Friday, August 23, 2013


A common, and perhaps overly used, phrase amongst people living and traveling in Africa is T.I.A., meaning "This is Africa". Throwing out a TIA shows your acknowledgment of all things awkward, absurd, and astonishing here in Africa.

Red roads of Jinja, Uganda

Over the last few months of trodding across the Eastern part of the continent of Africa there have been many times where a TIA would have been the correct response, for example why the power has not been connected to a building even when the cable is sitting 10 meters away or why people are okay waiting for a bus to leave 4 hours late. However, as I sit in the Entebbe airport ready to head back to the distant lands that I call home I can only think that TIAs are in fact almost always the incorrect response. It's a phrase seeped in judgement and the belief that the way things are done in the western world are better. After weeks spent on this continent I have seen; I have listened; I have learned.

Samburu students in Uasio Nyrio, Kenya
I have learned that TIA is the deep rust colored soil that stains your feet and the strong sun that deepens your skin; it is the smell of wood burning and diesel engines idling; it's the sound of Kiswahili, Luganda, Kikuyu, Amaharic, the queens English, and then some all being spoken and understood; it's the flavor of maize and beans, bananas of all sizes and colors, sweet potatoes, sukuma, and the most flavorful chicken you could ever eat. TIA is rhythm; it is dance; it is song. TIA is not feeling rushed, living in the here and now; it is family and community; it is understanding far to well that life is short. TIA is finding joy in the little things, not wasting a plastic bottle or throwing out a ratty old t-shirt. TIA is celebration, pure joy, and believing in mystical powers to explain the unbelievable.

Sukuma (kale) in Nanyuki, Kenya
Zege Peninsula, Ethiopia

And even though this continent has undergone, and still struggles with many hardships: corruption, poverty, war, disease, lack of resources; this part of the world still endures. So in one word, TIA is resilience. 

Africans make no apologies for their lives, culture, or countries, and so if you find yourself wandering around this part of the globe you either have to take it or leave it because, This, my friend, IS Africa.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Kampala by Night

"A Nile, please", I shouted to the bar tender at Steak Out, the local and popular Tuesday night haunt in Kampala. At 11pm the bar was just starting to pick up as people trickled in after a good days work. Popular Ugandan music was being spun from the DJ booth while a few danced.

The night was still young at 11pm here in this cultural Mecca. Although not widely known in the west, Kampala is a place with a vibrant nightlife. Bars, restaurants and clubs litter this city and on any day of the week offer up plenty to see and do. From reggae music, to pop African, to house, every night some where in this city is hot. 

On Tuesdays it happens to be Steak Out and so that is where I, and 8 others from across this globe, headed. An open air club with a large dance floor, pool tables and plenty of room to mingle, drink, and smoke hookahs, this joint was clearly the place to be that night. 

By midnight the bar was packed and the dance floor even more so. Ugandan rhythms commanded our attention and took hold of our souls as we literally danced the night away. By the wee hours of the morning there was no sign of stopping. People continued to pour in, presumably after working late night jobs, even at 3 am. 

After hours of dancing, and drenched completely in sweat, there was no question in my mind that Kampala is a place that rivals the nightlife of Vegas, Ibiza and Berlin and for a hell of a lot less USD.

Want to dance the night away in Kampala? Check out the local paper for what is happening each night. Mish-Mash is always a sure bet for a drink or a jumping off point. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Kampala by Day

Africa has a sound to it that is musical. Although it's a noise that to many is deafening; to Africans it is the sound of life: horns honking, boda boda's (motor bikes) revving their engines, Afro beats pouring out of roadside shacks, women selling bananas. Kampala, the Capitol of Uganda, has this unique rhythm that I instantly wanted to dance to. From the moment that I stepped off my 14 hour overnight bus from Nairobi I knew I would like this place.

Kampala, or the city of seven hills, at times has a very western feel to it. If not paying full attention you might believe you were in San Francisco or southern Italy. Although Kampala, and more widely, Uganda's past has been troubled, especially under the watchful eye of Idi Amin, it is a city that has clearly revived itself. The streets are orderly; the buildings have European accents to them; the city feels safe. 

In order to really take in Kampala I decided that I must see it from the back of a boda boda. Although riding on the back of boda boda's can be incredibly unsafe, it is fantastic way to experience and appreciate all that Kampala has to offer. Thankfully there are many fantastic (and safe) drivers to take you around and after a quick inquiry at my hostel I was put in touch with Walter at Walter's Boda Boda tours. 

Within 30 minutes Edi, my driver, arrived. He zipped up, threw me a helmet and said "tugende", Luganda for "lets go". After strapping my helmet on, and telling Edi that I was not ready to die, we took to the streets of Kampala with a vengeance. 

First stop: independence park and the "Beverly Hills" of Kampala where the streets and houses very much resemble those in Southern California. The yards were beatutifully manicured; the houses were ornate; and the views of Kampala: stunning. Home to ambassadors and dignitaries from across the globe, it is very clear why this neighborhood earned its nickname. 

From 90210 we then headed to the heart of Kampala: its city center. Markets, taxis, matatus headed in every direction, and a plethora of bars and restaurants make up this part of Kampala. Driving through the tightly packed streets here requires the attention and skill similar to a neurosurgeon. Dodging left and right we carefully (and rather thrillingly, I might add) made our way through this section of town en route to one of the worlds largest mosques and what is considered to be one of the best views in Kampala.

Taxi stand in the city centre

Completed in 2008, the Gaddafi mosque, named after the ex-Libyian dictator who donated the funds to build it, is a beatuiful building perched atop one of Kampala's 7 main hills. For 10,000 USX ($4) a guide will take you into the mosque and to the top of the spire to take in Kampala from above. Women do not need to worry about wearing appropriate dress because it is provided for you. 

From the mosque we then headed for a traditional Ugandan lunch at 2K. Located close to the mosque, this restaurant is a popular local hangout. Serving delicious traditional delicacies from goat to ground nut sauce and everything in between, it was clear why so many people flocked here: the food was fantastic and worth every bit of my 10,000 USX.

Walter serving up banana beer

With our bellies full we then made our way to the King's palace. With quick detour to grab some banana beer and roasted coffee beans, we then cruised down the "royal mile", the street that connects the government building and palace (yes, it was copied from the Scottish), to the infamous palace where Idi Amin tortured his dissidents in special underground chambers. Even through you cannot enter the palace itself, for 10,000 USX you can tour the grounds and go into the torture chambers where captives were often electrocuted. Our guide was well versed on Ugandan history and more specifically the on goings under the Amin regime. 

King's Palace

A little more somber and still full from our delicious meal we then zipped off to cleanse our souls and find enlightenment at Africa's Ba'hai temple. Situated a top of one of Kampala's outer hills, this temple is a house of worship to just over 100,000 Ba'hai living in Uganda alone. As we quietly sat and watched the sun set over Kampala it made sense as to why so many people congregate here. 

