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John Latta



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By on December 11, 2013 in Travel with No Comments

Travel as a Passion

Going to different places has always been a desire. Exploring the unknown in terms of places and people has attracted me. Travel is a passion. I have been to 151 countries, by an approximate UN country count, and 176 based on the Century Club count. It is a quest without end and will be impossible to complete. The world is a dangerous place and what is mostly left are places that I best not go to.

I can remember, after receiving the Ph.D. and securing a government research contract, I was allowed to do a fact finding trip related to my research. I went to Scotland, England, France, Germany and Switzerland. Loved it. This was my first independent trip outside of North America. The seeds were planted which would change my life and quest for understanding the world.

Another remembrance had an impact and it was a neighborhood party shortly after moving to Alexandria, VA in the late 1970’s. I distinctly remember a conversation between guests where they spoke of Cairo and other cities like it was just another city. They were locked in conversation about what they liked and did not in what to me were unknown places. This also set the stage that there are no boundaries on what is one’s neighborhood.

My work in technology enabled me to travel extensively and especially in the last 20 years throughout the world. In most cases I went to technical conferences. Each conference offered an opportunity to “divert” to another far off place and visit new countries. As a result my experiences increased.

In the last 15 years, as the traditional places, such as Europe had largely been visited, travel took on a new dimension. Filling in the holes. This became yet another travel experience. It takes a very different mindset. Some of the marathon trips would last 5 weeks with 15+ countries. Getting off an airplane, a bus or train I would have no idea what to expect and everything would be alien to me. One must hit the ground navigating to a place to stay and in some cases finding a place to stay.

In spite of the preparation for long trips I do not book all the reservations for the trip at one time but in segments as the trip progressed. A key reason is the if one flight is missed this can impact all the rest of the trip and be costly. Thus, as the trip unfolds a city will become “next phase hub.” When this happens tickets are purchased online, hotel reservations are made and a plan of next phase put in place. Critical to this is having a good Internet connection. Georgetown, Guyana was such a city but it took 3 hotels to find one which had a reliable connection I could use. It is not pleasant when the front desk is asked – do you have a reliable Internet connection – only to be told YES and then in the room it does not even work. SORRY at the front desk does not mean much when one has to head out again to find another hotel.

Safety is always a concern and I have had a number of robberies and attempted robberies. Over time a set of do’s and don’ts have been developed which have largely kept me safe. But yet in Pakistan and Afghanistan one could never feel safe.

As I visited more countries a pattern developed around these mantras: Explore, Engage and Record.

  • Explore
  • When getting to a country one of the first actions, after finding a place to stay, is determining what is safe. At the front desk of the hotel they are well informed and can advise on what to do, where to go and what to avoid. One cardinal rule is that I do not go out after dark.
  • Exploration takes two forms: getting some form of transportation to see as much as possible and the other is walking. It is not unusual to walk for 4 – 6 hours a day. I like to take public transportation, in any form, to see what the locals use and to mix.
  • Based on the area, I will hire a driver to see more that can be done on foot. Two areas where this worked very well were Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
  • Engage
  • I learn from others. I ask 1,000’s of questions. When traveling one learns by asking and engaging others. I have had many incredible experiences talking with locals and listening to their stories. Some use me to practice English, others want know how I live and some even what to know about America. I remember after a conversation in an airport, with an American expat married to a Kuwaiti, she said “I never talk with a stranger like the conversation we had.”
  • Record
  • Each night I write down all that happened during the day. It is typical to have 100+ pages after a long trip. This is the only way I can remember all that went on. My notes are a wonderful record of the experience.
  • Further, I take many pictures. On a long trip it is not unusual to have 5,000+ photos. This is a record of where I went. Even with this I come back wondering if I took this and find that there is no picture. I try to take some striking photos with an eye to composition but the vast majority are just photos of where I went.

As the county count increased the following was the reality:

  • Visas
  • A trip is largely defined by the Visas collected in advance. This does not set the agenda but defines the countries one can go. Getting visas in the Washington DC area is a good news bad news story. The good news is that virtually the embassies are here and accessible in a 30 minute drive from my home. The bad news is that most countries issue visas with the expectation that the traveler will fry from the US on a given date to the country being applied for and exit on a given date. This is not the way I travel. But one learns how to navigate the frequently Byzantine rules.
  • Difficult Access
  • Most travel is based on convenience. This changes when one seeks to visit a country because not having been there. Access is frequently a challenge.
  • When I went to get visas for all the countries in Central Asia the passport service said – we typically only get 2 requests a year for this. This trip was one of the most difficult I have taken.
  • Getting to French Guiana, other than from Paris, is quite a challenge. Isolated in Europe are Andorra and San Marino and seldom on the travel path for Americans.
  • Those countries which have difficult entry conditions such as Turkmenistan and Bhutan require considerable preparation and can be expensive.
  • Going to the Russia Far East was one of the most difficult to plan and accomplish. When we went, we were the only visitors that year that came to Provideniya from the West and then had a chartered flight back to Alaska. This was at the end of a long trip and I called it the “rescue flight.”
  • Adapting
  • The cornerstone of a long trip is planning. It can take from weeks to 6 months to get ready for a trip. No matter how much is planned one cannot anticipate all the issues.
  • When we arrived in the Anadyr’, in the Russia Far East, our guide failed to show. The airport closed on the weekend but with enough supplies in our bags we camped on a bench for 2 days to wait out a flight to our next destination. It was grim.
  • Seeking to continue a long trip to Central and South America while in Caracas it was clear that going south to Bolivia, Paraguay and Chile was going to take a 36 flight through Panama. Flight connections were better via Miami. So the trip was modified to do a circuit of countries in the Caribbean. A return trip was later accomplished to just go to the missing countries in South America.
  • While on a recent trip to West Africa I had a visa to Nigeria but no way to get there. Many attempts explored but it was impossible to find a path, at least by air. The end result I was unable to visit Legos and modified the trip on the fly.

