Friday, October 23, 2009
(Jay and Tyler standing atop Table Mountain, Cape Town)
Nearly four months after leaving Addis Ababa, Ethiopia we have arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, our final destination before heading home to the States. Along with college friend and new traveling partner Kevin, we departed on what would be our final leg of the journey, from Durban to Cape Town, nearly three weeks ago with the intention of seeing and doing as much as we could in South Africa. The country surely did not disappoint.
To begin with, transportation was the easiest it has been the entire trip; by a long shot. Most trips were made on luxurious buses (with a few others in the back of pick-up trucks), many double-decker and all with reclining seats. We also were able to do all of our own grocery shopping and cooking, and hold conversations in English. Small things to be sure, but incredibly refreshing considering the rest of the trip.
Our first destination after Durban was the world-renown surfing town of Jefferey's Bay. Home to Supertubes, apparently one of the best waves in the world (neither of us are surfers), and plenty of surfer "brus" (South African lingo for bro), "Jay Bay" offered all the amenities, and parties, of a town catering to the x-games crowd.
From there we headed back inland to the small town of Storms River. This tiny community hidden away in the forests that lay beneath jagged mountains is almost entirely made up of backpacker accommodations. It was strange to be in a place where almost everyone was a tourist as opposed to the rest of the Africa where outsiders were few and far between. It rained almost everyday we were there but we were able to venture into, and up the mountains which held amazing views of Storms River and the ocean alike.
(Storms River, South Africa)
It was a quick ride from Storms River to the Bloukrans Bride, the highest bridge in Africa and one equipped with the world's highest bungy jump. Kevin and I made the leap which was amazing but, I must admit, the adrenaline rush paled in comparison to almost all of our bus trips outside of South Africa.
Onward to Plettenberg Bay, a place we had initially planned on using as a place to find transport but turned into another awe-inspiring experience. With time to kill we hiked out onto the Robberg Peninsula. There, from the top of hundred foot cliffs, we watched whales and seals swimming in the Indian Ocean. We never did see the Great White shark attack on a seal as we were told we might, but the land-based whale-watching was well worth the long and hot hike.
(Tyler, Kevin and Jay on Robberg Peninsula)
From "Plett" we took an all night bus to the university and wine town of Stellenbosch, just 30 miles outside of Cape Town. After glimpsing Table Mountain in the distance, the icon that towers over and whose image defines Cape Town, we arrived in perhaps the most beautiful town of the entire journey. Stellenbosch is the second oldest city in South Africa and the place where Afrikaans, the creole Dutch that is widely spoken throughout the country, was codified. Today Stellenbosch still smacks of its colonial past with Cape Dutch architecture and old oak trees making up the majority of the town. It is also situated in the middle of wine country. Vineyards crawl up the side of the massive rocky peaks that surround the town. While in Stellenbosch we figured we should experience what it is most famous for today and took a wine tasting tour of the region. Quite the eye-opening and cultural experience for three beer drinkers without an ounce of knowledge about the delicacy.
Whenever Jay and I have fallen into rough patches during this trip the conversation has turned to what it would be like to enter Cape Town, our final destination. We left Stellenbosch aboard a train that would take us this final step and watched as Table Mountain got closer and closer. Finally, we pulled into Cape Town's train station 110 days after departing Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While it may not have hit us immediately that we had made it, excitement quickly overtook disbelief. But Cape Town itself held much for us to do and see. Over the past few days we have hiked Table Mountain, visited the first sites of Dutch colonization (the garden and castle built to supply ships heading to and from the far east and Europe) and enjoyed the world class beaches.
All of this may sound quite luxurious, and to be sure, South Africa is a holiday paradise. But in all of our travels here images of a troubled past and crime-riddled present were omnipresent. Outside of every city we stayed in were townships, legacies of Apartheid and home to people as poor as in any other country we have visited. As one white South African told us, "it is a first world country with third world problems." I think that some of those living in the townships may see it as a third world country with first world opulence. South Africa is home to a bizarre duality of the super wealthy and the incredibly poor and this all-too obvious juxtaposition makes it apparent why the country has one of the highest crime rates in the world.
It has certainly been a long, oftentimes hair raising, but overall incredibly rewarding journey. We leave today back for the US and both agree that while it will be nice to have a consistent bed to sleep in we will miss our torn up tent and bulky bags.
Our trip is nearly over but stay tuned as we will finish this blog with one more post with our final thoughts about the journey.
