Dave and Jess Travel Blog.

Our adventures around the world.

Taipei 101 January 8, 2014

Filed under: Taiwan — flufflebuns @ 2:29 am
Tags: , , ,

The title is a play on words, for we are both in the city containing the famous tower Taipei 101, and this blog post is an introduction to the city of Taipei, like a college introductory course “Taipei 101″. I don’t consider myself clever at all for thinking that up, it took all of ten braincells, but hell, it works for a blog title and it’s better than “China Light” or “The Land of a Thousand Foods” or “Hello Citty” (would would also be a play on words describing both the Chinese infatuation with Hello Kitty, and the fact that we are saying Hello to a city), okay I give up, on with the blog.

Jan. 03 2013

Into Taipei

3:30am is a hellish time to wake up, but we are in travel mode so it’s quite simple really. Both flights from Cebu, Philippines went smoothly; first we made our way to Manila and had to wind our way by bus through the smoggy city to the international terminal. Then it was a 2 hour jump to Taipei. For being only a two hour plane ride away, with the cultural differences between the two countries we might as well be flying to another planet.

Where the Philippines is often chaotic, disorganized, inefficient, messy, loud, etc Taipei instantly struck us as orderly, efficient, and sparkly clean (though many buildings do need a good power wash). We assumed a Chinese speaking country would be nearly impossible to navigate: completely wrong. Most things, especially transport, are written in English as well. Everything is color coded, on-time, and orderly. We took a bus to a metro, then exited near Taipei 101 at Xiaoshan station where we would walk to our Couchsurfer’s place. No city has ever been this easy to navigate upon first arriving. It was like someone held our hand the whole way; a great first impression. Plus we were instantly greeted by the weirdness that can be found throughout this city:

Our host gave excellent directions, and after exiting metro at Xiaoshan station, walking through Shunli park, taking a left at the random New Orleans restaurant, and right at a massive Buddhist temple, we were home sweet home. Our hosts were a couple, Michal is Polish living in Taipei and Racheal a local. Racheal however is very ill. She joins us with her boyfriend wearing a medical mask, but doesn’t say much through her high fever. This, just after seeing a news report about H7N9 bird flew in Taiwan right before taking off in Manila. Great.

Michel tells us a good thing to do is to hike to a viewpoint to see the city. It is about a 20min hike from their place and gives a spectacular view as the sun begins to set.

We meet a couple locals and a German traveler while sitting on Elephant Rock and discuss things to do and see in the city over a couple beers (the local Taiwan beer is pretty bad by the way; probably the only thing I do not like about the entire city, the lack of good beer).

Next we wander through a main street and stop at a random restaurant with little English, but helpful pictures of the food. It is in this inconspicuous place that we first discover the true delight of Taipei: FOOD! We ate grilled garlic eggplant, hot and sour soup, and so many more random little bites. It was absolutely delicious and set us back a whopping $6 for the entire meal. Now this is becoming a place I could fall in love with.

The city at night feels remarkably safe, and is complete with just as many weird little oddities one would expect from an East Asian city. Here are some of my favorites.

That picture just above was taken at one of the 7-11′s at nearly every corner. Yes, it is what it looks like, potatoes roasting on hot rocks. 7-11 has cornered the market in Taipei as a mini-mart chain. They sell everything one would need to survive and appears to be the only place to buy beer as well?

Jan. 04 2014

Metropolitan Wonderland.

Our host Michel whipped up an omelet breakfast with some local sesame buns, then we were off to explore the massive city. First stop was Taipei 101, which offered little more than fancy shopping and a giant, overpriced, food court. We resisted the $5,000 Rolex watches and moved on. The weather was muggy so we decided not to take the speed elevator to the top of the tower for $40, plus we got excellent views for free just yesterday.

We navigated the sparkling clean metro system to find ourselves at Shilin station. Hungry again we stumbled upon a kitchen of cooks furiously frying delicious looking pot stickers and dumplings. And delicious they were!

Next we took a bus to the Palace National Museum. It has an interesting history; the exhibits were housed in Bejing at the beginning of the century, but some very wise scholars had the good sense to evacuate all the precious historical wares before the communists took over and “shared” it all. I hate when museums don’t allow pictures, but it was nonetheless a spectacular collection of porcelain, jade, stone, iron, and bronze wares dating back as far as 6,000 years ago to present. In a changes of pace, the tiny modern exhibit took your picture then placed your face into an animated scene. It was weird, and it was the one place in the museum that allowed photos. We were too entertained by this; that’s me on the bicycle.

I won’t bore you, my wonderful reader, with stories of each exhibit, but the highlights were a cabbage leaf flawlessly carved out of jade, and a giant slab of pork belly meat carved out of stone. Those don’t sound impressive, but the artistry involved was incredible. We ended up buying a miniature replica of the meat stone.

Next stop was a little clothing shopping spree for Jessica. Originally she popped in attracted to a colorful skirt, yet every time she came out of the waiting room 5 giggling young assistants held a new piece ready for her to try. We couldn’t resist their charms, and left with more than intended, but the fashion here is really neat. The people in general clearly make an effort to look good everywhere they go, often very mismatched; a mix of hello kitty, gangster rap, Woodstock Hippie, Amsterdam prostitute, and Coco Chanel.

Then we hit one of the hundreds of night markets where everything one could imagine is sold, from doggy outfits (which everyone dresses their dog in), fancy expensive shoes, knockoff expensive shoes, and the weird Taiwanese obsession with American looking varsity letter jackets. Oh, and tomatoes stuffed with a plum and dipped in boiling candy syrup.

We ate at an exceedingly popular place where the entire family who owned it ran around frantically, yelling and rushing boiling meat soup to hungry patrons. It appeared to be part schtick, part efficiency, though in typical Taiwanese fashion those eating did so quietly and respectfully. If such a place existed in the US, or most any other country for that matter, it would be the loudest establishment possible, but people are very reserved here it seems.

The food was excellent, though the street food outside also looked tempting, especially the rows of chicken hearts on a stick.

Another feature of the Shilin night market is you can get a foot massage and facial hair threading while everyone below can watch you?

Feeling a strong love for the weirdness of this city, great food, and lively atmosphere, we headed back and fell asleep, exhausted.

Jan. 04 2014

Hello kitty gondola ride!

Today was much nicer day, blue skies! We headed through the metro system to a gondola system completely obsessed with Hello Kitty and Hello Panda cartoons. The gondola ride took us up to a highland district of Zaodong, before boarding Jessica had to follow in the good luck custom of flashing a “V” for victory pose for the camera like everyone else.

Most westerners think Asians are doing the “peace sign” but most westerners would be wrong. It is a “V” and it stands for victory, and it comes from anime and video games. Anyway, at the top we met sweet potato man, and I rediscovered my favorite snack from Asia, roasted sweet potato!

Views of the city behind rolling fields of highland tea leaves were terrific. We sat and enjoyed some local tea while enjoying the view.

We wandered around the crowded streets (the locals come up here to explore on the weekends too!) and discovered a small, very cute tea shop sun drying local leaves outside. The owner was enthused to have us and his 16 year old son translated our conversation in near perfect English.

We wandered around temples along the trail and grabbed little bites of everything we saw; fried spicy egg tortilla thing, fried porkish thing, and sweet sausage on a stick, all a delicious mystery.

One more stop down on the Gondola took us to a massive labyrinth of Buddhist/Taoist temples. They were stunning and with great views of the city. Traditionally the temples are Buddhist, but being such a generally tolerant religion, the Buddhist gave way for Taoist god-figures and traditions in as well. In speaking with locals it seems the two religions have merged into a complex system of lighting incense, asking a prayer of the god determined by your birth year.

By far the most interesting and completely new to us were many people dropping wooden red moon things on the ground many times, they would then go to a bundle of sticks, pull one up, then throw the moon dice things a bunch more, then excitedly go to a massive library of scrolls and choose the fortune that corresponded to their series of throws and sticks. We later learn from our host that this is a complex, ancient form of fortune telling, tracing its roots back to tossing chicken bones to tell prophecy.

With our spirits filled with incense smoke, we headed back, had a great meal of Tepanyaki and went to sleep.

Jan. 06 2014

Final day!

The morning began at the most famous restaurant in Taipei, rated one of the best Asian restaurants in the world (and we still left only paying $20; gotta love food prices here). The dumplings, pot stickers, and dark boiled greens at Din Tai Fung were just to die for; which is a silly saying really because if you are dead how can you enjoy them?

Next stop was the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial building; a seriously massive chunk of the city to commemorate one dude. Little did we know at the time how important he was in keeping Taiwan safe from communism! We felt dumb only barely recognizing his name, but the museum filled us in on his extensive hand through WWI and WWII and the Chinese Revolution.

So the memorial was huge, with an enormous statue of Chiang made out of bronze (take that stone Lincoln!) Guards stood at attention to either side, statues just like the Royal Palace guards in London. Every hour they do a dramatic changing of the guards ceremony with lots of silly walking, gun flipping, and a little too much hitlerific Zieg Heil motions for our politically correct tastes.

Next up was another famous temple, Longshan, but before we made it we took a wrong turn in the metro and discovered a true oddity of the world. In a dim lit lower floor off the street, what during night must be some underground market, during the day is a sprawling madhouse of insanity; a congregation of the elderly! Gambling, Karaoke, strange slow hypnotic dancing, spitting red betelnut juice and chain smoking; 25 TV screens playing different Chinese classics all at full volume. Legend says that if you spend too much time in this place you will become one of them, shuffling with them in groups slowly like a pack of wrinkled zombies. It was awesome.

Finally we made our way through the hordes to Longshan temple, where the devout lit candles, incense, and bowed to their many deities and sub-deities. It was actually a really neat place because many people used it as a center for self-improvement as well; tai chi, knitting, painting, etc. It is really an all-inclusive worship/community center with beautiful decor.

The rest of the night involved a 40min painful, yet perfect foot/leg massage for $10, munching on tiny bites of local delicacies (I swear we are going to turn into dumplings), then heading home to our hosts for some chatting into the night. It was during this conversation that I learned a great deal about all the tradition of Buddhism/Taoism. From what I took it seems that the two religions blend greatly in Taiwan; where Buddhism is supposed to be a simple acknowledgement of the nirvana seeking Buddha and emulation of his life, yet most Buddhists will throw the wood fate dice and acknowledge the other spirits as well, you know, just in case. Eileen, Racheal’s sister expressed her fear every time she entered temple because you are told from a young age that if you take any misstep, touch, or say, or think the wrong thing, you might anger the gods and incur their wrath. Pretty much sounds like every religion…ever.

Another interesting thing of note about Racheal and Eileen is how they choose their western names. During elementary school when they first start taking English lessons, the teacher will give them an assignment to choose a western name. They use that name in their English classes for the rest of their education, and often it because the name they give to foreigners, because Tse-Hsiang might be too hard to pronounce.

Our last night abroad and we actually went to bed quite nervous. I have failed to mention that while Racheal began our stay with a terribly high fever, visiting us only in a zombie state with a medical mask to protect us, she then passed it on to Michel who has been completely passed out for two days while Racheal has recovered. Our fear is catching this aweful flu and missing our flight tomorrow, becoming stranded in Taiwan!

Jan. 07 2014

Good thing we have great immune systems!

We woke up as healthy as bumblebees, and to prove it went on a little morning hike, catching some farewell glimpses of the city and surrounding forest. A quick breakfast, some strategic packing to fit all our souvenirs in snugly and we hit the ol’ dusty trail outta town.

So that’s it. Thanks for reading. It has been an awesome trip, our #35 country visited and blogged about, which is sort of a milestone I guess? We’ll celebrate real hard at 50, and won’t rest until we’ve seen them all!

