Michael and I have enjoyed the past few weeks in Seattle. There was a trip to Portland, one to San Francisco and next week we’ll spend a few days in Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands (north of Seattle near the Canadian border), but for the most part we’ve settled into something reminiscent of being “home”. Many thanks to our friends Kathy Neukirchen and her husband Michael Ainsley for letting us house-sit their amazing penthouse on lower Queen Anne for the past six weeks. That is longer than we’ve slept in one place in almost four years!
But now, time is ticking by as we prepare to head out on our next Senior Nomad adventures. And there is a lot to do before we leave on February 15th. This time we are ramping things up and heading to Africa and Central Asia. So it’s time for Michael as Chief Travel Planner to get going on all fronts - and meanwhile, as Chief Activities Officer, and Director of Provisions I’ll be looking at affordable safaris and “must see” destinations. What's for dinner? And what to pack - that's a blog in itself, so watch for that one.
I’ll let Michael take it from here: Over the weekend, I set aside time to research our upcoming trip to Africa. We made the decision to start in Cape Town, South Africa and booked our flights as well as our first Airbnbs. It starts when we fly to Los Angeles to visit family, then on to Paris to visit more family. Then we head south with a four-day stay in Doha, the capital of Qatar (flying Qatar Airlines allows you up to a 96 hour layover.) That will be the first of many new and interesting places to explore! Then on to Cape Town where we arrive on March 6th - Debbie’s birthday. We've have lots of friends as well as our two sons who count this as one of their favorite cities in the world, so we are excited.
Making these initial travel plans was easy, no different than what we’ve been doing these last 3+ years. Obviously LA and Paris are a snap. And South Africa doesn't require visas for tourists up to 90 days. There’s no Malaria, and it’s safe or relatively safe. With that planning behind us, I started doing research on where to go after South Africa. We started out doing searches like “best countries to visit in Africa”, “affordable African safaris”, “Top 10 African Adventures” and many others. That got us started and before long we had a list of a dozen countries that made the "maybe" list. We went to the Seattle Public Library and checked out an armful of guide books and DVDs. And all along, we've talking with friends and fellow travelers and getting lots of suggestions. At first it felt overwhelming but soon a few things started to fall into place. The good news is we will be staying in Cape Town for a month so some things can be planned “on the ground”.
As I started a deep dive into travel-planning it really hit me that this is going to be very different from anything we have done so far. Yes, we have visited 56 countries and some have been “non-traditional” destinations like Serbia, Moldova, Albania, Kosovo, Ukraine (with a side trip to Chernobyl) and Armenia. And a few like Russia, Belarus, Cuba and Azerbaijan required some forethought including getting visas but most of time we were in mainstream Europe.
I came to the realization that just wandering around the huge continent of Africa was not exactly the same as wandering around Europe - and before long I could see the need for a spreadsheet, maybe several. Debbie loves to tease me about how much I "love a good spreadsheet" but sometimes that’s exactly what careful travel planning requires.
After a day of doing research, I came up with a list of criteria to go over with Debbie so I could build a matrix. Then we could start making some decisions. Here are the eight things I decided we need to consider as we determine which countries we want to visit:
Destinations: There are 54 countries on the African continent. We have only spent time in one – Morocco. I am sure there is much to learn in the remaining 53 but since time and money are finite, some decisions will have to be made. Obviously we will have to do some prioritization but at this point we aren’t even sure of the criteria.
Personal Safety: Today, I stumbled on a website called Atlas & Boots that cited a study done by the Institute for Economics and Peace called the Global Peace Index that ranks countries based on how peaceful, or conversely, how dangerous they are. Of the 163 countries in the index, Syria comes in #1 as most dangerous with Iceland coming in last as most peaceful. I scanned the list to see how the countries we were considering visiting scored. The most peaceful countries were Botswana and Zambia. The most dangerous were Kenya and Rwanda. Of course there is no way to really measure danger on a particular day or particular part of any city. We spend a lot of time in France (#118 on the list) especially Paris, often, if fact we were there on the night of the attack in November 2016. We’ve also been to Turkey (#19) more than once, let alone Russia (#13), Israel (#20), Mexico (#24), and Turkey (#19). To say nothing of our own country, the good old, but somewhat dangerous USA (#63).