After the sun was a mere streak in the horizon it was time to head back. Flying down the streets of Kampala, with the wind at my back, I could feel the subtle rhythms that makes this city different from the other East African capitols I have visited. It is evident that culture is apart of life here and with every horn blast, engine roar, and hand wave I felt apart of the daily dance that those living here are lucky to partake in.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


As you travel the dangerous roads of Kenya your eyes will not be bored. From lush forests, to banana tree lined hills, to pineapple dotted plains; the lands of Kenya are ripe for all that visit. If you look beyond the terra cotta colored soil, there is the fascinating movement of people, animals, and products waiting to be bought and sold.

One of those products is khat: the mysterious plant that is heavily sought after in this part of the world for its amphetamin-like properties that according to scientific study causes "excitement and euphoria". Used culturally for thousands of years in the Horn of Africa and around the Arabian peninsula, khat is at the heart of many African tales. One such tale is that khat was one of the reasons why the US pulled out of Somalia. In order to stay away awake and alert while fighting, Somali soldiers chewed khat--day and night--and it is said that US soldiers were unable to compete next to the very energetic Somali soldiers and so they packed up and went home. 

Whether the stories are true or not one thing remains fact: khat is one of Kenya's most lucrative businesses. Widely grown in the central part of Kenya, this legal drug has created a business model that Walmart could only dream of. Once picked khat has a shelf life of 3 days and so in order to get it to the hands of beckoning customers growers have had to get creative, especially in the areas of transportation. Understanding not only the importance to the Kenyan economy but also to their own personal khat desires, the Kenyan government has exempted these drug runners from any and all driving rules and regulations. Khat drivers whip down Kenyan roads at terrifying speeds in attempts to get the product to the exporters before it goes off. Their trucks, piled dangerously high and often teetering from side to side, carry millions of shillings worth of plant matter bound mainly to Somalia. 

Watching these drug runners fly down the roads is an amazing sight. The physics behind it all remains a mystery and so if you find yourself on the roads of Kenya it's best advised to simply get out of their way. 

The Streets are Alive in Nairobi

A city that has become famous for its high rates of theft, Nairobi, or more widely known as "Nai-robbery", is a place of pure chaos. Most travelers fly in here and get immediately out, fearing that their precious cargo will get instantly ripped off. Not wanting to fall into that cliche, and more importantly having a desire to see what Kenya's largest and most bustling city is like, I took a leap of faith and decided that Nairobi was worth more than a few hours of my time.

Upon arrival into this bustling East African hub you can instantly see why many are deterred from coming here. The traffic here has coined its own definition of insane and although many speak of the horrors of driving here, it is not fully appreciated until you are emersed within it. As a traveler I am usually prepared for the unexpected: I carry wet wipes in case I am thrown up on; a head lamp for power outages; a rain coat for all wet things that fall from the sky (is that really water coming from the ceiling?). However in Nairobi being prepared only gets you as far as your matatu and from there your life is as predictable as the weather.

The sky decided to open up on us as I arrived into Nairobi. I already knew that I had a bit of a drive (45 minutes to an hour) from the airport to Westlands, where my guest house was located. However, I had no idea what was in store when my driver Nicholas looked at me with a worried expression and explained that because of the rain it was going to take "a little longer" to get to my hotel. Sure, no problem, I thought, sitting in the car a little longer is not big deal. Two and half hours and 5 kilometers later I now had a different appreciation for the expression "a little bit longer".

What I also came to appreciate is how Kenyans are able to maneuver in such chaos; even when roads are blocked solid with what is perceived as no where to go cars find ways to move forward. When my driver got frustrated with the stand still traffic he took matters into his own hands. Rules and regulations were quickly cast aside as the van whipped on to the sidewalk. As we cruised down the sidewalk and past the lines of cars memories of playing Grand Theft Auto with my brother flashed before my eyes. I waited for the proverbial "F*$! You" to come flying out of the mouths of those on foot but nothing came. At points where fingers would have been thrown and curse words spewed in the U.S., courtesy waves were given. People moved out of the way and in most cases even assisted with the new flow of traffic. 

The streets of Nairobi are worth the visit in and of themselves. Back in the US sitting in traffic is often a drag; in Nairobi the streets are alive and is a place where you can get most of your errands and then some accomplished. While traveling through Nairobi you can purchase a puppy, a bed, any kind of curio, bananas, papaya, and bunches of sukuma (kale) and more. America may have invented the drive-thru but Kenyans have taken it to whole new and impressive level.

Although Nairobi can feel daunting upon arrival, its tough exterior does soften. With a population of over 3 million, Nairobi is a place that has much to offer visitors of all kinds. From the diplomat to the budget traveler, Nairobi should be given a couple of days, even if you just come to haggle from your car.
Baby Elephant at the David Sheldrick Orphanage

Must See:

Nairobi National Park. Spanning 44 square miles, this national park is the only National park within a city in the world. Its gorgeous vistas and accessible animal sitings makes this place a worthwhile trip. What makes this place even more desirable is the fact that it is home to an elephant orphanage. Due to poaching, man holes, mudslides and elephant traps, this orphanage has become home to 26 elephants, ages 3 days to 3 years. As a way to raise awareness and funds for this project people can visit the elephants from 11-12 daily for 500KS. Although skeptical at first, it is definitely worth your shillings to see these baby elephants wrestling with each other over a bottle full of baby formula.

From the elephant sanctuary one should then head to the Giraffe Center where you will come face to face (and more!) with the endangered Rothschild giraffe. No matter what your opinion is of the giraffe, I guarantee that these tall beauties will not disappoint. Entrance into the center is 1000KS which includes a well versed guide and the potential for the most unbelievable kiss of your life. Have no fear, Giraffes saliva is antiseptic to protect against the acacia tree thorns so a good lickin' from one of them will cause no harm or herpes.

Masaai Market
A Masaai Market. On specific days of the week local curio sellers set up around Nairobi to sell you any and everything your heart desires. From hand carved bowls to beaded jewelery to beautiful batiks, these markets are a good place to go, get lost, and bargain (hard!) over prices. Even if you are not in the market for local crafts, it is a great place to watch the magic of negotiation.  

Got Extra Time: Check out Village Market with its fantastic food court; walk amongst butterflies at the Nairobi Butterfly Centre; eat nyama choma (Kenyan BBQ); and most importantly drink a Tusker or two.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The African Massage

In most western countries people pay top dollar for a massage. On the average Americans pay $75 to have their muscles rubbed down with essential oils, while listening to soothing rhythms from a far away land. Since the cost is high many Americans do not ever get to indulge in such a luxury.

On the other hand, here in East Africa massages are part of most people's daily ritual. And the cost? You ask seeing that most people live on only a couple of dollars a day: practically free.

Of course like all things in East Africa, a few rather minor details have been left out. The African massage does not come with essential oils. And it's not recommended that you take your clothes off. Privacy? Unlikely. Soothing music? Depends on your taste. Relaxing and rejuvenating? Probably not. 

