Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Life is Hakuna Matata on Zanzibar

The second you step off the plane onto the sands of Zanzibar you know you have found a slice of paradise. The salty air and gentle breeze instantly whisper to you the island mantra: "Hakuna Matata" ( Swahili for "no problem") reminding you to relax and enjoy all that awaits.

Arriving from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's Capitol, on a twin engine 12 seater prop plane, I was ready for my island break. Although Zanzibar is only a 20 minute flight or 1 hour ferry ride from Dar it became clear in the 15km drive from the airport to Stone Town, the largest town on the island, that Zanzibar is a world away from the hustle of Mainland East Africa. The narrow streets and ancient buildings speak of a place with a deep history, rich traditions and a time system that moves slow. 

First stop Stone Town. The largest town on the island of Unguga (aka "Spice Island)", Stone Town used to be a major spice and slave trade center. Due to Arab influence and the recent funding from Aga Khan, Stone Town is now a culinary destintion. Arriving late in the evening and with an empty stomach a stop at the Forodhani Gardens, Zanzibar's nightly outdoor street food market, was a must. Packed full of the most elaborate food stands, this park is competing hard for best street food in the world award. Every night starting at dusk this park fills up with food stands that offer up delectibles such as the Zanzibar pizza ($3), kebabs and coconut bread ($2), mango with pili pili (20cents) and glasses of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice to wash it all down.

Mr Nutella
Beyond the food of stone town, this city is a great place to soak up history. Visitors can tour the old slave market, prison island (a short boat ride away), or go on a spice tour and learn about Zanzibar's most precious resources: cloves and vanilla.

After a hot day of walking around Stone Town it was time to hit the white sandy beaches that make this place world famous. Although one cannot really go wrong with any of the beaches on Zanzibar, one must decide what they are looking for because each area offers something slightly unique. Want to kite surf? Head to Paje. Want high end, all-inclusive resorts? Head to Jambiani. Want a good party and beaches that don't recede with the tide? Head to Nangwi.

Wanting to relax on the best beaches by day and party by night (while still watching the wallet) the beaches at Nungwi, and more specifically Kendwa, seem like the best bet. A 1 hour dulla dulla ride ($2) away from Stone Town, Kendwa turned to be just the paradise I was looking for. The tropical blue waters and soft white sand mixed with comfortable beach loungers and cold drinks made for a week of pure unadulterated laziness. ($15 hour long massages helped tremendously). If one wanted a break from their beach chair Zanzibar Watersports, operated by adventure aficionado Chris, was steps away to hook you up with snorkeling and diving trips to Mnemba atoll, kite surfing, deep sea fishing and much more.

Although one could spend a lifetime on Zanzibar, after 6 days it was time to pass on my now imprinted beach chair to another mzungu in need of a beach break...but only after I suck down one last glass of sugar cane juice. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

From Goma to Nyungwe National Park

Lake Kivu is one of the worlds most volcanically active lakes experiencing limnic eruptions on a regular basis. Situated between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, this lake is of great economic importance for the region and is now a center for methane extraction.

Beyond its economic value, Lake Kivu is beautiful. It's waters are a brilliant blue and it's shoreline is a mix of towering mountains, old lava fields and white sandy beaches. Although most people spend their time relaxing on the shores in Gyseni, Rwanda, it is a lake that is worth exploring if you have the time. 

From Goma, DRC speed boats travel twice daily across this expansive lake stopping at a couple of the islands (where you can get off and stay over) before docking at the southern tip of the lake in Bukavu, DRC ($50). 

Wanting to get to Nyungwe National Park, located in southern Rwanda, as scenically and efficiently as possible traveling by boat seemed like the best option. Taking 2.5-3 hours (in comparison to 9 by bus) this boat sped across the calm waters of Kivu and allowed one to enjoy the beauty of it all. 

Arriving at Bukavu, the bustling port city located in south Kivu, it was then a 15 minute taxi ride, a chaotic border stop, and 5 minute walk to the border at Chanegugu, Rwanda, a land so distant and exotic in comparison to the dizzying streets of Bukavu and Goma.

