Battling Travel Burnout in Bangkok

“If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please” – Epictetus.

I’m here in Bangkok, Thailand. A city I have, many times, said I could gladly move back to in a heartbeat. But, this time it’s different. There’s a multitude of possible explanations for this feeling, but regardless of the reason, the end-product is the same. I’m uninspired, unenergetic, and uninterested. I know there’s a multitude of interesting destinations within easy reach, yet I simply don’t have the desire to go.

I know I’m not the only long-term traveller who has experienced this feeling. I also know that most of my family and friends won’t understand this, and certainly won’t sypathise. They would all be of the opinion that: I’m travelling, and have been. virtually carefree, for the last 2 years, while they have been back home, working and what-not, so what right do I have to feel flat about it? In truth, the only people who could truly relate to this concept of travel burnout are those who have done something similar. There’s stories scattered around the internet, touching on this issue, but they’re all self-help articles on “How To Avoid Travel Burnout” and similar, all stating basically the same obvious tips.

I have my suspicions on what has caused this fatigue. The obvious cause is that I have been doing this for 2 years. That’s 2 years of consistent exposure to interesting situations, cool people, and beautiful sights. It takes a lot to take my breath away now. Extended long term travel has made me a little jaded, and I think I need to either revitalise that interest, or take a break and find a real routine for a while. My visit home no doubt had a role in this also. I was reminded of the comforts of family, and my brother, and the prospect of having a job to go to, and actually making some money, the chance to get back in shape, learn boxing, set up a makeshift photo studio. I want to put time into really developing my photography, and that would be easier if I was stationary. Don’t get me wrong, I would probably get over the stagnancy after 6 months or so, then be on the road again, with a fresh, open mind once more.

More immediately, after spending the last 6 months in Kenya, and exploring snippets of East Africa, Thailand is lacking impact. In a few ways, it feels like a G-rated version of East Africa (apart from the sex tourism). Flame me all you want for this comment, but this is my opinion. After East Africa, Thailand, specifically Bangkok is just too easy, there’s too much technology, too little to get me out of my comfort zone, too familiar even, considering the cumulative total of 9 months I have spent here, over 3 separate trips. But these are just excuses to justify this mood.

It seems contradictory then, that I’m very eager to get to the U.S.A. But I’m excited for my birthday in New York City. I’m excited for my mate’s wedding in Vermont. I’m excited, yet skeptical, about my required $17/day budget, but I’m excited for my intended hitch-hiking¬† trip across the country from New York, to Big Sur, CA, where I will be meeting up Wawi, the girl most responsible for Kenya having such an impact on me. I’m very excited for that.

But that’s the future, and this is now. I feel I should do something drastic, to really change it up, and shock myself out of this burnout state. Maybe I’ll leave behind the laptop, and go to Songkhla Buri (on the border with Myanmar) for a week, to disconnect from everything. Maybe no internet or phone will let me just experience the moment, and appreciate it. Or maybe I just go laze around an island.

I wonder if this has anything to do with my self-imposed alcohol ban. Coming up on 7 days without a drink now…

I’m not in Nairobi anymore

Boarding ticket stubs. Ergh

I have actually been back in Australia for a month now. I planned for this return to let me catch up on writing and editing, but instead I have squandered my time here. But I’m ok with that.

The decision to return sprung up quickly on me. I had been staying at my mum’s house in Ngong, Kenya, for most of the last 6 months. She was returning to Australia to see the family, and she wanted me to come back too. Being a mother, she realised that the only way she could guarantee that her, me, and my little bro would be in the same room again, was if she offered to pay my ticket back.

I almost declined, I thought about it, but then I got continually more and more excited about the idea of seeing my brother (20 months since I had seen him last). So, I agreed, and about 2 weeks later I was flying out, on a different set of flights to my mum (it was cheaper when I booked). Nairobi – Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi – Bangkok. Bangkok – Hong Kong. Hong Kong – Sydney. Sydney – Albury. So 5 flights, 6 planes (one plane had a mech issue), 6 hours sleep, 6 beers, 7 meals, and about 48 hours later, and I surprised my unknowing brother by walking off the same plane as mum.

That was a month ago. In that time, I have gone drunk camping, thrown out/given away/prepared to sell half of my belongings, gone boxing, eaten far far far too much western food and desserts, gone boxing more to try and counter the food, hitch hiked to Wollongong, visited friends there and in Sydney, photographed Simple Plan, caught a ride back to Albury, and gone snowboarding. I did succeed in doing some editing, and I do plan on writing about my backlog of adventures in East Africa, but they will no longer be in a chronological order, because:

Tomorrow (was meant to be Thursday but I pushed it back twice) I hitch hike to Melbourne, and on Monday I fly to Bangkok.