As always, check out the full gallery of our pictures at:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/flufflebuns/sets/

 

Until next time,

Dave & Jess

 

Fun, fun for every Juan January 4, 2014

Filed under: Philippines — flufflebuns @ 4:44 pm
Tags: , , ,

Okay I have to explain the title. One of the most interesting things we have noticed about the Philippines is that they love puns and play on words. Literally everywhere they replace the word everyone with “Every Juan” or someone with “Some Juan”. Even on the side of malls, or business billboards:

In the photo you might also notice the thick layer of pollution in the background. That is Manila. We have spent only as much time in Manila as time between flights. The few moments we have spent outside the sweet, acrid smell of burning plastic cascades through our tracheae. Not the most pleasant place to be; glad we avoided it. Anyway, on with the blog!

12.29.2013

Yet another travel day!

The ride from El Nido back to Puerto Princessa started at 5am. It was just as bumpy and curvy as the way there. Nothing in particular of note; on arrival we dropped off a bunch of clothes at a big industrial facility to clean off the sweat, soot, and seawater of the last few days.

The day was spent being lazy, using internet, drinking a few beers, eating some sizzling squid and bone marrow soup. Every meal has to include squid or I am thoroughly disappointed. We were just killing time until our flight at 5pm, which unfortunately didn’t board until 11pm. 6 hours we sat in plastic seats of a crowded, tiny terminal with babies crying, and romance shows in Tagalog to watch and make-up what was going on, finding some joy in the ridiculous over drama of it all. In the end they gave us free fastfood from either McDonalds or Jollibee, the local, slightly crappier McDonalds.

We finally landed in Cebu, and after a quick taxi were in the hotel we would sleep the next 4 hours before waking up for our early flight.

12.30.2013

A piece of paradise

The flight to Camiguin was far less painful; up at 5am, on-time flight at 6am. Out the tiny oval window were a series of beautiful green islands, we landed on one surrounded by baby blue waters and towering with dormant volcanoes. Our hosts Cocoy and Elden picked us up in their van. They are friends of Joanna from Washington DC where her and Elden worked together. As we were soon to learn, they have carved out a perfect piece of paradise to live on!

We checked in at a very pleasant, hammock strewn beach hotel around the corner where we dropped off our bags, had a quick breakfast and headed over to Elden’s place for our first pressed coffee of the trip (everything else has been Nescafe instant coffee, which actually grows on you if you are desperate enough). Their place is under construction, but even now it is absolutely gorgeous! Right on the beach, teeming with beautiful rows of bright flowers and coconut trees. The house pulls from Indonesian, Chinese, and traditional Filipino architecture. They plan to live in the main house, and build smaller bungalows for guests. Here is just a hint of one finished part, a beautiful pagoda in the middle of a lake. These two have style!

A family of ducks lives in the lake which sometimes peck your ankles as you walk by, begging for food; just a random fact. Elden and Cocoy treated us to a full day of scenic views, waterfalls, hot springs, island history, and an absolutely magnificent meal of local fish and pork.They are incredible hosts, and very funny guys; Elden originally from Western Australia, and Cocoy originally from not far from Camiguin Island. The waterfall they took us to first was especially beautiful, and we got to swim in the nice cool waters, though for once it is not an escape from the sweltering humidity as here it is rather cool for a change.

The island is covered in Christmas decorations still, as each of the 5 main villages on the tiny island compete for the best decorations. We pass small groups of people along the tiny roads having BBQ’s and listening their music as most celebrate time off between Christmas and New Year’s. Rice terraces are everywhere, always with a water buffalo or cow wading in the water, and speckling many grassy hills are roosters separate from one another so they don’t attack before the planned cockfight they are to partake in; a common island past-time. Overall the scenery is just beautiful.

As mentioned earlier, we received a late lunch of magnificent food. Cocoy and Elden literally have their personal chef to prepare their meals, and wow, can she cook!

The day was topped off with likely the most spectacular beach sunset views of the trip. A 5 minute boat ride from their property took us to an island of powdery white sand which could probably fit a total of 100 people. The island grows and shrinks and changes shape over the seasons; now it’s like a little snake-like white ‘W’ surrounded by baby blue waters. We drank beers, local rum with coke and the native baby ‘calamansi’ lime and watched the sunset turn to fiery orange over the ocean.

Amazingly the night was not yet over. We went to a very nice restaurant run by an ultra-laid back Californian dude with his Filipino wife as the head chef; best prawns ever! An extremely enthused, kind of crazy, shaved-head Australian man kept affectionately head butting everyone in the shoulder and asking me to have drinks with him. It was good and a bit weird.

12.31.2013

Clams!

The high point of the day was most definitely going to the giant clam sanctuary. Giant is almost an understatement; these things get to 4 feet long! The facility is run by a research university and managed by a co-op of young teenagers who are very knowledgeable. Someone involved is particularly Christian as every few feet there is a manger or depiction of Jesus out of clam shells next to signs with sayings like “Please Respect Morality”.

An awesomely friendly and bright young boy with a severe cleft lip swam with us to the clams. They are laid out in rows, hundreds of them for research purposes. The colors are incredibly varied, and as your swimming over them disturbs them, they snap shut, violently shooting a burst of air at you. My biggest fear was slipping a finger inside their snapping mouth and losing it!

In the photo above, these were the small ones! The big ones were after 30min of swimming and were much deeper.

In this photo I am still about 12ft. above these clams, seriously massive! I took some video which will be posted later to really capture their size. The rest of the day was spent exploring the island and lounging around, as one does in such places.

Evening came and we headed to our first party. The BBQ was very good, but some of the guests were a bit odd. There were just a few too many white 60+ year olds with their Filipino 30- year old wives, one girl looking as young as 18 with a guy looking more like 70. While the white guy/Filipino girl thing is incredibly common here, especially on the island, you can easily get a feel for when it is a mutual attraction, or a creepy old dude taking advantage of a submissive, poor young girl; this night there appeared too much of the latter.

The second event, the real New Year’s Eve event, was excellent. Lots of great food, people, dancing, and at midnight fireworks went up from all over the island as the locals had their own little shows competing with neighbors. The deck where we partied was right near a dark secluded space where you could watch the fireflies dance. It was a good evening.

01.01.2013

Happy New Year!

Up at 5:30am, way too early for New Year’s day, but the only flight off the island is at 7. Soon we were back in Cebu, but at a new hotel. After a nap followed by a taxi ride through the desolate city (everyone nursing a hangover) we were at the upscale shopping mall, Ayala, for some pressed coffee (finally!!!) and sit down brunch. We ate some delicious Thai food with curry, Tom Yum, and vegetables; a welcome break from the typical meat and rice of the Philippines. The shopping mall felt more like Orange County than a developing nation.

Our next stop was Magellan’s cross. Here is where Magellan landed and decided these dirty, heathen, local barbarians needed the sweet saving love of Jesus Christ. He showed them the light of Christianity by first placing a wooden cross in the sand, then over the next many decades slaughtering everyone who resisted, and rewarding those who converted, a pretty effective trick considering the staunch Catholicism still embedded in society today.

Next was the Cathedral de Santa Nino. Cebu city celebrates this tiny wooden figurine of child Jesus which was supposedly given to a Filipino chieftain by one of Magellan’s crew; it quickly became a relic of great importance and remains so today. Anyway they built an entire cathedral around this doll, and every house, hotel, business, and taxi in the city has a miniature Santa Nino.

We stood in line with hundreds of devotees to see the wooden child Jesus; it was rather impressive surrounded by pretty silver and gold, and bedecked with gemstones. The guard wouldn’t let us take a solid picture of it though. Funny thing, you always hear of adult Jesus and baby Jesus, but only here in Cebu is the childhood of Jesus really acknowledged.

Next we walked through a terrifying part of town, a stark contrast from the wealth of the Ayala mall, this place felt like a post-nuclear war, apocalyptic hell-scape. Crumbling concrete of abandoned buildings, the smell of human feces pervasive, people sleeping in gutters, and soot covered glue sniffers huddling in dark corners. Why did we turn down this street? Sometimes it is humbling to see the reality of a developing nation. Until this point, the poverty of the Philippines has been somewhat hidden, but the following picture does no justice to how terrifying the conditions of the impoverished can be.

It’s hard to take good photos of the severe poverty. 1) You fear for the safety of the camera, and 2) You feel like an ass showing any sign of wealth when these people have nothing, so trust me when I say that the part of town we walked through was simply awful.

Well on that depressing note we headed back to the hotel and grabbed literally the greatest meal we have had the entire trip. The place is called Zubu Chon and specializes in absolutely stunning pork belly, and sizzling squid stuffed with pork belly (remember what I said about every meal having to have squid). It was spectacular.

01.02.2013

Fond Farewell!

We bid farewell to Joanna for her flight to Taipei then home. Jess and I still had a whole day of exploration however. First stop was the national museum which would have been so amazing except it was closed because the recent earthquake made it structurally unsound. The recent earthquake is also why we didn’t do a day trip to Bohol from here. Where once stood dozens of 16th-18th century cathedrals built with local stone and decorated with seashells; all now crumbled to dust in the most recent 7.2 magnitude.

Instead we visited two traditional homes built around the 16th century, one in Spanish Colonial Style:

And one in traditional Chinese merchant style:

Both have survived massive earthquakes and roaring typhoons. Pretty impressive. We just bummed around the rest of the day simply enjoying exploring a big city, nothing too noteworthy really; the usual parks and shops and so on. We ended the day again at Zubu Chon (simply couldn’t resist), and indulged in the final delicacy of the Philipines, a multi-layered, ultra-sweet, syrupy rice/candy/bean/mystery drink called Halo-Halo. It was good, but felt like diabetus.

Our next flight is at an appalling 5am. Alarm set for 3:30am to make our way to Taipei!See you then. Make sure to check out the full set of photos at:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/flufflebuns/sets

 

A Very Merry Philippine Christmas December 30, 2013

Filed under: Philippines — flufflebuns @ 1:15 am
Tags: , , ,

Life Goals:

  1. Leave the US at least once per year.
  2. Visit at least as many countries as years I am old.

2013 has nearly gone by, and goal number one is on the verge of being broken. We had to act fast. Thankfully Jessica and I found a perfect window with three weeks off for winter break. Coordinating with our good friend Joanna, we chose the Philippines as our next exciting destination. Given that SouthEast Asia is literally the greatest travel destination on earth, we were beside ourselves with anticipation. Here is a picture of literally everything that went into my bag. In hindsight I actually think I over-packed.

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Leaving Dec 21st at 11:45pm, we lost two full days, finally touching down in Puerto Princessa on the evening of the 23rd. Lots of naps and movies on a tiny seatback screen and the journey was not only mostly uneventful, but for over 16 hours in the sky, felt rather short. The only thing noteworthy was Joanna not showing up for our connecting flight from Manila to Puerto Princessa. We landed, confused, a little worried, but Joanna is a seasoned traveler, coming from Hanoi to Manlia. We figured a delay made her miss the flight.

Checking into our hotel and wandering the street for a bit showed the Philippines thus far par for the course for our expectations of SE Asia. On the streets a thousand little Tuk-tuks (called tricycles here) scurry around street dogs and locals selling goods in tiny wood shacks along the road. The hotel room with mix-matched bright colors of different patterns on each wall and a tiny, boxy gray TV straight out of the 80’s in the corner. The toilet with attached spray hose for spraying your nethers was particularly welcoming from our barbaric Western way of separating 3 centimeters of tissue paper between our fingers and…well…I’ll stop there. Ah, back to civilized restrooms!

We went to sleep early, being woken up by a call informing us Joanna had arrived after catching a later flight from Manila to PP, after missing hers! I passed out in mid-sentence while catching up with her.

12.24.2013

Being a deeply Catholic country, Puerto Princessa is particularly festive right now. “Merry Christmas Sir, Merry Christmas Mam”. My favorite linguistic nuance being that mam here is pronounced “mom” so everywhere we go, Joanna and Jessica are referred to as “hey mom’s”. The locals also have an affinity for the word actually, though it’s more like Ak-two-alee, really spacing out each syllable. “Ak-two-alee mom, the room price is 1-2 pisos” (meaning 1,200 pisos, about 44 pisos/dollar).

