Ītyōṗṗyā

27 01 2009

osted by: Chris

Travel Dates: 10.11.08 – 10.26.08

We’ve laid it on pretty thick in our posts but in case you haven’t read, busing around Africa can be tough and draining.  Fortunately Ethiopia Airlines is one of Africa’s most well organized airlines and we lucked out on a deal for 5 flights within the country for about $250, saving us what would have been 10 days of pure bus travel.  If you fly into Ethiopia via Ethiopian airlines be sure to check up on this deal and whatever other specials they might have.  We checked out several towns before heading back to Addis Ababa: Bahir Dar, Gonder, Lalibela, and Axum:

Bahir Dar: The Ethiopian Orthodox church was acknowledged as independent from the Coptic Orthodox church in 1959 and while the differences are subtle and probably incomprehensible to anyone not Orthodox themselves, these churches differ from Greek Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox branches.   But the Ethiopian branch is one of the oldest Christian religions in Africa and Orthodox was made the official religion of the  Axumite Empire back in the 4th century A.D. bahir-dar-04

Lake Tana can be reached by Bahir Dar where there are several island monasteries that can be explored by boat.  The Monasteries are simple in structure with colorfully painted Christian passages on the inside walls.  The men are dressed in beautiful colored robes, usually yellow, and recite their prayers as you walk around.    Inside they burn Frankincense and take out massive bronze crosses whose different styles represent different regions of the country.   In one Monastery, I was allowed to see and take pictures of huge Bibles written over a thousand years ago (if in Europe these books would be locked up behind glass in a museum; here, they were still being used).  There were also the crowns of some of the Kings of Gondar, brass crosses, and other religious relics.  Some of the Monasteries are for men only though, and Laura wasn’t allowed on this one.

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Laura liked the cool looking “puff plants” everywhere (which we later discovered were papyrus), and we also saw the source of the Nile.  There was an Ethiopian from Gondar who was also sightseeing with us.  Funny thing was, the boat driver charged him more than he charged us, so it looks like even the locals get screwed if they don’t bargain right.  A day trip nearby here can be taken to “Tis Abbey” which is the 2nd largest waterfall in Africa (after Victoria Falls).

Gondar: The “Camelot of Africa,” who knew there were medieval castles in Ethiopia?  Although facts might get in the way of the following, it is a generally accepted belief in the country that King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a son, Menelik I, who became king of Ethiopia and started a long line of rulers claiming King Solomon’s descent and thus became one of if not the oldest ruling dynasties in the world (they were deposed in 1974).

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During the 16th & 17th centuries, Gondar became the capital of the Ethiopian empire where it remained until 1855, and rulers proceeded to build up the area.  The result is a large European medieval castle influenced in one way or another by the Portuguese that once lived in Ethiopia.  Around the area aregondar-kids-running-with-laura-01 also churches, and a massive pool called Fasaladis’s Bath where every year a blessing ceremony is held.

This country is famous for long-distance athletes with Haile Gebrselassie toping that list as perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time.  On one run, Laura had a couple kids tag along (something that’s become a pretty common occurrence in Africa).  I meanwhile watched 2 guys practicing 100m sprints; not on the grass or a track, but on the stadium rows which were made out of stone and lacked any sort of railing.  Barefoot.    During another run Laura was heading along the sidewalk, passed a cafe, and as she passed everyone started clapping for her.

Lalibela: In response to Jerusalem being sacked by Muslims in 1187, King Lalibela started what he wished to be a “New Jerusalem,” a city that would rival Axum in religious importance.  Some say he visited the Holy land himself and others claim there must have been architects from other civilizations due to the complicated engineering.  But so far the facts suggest that Ethiopia constructed the churches themselves during the 12th & 13th centuries, carving out of pure granite 11 rock-hewn churches.  Most are free standing connected only at the base while the interior has been carved out, complete with arches, doorways, and reliefs.  Similar to Petra in Jordan (the church in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and the Ellora caves in India.lalibela-09

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An extremely religious city, it is said out of the 8-10,000 people in town, 1,000 are priests.  The smells of Frankenscense abound, along with kind (but difficult to locate) priests who keep the keys to the churches, this middle of nowhere town feels ancient.  Strangely, there are more flies here than anywhere in the world and walking down the street can be almost unbearable at times as they swarm.  You’re also guaranteed to be followed for miles by children (and adults) aggressively demanding candy, pens, money, etc.  But if these churches were in somewhere other than Ethiopia, it would be a well known Christian site.  Instead, you’re pretty much alone wandering through.