So then what's the deal with this massage? You ask. It's quite straightforward. The African massage is simply a ride down one of the many bumpy roads that cover this part of the world and is something that I have been privy to over the last 7 weeks. 

Whether it's a van packed full of people listening to one of the best 80s dance mixes around, or a truck packed full of bikes, vegetables, 10 children, and some chickens, it's all the same: when we hit a rough patch in the road we all look at each other, laugh and say "oh, the African massage". It may not be as relaxing as the massages in the US but I can tell you that you will be hard pressed to find this good of a bum kneeding any where else. And only for the cost of a ride down the winding, dirt roads of east Africa.

Interested? Jump into any matatu, climb aboard any bus, jump on a boda boda, or joy ride on the back of any truck and you surely will find yourself enjoying one of Africa's greatest treats.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Market

We may speak different languages, eat different food, and practice different religions but across the globe there is one thing that is the same: the Wednesday and Saturday market.

Life all over this planet comes alive on Wednesdays and Saturdays as people flock to town centers in search of all things tangible. From bananas and corn to t-shirts and livestock, the market is life at its best. 

Whether I am traveling or at home, the market place is my favorite stomping ground, and not just because of all of the local delectibles, but because it offers up some of the best people watching on this planet. Want to learn about a culture? Head to the market, buy a local baked good, and just watch. 

This past week while walking the Saturday market in Nanyuki, Kenya, I learned the real meaning of "heavy duty". From a distance I saw a crowd gathering around two men, whom were both above average in height and muscle mass, that were yelling and jumping up and down. Was this a political rally? or some kind of dance troupe? I questioned. Curious about all the action that lay before me I walked forward. As I approached the crowd of energetic market goers I discovered that no, these men were not running for polical office or enthusiastically reciting biblical verses, no, these men were just selling heavy duty plastic tubs. Now where I grew up, in the good ole' US of A, heavy duty just means the product will potentially last longer but that it is by no means a guaruntee.  However here in Kenya, "heavy duty" really means that you can bang it, slam it and even stomp on it and it will not break; here in kenya "heavy duty" actually means indestructible and to prove this there is no need for an infomercial. There is no need for "as seen on TV", nope, there is no need for any of that fake, manipulated crap because here in Kenya advertising is truth. Don't believe it? Just head to the market because they will personally prove it to you. 

And so as I stood amongst the crowd, that grew by the minute, I watched two men sell plastic tubs like I have never seen before. Within minutes I was convinced that not only were these plastic tubs "heavy duty" but that I, too, needed one for jumping up and down on or perhaps just to wash my clothes.

Markets have that effect on you. They suck you in and next thing you know your basket is full of items that you might not necessarily need. Whether it a kilo of mangos or a heavy duty plastic tub, the excitement of the market is definitely a place worth spending your time and money.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Update: sleeping in NBO airport

As of this morning Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the 4th busiest airport in Africa, is forever changed. A large fire has destroyed much of the building. At this point flying (and sleeping, if needed) will not be happening until further notice.

The cause of the fire, that occurred 15 years to the date of the US Embassy bombing, is unknown at this time. What is known is that emergency vehicles struggled to get to the airport due to lack of water, lack of fire engines (that were sold off in order to make up budget shortfalls), traffic congestion, and quite simply a lack of communication between the airport and social services. 

Although many unknowns remain, the understory of this event is this: Kenyan civil servants haven't been paid in a month and social services continue to be slashed all while the government leaders receive high salaries, large mansions, at home and abroad, and expensive cars. 

As Kenyans search for the cause of the fire and assess the damages, it is my great hope that Kenyans, at home and abroad, start asking their government leaders the hard questions and demand solid answers as to why events such as this keep occurring. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Running with Lions

The sun was just peaking over the earth as I woke for an early morning run. It was a cool morning and Mt Kenya was still hidden behind the clouds. The rain from the previous day still wet the ground, keeping the dust down. It was the perfect temperature to go for a run I thought as I laced up my shoes.

"Okay, Wandeto, I'm ready", I called to my driver so we could set off to the main gate. Living inside a nature conservancy has its perks: impalas waking you in the morning, water bucks greeting you for your afternoon tea, and lions roaring you to sleep. However, the downsides are that you cannot walk, run or bike alone. In fact, you must have an armed guard with you in case of a dangerous wildlife encounter, which is statistically high in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy seeing that its landscape is dotted with lions, elephants, African buffalo and many species of antelope.

Spanning over 90,000 acres in central Kenya [an area known as Laikipia], Ol Pejeta Conservancy is home to many important and critically endangered species. This park is the largest Rhino sanctuary in East Africa and is the holder of 4 out of the 8 last remaining Northern White Rhinos in the world. This park is also home to the endangered Grevy Zebra and many chimpanzees that were rescued from Burundi, the DRC, and Sudan due to the bushmeat trade and deforestation thanks to many peoples desire for hard African wood. 

On this morning the forest was still except for the faint sounds of animals waking in the distance. Birds chirped and the grass waved in the gentle breeze. Morning was coming and all that live here silently knew what the new day would bring. As we drove down the bumpy road I peered out of the car window. How lucky am I to be staying in such a magical place, I thought as I watched the landscape go by.

After 5 minutes of bumping our way down the road, Wandeto slammed on the breaks. "Whoa, that's a big one," he exclaimed. I instantly looked over to the left side of the road and saw one of the most powerful mammals that exist on this planet: the lioness. Our car came to a screeching halt as the lioness sauntered down the road. Her beauty and sheer might was a force not to be reckoned with. She moved with grace and her strong muscles, bulging with every step, reminded us how powerless we really are. 

Within a minute she had passed our car and was off, most likely in search of breakfast. Wandeto, sparing no time, popped the car back into drive and carried forward. "No big deal, right, Wandetto!? Just our normal drive to go for a run," I said laughing in awe. Running with lions, yep, it's no big deal.

Interested in Ol Pejeta Conservancy? There are plenty of options for the curious traveler, animal enthusiast, conservationist, or pure adventurer. From high end accommodations at the beautiful, and historical, Ol Pejeta House (30,000KSH/night per person, full board) to camping (5,500KSH per site), the Conservancy is a place for all to come, enjoy and learn.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Exploitation of Giving

We are taught to believe in the power of giving; that living selfless lives is what is best. Although this mantra still rings true, it is one that sadly is being exploited all across this globe.

A few weeks back the Tampa Bay Times, in conjunction with the Center of Investigative Reporting, published an article titled "The 50 Worst Charities". Upon opening it I was shocked to read about the many popular charities that give as little as 3% of their donations to their cause. Even though I may not have given them my money or time, I felt cheated. You give hoping to help feed a family, send a kid to school or save an endangered animal. Finding out that your charity (or charities) of choice is spending your hard earned money on paper clips, fancy fliers and lunches out instead of on food, clothing and school supplies is disheartening. 

