Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Back safe and sound

I guess this could be our last blog post since our trip is officially over. We arrived safely back in Florida last week after a smooth, 25-hour-long assortment of flights. We spent the 12 hours from Cairo to NYC transfixed by our personal movie screens that came complete with dumb computer games. It was complete luxury --we got three seats all to ourselves instead of the typical 1.5. Jeanette's cousin Michael even met us for lunch/dinner at the JFK airport. The past seven days flew by with shopping and hanging out with Jeanette's family and friends. Soon we're off to my family's Christmas in SC.

Thanks to everyone who's followed our misadventures. Our next plan is to find jobs and move to Anchorage. (Hopefully in that order....) Happy Holidays to everyone and feel free to email us at our real email addresses.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top Ten Things I look Forward To The Most

Aside from, of course, seeing family and friends and our cats, this is a list of things that we look forward to the most about going home after traveling around Africa for just under nine months.  Anne likes to refer to my list as “I hate east Africa, part 2”.  Although there is often a modicum of truth behind many jokes, I don’t actually hate east Africa at all.  Quite contrary, I’ve really enjoyed the time we’ve spent in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.  They are all spectacular countries with a lot to offer any traveler.    I have no doubt that we will be back someday, especially to see Anne’s friends in Tanzania, plus we ran out of time to go to Rwanda ,  western Tanzania, and the rift valley part of Kenya.  And there is exceptional hiking in Uganda when it’s not the rainy season.  We will be back.  Anne has spent almost four years of her adult life on this continent and while she would jump at the chance to live here again, I simply can’t.  I’ve done the best I can to accept eastern African culture and to embrace the differences between here and the Western world,  but the best I can offer is that I’d love to come back to visit.

So, without further adieu, this is what we look forward to the most:

1.       My personal space. 

I never knew there were so many aspects to my personal space and how much I value each and every one of them until I came to Africa.  Our Western culture is so different in terms of personal space, physical contact, and the politeness of staring, and I have to say that I like our way of things better.  Here, touching strangers whether in line at the airport or sitting next to them on the bus is just a completely culturally accepted given.  In the States if you are on a plane sitting next to a stranger you both naturally avoid unnecessary touching.  If one of you is using the armrest and the other puts their elbow up, it’s fine if they don’t touch, but if they do, one or both of you will move away.  Here, when someone sits WAAAYYYY too close to me and I try to move over it’s like I am saying to them “here, I will scoot over so you can in turn scoot even closer to me, that way you can still touch me only you will be more comfortable and I will be squished.”

Another important aspect of my personal space that goes along with unnecessary touching is how many people you crowd onto public transportation.  Here, if there are three seats, they will squeeze in four people, plus however many kids are associated with those people.  Always.  No exceptions.  This means that someone’s elbow is always jamming into your hip or their baby is half in your lap or your hips are so tightly packed it hurts.  I am looking forward to one person per seat.  Period.

I thought the word “mzungu” was kind of funny at first, then I didn’t mind it too much, then it sort of annoyed me, now I roll my eyes, sigh deeply, give Anne a “really, again?” look, and completely ignore the person who spoke it.  I know it is a culturally acceptable thing here to address someone as “mzungu – white person” and I get that, but I feel the word is generally quite abused.  It’s not just said in a sentence or as a greeting or way to address me.  It’s said simply because I am a white person walking by or standing there.  It is one thing when kids do it, but when grown men walk by you and say “mzungu” just because you are white and walking by them, I’m just plain done.  Along these same lines, when walking down a street in the States, any street, I look forward to being anonymous and not being approached just because my skin color is different.  I can’t wait until I blend.

Staring is also culturally acceptable here and we’ve been stared at our fair share.  Ethiopia was the worst.  It makes me slightly uneasy, but I suppose I prefer this to the touching or “mzungu” approach.  It’s only really unsettling when it goes on for most of a bus ride.

2.       Quiet. 

I miss quiet so much, largely because I haven’t experienced it in over six months.  Nowhere in east Africa is quiet.  If there is a TV around it is not just turned on but the volume is turned up as high as possible.  If there is a stereo, it is blaring despite the quality of the speakers and whether there is music, a talk show, or just static coming out of them.  And the speakers are all blown out.   It is often the loudest when you are trapped inside taxis, buses, or restaurants because there is no escaping the noise.  If there is someone sitting next to you on the bus, they are on their cell phone talking as loud as possible.  If there are people talking to each other, they are right outside your hotel window and they are shouting no matter the time of day.  If there is a vehicle going by, it is honking its horn.  If that vehicle is some kind of taxi they are hollering at you to take a ride.  If I am walking or driving by kids (or sometimes grown men), there is always a chorus of “mzungu” to be heard.  Every single guest house or hotel we’ve stayed in has no insulation and every single bit of noise comes through the walls clear as day.  I’m a light sleeper and it has become a rare occasion when I do not need to sleep with earplugs.

3.       Reliable network of bathrooms. This is a big one for me.  I drink a lot of water, and I have the bladder of a two-year-old, so bathrooms are a vital part of my existence.  I love knowing that I will soon be able to walk into a Publix or Target or national park or any public facility and not only will there be a toilet but it will be relatively clean, it will flush, there will likely be toilet paper, and to top things off, there will be soap and water to wash my hands with.