Mini plastic trees adorned with colorful balls and tiny wrapped presents bedeck every establishment, next to statues of a very white bearded Santa Clause (See, FOX news is right for once, Santa is white even in the Philippines!). We fly literally across the globe and still hear Christmas music everywhere we go! While completely unrelated to Christmas, we fall in love with the beastly local trucks, named as usual with female names and stacked with shiny metal.

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Today is a day of logistics. We sit with Liza, an all-smiles young travel planner, and work out the nitty gritties of our short journey while her 6 year old plays with stickers. Afterwards our first sit down meal at an all bamboo, beautifully decorated establishment called Kalui is an epic journey of spicy squid, seared tuna, giant prawns and really slimy seaweed that pops in your mouth.

Our afternoon was spent exploring the city and evening spent on the Bay Walk where the locals were celebrating Christmas Eve to fresh grilled fish and gambling carnival games under a great big, colorful tree.

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12.25.2013

Our van was a bit late at 7:30am, but that was to be expected. We packed in with 4 young Israeli girls just out of army training, and a Columbian girl with her Dutch boyfriend. The winding roads squished our bones and tightened our muscles, and after two hours we were at a big blue staging platform on a long stretch of beach.

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Here we waited for over an hour with a couple hundred tourists from the world round. We ate some nut-crusted fried bananas, hung out with the Israelis, and I fell in love with a street puppy with particularly fishy breath. Finally we boarded a thin blue motorboat with a particularly loud engine and shot up the coast towards our destination.

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We offloaded at a secluded beach and were greeted by a family of long-tailed gray macaques and a giant monitor lizard.

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After more waiting and chatting, we finally loaded on a rowboat and began our journey into the world’s longest underground river, voted the 7th natural wonder of the world (which truly seems to be a point of national pride, as it is even on the 100 piso bill!).

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Inside the cave truly was magnificent; magnificently high ceilings, multi-colored rocks of all sorts of shape and formation, stalactites, stalagmites, and bats flying everywhere. The constant reminder from the guide was “sir and mom, close your mouth when you look up, some of the dripping is not water!”

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It was a 40min journey. Every moment captured on my favorite new Chanukah gift, a GoPro. I will edit and post a highlights reel later. We journeyed back and had a great buffet lunch of pork belly, beef adobo, and when the waitress suggested we try the local delicacy of raw mangrove “wood-worms” of course I was the only volunteer. They tasted only like the lime, vinegar, and ginger they were soaked in, alone they were flavorless and gooey; when I am dared to do something however, I simply have to do it.

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It was a long journey back. Our evening was spent over a few beers, and some more delicious local grub. It feels excellent to be in Asia again. It is undoubtedly the most humid Christmas season we have ever experienced; each moment soaking in sweat, but it’s all worth it for the great experience.

Happy Holidays everyone!

12.26.2013

Travel day!

The first three hours in the rickety van were spent smacking back and forth into one another as we sharply took turn after turn on the windy road. The next two hours were bumpy along rocky dirt paths, my head hitting the ceiling with the occasional rut. The sixth and final hour of the journey however was both bumpy and windy; smacking and hitting of heads. Along the way we ate some delicious rest stop food served out of a cute shack amidst water buffalo, rice terraces and hordes of flies.

At one point we hit a dog in the road. I would have been angry with the driver, but it was kind of the dogs fault, as the driver made every effort to slow, but the pooch couldn’t decide whether to zig left or zag right *SMACK*, head to the bumper. Everyone shouted in empathetic pain, though instead of looking back to see a pile of meat, the dog slid under the car and popped right back up totting away in the other direction. Thick skull, though he’ll probably have a headache for a few weeks.

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We arrived at our pension house, a cute, family-owned home with a yard filled with baby chickens, which we will come to spend our mornings  drinking coffee and watching as they fight over who eats the ants crawling along the yellow walls. A rooster that I named Sergio, for no real reason other than he looks like a Sergio, we will awaken to every morning.

We bee-lined to the beach after setting our stuff down; El Nido is a small beach town surrounded by massive rock cliffs protecting a perfect little bay. We jumped in the water and I tested out my new warterproof GoPro.

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Our afternoon was spent chatting at a beach bar, enjoying the sun, some beers, and me trying for well over a hour to solve one of those tricky metal puzzle traps that an odd, but friendly German fellow bet me 10 pisos to solve. I finally got my 10 pisos, to spend it on ¼ of a beer; totally worth it.

We spent our evening wandering, settling down at Squidos where a ladyboy took our order for a giant medley of fish & crustaceans in curry sauce. As we will come to learn in the next three days, El Nido is like a Mecca for ladyboys. A ladyboy, for the uninitiated, is a male who acts like, dresses like, and is referred to as a female. In the US we might use the term transgender, but from my understanding, to call them transgender isn’t entirely accurate, as in SE Asia, ladyboy is more like its own gender than someone who is strictly transitioned between male to female. In any case, ladyboys are everywhere we go here, which is fabulous!

12.27.2013

The day we almost drowned.

Okay maybe that’s being hyperbolic, but it was pretty dicey there for a while. The day started off great; sunny weather with a few clouds and drizzle as we loaded into a packed catamaran full of tourists from all over the world, as well as those travelling from other parts of the Philippines. A theme tune made famous by a legendary 70’s series flawlessly summarizes the following series of events.

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship, the mate was a  mighty sailor man (actually a really tall skinny Filipino dude with puppy eyes, and a comically large jawline, like Quagmire from Family Guy), the Skipper brave and sure (foolhardy really, because he should have turned the damn boat around when everyone told him to!)  five eighteen passengers set sail that day for a three six hour tour. The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed, were it not for the courage of the fearless crew…

Okay I’m stopping right there. The “fearless crew” had every opportunity to turn around when the sky turned pitch black, the tides swelled ten times the size of the boat, and the rain felt like tiny glass shards on our skin as the wind whipped droplets into a frenzy. We yelled and protested to turn back, but nooooo, “it will get better” they said. HA!

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The final straw was the lightning, and thunder like Thor’s hammer struck right next to our boat. We mutinied and they finally turned the boat around, wasting time, gas, as well as terrifying and freezing their miserable passengers for a good deal longer than necessary. They kept pushing on because cancellation means refund and refund means they don’t get paid for the day, yeah that sucks and all, but we are not having fun! And isn’t that kind of the point of this trip?

So our boat brought us to the once peaceful bay of El Nido, now churning with violent water and we wadded through surf to land safely on the beach. We had a victory beer to celebrate our survival.

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We later got some $8 1-hour massages. Given that you could get 12 massages here for the price of one massage back home, it’s almost like wasting money not getting a massage. We then waited in a line for a swanky upscale pizza place run by a Hipster American; it kind of felt like being back in L.A. for a minute, except the rain and humidity; more bamboo too. The pizza was good, and after a long day of stormy weather we got back to our place to fall fast asleep.

12.27.2013

Mulligan.

The tour company let us have a redo, and today the weather was perfect for it. After breakfast on the beach, we waited a few hours being shuffled from place to place as we dealt with the inefficiency of island life. Yesterday’s boat ended up sinking while docked, have to get another boat. But the other boat is on the other side of the peninsula, okay put all the passengers in tuk-tuks to the other beach! Oops we overfilled this boat and tourists are complaining they have nowhere to sit, have to get yet another boat. And so on, and so on we waited a few hours before finally embarking.

I could go into details of the day, but the pictures I will eventually have enough internet to upload on my Flickr account will do the day more justice. Suffice it to say that is ended up being totally worth the drama, the waiting, and the pretty serious sunburn and slashed foot from a sharp rock. The day included pristine crystal waters tucked inside dark grey towering rock; snorkeling to a myriad of colorful life; an excellently grilled lunch of seafood, pork, and chicken on a fine white sand beach; and making friends with fellow passengers who were mostly Filipino families, as well as two Russians who would spend hours posing ten different ways for pictures in front of everything they saw.

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This day was the exact reason we came to the Philippines, it was flawless. I spent the whole day using my GoPro and wondering how we have done all our underwater adventures around the world without one! I will post some excellent video footage later.

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We were exhausted in the evening, but still managed to have a delicious dinner of Thai food, then fall fast asleep.

So that’s it for now. The trip is great, though a lot of travelling and waiting to get anywhere! There is no internet to speak of, otherwise I would have posted sooner. Hope you enjoyed reading, I should be able to upload pictures to Flickr soon, keep on the lookut for them:

http://www.flickr.com/flufflebuns/sets

 

The Pearl of Africa July 31, 2012

Below is the final, and very long blog of this trip. It might be a bit to get through, I wanted to finish before our trip ended, but if you read through it you’ll find my insights to Ugandan culture, being charged by wild Rhinos while on foot, the most powerful waterfall in the world, nearly escaping a bee swarm, and being surrounded by enraged chimpanzees. So here you go:

07.17.12

We woke up to darkness in Bukoba, Tanzania. It was a very early bus that was to take us across the border into Uganda. The ever persistent fog of flies zipped wildly around the multi-colored signs outside the hotel. In Tanzania the signs of nearly every single place of business are sponsored by either alcohol, soda, cellular service, or banks; sometimes all of the above. I assume businesses receive these signs for free because even this tiny beach hotel has no fewer than five lit, bug covered signs displaying the Spice Beach Hotel name along with Tusker Beer, Coca-Cola, and MTN Mobile Money.

This I pondered with my half-awake brain while waiting for our early taxi to the bus station. Once at the station, a very eccentric man proceeded to  wrap our backpacks with black plastic trash bags. He somehow convinced us this was necessary to prevent them getting wet and dirty while in storage on the bus. Why we didn’t stop him sooner is beyond me, because when he then asked for an exorbitant fee, which we were far from willing to pay, we then had to remove the plastic wrapping and give it all back to him. This was silly and altogether unnecessary.

The Tanzanian-Ugandan border came upon us quickly amidst a small dusty town. We paid our $50 entry fee in a $100 bill from 1999. Why am I telling you the date you might ask? Because not five minutes later the customs official comes running out of the immigration office explaining the bill was too old and he needed one past 2006. We have read about this phenomenon and were preparedly able to produce a newer bill. The logic for this is completely beyond us. A 1999 bill and a 2006 bill are both in the same series of printed $100′s, but for some reason East Africans (including banks as we would later discover) have some unexplainable belief that a 2006 bill is unforgeable, while a 1999 bill is as good as monopoly money.

As soon as we crossed the border we met the single friendliest police officer I have ever come across. He guaranteed us that our stay in Uganda would be fantastic, gave some advice on what we should see, and expressed jealousy that we were able to do such a great trip in his country. His massive grin, friendly demeanor, and near flawless English was a good indicator of things to come.

Soon we were dropped off at a crossroads in a city called Masaka. Declining an offer to ride in a van full of bricks we hopped on a bus where we would stand in the aisle for the next two hours. At least in the brick van we would have had seats, just more bricks.

While our tickets assured us that our journey would take us to the very distant city of Kabale, the bus stopped at a city halfway, Mbarara, and everyone exited. This left us confused as we were under the distinct impression that we had many more miles to go.

The series of events that followed still confuse us; they involve a man taking our tickets and giving us half our money back, 10,000 Ugandan Shillings, then getting thrown into a Matatu, the new Ugandan word for Dala-Dala, which in English is “cramped-ass Chinese-built minivan”. Jessica satiated a begging, drugged-out local man through the window with a cookie and we were on our way.

From here things were somehow more confusing. Lots of yelling in an even more foreign language, our driver disappearing randomly in a fit of rage, and replaced by a man in a leather jacket (in this heat?) who was either drunk, sick, or both; this did not bode well. But we just rolled with it, because hell, what else are we going to do?