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Axum: The largest Obelisks in the world, Axum is also home to the Axumite Empire whose language, Ge’ez, can still be heard around the country.  To be honest, we thought the place was a dump and changed our flight to leave the following day.  The Obelisks are cool, especially since Italy has finally returned one they stole back during their occupation, but they stand on a pretty lonely field that takes away from the feel.  The museum was moderately interesting, and we read of several more things that could be seen around the area, but we were kinda dis-interested at this point.  Locals claim the Ark of the Covenant was moved here and rests in a chapel near the Church of St. Mary of Zion, but you have 0% chance of getting near it (how convenient). axum-02axum-01

We did manage to set our personal highin a game we call “let’s screw the tourist.”  Here, we go into a store and ask how much an item is, in this case a necklace that we know we can buy for under $5 at the least (they have the same stuff all over the country to buy).  One store tried to sell it to us for $40, convincing us that locals watch way too much “Cribs” on MTV.

Back in Addis: More coffee, more fantastic food, and a lot of time spent with some Irish friends we met in Lalibela.  Gary and Suzanne helped cement a future trip to Ireland regardless of how much it rains.  They traveled down through Sudan and the Middle East and like everyone else we met who has been to Sudan, they claim it holds some of the kindest, most welcoming people in the world.  Of course, there’s not much there to see besides the people, but hey.

We spent a couple mornings in the gigantic outdoor market buying gifts like spices, frankincense, a wooden cross, embroidered fabrics, jewelry, and all sorts of unique items that cannot be found anywhere outside of Ethiopia.  We also had to watch our back pretty hard as we caught several people blatantly tailing us.

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Ethiopia is one of my favorite countries but many people hate it and it would be dishonest not to acknowledge the rougher side .  The trend sems to be if you come up from South Africa/Kenya/Tanzania, then you will like it more.  If you travel down and enter Ethiopia after the Middle East and Sudan (basically the Arab world), then Ethiopia is too harsh a change and some of the people too frustrating.   To quote Bradt (a respected guide for African backpackers), there is a part of the population that “once all the patronizing excuses are made, are rude, racist, and cowardly.”  Pretty harsh words, but you gotta appreciate that he has the balls to call it for what it is.  Beggers, especially the kids, can be aggressive and threatening.  Some children get so excited, they start throwing rocks at you.  You might be loved, hated, blamed, or idiolized, but you won’t be ignored.  There are two different sides, but it is without a doubt unique and one of the few countries that can claim such a distinctive personality.  There is little tourism and you’re likely to be the only Westerner around in some parts, so expect stares (don’t worry, their mostly innocent and just curious).  By the end of it I was drinking 6-7 macchiatos per day, discussing American politics with locals, eating Kitfo (raw beef), and haggling over the price of frankincense.

***Click here to see the rest of our Ethiopia pics on our Flickr account





Starvin’ Marvin

9 01 2009

Posted by: Chris & Laura

Travel dates: 10.02.08- 10.10.08

Chris: We all have stereotypes of Africa: the animals, the tribal dress, the classic image of an Acacia tree in a lonely, dusty sprawl of meek vegetation in the Serengeti. And thanks to the “We are the World” video (and more recently South Park) Ethiopia has its main stereotype too–starving.

We didn’t originally plan to come to Ethiopia and didn’t talk about the idea until Mozambique (which ironically was another country we didn’t plan to go to and I couldn’t have placed on the map before the trip). It’s a poor African country with tenuous relationships with bordering Eritrea and Somalia. The capital, Addis Ababa, where we flew into can be pretty tough to handle if you aren’t mentally prepared. Poverty, disability, and malnutrition are on full display in certain areas. But Ethiopia isn’t anything like the African images of dusty Kenya and Tanzania. It’s one of the oldest countries in the world with a fascinating culture all to it’s own, and a dry moderate climate.  The language, Amarhic, is unique and incomrehensible.  The local music and dance, while perhaps takes some getting used too, are again totally original.  It’s one of only 2 countries in Africa that was never colonized by Europe and therefore has developed  independently (Liberia is the other, though this is debated). Originally referred to as Abyssinia, it was later home to the Kingdom of Aksum and was mentioned in both the Illiad and the Odyssey. This is also the home of Lucy, still the oldest complete fossilized human skeleton. Point is it’s old, real old.