Over the last couple of weeks I have witnessed begging on new levels and have been first handily given a run for my money. Swindlers lurk every where and are ready to take your money--how ever great or small--at any moment. In fact, it's almost standard operation here in East Africa. A mzungo, or white person, is a dollar sign. To a Kenyan, Ethiopian, Tanzanian, Ugandan, wzungo (white people) represent wealth and a lot of it and it is because of this a dark culture of exploitation of the rich and poor has emerged.

This past week I learned of a student that was in need of a scholarship to attend secondary school. The principal informed the government and local charities that this student needed assistance. Many people and charities spoke up and were willing to sponsor said student. The money poured into help this student and all walked away happy, especially the principal who walked away with a load of cash in his pocket because he managed to get over 5 people to pay the student's school fees. 

Actions like this are common here. A bus load of tourists rolls into a children's home (orphanage) and see abandoned children who pull at their heart. Feeling guilty for what they have and the fact that they cannot take the kids home, they leave a pile of cash or a stack of new toys at the door. Within minutes of them leaving, the cash is distributed and those toys are hauled to the market and sold off, leaving the kids in the same sad shape they were left in. 

Greed has caused a dark shadow to form over the act of giving. It has caused many to doubt and distrust even the most needy of people. You look at a five year old with torn dusty clothes who has sticks as legs and question if they were told to act this way. It sounds absurd until you find out that the $10,000 you donated was stollen in one such act. 

As disheartening as this all may be the act of giving should prevail, but perhaps with a little caution. People all around the world still need, and rely, on the compassion of others. Children in orphanages still need love and attention, the black rhino still needs to be protected from poachers, and students across this globe still need schools, pens and pencils  and so it is our job, as the donors, to make sure that we give wisely. 

So what does giving wisely mean? It means checking your charities financial reports. Find out where they are spending the bulk of their money--are they really funding cancer research? Or sending kids to school?

If it is possible, give to a specific project. Donate money to build a school, play ground or animal pen. This way you can not only hire a local worker but you can see your project through. Giving money directly to a person or orphanage means much of it could go to line the pockets of those in power. If you do give directly, check to see that other organizations aren't also funding that same project and perhaps request a plaque to help keep "piggy backing" at bay.

Finally, donate to a charity that is sustainable. Often times volunteers come to a place, work on a project ,and when they leave the project falls to shambles because the locals are not invested or adequately informed on it. While working with Project Kenya Sister Schools I have learned the power of community development. By involving the community and giving them the power to decide where PKSS's efforts are needed most they have been able to sustainably change many people's lives who live around the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.  

As cynical as this all may seem, the act of charity still holds much power--so long as you and your money are not taken for a long and bumpy ride. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Walking with hominins: a worthwhile detour

Between the Serengeti and the Ngorogoro crater lies a place that scientists and historians dream about. It is the home to artifacts that have shaped our knowledge of humans and the path in which we came. This sacred place, located 7 km from the Serengeti park gate, is the Olduvai Gorge and the location where 3.5 million year old footprints were found that provided much information about early humans.

Olduvai Gorge is a short jaunt down the incredibly rough road between Ngorogoro Crater and Serengeti National Park and is well worth the detour. Although the entrance fee is high for foreign nationals (2700TZS or 18USD), the museum does contain great information and one of the casts of the footprints themselves. The money from the entrance fee also goes to protecting the gorge, the now reburried footprints, and continued anthropological research. The rangers are also well trained and very knowledgable about the past and present work in the area.

The Real Safari: this ain't no Lion King

By the hundreds Toyota Land Cruisers, packed full of homo sapien sapiens, flock into East African national parks in search of "the big 5", the term given by white hunters for the 5 most dangerous and difficult animals to catch: the lion, the elephant, the African buffalo, the rhino, and the leopard (if there were to be 6 it would be the Tsetse fly).

Elephants in the Serengeti

The second we invade their homeland we want a show. No visitor is unique in this regard. The first question our guide, Tumaini, asked us was, "What do you want to see?" and besides my rather odd desire to see giraffes run, the entire car wanted to see lions kill a zebra. The possibilities of observing wild animal behavior are high while on safari but what I quickly learned is that not everyone on safari realizes that 1. They are not sitting at home watching a Disney movie 2. This is not the Discovery Channel's meticulously edited version of "Life in the Serengeti" 3. This is real--yes, including the lion--so perhaps attempting to pet her is not the smartest idea.

Visitors at Terengire NP observing 2 lions mate

On our first day on safari we found ourselves at Terengire National Park. Located 2.5 hours from Arusha, this park is famous for the many baobab trees that dot its landscape and the many elephant, zebra, and giraffe that live within its boarders. While on our first evening drive our driver heard "Simba"(lion in swahili) over the radio. We instantly stopped and a radio exchange occurred. Within seconds we were reversing up a hill, whipping a u-turn and zooming off to meet the many others wanting a glimpse at a lion. 

Upon arrival we learned that it wasn't just one lion, but rather two, a male and female, that were engaging in a mating ritual. You have got to be kidding me, I thought to myself. How often does one get the opportunity to watch lions mating outside of the Discovery Channel?!?  The answer is this: it's rare. Lions mate roughly 2 times a year in what is rather long and tiring process because it occurs every 15-20 minutes over a 48 hour time period. 

As I sat there, with binoculars and camera in hand, I could only think how here I am watching lion porn and in a weird way enjoying it. In fact all of the 25 people packed in Land Cruisers were into it. After one of the "sessions", that lasted under a minute, an older women in the truck next to me said to her group mates, "wow, that was quick and rather disappointing". Confused by this comment, because how can one be disappointed by watching lions mate, I pondered it for a moment and then questioned what lions--or any of the animals--say about us. 

Do they comment on our hair color, choice of clothing or our social behaviors? Do they, when walking past the outhouses at campsites, comment on the smell? 

When a jeep full of tourists roll up, snaps shots of the vervet monkey and makes comments on how blue its balls are and red its penis, do they say to each other,"Do you see that thing coming out of that persons face? It keeps getting bigger and smaller. Do you think it is a sign that they are aroused?"

