What makes the Galapagos Islands such an amazing place for me, is also why it is a photographer's dream. The wildlife have absolutely no fear of people. They have never had any predators, and are incapable of learning fear, even when they have been hunted. The birds and animals just come right up to you!
We were on one small island visiting a rookery of frigate birds, when I saw one fellow from another boat who was a serious nature photographer. He had a lens bigger than anything I had ever seen! It looked more like a giant telescope, had an opening at least 7 inches (18cm) in diameter, and its own tripod to hold it up! Incredible. What was even more incredible was that while we had to side-step to avoid being trod on by the friendly birds, this fellow had to climb up on the next hill, a good sixty meters away, in order to get a good photo of them!
I was finishing up a two-year working stay in Japan and looking forward to a long trip through Asia and God-only-knows where (which ended up lasting 16 months). I had arranged to keep working until just one week before my work visa expired, and then I had to leave the country. This left me precious little time for planning, let alone packing for the trip.
As the time drew near, I managed to get my basic planning and official preparations out of the way, and had even put together several piles of gear that I would likely take on the trip. As usual, the amount of gear I might take was at least twice as much as would fit into my rucksack, and I knew it could take weeks of effort to pack the bag. But it seemed I had no time at all. Once I finally finished work, with just one week free, I also had to deal with moving out of my flat, shipping things home, and visiting all the friends who wanted to see me off with farewell parties.
I was booked-up every night; I was busy all day. How could I ever find the long quiet hours needed to pack my bag? The irony of the situation struck me: here I was, planning to take off for a completely open-ended, footloose and fancy-free trip, where I would be alone with absolutely nothing but free time to do whatever I pleased. Yet I was now frantic, trying to find the time to pack my bag. In the end, I spent much of the last week enjoying the company of my friends, and ceased to worry about the packing problem. Why?
I had finally hit upon the perfect solution. I threw all my travel gear and guide books into two rucksacks and took them both to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong I took a cheap but private room and spent a leisurely ten days packing for my trip, and doing some more detailed research and planning. What gear was left over, I shipped home from Hong Kong with the second bag.
This is an example of avoiding hassles by removing time constraints. My error was in the apparently obvious belief that "I have to pack my bag before I leave." Now I sheepishly pat myself on the back for having finally realized something so mystifyingly simple, yet so easy to overlook.
On the Road. These are the times I like the best -- when I can feel what traveling is all about! I'm sitting in the back of a pickup with the wind whipping my face, the world is racing by, and I'm in motion! The blood flows, the skin begins to tingle, the mind becomes drunk with crazy audacious freedom and "Hot-Damn! I'm On the Road, Again!" The rest of the world is behind me and the whole damn world is just up ahead. It's a bone-rattling, wind-whipped, give-a-damn, YIPPIE! kind of feeling that threatens to last forever. A big grin crosses my face and refuses to go away.
"Whooah!" I look over at Ray and I'm smiling so hard that I'm laughing; my eyes are dancing and my mind is jumping out of the truck. Ray is right behind me. He hears my whoop, sees my face, and he knows exactly where I am; it reminds him that he is there too. He rips off his hat, stands up in the back of the truck at 100 kph, face to the wind, and whoops so loud that the driver swerves into the wrong lane. We just look at each other with the same silly expression and we both gaze up -- up to where? -- and laugh out loud till we choke.
Hot-damn! On The Road Again!
[Ned and Ray are characters I invented to be my alter-egos and say the things a properly objective writer ought not to say. But, yes, many of their adventures were mine... -RJ]
It was in the back of that same pick-up, heading north up the Caribbean coast of Yucatan, Mexico, that we passed a road sign that I later saw a few more times in that area. It was your standard yellow, diamond-shaped, highway sign, and it said: "Cuide su Vida, No se Distraiga!" I copied this down in large letters inside the back cover of my little notebook, because it seemed to me at the time as if it were a message from a great prophet! Translated, it means: "Take care of your Life, Don't be Distracted!" Words to live by.
My friends and I frequented a small cafe in an isolated Pakistani village in the Hunza where the food was just a little more edible than in others. It was there that we ran into a new kind of problem with prices. While the cafe, and the food, were simple in the extreme, the cooks were very friendly, if equally as simple.
