Back in the Saddle…Rwanda and beyond

by Zora O'Neill on March 10, 2014

Ahhh, that was a nice little hiatus. Thanks for bearing with me. I know you were drumming your fingers impatiently on your desk all this time. While I hopped around to four different countries and completely wore myself out.

First, Peter and I went to Rwanda. As you do.

But really: Peter and I met a Rwandan (or Rwandese, as they say there) police officer a few years ago, and he invited us to visit. We figured we had better go before he forgot who we were. We also rounded up Rod, whom some of you may remember as our exceptionally great and extroverted travel partner on previous adventures.

It was my first visit to not-North Africa, and I can’t recommend the place highly enough. FWIW, Peter and Rod had been to Kenya before; they both liked Rwanda more. Which, I know, it’s not a contest. But in terms of traveling logistics and concerns, Rwanda has its act together: secure, clean and tasty food.

Don’t go to Rwanda if you’re a penny-pinching backpacker, though. Hotels in Kigali are pricey (we paid $50 for a private room at the hostel; everything else was $70+) and getting around by bus might be tricky. (We got escorted around in a car, which is just not like us.)

Another hotel we stayed in in Kigali one night. Peter and I got put in the penthouse suite--whee!

Another hotel we stayed in in Kigali one night. Peter and I got put in the penthouse suite–whee!

And, let’s be honest, Rwanda is not looking for backpacker tourists and doesn’t really want to help them out. Rwanda wants the tourists who will pay big bucks to go visit the mountain gorillas.

Which is not me and Peter. Our cop friend we were visiting did say the gorillas were amazing, and we should go. But it’s $750 per person, and besides, I just feel a little bad bothering them. My general approach to ecotourism is extreme: nature will be better off if I don’t go visit it.

Instead of visiting the gorillas, we just took a lot of photos like this. That's Rod next to me.

Instead of visiting the gorillas, we just took a lot of photos like this.

I’ll do a separate post with some more details. Suffice to say for now, we thought we would have “done” it in a week, but I am already plotting my return.

From Kigali, Peter, Rod and I all flew to Addis Ababa. As you do.

This was partly because Ethiopian Airlines was the best way to get to Abu Dhabi (long story; it involves frequent-flyer miles, so I won’t bore you). But it was also because Peter and I have both loved Ethiopian food since forever. And Ethiopian music. So why not stop?

Before we left Kigali, our police officer friend’s wife warned us that Addis would be a rough transition. “It is very dirty,” she sniffed. “Lots of chaos.” After being in pristine and orderly Rwanda, I figured any place would be.

But, whoa. Addis felt like Cairo circa 1992. The taxis are Ladas. The pollution is bad. The street kids are frenzied and miserable and one of them yoinked Rod’s phone right out of his pocket (but was clumsy and dropped it, so Rod got it back).

The mean streets of Addis Ababa.

The mean streets of Addis Ababa.

But our Bradt guidebook said of Addis that “its bark is worse than its bite,” which I think is a rather sweet assessment. And after a couple of days, I could see this was true.

It helped that, ohmygod, they really do eat Ethiopian food in Ethiopia. I will get to this in more detail.

From Addis, we flew to the UAE. In the morning, we were in a Lada taxi with smoke coming up through the floorboards. In the afternoon, we were in a leather-interior late-model Audi, being whisked along the smooth, straight highway from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. Totally disconcerting. We were so wiped out, we slept through our entire Etihad business-class flight. Rats.

We landed in Bangkok, third and final leg of the trip. If there’s one thing this trip taught me, it’s that three countries is just too damn many. I don’t know how people do the steady-nomad thing and still absorb anything. I’m glad I’ve been to Bangkok before (was this our third trip? or fourth?), because if it had been my first, I would’ve just collapsed in the street.

Peter’s mother met us, and she kept us moving–without her, we would’ve flopped by the pool at the Atlanta Hotel.

Look at us, sightseeing!

Look at us, sightseeing!

But, as a result, I came home and needed to flop around some more. Traveling thoroughly accompanied for three-plus weeks was exhausting. I did a lot of sitting on the couch and staring into space.

Then I went to Costa Rica for about ten days and stared into space some more.

And here we are. Finally. More details to come, folks.

A very nice picture Peter took of his mother and me, on the 75th form of transport of the day.

A very nice picture Peter took of his mother and me, near the end of a long and interesting day. Phew.

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TEN-GODDAMN-YEAR Anniversary

by Zora O'Neill on January 12, 2014

January 12, 2004, I started this thing, just a little bit ahead of the full-on blog frenzy. Now I’m still doing it, well after blogs have gotten old and doddering and faintly uncool.

In a perfect world, I would trawl through all the old posts and remind you of the highlights. But where is the time? I am busy eating street food in Bangkok as we speak. VERY busy.

This blog has sometimes emphasized the Roving, sometimes the Gastronome. Sometimes neither. (That post used to have a photo. No thanks to Yahoo, which fortunately no longer hosts this blog, it has vanished. Perhaps for the best.)