The next six, that’s right six hours, sucked. Dusty dirt roads under construction caused mad congestion, plus the Matatu driver (I’m pretty sure those are just sick hiccups) stopping every ten minutes to drop someone off, pick someone up, or buy onions, apples, or bananas from street vendors. Each time he changes gears the stick shift rubs roughly against my leg, jolting me into the rather large mustachioed gentlemen to my left, who by the way, provided excellent conversation. Jessica fared better in the rear because men are scared to get too close to her, so she has a nice bubble of space while they smush even closer to one another. Why are we sitting separately? Just one of the many fun mysteries of the day!

A more interesting part of the ride was when Matatus would occasionally pass opposite and warn our driver of police checkpoints ahead. Since our vehicle is overcrowded by about four people past the max, the Matatu would stop, let out four people, and pay boda-bodas (motorbikes) to carry them past the checkpoint, whereafter they would dismount and come back in the vehicle. The one time a cop stopped us without warning, he had a huge grin, and “chastized” the driver “don’t let me catch you over capacity again!” (I think they were friends).

We did arrive to Kabale alive however. A friendly taxi driver grabbed us up and took us to a hotel sitting on the hills overlooking Lake Bunyoni, our stunningly gorgeous destination. The view would have to be enjoyed more thoroughly at a future moment however as my excellent bladder and bowel control decided 11 hours of bumping up and down was about the maximum my body could handle. Jess at least had the sense to go 8 hours ago.

The room was expensive, but worth the price almost solely for the view. The meal not as much worth the price, except the delicious cooked crayfish in a fresh avocado!

07.18.12

It was quickly apparent that the decision to embark on this epic journey to Lake Bunyoni was a good one. Walking down to the lake through a quiet forest was serene, but that paled in comparison to phenomenal wood canoe journey from the lake shore to our island retreat.

Our destination is known for the ‘backpackers paradise’ hostel; Bayoona Amagara. It was full however so as we disembarked we were met by two very friendly men, Moses, and the other everyone just called Manager. They showed us to our very humble, but extremely affordable room. One week prior the bathroom had collapsed into a big sinkhole, so our toilet was a mud hut with a hole in the ground. But the hostel grounds had cute goats everywhere and bunnies…totally worth it.

We got the best of both worlds though. Our hostel only provided rooms, everything else we received at what turned out to actually be a backpackers paradise, Bayoona Amagara. All structures made with sustainable local materials, all power from solar, composting toilets, solar showers, cool communal dining room, and exemplary food!

For the first time in a long time we also came in contact with other backpackers, as opposed to the usual tourists on packaged tours. We ended up spending the day making friends, chatting, eating and drinking. We took one quick tour of the tiny island with our new British friend Andrew and an incredibly friendly local named Fiona showed us around. She showed us how local buildings were built with eucalyptus wood, how the communities cook meals together, and all the various types of banana and other crops they grow. She was awesome.

At night we stayed up late with our new friends, then with some beers in us we hiked 15min the dark back to our room on the other side of the island. If you told me 2 months ago I would be hiking in the dark on an island in the middle of nowhere in Uganda, I would have thought you were crazy, but this place is a serene, unspoilt paradise; very safe feeling. Upon arrival to Green Village, Moses, our extremely Christian host (we’ll touch more on that later), was waiting up for us, made sure we had a pleasant day, then we headed to bed!

07.19.12

We woke to Moses dancing and singing to gospel music. After breakfast we hopped in a dugout canoe with him to take us to a hiking spot. Everything with Moses has to be a proverb, or something biblical related. We remain polite, which is easy because he is so unbelievably friendly. Jess and I taking turns to paddle; Moses doing most of the work, we took about an hour to get to a new part of the mainland.

Moses waited with the canoe as we disembarked and began hiking towards a peak. A local man quickly latched on as our unofficial, unasked-for guide, which tends to happen no matter where in the world we go. The hike was stunning. Super cute little farming huts dotted the agricultural hillside.

What Moses didn’t tell us is that where we currently were hiking is not, in any way, a common place for tourists to hike. What that meant for us is that everyone we passed was wide-eyed and whispered “wazungu” quietly under their breath. Soon we had a following of incredibly curious children. That gathering grew exponentially as the hike continued. Some of our entourage walked nervously behind, and some super close behind me. On random occasion I would jump back and shout “BOO”. Terror splattered on their faces every time, which shortly thereafter erupted into fits of laughter.

The apex of wonder and excitement came when on the opposite hill one small boy came romping in our direction, paying attention only to his footfalls. When his head picked up for just one moment, he stopped dead in his tracks, spotting perhaps the first white people he had ever seen. You would think he spotted a flying pink unicorn with how loudly and excitedly he erupted screaming “WAZUNGU, WAZUNGU!!!!” and ran back up the hill. No fewer than ten new children stormed with him down the hill towards us, and soon we were surrounded! They all loved having their picture taken, and then us showing the picture back to them as they excitedly named of each person in the picture.

The barrage of children may well be one of the highlights of our trip. They would try to touch Jessica’s hair, hold her hand, while I kept making funny noises and faces, scaring them with “boo” (every time without fail they got scared, then would excitedly repeat on eachother), and I loved showing them the ever classic thumb-removal trick. This small hiking trip turned unexpectedly awesome.

The village was truly sad to see us go. Our guide made us promise to call him if we returned and he would have the children prepare dancing and song for us, and the villagers would make us a feast. This was all just too much! We were tempted to stay another day just to take him up on his offer.

I gave our guide a bit of a tip and Moses was patiently waiting for us at the shore. On the way back he took us by “punishment island” where unwed pregnant women used to be dropped off to die. Interesting. Shortly thereafter Moses expressed his dislike of Barack Obama because of his recent stance for gay marriage. Like I said, Moses is very Christian, a born-again Christian nonetheless. In Uganda, the current popular vote is for a piece of legislation calling for the death penalty for convicted homosexuals (most of this due to proselytizing by American Evangelicals). I tried to explain to Moses how un-Jesus-like it was to judge others so harshly, but he explained simply that it is a deadly sin and worthy of the worst punishment. Speaking of unwed pregnant women, did I mention that Moses has a child, and yet is not married to the mother? I simply didn’t have it in me to point out the irony as I believe his fragile head would explode.

So…anyway…the canoe ride was great!

On our return to Bayoona Amagara for dinner we met a Belgian couple who we convinced to give us a ride in their car tomorrow to Kampala, SCORE!!! No more bumpy, cramped, long Matatu rides! Dinner was excellent as always, and the walk back to our dark hotel was even more pleasant than the night before. The stars here, as you can imagine, are very bright and beautiful.

07.20.12

The canoe takes over an hour to get back to shore, but the four of us split the price for a motorboat, zipping through the scenic glory of Lake Bunyonyi, morning mist rising of the surface as traders in dugout canoes rowed their goods to market, and children going to school.

Riding with the Belgian couple in their jeep was luxurious! And free!!! We made a couple stops for delicious food in Mbarara, and an unexpected stop for sodas at the equator line. We honestly had no clue this was even here.

They took us to a city about 30k from Kampala and we took a short Matatu ride to finish the trip. It was still a long travel day, but felt more like a road trip than being herded like cattle in a truck.

We chose to stay at Kampala Backpackers, on the outskirts of a bustling, smoggy city; unfortunately filled with young, loud, obnoxiously dressed, make-up caked Brits getting ready to go out for a night of partying. This was not our scene, and probably the most white people we have seen in one place since being back home. We tolerated their loud, sloppy behavior while gladly used the free internet to catch up from being without for so long. Then we retired to our nice sized room.

07.21.12

Kampala is actually a really cool city as we learned holding on for dear life on the back of a motorbike, the driver zig-zagging through ridiculous traffic. Of the African cities we have seen thus far, it is particularly modern and seems to have much in the way of architecture and culture. We were dropped off at a curiously modern mall where we experienced amenities unlike anything before on this trip; coffee shops, fast food joints, delis, computer stores, and even a movie theatre?! Where are we all of a sudden? We did some shopping and indulged in delicacies like blue cheese and prosciutto.

On our way walking back we stopped by the crafts market for some very pleasant, truly hassle free, souvenir shopping. Bargaining here is a cinch, they start with a reasonable price and quickly and happily drop it to an even more reasonable price. Not at all like crafts shopping in places like India where they start at 10x the price, and through blood, sweat, and tears you bring them down to a somewhat lesser ripoff. Man, we are loving Uganda and Ugandans more and more every minute.

We got back to the hostel, but were soon white-knuckling a motorbike ride again to a local bar where we would meet a man to pick up our newly rented Land Rover. Yes, for the next three days I planned to try my hand at driving on Uganda’s wild streets through some national parks!

The company, Road Trip Uganda is owned by a very friendly couple of dutch guys. They packed the car full of neat camping gear and check it thoroughly before handing over to he next client. We had a delicious burger at the local joint, checked the cars vitals, signed some papers and we were off.

Driving these mad streets at night was completely insane, but thankfully we only had about 5km to go. In that 5km I still managed to break some law or rather and a cop with a large machine gun on the back of a motorbike pulled us over. I apologized profusely for not going more quickly through the green light for fear of running over the thousands of boda-bodas zipping in front of me, but he assured me I should, in the future, just drive forward and they will move, or not and that it their fault not mine.

Nonethless I broke the law by stopping at a green light, but a nice 10,000 Ugandan shillings ($4) in the officers pocket “to pay for the gas he had to use to pull me over” made him very happily walk away.

We made it to the hostel after what felt like an incredible adventure! Our new mission, after searching earlier to no success, was to find some other suckers…er…travellers to join us for our road trip North. To our ever incredible luck, the first couple we asked, a Swedish guy Thomas and a German girl Henrieke, were totally down to join. We just cut the already reasonable price of $60/day plus gas in half! Wheelin’ and dealin’ baby!

07.22.12

We hit the road soon after brekkie (I say brekkie because they had Vegemite there, and boy do I love Vegemite on toast). The biggest challenge was navigating the labyrinth of city streets, and getting through horrendous traffic. Once we hit the main road north however it was wonderfully paved, flat, and empty. Smooth sailing.

Our first stop a few hours later was Kiwa Rhino Sanctuary. Rhinos are literally the only big game we did not see on Safari, and here was our chance. Kiwa is an open-range breeding grounds to reintroduce the Rhinos after they had been slaughtered to extinction in Uganda as poachers took advantage of civil unrest. There are around 20 Rhinos, and they started with only a handful.

We paid a reasonable fee and our local guide, plus a volunteer Englishman with a Ph.D in Rhinos (he assured us this is possible in England), jumped in the car with us and I drove to the Rhinos location. Only the first part was in vehicle however, and after a short hike on foot we were standing not 10 meters away from the massive beasts themselves! There were five in all. In this heat they usually just lay about, but at the moment the alpha male and two others were standing and munching some grass.

This was such a treat! I never would have imagined this was even safe, and the next few moments certainly made me doubt it was! The alpha stood up and began sauntering away from us, where he came upon another male lying in the grass ahead. With no warning except the thundering of their hooves and snorts of anger, the alpha charged at the other male who quickly jumped up and ran away…in our direction.

That’s right, At this moment we had two male Rhinos, one ton in weight each, thundering straight towards us. Needless to say we ran like a swarm of bees was chasing us…no scrap that…we ran like two one-ton RHINOS were chasing us! The thundering behemoths quickly diverted to the right however, and we group of eight were left breathless yet laughing hysterically like those who just outran a swarm of bees…no scrap that…oh not this joke again…

It was an absolutely incredible experience. The Rhino doctor assured us that we were in little real danger, but it sure as crap felt like it. Apparently if they were black Rhinos we would have been screwed, but white Rhinos are less aggressive and really only use their horns and strength to fight other Rhinos, avoiding most everything else.

With that experience behind us we hit the road again and in about two hours realized we had gone the wrong way. This ended up working out in our favor however. We now had to take a dirt road to cut back in and make our way to Masingi. This road ended up being a spectacular diversion. The local villages we drove by were beyond enthused to see a jeep full of wazungu. We felt like celebrities, how the queen must feel riding through England, having to smile and wave at all the wide-eyed passers by.