Although we come in droves looking for the animals that covered our walls as children, one of the most interesting aspects of safari in my opinion are the humans themselves. The way that us humans observe and question animal behavior is fascinating. We are mythicized by the way male lions laze around and yet still have numerous lady lions to mate with. We are enthralled by the way leopards stalk, sprint and finally slash their prey. We are grossed out by the way ostriches release their bowels and then claim them to be one of the more disgusting animals living in the Serengeti not stopping to think about what we look like while evacuating our bowels.We are highly critical of these animals--I found myself wondering how the hippos survive sitting in water filled with their own waste--and yet, I could not get enough.
Lion and his cub in the Northern Serengeti

And so from the Terengire we then headed for the open plains of the Serengeti in search of more raw animal behavior. Spanning 14,763 square kilometers, the Serengeti is most notably famous for the great wildebeest migration where the roughly1.5 million wildebeest that live on the Serengeti migrate north to Kenya between May and July. The great migration is a site to be seen and although we came at the end of the migration (most had already crossed into Kenya) it was no less spectacular. Our first day in the park was spent in the central part where there is a lot of animal activity and where most visitors find themselves.Within 2 hours of our morning game drive we saw a cheetah stalk and kill a gazelle, 3 lioness stalk (and miss) Thompson gazelles, leopards lounging in the trees and tiny lion cubs playing in the grass. That evening we set up at one of the local camp grounds where we were literally surrounded by wildlife. Although I can only imagine the splendor that is the Four Seasons Serengeti, I must say that camping inside the park was an experience that should not be missed--how often can you say that you woke up to lions walking around your site or could not sleep because the African buffalo was eating to loudly?

Cheetah kill in Central Serengeti

After 3 days of roaming the Serengeti we then headed down the dusty and extremely bumpy roads (that cause many flat tires) to the Ngorongoro Crater in search of the last of the "big five": the rhino. The Ngorongoro crater is a world wonder. Believed to have formed millions of years ago by a mountain that collapsed, this crater, which is 20 km wide and roughly 300 square km, is spectacular. Animal life is abundant and the vistas are breathtaking. Although we did not spot one of the 24 endangered rhinos that inhabit this park, we were not disappointed by the other brilliant wildlife that reside there. The bird life alone will keep you entertained for hours.

As our 6 days of safari came to a close our guide looked at us and said, "Well, now that you have seen the animals, if you could change into any animal which animal would you be?" Although I have been asked this numerous times and never struggled to answer--lion, of course--this time it took me a second. After seeing the animals in the wild--the sheer strength, might and power of them all--along with the real realities of their lives: global warming, poachers, and decreasing territory, I am definitely thankful to be human and not a hippo bathing in my own poo.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Finding the Right Tour Company

In the last 10 days I have been approached hundreds of times about Safari's, Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro Treks, trips to Zanzibar, and everything in between. My response has not changed for every interaction, "Already have one. Asante." After the one hundredth time of being approached you start to wonder how many people end up in Tanzania without a tour company already in place. Not that you need to arrive with one because being flexible and planning last minute can provide serious benefits, especially when negotiating prices, some trips need to be planned in advance due to the limited number of permits allotted or the popularity of the trip or the time needed to plan, prepare and possibly train [ie. seeing the Gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda and climbing Kilimanjaro].

Since climbing Mt Kilimanjaro was not a trip I decided last minute my trekking partner and I spent countless hours searching tour companies, reading reviews, and negotiating packages with a few companies. It was a rather daunting task and one that I can only imagine caused many hopeful travelers to say, "Lets just go to Europe or Hawaii--seems way easier."

Sure, Europe is easier in many regards. So is Hawaii. But the adventure of a lifetime sits here in Africa, and so if you can push yourself and take some time to find the right company, I guarantee you will not regret it.

For those that who are willing to take the risk (for what will be a large reward) here are some tips that we found to make the process much easier.

1. Set a budget. Figure out what are your non negotiables. There are so many add-ons that may not enhance your experience enough to justify the added cost (do you really need a portable toilet?). Setting a base will help make your search easier.

2.Find a company that is well established. There are tons of "tour companies" out there, however the ones that have been around for a long time seem to be doing something right.

3. When possible, go with a local agency. Colonization already severely damaged the continent and so by choosing companies that are rooted locally keeps your money in the country and supports many more then overseas companies. We chose Zara Tours for this reason (the fact that it is owned by a Tanzanian woman only made them that more appealing).

4. Ask for a sample menu and their ability to cater to dietary needs. The company we chose went above and beyond to cater to everyone's food needs (gluten free, vegetarian, AND carnivore delight all in one group? For some companies this is no problem).

5. Read peoples reviews. They are a good indicator of how good a company is.

6. Finally, see what the company does to support their guides and porters. Some companies have great programs to support their employees. We learned that Zara Tours provides their guides and porters with bank accounts and gives them financial planning classes to help them manage their money better during the low season. Duma Explorer sends their guides to school during the low season to help expand their knowledge base. Not an essential, but I can attest to the fact that if the employees are happy, and healthy, your trip will be that much more enjoyable. And, lets be honest, a little good can go a long way.

The serious side effects of mountain climbing

Spending any amount of time at high altitude affects each person differently. 

Some handle the lack of oxygen quite well. They blaze up mountains with speed and grace snapping their photos at the peak with ease and fresh smiles. 

Others struggle a bit more. They bob and weave and don't even remember where they are. A quite strapping young British man I met on my travels on the mountain struggled to make it to the top. He doesn't remember much of his journey and needed quite a bit of help down. Some, like myself, get extreme headaches. Many vomit. 

The one side effect that seems to take hold of most climbers is that of extreme thirst for Kilimanjaro beer. They say if you cannot climb it, drink it. My experience is that if you do climb it, with or without struggle, you end up drinking it, with pride and large quantities. And so the side effects of mountain climbing are as follows:

1. You believe you are a character in Lord of the Rings and sing the theme song in elvish.

2. You tell everyone how much you love them, often. 

3. You feel invincible and therefore say and do things that you normally would not, for example an interpretive dance to vanilla ice.

4. You bond over your climb and hug new friends like they are old pals.

5. You return to the days of your youth and find yourself engaging in games called "Ring of Fire".

6. You think you are seriously funny and laugh at everything. 

7. You make pledges to meet said new friends in Las Vegas to relive the "glory days".

Friday, July 12, 2013

I have tasted Uhuru.

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. And repeat. One step in front of the other all the way to the top.

Summitting Mount Kilimanjaro is no easy feat. Although it is not the worlds tallest or most complicated mountain, reaching its summit takes the mental dedication similar to what is seen in Buddhist monks. In fact those that have climbed to Everest base camp, which sits at 17,598 feet or 5,364 meters, say that summitting Kilimanjaro is far more difficult. 

It was 11pm when Franky, our trusted and dedicated waiter/porter, came to our tent to wake us. "You're welcome for tea," he said as we laid there in our warm sleeping bags thinking about the journey that was just about to begin. "We've got this. Hakuna matata." I said as I unzipped my sleeping bag and geared up for the many hours that laid ahead.

The temperature was well below freezing as we started our walk at 12:40am and all you could see in the distance was the glimmer of head lamps slowly ascending the mountainside. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 I counted in my head trying to keep pace and focus my mind. My eyes, glued to the circle of light in front of me, concentrated on the moving scree below my feet. Keep the pace. One foot in front of the other. Drink water and you will make it I kept telling myself. 

