through the scariest little alley I've ever seen. The buildings on it are crumbling, it's covered with trash, there are no streetlights, and just to make it a little more spooky, one side of it borders an overcrowded cemetery. Worse, the alley is a series of three sharp angles that make it hidden from nearby streets.
I liked walking through the alley. It made me feel tough, and I was proud to not have the same irrational fears that everyone else seems to have.
As it turned out, those fears weren't quite so irrational. After the eight hour bus ride from Haiti I was starving, so I started walking towards the restaurant. At this point I'd gone through the alley so much that I didn't even think about it. Two twenty-something-year-olds were walking towards me. I moved a bit to the right to pass them, but one went to one side of me and the other went on the other side.
I'd never been to Haiti and I'd never tried couchsurfing, but since Haiti was just a $75 bus ride away ($67 if you have the foresight to pay in Pesos), I felt like I had no choice but to try it.
A search for couches in Port Au Prince yielded a few pages of results, with Natacha and Charlene showing up at the top. The site said that they both replied to almost all of the requests, and each offered a couch for up to two weeks. I e-mailed Charlene first because she has a son and I love kids.
Charlene wrote back the same day and said to let her know what dates I wanted to come. I replied back with a weekend and she said she'd be expecting me. It was so easy and painless that I wondered if it would actually work.
I had lingering worries in the back of my mind. Haiti was supposed to be a pretty dangerous place, so if she changed her mind at the last minute, I might be stranded. Besides, we all know that everyone on the internet is a demented weirdo (except for me). How much weirder do you have to be to invite strangers into your home for weeks at a time?
After a long scenic bus ride, I arrived in Haiti. I took a taxi through the unlit streets and arrived in front of a night club, where Charlene's sister was waiting for me.
"Charlene is at Toastmasters. Come with me."
Only a week remains in my two month stay in Panama, so I thought it would be useful to condense everything I've learned here to make it easier for future travelers.
Panama City is one of my favorite places in the world. It's a perfect blend of "frontier spirit", as Todd calls it, comfortable city life, good prices, and nearby cities and towns to explore. In list form, here are my recommendations for Panama:
1. When in Panama City, check out Casco Viejo before you decide on a place to stay. It's a two dollar cab ride from anything in the city and it feels like a totally different country. Manolo Caracol, located in Casco Viejo, is considered to be the best restaurant in Panama, despite only costing $20 for the prix fixe menu.
2. The best place to go outside of Panama City is Boquete. The weather is cool, there's tons to do, and it's the total opposite of Panama City - perfect for a break.
3. Grocery shopping in Panama City is excellent. El Rey, Super 99, and Riba Smith are the main grocery stores. Riba Smith has the best selection of healthy foods and American and European imports. Organica, located in Paitilla, is an expensive store that has even more health food imports.
4. Don't try to live in Paitilla or Pacifica. These are the the super gringo areas, which sounds like a good thing but isn't. Cangrejo, Marbella, Bella Vista, and Obarrio are the best areas downtown. I personally wouldn't want to stay anywhere farther out, except for Casco Viejo from #1.
5. Don't pick up Taxis in front of hotels or malls. Walk down the street. If you ask the price, they know they can rip you off. If they try to barter the price up front, they're trying to rip you off. Get in the car, and pay $2 for the ride as long as it's within downtown.
6. Try patacones. They're delicious fried plantain chips.