After a seemless crossing in Rwanda one can either take a bus (45-1 hour) or hire a taxi (30 mins, $40) to take you into one of the most biologically diverse pieces of land on the planet: Nyungwe NP. Home to 275 bird species and numerous primates including chimpanzees and golden monkeys, this park is breathtaking. Ranked the #1 place to visit in 2014 by National Geographic, it is definitely a spot worth exploring, if only to  walk across the 40 meter high canopy bridge to get a birds eye view of the expansive forest.

Practical information on boating across Lake Kivu:

1. Boats across the lake depart from Goma, Congo. Unfortunately no boats leave from Rwanda.
2.You are allowed 10 kilos. If you are over you will have to pay a small amount per extra kilo.
3. Sandwich and drink are provided with your ticket. 

Practical information for Nyungwe NP:

1. There is NO ATM so take out cash in Chanegugu. 
2. The ranger station at Gisakura allows you to book hikes using your credit card. 
3. Accomodations are limited. There are a couple of very high end lodges and very few low end. Camping is an option but just come prepared with warm clothes and food. 
4. Motorbikes are a great and cheap way to move about the park if you do not have a car. From one ranger station to the other it is 5000 ($8) RF, in comparison to the $100 they charge for car hire. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Kwibuka: 20 years after the genocide

"If you knew me and you really knew yourself then you would not have killed me" -Felicien Ntagengwa

Kwibuka: Remember. Unite. Renew. That is the motto of Rwanda as it heals from the genocide that ended the lives of 1 million men, women, and children and destroyed a country 20 years ago. This July 4 Rwandans will come together to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the end of the genocide. 

Rwanda has made it clear that they will never again be a bystander to genocide. Besides national days of rememberance and celebration, Rwanda has made eduction as means of healing and renewing a priority. As a part of this process memorials of the horrific event that peaked in April of 1994 have been built all across the country. The largest of the memorials is located in Kigali, Rwanda's capitol. Pearched on one of the cities hills, this memorial walks you through the history before, during and after the genocide and is also the resting place of close to 300,000 people who were killed during this time.

Words cannot fully express the emotions that one experiences here. As I walked through the museum and burial grounds I was accompanied by close to one hundred Rwandan secondary school children. As we listened and read through the history together I watched these students hold each other and comfort their wailing peers. As an outsider I have never felt so helpless and completely ashamed of humanity. The lack of international aid is inexcusable and even though I was a child at the time you can only feel a heavy weight of responsibility. The memorial, funded by James and Stephen Smith of the Aegis Trust, is beautifully designed and does a very effective job at pulling on your heart strings and reminding people that regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality we hold a collective reponsibility to each other to never let events like this happen again.

Kigali Genocide Memorial is free. Audio tours of the museum and grounds are $15. Open daily from 8am-5pm (last admission is at 4pm).

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


The Virunga mountain range spans 1.9 million acres (7,800 square km) and 3 countries: Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It is also one of the most biologically diverse areas on Earth and is home to approximately 800 of the last surviving mountain gorillas. 

Founded in 1925, Virunga National Park (originally Prince Albert National Park) is located on the eastern edge of the DRC and was the first national park on the continent of Africa. A revolutionary idea at the time, this park led the way to conserving some of Africa's most valuable land. Now almost 90 years later, this park is at risk: people's desires for oil and other minerals (specifically, tantalum) threaten the concept of conservation and protection. 

In the last three years Virunga National Park has been the epicenter of civil conflict and closed its doors to tourism in 2011 due to the increased violence and conflict in the area. Fortunately, the war has since ceased, allowing Virunga to reopen to tourists this past January.

There are only a few places in the world to see mountain gorillas: Bwindi NP in Uganda, Volcan NP in Rwanda, and Virunga NP in the DRC.  When the time came to make a decision, overcome my fears of civil unrest and lack of security; I chose to give my money to Virunga, Africa's most at-risk national park

The drive from Goma, the closest city to the park, to the park headquarters at Rumangabo takes 1.5 hours and winds through UN military bases, open fields that used to be home to over 1 million Rwandan refugees, and lush jungles. Upon arriving at the only accommodation in the park, Mikeno Lodge, you instantly feel like you are in a distant land far from the chaos of Goma and the rebuilding efforts taking place in eastern Congo. Virunga is a land of extreme beauty. From the wide open plains to the towering volcanos, it is easy to understand why so much wildlife resides here and why Emmanual De Merode and his ICCN rangers risk their lives daily in order to protect it. In the last 10 years, 140 rangers have lost their lives in the fight against poachers, rebel groups, and large international companies that are illegally exploring for oil. 