At around 1:30am Arshad stopped. I paused and looked up. My headlamp moved upwards towards a woman that was being guided down the mountain. A wave of fear came over me as I watched her pass me trying to not look her in the eyes. "Okay, let's keep going. Pole pole." Arshad said as he moved forward up the mountain. Slightly panicked I took a deep breathe, told myself I've got this, and stepped forward.

When summitting via Kibo Huts there are many stopping points before reaching Uhuru. The first point on Kilimanjaro's crater rim is Gillimans peak and from Kibo it takes around 5 hours. This portion of the climb is grueling because you are not only walking in complete darkness and fridged temperatures but you are also climbing at a 45 degree angle on sliding scree. Once a climber reaches Gillimans peak it is another 1.5 hours and 200 meters to Uhuru peak. 

4 hours have passed and my slight headache has now gotten significantly worse. I am dizzy and feel slightly drunk. I am nauseous but cannot throw up. "How much longer to Gillimans?" I ask. "1ish hours," my guide responds. I can do this, I tell myself. My mother lost her ability to walk. Come on. This is nothing.

Roughly an hour later, as I am climbing up rocks trying to keep balance, I pause and look up. The sky is now streaked with red as the night sky starts to disappear. With one final step up the rocks I see a sign that reads: "Congratulations. You have reached Gillimans peak". Tears well up in my eyes for I now know the hard part is over.

The sun rose as we walked our last 1.5 hours to Uhuru. The views were breathtaking but with each movement my head pounded harder and I knew that I had to keep going if I was to make it to Uhuru. Many that we passed were swaying, trying to stay upright. The path was dotted with nose drippings and vomit. We moved slowly but at a steady pace. 

At 7:30 am, on our final uphill, I saw the Uhuru sign. Tears streamed down my cold, wind burned cheeks as I quickened my pace. My head throbbed with each step and my stomach protested every movement. I can taste it. Uhuru is there. 
Just a few more steps. 

At 7:40am, as the clouds parted over the African plains, I tasted Uhuru. Uhuru, which means freedom in Swahili, is indescribable. It is, quite simply, the most magnificent thing I have ever experienced.

A few notes for those wanting to climb:

1. Training for Kilimanjaro is necessary. Being physically fit is essential. Running and stair climbing definitely helps. A huge thank you or "Asante sana" to November Project Madison for the tough workouts and constant support. Running Bascom Hill and the Capitol steps in snow and ice definitely prepared me. 

2. The nights are cold. Bring warm clothes and a good sleeping bag. 

3. Hand wipes are a valuable commodity. Bring them.

4. More then anything climbing is a mental challenge. The constant support from family and friends is motivating. I brought a book filled with positive messages from friends and family. Everyone's notes made each day easier. Your words carried me through the summit night and helped bring me to the top. I am forever grateful.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Pole Pole

"You need to kill Kili before Kili kills you," is the infamous saying of Arshad, a Kilimanjaro trekking guide for Zara Tanzania. Standing over 6 feet tall, this muscular and very charismatic guide has been to the top of Kilimanjaro dozens of times and is an expert on this mountain. In fact, he jokes that Kilimanjaro is his girl friend because he spends more time with her then he does in his home in Moshi.

Arshad, our Zara Tours Mountain Guide, gets a break from walking on Day 3.

Kilimanjaro National Park spans 290 sq miles in northern Tanzania and is home to the highest peak in Africa and the largest free sanding mountain in the world. The park itself has 5 different vegetation zones ranging from lush rainforest to alpine desert and so whether it a day trek or a multi-day summit attempt, this park has something for everyone to enjoy. 

Our trek up Kilimanjaro started at 9am at the Zara owned and operated Springlands hotel. At 8:30am a bus pulled in and our bags, weighing no more than 15 kg, were loaded on top as we, along with other eager trekkers, boarded the bus for the Rongai gate located in the northern part of the park. 

After registering with the park and getting our trekking permits, we set off on our journey to the top of Africa. Our first stop: Simba camp located at 2500 meters and a 2.5-3 hour walk through farm land, small villages and rainforest. The walk was peaceful and I, in my excitement to actually be climbing the mountain I have dreamt about for 13 years, was moving at a steady speed. "Pole pole, Leigh!" Michael, the assistant guide calls out. "Slow, Leigh. We must walk pole pole." 

For anyone who has climbed on Kilimanjaro the phrase "pole pole", swahili for "slowly", is one that is entrenched in your memories. You see Kilimanjaro is not a technical climb: you don't need ropes or cramp ons or oxygen tanks, however it is a mountain that sends 40% of trekkers home without the golden certification of reaching Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro's highest point. And so "pole pole" is the way that Kilimanjaro must be done if I have any chance of reaching Uhuru. 

Porters carrying our goods to Simba Camp.

After a night at Simba camp we leave early the next morning for our next stop at Second Cave camp. Originally scheduled for a 7 day trek we decided to cut a day and summit early based on how we were feeling. Since our plans changed we had some options for which Rongai route we wanted to go for. Opting for the more conservative route we decided to camp at Second and Third cave instead of heading east towards Mawenzi camp. Sitting at 3500 meters, Second cave camp is located in the high mooreland of Kilimanjaro and is a 3.5 hour trek from Simba camp. We arrived at around noon that day and had a few hours to relax in the sun before heading out for an acclimatization hike. That evening as the sun set over the mountain and the clouds rolled in below, Arshad said to us, "Hukuna Matata. You will make it to Uhuru no problem." As I laid in my sleeping bag that night I only hoped his words to be true. 

Day three on the mountain brought us to Third cave camp, located at 3900 meters, where we experienced high winds and very cold nights. Being from the frozen tundra I felt prepared for the cold--or at least I thought. The nights on Kilimanjaro are cold, so much so that my 0 degree F Sierra Design down sleeping bag was not enough to keep me sufficiently warm at night. I am thankful that I had my Patagonia down jacket and good thermals to help fend off the cold.

Third Cave Camp, Rongai Route

On day four we then made our way to Kibo Huts, one of Kilimanjaro's base camps. The walk from Third camp to Kibo takes around "4ish hours, 'ish' being a little under or over", according to Arshad. As we walked through the alpine desert towards Kibo, Kilimanjaro's summit shadowed over us. With every step Uhuru got closer and my anxiety for the summit night escalated. As we approached Kibo, which sits at 15,520 feet, all I could do it look up and wonder, will I make it to the top? Even with Arshad and Michael's continued optimism I knew that only time would tell. 

Kibo Hut Camp

Friday, July 5, 2013

Kilimanjaro or Bust.

It's the night before our departure and we have just spent the last 2 hours meeting with our guides, Arshad and Michael, to discuss the logistics behind our upcoming ascent. "Are we going to make it to the top?" I ask. "Hakuna matata" (Swahili for "no problem"), he replies like this trek is no big deal. For these guides, and the 6 porters that are coming with, climbing Kilimanjaro is a "been there. done that." kind of deal.  However for me and my trusted trekking companion, this is a trek that will take some deep digging in order to get to the top. 