Of all the bus rides we’ve taken in the past nine months, only two have had toilets on them, both in South Africa.  Our longest bus ride has been 17 hours (remember that fun day, Jay, Pipa, and Pam????).  I’d say most travel days have involved rides of 6 – 12 hours.  This means I always stress out about my next bathroom stop.  On longer bus rides they seem to pull into some sort of gas station or lunch spot with toilets but you never really know if or when this will happen.  Occasionally the bus will just stop on the side of the road and many people will file out and go right there.  This is, of course, easier for men.   Most African women wear khangas or skirts and will just squat down and go in plain view.  For Anne and me it’s been a matter of finding some sort of tree or shrubbery to squat behind, or sometimes there is no way around it other than indecent exposure.  The night before any travel day I begin to limit my liquid intake, then in the morning I will have a sip of water and from then on I only take sips of water when necessary.  My body has gotten to the point where it can sense a travel day approaching and is prepared to enter a sort of comatose state where it requires very little food and water to survive.  I miss toilets.

4.       Straightforward communication. 

I look forward to conversations NOT going as follows (and mind you, these are all actual recent conversations with people in Uganda where English is the national language):

“Is it easier to catch a matatu from here to Fort Portal in the morning or afternoon?”

“When the matatus come through here in the morning are they usually full or do you think there will be seats for us?”
“It comes at 6:30.”

Or… (over the phone)
“How much does it cost to go from Masaka to Kalangala?”
“Are you ready?  I will be right there.”
“No, how much does it cost to go from Masaka to Kalangala.”
“Yes, I am going to Kalangala.  Are you ready?  Where are you?”
“We are not ready because you did not call us back last night and we are just waking up.  How much is it to Kalangala?”
“Where do I pick you up?”
“We are at the Holiday Inn Hotel and there are three of us.  Do you have room for three?”
“Where are you? “
“I said, we are at the Holiday Inn Hotel on Hobart Street.  Do you know it?”
“Where is that?”
“Aren’t you the local taxi driver?  Shouldn’t you know this town better than I do?  How much is it to Kalangala?”
“Are you ready?  I will be there soon.”
“Do you know where the hotel is?”
“No, where are you?”
“I just said I don’t know.  We only just arrived last night and I don’t know this city.  Can you ask your friends because I am not from here? How much is it to Kalangala?”
“Twenty thousand shillings.”
“No, that’s too much.  The price is 15.”
“Okay 15.  Where are you?”

Another part of straightforward communication that I look forward to is not being told what I want to here.  I understand that here in eastern Africa it is part of the culture to basically not tell someone “no”.  However, another way of saying that is that it’s culturally acceptable to lie to someone, especially if they are white, and especially to get their business.  I’m kind of over that.

5.       The price is the price and it is clearly marked.

I’m not so into the bargaining thing.  It’s exhausting.  Just tell me the price and don’t double it just because I am white.   Please.

6.       Food.

Although beans and rice are a wonderful staple and quite delicious, I’m ready for some variety.    I miss Mexican food and good pizza and fresh salads that are actual salads and not just coleslaw with tomatoes.    I miss real ice cream.  I miss good beer.  And I miss knowing that when you order something you have a pretty darn good idea what it’s going to be when it arrives.  No “Um, we ordered banana fritters and this is fruit salad.”  “Yes, that’s what we have.”  “Okay then.”  Or “oh, that’s the Greek salad” (a plate of coleslaw dripping with Ranch dressing topped with four black olives) or “oh, that’s the pizza” (are you going to add cheese and cook it?).  Although there has been a fine selection of similar tasting nondescript lagers in east Africa, I really look forward to good beer.

I will miss all the cheap, delicious, and readily available street food though.

7.       Completely functional, non-quirky showers with plenty of hot water.

Although we have had some pretty darn good hot showers on this trip we have had even more that just were not.  Many water heaters take exceptionally long to heat up the water, are broken, or only have enough hot water for one person.  It can be surprisingly tricky to figure out how to turn on the water heater and then which faucet to turn on.  There is often a thin, nay nonexistent, line between scalding hot water and freezing cold water.  I don’t mind bucket baths, they are better than nothing; but I really do prefer a regular shower.  I also like shower curtains.  It’s a small thing but it’s nice to have a separate space to shower in that doesn’t get the toilet and sink all wet.  I will also not miss having to wear shower shoes.

8.       Clean and non-funny tasting tap water.

I really, really love water and I drink a lot of it.  In an attempt to not leave behind our body weights worth of plastic bottles, we have been treating the tap water as often as possible.  While I prefer this to the waste, I look forward to turning a faucet or putting a glass underneath one of those refrigerator filters and having cold, refreshing, clean drinking water come out.  No adding chlorine or no funny brownish water or no dirt or metallic taste to it.  Mmmm, water.

9.       No more mosquito nets.

Although they are a better alternative than malaria, mosquito nets are kind of a pain to tuck in every night and whenever I get up to use the bathroom.

10.   Miscellaneous aspects of driving.

I look forward to being in a vehicle where the brake is used more frequently than the horn, to good, maintained tarred roads, to said roads not containing hordes of livestock and people, to controlling the radio station and volume, to fewer fumes emanating from vehicles, and to one person per seat.