It was just one of those times that felt truly genuine in a foreign country, nowhere near any piece of the tourist track, mingling with the friendliest of local people, and seeing them just in their day to day element amidst the gorgeous green fields with bright red dirt.

We got to Masingi, stopped by the tourism office to get some advice of approaching Murchison Falls national park. Then we got provisions at a local market, checked into a hotel where we got cheap camp space, set up the gear, had dinner, cold showers, and bed.

07.23.12

We took the long way to Murchison through Bundongo forest where we drove through the canopy of towering trees, along Lake Albert dotted with fishing villages and babboons, and were soon at the gate to enter the park.

The park itself is pretty to drive through. Muscular, shirtless men, glistening with sweat, (as our girlfriends made us well aware) hack mercilessly at the dense jungle in its ever persistent encroachment of the red dirt roads. What we really came here for was the falls. The most powerful falls in the world. The Nile river hits this cliff edge as it snakes through from Lake Victoria to Egypt and simply pummels itself through twisting rock. Quite a sight to see.

The falls was only a taste of the awesome we were to experience today. We shot quickly south, eating lunch in the car to get to the staging area for chimpanzee trekking. We were met by the first female guide we have had and she soon had us tramping through dense jungle to find some Chimps.

The trek was dead quiet, all too excited with nervous energy to speak. Within an hour we were spotting our first chimp, munching some jackfruit in a tree. As we admired him, the trek group before us appeared running from the jungle, drenched in sweat, and panting heavily. They began undressing and before we could wonder if we should for some odd reason be doing to same, the guide explained they had been swarmed by bees when someone stepped on a nest…terrific.

A minute later the vicious sound of howling, battling chimps surrounded us, forget the bees, these beasts can rip your arm off with little effort, or bite easily through your skull like a jackfruit. Yet our guide assured us they believed we were the superior species, so we crept closer towards the sounds. We counted eight chimps around us, as we snapped pictures and swatted the leftover bees from the attack. Jess and Thomas got stung once each, but otherwise the experience was spectacular!

Later I will have to post the videos we snapped of 1. chimps mating, man he was quick, and 2. one chimp running full speed downhill to smack an adversary across the face who responded with barred teeth and angry grunts. 98% of human DNA indeed.

We hung out with them for almost two hours before heading back. We got to see about everything exciting there is to see involving Chimpanzees, including a cute baby hanging out with mommy in a tree.

We exited the park and received a warm welcome at Boomu women’s group. A hostel run solely by local women. We checked in to our very cute huts, took outdoor showers, and ended the night eating, we all agreed, the most delicious and by far most traditional African meal we have had including succulent grilled goat in spicy sauce, savory mashed plantains, dripping roasted sweet potatoes, steamed eggplant, raw cabbage, fresh avocado, and flavored rice. This place is awesome.

07.23.12

The drive back was uneventful, amazing we never popped a tire or had any mechanical issues considering the amount of potholes and rough dirt roads we have covered. We dropped off our travel buddies and Jess and I hit the road again to Jinja; the source of the Nile as it leaves Lake Victoria. Aside from constantly playing chicken with oncoming cars in order to pass painfully slow trucks while avoiding the chasms which dotted the road, the drive was easy…ish.

On the other side of the concrete behemoth which dams the Nile a cop stopped us at a checkpoint simply to mess with us. He asked bizarre questions trying to find an excuse to mess with us even more. When he asked our religion; “Christian!” I lied quickly. I figured that was the answer he wanted considering nearly every place of business in Uganda has some form of Jesus in the title including my absolute favorite: “Jesus Christ is Our Lord and Savior – Women’s Beauty Salon.” Not at all kidding about that either; sadly I didn’t get a picture, but here’s a fun Mormon billboard, somehow even creepier in Africa.

The cop let us go after complaining we didn’t bring him dinner…I assume jokingly? Another interesting Ugandan interaction.

The sun was setting over the misty river as we arrived at the backpackers hangout. We caught some street food called a Rolex. Literally just a vegetable omlette wrapped in a chapati, but dipped in spicy chili sauce, quite a bit more delicious than it sounds. The enterepreneur cooking was remarkably friendly. Afterwards we walked back and climbed into our spacious tent.

07.25.12

Sunrise on the Nile. A year ago there would have been a waterfall in this picture, but a dam downriver put an end to that!

Our day in Jinga was spent mostly at coffee shops, buying a couple more souvenirs, and exploring the town; quite modern, remarkably liveable, lots of expats. The highlight of the day however, were the absolutely hideous birds on the golf course.

We drove back to Kampala, checked into a hotel at city center, dropped the car off to the Dutchman, wandered the big, smoggy city a bit more then slept. A pretty average day really.

07.26.12

More or less the same as yesterday. We putzed around the hotel, had a nice breakfast with lots of pineapple and avocado. Then we took a packed Matatu for an hour ride to Entebbe where we checked into the backpackers place. We spent the day doing more wandering. The botanical gardens were nice, we watched lots of monkeys play, then read along the lake and just hung out, waiting for our flight tomorrow to Zanzibar.

In the evening we met the first Oaklander on this trip and her San Franciscan friends. We chatted a bit then went to bed early.

07.27.12

Three flights today. From Entebbe to Arusha, then Arusha to Dar, then Dar to the beautiful, historical island of Zanzibar! It took most of the day.

Our hotel in Zanzibar was exquisite! It used to be an old English club, the succession of Zanzibar rulers from Sultan to the Queen ascend up the marble staircase. Old Persian rugs hang from the walls, and our room is the most modern we have stayed in yet. We decided to splurge a bit here. Dinner included some tasty seafood. We slept very well in our cushy beds, a luxury compared to the cardboard-like material of most beds we have slept on this trip.

07.28.12

We spent the vast majority of the day exploring the exciting Unesco World Heritage Site of Stone Town! This town is where almost every African slave was brought, sold, and shipped to the middle east and part of Europe. You can imagine the wealth that accrued here from the blood, quite literally, of others. Pretty dark and crazy history, hard to believe in such a gorgeous setting.

The tall alleys of Stone Town twist and turn like a never ending labyrinth. The most notable and beautiful part of the city are the plethora of intricately carved wooden doors brightening even the most dilapidated structure.

We quickly explored the old fort and then the House of Wonders for hours; once a Sultans pleasure palace of modern trinkets, now a museum rich with artifacts and history of Zanzibar.

We then got a tour of the slave chambers and old slave market. A church sits atop the former slave market, the altar sitting right where the whipping tree once stood. We puzzled at the fact that 95% of Zanzibar was Muslim even though it was Islamic cultures here which ran the slave trade and essentially the English Church which brought the end of slavery. You’d think the locals would just give up after being screwed by pretty much the rest of the world and get back to their root beliefs, but well, indoctrination is one hell of an effective concept.

Speaking of Muslims, it is Ramadan right now. This means that even we cannot eat or drink in front of the locals or many will get very angry with us. Nonetheless there were a couple places tucked away serving food; House of Spices, a rooftop joint is where we savored a delectable lunch.

We finished the day wandering through markets, relaxing at the hotel and going out at night to the famed seafood markets in the park. Unfortunately they have become too famed. What might have at one point been enjoyed by both locals and tourists, has now been turned into incredibly overpriced “fresh” seafood from dozens of carts, where pushy and aggressive touts nearly force you to buy from their food cart as opposed to the exact same looking food one cart over.

We ordered just a bit of “lobster” (definitely wasn’t lobster, but well spiced and delicious; chicken maybe?), and tough octopus tentacles. Many of the tentacles went to a begging stray cat, who instantly became my best friend.

Jess, too annoyed at the whole situation to eat (I don’t blame her), grabbed some samosas from our hotel before we went to bed.

07.29.12

For the last two days of our travel we decided to really treat ourselves. We gathered our things, walked through the narrows Stone Town streets to the busy Dala-Dala stand, and took a crowded ride to a barely inhabited corner of the island where we checked in to the fancy Ngalawa Beach Lodge to spend the next two days doing nothing except eating, swimming, and laying around.

We arrived and were greeted by Joanne, a Canadian, and nearly the spitting image of my mother in so many ways; her two pet goats in tow (okay so the Linda Edwards I know would not have pet goats, but other than that, identical I swear).

I will be brief. I could write many pages about how unbelievably delectable the food here is, prepared by an exquisite chef and served by the friendliest of staff members (who, if you remember, are all fasting!) The grounds are lovely, the beach lovely, the pool lovely, the room lovely. But lets just stop there. You get the idea, it’s paradise, and as far as writing goes it would be stupid boring to regale you with each and every detail.

07.30.12

Take an educated guess as to what we did today. Have an idea? Yup that’s right, the same as yesterday: nothing! And it was awesome. Although I did write this blog…so I guess that’s something. I did get Jessica to play our yearly game of chess during high tea. And we took a gorgeous night walk along the beach during extremely low tide with a friendly American couple living in Germany. The food was even more delectable than yesterday! A band played at night and we sipped some whiskey and gin. So different from our previous lives as backpackers! But, it is fun and relaxing here. No complaints!

07.31.12

So here I am. Looking out over the pool. The blue ocean in the background. Computer in my lap on the porch of our room. Ahead of us is a half day of relaxing and then something like 35 hours of waiting, flying, waiting, flying, waiting, flying; home. 22 hours we will spend in the sky over the next two days. Not an endeavor I wish to embark on, but a necessary one.

It has been an unbelievable trip. We saw every African animal I could have hoped to see. We experienced a new continent, new cultures, remarkably warm and friendly people. We ate a lot of food, we laughed, we walked vast distances, and drove even more. We had many moments outside of our comfort bubble, but that is why we do this; to get home and truly appreciate all that we have.

We will return to you Africa. As our ancestors left you some 80,000 years ago and we have been privileged to spend this short time again on your fertile red soil…and not get eaten by lions, or impaled by a rhino horn, or swarmed by killer bees, mauled by a leopard, pounced by a group of hyenas, torn to ribbons by gorillas, poisoned by a black mamba, eyes pecked out by your freakish birds, gored by warthogs, pooped on by babboons, puked our guts out from malaria, or yellow fever, or bilharzia, or sleeping sickness, or dysentery, drowned in a capsized boat, or crashed in a freak dala-dala accident. We made it! And it was well worth it.

Signing off until the next adventure,

Dave

 

Lions, and Leopards, and Lakes. Oh my! July 25, 2012

07.11.12

This is was Land Rovers were built for: the rough, rugged roads of Africa, not perfectly paved suburban America. We hopped in our beastly vehicle with our two guides Charles and Mody, two spare tires strapped to the back, two tanks of petrol full, and all the supplies we needed for four days of wilderness.

On the way to our first stop of Tarangire National Park, we passed a bounty of Maasai villages, still living with the traditions of thousands of years. Of all the tribes in Africa, these people remain stalwart no matter how much the government herds them around, taking their land. Scarred cheeks with smiling lips, sandals made of old tires, bright red-checkered robes, thin walking canes (in lieu of spears), colorful beaded jewelry, and drooping stretched earlobes, they herd cows to and fro the feeding fields between tiny villages dotted with circular grey mud and cow poop huts.

But undoubtedly the coolest part of the Maasai are how they dress for their circumcision ceremonies. While getting circumcised in your teens sounds unnecessarily painful, and painfully unnecessary, they consider it a coming of age to withstand the pain without wincing. Directly after being cut, the boys dress in all black, paint their faces white and many adorn white feathers atop their heads. This they wear and wander the bush in groups until they return healed and earn their red robes.

We waited at the gate of Tarangire with dozens of Wazungu (“white people”, as the locals have made us very aware of) in their similar Land Rovers, while all of our guides stood in line to fill out the permit info required for entry. There were some beautiful birds and Vervet monkeys with their bright blue balls to entertain us. Apparently the darker a males testicles, the higher up in the social ladder he is. Gives a different definition than we have for “blue balls”.