Strangely, Ethiopia has the best cusine in Africa–a spicy array of stew-like dishes served on “injera,” a slightly sour pancake made of fermented teff flour. They use their own spice mixes such as “Berbere,” which we bought a few kilos of and shipped home.  I tried their honey wine which is similar to mead and not to my taste.  I did however eat Kitfo–or raw spiced beef–6 times while in the country, which might be the ballsiest thing I’ve done all trip, yet I never got sick. Laura did not partake, and the locals who saw me cracked up.  They liked it, but apparently never saw tourists eat it.addis-ababa-addis-ababa-rest-01

We spent a lot of time in Addis doing nothing particularly worth noting except eating, talking with people, eating more, looking at the cool markets, and drinking lots, and lots of badass coffee. As it turns out, this is also the home to the popular magical bean that has made Starbucks possible.  Our favorite place is “Tomoca” where for $0.30 you can get the best Macchiato of your life and discuss politics with the locals.  While never colonized, Italians occupied Ethiopia for several years during WWII.  The result is decent Italian food to go along with the local stuff, and old Italian espresso machines.  We could be in the middle of nowhere and almost every single restaurant would have a vintage machine–and know how to use it.  Ethiopians also have a traditional coffee ceremony where they roast the beans in front of you while burning incense, and serve it to you black with sugar (along with popcorn).addis-ababa-addis-ababa-rest-10

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After a few days in Addis, we took a bus to Harar, a city in the east and once on a major trade route.  The Harar region is also well known for it’s coffee bean quality. I spoke with a local guide who toured the Starbucks reps around the area when they were buying the beans. Starbucks imports a lot of coffee from this region and had a pretty nasty court case not too long ago where they addis-ababa-addis-ababa-rest-12were actively trying to block Ethiopia from trademarking 3 brands of coffee. Ethiopia got the trademarks and are now paid a lot more for the exports than Starbucks would have preferred. But while sipping a macchiato with the guide he asked if I liked Starbucks coffee. I explained no, that it’s more sugar and milk than coffee and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing I just prefer the taste of the actual coffee bean. But I told him that the people want milk and sugar, so Starbucks caters to that instead of making good coffee. He took another sip and said, “that’s exactly what the Starbucks guy said. He doesn’t drink it either.”

At night we found our way outside the town gates to try a local tradition: feeding wild Hyenas with our bare hands.  Not sure exactly how this got started, the book claims it’s an old tradition but I’ve also heard it started as a tourist gimmick back in the 60’s.  The feeder is some local who picked up the duty after his father died several years back.  We figured there would be more people, but no—just the 3 of us.  He kept yelling at the kids running around nearby.  He told us it was safe and we had nothing to worry about, but obviously he respected the animals and made sure no one else was around.  We sat on some steps when quietly they came, one by one.  We thought they were dogs at first.  Big dogs.  With shiny eyes and huge necks.  They just sat there until the guy came back with a bucket of raw meat and a stick.  We came over with him, got on our knees with the feeder, and took pieces of meat and fed the Hyenas.  Sometimes they’d snap too close or gather together, and the feeder would swing the stick and yell to back them off from us.  A bit surreal, it was completely quiet besides us three and the Hyenas as everyone else dissapeared.  We used our flashlights to see the creatures in the dark, and to watch the local feed them with his mouth.  Freaking nutcase.

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One afternoon some local teenage girls welcomed themselves to our table and we spent the next hour talking with them.  They even taught us some Arabic (which they learn in school along with English and Amarhic), and bought us some cake to eat.  Rarely in Ethiopia can you be alone as locals will invite themselves for conversation.  Most are just curious and really want  learn about the USA.  But there are few tourists and you’re likely to be the only Westerner at any sight, restaurant, or coffee house.  In Guatemala or Peru, they may make quality coffee but none of the locals drink it.  It all gets exported and the few upscale places serving it are visited only by Westerners.  But this country isn’t like Zanzibar, or Capetown, or some Safari.  Here, everything is for the locals.  When we ate in Ethiopia we were surrounded by locals.  When we visited ruins or historical sights it was us and all locals.  They have the money to travel around and eat out regularly and are very proud of their history (it might be the only place we’ve travelled where this happens). And while we’ve gotten pretty used to being the only white people around, it still cracks me up when kids pass by and stare at Laura like she’s some sort of alien.harar-kids-01

Laura: As I’ve noted before, I’m used to getting stares. Chris’ height, dark hair, and tan skin help him blend in. So when we got to Ethiopia, I was surprised to see the women staring at Chris. They would walk by in clusters and couldn’t take their eyes off him. If Chris smiled, or said hello, they would break into giggles and laughter. I have to note that the women in Ethiopia are georgous. Absolutely beautiful. So I got more than a little jealous watching groups of georgous women swooning over Chris. I told Chris that he could have a very lucrative career in an Ethiopian boy band.