Mount Kilimanjaro, located in North Tanzania, is the largest free standing mountain in the world at 19,341 feet. There are many routes one can take in order to reach the summit and after extensive research we decided to go with the Rongai route for a couple of reasons. First, we wanted a route that would provide enough acclimatization time. 40% of trekkers do not make it to the top due to issues with the high altitude and so having a route that provides a good trek high, sleep low formula is essential. Second, we wanted a route that would give us time alone on the mountain and not with hundreds of other climbers. The Rongai route is a back route and one that approaches the summit from a distance and so many people choose closer, faster routes. Climbing this mountain is not about speed but rather the spiritual quest to see the world from the top of Africa and so spending an extra day or two on the slopes of Kilimanjaro gives us the chance to know it better.

The countdown to summit is now in full swing. We will spend the next 5 days climbing to the Kibo huts, which sit at 15,430 feet, where we will rest and prepare for our summit that evening at midnight. Our summit day will consist of up to 8 hours of grueling hiking at 50% less oxygen then I am breathing now. Although I am as prepared as I ever will be and I am ready for the journey, I am also slightly terrified for what lays ahead. At this point it truly is Kilimanjaro or bust.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The World is a 9

"The world is a 9" is a popular saying in Ethiopia and after my time on the "roof of Africa" I would have to agree. Before leaving I might have given this world, on a scale from 1-10, a 6, however, today, after leaving Ethiopia I, too, say " the world is a 9". Whether it a bus leaving 4 hours late, the electricity not working, or it pouring rain so hard that you have to take cover next to a family of baboons under a tree, I found the positivity of Ethiopia refreshing.

As a child when I didn't finish the food on my plate I thought about the starving kids in Somalia and Ethiopia (or anywhere in Africa for that matter) and felt bad. Today, though, I do not feel sadness for Ethiopia. In fact, my heart aches for those in my homeland that cannot be happy with simple things. Being from the US I have opportunities that are beyond the average Ethiopians imagination and yet, they are not sitting idle, feeling sorry for themselves. They look at the world with optimism and more importantly as place that cannot be conquered alone. The community is essential and so when you give a kid a pen or a sambosa (lentil filled pastry), you know that it will be shared. This mindset is something that is lacking in societies that have it all--and I feel ashamed to be apart of it.

A traveler I met on the road in Ethiopia said to me, "The world is like a PAC man game; we are all trying to move towards the end and while some places on this globe set us back or only move us from side to side, other places give us that extra boost to launch us forward in the game." Ethiopia in many ways provided me that boost. I leave today carrying with me the openness of Ethiopians hearts and the kindness that radiates from their eyes. Even the pesky street children that harass you until you finally give in had a determination that is something to be marveled at. 

In the cold rains of Simein NP, these kids shared their music and dancing with us. On a day when we collectively felt like we wasted our precious time (and money) because we couldn't see all that the park had to offer, these 2 kids came in and taught us to appreciate the world, even when it's absolutely miserable out.

Northern Circuit

When it comes to east Africa, Ethiopia is still very much off the beaten track. In comparison to other places it can be expensive and hard to manuver because the country lacks the infrastructure to efficiently host tourists. Although there are fantastic guide books that give realitively good information, there still is a great gap in information when it comes to moving throughout this country. After talking to locals and those that have traveled throughout Ethiopia I have been given a few tricks to make this place much more affordable and manueverable for the everyday tourist.

The northern circuit is by far the most traveled route in Ethiopia because of the historical lure and can be easily accessed by inter country flights that should be purchased after arriving in Ethiopia. I know this sounds ridiculous, especially for those of us who live in a society where a minimum of 3 weeks is necessary for decent prices, but trust me when I say buy your tickets in Ethiopia. The price at any Ethiopian airlines counter is easily 1/3 of the online price. When traveling in the North each ticket should be no more then $50 per leg. 

Unfortunately my time in Ethiopia was limited and so I wanted to make the best use of it. There is so much to see in this country and with transportation not being as effiecient as desired I knew that I had to pick strategically and so I decided to venture north and see what all the talk of these unique ancient sites was all about. I must say that I was not disappointed.

First stop: Bahir Dar 

Bahir Dar is the biggest of the cities apart of the northern circuit and is considered by many to be one of the more attractive cities in Ethiopia. This city sits on Lake Tana, the source of the Nile, and is an easy place for visitors to come and get stuck in. Life feels much easier here: I mean what is not to love about sitting at one of the bars or restaurants on the lake front with a local beer or coffee in hand?!

If you find yourself in Bahir Dar I recommend 1/2 day boat tour to the monasteries (300 birr). Be aware that each monestary will charge you 100 birr to enter. They are not all that different and I found the church on the Zege Peninsula to be the most interesting and worthwhile of my 100 birr ($6). From there head to Blue Nile falls and hike to see it rather then go by boat. The walk is beautiful and the suspension bridge is right out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. At night Chcho Cultural Bar is a must-- you really cannot beat the cold St George's and the fantastic music and dancing. Bewarned you may get dragged on stage to shake your groove thang (and have video to prove it).

Second stop: Gonder 

After playing on the banks of Lake Tana I then headed to Gonder, the medival city of Ethiopia. Known for its powerful and quite brutal kings (they would hang dissidents outside the castle walls and leave the bodies to be eaten by wild dogs and hyenas), Gonder definitely captures the travelers eye. 

My first impressions of Gonder is that it is a town full of hustlers. The second you exit the airport or mini bus you are swarmed by eager guides wanting to sell you anything from a short taxi ride to a week long trek in the Simein mountains. However after settling in, I found the people of Gonder to be
welcoming and incredibly optimistic, especially regarding the weather. Hotels are plentiful here and really range in quality. Price does not nessisarrily mean your room will be clean and bug free; my travel mates and I looked at 4 different hotels and found that the high end, $40/night place to be quite dirty (and tacky--do you really need to drape that much fabric in one 5'x5' box?!). By a stroke of luck we ended up finding ourselves at Lodge du Chateau where the rooms were very clean, the breakfast delicious, and the water hot. But more than anything the employees there went above and beyond to accommodate their guests--and for a ridiculously good price ($15)

On my second day in the Gonder area I headed to the Simein mountains to hang with the baboons. 3 hours by car from Gonder, the Simein mountains are one of Ethiopia's natural wonders. Home to baboons, ibex, and many more interesting creatures (see photo below), Simein NP is stunning--even when it is pouring rain. Although I would highly recomend spending more than a few hours there (unless it is the rainy season), it can be done in one day for a decent price if you are able to pull together a group of other weary travelers. People all over Gonder are hustling to take people to the Simein's and so beware of the prices and scams out there. After a few phone calls and some bargaining we found Lodge du Chateau to be the best price ($62 pp in a group of 4--prices will differ during the high season).