The exciting moment came where we got to pop the top roof of the Jeep so we could stand with our heads out for some panoramic views of the area. Within literally two minutes of entering, as if straight out of a movie, we came upon a tiny lake with a family of elephants bathing, in the foreground a group of rascally looking mongooses (mongeese?) sped by, and to the left, herds of zebra and wildebeests grazed. About the only thing missing was the Lion King intro kicking in the background: “AHHHHH SABADENYA, BADABEETSI BABA. EY, WENYA OOH” Yeah, I have no idea how to type that into song, but you get the idea.

But seriously, when we had Safari in mind we envisioned hours of driving without seeing anything, then getting excited by one sighting of something far away; nothing nearly as unbelievable as this! The ride through the park kept getting us mere meters away from every animal you imagine to find in Africa. The zebras do a particularly adorable thing where they rest heads on each others shoulders. Probably part to rest, but also the stripes confuse the crap out of predators.

The birds were also magnificent, Kingfishers, Finches, Vultures, an Owl, tons of deep pastel colored birds. Jessica and I were consistently squealing with excitement and telling Charles to stop every 2 minutes for a picture of something equally gorgeous from the last stop. He must be used to this being a guide for six years, but it got a little ridiculous. He kindly turned off the engine each time so the rumble wouldn’t disturb the pictures of the squawks and grunts of the animals. Although this guy wasn’t too pleased by our presence.

We also got to see our first big cat species. A pride of lions lounging off the side of the road. There was a male, but we only saw him from the back, the females however were quite lively, one with a leather collar because she is being tracked by the park officials.

We left the park after a long day of pure awesome, and camped high up on a hill in a place far fancier than we imagined we would be camping. Tents all set up, with actual beds inside, electricity, clean bathrooms, nice views, huge dining area. Certainly not “roughing it”! The food Sandra packed and Mody prepared was scrumptious. Fried fish, salads with avocado, and I was even ultra impressed that a can of instant coffee and powdered milk could whip up such a tatsy brew.

The noisy British high school group thankfully went to bed early after all scrambling and bickering to use the few available outlets to charge cameras and phones. Soon we were fast asleep dreaming of wild beasts.

07.12.12

Tea, coffee, eggs, sausage, white bread, pineapple, watermelon, and oranges woke us up. Soon we were packed and headed to Ngorongoro Conservation area.

Same drill as at Tarangire; wait outside with the other Wazungu for an hour until the permits are ready. The information office gave some excellent information about the area; volcanic activity which made the crater, species found within, history of the Maasai, and the birth of early homo sapiens traced to this area. As a biology teacher I felt it was my duty to ensure the data was correct and was pleasantly satisfied.

Soon we were driving down the lip of the crater to the protected animals within. Similar Zebras, Empallas, Gazelles, Wildebeests as yesterday, but also nearly right upon entering we were met with Hyenas, Warthogs, Jackals, Ostriches, Flamingos, and this really cool orange afroe’d secretary bird you are sure to recognize.

Charles told us the names for each animal in Swahili. Many of which we knew without knowing we knew. See if you recognize these names. Lion – Simba, Warthog – Pumba, Father male lion – James Earl Jones. Funny thing that last one…all so uncannily similar to the Lion King.

We came across another pride of Simba just lounging along in the grass, and passed a huge family of wandering baboons, I might have even seen uncle Peter among them (that’s for you dad). Ngorongoro is teeming with unique creatures of all sorts smushed together in the safe confines of this crater. It was simply astounding how many separate species you could be looking at all at once.

With our stomachs grumbling we stopped for some fried chicken lunch in a little valley enclave with other tourists and some bathrooms. This little lake area was the first place we have seen Hippos and they gave us quite a show; covered in birds, yawning with their huge teeth poking out, snorts and grumbles, and bobbing up and down in the water. Also, that’s a giant python in the bottom left of the picture below.

The highlight of the day for me were all the Hyenas. I think they are my favorite because they are related to dogs, and there are simply hideous in a beautiful way. We even came across a mother with two babies, literally just a few meters from our truck. Fun fact about Hyenas, the packs are matriarchal, the female even grows a “fake penis” to assert her dominance over their inferiors. If a male prostrates to a female and she denies him, she bites out his throat and eats him. Oh…maybe that’s why I like Hyenas.

Coming in close second for the hideously beautiful prize would be the stout, stocky, warthogs. Always running with their tails straight up like a pencil in the air, their hysterically huge tusks seem to make little room for an actual face, of which is pretty hideous already. How does this species even manage to propagate? Lots of alcohol I suppose, lowers inhibition, makes even a warthog look mate-able.

After another long, dusty, fantabulous day and a quick text to wish my brother Mike a Happy Birthday we headed to our much more spartan campsite, ate another expertly cooked beef stew dinner followed by fresh fruit, then went to bed in our cozy tent under a sky filled with brightly shining suns and galaxies.

07.13.12

Where are the giraffes you might ask? A good question, but after an hour driving and not ten minutes into the periphery of the Serengeti, BAM, Giraffes!

Each park has been a completely different ecosystem, only separated by a couple hours driving. The Serengeti is a sprawl of yellow grasslands, spotted with little dots of rocky greenery, and the occasional field of Baobab, Acacia, and other trees. Though this picture was taken of grasslands when we had to get out so our guides could fix a flat tire.

The rest stop at the park entrance had a myriad of bright birds, multi-colored lizards and more wazunga. This wait took an especially long time, but soon we were on our way to the depths of the Serengeti!!!

The first couple hours of Serengeti seemed like the same old, same old. The massive herd of elephants was exciting, but otherwise lots of wildebeests, trees, grass, rocks, that’s about it. Not to say this scenery wasn’t especially beautiful, but the last two days spoiled us with consistent unique animal spottings. All was made up for however with our first sighting of a leopard dangling in a tree!

It was the first of many sightings of leopards, and also lions hanging out safely in trees, their fours limbs dangling like a sleeping baby on mom’s back.

Then came the unforgettable climax of the day, and possibly the whole trip: five lionesses and five cubs feeding on a wildebeest corpse. As close as they were, the high grass skewed our view a bit, leaving only imagining the state of the dead beast. But when they were full, the lionesses and cubs came out and quite literally rubbed against our vehicle. If I were braver I could have reached my hand 2 feet away and pet momma’s back.

Then one lion just laid down and hung out right by our car. We just sat stunned and stared at this awesome mammal. Her split nose had clearly been kicked in during a fight, maybe this fight, and the blood from the wound and from feeding trickled off her lips and whiskers. Brutal. Also below is the incredibly National Geographicesque shot of three lions in a tree.

The day could not have been better. Okay maybe if we’d seen a kill happen it could have. Also if a male lion got thrown in the mix, or even some animals mating would have been exciting. But the trip was nonetheless far beyond all expectations. We even managed to check off our cat sightings by getting up close and personal with a Cheetah lounging by a broken tree.

Sunset was soon falling over our even more spartan campsite, as everyone lined up to get in a quick shower washing off the dust from the day. There were only two plugs in the dining call this time (see what I mean by Spartan), Jess and I snagged one as soon as possible to give our camera battery a much needed charge.

07.14.12

We took a late start today. Both spare tires have been used and Charles had to go get them repaired to ensure a smooth journey home. We did manage to see the tail end of the herbivore migration which was impressive, and get up close with some baboons.

Otherwise it was a speedy exit from the park before our 24-hour time limit was up. We officially ended our Safari at a small town where Charles and Mody bid us farewell as we boarded a bus to Mwanza.

For once it was a very comfortable bus ride. We made it to Mwanza in good time, then boarded a dala-dala which left us kind of near a street mentioned in our guidebook, but really we were just mostly lost. City center seemed close, we were tired, hungry, thirsty and had to pee so we ducked in to a fancy-ish looking hotel and booked a room. It was a great room and an incredibly reasonable rate, we counted ourselves lucky we couldn’t find the hotel we were searching for from our book.

Soon we were in the city center, and grabbed some dinner at a pizza place. Mwanza is the second largest city in Tanzania, which rests on the second largest lake in the world, Lake Victoria. So far the city still feels more like a big town. It is noticeably clean and the people are very friendly. Still not much as far as cities go, but it is one of the nicest we have been in thus far!

We got lost on the way back and stumbled upon the most bustling markets we have seen in Tanzania yet. Street after street was packed with people selling all sorts of goods, used clothes, fish, fruits & vegetables, shoes, textiles, all laid out on tarps on the ground. Everywhere else we have been in the world, markets like this seem to be largely set up for tourists as well as locals, however, we seem to be the only tourists in the whole city. No longer on packaged Safaris, the elusive white people seem non-existent everywhere else in Tanzania!!!

We finally found our way back and enjoyed some slow internet and beers at our hotel where our very friendly waitress sat with us and enjoyed our pictures from Safari. She spoke only a few words of English, but she simply exuded friendliness!

07.15.12

First thing in the morning we booked boat tickets to Bukoba on the other side of Lake Victoria, towards the Ugandan border. Lunch at our hotel then took almost two hours to come, while the TV in the background involved a funky-haired Indian televangelist healing the “ill”, and the “disabled” (but really just a plethora of crappy actors) with the power of faith and shouting “MAXIMUM JESUS CHRIST!” in their face. Really, that should have been the blog title.

We spent the rest of the day walking around town, and making our way up to the rocky peninsula which housed the wealthiest of Tanzanian’s citizens. Most of the wealthier Tanzanians are traditionally of Indian descent who came here even before, as well as brought with European colonialists and set up businesses which thrive to this day.

The neighborhood was eerily modern in contrast to every other neighborhood we have seen in this country. Huge, sprawling mansions, showing the true contrast between the wealthy and the poor. But there is one thing you can say about most rich people around the world, they do build their homes around places with a nice view! We came across two little girls from the village below. Both were carrying for an infant, barely younger than them! Very playful little girls.

On the way down we popped into a really swanky hotel for a soda and a lake view. Upon walking through the gates and up the stairs to the pool area we discovered something truly shocking: white folk! Apparently all the white people in Mwanza were hidden right here in this very hotel! We must have missed the memo. It actually felt foreign not to be the center of attention and curiosity; here we just blended in, what a concept!

We walked back to the hotel, Jess got some nice textiles at the market, we used the internet, had some drinks, grabbed our bags, and a quick-ish (nothing is quick here) beef stew dinner downtown then headed to the port for our boat.

From the outside our boat looks like a WWII relic. A steel behemoth meant to mount guns not manufactured goods and locals. From the inside it was clearly built by the English for human travel, but yeah, probably a long time ago. But, it floated and we had our own room!

The boat ride, we determined, was one of the most sincerely pleasant ways we have travelled. All other travel wastes a day and leaves us exhausted and dusty. On the boat however, we sipped whiskey and beer from the bar and watched the city lights get dimmer and dimmer.

07.16.12

And the best part, when we woke up, we were at our destination! Getting off the boat to the swarm of harmless little lake flies, gave some splendid views of the ship. An unforgettable journey! Our boat is the one in the background, not the sunken one.

We walked along the nice sandy beach of Bukoba and found our hotel, Spicy Beach Motel among straw pagodas along the water. We were, as always, received warmly, showed to a room, quickly served a delicious breakfast, and then headed out for a walk to city center.

This city is ultra cute. The people somehow even more friendly than usual, and the slow, relaxed, “pole-pole” sense of the town was truly felt. We booked our tickets to head into Uganda tomorrow then headed back to the hotel to sit on the beach and do nothing but read, listen to music, eat fried chicken and eggy french fries (delicious local delicacy), and watch the town go slowly by. It was great!

Well that was a satisfying blog! Stay tuned for our adventures into Uganda!

 

Chameleons and Kili July 21, 2012

Filed under: Tanzania — flufflebuns @ 7:09 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

07.05.12

We bid fond farewell to our new friends and terrific hosts at Mkoma Bay (though for the size of the bill, you’d think his holiness the Dalai Lama was our host!) and hopped on a dala-dala back to Tanga. Bumpy, cramped, the usual. Tanga had the usual touts, “come to this bus, that bus doesn’t go to Lushoto, only mine”…”oh really, then why does it say Lushoto in the windshield?”