Anne (in no particular order):
1.       Jeanette being happy again.
2.       Not living out of a backpack and having a place to put things so that I don’t lose them and Jeanette doesn’t have to spend so much time looking for them.
3.       Having a purpose. Travel is good and all but I’m kinda looking forward to giving back a bit.
4.       Not being a walking freak show. I mean, yes, I’ll still be eccentric, but at least people won’t point and yell at me anymore.
5.        Chocolate chip cookies, fresh salads, good sandwiches, good desserts, good ice cream, etc.
6.       Being in a place where our relationship is legal if not always accepted.
7.       Being able to call whomever I want, whenever I want.
8.       Decent conditioner. This stuff smells rank.
9.       Not having to question if someone is lying to me or cheating me every time I want to buy something or employ someone for a service.
10.   Fewer things biting me. Like no more ants crawling up my pants or bugs living in my bed or flies biting through clothing. Maybe I won’t break out in hives as much either at home.

The Shocking Ssese Island

I’m not sure if Jeanette has mentioned this before, but traveling by public transport can be exhausting and takes much longer than planned. We decided to break our journey from Queen Elizabeth National Park to the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria into two parts, that way we wouldn’t stress about getting to the ferry on time. We planned on visiting Sitatunga Corner Observatory in Masaka to see the elusive water antelopes and maybe an infamous shoebill stork. As luck would have it, the observatory is closed until next year. Despite this, our stay in Masaka was shocking. And I mean that literally. The way the water heater and the hand-held showerhead were wired, every time we touched the metal knobs or the metal hose or any part other than the small bit of plastic on the nozzle, electricity coursed through us. Jeanette very cautiously held the nozzle above my head while I tried to avoid touching the metal hose. Clean hair is highly overrated.  Jeanette decided not to shower that night.

Depiction of the shower incident.

I can’t tell you much about the Ssese Islands other than the view from our beachside bungalow is very nice. My mom, though, has explored everything within walking distance. We’re staying at a very, very relaxing hotel with the best manager we’ve met on this continent. Hopefully we won’t get bilharzias from the water, but I’ve always wanted to swim in Lake Victoria so Jeanette and I are risking it. Mom is not. She found 200 different species of birds in Uganda. And tomorrow, we head home. It’s been a fabulous nine months of travel, but it’s time to go. More on that in the next (and possibly last??) post.

View of Lake Victoria from our porch.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Clearly a visit to East Africa isn’t completely without a game drive. My mother visited me twice in Tanzania and had already seen the big animals, but we decided to spend a day in Queen Elizabeth National Park since it was close by. In a hired car from Fort Portal we tooled about the Kasenyi Plains and didn’t see much other than two new species of ungulate, the Ugandan kob and Defassa waterbuck. As we were pulling out of the plains a car stopped to look at something. We drove up to them and they said a group of lions was hanging out in the bushes. We couldn’t see the lions, so our driver took us around the corner on another road. Standing on top of the car and using Mom’s binoculars he found one lion in the distance—sitting in a tree! Our pathetic game drive was rewarded with a view of a rare tree-climbing lion’s butt.

Anne's mom at the equator.

Ugandan kob

Defassa waterbuck


Lion butt in tree (look for the tail).
The main reason we went to the park was to take a boat down the Kazinga Channel that connects two large lakes. As the tour boat chugged along we watched hippos and buffalos in the water and identified new birds. The pouring rain didn’t detract from the scenery and sightings much, and at the end of the journey we were lucky enough to see a few more lions in the distance and a herd of elephants very close up. It wasn’t the most exciting of our park visits, but it was nice.

Cape buffalo in pouring rain with lots of birds in the background.

Elephant bath time.

Drying out after the storm.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Portal to Another World