Trekking mountain gorillas in the wild is a process very different from other African game drives. Due to both the gorillas' natural habitat and their susceptibility to human diseases, gorilla viewing is highly regulated and protected. All visitors must hold a permit ($465 at Virunga) and are limited to one hour of viewing time once the family has been spotted. [Note: Virunga is the only park that requires masks and has been lobbying the other parks to follow suit due to the death of one gorilla last year from a human virus.]

Leaving at 6:30am escorted by one of Virunga's dedicated rangers, we made our way towards Bukima camp, the launching point for our trek. The drive took roughly 1.5 hours on one of the most atrocious roads on the planet. After our brains and bodies had been sufficiently jostled we arrived at Bukima for our debriefing and long awaited trek. 

Winding through intense jungle we literally hacked our way through thick vines in search of the Nyakamwe family. The excitement and nervousness of seeing such large animals in the wild intensified with each step. After an hour of hiking we met up with the trackers who brought us 20 minutes further up the mountain side to witness one of the most spectacular sites on earth: mountain gorillas in the wild. 

The Nyakamwe family is comprised of 2 babies, 3 silverbacks and 4 females. As we sat less then a meter away from these great animals we were greeted with grunts, playful grabs, and looks of complete disinterest. The babies swung from vines and wrestled in the bush as the others lazed about. The sheer size of the males was both intimidating and awe-inspiring. One look into these great apes eyes and you are both in love and in fear of getting ripped to shreds. The surge of thoughts and emotions while sitting amongst them is beyond comprehension. In one simple word, the experience was magnifique (and worth every penny). 

Need another reason to visit Virunga? This park is also home to the only gorilla orphanage in the world. Thanks to Andre, the gorilla whisperer, and the other rangers, Virunga has rescued 5 gorillas who were orphaned due to the civil conflict. The gorillas are outside from 9-3 daily. No entrance fee. Just sit and watch at your leisure from one of the many view points. The gorillas love to show off so you are guaranteed a good time. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Into the Congo

A country that has been war torn for decades, the Congo seems like a rather daunting place to vacation much less visit. When you tell people you are going to the Congo they often give you a confused and rather bewildered look. "The Congo?! Why would you want to go there?" they all ask. 

Although I fully recognize people's fears and confusion about this place called the Congo; not only has it been referred to as the "heart of darkness" since Joseph Conrad's famous book was published in 1899 but it has also been a place rife with tribal conflict, genocide, and civil war for the last 20 years. However, amidst chaos, violence, and lack of leadership, the Congo lives on. A country spanning 905,600 square miles (2345 sq km) with over 66 million people still stands, and quite proudly I must say. 

Entering the eastern center of Goma in the province of North Kivu from the Rwandan border, it is clear that times have been tough. The roads, left over from colonial rule, are worn to bits, buildings are ramshackled (partly due to the volcanic eruption that destroyed part of the town in 2002), and there are more UN trucks on the road then regular vehicles. 

Goma is a town full of ex-pats and aid workers and, therefore, a bizzare mix of extreme poverty and highly educated people. Ask any humanitarian worker and they will tell you that Goma is like summer camp and anonymity does not exist. 

Spending only a short bit of time in Goma it is clear that in this dusty city life is divided: there are the places for those that have and a lack thereof for those that have not. 

However, life still carries on here and with full energy. Boda Bodas move from place to place; local Lingala music blasts from store fronts; women and men move about their daily lives dressed in the most colorful clothing I have ever seen. 

The word resilient seems like a giant understatement for the Congolese people. Whether it be a gathering at the local water pump or watching football on tv, the Congolese are ever smiling. They endure, and in ways that not many on this earth could match. 

Traveling into Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo?

1. Visas: tourist visas are now available. It is recommended that you get your visa in advance in your home country. It will save you many hours of hassle. A single entry, 1-month VISA is $115 for U.S. citizens. A 3-day tourist visa to Goma and Virunga is available at the boarder for $100. Invitation letters are necessary for both visas and can be obtained from the ICCN office (if you are going to one of the parks) or a local tour agency.