***Click Here to See More Ethiopia Pics at Our Flickr Site





Off the Beaten Path…and Praying to Find It Again

25 10 2008

Posted by: Chris

Travel Dates: 8.04.08- 8.06.08

Travel in Northern Mozambique is surely the toughest we’ve dealt with on the trip, and for a combination of reasons. 1) They cram tiny minibuses so tightly that people crawl out the windows to get out, as reaching the door isn’t a viable option. And we’ve taken the chicken buses in Central America, and nothing compares to this. 2) They stop every 100 ft to pick or drop people off. 3) Most buses leave at 4 or 4:30am in the morning, and if you miss it, your stuck for another 24 hours. 4) There’s a good chance the driver is drunk. 5) Your guaranteed to be quoted above the actual price and will need to argue it down before, and even after you arrive. Expect them to try to charge you for baggage at any chance (no one pays for baggage here). 6) The roads–when there are roads–are completely covered in potholes and the drivers actually veer off the road most the trip. 7) It’s hot. Real hot. And locals HATE opening the windows for some odd reason. 8.) You see where I’m going with this…

So given the difficulty of the above mentioned, we decided Ilha was fantastic…and as far North as we could stomach. Instead of 3 more days of solid travel in the above conditions just to get to the next place we wanted to go, I set up a Dhow (local sailboat) to take us across the bay to a secluded white sand beach. Sounds like a better plan right? Oh silly, silly Chris…

At least I got the price argued down ridiculously low, even locals who asked about it raised their eyebrows and commented that it was a good price, and they would not offer lower. We arrive at the dock at 9am, beautiful day, buy some necklaces before the Dhow sets sail and we’re off. Thirty minutes later we dock the boat on the sand and find ourselves walking to what seemed like the beach, and it looked spectacular with emerald green waters. But we kept walking, through a local village, mud-huts abound and children pointing and yelling “Acunya!”  They followed us for a bit till we found ourselves wading knee high in water, dodging freaky crabs and spiked urchins. An hour and half later we finally arrive at beachside hostel named Carushka. Looked fantastic; ok, so it was a long trip and a bit confusing but we made it here. Except they charged over twice as much as we were quoted, and we didn’t have the cash. And the nearest ATM was in Ilha and was broken for 4 days straight (not to mention we’d have to walk back, take the boat, then redo the journey all again, assuming of course the ATM was fixed).

I tried to explain to the guide who had led us to the hostel that we wanted to go to a place called Cabaciera, where there was cheaper accommodation. He said there were places to stay, and he’d take us there. Great. We follow him back an hour and a half to the original village, Laura sure they were leading us into the middle of nowhere to rob and kill us (joking, joking, relaaaax). The guide takes us to a local mudhut and, to the best of my knowledge, suggests it to us a place to stay. “Look, I like you and all, but I’m not sure this is quite what we had in mind.” I sat on the ground, made the guide sit next to me, and dropped our bags. 20 kids were gathered around us in a scene taken straight out of ‘Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom.’ The people spoke a local dialect, and a couple knew some Portuguese words. We spoke English and knew basic Spanish. To say we had communication problems is an understatement.

I finally managed to get across that we wanted to go where “cars are.” And food. So, we walk again. In the middle of nowhere passing mangroves, wading through water, passing local women who laughed and stared at in wonder as we passed. Apparently not a whole lot of tourists make it out there. Go figure. Sunburned, starving, and utterly lost we finally spot a restaurant and–finally–white people. At 3pm we order food and I go over and try and ask where in the love of God we are. Turns out we were at a Tourist College where they train locals for jobs in restaurants and hotels, and these people were working here. Carushka, the original beachsite, was 45 minutes away from here. Good to know. This was called Cabaceira Grande, and the tiny village the guide took us to was Cabaciera Pequena. Awesome news. They also informed us of a local ferry that costs pennies and would have taken us closer than the Dhow, which just poured salt on our wounds (and my ego). Granted we could never have found this place, but still. We bought lunch for the poor Dhow driver who carried Laura’s bag the whole afternoon (the other two boatmen fell off along the way), but we were emotionally conflicted since he was the genius that docked so far from the beach only to take us in completely the wrong direction all afternoon.

The owner of the Tourism college asked “did they drop you off in the middle of nowhere?” This wasn’t a rare situation for her. We hung out all afternoon talking with the workers and staying in the shade. Good folks there. They gave us a ride to Mossuril Bay where we could stay for the night and catch a Chapas (local mini-bus) out. For the little we saw of Carushka, it was the most beautiful beach all trip and had no one on it. The walk was also beautiful and truly untouched by tourism. Even Mossuril was a nice spot to relax, though we got stuck there for a couple days before hitching a ride from some of the workers heading to Nampula. In restrospect it was a unique experience: in restrospect. At the time I was pretty sure Laura was going to rip my curls off my scalp and pepper spray me. Oh, and the “Acunya” thing the kids were yelling at us? It means ‘white person.’ “Brothers, Sisters, look: white people! What in the hell are they doing here?” I don’t know kid, I really don’t know.