In the 40 years I have been actively traveling literally everything has changed. Some of the changes are:

  • Internet
  • This has transformed travel. With the often exception of local arrangements, everything can be researched and booked online. Now virtually every country has Internet access and especially in the hotels.
  • Flight planning and booking has been turned upside down with Kayak. A key reason is the depth of coverage of airlines around the world. The ticket purchase of some foreign carriers can be taxing at best due to the lack of English on the site and poor web site design.
  • Smartphone and Tablets
  • I do not carry a smartphone with me but a mini iPad. I do not try to get an international data plan in the US before departing. Got stung once by being connected only a few minutes in a country that was not on the “comprehensive” data plan country list. Increasingly, it is possible to get data SIM cards for an iPad at airports. This allows me to connected in the country for a reasonable cost. WiFi calling is now available so this would allow an iPad or iPhone to be a phone in a foreign country but have not tried this.
  • Maps.me
  • I love maps. Have file drawers full of them from every part of the world. But looking at maps while walking is obsolete. Using the Map.me one can download all the Google map information for a country and store it on the device – the iPad mini in my case. As I leave a hotel I just drop a pin. Then as I walk it is only necessary to go back to the pin. While I am walking I know exactly where I am. It is like magic but just technology.
  • While in Lilongwe, Malawi I was walking in a poor section of the central area. I saw a bewildered soul who was a tourist also. We finally connected and I asked him what he was looking for. He cited the hostel he was to stay that night but could not find it. I pulled out the iPad and found the place in short order. Awesome.
  • Travel Agents
  • Have not used a travel agent in 15+ years to book a trip. One may be required for specialized travel or location, such as Bhutan or Turkmenistan but this is the exception.
  • Security
  • This is a necessary inconvenience. It may be hard to believe but there are many countries where it is much more stringent that in the US. For example, in Irbil, Iraq, there are 3 rings around the airport from outside the facility, to the terminal and then the gates. While in Kabul, Afghanistan the same layered security was present but once in the gate area another passenger had his laptop stolen. No one seemed to care. In Karachi, Pakistan the terminal was ringed with machine gun nests. Unfortunately shortly after I visited the airport had an attack which lasted many hours.

In spite of all the travel one still has a void. Something is missing. My thoughts include.

  • Passive Experience
  • Travel is a passive experience. One sees but does not impact or change. There are some exceptions to this such as in-country charity work. Yet, there is an ongoing debate if all the aid efforts in Africa make a difference. I spoke with an MD in Malawi who had worked in a village clinic. Success was measured by the fact that no one had died that day. Efforts to stem polio in Pakistan are failing. Thus, what one traveler can do hardly registers. I am only an observer.
  • Risk vs Visit
  • I continually struggle with the balance – going or not going based on the in country health or security issues. A recent plan to West Africa was scrubbed due to the Ebola outbreak. I have looked a number of times going to Yemen but the security situation is unacceptable. One of the problems in Africa and the Middle East is kidnapping has become a source of income. Facing this threat is just not worth the risk.
  • Long vs Short
  • I am often asked – why not stay longer – especially on these long trips? It is a personal choice. At this stage of my traveling I have sought to visit as many places as possible rather than extended visits. Yes, there are places I would like to spend more time in but that will wait.
  • What is Missing?
  • The large areas to be visited include Oceania and West Africa. Neither are easy to accomplish. Most of the regions of the world have been visited.
  • I continue to fantasize about visiting:
  • North Korea
  • Iran
  • Saudi Araba
  • Tourist Mold
  • There are two activities which were out of the tourist mold both being village visits. One was in Namibia and the other Bangladesh. Both provided an opportunity to see village life including in where and how individuals lived. These are visits I will not forget. Getting out of the tourism mold has provided some of my best travel experiences and I only wish I could do more.

Travel is a passion. The experiences of travel cause one to see the world differently. The newspaper stories are seen differently. Being a World Citizen changes once being.

About the Author

About the Author: With a background in Electrical Engineering technology is both a career and passion. As can be seen here visiting the world, asking questions and learning are other passions. Attempting to pass ones experiences and that learning on to others is the a motivator for this blog. .

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