Either way, this blog has helped me become a better writer (proof: two posts have been the foundation of two successful book proposals), and I appreciate everyone who has followed along for the ride.

Much love to all, and thanks for reading!

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The 2013 Highlights Reel

by Zora O'Neill on December 30, 2013

The last few years, I’ve really enjoyed doing the end-of-year wrap-up. This year…it’s a tiny bit of a strain.

That’s not because 2013 sucked. It’s because I stayed home a lot, with my butt in a chair, staring at a computer screen. (See previous post.) The “writer” part of “travel writer” was the main thing going this year.

To that end, Highlight #1: I finished my $%#$#$%#$–I mean, fabulously stupendous and thrilling!–book draft. It was a little anticlimactic. One imagines triumphantly running laps to cheering crowds. Instead, one presses ‘send,’ then turns to all the other crap that has piled up in months of neglect.

(Does this mean you will very soon see my book on store shelves? No. Getting a book into book form takes a good long time. Anticipated publication date is February 2015. Please keep your breath bated till then!)

I wasn’t in NYC for the entire year. I went to New Mexico several times, which yielded some great moments. Highlight #2 was doing one of my dream stories, eating my way around Silver City, New Mexico. Thanks to the New York Times travel section for publishing the results! The story was, for a thrilling moment, the seventh-most-emailed on the NYT site, and someone hated on me on Twitter for it! You know you’re coming up in the world when you’ve got a Twitter hater…

On my second trip to New Mexico (why so many? Because Jet Blue started direct flights to Albuquerque!), I camped out at my mom’s for a while and wrote, and then, Highlight #3, Peter and I spent a few days at Los Poblanos. This may very well be my most favorite hotel in the world, and believe me, I never thought I’d be saying that about anything in my hometown. They have the cutest damn goats. And a lovely restaurant. This is the first time in my life I’ve done what felt like a grownup resort vacation. Paid real money. Lolled around the pool. Drank wine with our friends. Visited the goats. I wouldn’t want to do it alllll the time, but I can see the appeal, when it’s somewhere with taste as good as Los P’s.

Then, Highlight #4, Peter and I traveled overland and car-less from Albuquerque to Vegas to California. Why? Just to see if we could. We took Amtrak to Williams, AZ, then took the tourist train to the Grand Canyon. At the Grand Canyon, we hopped on the return flight of a scenic-tour plane to Las Vegas. We were the only people on there with luggage, and top in my little file of smug travel moments now is the one where the pilot was like, “What? You flew one-way? You don’t have a car?” and gave us a thumbs-up. That made up for walking around Vegas in record-high temps. Then we flew to SFO (sorry, no snazzy workaround there), attended a wedding by bus due to the BART strike, and finally, took Amtrak to Los Angeles, on the fab Coast Starlight. The whole thing cost marginally less than if we’d rented a car, so that’s also in my file of smug travel moments. On the other hand, it costs a damn arm and a leg to travel in the U.S.! Now I know for sure that our trips to Thailand are in fact cheaper, including airfare.

Highlight #5 came on my third trip home (yup, on JetBlue), when I went waaaay down to the far southwest corner of New Mexico. That’s all in a post here. NM is my mainstay guidebook title (new edition from Moon coming in the spring!), and it’s great that there are still spots I haven’t seen. And they’re so damn beautiful.

After the last NM trip, I buckled down at home. Strangely, that was Highlight #6, writing–a very distinct thing from Highlight #1, which was finishing. In fact, the actual writing should be Highlight #1, and being done with writing (for now) should go farther down the list. After I managed to get myself focused and settled down, I really did enjoy spending a good six or seven hours every day messing around with words.

And my industrious fake-office-job schedule meant I had the evenings free, so I managed to do Highlight #7, painting my living room. My friend Amy picked the color, and it is beyond fabulous.

Benjamin Moore Venezuelan Sea, if you're curious.

Benjamin Moore Venezuelan Sea, if you’re curious.

(I also finally finished painting the dining room–astute readers of this blog may remember the Bollywood dining room as a highlight of, er, 2009.)

Oh, and Highlight #7.5, because this isn’t a design blog, but we got a new dining room table and chairs. The chairs I bought in Raton, New Mexico, and shipped home and still paid less than anything here in NYC. More and more, my guidebook jobs turn into shopping trips.

That’s about it for 2013. Today, as this posts, I will be on the way to Rwanda, followed by a few days in Ethiopia. Switching gears entirely.

Happy new year, and best wishes for all new destinations and ever-more-comfortable home bases!

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One Crazy Trick for Working Productively at Home

by Zora O'Neill on December 16, 2013

Freelancers! I finally cracked it!

And it’s the most boring thing in the world:

Pretend like you have a real job.

These are the images that come up when you search for "office job." Coincidentally, they are the same images that come to mind when I think the phrase "office job."