Click here to see our Pictures of Mossuril Bay, and middle of nowhere Mozambique***





Ilha de Moçambique

19 10 2008

Posted by: Chris

Travel Dates: 8.1.08-8.04.08

We jumped off the back of the truck just as the sun was going down in what looked like a city bombed and left for dead, where no one made it save a handful of survivors. Given the difficult travel and our beaten morale, we sat down for dinner at the one place we could find and wondered what in the world we had gotten ourselves into? Was this really why we came all the way here, this almost vacant, war-torn city? Right as we ordered, Laura turns and sees our favorite Danaguese couple strolling in for a Lobster dinner (to celebrate their 4th year dating). Amazing how good company and a few drinks can completely change the mood. They assured us the town looked different in the day and spoke excitedly of their experiences there, which got Laura and me pumped up again. We spent the rest of the night wandering around the blacked-out streets, finding our way to some local bar hidden in the middle of nowhere, discussing the genius of Tom Waits and Viking mythology.

Waking up in a more optimistic mood, we ventured out to see what Ilha de Moçambique was all about. The name translates as “Mozambique Island,” and was the capital for the Portuguese empire in Africa. It’s an island connected by a narrow causeway to the mainland with and unused white sand beach surrounding it (though one section is used as a public bathroom because the town is so poor and lacks basic infrastructure, and the locals see the beach as cleaner). Reedtown is about what it sounds to be: a bunch of reed huts grouped together, and is where most of the population lives.

Another section called Stonetown has a New Orleans appeal with old European architecture that’s been run down and left untouched for hundreds of years. Some houses have trees and vines growing in and around the doors and windows. All but a couple streets are dirt and there is trash littered everywhere. At night when you walk through the eerily quiet winding maze of Arab alleyways (there are no streetlamps mind you) you can catch the voices of locals who live inside the torn buildings, amongst the rubble. It sounds messed up and is, but there’s an otherworldly charm to it. Even the beautiful hospital in the middle of town looks untouched, but there are people still inside random rooms.

The setting fits perfectly into a warped Stephan King novel but it’s a deceptive vibe. In truth, the town is almost perfectly safe with next to no crime. 70% of the population is Muslim with numerous Mosques scattered about, and they live fairly harmoniously among Christians and the local traditions. The people are intelligent, respectful, and full of smiles. I spent 1.5 hours walking and talking with some local guy who told me all about town, even his girlfriend and family. When we got back to my hostel, we shook hands and said goodbye—it wasn’t about money or some favor (he never asked once), he just wanted to practice his English. Walking down the main street, we happened upon some parade with locals singing and dancing, grabbing us to get us to join in the celebration. And of course, the children–and I hate children–are beautiful. They just run up to you and hold your hand and want to walk wherever you’re going. Some yell whatever English words they know over and over (usually just ‘hello’) and laugh beside themselves the whole time. The Portuguese influence also extended to food, and here like most places in Mozambique you can get fresh seafood and be confident it will be prepared well. Our favorite is the giant prawns cooked in a garlic butter sauce.

There were many shipwrecks off the shore from the days when the island was a top African trading port (note: the inability for the Dutch to conquer Ilha from Portugal is what led to the founding of Capetown). Much of the wreckage is still underwater, explored only limitedly by archaeology teams and random Europeans that come down to dive. Old goods wash to the shore: pottery, beads, etc. The kids take the beads and make necklaces out of them. They said they used to just go to the beach and they were everywhere, but now they have to dig and look for them. Even as we walked along the beach I picked several pieces of centuries old pottery shards.

At the time of our visit there are a handful of hostels, 2 nice hotels, 2 restaurants (and 1 local spot), 1 hidden bar, and 1 small tourist shop to buy handicrafts. And this is by far the most touristy spot in Northern Mozambique. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and money is being funneled here to build tourism. The secret charm will probably not last all that long, so go now while you can. Ilha ranks up there with Torres del Paine as my favorite place on our trip, and I cannot adequately explain the strange/unsettling/beautiful/fascinating time-warp that is Mozambique Island. Walking in Ilha is like walking into another century—It just doesn’t seem real. Yes, it’s dirty and poor, littered with trash, falling apart before your eyes, and lacks even the most basic human comforts for the majority of the population there–which can be shocking if you aren’t prepared for it.

But just trust me on this one: it’s one of those special places that you search for as a backpacker but almost never find. Most of those romantic images in your head of far-flung and exotic destinations are usually over-westernized, and not all that exotic. Local charm and traditions replaced by organized tourist shows and English brochures, with locals fighting each other to sell you trinkets the moment you step off the bus (often climbing into the bus to get get the 1st word). Ilha isn’t completely undiscovered, but it’s as close as you’re gonna get these days.