Soni in the Usambara Highlands is our next destination, a small town before the more bustling town of Lushoto. More mud huts passed us by, jungle, rolling plains. A moderately comfortable journey made better as we began to ascend the mountains and were met with rolling hills, spotted with homes amid fields of corn, and beautiful waterfalls just off the side of the road.

Soni has a tiny town center, but sprawling red mud homes dotting the hills. We walked a few kilometers to Maweni Farms guesthouse. The setting is gorgeous, lots of green, wood smoke filling the air, cute dirt roads, valleys, granite cliffs, purely scenic.

Everyone who passes as we ascended the hill carries baskets of harvested goods on their heads. They stare curiously at us, but with a “Mambo”, “Jambo”, or “Habari”, their stares quickly turned to smiles and utter a friendly response: “Poa”, “Jambo”, “Mzuri”. A lot of people like to try their English on us, “good morning” they say, and Jessica chastises me when I try to correct them with “good afternoon”, to no avail.

We are literally the only guests staying at the farms. We have the entire compound to ourselves and of course the very friendly guards and incredibly welcoming hostess. We settle in, shower off the dust of travel, and our hostess and the chef prepare a flawless dinner with the most delicious marinated beef, rice, with curry and peas, and phenomenally fresh avocado, all in a log cabin setting…but with Vervet monkeys eying our food longingly.

Our host lights a fire, and for the first time in Africa we indulge in free internet, and some reading in the cushy chairs around the fire. The ambiance makes up for the ever persistent sluggish nature of the internet speeds here.

07.06.12

First thing after breakfast we hit up the Soni Thursday market. It was massive, bustling, and filled with bright veggies, and smiling faces. Markets are always the perfect way to soak up the local culture.

We explored the rest of the city of Soni; not much to report. The usual dilapidated mud, plaster, and concrete buildings. We took a dala-dala through windy mountain roads to Lushoto, had lunch, then explored the city.

Cities here tend to be quite boring themselves. Very little unique architecture, painfully few buildings of cultural significance, and the usually fascinating religious buildings are often no more than the same old concrete slab with a cross, or a tall Muslim spire.

So, aside from the beautiful red mud huts crawling up dramatic green hillsides, the cities here offer little in the way of entertainment. But we didn’t come to Africa to explore cities did we?! Nonetheless we spent the day doing just that, exploring the cities. Lushoto has little to offer except a prison which you can’t take photos of or they will take your camera away apparently. There is a church too. It’s kind of ugly. The most interesting photo we took was of the Soni Post Office:

We just wandered the day away. More market exploration, Jessica looking at textiles to buy, and lots of walking.

07.07.12

Today is why we came to the Usumbaras, hiking! All things tend to be more challenging around here however. Instead of just picking a trail and going on a hike with signs to point you this way or that, here, you need a guide. One reason is for safety, but the other is that there are no marked trails at all. Guides lead the way. So, paying a bit more than we would have liked, we got ourselves a very friendly, well-read, fluent English speaking guide to take us through the highlands.

His name escapes me, probably because I couldn’t pronounce it, but he was awesome! He is the first local we have met so far where no language barrier existed, and as we tramped through beautiful jungle, we were truly able to connect with our guide on more global perspectives and learn a ton about Tanzanian government, politics, society, and the country’s relations with the rest of Africa and the world.

The hike was terrific as well. The first part was through farm fields, with locals tilling and weeding all around us, then we hit the preserved jungle where we were met with unique spikey plants, flowers of all colors, and towering trees with a delightful smell, almost gingery.

At the top of the hill we had a great view of the mountains surrounding us and the villages nestled in the valleys. Rising white smoke dotted throughout as farmers burned the crop scraps. We had some lunch in a viewpoint hut.

Our guide lead us next to a cave the Germans built to hide from the English during WWI., or was it WWII? Not even he seemed sure. In WWI the Germans were defending their Tanzanian colony, in WWII they were attacking. In either case, to have conflict out here in the middle of the jungle tells us that both truly were world wars. We caught a glimpse of a Colobus monkey hopping from tree to tree and otherwise just enjoyed the smells, sounds, and sights of the misty forest.

The end of the trip took us through more tiny villages filled with goats, cows, chickens, red mud huts, and brightly dressed, friendly people. The weirdest plant we saw during this part of the journey has to be the cactus tree, seemingly both a cactus and a tree, very strange looking.

Upon return to our hotel we had but one mission; to find a Chameleon before we leave the Usambara’s. Not only are they named the very fitting “Jackson’s Chameleon”, but they are unique only to the area and really cool looking. However, incredibly hard to find for obvious reasons. We didn’t see one on the entire hike, but with the help of the hotel employees, we found two massive ones.

We did the usual lounging by he fire for the rest of the eve and slept under the ever present mosquito net.

07.08.12

I’ll be frank, today sucked. It was an easy dala-dala ride to the crossroads of the very dusty town of Mambo. Once there, a local Indian man sold us sitting tickets for a bus. In every other instance we would just buy tickets when boarding, but this guy managed to convince us that it was a very busy travel day since school just got out and all buses were full. Seeing a few go by, he was 100% correct, humans packed in every square inch like cattle.

So he called ahead, got us a seat and we sat down for some tea, and delicious roasted goat.

An hour later he rushed us out into the blistering sun to wait for our soon arriving bus. Still over an hour more and our bus hadn’t come. We are now finding shade where we can, the smell of roasting potatoes, goat, diesel, and dust making its way to our nostrils. Our tout continues to assure us our bus will come any moment, but another hour longer and he instead tells us that all buses are full, no seats, and grabs our bags asking us to follow him to a private white Toyota with tinted windows.

The next 15 minutes he tried to convince us to get into a car with someone we do not know who is conveniently driving to our destination Moshi and willing to take two tourists for less than the price of a tank of gas. We try to convince him how sketchy this sounds and how we do not feel comfortable. He assures us the man is a police officer, though dressed in shorts, sandals, and a T-shirt, here that just might be believable. When he was unable to show a badge, we backed out and thankfully got a refund.

Another hour was spent waiting, another tout promised a spot on a bus, but was realistic with us and said we would be standing. When we finally boarded a bus, we were packed shoulder to shoulder. Barely room on the floor to set our feet. For two hours we stood like this, the other two Jessica had a seat, and I shared a tiny ¼ seat, my huge butt spilling more into aisle than seat as the woman sharing with me seemed very displeased even though she clearly had the better deal.

We finally arrived, after what was a long, stressful day, then took a dala-dala from the bus station to the YMCA where our new hotel and Safari host Sandra picked us up in a jeep with her son Toney. Sandra, a Kiwi, runs a small Guesthouse (really an extension of her home) and Safari company with her husband Frankie. A family in Pangani told us to contact Sandra, and we were glad we did.

We picked up some kebab skewers and baked dough stuffed with mincemeat from town then some drive-by fruit and vegetable shopping from brightly dressed women on the sidewalk then headed to her place. Along the way we had a grand view of the glacier packed peak of Mt. Kilamanjaro in the distance, which seems to simply shoot up from nowhere.

Passing through a thick metal gate, Sandra’s place is like an oasis from the otherwise plain, dusty town. A large property with gardens, and a clean well-decorated separate section of the house where we will be staying.

We ate dinner, took our Malaria pills, and indulged in much needed showers. Sandra let her two friendly German Shepards out to run around and protect the grounds at night. They kept us up for a couple hours fighting through the fence with the neighbors dogs. It didn’t help that one of the dogs is so old that it’s bark sounds more like a death rattle, still a cutie pie.

07.09.12

Waking up at 5am is always painful, but we were able to get into a car with Frankie and nap for a couple more hours. When we woke up we were climbing the mountains towards Kilimanjaro. We had to pay a ridiculous fee just to enter the park, but hiking with the mountain in the background was majestic. Frankie had to come up here anyway to drop off a guide and some helmets for tourists climbing the mountain, but he was nice enough to take us and drive us deep in the park for our hike.

Frankie dealt with more government beuro-crazy (see what I did there?) at the gate out. Apparently he went up a road he wasn’t supposed to, though no signs made any mention of being off-limits. According to him, the longer you argue with a government official, the lower the bribe you have to pay. After a long enough time you can win by wearing them out. Frankie did just that, presented his case long enough and eloquently enough that the guard just gave up. It took about 40min.

On the way back we got to get up close and personal with a family of Colobus monkeys off the side of the road, probably the prettiest of any monkey we have ever seen, and they seem to know it. The Arthur Fonzerelli’s of the monkey kingdom. Ayyyyyyyy (That’s an Arthur Fonzerelli reference, not an insulted Mexican Soap Opera star). More like a long haired skunk with opposable thumbs than monkey really.

Our drive took us back to Sandra’s where we lounged about before she dropped us of at a magnificently scrumptious coffee shop. We wrote a note on the community bulletin board to see if anyone wanted to join the Safari trip we have been planning to drop the price a bit and have some company.

We spent some of today and tomorrow trying to solve our financial woes. We have two credit cards, unfortunately nowhere in Tanzania accepts credit card and no bank has the slightest idea what a “cash advance” is. Our one debit card Jessica realized she didn’t know the pin for until the drive to the airport. Why did we think it was a good idea to not bring just one more debit card with us? Amateur traveler mistake. We are ashamed of ourselves.

We went back to Sandras to write E-Mails home about money wiring. Laurie ended up saving our butts by wiring Sandra money for the stay, the Safari, and some cash for us to bring with us! Our saviors!

07.10.12

We stayed one more day in Moshi to wait and see if anyone else would join us, no biters except a guy wanting to steal us away to his Safari company. It was a day spent wandering the town from coffee shop to coffee shop and catching up on internet which this town actually has (think dial-up speed).

I helped a guy carry a heavy bag of grain 1km by lifting from the other strap. That was the highlight of the day, but Moshi is kind of cute though far from picturesque.

In the evening three Kiwis came back from Safari, they regaled us with exciting stories of the things we would soon be experiencing. We had a lovely dinner of mince meat, guacamole, and chapati served by our excellent host. Then we hit the sack, dreaming of Lions and Leopards.

Stay tuned next time for our Safari Adventures! Pictures will upload to Flickr eventually…probably not until we come back. With the internet speeds here they upload about one picture every 30min. Since this is usually my source of photo back-up, I have been extra paranoid about losing the digital devices which hold our most precious gems! I could be stripped naked with all our clothes, money, bags, and electronics stolen, but would be happy as long as I still had this thin rectangular hard drive carrying the memories we’ll keep forever. Oh my brain is pretty important for that too I suppose…but I cannot upload my brain to a computer…………yet.

I’ve been reading too much sci-fi on this trip.

Dave & Jess Signing off.

 

Shanty towns and luxury tents. July 10, 2012

Filed under: Tanzania — flufflebuns @ 12:39 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

06.28.12

Istanbul to Dar es Salaam was uncomfortable, but relatively easy, a couple movies, a nap, and 8 hours later we arrived. All the tourists were then hearded into a line for visas and passport control. They took our money, $100 for my American self, but a mere $50 for Jessica smartly traveling with her German passport. Then we all waited nearly an hour as they very slowly typed up all our information, took fingerprints and scans of our passport pictures to make an unnecessarily intricate visa sticker for our passports.

Backpacks strapped on we met our Couchsurfing host holding an 8×11 with Dave & Jess scrawled in pen. He was a very nice guy named Albert and guided us to a waiting taxi. With Couchsurfing sometimes you do not know what to expect. Will we be on a couch, on the floor, in a bed with our own room? To be fair we were technically brought to a bed in our own room, however the location was something that took us quite a bit out of our typically very flexible comfort zone. Our new room was smack in the middle of the concrete jungle.