TED visits Nairobi

I’m completely backlogged, and have too many awesome things happening lately, so forgive the potential lacklustre writing in spaces, I just want to get all the photos out… Deal with it. Anyway:

Sometimes things just fall into your lap when you aren’t expecting anything. You just need the right attitude, and to be ready for anything. Often I’m not ready for anything, and go into town for what is meant to be an afternoon before saying yes to a multiday trip somewhere without “necessities” like spare clothes, or a toothbrush.

While not as extreme as that situation, I did find myself in a position a few weeks back where I was in Nairobi central to meet some mates, who wouldn’t be there until later. I made some phone calls, and was told by my mates with the What Took You So Long Foundation, that they were shooting the TED Auditions at some fancy private school that night. If I had my camera they could pass me off as crew for the night Did I have my camera on me? Yes. So I decided against my other friends (photography always trumps dinner, especially with snacks on offer).

If you don’t know TED talks, they are, in my own words, a bunch of inspirational talks from people with innovative ideas, or outlooks, or just interesting things to say. They are worth a look of your own, because I don’t explain things well. Anyway, here’s some photos. The event also gave me my first real chance to test my new lens for the DSLR. So here’s results.

Oh, and I slept on another couch that night. No toothbrush, no spare clothes.

"I swear, it was THIS BIG!" Had to

The undercover journalist. Awesome

 

Two Weeks as an African Overland (Trainee) Tour Guide

There’s been a bit going on around these parts lately, and a definite backlog, but I just wanted to write about this one now. A month ago, a good friend of my mums told me that one of the overland truck tour companies were desparately looking for tour guides. After a lot of “Apply, you’ll be great for it”, I conceded, applied, and a few days later found myself meeting the crew, and packing my bag on to the truck for a 2 week trial trip to Uganda.

For those who don’t know, overland trucks (NOT a bus, as you will be told) run tours, traditionally between Cape Town and Nairobi, or as far as Cairo. They are an organised way for travellers to see the “rugged heart” of East Africa, while camping in secure campsites with frequently warm water and cold beer, and working as a group to cook tasty western food. The largest concerns for the guests are where they will find internet, safe water, and washing services.

I don’t mean to sound cynical, or pretentious. Honestly. I’m just calling it how I see it.

Anyway, back to the training. I was one of two trainees, the other a cool Kenyan dude. There was a driver and the tour guide, and 6 guests (plus an awesome Welsh couple for one week of it). While I won’t go into the specifics, the two weeks was spent driving from Nairobi to Kampala over 3 days(with a game drive in Nakuru, which the other trainee went on while I went shopping), Kampala to Queen Elizabeth National Park, where I did see elephants and hippos, Q. Liz to Lake Bunyonyi, where I did very little around the allegedly second deepest lake in Africa (or first, or third), while the clients went gorilla tracking, Lake B to Jinja, where I did little, went on a booze cruise (free for crew) and went white water rafting again (also free), then Jinja to Nairobi.

From my two weeks, I came to a couple of conclusions.

Firstly, overland trucks do a LOT of driving. In the 14 day Ugandan circuit, we were driving 9 days, 8 days were between 4 and 8 hours of driving.

Second, you don’t sleep in. I logged maybe one day after 6am, probably four 4am starts, with a clear majority at 5am. I’m a traveller, I’m not used to this. It also makes it exceptionally hard to rise after some drinks, which leads into:

Third, you will drink a lot. I did, anyway. When it comes to alcohol, the constitution of my “nah I don’t need a beer tonight” is exceptionally weak, I succeeded 2 days in a row, and one was a result of me leaving the tour group early to get back to Nairobi to get my new passport, but I’m counting it. The real problem here, although disguised as a perk, is that, at least on my trip, the guests were always offering to shout drinks. Now, I’m a poor, young, Australian backpacker, it’s almost criminal for me to turn down a drink offered. But, it’s lucky they were shouting so many drinks, because my bank account is minimal, which wasn’t helped by:

Fourth, the pay is rubbish. Training wages (which last for 6 months, that’s 2 CT-Nbi-CT circuits) with my company, was $80US/week. And I was a lucky one, some companies won’t pay their trainees. Now, if I was paying my own beers, each weeks’ pay would have been drunk by Thursday. The maximum wage is $200/week for fulltimers ($250ish for part time), but the policy says one pay rise a year, based on performance, and it’s unlikely you would get a pay rise from the lowest to the highest straight away. They say you don’t get rich, and you do it for the love of it, but hell:

Fifth, as a trainee at least, you will be working from 4-5am (you have to be up 1 hour before breakfast) until you go to sleep, or leave the bar. By working, I mean you need to stay relatively personable, cheery, and polite, and can’t resort to your normal self, whether that be bitchy, drunk, or sweary. Basically, that means game face is on for 16-20 hours of the day, every day, for $10/day. I said it wasn’t about the money, but hell.

Sixth, a trainee is basically a glorified assistant. Your responsibilities seem only to be helping out with the setting up and breaking of camp, helping preparation of breakfast, lunch and dinner and cleaning, and mingling with guests on the drives. Not hugely laborious, admittedly, but I thought the idea of a trainee was that they were “trained” on how to do the job. Rather than teach us any of the accounts, or how to get groups through immigration, or organise local safaris, we were just used to make the boring jobs easier.

But, end of the day, it’s a paid way to see Africa. I mean, you get to travel from Nairobi to Cape Town, with accommodation, food, travel, and beer money (and some free beers) all covered. And when you arrive at a campsite, and everything is set up, the guests are free to go wander and explore, but:

Seventh, as a trainee tour guide, you stay behind to start on dinner, or try and get information out of the guide. When the guests go out on excursions and such, technically your time is yours, but if their return time is unknown, the guide training you probably wouldn’t be impressed to see you return After the guests, or not have started on dinner, or done anything productive.

It’s easy to see why it’s a “dream job” for some… Assuming you are ok with travelling with a mix of foreigners, all spending big money, and are ok with passing through numerous towns, mixing with a very limited handful of locals, and staying in secure campsites with other tourists every night. It’s a GREAT job, if you want to see the campsites of East and Southern Africa, drive through some villages without stopping, do cool activities for free, and get drunk and try to sleep with girls from other trucks. But that’s not what I was looking for.

As for me and my situation, while not the main reason for quitting, the final push was the fact that the tour guide training me and the Kenyan trainee, showed favoritism to the Kenyan. Call me petty or whatever, but when he lets the other guy go on the game drive in Nakuru while I’m left to set up camp and prepare dinner, and then chooses the other guy to go on the 3 day Maasai Mara excursion, while I’m told to stay in Nairobi due to a lack of space in the vans… that just didn’t sit well with me.

But, at the end of the day, the issue that kept nagging at me, was simply that it’s not the way I intended to travel Africa. I wanted to be out, hating life while cramped on local transport, getting stranded on the outskirts of random villages when the minibus breaks down, meeting locals in countries like D.R.C. and Burundi, and basically having adventures and stories I find to be worth retelling. I wanted to be out, riding the 3-4 day train from Dar Es Salaam to Zambia, volunteering with the IAPF (International Anti-Poaching Foundation) in Zimbabwe, and basically, having the freedom to make my own choices. I have never been a fan of the Contiki/Busabout type tours, where a bunch of travellers pile onto a bus and rush through an area, spending 1 night here, 1 there, drunk a lot of the time, and shopping the rest. As someone who has only observed, it appears that, on those tours, you see a place but don’t “see” it, and the overland trucks remind me of that, just with a grittier marketing angle. After all, it’s a truck, not a bus.

West From Zanzibar

I was in Zanzibar a few weeks back, for the Sauti Za Busara music festival, with a large group of friends. Over the week there, I shot 12 rolls of film. One roll was misloaded, 2 rolls were lost, and another was developed wrong by the studio. While some photos were of the ¬†music performances, most were shot around the streets. I still haven’t got everything developed, and I have been busy since, creating a backlog for myself. While there is plenty more, it will have to wait…

For now, here’s one. Wandering Stonetown one evening, I happened across an appropriately named “Soccer Beach”. I gathered the name from the graffiti at the entrance, and from the group of boys playing soccer on the beach. Obvious huh. Anyway, as the sun was setting, this dhow sailed between it and myself, allowing for a cliched photo opportunity.

A Quick Guide to Film Photography in Nairobi, Kenya

If anyone needs any help arguing that analog photography is a dying breed, they only need to come somewhere like Kenya. Film supplies, and developing services are dismal here. Don’t get me wrong, there is a relative abundance of photo studios, but few have the capacity to properly deal with film. Surprisingly (or not), digital cameras, and camera phones, have replaced film cameras so much, that the younger generations are completely oblivious to the concept of film photography.

That said, most kids in Australia are probably exactly the same.

I spent 3 months in Nairobi searching. Everytime I found another photo studio, I asked again. For 3 months, I continued to find photo studios buried throughout Nairobi and it’s outlying suburbs, and they continued to say they didn’t have it. Some had no idea where to find it, some suggested different studios, accompanied with incorrect directions and addresses. Others looked at me like I was crazy for even mentioning it. I knew I was getting desparate when I started asking in small studios I saw in dusty towns. I was hunting for black and white film, an item not too difficult to come across in Europe, I found, but proved almost impossible here. Nevertheless, after probably 50 studios, 10 suggestions, 8 incorrect directions from suggestions, and a lot of blank faces, I finally found my black and white film. The day before I left for Zanzibar.

Still, from that 3 months of searching, I gained enough information to provide a respectable breakdown of the film photography scene in Nairobi, to save anyone else in my position the hassle. The good thing I can say, is that it can be a much cheaper endeavour over here, if you are willing to sacrifice on quality.

Film Availability and Pricing

Unlike black and white film, colour is still easy to come across, due to the presence of the ‘paparazzi’. Don’t confuse them with western paparazzi – these guys crash weddings, funerals, and all those private family events, uninvited, make themselves at home and ruin other peoples views, just to take some boring photos, then rush off to the nearest studio, develop and print the photos, and rush back to the function to sell them, and make their profit. It’s not glamorous.

In a lot of studios, you will be able to find cheap 36exp rolls Kodak Profoto 100, or Fuji Prophoto 200, for 150/- (Just under $2). Depending where you are, they may be expired, but they do produce decent colour, in the right light. A small collection of studios will have other, nicer films, like Kodak Gold, or normal Fuji 200. If you want ‘better’ Kodak film, step into a Nakumatt. Some of them have a camera section, with a small selection of Kodak films, all 270-350/- ($3-4).

Ngong markets - Cheap Fuji film

Colour slide film.. forget about it. I already found what are probably the only two studios carrying slide film (Kodak Elite Chrome), and it was all expired in 2007-08. They gave it to me for free.

Black and White. Most people here, when I ask if they have it, don’t know why I would want to use it. One person recommended a studio called Colourcut. Following their directions I found Fuji Colourcuts, which had 2 rolls of cheap Lucky B&W for 250/-. 6 weeks later, I found Kodak Colourcut, 2 blocks over. This is one of the two places in Nairobi that I can say with confidence sells B&W film. Here I found Ilford PAN100 and PAN400, both at 250/- a roll. This studio supplies to the universities also, so when in stock, they also have chemicals. They have been out of stock for a while. The only downside, is this film is expired. You can’t tell when, but whoever imports it has decided to scratch the expiry date off of every single box of film.
The second black and white option is Fuji Neopan, also expired. But this one is found by asking the people at the Fujifilm studio in Junction to make some phone calls to ask, then checking in a few times more, then they will have found it.

Alternative formats…. Good luck. I have stumbled across 120 film once or twice. All of it expired, while in untouched original wrapping. Again, go to Junction..

Developing

If you plan on developing yourself, bring your own gear. There’s no developing tanks or reels, and definitely no chemicals. The only possibility is the Colourcut place mentioned above, and even that’s a gamble.

If you plan on outsourcing, you should only pay 50/- a roll for flat developing (but they will quote with prints). Things you will be risking are spots/marks on the film (dirty water, or very old chemicals), or scratched film (there’s a lot of dust, and most of the studios will give your film to you in one uncut roll, dumped in a paper bag). And don’t develop in town, those studios are overpriced, awful, and lack customer service. True story: I had 2 rolls of film developed at a place called Photo Vision, and paid up front (Also don’t do this). They ruined one of the rolls completely, and refused a refund. If you can handle waiting a couple days to pick up the film, take it to the studio at Junction Mall. They take it to their head studio to develop (don’t know where that is), but they will at least return your film in decent condition, cut and placed in those little plastic negative sleeves.

What you risk when developing - Calcium spots

By the way, if you want to shoot black and white here, either bring your own developing equipment, or wait til you get home. The only B&W developer I found charged me 250/- per roll, took a weeks turnaround, and returned to me one of the grainiest 100 speed films I have ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, I love grain, that’s what I like about b&w, but still.