Before you read this, please note that my mother agreed to every form of transport and that she was never in any danger. In fact, every family member who reads this should really be grateful that Mom gets to go on grand adventures and you don’t have to be the one to escort her. What I’m really trying to say is, don’t be mad at me or Jeanette or Mom. Nothing was as bad as that bus we took Stuart on… On to the story.
Our first major destination in Uganda was Fort Portal, a town in the southwestern part of the country near many forested national parks. Because Jeanette and I are cursed, the theoretically four-hour-long drive took nine hours, including waiting time at the bus station and being caught in traffic. By the time we arrived we decided it would be best to go a short distance the next day to the crater lakes next to Kibale Forest instead of trekking all the way up to Semliki National Park. Of course, that was the day the minibuses decided to go on strike, so we had to pay too much for a private taxi to get there.
 The crater lakes are exactly as they sound: old volcanic craters that are now filled with water. We stayed at a “resort” on a lake fed by seven different streams and surrounded mostly by farmland with some forest remnants. We took a walk to look for birds, it rained, I swam for a bit, it was nice. Unfortunately our relaxing resort was a bit further away from the start of the chimp walk that we planned on taking the next day than we thought. Hiring a private car would have been very expensive, so the men at the park headquarters helped us arrange motorcycle taxis for the next day. Please note that Mom did agree to this plan.
We hoped to have three different bikes to take us the 12 km to the park in order to safely carry us and our massive bags. Come 7 am when the drivers were to arrive, only two awaited us. We strapped our packs onto the back of a reasonably solid-looking motorbike and I hopped on. Jeanette held onto Mom on the back of the other bike, and we roared off down the dirt road. Okay, so roared is a bit of an overstatement. I honestly could have ridden a bicycle faster than these motorbikes moved. We puttered up and down the hills, and Mom was only vaguely petrified for the first part of the ride. Then their bike got a flat tire. The plan was to take me to the visitor center to meet up with the chimpanzee tracking group, and my driver would turn back for Mom and Jeanette. Problematically, my bike was so slow that I got their 15 minutes late. By the time the bike turned back for Mom and Jeanette they had already walked for 25 minutes then found another motorcycle taxi to take them. They arrived just as the chimp tracking groups were taking off, luckily more than 30 minutes later than scheduled.
Our chimp tracking was a success! A short car ride followed by a short hike then a short wait and there they were: lots of chimps hanging out far, far above us in trees. Our first good view was mostly the swollen butt of a female chimp in estros, but soon we saw other chimps lounging in trees and grooming each other. A mother and a medium-sized baby climbed down but they ran away too quickly to see well. A male swung from branch to branch then sat to play with his foot. They calmly ignored us and led their normal lives. Meanwhile, we frantically tried to get the evil, massive biting ants off of our legs and feet. It’s hard to watch chimps when flesh eating insects are literally up your pants. One even got on my neck and when I reached back to pick it off, I pricked my finger on its pinchers and it drew blood. But picking insects off of each other was a fantastic reminder that chimps are our closest relatives.
The next day we headed to Bigodi Swamp in search of birds and more monkeys. We arrived as soon as they opened to increase Mom’s chances of seeing good birds. We diligently pulled on our borrowed gum boots, headed down the path with our guide, and within two minutes it started to downpour. The guide said it was best to wait until the rain abated. After four hours of hanging out in a craft shop playing the Ugandan version of Uno, we set out into the swamp. Trudging through water up to our ankles we passed papyrus swamps and saw four different types of monkeys and a Great Blue Turaco. The swamp was well worth the wait.
Our next destination was Semliki National Park. Our park experience started with a number of miscommunications. When the man from the park said over the phone that there were cabins that cost about $3 per person that were equipped with a kitchen, what he meant was we could ask nicely to cook over the staff fire, maybe, and the cabins that cost $24. After 30 more minutes of painful, round-about conversation we decided not to spend $135 to see some hot springs or to stay in the cabins and would only enter the park for one day for a long forest walk. We then had to find transport to the nearby town with a hotel.
We plopped down by the side of the dirt track to wait. And wait and wait. Finally, a lorry came by with dozens of people sitting on large baskets of fish. Mom said she was willing to ride on the back of the truck, and we climbed aboard. Jeanette and I clutched onto some baskets on the edge while Mom was perched precariously on top. It took about 30 seconds of driving for everyone in the vehicle to see this was a horrible idea. The men got the driver to stop, and people quickly readjusted to make Mom enough room on the baskets of fish where she could never fall out or hurt her back. Within a few minutes the man hanging on next to me figured out my Swahili was better than his English, and I chatted with all of the men at the back of the truck. Once I confirmed that yes, white people can in fact have relationships with Africans, Jeanette was instantly proposed to by a man who already had four wives and purportedly 32 children. Though I had to reject the proposal on her behalf, they still bought us all ears of corn.
Our hike the next day was slow but rewarding as far as birds were concerned. We even saw a rare monkey species, and I was only bit by two or three ants. Even our forms of transportation were fairly easy, if not comfortable. The next day we headed back to Fort Portal and decided to rent a car for visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Lake view from near our hotel.

Superhighway of vicious, biting fire ants.

Chimp in its natural habitat (i.e. no free lunches).

Two dung beetles rolling a ball of dung.

Red Tailed Monkey

Red tailed monkey.

Boardwalk in Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary.

Left: the backside of a grey-cheecked mangaby.  Right: blue turaco.

Grey-cheecked Mangaby Monkeys.

Extreme closeup of a grey-cheeked mangaby.

Black and white colobus monkey.
Butterflies feasting on a cherished delicacy - monkey urine.

Red colobus monkey.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ode to Internal Flights

Oh, internal flights of Ethiopia, how I miss you.  You were so cheap, largely punctual, relatively fast, surprisingly efficient, and quite comfortable.  It has been but a week without you, but to my arse and back and peace of mind, it feels like an eternity.  Oh, internal flights of Ethiopia, I wish you were just as cheap in Uganda, but alas, you are not.

As a profession of my love for you, let me enlighten you with some of my woes since we have been parted.  On our last day together we flew from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, an easy two hour flight but it was a late one and by the time we arrived in our hotel room it was 2:30 AM and we were exhausted.

The next day Anne had an interview at 10:00 AM Alaska time but as you know this was 10:00 PM Kenya time so we got to bed past 11.  The next morning we awoke at 5:45 AM to be at the bus stand at 6:30, half an hour before our expected departure.  Alas, Akamba Bus Lines completely lacks your punctuality, speed, and efficiency.  The latest you ever were was one hour, but Akamba had the audacity to depart our station three hours late.  Anne and several other customers tried in vain to get our money back or at the very least some information from the employees as to when the bus would actually show up, but their customer service more than pales in comparison to your customer service.  You were always friendly and helpful whether it was purchasing flights or giving us free passes to your Sheba Miles Lounge.  They just taunted us by saying our bus would be here shortly only for us to all move outside into the rain for an hour and a half.  One employee said the bus was still at the shop, another it was on the way, and yet another that it was picking up passengers in a different part of town.  They didn’t have a computer to track information, nor did anyone seem willing to give accurate information over the phone.  Oh, internal flights, how we missed you this day.  We missed you in those three hours we waited for the bus to actually arrive.  We missed you when we stopped for some inexplicable road block for an hour and a half.  We missed you when each 10 minute break turned into a 45 minute stop.  And we really missed you when we arrived in Kampala, Uganda at 2:45 AM, almost eight hours past our original ETA.  That was the last time we dared take an Akamba bus, unlike you, who we recommend to everyone.

The next day without you was even worse.  We slept as long as we could but checkout was at 10 AM so we groggily made our way to the Uganda Wildlife Authority to purchase gorilla tracking permits while they were on sale.  That part went smoothly, but as the park we were headed  to was pretty far south, we thought it best to leave this day to ensure we got there in time.  We boarded a bus to Kabale around 1:30 PM and it actually left the bus stand only an hour later.  However, it seemed to take 20 minutes to inch our way to the end of the bus stand before finally crawling through the crowded city streets.  Within minutes we heard what sounded like a gunshot, but of course it was only our bus blowing a tire, so we headed to a petrol station and 45 minutes later we were on our way.  We didn’t get very far.  Alas, internal flights of Ethiopia, we had some major engine problems.  We sat on the side of the road for an hour and a half while some of the bus employees tinkered for a while, then while they called a mechanic from Kampala, then while we waited for the mechanic to arrive, then while the mechanic tried to fix the bus.  We finally piled back in and headed on our way.  We only made it about seven more minutes before the bus broke down again.  At this point it was 7 PM and we were probably less than 50 kilometers from Kampala.  Anne and I lost all faith in the bus actually making it any further this evening so we decided to just eat the cost of this bus ticket and flag down a minibus taxi to take us to the next town where we could try a different bus in the morning.  We asked to get our backpacks out of the boot and were promptly ignored.  Then some nice Ugandans helped us ask the bus employees and they were also ignored.  Then we were told they lost the key to the boot.  Seriously.  Or that the driver left with it.  Then the police arrived and everyone was demanding their money back.  At the very least, we just wanted our luggage.  We helped search for the key but it was the lowest priority for the bus workers who were intent on banging heavy tools around under the engine.  Finally, over an hour later the key to the boot was located.  We grabbed our bags and ran.  Within minutes we flagged down a minibus, tied our bags to the roof, and were off.  We made it two major cities away, to Mbarara around midnight and got dropped off at a guest house near the bus stand.  There must have been a Christian revival going on next door because gospel music was blaring into our room and they said they didn’t have any other rooms further away from the noise. Luckily it stopped around 12:30 AM just as we were ready to sleep. Ethiopia Airlines, you never played such music late at night. And you fed us.

The following morning we forced ourselves to wake relatively early since we had only made it halfway to our destination.  We bought some chapati for breakfast and made our way to the taxi stand.  As per usual, we were swarmed upon entry and directed (forcibly pushed) to a minibus.  We were lucky enough to snag the front seats but really it wasn’t a very good minibus.  While it never broke down, it just kind of puttered its way to Kabale for what seemed like hours beyond what it should have taken.  At one point they stuck another person up front with us so there were four people in the front seat.  This did not go over well, but luckily the other guy was only up there for 15 or so minutes and they didn’t try it again.  Now we had just one more leg of the journey to complete, the ride from here to Kisoro.  As we pulled into the station we were accosted with “mzungu, mzungu” and quickly found a ride to Kisoro.  It was a station wagon shared taxi.  We had to wait a while for it to fill up, then we drove around town slowly for no good reason, then we stopped so the driver could buy an energy drink, and then finally, this seven-seat station wagon left town with 11 adults and 2 children.  The engine was not designed for the extra weight so we putt, putt, puttered our way up and down the mountains to Kisoro, eventually arriving at 5:12 PM, a mere 12 minutes past when the Uganda Wildlife Authority office closed.  This was disappointing as we needed information on getting to the park the next day. If we didn’t show up on time our permits would be worthless and no money would be refunded.  File this away, it will be important later.  We asked someone at our hotel if he knew a taxi driver that would take us there and to our (seemingly) good fortune he did.  He called a friend who came over to discuss the price.  We knew he was grossly overcharging us, but at this point we were exhausted, hungry, and just wanted to not have to think anymore.  We showed him the permits and said “do you know where we need to go?” and he responded “Yes”.  We said, “how long will it take?” and he said “the roads are bad.  It may take 3-4 hours.”  “Wow”, we gasped, “the guidebook says it’s only an hour and a half.”  “Yes”, he said, “but it’s the rainy season and the roads are bad.”  “Okay” we said, “we’ll be ready at 4:30 AM.”  And he said, “better make it 4:25.”  And we said “okay, see you tomorrow at 4:25 AM”.

Oh, internal flights of Ethiopia, the next morning was by far our worst.  We really missed you then.  I think more than anything we missed your honesty.  If you said you were flying from Gonder to Axum, we trusted that you knew how to get there, even if you went via Lalibela.  Sadly, this was not the case with Eric, our taxi driver.  When he still hadn’t arrived by 4:35 AM we called him and he said we would be there shortly.  When we called back at 4:45 he didn’t pick up the phone and we walked to the main street to see if we could hastily find another taxi, but he showed up just then.  There were no cars on the road anyway.  We chastised him for being 20 minutes late because our permits were nonrefundable.  Then he asked us where exactly we were going.  Then he said he needed to get petrol.  Needless to say we were furious.  While he woke up the guy at the petrol station we lambasted him for not knowing where we were going because we specifically showed him the permit last night and he said he knew.  He told us to give the petrol guy 50,000 shillings and we refused to pay until we got to the park.  We insisted Eric call people he knew to ask where to go despite the early hour.  He starting dialing numbers and driving on the tarred road back to Kabale.  He said it was the right way but we didn’t believe him.  We were so angry with him and frantic that we would not get there in time and lose our permits.  Finally he called two guys, Ernest and Emma, who work for a safari company and they spoke with Anne.  They said it was only an hour and a half away, they knew exactly where to go, and if we went back to Kisoro they would draw us a map.  And that’s what we did.  Ernest and Emma were waiting out front of their guest house for us, reassured us we would get there in time and that the roads weren’t too bad, and they drew us a map.  Finally, at 5:40 AM over an hour after we were originally supposed to leave Kisoro we were finally on our way.  We spent most of the ride in the back fuming but it actually didn’t take too long, the roads were fine, and we got there early.  The gorilla tracking was incredible but we will post a separate blog on that.