"Okay, then we had three plates of vegetable curry. How much is that?"
"Seven rupees for vegetables. Let's see...", he began counting on his fingers, but then turned to another man. "How much is three times seven?" The other man closed his eyes, and finally said, "Twenty-two."
"Okay, fine, twenty-two is close enough." I could see that this was going to take some time.
Finally the bill was tallied at about 75 rupees, and when I handed the man 100, he fumbled in the cash box for awhile before handing me 65 rupees in change. Being ripped off is the rule, but I have very rarely had the opportunity to take such advantage of a merchant in the Third World. But this was a different case. I just smiled, handed back the money, and told him what the correct change should be. People like this need to be preserved at all costs.
James and I returned our rented van to Merida after two and a half weeks of beating the bush of the Yucatan, looking for isolated Mayan ruins. We were dirty, dusty, weather-beaten, and thirsty. There had been a few beers along the way, but they were all warm. After checking into our hotel, we headed straight to the supermarket and picked up a couple of 6-packs of cold Mexican beer, a bottle of tequila, and even some food. When we got to the counter, the woman said she could not sell us the alcohol; the President of the Republic was in town that day, and it was prohibited to sell any liquor. In fact, he never came within 30 miles of Merida (he visited Chichen Itza, at least 30 miles distant), but we still went dry that night.
On another occasion, I went on a 10-day raft trip through the jungles of Guatemala and Mexico. We only had one warm beer along the way. When we piled out of the rafts at Tenosique, Mexico, we headed for the cantina. But once again, the Presidente de la Republica had come before us, and it was an officially dry day in Tenosique. (That guy really gets around!) This time we managed to bargain for a case of beer to surreptitiously carry back to our camp.
In many places, buses - and more commonly, mini-buses - leave whenever they are full. This is a good system where service is frequent. A different experience was the once-a-day local bus I boarded in Tadmoor, a village in the Syrian desert. The bus arrived at 7 am, and left when full. I was warned ahead of time that it could take quite a while to fill up, and that if it did not, it would not leave! And this was no mini-van -- it was a full-sized yellow Blue Bird! I arrived at 7:30 and the bus finally left after 11. Did I mention that it was hot? Two hours later, we were at our destination!
Most travelers enter China from Hong Kong and go up through Guangzhou (Canton) to Guilin, where they run into the Chinese Railway System. The next stage is normally to Kunming, but that daily train originates in Shanghai, and is so full by the time it passes through Guilin that no reserved seats or sleepers are available in any class. Ever.
If you decide that it's a good idea to walk down and spend several hours in a queue at the train station in Guilin, the most you can hope for is a second class non-reserved ticket. This is only a ticket to board the train, and it still does not guarantee that you will even get on the train; that you will have to negotiate with the hundred others trying to board the same car, and the four hundred already inside. It is not a pretty scene. Once inside, you will wish you were on the outside again. It is a thirty-six hour journey to Kunming, and this is definitely one of those trains where people are sleeping (or at least attempting to sleep) in the toilet, under your feet, on the roof, and in the dining car and luggage racks, to mention only the obvious choices.
I will omit the gruesome details, but suffice it to note that the few popular dormitories in Kunming look more like hospital wards, with dozens of stricken rail travelers lying in various stages of exhaustion and collapse at all hours of the day. No sooner do they recover enough to get up and walk around, than a new platoon of the walking dead shuffles in from the station to take their place.
It was a beautiful sunny morning at Hurgada harbor in Egypt (a decidedly desolate backwater), and the Red Sea was as smooth as glass. The "ferry" to Sharm al Sheik, in the Sinai, was much smaller than advertised (imagine!), and had only one open deck at the back and a small cabin below. However, about 40 independent travelers piled on board and made themselves comfortable. By the time the ship pulled out, everyone was sprawled on the rear deck, stripped down to shorts, halter tops, and bare chests, slathering themselves with sun cream, and listening to their Walkmans. Yes! This is the life!
As soon as we cleared the harbor, a cool wind picked up and the sea became quite choppy. The back deck was pitching like a fun ride and the waves were already starting to wash over the gunwales. Soon the gear was getting soaked as waves washed the deck and everyone put on the warmest gear they carried; the rucksacks had been stowed in the hold. Finally, after only one hour at sea, the rocking, the cold wind, and the heavy waves drove people below to the single cabin below the rear deck.