2. Border crossing: check border crossing times. Due to continued conflict, the open crossing times continuously vary. 

3. Precautions: Most aid workers in Goma are on strict curfew. Although at the time of the writing it was more lenient (12 am), it is advised to anyone staying in Goma to follow suit. Although most incidences of violence are not directed at foreigners, it is wise to follow the same precautions.

4. Police and FDRC: no pictures, unless you want to see yourself inside one of the worlds most crowded and unsafe jails. 

Eating your way through Uganda

Throw a seed anywhere in Uganda and it will grow. The soil, a deep rusty red color, is some of the most fertile soil in the world. From bananas to pineapple food is abundant here, which makes it one of the best culinary destinations in East Africa. Loving to eat and try new things I made this trip back to Uganda all about food. From the 10,000 USH ($4) goat stew to the 500 USH (20 cents) chapati, here is how you, too, can eat your way through Uganda.

Rolex: the Ugandan take on the burrito. This very popular and amazingly priced (1000 USH) chapati and egg roll up will surely satisfy any hungry stomach. Add some avocado, tomato and onion and you've got yourself one hell of a meal.

Ground Nut Sauce: Uganda's national sauce. A simple concoction of ground peanuts, water, salt, and a touch of sugar, this sauce leaves your mouth salivating for more. Eat it as a stew with chicken or on the side with rice, but be warned, this is as calorie rich as it tastes. 

Kebabs: Kebabs are everywhere in Uganda. Whether you are walking in town or on a 10 hour bus ride, kebabs can easily be found. From chicken livers and necks to cow udder and ribs to illegal baboon meat, these tasty sticks are a great option for those who want a quick snack or a cheap, meat lovers meal. Price should be around 500 USH.

Roasted grass hoppers: A Ugandan delicacy for sure, these creatures are delicately roasted to insure the perfect crunch and then mixed with onions and other seasonings. Remember that looks can be deceiving so get yourself a cone full and give these fried up morsels a try. I promise you that you will be asking for more. 

Roasted Ground Nuts: Some of the best peanuts in the world come from here. Perfectly roasted deliciousness all for under 20 cents. It's a no brainer.

Matoke: The mashed potatoes of Uganda. Made by boiling plantains or green bananas, matoke is a staple food here. The markets in Uganda are filled with plantains ready to be served up as a side to chicken, goat, or fish. 

Crawfish with avacado: a delicacy from around Lake Bunyonyoni, this dish is lip smacking delicious. The dish consists of crawfish that are cooked in a spicy tomato-mayonnaise sauce and then served up with the freshest avacado around. If you find yourself lounging on the shores of Lake Bunyonyoni this is a must have meal.

Chapati: Indian style flat bread that is served with just about everything. From a main at breakfast to a side dish, chapati is what Ugandans run on. 

What to drink with all of this amazingness? Well, a Nile Special of course. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Into thin air.

It's 6:23!" I shouted at my travel partner and flew out of bed. "Our taxi comes in 7 minutes. Damn alarm never went off." In a flurry of clothes and toiletries we changed and shoveled our belongings into our overly full packs just in time for our taxi to arrive and take us to our next leg of the journey: Uganda. 

Damn, we're good. We said as we relished in the fact that not only did we successfully get ourselves out the door on time but that there was no "jam" on the way to Jomo Kenyatta airport. 

It all seemed too good and in fact it was. I should have known from my past experiences that nothing runs this smoothly in Kenya. However, I being overly optimistic thought nothing of the lack of queue at the Air Uganda counter upon our arrival. What I did not expect was the complete disappearance of Air Uganda overnight. And yet, here we were standing at the counter being told by two grounds crew that Air Uganda stopped service. "Did they not email you?" the woman at the counter asked. Clearly not, ma'am by the fact that I am standing here at 7:00 am wanting to check in. 

"Well, why don't you take a seat over there," she said pointing to the other stranded passengers. "The representative is on her way to help you."

"When will they be here?" 

"I'm not sure. We were told she is on her way."

And so at the mercy of the woman "on her way" we sat and waited, hoping we too would not disappear into thin air. 
Surving at Jomo Kenyatta airport continued:

1. Nairobi Java house between terminal 1 & 2 Tuskers, tea, and brownies are decently priced and will give you the patience necessary to deal with the lack of efficiency.