When we got back to our hotel that evening we handed the driver 50,000 shillings less than we agreed on the evening before and told him he didn’t deserve the full amount because he broke our verbal agreement.  We did, however, pay him the standard amount. He didn’t say anything, and we walked to our room saying, “wow, he didn’t fight that at all.  He must know how much he screwed up.”  Of course we were wrong.  He just didn’t listen to a word we said as we paid him, and it took him a moment to count the money and then he was in the hotel complaining.  His friend who originally recommended him fell into the role of mediator and listened to both arguments.  We were firm and unbending in our decision and explained repeatedly that he broke his contract with us by 1) being 20 minutes late when we had an important deadline, 2) lying about knowing how to get there, and 3) lying about the amount of time it would take.  Anne and I both felt we were extremely reasonable with how much we paid him as what he got was the amount recommended to us by the UWA office when we bought the permits.  He certainly didn’t deserve the overinflated price we agreed on the night before.   He finally left in a flurry and that was the end of him.

And that, dear internal flights of Ethiopia, is why we miss you so much.  Your customer service was excellent.  You were reliable.  The one time you had a mechanical problem with me on board it was quickly remedied and you even apologized for it.  You never lost the key to the plane.  You were fast.  You were comfortable.  You are sorely missed.

Chimp Sanctuary

The day before Anne’s mom arrived here we met a woman working with the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary and when we got to chatting she said there was a tour going out the next day with space for three people so we planned to go.  Unfortunately the boat broke down and the replacement one only had room for one of us.  After a brief discussion we decided that I would go while Anne and her mom went to the Botanical Gardens to do some birding.  This, of course, worked well for me.
It’s a shame we couldn’t all fit on the boat because it was awesome.  The island is a 45 minute boat ride away on Lake Victoria, and it is only about 1 km2 in size.  The chimps roam freely in the forest, but they would destroy it if they didn’t have a supplemental food source, so they get fed four times a day.   All of the chimps there were rescued from one bad situation or another.  Many were orphaned or found in illegal captivity.
 I got to be there for lunch as the chimps came one by one out of the forest and waited for their fruits and veggies.  The alpha male came out of the forest with a testosterone laden swagger and ran around charging the other chimps.  They were all extremely vocal.  I was up on a platform and aside from a barbed wire fence my view was completely unobstructed.  I got to see them close up, sitting down eating, reaching for more food, walking around on all fours, and twice I got to see them doing some brief bipedal walking.  With my good vantage point I was able to get a good look at the faces of several individuals and it surprised me how different they all looked.  Their facial features were just as distinct as ours.  We share 98.7% of our DNA with chimpanzees.  Their social structure was obviously very complex and fascinating to watch.  Lunch was over all too fast though, and one by one they headed back to the forest.

The big, bad alpha male.

Those are hordes of bugs in front of the chimp.

I know it looks like he's laying there reading a book but evolutionarily that's a bit further off.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest

Note: Anyone on the email list who got 17 notifications that we updated the blog, it's because the computer was acting funny and would only let me post one photo at a time.  This is the final version.

There are roughly 700 mountain gorillas in the world, and they only live in two areas.  One is an ecosystem spanning parts of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The other is Bwindi Impentrable National Park where about half of the gorilla population is found.  Permits are ridiculously expensive but that’s a good thing because it’s such a valuable source of revenue for the country that it helps ensure protection for the gorillas.  However, we lucked out with discounted permits for the slow season, so that was nice.
After our ordeal with the incompetent taxi driver we were happy to arrive at the park with plenty of time to spare.  About 20 tourists showed up for the briefing which included a list of do’s and don’ts when with the gorillas.  The ranger also said another survey was done this year and while all of the numbers are not in, preliminary thoughts are that the population has increased some.  In this part of the park there are three different groups of gorillas habituated to humans, so we all split up into our respective tracking groups and headed off.  Park rules limit eight permit holders per day to spend one hour with the gorillas if/when they are located.  Scouts head out early in the morning to track the gorillas from where they were encountered the previous day, and they communicate via radio with the guides.
Our group of seven piled into a safari vehicle for a 20-minute drive to another village then we started to “track”.  We were warned that there is no guarantee of even seeing the gorillas or that you could hike all day in the mud and rain.  We hiked steeply uphill for about an hour with views of the forest on our right and all other directions consisted of limited forest views with copious amounts of human encroachment.  There were huts and farms and pastures creeping right up to the forest.  Amidst this setting, Anne overhears on the radio in Swahili that the gorillas are just ahead.  Seriously?  It was so easy.  We then hiked over and down for another half hour before getting our first glimpse of the gorillas.
 I am not sure how many in total we saw because the forest was so thick with vegetation we could usually only see one, maybe two, gorillas at a time.  We did get to see one silverback that was pretty phenomenal to encounter.  He was huge and at one point he gave one heck of an aggressive warning noise to us, at which point all of the tourists gasped and stepped back in surprise and the guide and scouts said “picture, picture, picture”. 
The Silverback.

We saw a few females and blackbacks, a few of whom also gave us a warning sound accompanied by a really intimidating stance.  We saw two baby gorillas, one of whom the guide worried was sick because he was acting more lethargic than usual.  He called this in to their veterinarian immediately.  The other baby was fairly active at one point and crawled up a tree to check us out briefly.


Just hanging out people watching.

"Do you really want to come any closer than that?"
Baby gorilla

He was so cute I included two photos.

Our hour went by quickly and I could have easily spent the entire day following the gorillas around and watching them with awe.  It’s no wonder Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall took to the primates.   They are fun to watch and given our surprisingly similar DNA it makes them that much more interesting.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sheba Miles!!!

I understand rich people now. I understand why they seem to have this glow about them. This “something” that’s so desirable and unachievable. It’s because they belong to the airline clubs. In fact, they probably belong to the really high-end ones. That sort of pleasure seems inconceivable, but today, Jeanette and I touched the rim of it. We spent the day in the Addis Ababa airport. Though we could have paid $20 each to get visas and wander around the city again, we chose to save our money and hang out in no man’s land. In return, we got a free lunch coupon. Then, the exceedingly generous airline lady granted our request for a free day pass to the Sheba Miles lounge.  The room was nothing compared to the super high-end Cloud Nine lounge, but we figured it was still equipped with comfy chairs. Then we found out it comes with free drinks (of all kinds) and free food. Luxury. We saved $40 on visas and got to live in luxury. I love that Ethiopia is giving back. And now, back to east Africa. Uganda here we come! 

Monday, November 21, 2011


Djibouti is a tiny little desert country with a giant U.S. military base bordered by Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somaliland, and the Red Sea. It’s bloomin’ expensive but boasts random geological formations and whale sharks. We decided that the likelihood of us returning to the Horn of Africa was fairly low, so if we wanted to see Djibouti, we’d best do it now. Unfortunately the country started out with three strikes against it:

1)      Lack of communication. We emailed a number of tour companies about visiting the two famous lakes and only two ever responded. Finding out information and booking a trip with one was like pulling a tooth by tying a string to a doorknob.
2)      When we got into the country they almost didn’t let us in because I was at one point a journalist.
3)      When we got to the hotel, they wouldn’t let us stay because two women, even “cousins,” aren’t allowed to share a bed.

Luckily, the attractions of the country outweighed the negatives.

Day One: Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are neither whales nor sharks, but they are big fish. Really, really big fish. We joined an excursion of military folks to go and snorkel with the behemoths. After a two hour cruise on the Red Sea past a stark desert landscape we piled into skiffs to go look for the fish. As soon as we saw one, everyon jumped out of the boats in snorkel gear and swam after them. Jeanette was a super pro at this. She just zipped away with the whale sharks. In fact, if she was about 10 times her current size and covered in brown scales with white dots, she could be a whale shark. I, on the other hand, hopped into the water wearing my oversized lifejacket and saw them from fairly close up only twice. Then I frantically had the skiff driver pull me back into the boat. I do a fantastic impersonation of a walrus.

Day Two: Lac Assal
All of our dysfunctional communication with the tour company finally paid off and an amiable British guy joined us, and shared the costs, for our expensive excursion to the funky lakes. On our way to Lac Assal we stopped to watch the tectonic plates move apart. It was very slow. Only 2 cm per year. But the gorge was nice, as was the nearby salt pond. Our rather unnecessary guide paced about as our British companion took hundreds of photos. Eventually he muttered, this isn’t Lac Assal, you know, and ushered us back into the car.
Lac Assal is a massive salt lake filled with bright blue water. Jeanette and I slipped into our swimsuits and crunched over the salt pan to float in the lovely liquid. The high salt concentration does wonders for one’s complexion, and it’s pretty funny not being able to sink. The hot sun instantly dried the salt on our skin and we got a good idea of what we’ll look like when our body hair turns white. The salt accumulates so quickly that the area is mined for salt by the Afar. They make tourist trinkets by putting things like goat skulls into the lake until they are densely coated with salt. We washed off in a nearby pool of fresh water, pathetically trying to hide behind a rock to change our clothes as other tourists came to check out the hot springs.

Not sure what kind of baboon this is.

Lac Assal

It made our skin nice and soft, but left tons of salt on our bodies.
Our goal was to get to Lac Abh by sunset but a variety of unexplained delays, including a stop for our driver to buy a local, hugely-popular narcotic leaf, put us there just after the sun went down. As the light died we saw random rocks rising up around us. They remained a mystery as we slept that evening in traditional grass mat covered huts.

Day Three: Lac Abh
We awoke for sunrise and were driven back to the rocks. It’s still unclear to us what formed the giant, craggy forms. The surface was white and looked like tiny bubbles all melted together and hardened. The guide said it was ancient bacteria… Either way, the sun rising over the chimney and castle-like forms was splendid. Steam vents dotted the landscape making it seem even more unearthly. The herds of sheep only slightly detracted from the effect. After a lingering breakfast we went to see the flocks of flamingos that live in the salt lake then climbed a rock pile for a view of the plains of strangeness.

This is where they filmed the original Planet of the Apes.