Down below it was not very pretty. The cabin had no windows and quickly became stuffy and hot. As soon as the first victim vomited on the floor, it was all finished for everyone else as well. Only two passengers remained above deck, jammed behind the wheelhouse in the center of the boat, where they were protected from the brunt of the wind and waves. Soon a mate came forward and the captain turned the ship about. The travelers had "mutinied"; unable to suffer through more, they demanded to be returned to Hurgada.
Probably the finest boat I ever rode on (well, don't expect too much...) was the cruise ship from Shanghai to Hong Kong. It wasn't quite Luxury Class, but for China it was incredible. There were air-conditioned rooms, a bar, library, cinema (Kung-fu only), a gift shop and a sea-water swimming pool. It was also half-empty so I shared my four-bunk room with just one other traveler. That room had two sinks with constant hot water, and there were hot showers down the hall. To a tourist, this sounds pretty commonplace, but after three months in China, it was just stupefyingly decadent.
Three times a day we were called to meals in the dining room, and while the food was not gourmet -- in fact, perhaps quite simple -- it was the best food I had been near in China (not counting a splurge at the Beijing Hotel). The whole thing cost US$60 for three days and three nights, including all meals, which is why half of the passengers were travelers, celebrating their departure. The other half were overseas Chinese families and a few old cadres allowed to visit Hong Kong.
The ship was not allowed to dock at Hong Kong until morning, so we moored calmly among the islands all night. The travelers all lounged on the foredeck in the beautiful balmy China Sea night, enjoying the air, the stars, memories of a wild sojourn in China, (duty-free scotch) and the promise of a distantly glowing Hong Kong,
While hitching around to visit the desert castles in Jordan, my American companion and I got several rides on trucks coming straight through from the Persian Gulf. We usually shared little language with the drivers.
"Englan? Englan?" began the driver of one truck from Dubai.
"America? America?" he blurted out
"Yes, both Americans. And you?" I said pointing to him.
"Iraq! Iraq!" he almost shouted.
The driver then pounded his fists together to demonstrate his opinion of the political situation between our two countries. Then he grinned, we laughed, and the ride went on in harmony. Just fellow travelers On the Road.
There are no awards given for long-distance bus riding, other than arrival. If there were, I would have a gold star with oak-leaf clusters for Bus Beyond the Call of Duty, Bus in the Face of the Enemy, and Bus on Fire. It is only those who do not arrive that receive the posthumous recognition of a little cross beside the road; you will see plenty of them along your way. And yet, bus-riding draws a constant throng of eager participants.
The entry fees are deceptively small: $6 for three days across the Tibetan Plateau; $1.50 for 24 hours through the Guatemalan Jungle; $7.50 for 7 to 10 days down through Sumatra; $2.50 for 3 to 5 days Huancayo-Ayacucho-Cuzco, Peru; $1 for 1 to 2 days Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Laos; $21 for 4 days Turphan to Kashgar, China.
Suao to Hualien, Khartoum to Kitale, Manaus to El Dorado, and on and on; the Hard Road stories will always be with us. New routes are opened and old ones improved; borders close, reopen, or disappear. The run through Sumatra now takes only three days on paved roads. But wherever travelers gather, you will still hear some self-ordained hero boast, "That road was soooo bad that..."
And what do you get for the price of admission? If you are passably lucky, you do actually get from point A to point B; you arrive at least half alive and find a place to rest up for a few days before the next bus ride. All too often though, you wish you were still safe and warm in lovely A. But, what the hell, maybe C will be better!
One of the worst bus rides in China (and therefore in the world) used to be the flight into Lhasa. For a couple of years, while they were building the 80-kilometer road to the airport, the speed record for the bus into town was 4 body-punishing, "I-can't-look" hours. More typically it took 8 to 10 hours, including punctures, accidents, being pulled out of the sand, and the occasional mutiny, to reach Lhasa from the airport. One bus became jammed tight into a passing truck and spent the night.