Ease of Travel and Cost: Since we started traveling in July 2013, I have come to depend on two apps/websites to help us get from city to city affordably and efficiently. For airfare I use www.skyscanner.com and for ground transportation I use www.Rome2Rio.com. In Europe I know my way around having first visited in my early 20’s and having lived there twice but Africa is a blank canvas for me so it’s time to open both apps and start learning.
Airbnbs: Our "homes away from home!" Wherever we go, we seem to have hundreds, even thousands of apartments to choose from. In Paris there are something like 40,000 listings. Even in obscure cities like Essaouira in Morocco or Lecce near the boot of Italy we have found plenty to choose from. At first glance, Africa is going to be different. I did a quick search using filters for "entire home with Wi-Fi" without specific dates just to get an idea of what’s available. Some of the capital cities like Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya had 300+ while some cities/countries that were on our list came up with numbers like these: Lusaka, Zambia (31), Kigali, Rwanda (60) and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (41). My search did not consider if the listings were anything close to what we are used too or had any reviews - let alone positive ones. This could get interesting.
Visas: As I mentioned, we had to get visas to visit Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan. The challenge for us is that we are on the road all the time so getting a visa is not as simple as filling out the forms and sending our passports from home to the appropriate consulate in America. We have had to do some “work-arounds”. Azerbaijan has an e-visa where you can apply online which is really cool. For Belarus we were able to apply for a visa while we were in the Netherlands, which is usually not allowed. It will be interesting to see what we come up with for Africa.
I have two ways to research countries that require visas: The United States State Department has a really good interface on their website that makes searching easy. There also is a website www.travisa.com that is a great place for information. Based on my initial research, many African countries require a visa but they are available for a fee, when you arrive in country at the airport or border crossing. We did that in Turkey. A couple of the potential countries we want to visit appear to be more restrictive, so there will be more homework as we refine our list based on my research.
Shots and Immunizations: This might be one of the least enjoyable parts of this round of travel! My doctor suggested we visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website which I did today. I learned the first order of business was to make a list of all the immunizations we have had in the past and get documentation. Then research each potential country to see what we may need before we leave. I also learned that we better get going since some require two shots with time in between and we are leaving in two weeks. Maybe we will have to get a second round of shots in Los Angeles or even in Paris. Time to get going!
Currency Exchange: Since we have spent most of our time within Europe and most often in the 19 of 28 countries that use the Euro, it is easy to get complacent about currency exchange. In our case, we opened a bank account in France back in 2013 so we have a Euro debit card with chip and pin that we can use in ATMs and at retail stores without fees. From my initial research Africa is, once again, going to be very different. So yet more homework - make that cramming. I always start with a currency conversion website, www.xe.com and then of course, create a spreadsheet!
Car Rentals and Hotels: In the entire time we’ve been Senior Nomads we have only rented a car four times. I have the feeling that we might want to, may be even need to in order to see Africa. Although a car and driver option keeps coming up an affordable way to go as well. Even after using public ground transportation in some interesting parts of the world, I think outside of capital cities Africa things will be very different. The only time we stay in hotels is when we need to position ourselves near an airport for an early morning flight. I suspect we might decide to stay in hotels a little more while we are in Africa. In both cases, my go to app/website is www.expedia.com.
Meanwhile, Debbie is having fun pouring over guide books and talking to safari-planning companies (there are two right here in Seattle) trying to find affordable ways to add lots of wildlife sightings to our experience. We don’t need to stay in Richard Branson’s luxury camps, but we don’t want to sleep in a tent with a pit toilet either. She is narrowing down the options, but somehow I doubt they will end up in a spreadsheet. The good news for her is it appears that there will be plenty of giraffes and zebras, two of her favorites animals, just wandering around…
I'm back with the close: Thank you Michael, for sharing some insights on our travel planning. And he is right - I am not a spreadsheet person. Although I do like to spread things out. That would include over more than my share of the work table, sometimes on the floor and often over several days. That is why we complement each other so well, because while we usually head in different directions, we get to the same place in the end. Africa will be no different. We’ll keep you posted.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads