Mike visited:

» Thailand
» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

View a map of his route.

 press/awards earned a few nice mentions in the press, including's vote as best travel blog on the Web. Read about it on the Press/Awards page.

Review of the Journey So Far - Part Three

On June 27 I flew from Egypt to Uganda. At that point, I'd been on the road for almost nine months, and I was feeling about as seasoned as a traveler can get. I had mastered the art of long-term drifting – of fitting into foreign places, making friends, feeling at home wherever I was – or so I thought.

Africa is a travel challenge unto its own. Like India, nothing can really prepare you for it. It yielded some of my all-time travel highs (gorilla trekking, chief-crowning ceremony) and also some major lows (loneliness, attempted mugging in Durban, long-haul bus rides in Mozambique).

Here's a summary of my time in East and Southern Africa.

man with bunches of matoke
When you think of equatorial Africa you think heat. Blazing, sticky, stifling heat. But the temperature in much of mountainous Uganda is mild and, at times, downright chilly.

Kampala, the capital, has 1.5 million residents, but it felt bigger and more congested than it should have. On my inaugural walk around town I felt conspicuous and unable to get my bearings; the Ugandans I met seemed cool and disinterested; I became convinced that the matatus, or public minibuses, were trying to knock me down when I crossed the road. I bought a gorilla trekking permit from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority office and then fled the city in one of the most crowded and dilapidated busses I've ever squeezed into.

Mr. Andronico
Sitting on the car ferry out to the Ssesse Islands, I was so struck by the beauty of the country that I forgot to remark on crossing the equator for the first time in my life. A hornbill swooped down and scooped a fish out of Lake Victoria's impossibly blue water. A man sitting next to me smiled and said, "Welcome to Uganda."

Ssesse Islanders Mr. Andronico and a lovely girl named Claire helped me see that what I'd perceived as disinterest in Ugandans was in fact modesty and reserve. Most Ugandans waited for me to make the first move but, once I did, were among the most genial and generous people I've met.

young gorilla in Bwindi
The highlight of my visit was a gorilla trek in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Relatively few tourists come to Uganda, making my experiences seem more essential and unique. But it also made for a lonely visit. Finding rides between smaller cities was extremely difficult as well.

In spite of the hardships (maybe because of them), Uganda was my favorite country in East Africa. As always, it comes down to the people and, as far as I'm concerned, you can't find a more interesting or accommodating bunch. Uganda is a special place. Dealt severe blows over past decades, the country has rebounded and the spirit of her people inspires.

train window view
I traveled from Kampala, Uganda to Mwanza, Tanzania on a Lake Victoria cargo ferry and, although the journey was only 16 hours, the contrast between the two countries was profound. Even the coastlines looked radically different. Where Uganda was all mist and green mountains, Tanzania was scorched, scrubby hills and dramatic khaki planes. The people looked different too – lighter skinned and more varied in appearance. Swahili is Tanzania's official language; few people speak English.

Upon entering the country, a customs official tried to swindle me, but I fought the power.

From Mwanza I took a three-day, two-night train to Dar es Salaam. Built by the Germans in the 1920's, it was the slowest train ride I've ever taken, and also the most spectacular. We passed through dramatic scenery – vast grassy planes dotted with acacia and baobab trees, craggy mountains with rocky outcrops, thick

lion in the Serengeti
forests, endless desert wastelands, and long stretches of classic African savannah. The train stopped several times each day in small towns and the passengers got out, stretched their legs, and purchased grilled frog-kabobs. At night in the dining car a group of ladies taught me Swahili pickup lines over bottles of Kilimanjaro Beer.

My safari in Serengeti National Park was the highpoint of my trip to Tanzania.

Zanzibar had beautiful beaches and the highest concentration of tourists I'd seen in months. The ferry ride back to the mainland was so rough that the main passenger cabin morphed into a vomitorium.

"Malawi is a beautiful country," the customs official said as he stamped my passport. "You'll have a wonderful time here." The visa was free, the guards were friendly, and nobody tried to bribe me – it was my best border crossing yet.

beach scene with dugout canoes
I'd intended to pass through Malawi quickly, but I got stuck in Nkhata Bay, a lakeside travelers' paradise.

Malawians are some of the friendliest people on earth. They're also among the poorest.

Throughout my year abroad, whenever anyone told me that they wanted to move to America, I responded with the following:

  • Life in the USA isn't as easy as you think
  • Not everyone in the USA is rich
  • You make more but things cost more
  • Not everyone in the USA is happy
  • There are destitute people in the USA
  • Ultimately, quality of life is not so different

A forestry research worker near Mzuzu made me realize what a load of hogwash that is. "In the United States it doesn't matter what kind of job you have – you can clean toilets for a living – but still you will drive a car to work," he said. "I am an educated man with a government job – one of the best jobs you can have in this country – but I will never have a car. So don't tell me that there is little difference between my country and yours."

Lake Malawi is the most beautiful, sea-like lake I've ever seen. I snorkeled every day I was in Nkhata Bay and did a nice freshwater dive too. Then I took a three-day cruise on the Illala, and old converted steamer, with a group of people I'd met at a hotel.

Edgar helped me find my way in Tete
"How is Mozambique different from Malawi?" I asked Edgar, a Mozambiquan student whom I'd met at the border.

"Well, jobs are easier to find in Mozambique, and they pay more," Edgar said. "Also, the food is much better. People in Malawi don't know how to cook properly."

In most former colonies, the colonial language is used as a common second language – a bridge between tribes and ethnic groups. But in Mozambique, Portuguese seemed to be most people's first language. Out of all the countries I've visited, English was least widely spoken here. I'm sure my fumbling Spanish was an embarrassment to both Spanish and Portuguese speakers, but it helped.

manta ray and diver
I'd primarily come to Mozambique to see manta rays near Tofo Beach.

Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, has style. It sits on a hill overlooking Maputo Bay, has a beautiful tropical climate, and is packed with old colonial buildings, including two designed by Gustav Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame). Maputo is also home to some of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. My two weeks in the city were all about live jazz music, outdoor cafes, fresh seafood, and nightclubs.

In hindsight, I would have allocated more time to Mozambique and explored the north, especially Ilha de Moçambique.

Elvis Mohammed on Sibebe rock
Of all the countries I visited, I knew the least about Swaziland before entering. Initially, the shopping malls, BMWs, and dog walkers in Mbabane shocked me, but outside the city I met some of the most charismatic and unique people in all of Africa.

Progressive when it comes to business and the environment, Swaziland is extremely traditional in terms of their culture and monarchy. The country is divided into chiefdoms, with Chiefs acting as representatives of the King. Polygamy is legal; King Mswati has nine wives; his father, King Sobhuza II, married 70 women and sired 210 children. During the Ncwala, or first fruit ceremony, members of the King's regiment kill a bull with their bare hands.

chief-crowning ceremony
I lucked into attending a chief-crowning ceremony with some UN workers outside of Mbabane.

South Africa
My first impulse upon entering South Africa was to flee – to retreat into Mozambique. I wasn't ready for strip malls, $4 coffees, perfect roads, resort towns, holidaymakers, fudge shops, and dormitory accommodation.

Weeks later I realized that you can have "authentic" experiences anywhere you go, regardless of how touristy or developed a place is. It all depends on your approach. Also, most of South Africa is rural and undeveloped.

Jackie, me, and the rental car
South Africa is a complicated place. Theatrical productions of Cry the Beloved Country and Nothing But the Truth helped me understand it better, as did a township tour and conversations with locals. South Africa's spirit of truth, reconciliation, and forgiveness is inspiring.

When you see the physical beauty of South Africa it's easy to understand why so many people were willing to fight for it. Gentle green hills roll down from dramatic rocky mountains, rivers carve deep gorges though the interior, empty beaches sprawl, and endless skies shift and sulk. To take in as much of the country as possible, I rented a car with a Dutch girl named Jackie and drove from East London to Cape Town.

atop Table Mountain in Cape Town
While sitting on the rocks at Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa, it dawned on me that my trip – this hectic, magnificent, eye-opening year – was really about to end. I'd been looking forward to my homecoming for weeks (especially after a gang of thugs tried to mug me in Durban) but, as I stared at the point where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet, enjoyed the sunshine, and thought about all the experiences and accomplishments I'd had over four continents, 15 countries, and 400 days, I felt wistful. I was already missing the movement and adventure.

I'm assuming I contracted bilharzia in Lake Malawi because I had the telltale "swimmers' rash" on my hands and abdomen where the worms had entered my body. Fortunately, these parasites are no match for five horse-pills of Praziquantel.

Apart from that, I was in perfect health throughout my time in Africa.

I was finally able to get off doxycycline (an anti-malarial) in South Africa. I took doxy for 350 days without any apparent side effects. And I never contracted malaria.

Travel in Africa can be dangerous. I met travelers who'd been mugged or robbed in every country I visited. These are, after all, some of the poorest countries on earth, home to thousands of desperate people. Still, I believe there is more good in the world than bad and, if you keep your wits about you, you can travel almost anywhere without incident.

equipment in the Pac Safe
I returned home with all the equipment I set out with; nothing was stolen, lost, or discarded. The key? Discretion and a PacSafe (for locking stuff up in hotel rooms while I was out).

I kept the video camera locked up most of the time in Africa. It often felt dangerous and slightly piggish (techno-gluttony?) to bring it out in public.

The equipment held up beautifully; there were no accidents, breakdowns, or power failures – remarkable considering the beatings I administered.

The Project
I loved producing and I'll miss working on it. In 409 days I:

  • shot 41 hours of video
  • took over 7,000 photographs (and posted 405 good ones)
  • wrote 50 travelogue articles
  • produced 40 video shorts

In the month of November, the site received 18,359 visitors (611 per day), and served over 8 gigabytes of data. There are currently 1098 newsletter subscribers.

Serengeti sunsets beat SUV ownership
You can live on next to nothing in East Africa, but if you want to go on safari, climb mountains, run rapids, or do just about anything else, it'll cost you. I opted for some pricey trips ($600 safari in Tanzania, $250 gorilla trek, $150 shark dive) and spent an average of $40 a day – still under my $50/day budget.

For the entire trip, I averaged around $35 per day including transportation, meals, entertainment – everything. $35 x 365 days = $12,775. That's cheaper than a year at most colleges, less than the cost of an average American wedding, and a third as much as a sport utility vehicle.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. It was the best decision I've made in my life.


What do you think?

  • Which African country would you most like to visit?
  • Is life in the USA as easy as some people around the world think?
  • Would you prefer a new SUV or a year of travel?
Posted on December 03, 2003 06:08 PM


Comments (post your own below)


During the last 14 months you've been a great inspiration for all of us planning to do a "round the world" trip someday. Thanks for everything. Sincerely,
Filipe, Portugal

Posted by: Filipe Morato Gomes on December 3, 2003 07:48 PM


Thank you so much for your travels around the world. Part I of your Vagabonding experience might be over, but Part II is soon around the corner. Once a Vagabond, always a Vagabond.

I'm saving up my pennies and ditching my $4 hope that I can save up enough money to take a year off.

I'm not sure if you kept a budget for every country you were in. I would love to see a break-down of your expenses.

Mostly, I just want to thank you for everything.

Posted by: kraabel on December 4, 2003 09:39 AM

Hey Mike,
Nice to logon and see another precious vagabonding “fix” waiting to scratch my itch. I was wondering if/when you'd get around to posting the final article(s). The pace of life back on familiar turf is unfortunately a bit turbocharged.

The $15K my wife and I spent on a year’s travel and souvenirs a half-decade ago was one of the best investments of our lives. Thanks again for sharing yours with us – I thoroughly enjoyed the journey!

Although I’ve spent some time in Ghana, It sounds like the cool climate of Uganda would improve my overall view of Africa as a future destination.

The flip side of your second question is: “Is life in these second and third world countries as “easy” for a local as it seems to the vagabonder who’s just passing through?”. In general I think not.

…a one-way plane ticket and lots of long crowded bus rides any day. OK, it’s been 5 years and I’ve basically forgotten about those many hours on overcrowded buses in SE Asia where I physically couldn’t fit my 6’4” frame into the seat, but what a time that was!

Congrats Mike, you’ve set the bar high for future vagalogers. Here’s to hoping someone follows in your footsteps very soon, as I’m not looking forward to the impending withdrawal symptoms!

Best wishes on your new stateside adventure,

Posted by: Schmank Bomb on December 4, 2003 10:14 AM

Congratulations on accomplishing a wonderful adventure! Your well written stories, great photos, and entertaining videos kept me coming back for more. A whole hearted thanks for sharing.

May your future journeys be as amazing. Hopefully, with your fans virtually in tow.


Posted by: Hans on December 4, 2003 04:25 PM

I'm a bit of a newcomer in following this web site, but I'd like to thank you for providing such great insights into your journey. Even though you were halfway across the globe, somehow your entries had very real application to our lives (or at least my life) here in the U.S.

The financial figures of your trip are amazing to me. I am on the verge of deciding on a four-year university to attend, and somehow, I think that money would be better spent on four years of travel.

It's been wonderful having a site like this; one that truly brings thought and dignity to the Internet.. I hope the transition process goes well now that you are back in the U.S., and may you always find a journey in whatever it is you decide to do with your life now.

Posted by: Sunny on December 5, 2003 03:11 PM

I am currently living in Germany, and the thing that strikes me most is the difference in housing. Here one can rent a house for 850 euros a month...and that is considered a good price for 120 square meters. And this house has a tiny backyard...about the size of most back porches in America. The house also is built against the neighboring house. No space inbetween. This is considered a pretty good accomplishment. Compare that to an American house...850 dollars a month of mortgage payments can get you, in most cases, at least double that.

So, the standard of living is not necessarily higher in America, but it is far easier to accomplish goals and enjoy nice things, I would say.

I would also say that most people that I have encountered imagine just a little too much about America. They usually think that it is ideal, and it is not ideal all the time. However, in comparison...sometimes it looks that way.

One thing is for sure, my time abroad has made me appreciate my home even more.

Posted by: Caleb on December 5, 2003 03:14 PM

I'm going to go with the SUV. 'specially if it is a range rover. cuz they are bad-ass!!!

Posted by: on December 5, 2003 04:55 PM

An inspiration! Great job Mike.

You are courageous and I so enjoyed following your journey. I liked to imagine being there and your logs were so well written that at times I felt that I was.
I would take the sunset over the SUV anyday!

Thank you!

Posted by: Wendy on December 6, 2003 12:43 PM

I've spent the last 4 or so years traveling here, studying abroad there. But it wasn't until last year (around the time of your departure) that I made the ultimate decision to make the rtw a reality. the savings have started and the departure date, though loosely tentative, is still set. I even took the virtual leap and purchased the url. (what can i say, your trip has been inspirational) Thanks a lot, josh

Posted by: Joshua on December 6, 2003 12:57 PM


I've been religiously reading your blog for the past six months, but never commented on how inspirational your trip has been for me. When is the book coming out?


Posted by: Luke on December 6, 2003 01:01 PM

Mike -- How about a book now?

Posted by: victor on December 6, 2003 09:53 PM

Luke & Victor,

What would you like to see in a vagabonding book? A tell-all ("Too Hot for the Internet" "Travelers Gone Wild")? A stronger narrative that connects these stories? More day-to-day descriptions? More of the back-story?

Posted by: mike on December 8, 2003 11:18 AM

Way to go! Don't get too comfortable, because I am sure you'll soon want to take off to some remote corner of the world again.
I will keep checking back, so you better keep posting!

Posted by: Josh Vise on December 8, 2003 11:20 AM

Congratulations on a job well done! I have so enjoyed traveling 'with' you. Wouldn't matter to me what African country I went to. My motto: Any travel is good travel. SUV or a year of travel? No contest. I don't care how many years I could drive the SUV. Happy Holidays!

Posted by: Nenita on December 8, 2003 02:14 PM

"Too Hot For the Internet" sounds intriguing, but I think it'd be great if you could just pull most of your entries from the site and connect them with either a narrative or more stories in between. How you got to each of your destinations, for example. Getting there is half the adventure, right?

Posted by: Sunny on December 9, 2003 08:33 AM


The mix of information on your site is perfect. If I was to design the Vagabonding book, I'd write it narrational, with solid chapters on money, gear, health and security and lodging.

Your photos have been amazing. I'd make full-color photos about 20 percent of the book's content.

If you haven't read it already, check out Peter Jenkin's book, "Across China," published 1986. I picked it up at a used book sale and it has been seriously one of the coolest travel accounts I've ever read.


Posted by: Luke on December 9, 2003 09:54 AM

you traveled throughout uganda and south africa without one mention of the thing that is swiftly devastating both of these nations. did you see or talk to people about the aids pandemic there?

Posted by: mork on December 9, 2003 12:17 PM

vagabonding is one of the best websites i've ever been on. i'm only 16, but i'm already planning my rtw trip for when i leave school.
a book would be great idea. thanks for a truly inspirational site.

Posted by: neil on December 9, 2003 04:27 PM


I also didn't mention poverty, women's rights, ballooning populations, deforestation, and the increase in violent crime. I wanted to depict a different side of Africa, something apart from television news footage of evil dictators, famines, and shocking health reports. Also, I wanted to stay away from subjects I know little about.

Still, you make a good point.

The AIDS pandemic loomed over all my interactions throughout Africa. With UN, Peace Corps, and other aid workers, it was the number one topic of conversation. Older local people discussed the situation with me honestly, but few seemed to acknowledge the full extent of the crisis. Younger people mentioned it in passing – and immediately followed with pledges of their abstinence/commitment to safe sex.

The situation in Uganda appears to be getting better. In 1998 Museveni's government launched an aggressive campaign to educate people on ways to avoid contracting the virus. On his recent visit, Bush praised Uganda's efforts in controlling the spread of AIDS and reducing the stigma surrounding it. Still, no hard data is available on the actual number of infected people. Some of the patients at the mobile medical clinic were almost certainly suffering from AIDS.