I hesitate to use the word slum because that brings to mind plastic sheet walls and a tin roof held together with twine, but aside from a bit more concrete, it wasn’t too far off really. Sprawling concrete complexes where entire families lived in a space the size of many an American bathroom. When we walked down a narrow alley to our complex, Albert had to call a neighbor to unchain the outside gate to let us in. There is a central dirt courtyard with a rubbish heap in the middle next to a few stalks of sugar cane. The communal bathroom is two porcelain holes set in a crudely thrown together concrete box.

We did sleep, but not particularly well mind you. The bed was comfy, but the sounds of loud music through cheap, cracking speakers, and a two hour long Swahili sermon given at 4am by a monotone Christian preacher, mixed with the already nagging fear and uncertainty given these incredibly foreign surroundings did not make sleep easy!

06.29.12

We awoke to Albert knocking. He asked if we would like to eat, then he took me on a stroll through the town. At 3am this place was scary, but in the soft light of morning, with chickens clucking, friendly children kicking crude soccer balls through tire holes, and women in beautifully colored dresses cooking breakfast in smouldering coal-filled metal pots, I felt much more at ease. Kids stared at me with wide, curious eyes, muttering “muzungo, muzungo” (white person) but a smile and “Mambo” was quickly responded with a flash of friendly white teeth and the local response “Poa!”.

The woman serving us Chapati rolled the dough in a chipped wooden bowl and cooked with lots of oil in an iron pan over wood chacoal. She told Albert that she like to hear me speak English. We smiled back and forth; her teeth bright white against beautiful ebony skin. Albert taught me to say “Asante” to thank her for the meal.

Jess was still napping as we entered and Albert began scooping water from the top of a stack of plastic buckets we assumed were filled from a somewhat distant source. This is the only water nearby to be used for bathing, washing, cooking, drinking; nothing runs, only what is stored in these buckets. He procured a metal, coal powered cooking stove and began heating water. We sat and ate the tasty, though a bit oily, Chapati and sipped tea.

Albert had to go to work, but his friend Ramsey came over to take us through the city for a bit. After having driven through windy dirt roads packed with brightly dressed people, and then insufferable traffic of the paved streets we arrived at city center. Just as I stepped out of the car a bit of unintelligible commotion came from behind. Two sharply dressed men smushed their way into the backseat, and it was clear they weretrying to prevent us from exiting. Events turned surreal at that point.

When I looked back our new host Ramsey was holding a plastic card handed to him by one of the men. His hand shaking and fear in his wide eyes did not do well for my own stress level. What in the world have we just gotten in to?! Rapid chatter in Swahili came from each inhabitant, except of course myself and Jessica who stared at each other, wide eyed, a mix of confusion and fear plastered on our faces, as I mouthed to her an appropriately phrased “what…the…fuck?”

It soon became clear that these were police officials. Our taxi driver had pulled over “illegally” and they were threatening to take us to the police station with a huge fine. The driver handled the situation after some time by subtely handing a wad of cash to one of the upstanding officers. Everyone smiled awkwardly, shook hands with each other, with us, and the men were on their way to extort more money from the citizens they are sworn to “protect and serve”.

Obviously frazzled I strapped by bag across my back and we began walking. It did not feel like a safe neighborhood, many eyes staring at us, so I rearranged by bag to hold it closer to my chest. About two minutes later I got a tap on my shoulder. It was one of the officers from before. In his hand he held a little metal box; my medicine box! Funny, my bag was unzipped, it must have slipped out. The second officer came from behind with a third man pinched at the neck between his fingers. They explained (mostly in pantomime) that this man had been rooting through my bag in the 60 seconds I was not paying attention.

Before I could even say thank you, the officer holding the theif by the neck swung his right arm in a strong uppercut to the thief’s jaw. The officer continued slapping and beating the man for a good minute as a small crowed formed around us. Then the officers walked off, and the thief stumbled quickly away. Ramsey said the thief was lucky, if he’d stolen more or harmed us, the crowed would have almost definitely killed him.

All in the first 12 hours of being in Africa! Quite a welcoming!

The massive guard with a shotgun outside the money exchange office still didn’t quite set us at ease. The rest of the day was spent exploring Dar es Salaam. Nothing much of a city really, dusty, busy, concrete jungle. There were a couple nice parks and some tall government buildings, but the real highlight of the day was the fish market, though it did smell a bit fishy.

There is one major difference between here and any other city we have ever visited: the surprising lack of white people. Now obviously we don’t expect the locals to look like us, but what I mean is, aside from two Japanese tourists, we seem to be the only tourists. Probably not a great signifier that we should stay long in Dar. As you can imagine we are somewhat more of a curiosity to the locals than anywhere else we have ever been, receiving long stares. I get the sneaking suspicion some of them are thinking “what the hell are they even doing here?”

We met later with Albert after his shift as a driver at the YWCA, and the four of us ate dinner at a cute pub. Fried chicken and rice dinner was good and we got a taste of the local beer, Serengetti Lager. Our hosts tried to teach us more Swahili, then we headed back and slept a bit more soundly than last night.

06.30.12

In the morning Albert brought us to the bus station in a taxi. We boarded and said our fond farewells, thanking him profusely for being a great host. Then we sat in the hot, diesel fumed bus for over an hour until it grumbled to life and headed off to Tanga.

The scenery along the way was beautiful. I knew that people in this part of the world still lived in traditional mud huts, I just thought it would be in far away rural areas, not just along the side of a major freeway. Bright red earthen brick filled in between wooden stakes and sealed with more red mud. It is humbling how many people still live in these types of domiciles, but I it is cheap and efficient!

We arrived in Tanga 8 hours later and were swarmed by touts offering to take us to this hotel or that. For once we trusted the driver to take us to a place better looking than the one we had picked out. Inn by the Sea was an oasis compared to our last location.

For 25,000 Tshillings/night ($17) it was a serious bargain for the beautiful view over the beach! We settled in, took showers, then walked one building over for some prawns and chicken masala dinner overlooking the bay. Down below a massive wedding party comenced, with a large crowd in their finest garb dancing to upbeat Swahili music.

07.01.12

We made an arrangement with a guide for a bike tour to some caves and villages. I was certain his price was far too low at 9,000Tsh, but I re-confirmed many times and while he has a thick accent, it sounded very clear that this was the extremely low price he was offering for a tour.

He met us after breakfast, we walked to town, grabbed bikes and took a lovely ride along the coast. My tire went flat and a gentleman with a very convenient spot set up along the road helped fix it.

We passed through cute villages along red dirt roads and children calling out “Mambo, mambo!” Then our guide asked for payment now so he could easily give money to the guard at the caves. This is when it would have been handy to write down the number I thought I heard him say, nine-thousand, although this time he was much more clear pronouncing the ty in ninety-thousand! $60 for a bike ride to some caves?! I think not buddy! I handed him 20,000Tsh, more than enough for his services and said we would pay the entrance fees ourselves.

We have dealt with trickery of this sort before, not quite a scam, but certainly quite aggravating. Sure enough the fees to enter the caves were equally ludicrous. 1,000Tsh for locals and 20,000Tsh for tourists. Now that is a scam; just to enter some granite caves and get crapped on by bats. High tourist prices have always been a thing of annoyance; when they charged us an arm to enter the Taj Mahal, we paid it, but that was the Taj Mahal. We cut our losses this time, figured it was at least a beautiful ride, and headed back. But not before stopping by a local village and drinking some funky tasting coconut wine.

We strolled the city of Tanga, but there is not much to see. Some crumbling concrete structures built by the colonial Germans and that’s about it. We had a good lunch served by an albino waitress at a little hole in the wall place then made the walk back to our hotel.

We met a Dutch couple there and sat down for a chat overlooking the beach. One of the most (potentially) fatal errors we made coming on this trip was not bringing Malaria prophylactics (I know, sorry parents, stupid mistake). Before coming we researched and learned that A. Tanzania does not have as much Malaria as the rest of Africa, and B. that it was low mosquito season. According to the locals and everyone else we asked, those figures are dead wrong and mozzies are definitely out and about! To our luck our new Dutch friend, who has been living here for 6 months, had exactly enough pills leftover for us to start taking now and last us through the rest of our trip. Here’s to a Malaria-free adventure!

After a stroll along the beach during sunset the dutch couple took us to a wood-oven pizza place around the corner for a lovely dinner and gave us some advice about traveling in Tanzania, what we could and couldn’t miss, how to stay safe, etc. They made us jealous and excited with pictures of the awesome wildlife they saw on Safari.

While the novelty of being some of the only tourists around is nice, it is also nice to meet folks like this to show us the ropes and swap travel stories.

07.02.12

A dala-dala is a small chinese-built bus that goes back and forth through cities cramming as many people in as possible and stopping every 20 seconds to pick up more. This is what we took to the bus station in the morning. Though thankfully Tanzanians wake up later than we were up and the bus was rather quiet.

The journey to Pangani in the next dala-dala was bumpy, I had no leg room, people sat on me, but otherwise painless. The tire went flat halfway there and we all got out to some beautiful jungle surroundings along a dirt road.

The driver’s assistent was very helpful and dropped us off at the road to our hotel, suggested by a friend, a few kilometers from town. The hotel was a serene 5min walk through jungle from the road. When we got to the iron gate, a pair of legitimate Maasai warriors in traditional red garb, recycled black tire sandals, thin wooden canes, and facial scarring gave a friendly greeting. We later found out these guys are not asked to dress in their traditional clothing just for tourists, they do it merely because they know how badass they are. Our soon to be hotel host explained later how effective the Maasai were at preventing anything bad from happening on the grounds. Hell, I wouldn’t mess with these guys either.

The Mkoma Bay Luxury Tents Hotel was far beyond anywhere the two of us have stayed without parental accompaniment. “Luxury tents” barely begins to describe the spacious, well-decorated safari tents, complete with hot water, a massive bed, and modern bathroom. We have come a long way from slumming it my friends, but some would say we deserve it (mainly us…we would say that).

The hotel grounds are immaculately groomed, covered in cute white & grey Vervet monkeys, poolside bar, cushy dining nooks overlooking the stunning ocean atop a cliff, with a constant cool breeze. Lisa, a native Californian and her grey-mustachioed Danish husband Ulrich along with their two beautiful German Shepards run the place like pros, ensuring each guest is experiencing the maximum level of comfort. With an occupancy of maybe 50 guests, there are five of us. Just before hitting the on-season. Sweet.

The rest of the day involved swimming in the pool and laying in the sun, chasing monkeys. A vacation away from vacationing. An incredible candle-lit dinner was served in the evening and we got to know the three Germans we were sharing the entire grounds with.

07.03.12

In the morning we bushwacked a hike along the completely empty and stunningly beautiful coast. We were in awe of the mangrove forests, massive birds, purple sand beaches, funky tide pool life, and absolute lack of any other human beings. Bliss.

On our return, more pool, more sun, some delicious lunch, monkey chasing. Then we braved the rough surf and took out a kayak. Probably not the best idea, but we didn’t go far.

The evening was really roughing it, more conversation with the Germans to an equally spectacular candle-lit dinner. This place is sheer paradise.

 

07.04.12

In the morning the five of us were driven to the city with our gear and hopped on a wood motor boat with two guides. In an hour we were snorkeling a beautiful reef then lounging on a completely desolate white sand beach. We didn’t see lion fish, but lots of Parrot fish, clown fish, clams, and just about all the colors of the rainbow. On the beach we ate lunch and watched the crabs wander by.

Got back with some sunburns, took naps, did the usual relaxing stuff, then had a BBQ 4th of July dinner with the now larger population of guests who arrived today. No fireworks though, how tragic.

Well the first part of this blog was good, but writing the last few days certainly did suck. Nonetheless it was amazing to experience. Our photos should be more entertaining visuals for those last few boringly read days. We’ll get into more trouble so there is better stories in the future.

The pics might not be all on the Flickr site. It is challenging to find fast internet out here, but check soon:

http://www.flickr.com/flufflebuns/sets

 

 
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