So let’s recap: you could get an old run down beautiful colonial place, buy a sailboat and fish for crabs/lobsters/huge prawns/oysters/fish, and take an hour sail ride to perhaps the most beautiful white sand beach we’ve ever seen and be virtually alone. When you get bored, go dive for real life sunken treasure, or have a drink with some of the most welcoming people in all of Africa. Not a bad life.

Note from Laura: If you don’t normally check our pictures because you think you’re too busy, then stop watching your stocks drop and look at these. It’s worth your time. We’ve made it easy. Just click below.

Check out Pictures of Ilha de Moçambique at our Flickr Site***





Cape Town and The Garden Route

20 09 2008

Posted by: Chris

Travel Dates : 6.30.08 – 7.6.08

Aaaahhhhhh–Africa!

We had a couple days of sunshine when we first arrived in Cape Town before the rains came (5 days straight), and used them to wander around the city and take a cable car up Table Mountain: a flat-topped mountain in the middle of town that afforded views down on the beautiful beaches and buildings of the city. Cape Town is situated almost right at the tip where the Indian and Pacific oceans collide, and the beauty eased the pain of leaving Buenos Aires.

The Aquarium in town has some of the freakiest creatures in the sea, in particular the behemoth crabs and a mantis-thing that is strong enough to break the glass if it so felt like. They also had Penguins which at first glance we assumed were fake until they started waddling around, and of course tons of cool looking fish.

Food here is a highlight, not necessarily a local cuisine but there are tons of high quality international restaurants. One of our favorite meals was at an Ethiopian Restaurant named Addis in Cape, which almost single-handedly got us to include Ethiopia on our trip. The food comes out on a giant pancake called injera which is used to soak up the sauces (no utensils). The second place was called Africa Cafe, a tourist spot that served traditional African dishes in a community feast setting. Top notch service as the women explained every dish in detail. Their face makeup and colorful clothing made it hard not to stare–the women here are gorgeous–and as I turned to Laura to make sure I wasn’t getting myself in trouble with my googly eyes, I realized she was staring too.

There wasn’t a whole lot to do besides eat during the rainy days so we moved onto what’s known as the Garden Route, a popular stretch along the southern coast. 1st stop was Outdshoorn where we got to ride Ostriches and later on, eat some too. To ride, they put a bag over the Ostrich’s head as you climb on back, grasp under their wings, and wrap your legs underneath. They remove the blindfold, slap it on the rear, and see how long you can stay on. Their eggs are huge and strong and could probably be used as projectile weapons if need be (Laura coincidentally sent a couple home, for what reasons I’ve yet to figure out). Their eyeballs are larger than their brains, which nominates these overgrown birds for “Dumbest Animal on the Planet” award.

We also took a day trip around the area to the Cango Caves, for anyone interested in gigantic caverns with uncomfortably small passageways. I’m still not sure how I fit through some of the holes in there(to quote Laura, I’m “about as limber as a beetle”).

Knysna (have fun pronouncing that) is a small coastal town with a great arts and craft scene. We lucked upon it during their annual oyster festival and being the New Orleans fan I am, we partook in a few varieties. Not much going on, but we had a great time checking out the local goods and we even bought a painting (kinda) that was shipped the cheapest way we could (maximum of 3 months…we shall see). Plettenberg Bay was next, a beach town that is popular with surfers. We don’t surf and the water is freezing right now, so we didn’t plan to stay long but Laura got pretty sick, and we laid low for a few days catching up on internet.  We also checked out Monkeyland and Birds of Paradise, two nature reserves where we saw tons of animals up close and got plenty of pictures.

Our last stop was Storms River, where we bungee jumped off the Bloukrans bridge. This is known as the “Highest Bungee Jump in the World” at a horrifying 216 meters high. The company was very professional and safe though, and our friend Bob had done it also. There isn’t much time to debate once they tie your feet together, as they quickly move you to the ledge where you are given a 3-count and “helped” down. You can tell the people who weren’t sure they wanted to jump because on “3” they bent their knees and then sorta just fell off the edge. Hey, it takes some nerve (and perhaps lack of intelligence) to stare down into a river 200 meters below and jump into a free-fall.