Besides the infamous routes themselves, are the individual horror stories. Like the Golmud to Lhasa bus that hit a truck on the first day out, sat on the frozen tundra for 24 hours under repair, and then continued for two more days through a blizzard, with no windscreen. I met a woman who was knocked unconscious when she hit her head on the ceiling of the Sumatran Overland; she woke up in a cafe beside the road after the bus was long gone. Yes, there is the odd bus that falls off a cliff, but this is usually an accident. Buses are only occasionally blown up or torched and burned; if you heard about it, then you probably weren't on board, so just grin and claim you were.
Reckless bus drivers? Any ride on Mexico's dreaded Flecha Amarilla line could be your last. Or how about 24-hours across Java during the rush hour? The first thing you see at a bus wreck is the driver, running away. Many night buses run with their lights out most of the time, and bus drivers are not unknown to race each other around blind curves. Any bus ride in India is like Russian roulette, where the drivers compete with each other for far-from-wreckless abandon of all common sense. There are many trips where you just commend your soul to a popular local deity, munch down three more aspirin, and enjoy the ride.
Now, talk about crowding... I thought I had seen the ultimate until I noticed a Burmese driver leaning out of his window to navigate because the hood (bonnet) of his bus was piled high with riders. In many places, the passengers on the roof hold on to nothing but each other to keep from falling into the road. I lost a ticket-taker that way once on top of a Palawan jeepney, and he nearly pulled me off with him! Now let me tell you about third class...
Sometimes it is the vehicle itself which is of note. There are still a lot of 1924 Chevy buses running around Burma - with hand-crank starters! (Hey! I've even got a Photo of one!) The buses of Pakistan and the Jeepneys of the Philippines are feasts for the eyes, and the cab of any second-class Mexican bus looks like an Easter parade, with flashing Christmas lights, plastic flowers, dangling crucifixes, two Virgins, and an electric Jesus. They typically have their mottoes scrawled on the front bumper: "Faith in God and Full Speed Ahead!", "Guide me Lord, for I am Blind!", or "Watch that Child!"
One of the more unique specimens is the Auto-Ferro-Bus from Sibambe to Cuenca, Ecuador, a little-used route through the Andes. An old school bus was fixed up with railway wheels, connected by a chain drive to the rear axle. The cab is fitted with one row of airplane seats, and the back gutted for Indians and cargo. They may call it a train, but I tell you it is a bus. It did have a cow-catcher mounted on the front, but did you ever see anyone double-clutch a train? I swear it was an old Blue Bird! The big steering wheel controlled the brakes, so that a hard turn to the right slowed the thing down, even going around a big left curve! The instrument panel sported a fuel gauge, oil pressure and temperature indicators, and a portrait of the Blessed Virgin. After stopping for lunch, we all had to get out and push-start the "train" because the battery was dead. I've now got a new article, Trains of Thought in Ecuador about the old Auto-Ferro.
Do you really think I could have made any of this up? It is all absolutely, surrealistically true! I have occasionally embellished a few stories, and I even told a lie once, but bus stories leave no room for exaggeration. From a life of travel I draw so many very real absurdities that I cannot write them fast enough; I have no time to invent such stories.
The first time I heard a howler, I was standing on the ledge of the ruined Mayan temple atop Pyramid V (that's 'five') at Tikal in Guatemala, a little after midnight. The breeze was brisk but warm, and through the treetops we could see the distant forms of the night guards, lit occasionally by the glow of their cigarettes as they patrolled the main square of the Central Plaza of Tikal far below, wandering among the moon shadows of the towering Pyramids I and II.
It sounded very much to me like the howl of a jaguar that someone had seriously by the balls (perhaps this explains my physical reaction). I've never seen a jaguar in the wild, but this sounded like a tiger in extreme distress. That's a really scary thought; what could there be -- out there in the dark rustle of the jungle -- that could make a jaguar cry out like that, like something had it by the balls and was squeezing very hard and not letting go?
Shivers, chilly sweat, and erect hair follicles appeared on the back of my neck. Somewhere in the vicinity of my jugular, my heart throbbed. Serious shit is going on out there, and I don't want any part in it!
What the hell is out there? And what can it do to a goddamn jaguar that it can't do to me!? We had just crawled through half a mile of jungle on our bellies -- across the 'steam bath' section of ruins at Tikal -- to sneak our way into the site, long past the 6 pm curfew. And we would hopefully be crawling our way back out that way sometime before daybreak. But, what the hell is out there?