I may be wrong, but this looks a little grainy for PAN100.. (Click for the large version if you don't believe me)

Printing & Scanning

4×6 is looking at anywhere from 10/- up. There’s some places that do 8 bob, but I don’t print my photos here, so can’t say anything more on the matter. I did receive a number of enlargers as a gift for asking questions at Studio Mona in Hurlingham (I haven’t printed there, but a friend says they do decent large prints) but that doesn’t help anyone else.

As for scanning, I have never had much luck. Rolls always come out misaligned in the scans, and the frames drift into each other, leaving me with 2/3 one frame and 1/3 the next. I found a photo studio behind the Nakumatt Karen (not to be confused with the studio next to the main entrance) which scans each roll onto CD for 250/- and includes a proof sheet. The studio in Junction charges 500/- and doesn’t have the proof sheet. Can’t offer any other options, because once I find something acceptable, I stick with it. Or google “DIY film scanners”.

Cameras

Overpriced. For a decent condition film camera, I have been quoted 35,000 shillings (That’s about $400) at Elite Studios. Photo Hive, on Moi Avenue, has some cameras, but after examining a $80 Yashica MAT124, it was irreparable. Some of the studios around town do have them, but you are seriously gambling on price and condition (central Nairobi is very dusty, very polluted, and most of these cameras aren’t stored well. Spare parts are difficult, and many won’t strip down a broken camera to sell you a piece of it. Just hope nothing goes wrong, or carry spares, or find someone to bring replacements. Remember, it only gets worse out in the country.

In summary, don’t expect to find any professional film. If you are coming from outside, bring everything you will need. Even though you might find some things, it’s a hassle to find which studio will stock it, and most storage conditions leave much to be desired. If you buy and develop here, you can get yourself operating as cheap as 200/- spent on every 36 photos, but the film quality might show it.

Elephants Can Be Orphans Too

It’s true. Baby elephants get orphaned, just like humans. Mummy elephant could be killed or injured. Hell, maybe she could even disown the baby, leaving it in some sort of jungle dumpster. As a Biology graduate, I have no actual idea if that happens.

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, located on the outskirts of Nairobi, has been established to rescue and raise these orphaned elephant kids. The babies live out in the park, under their carers constant supervision. The carers sleep with the elephants at night, to watch over and feed them, until they are old enough to get out and explore the world. Every day they come into the feeding centre for lunch. The feeding centre is on the edge of the Nairobi National Park. It’s also one of the few real tourist attractions in town. I have been twice, and both times found it overpopulated by people who clearly fit the tourist bill. Think safari-looking clothes, rugged hiking boots, big floppy hats, or for the youngsters, think short shorts and singlet tops to cope with the heat. And of course, more cameras than most camera stores in town, and plenty of sunburnt arms and legs. For me, I went the first time with some little kids, and the second time with some friends just arrived. As a Biology graduate, I do enjoy seeing the little elephants play around, but it gets old quick, and I’d rather see them in the wild, personally…

Coming in for feeding

That said, it IS a good jumpstart into Kenya’s wildlife, for those with an impending safari. The elephant orphanage is part of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and every day between 11am and Noon, visitors can come to the centre, pay a measly, or hefty, 500 shilling “donation” (about $5-6… hefty depending on your budget) to watch the rangers feed the baby elephants, and give a speech/lesson about the shelter, what they do, and an introduction to some of the elephants. If you dig baby elephants, get there on time, because the little ones get fed first. Yes, you can touch them if they come close enough. There’s also a solitary white rhino chilling in its cage, and warthogs trotting around the grounds from time to time. Since it’s set inside the Nairobi National Park, there’s the chance, however slim, that a lion could cross your path on the way in, but I definitely think the odds are against us.

Even if you aren’t so keen on elephants, but willing to coff up the mandatory donation, the amusement gathered from listening to the dumb questions some people ask ( Sorry American, no offence to all of you, I know you all aren’t this ridiculous). On my more recent visit, we had an American man, keen to display his immense interest in all things elephant, by asking a series of questions. He started with “how old is the youngest elephant”, a fact stated probably 3 times in the course of the feeding. He followed with more questions, asking for information already told to him.. But the coup de gras was his final question:

“Do all the elephants get released into the wild, or are some trained to become circus elephants?” Come on guy, seriously??

Heading back to the bush