The situation in Swaziland is more troubling. UN workers told me that the infection rate there is at 38.6%, making it the 2nd most afflicted country in the world (Botswana is #1 with 38.8%). With numbers like that, you'd expect to see seriously ill people all over the place; you'd expect it to be a country of almost total sorrow. And yet, from what I saw, the Swazis appeared healthy, happy, and better off then most of their neighbors. Perhaps most of the full-blown cases are bedridden and out of sight. Also, AIDS is deceptive like that – you can be sick without displaying symptoms. Still, when I looked around on a crowded bus, it was impossible to believe that more than a third of the passengers were infected.

Many people in East and Southern Africa attributed the rise in violent crime to the hopelessness caused by the AIDS pandemic.

Yes, I saw suffering firsthand, and I discussed the situation with many people. It's a complicated issue with no easy solutions but, as Uganda has demonstrated, honesty and communication are crucial first steps.

Posted by: mike on December 9, 2003 04:43 PM

If you decide to write a book I would suggest doing it in the format you're most comfortable with. I enjoy reading more narratives than "how to" guides.

Posted by: megan on December 10, 2003 03:49 PM

"Mike's got worms". I like the sound of that.

Posted by: Chuck on December 10, 2003 03:51 PM

Too hot for the internet ey? :D

Here i was thinking 'I hope mike got some action on his trip because I haven't read anything about it yet...'

Don't leave me lingering :D

Posted by: Martin on December 11, 2003 01:06 PM

Congratulations for your safe back home; looks like some of my (virtual) travel colleagues like you and Ramon from Holland ( will stop travelling for a while. On Dec 31st I will start the 4th leg of my solo "tour around the world in 80 cybercafes" in Lima, Perú, and, as far as the health will continue OK, I don´t think I will get ever tired of travelling; maybe sounds extrange, but I feel more relaxed when I´m on the road than back home, where all the daily "wastings of time" really dissapoint me. Hope you will be back soon to the road and perhaps see you sometime somewhere in real space, not only cyberspace.


Posted by: Carlos Olmo on December 16, 2003 04:49 PM

"Would you prefer a new SUV or a year of travel?"

Thanks for putting the "normal" expenses of life in a first-world country into perspective for us.

As for a book, I love your narrative style. Your photography is great, and has to be included somehow.

I'd want to read something that took us through the journey with you, very much like your entries here but with a narrative thread bringing it all together into a cohesive whole. I'd definitely want to read about your experiences, thoughts and insights rather than just another travel how-to guide.

You're in the enviable position of having just had the experiences you've had, as well as being intelligent, insightful and articulate enough to communicate something more than just another travel diary to your readers.

In short, don't change your style - just expand and fill in the gaps. I guarantee that I'll buy it when it's published, and will grab copies for my friends and family as well.

Posted by: John Dalton on December 17, 2003 08:29 PM

No doubt 'bout it!
Year of travel over SUV or all the riches of the world, Anyday!

Posted by: no doubt on December 18, 2003 06:38 PM


Your site is absolutely incredible. I am continuing to enjoy the vivid images your travelogues have painted in my mind (the photos and videos didn’t hurt either). If I had to pick a word to describe what you have accomplished, that word would be "INSPIRATIONAL". I think everyone I've shared your website with has contracted a bad case of the travel bug.

As for me, I have done a fair amount of traveling but have not yet had the opportunity to travel within the continent of Africa.

Inspired in part by your travels and in part by a longtime desire to go to the continent, I am now planning a trip to Tanzania and Kenya. One of the things I would like to do is go on a safari in the Serengeti. While I see you went on safari for $600, I can't seem to find any deals that start under about $1500 and most fall in the mid $2000 range. If possible, can you share the name of the outfit you went on safari with and any strategies you employed to get the best use of your money. For example, did you arrange your safari in advance or do you get a better deal on location?

Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

P.S. When is the next trip? There are many more countries out there I’m sure you are itching to see.

Posted by: Justin Leggroan on January 2, 2004 06:54 PM

Thanks for your kind words, Justin.

I did my safari with Bobby Tours and can recommend them. I just showed up in Arusha and booked the trip there. You can read more about my safari in the Tanzanian Safaris entry.

When's my next trip? Well, as I say in There and Back Again, I've got a few projects I want to finish first, but I'll be back on the road sooner rather than later.

Posted by: mike on January 3, 2004 02:04 PM

You made the trip that many would love to if they could or had the courage. I already traveled a lot, but nothing like this project of yours. I can't wait for your book to come out. A book is in the works, isn't it. You owe it to the world, your generation and yourself. Tell me when I can get it at Amazon.
Jorge Medeiros
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Posted by: Jorge Medeiros on June 17, 2004 08:45 PM

Comments closed.


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