This was my first night in Tikal and my first visit to the ruins. I'd just arrived in the late afternoon, on the bus from Flores, and found a couple of friends from recent travels in Mexico. Fellow Travellers. "We're going into the ruins tonight", they said, "Come with us, we're going to climb Temple Five."
So there I stood, a few hours later -- having crawled under a wire fence and through the dark jungle as others consulted a torch-lit map, then scrambling up through the massive roots of giant trees and over countless blocks of ancient carved stones atop the Pyramid of Temple V, shrouded still in the canopy of the jungle and overlooking the distant manicured padang of the great plaza of Tikal, to the north.
Three of us stood on that narrow ledge beside the temple atop the crumbling pyramid, looking out through the tree-tops across the vague rustling darkness of the Central American jungle. I leaned my elbow on a convenient tree branch and felt the wind in my face. "If you could see what was down below ye', you would have your back pressed against this wall as hard as you could," says Ray, nonchalantly. In fact, it was 190 feet straight down to the jungle floor, somewhere down there in the dark dankness; and I was standing on a one-and-a-half-foot wide ledge, leaning over it like it was a doorsill. After a brief peek into the darkness, my back and palms were pressed respectfully hard against the smooth stone walls of the temple, and my scrotum had shrunken considerably in size; maybe it was the cool breeze.
It was at about that time that I heard it, the Saraguate. From somewhere out there in the distant depths of the swaying jungle, the male Black Howler Monkey raised its magnificent brachiating roar across the tree-tops, and it sounded to me like a very large jungle cat in the throes of excruciating pain. What is out there?
The black howler male may reach a size of only up to about 35 pounds -- fairly large for monkeys, although most are somewhat smaller. But its roar is amplified by its large throat-box and by hyper-ventilation. His howl is of course his macho claim of dominance over territory and of all the females therein.
The howler's roar rises gradually out of the depths of the jungle. At first it is a low distant growling rumble that begins to reverberate above the normal rustling and chirping of the jungle; then it becomes a heavy rhythmic gasping in and out, like an emphysemiac on his last legs. Then the rhythm gathers pace and volume and a depth that sounds like it could only come from the great lungs of a large predator. That's when the guttural power of his roar starts the sweat running down the back of your shorts. Then he digs his nails into a branch, he rolls back his lips and screams like a Banshee foretelling the death of heroes. A basso profundo Banshee deep in the jungle; that's the blood-curdling scream that sent my gonads into full retreat.
It was not until after, over a beer the next afternoon, that someone told me of the black howlers. "No jaguars around here, mate, not recently anyways. It was only a goddamn monkey!"
In the light of day, the black howlers are a pleasant and presentable tribe of social monkeys, and I have enjoyed their antics on numerous riversides and jungle clearings in Central America. Only the large square jaws of the males hint at their howling prowess, which, while also performed in the daytime, is most memorable and attention-grabbing in the depths of the night. One finds oneself awakened suddenly and sitting bolt upright in bed with eyes bulging and cold sweat trickling down into ones choners. "Damn monkeys!" you say, to try and regain your composure, perhaps some self-respect. Calling them mere "monkeys" seems a suitable insult to the magnificent howlers.
Along the upper reaches of the Amazon of Peru, I have also seen and heard the red howlers of South America. They are somewhat smaller, and while their howl is robust, it pales in comparison to the heart-stopping roar of the Saraguates -- the black howlers of Central America.
You seldom have to buy groceries when you're On the Road, and when you do, it's in limited quantities. You never vacuum and you rarely sweep up. You never take out the garbage, never take your car in for repairs, and you don't buy gasoline. You never have to water the plants, wash the car, mow the yard, work in the garden, or buy oil for the heater. You never, never clean the stove, sink, bath or toilet.
You infrequently get mail On the Road and you certainly don't receive any bills. Never! No credit card bills, newspaper, rubbish, phone, gas, or electric bills. You don't write checks and never even have to answer the phone! The TV, fridge, or washing machine never go on the blink. You don't have to decide what clothes to wear and if anything in your room breaks, you don't fix it -- you don't even call the landlord -- you just move to a new place!