We got very frustrated with the local Hostel network here, most people would do and say anything to keep you in their hostel eating their food, drinking their beer, and taking their overpriced tours. It was a nightmare trying to get anyone to help us out with directions or explain how to get from place to place with public transport, they will tell you there is no way and that you have to take private shuttles (which they just happen to offer, of course). Some go as far as to say the food in town is unsanitary or tastes terrible. Lies. You can get around with a few notable hiccups here and there (Bloukrans Bridge being one of them) and it is easy and much cheaper, and the food excellent. Most importantly, you need to break away from the protected backpacker circuit because the locals are as friendly as people get. Helpful, happy, with huge grins and a genuine concern for making sure we were taken care of. Meeting South Africans is reason enough to visit.

There are of course still racial tensions in S. Africa, after all it hasn’t been all that long since the Apartheid era. People can’t thank Nelson Mandela enough for what he did. But you can’t ignore the gigantic disparity between rich and poor, and white and black. Much of the black population still lives in Townships, which are underdeveloped “urban living areas” outside of cites where non-whites were forcibly moved to during Apartheid. Crime is incredibly high and most wealthy whites we talked to, especially restaurant or store owners, generally felt afraid. Everything has locks even during the daytime, and you have to be buzzed into the stores. There is a constant tension, and many whites will talk about how the black ruled government is corrupt and running the country into the ground (these same people condemn the racist history and praise Mandela, one woman saying she and her husband “we’re there cutting the ribbon” at his inauguration). Certainly there is a huge white flight with many of the young and educated jetting off to Australia.

There’s a strange similarity between South Africa and the Southern US. A few times I wanted to smack someone (one kid in Plettenberg Bay especially) for the same types of “my daddy told me this, so I don’t need to form my own opinion” racism that can be found in parts of my hometown in Mississippi, and no doubt across the United States. But if we’ve learned one thing on this trip, it’s that people are the same everywhere: which means there are a lot of stupid people everywhere, and they generally are the ones that get quoted in the newspaper.  But: I also saw white and black eating together, working together, laughing and drinking together like there wasn’t a problem in the world. The times they are a’changing, many in South Africa are still fighting for a better country and are trying to repair the damage that’s been done and build an image of a “New South Africa.” Too early to tell what will happen, but count me as someone who’s planning to come backand see.

Click here to see pictures of Cape Town and the Garden Route at our Flickr Site***





From Jail To a 5 Star Hotel

8 09 2008

Posted by: Chris

Travel dates: 6.14.08

For Laura’s birthday, she wanted to relax on a white sand beach drinking fruity drinks and swimming in crystal clear water. For my birthday, we went inside a prison. To each his own. After some very strange phone calls I finally managed to set up a meeting with a South African inmate named Stewart who is currently serving a few years at San Pedro prison for drug trafficking. Several years ago they used to have tours inside the jail until, you can imagine, it got too dangerous. Mostly people were buying cocaine inside and taking it out, plus a few more violent incidents. So no more tours. Except in the last year, some of the foreign inmates have managed to convince the guards to let some people inside again. Which brings me back to how we ended up here. We heard about it from our tour guide in Salta, Argetina and I thought that it would be a unique experience. Once in La Paz, we talked to a group who went in that included women who said it was completely safe, so Laura decided she wanted onboard.

The prison is divided into two main sections: one safe to visit, and the one not. When inmates first arrive they are given free lodging for 3 months in the “nicer” section. After that time they have to pay to stay, and if they can’t scrape together the money they get sent to other other side where we weren’t allowed to go because Stewart and Co. “couldn’t guarantee our safety.” There are no cells, no lurking guards, nothing that you would expect from a typical jail. Everyone works: this includes making crafts, selling food, cleaning, whatever they can. Some of the wealthier inmates even have 2 story lofts that, while resembling a worn down cement college dorm room, are super-comfortable considering they are incarcerated. Consider it a self-policed society existing inside the stone walls.

Stewart himself is quite a character. He has spent time in multiple prisons including a maximum security one in Pakistan that housed members of the Taliban. He and a fellow inmate staged an escape and reached the top of the wall before realizing they were surrounded by desert without any clue which direction the nearest town was (which was 8 hours away by car going in a straight line). But he got out legally soon after, only to skip bail in South Africa for other charges before landing in San Pedro, his 2nd prison in S. America. He hasn’t actually been charged with anything yet since every time he goes to court he speaks Africaans–a language similar to Dutch– and pretends to now know English (there are no translators in Bolivia for Africaans). 3 years so far without a trail, but he’s hoping to get out soon.

So we spent a few hours talking about the prison, and the lives of the inmates, most of whom feel very lucky to be there and not in a worse place. They still make cocaine in the prison which you are free to use while inside (no taking outside or else you will become the newest member of San Pedro). They claim there is 0% homosexuality since they are allowed to bring prostitutes in–the cost being between the them and the working girl. Many families stay inside the prison, the women and children able to come and go as they please while the husband remaining. The woman’s prison in town is not so nice a place to end up however.