There were random boiling hot springs in a few areas that added to the  place.

On our way back to Djibouti city we asked our driver and guide to take us to the rock painting that was mentioned in our printed itinerary. They had no idea that we had an itinerary, but eventually the driver figured out what rock painting was mentioned. We drove over dried mud flats to a pile of volcanic rock. On one large flat stone were crude drawings of camels. They did not look prehistoric. Nor did the numbers written by them. When the guide and I climbed up the rock hill we encountered small enclosures made of stacked rocks, much like the Afar currently build for their livestock. The guide said that people were washed ashore and stranded on the hill in ancient times when the mud flats were actually ocean. They carried their camels in their tiny sailboats and when they grounded, they built pens on the hill to make sure the camels didn’t wander off. The small hill was about the size of half a city block…

When the tour ended we walked around Djibouti city with our British companion. We both expected the city to be clean and European, given how much things in Djibouti cost and how many expats live there. It was actually fairly disgusting. The sight of the crow picking out the innards of a rat in the bus station was outdone by the sight of the bloated dead cat in a puddle on one of the main streets. The markets offered a great variety of colorful underwear, however, and the restaurants had great juice.

Three days turned out to be the perfect amount of time in Djibouti, a sweeping, desolate desert with a few little hidden gems.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Happiness Update

Our moods and opinions of Ethiopia have vastly improved lately. The country really does boast some of the most beautiful landscapes we’ve seen on the continent and the most interesting historic sites. We’ve also been in places with much less begging and far fewer things expected of us. Being on an organized tour of the Danakil Depression might have helped, too. Everything was out of our hands. Though I would still recommend visiting Ethiopia when you aren’t travel weary and for only a few weeks, I would actually now say it’s worthwhile to come. Just be prepared.

I was very surprised at the amount of livestock in Ethiopia.  They were everywhere  - donkeys, goats, sheep, camels, etc.  This unfortunately led to a dramatic increase in the number of flies all over the place.  The food was very meat-heavy, and we often ended up getting the same vegetarian dish over and over.  It was surprising how different shiro, a spicy pureed lentil dish, tasted in each restaurant.  Livestock freely roam all highways, gravel roads, and even downtown streets, and the herders make surprisingly little attempt to move them out of the way for vehicles.  This is probably because it is completely the driver’s responsibility to pay for the animal if it is hit, and dead donkeys bring in lots more money than live ones.

There were also a fair number of fleas in Ethiopia.  They infested the beds in several hotels and attacked us from the mats we rented when camping. Anne got it the worst on the hike she did in Lalibela.  She came back with her entire back covered in bites.  I think they get onto your pajamas then into your pack and then all over your other clothes.  We haven’t opened our sleeping bags in a while and they will get a proper washing before being allowed in anyone’s house.  However, I am writing this a week out of Ethiopia and am happy to report that we are flea-free.  (And thus will not infect your houses. At least not with fleas. Other parasites, though…).
The begging didn’t get a whole lot better and as much as we were grumbling about the situation we had this uncanny moment in Lalibela at dinner one night that was reality slapping us in the face.  There we were in a small hotel restaurant that had a giant screen satellite television.  It was the two of us and about five local men.  That evening the television was tuned to MTV, which as we all know, hasn’t played music videos in about 20 years.  Instead the programming included a two-segment episode of Teen Cribs followed by an episode of Super Sweet Sixteen.  It is my hope that none of you have ever heard of these programs or at least have never had to suffer through viewing them.  They were horrible.  Teen Cribs consisted of a teenager walking you through a tour of the super-sized, super-supped up McMansion she lived in and how cool it was and how all her friends loved hanging out there, etc.  These houses were worth more than our current federal deficit.  In Super Sweet Sixteen a really popular girl at school was using daddy’s money to throw herself the best sweet sixteen ever.  Having never been one of those girls, not only could I in no way relate to her, but I can’t even remember my sixteenth birthday.  The teenager gifted herself with a $165,000 necklace and earring set because the army-themed party alone didn’t have enough “wow” factor.  Given the available programming on life in the States, it’s no wonder Ethiopians think we have diamonds falling out of our pockets.

An example of this can be found in the following story.  While in Addis when we first entered Ethiopia I was chatting with one of the docents at a museum.  She was a university student doing an internship there, and she invited Anne and me to coffee ceremony when we came back through town.  We exchanged phone numbers, and she checked in with us throughout our time in Ethiopia.  We were in Lalibela when she texted again to say her mother invited us to her house for the coffee ceremony.  While on a tour of the churches I explained this situation to our guide and asked what an appropriate gift for us to bring would be.  As he gave me a quizzical look I explained that in the States if someone invited you to dinner you’d likely show up with a bottle of wine or maybe some flowers.  He said wine isn’t typically consumed at a coffee ceremony.  I said I understood that, it was just an example of what we would do culturally and then I asked again for his opinion on what would be a nice gift for us to bring.  The he said “Oh, you can just give her something like an old laptop or camera.”  I almost choked on my gasp as I said we don’t just have that kind of thing on us.  He then said it would be okay if I got her address and mailed it once I got home.  Anne and I just shared a look of astonishment.  How to explain that laptops and camera were expensive and that we didn’t actually have a stockpile of them at home?  I was off the hook anyway because the coffee ceremony never worked out as we stayed that whole day in the airport to avoid paying visa fees again.

Eventually, we just started laughing off instances like these, even the fleas, and overall our moods toward Ethiopia vastly improved.