Life On the Road is simple, so simple. Listen. These things you must do: sew and wash clothes. These and nothing more, although writing letters is another task most people indulge in. Just these and the few basic chores of traveling: finding hotels, cafes, train stations, buses, trucks, and trails. Then you just have to suffer through whatever it is you found. Try to keep from being cheated, robbed, knifed, infected, poisoned, or bitten, and then survive a shitstorm of daily hassles. After that, it's all pure leisure, man, just pure leisure!
Someone must go out there, and send home the postcards.
Someone must go out there, and live the world
In all of its glory and pathos
And myriad twists of the mind and soul.
I have been where you dreamt to go, but cannot.
I have seen what you cannot dream of,
Felt what you only fantasize,
Lived what you wonder is possible.
Stripped bare to the human realities,
I have looked up to heights
And ventured into the depths.
I have sought the sublime and found the mire,
Sought out the vilest depths
And found the springs of hope and contentment.
I have strode the edges of reality
And passed over into realms of mystery and tabu.
And all I have found are the secrets that dwell in the depths of us all.
And so I send back my postcards
And I write my stories
That you may know that all is well and right in the world
Both the good and the evil.
That they continue on in their myriad manifestations,
As unintelligible as ever they will be.
Having a great time, wish you were here.
Eggs? What's so interesting about eggs? I'm not sure, but I seem to have collected several personal travel anecdotes concerning them.
The Sumatran Egg Story
Roger and I wandered into a little cafe near the big market place in Bukittinggi for breakfast. They gave us a typed menu in English! And right there in black and white, it said "Fried Egg". There are Lots and lots of hard boiled eggs in Sumatra, but it had been quite a while since my last fried egg, so I ordered one.
When the waiter arrived, he set in front of me a big plate containing one hard boiled egg, peeled. "No, wait, just a minute, I ordered a fried egg." "Yes, fried egg." "No, this is hard boiled." I wasn't really too disappointed, but I just wanted to find out what was really happening here.
"No. Fried egg, see," he points to the menu -- 'Fried Egg' -- then points to my plate. "Fried egg!"
Hmmm... so I looked closely, and sure enough, there were the tell-tale wisps of burned pan grease on my egg. I'm sure that at some time in the distant past, someone there actually knew what a fried egg was, even if he couldn't produce a decent one. But to the presentday cook, you take an egg -- hard boiled, is there anything else? -- and, well, you fry the damned thing! (Let this be a frightening lesson to anyone who indignantly attempts to order anything vaguely resembling such "fancy" eggs as poached or soft-boiled -- see below.)
Although the cafe was empty, I'm sure that somewhere, travelers were snickering at me and stifling laughter into their coffee.
The Philippine Egg Story
Now we're getting serious. There is a special kind of egg dish which is unique to the Philippines, called balút. They are sold all over the country on street corners, in buses, and such. Balút is a duck or chicken egg (depending on availability), which has been incubated until the chick is about half developed, then it is boiled. It looks just like a hard boiled egg, and this is where it gets adventurous. Because when you break into one of these suckers, there is a little boiled chick in there, sometimes replete with beak and developing feathers, among the remains of the cooked embryo. Did I lose you already? Sounds pretty yummy, doesn't it? They tell me it is a taste you can acquire.
So one day I'm taking a bus across Panay Island, and at one rest stop this lady comes around with a basket of boiled eggs. I had heard about balút, and seen a few eaten, but up in front of me I see a couple of men digging into some genuine -- ordinary -- hard boiled eggs. Mmmm, looks good, so I buy a couple, before getting off to stretch my legs and chat up the young European traveling couple from the back of the bus.
As I'm nonchalantly trying to impress them with my Philippine travels, I start to open up an egg, when a beak appears. "Oh, is that a balút?" asks the pretty young woman. "Uh, yeah." Now I see a few wet feathers and some goo starts running down my hand. "Wow, do you eat those things?" "Uh, sure."
I like to think that I'm a little bit intrepid, but no question I would have tossed the thing under the bus had I not been in company. They looked on expectantly (impressed? appalled?), as I closed my eyes and crunched into it, chewed quickly and swallowed hard.
"Ugh!" I had only succeeded in grossing out the young woman, who turned away, mercifully followed by her man. They ignored me for the rest of the trip. I tossed the rest of the thing under the bus, wiped up the goo, and prayed for a Coke stand.