These are the images that come up when you search for “office job.” Coincidentally, they are the same images that come to mind when I think the phrase “office job.”


Starting time is 10 a.m. You get a lunch hour–that’s when you do all your fiddly errands, like running to the frame store, or looking at rugs on eBay. (Ignore the unfairness that, in a real office-job situation, people don’t relegate eBay searches to lunch hour.) You knock off around 7 p.m., and spend your evening painting the living room, reading books, whatever.

I KNOW. The whole point of being a freelancer is so you don’t have to do this crap. But…it works. At least it worked for me for the last critical two months of finishing my book draft. (It’s done! It’s done. 150,000 words, give or take. Now: the long wait.)

But, of course, fooling yourself into thinking that your writing is as important as a regular office job, and that you absolutely have to show up for it–well, that requires a whole other bag of tricks. Such as:

1. Clock in with Toggl.
Usually I use Toggl to make sure I’m earning an OK hourly rate on low-paying jobs. For the book, I just used it to make sure my butt was in my chair for at least seven hours every day.

2. Clear your schedule.

Like this, for instance. Note the absence of holidays as well.

Like this, for instance. Note the absence of holidays as well.


For a freelancer, saying no to work is the most painful thing in the world. But you’ll have to do it until you get this one thing done. You know how you tell yourself that you work more efficiently when you have a few projects to play off each other? It doesn’t work when one of those projects is massive and genuinely requires all of your time.

3. Be married.
It’s nice to have someone to pay the bills and cook meals, in the background.

4. Don’t be married.
Regular human interaction, such as giving and receiving love, is just too distracting. Also, another human in your space who keeps different hours from you can be too distracting.

5. No, wait, be married.
What am I thinking?! Of course you need love and human support. What would I have done without Peter? Then again, it did help that he went to Australia for ten days. That was when I could really set up a regular work schedule.

6. Embrace electronica.
You need low-key, nonstop music. No lyrics. I like SomaFM: Deep Space One for mornings, Earwaves for afternoons. Def Con Radio occasionally, because the weird motivational samples make me feel like I’m at a different job.

7. Log out of Facebook.
Some people resort to turning off the Internet, but I found that if I just logged out of Facebook, I quelled the urge to visit it all the time, because logging back in was a hassle. All my other time-wasting strategies are relatively harmless (except for those eBay rugs…). If you do need something stronger, Concentrate is a good Chrome plugin.

8. Eat an easy breakfast.
If you are, for instance, waking up hours before your partner (and not because you’re one of those oh-I-can-only-create-in-the-cold-clear-light-of-dawn people, no sir, but only because said partner sleeps till noon) and you want to get right to work with a minimum of fuss, you must dispense with all morning food creativity.

To this end, I have started every day since, oh, October 2012, with two slices of a particular Swedish-ish fruit-nut bread. The indomitable Cristina Topham, aka The Wayward Chef, gave me the recipe, in a slightly more Swedish form.

I cannot praise it enough. It’s like granola, but granola you can spread butter on. It keeps you full until noon, when said partner may awake and fix you lunch.

This is what comes up when you search for "Swedish office job." Everyone talks about Sweden's great social services--but no one mentions the lack of heat.

This is what comes up when you search for “Swedish office job.” Don’t they have heat in Sweden?

Freelancers Breakfast Bread
This bread may actually be the one crazy trick to working productively at home–many thanks again to Cristina Topham.

I buy all the ingredients in bulk and keep them in the freezer (nuts, rye flour, seeds especially), so they don’t go rancid. For a denser, more sour bread, you can shift the flour more toward 2:1 rye:AP. Don’t ignore the flax seeds–they have a nice slippery quality. I made it without them once, and it was meh. And note the long bake time: You must make this on one of your free evenings, not in the morning.

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together in a big bowl:
1 1/4 cups rye flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup flax seeds
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup nuts (I usually use pecans; you can break them up by hand, rather than chopping)
1 cup dried fruit (I usually use cranberries or cherries because I don’t have to chop them; apricots are good too, but should be chopped)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

In a measuring cup, combine:
1 3/4 cup buttermilk (or regular milk with the juice of half a lemon squeezed in; or yogurt thinned with milk)
1/4 cup each maple syrup and molasses (or all molasses)

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir. Every time I make this, it’s a different consistency, but it tends toward super-thick, like glue. Don’t make yourself crazy stirring in the flour–if there are a couple of dry spots, it won’t matter too much.

I bake this in two smaller loaf pans, so I can freeze one; you could also use one large one. Either way, butter it or line it with parchment paper. Squash the batter into your loaf pans and smooth the top with a wet knife (that’s the Cristina Topham pro-tip right there).

Bake on the bottom rack for between 1 hour (two small pans) and 1 hour 20 minutes (one large pan). Let cool on a wire rack. Slice thin and eat with lots of butter and pinch of crunchy sea salt, plus very milky coffee, which, Cristina tells me, is the Swedish way.

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