We parted ways, a bit conflicted. I felt like many of the inmates liked us and they seemed eager for us too stay and talk, and were quite friendly and safe to us the whole time. Problem? Most are drug dealers. Hard drugs. And kind or not, it’s hard to feel too friendly when you think about what that really means, and see some of the people strung out on the road the way we have on this trip. We shook hands and smiled, thanked them for the experience with a bag of snacks and candy (which go to the kids), sodas, some cigarettes, and Pringles. One whacked out inmate complained I got the wrong flavor. Turns out he was the one who I spoke with during all the weird phone calls.

To finish the Birthday celebration, we took a taxi to a 5-star hotel equipped with a sauna, pool, hot water showers and a TV in the room. The staff even snuck in a tiny birthday cake for me, as I lounged in laziness with clean pores and cable TV. We only left the hotel for dinner–sushi–before coming back. After the prison experience earlier, nothing went unappreciated.

Check out the pics from La Paz at our Flickr site***





Did Smurfs Create Machu Picchu?

25 08 2008

Posted by: Chris

Travel date: 5.30.08

If you are thinking about seeing Machu Picchu and have heard it is too touristy or that the number of people there ruin the experience, then you have heard wrong. To miss this archaeological wonder (if you have the opportunity) is akin to going to Paris and missing the Louvre, skipping the British Museum in London, or taking a vacation to the beach and staying in the room all day because there are, how dare they, other people already laying out. There’s a reason people go to these places: they’re friggin’ amazing! And Machu Picchu deserves its place among the great wonders of the world. 

First off, we cheated. Many people hike the Inca Trail, a supposedly beautiful multi-day trek past several lesser known Incan sites before reaching the top. Everyone we spoke to that did it said it was amazing and worth the $350 USD it now costs. Of course if I paid that much there’s no way I would come back and say, “Well, it was ok I guess.” Instead we took the train to Aguas Calientes (or as Ludwig would say in his heavy German accent: “Machu Picchu TOOOOOOWWWWWWWNN!”) and then bused up a winding mountain. The surrounding Andes jut straight up into the sky with an unusual lack of symmetry. They bunch togther in a shockingly tall green mass with the bases being barely wider than the tops. The ruins rest along the flat top of one of these aforementioned mountains, a remote setting that makes obvious why it was never discovered by the Spanish. It’s just crazy looking. The archaeologist in me marveled at what it must have first felt like for Hiram Bingham to have been, upon hearing rumors of some lost ancient city in the sky, led by locals through dense jungle to the top of a mountain to find this place, still inhabited (though his “discovery” is still debated).   

 

Some other poor souls actually got up while still dark and hiked up in order to see the ruins without tourists and to watch the sunrise.  Sadly, the morning fog, which burned off by the afternoon, blocks any potential views of the sun and many people were passed out on the grass by the time we got there (9am).  While there were tour groups around by the time we made it, not all that many.  Certainly nothing compared to any major site or museum in Europe and we had plenty of times where no other travelers were around us.    

Take a look at the scenic pictures of the ruins and notice the large mountain towering over in the background: that is another site named Huayna Picchu, which we hiked up to see.  It’s not for those with a fear of heights or need for safe railings, but the view is quite nice.  The Incan people were not very large and after using their tiny steps and midget doors I’ve come to believe there were the inspiration for the Smurfs (I’m even working on an Anthropology dissertation which links the blue skin of the Smurfs to local Incan body paint).

 

The area around Cuzco is called the Sacred Valley and is host to several other Incan sites.  None are particularly exciting compared to Machu Picchu but make for nice day trips, including Písac, Ollantaytambo, Moray, and Tipon.  The gigantic stones used are unique and can be found even in the city of CuzcoThey built an advanced irrigation system supporting terraced farming which was clever to say the least (though oddly never used the wheel in engineering). 

At Tipon, we ducked in a local restaurant where they served “cuy,” or in English: guinea pig.  It might be a pet back in the States, but here it is considered a culinary delicacy, served whole like lobster with herbs stuffed inside alongside a few organs that didn’t make it out.  Some sellers get creative and stage elaborate scenes with different (cooked) cuy fighting each other.  Hey, I said before I don’t discriminate, the cute animals are just as likely to end up in my stomach as the ugly ones (after all, it’s what’s on the inside that truly matters).  I did enjoy the flavor (even if a bit salty), but there isn’t all that much meat compared to how hard you work to get it.  Kinda like crawfish in that regard.  Another similarity between cuy and crawfish is that you can look into their dead eyes as you eat them.  Yea, yea, I know.  Just add it to the list of things I’ll be burning in hell for…   

 

  Click here to see Machu Picchu pics at Flickr***