From then on, I was very careful to ask if eggs were balút. Often, I got the welcomed reply, "Sorry, no balút; no electricity for incubators."
Eggs on the Road
Hah! Go ahead, order your eggs soft boiled! If you happen to be breakfasting at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, you just might get what you want. Otherwise, the best result to be hoped for is that your relentless but pathetic search for this elusive delicacy will provide great entertainment for any other travelers who are present to catch the act. Every time I see this little play, it gets my day off with a good chuckle.
"They don't have soft boiled eggs on the menu, just fried and
three kinds of scrambled."
"Well, it doesn't hurt to ask, anyway."
(Whoa! That's among the top three 'famous last words'! This is going to be a good one...)
Okay, so the waiter either says that they can make soft boiled eggs -- he doesn't know what it means, but maybe the cook does -- or else you decide to teach him how it's done (my favorite version). 'They are sooo easy! Three minutes in boiling water, and voila!' You can almost taste them already.
"I wonder if they have egg cups", you're thinking, as a couple of other travelers nearby are stifling a spit-take with their coffee, and ordering another cup so they can stick around to watch your little show. For the gleeful observer, the trick here is to have your bill paid and be ready to get up and leave as soon as the situation turns really ugly...
"What did you do?! These are not soft boiled eggs!
Look, they're raw!" (Or sometimes hard boiled)
"No, I told you how to make them, now try it again!"
"No, we're not paying for these, they're not soft boiled!"
"Oh, yeah? Well, let me tell you something asshole -- where I come from..." "Hey, put that thing down. Okay, okay, we're leaving, but we're not paying for those eggs..." "BerNARD!? Don't let them get away with this! This is crazy."
Spasms of laughter erupt as the audience beats a hasty retreat out the front door, staggering down the road in convulsions.
Ah, now we're talking! The jewel of road food. Healthy, protein rich, grease free, and kept fresh and sanitary in their own tamper-resistant, biodegradable travel container. And available just about everywhere. Part of every meal (which is usually nasi padang) in Sumatra; trotted around in the mornings to your bungalow in warm baskets by children in dozens of tropical beach hangouts; dispensed by women squatting over kerosene stoves on street corners and in bus garages from cold early morning till into the night. Portable, affordable, good hot or cold, and a refreshing break from much of the greasy food you submit your body to. Good eggs.
This is the most common form of cooked eggs, and not quite as easy to ruin, if you ignore the grease they may be swimming in. I had scrambled eggs, beans, tortillas and coffee twice a day most days for several months in Guatemala and southern Mexico; in many little cook shacks, you just sit down and the scrambled eggs appear -- it's all they make.
Still there can be guesswork with scrambled. If you both order them at the same time, the cook is strongly tempted to use only three eggs for the two orders. One egg hardly makes a scramble, but one and half can be dressed up and defended as two. So you wait for the first order to arrive before ordering the second; what's your hurry?
Grease city! But you will find a number of places that do a pretty good job and keep the grease to a minimum. In La Paz (yes, Bolivia) I found a cafe that served fried egg sandwiches on big buns, which pretty much solved the serious Bolivian breakfast grease glut.
Sometimes you have a choice of fried hard or fried soft, otherwise they tend to be on the hard side; just take what you get. Ordering "easy over" or "sunny side up" is another sure sign of impending entertainment, provided by finicky travelers.
Omelets can be quite acceptable (or maybe a disaster), but probably disappointing if you're expecting something nice and fluffy like you get at home. Multiple omelet orders again introduce the half-an-egg problem (see Scrambled).
Be warned that in South America, an omelet is usually some sort of fried potato pancake. What you really want is called a tortilla (or tortilla de huevos). No, they don't have corn or flour tortillas in South America as they do in Mexico and Guatemala, where an omelet is called an omelet.
Not too many places where this happens as food, except in Japan where they show up for breakfast every morning, and with your sukiyaki.
Turtle eggs are sometimes sucked back raw, but they tend to be pretty thick and gritty. But there are lots of good stories about watching turtles lay their eggs. I've got two turtle egg stories on my Travel Articles Page: Stalking the Giant Turtles (of Malaysia), and Nancite (Costa Rica).