Third stop: Lalibela 

The rock churches at Lalibela are a must see. A UNESCO World Heritage site, these churches are not only beatutiful but are an engineering feat. Lalibela is a place where science and history and mysticism are constantly battling for truth. The story goes that King Lalibela was poisoned and during a coma had a vision that he was to recreate Jeruselum in Ethiopia. After waking from his dream he set to work and over 23 years, working by himself by day and with the help of God's angels by night, he carved 12 churches in the cliffs of central Ethiopia. 

The other story, not written in stone, only whispered from person to person over hundreds of years, is that these "angels" were actually people from Babylon, Egypt and Jerusalem. Some, rather extreme people, even believe that it was the Knights of Templar that influenced and encouraged the building of the churches here because the style of architecture is shockingly similar to other buildings built by the Knights. Believe what you wish but one thing is truth: the rock churches are worth your time and your wallet (930 birr ($50) to tour them--ouch!)

Monday, July 1, 2013

The road from Bahir Dar to Gonder

While taking public transport might be a huge hassle when traveling--you have to pay closer attention to your stuff, it can take longer and you might not have a comfortable place to stand or sit--it does offer one a glimpse into the idiosyncrasies of a particular society. When I travel I often choose to take public transport not only because it saves me money but more importantly because of the things that can be learned about a place just from traveling amongst the locals.

This week I had the opportunity to travel on public transport between Bahir Dar and Gonder. Interesting doesn't even begin to describe the adventure I had aboard the mini bus. The distance between Bahir Dar and Gonder is 200 kilometers and takes roughly 3 hours by mini bus. By private car the trip would cost you 1000-1200 birr ($60-80) and would take around 2 hours. For me, the bus ride, costing 80 birr ($4), was the perfect price for someone traveling on a tight budget--at least that is what I thought at 10 am when I boarded the bus bound to Gonder. 

By 11:30 am my cost saving mentality was slowly waning as the 12 passenger van, that had already needed one minor repair, continuously circled Bahir Dar in search of more passengers. You see 4 people are not enough for a mini bus to go. In fact, 10 in a 12 passenger van is still not enough. A "full" bus consists of 20 people and so we drove around Bahir Dar calling out of the window for 16 other riders. 

1 hour and 45 minutes after I jumped into the van we finally started to pull out of the city of Bahir Dar and I was thankful to finally get on the road until the girl sitting next to me pulled out a small plastic bag and leaned her face into it. Great, I thought, this is going to be one hell of a ride. 

So here I sat, one of 4 farajis or "foreigners", crammed against the window with my bags on my lap next to a girl holding a black plastic bag full of her own vomit as we sped down the winding country roads of Ethiopia. As we drove past people and through small villages the "first mate" called to people out the widow "Bahir Dar! Bahir Dar!" A mere wave of the hand and the bus whips to the side of the road. People move in and out. Seats are shuffled. Money is exchanged. Sometimes bags of grain, lettuce and onions are piled aboard. Shepard's with their staffs are accommodated as are those with live chickens. 

Zigzagging around cows, cars, and carts we were finally making headway towards our final destination. Ethiopian music was carrying us through the countryside as we all settled into our seats. And that's when I saw a slender hand reach into the backpack in front of her and pull out a plastic bag. No more then a split second later her head was inside the bag and vomit was oozing out of small holes in the bottom and onto my lap. "Jesus Christ," I yelled as I jumped from my seat trying to save my lap and my belongings from the biohazard that was ensuing. "Pull over! Pull over!" Oh, right they do not speak English and so in a moment of desperation I swatted the first mate and gestured to the girl, the pile of vomit that had now collected on my seat, and the side of the road. Words spattered out of his lips and soon enough the girl was out of the van and puking over the cliff. 

After recollecting ourselves and cleaning up the vomit (oh, wet wipes do I thank you!) we were back on the road but this time a little more tense. The bus smelled, the sick women still looked rough and I sat on a seat soaked in vomit with still 1 hour to go. The future some how did not look all that bright as 20 of us sat in complete silence when Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" came on the radio. I'm not a super religious person but at that moment, as we rounded one mountain bend and the green hills of Ethiopia opened up and Celine Dion sang, I believed some God existed. All of us reconnected as we quietly sang along and I knew at that point the rest of the journey to Gonder was going to be alright--even with a flat tire in our future.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Welcome Home

Addis Ababa, or the "new flower", is the capital of Ethiopia. Guide books tell you 3 million people live here but in reality the city is made up of around 5 million inhabitants. Addis is not what I expected. Well to be honest I really did not know what to expect from Ethiopia. It's the heart of the Horn of Africa, the cradle of humanity, and the home of the African Union, and yet it is very clear that this place has gone through some tough times, especially under communist rule. 

Regardless I do know one thing: I am "home". Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet my great great great great...great grandmother Lucy. If you didn't know, she is 3.18 million years old and still going strong . Lucy, named after the Beatles song "Lucy in the sky with diamonds", stands a mere 3 feet tall and is the great link between modern humans and the great ape. I must say that it was pretty cool to see her and some distant cousins of us homo sapiens sapiens.  

Things to do in Addis besides seeing Grandma Lucy (that is if she is in town because she does like to travel)

1. Eat injera with a plethora of amazing sauce options
2. Go check out the local museums 
3. Drink a mango or avocado juice
4. Climb to the top of the hills that over look Addis (3200 meters high), and stop for a quick prayer at Addis first church, St Mary's.
5. Enjoy some honey wine before hitting the local markets. 
6. Eat injera 

Looking good at 3.2 million years old!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Under African Skies

I have arrived. And will enjoy my first night under African skies in the Cold War era Jomo Kenyatta international airport. This airport is the 4th busiest airport on the continent of Africa serving 5 million travelers annually. From the looks of this place you would have no idea so many eager and weary travelers pass through the terminals here. There are no more then 10 electrical outlets in this place and the women sitting next to me just blew one of them so now we are down to 9. I feel rude occupying one but in the heart of Africa it is a fight for electronic survival. 

Before arriving I was trying to figure out if going to a hotel was worth the price considering my flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was early the next morning. There was a significant lack of information about the facilities in Jomo and transport alone to hotels in Nairobi (20 kilometers away from NBO) was going to be between $40-80 round trip. For 4 hours of sleep I considered that not worth the price. Not knowing what to expect I have been plesently surprised by the offerings here--even with the musty 1970s smell. 

For those who might be finding themselves overnighting in the Nairobi airport here is some useful information for you (especially since is not accurate):

1. The sleeping rooms have been ripped out. 
2. Ethiopian airlines and its partners have a lounge that you can pay $30 for 3 hours. Booze is included in that price.
3. NBO has FREE wifi. That is more than Ohare and most US airports offer.  
4. If changing airlines they will transfer your bags and so there is no need to go through immigration and purchase a transit visa. ($20 saved)
5. Take the airplane blanket and use it to sleep on. You will be amongst many sprawled across the floors here. 
6. If in dire straights, Johnnie Walker is in abundance at the duty free shops.