Monday, October 5, 2009
As we have traveled further and further south in Africa we have noticed a steady improvement in the quality of infrastructure (with just a few exceptions). This change has been especially true when it comes to transportation. We left Mozambique, a place where load limits (and showers) were optional, in a double-decker coach bus. We each had our own seat, no chickens were allowed on board, and there was a restroom on board so stopping in open fields for bathroom breaks was unnecessary.
Our trip to the South African border took less than 2 hours and the crossing was quick, efficient and no attempt was made at extortion. From there we moved past the famed Kruger National Park towards Johannesburg, a place we swore off even before the trip but had to pass through if we hoped to make it to our next destination, Durban. After a surrealy comfortable ride we arrived in what is widely considered the most dangerous city in the world, at 5am. Fortunately the bus station was more like an airport and we were not forced onto the streets for our six hour layover. Whenever we have met a South African during our travels we have asked if there are any redeeming qualities that would make a longer stay in Johannesburg worth while. No one gave us a positive response including a friendly gentlemen in the bus station who told us quite explicitly to stay inside. So we did.
(Early morning arrival in Johannesburg, South Africa)
Six eventless hours later and we were back on a double-decker coach heading out of Jo-burg on our way to the coastal city of Durban.
The scenery along the way helped to confirm that South Africa truly does have incredibly beautiful and diverse terrain. The trip started in flat, but green, farmland. Cattle mixed with antelope and even ostrich on many ranches. Flat-topped peaks reminiscent of the American southwest broke the landscape intermittently.
After a stop at a rest area replete with all the amenities (including a KFC) we dropped off a high plateau into the foothills of the Drankensberg Mountains. It was quite pleasant descending a mountain road that, for once, was not littered with the wreckage of the poorly equipped and inadequately manned vehicles we saw too frequently in East Africa. As the sun began to set we entered coastal rain forests and soon, the city of Durban.
We have now spent five days in Durban, a city that is incalculably more developed than any other place we have visited in Africa. In fact, it took us this long to find an internet cafe because as in the States, most people here have access to internet in their homes and offices.
The city is also incredibly diverse with a large percentage of its population of Indian descent. The juxtaposition of African, European and Asian culture makes Durban a colorful city. However, an incredibly obvious gap between the wealthy and the poor (most of which remains along racial lines) make it a very divided city. The area where our hostel is located could probably pass as a posh southern Californian suburb. The population around the hostel is almost uniformly white. Just a few minutes walk away though, is a dangerous "red zone" known for violence.
Our time here has been relaxing but considerably less exciting than the rest of our trip. It is just far too easy to get a simple ride across town, find drinkable water (tap water is safe!), or even wash our clothes. Staying in a family-style backpackers hostel completes an illusion that makes this part of South Africa feel far closer to the U.S. than the rest of Africa we have experienced.
The highlight of our stay in Durban, to this point, was attending a professional South African rugby game. The tailgating started early with traditional South African boerwors (beef sausage), and tossing a rugby ball around with a young fan who thought we talked funny. The game itself was incredibly entertaining as our general admission tickets put us right on the sideline as massive men mashed each other just a few feet away.
(Pretty decent seats at a Durban pro rugby match)
From here we head south along the coast with our final destination, Cape Town, just days away!
Saturday, September 26, 2009
I wrote in our last post that we thought we may end up spending more time than expected in Mozambique. Oh how true that has proved. What was supposed to be a thirty hour bus ride turned into a ten day adventure and we have only just arrived here in Maputo, the southerly capital of Mozambique.
After a few extra days in the quiet and friendly city of Quilemene, we met up with some South African expats who were heading south. We were excited about a free and comfortable ride but had no idea just how fortuitous this encounter was.
The highlight of our first day of travel was crossing the brand new, massive bridge that spans the famed Zambezi River. At the insistence of the South Africans we stopped to get a closer look at the crocodile-filled river but only got within a few feet before a large rustling in the grass turned us back to the safety of the "bucky" (South African slang for pick-up tuck). A few hills and distant ridges were all there was for scenery for the rest of the day as Mozambique is a ratherflat country. The thick jungle next to the road did cause thoughts of what could be lurking within them, however. At one point we got a taste, literally. Stopping at the side of the road where men ran to the truck with long pieces of meet we sampled a piece of mystery
game. It was delicious but we still had no idea what it was. Stopping a few minutes later we met another meat-hawker who spoke some English. He was selling gazelle but informed us as to what we had tasted earlier. Monkey.
In choosing to travel with these new friends we had put a bit of our fate in their hands. That night we had no idea where we would end up staying. As the sun turned brilliantly red at dusk we pulled into the Gorongosa National Park where we met up with a few other South Africans who were there to build a safari lodge. We ended up camping out and braaiing (a braai is a traditional South African barbeque) in the game park, one of the more incredible places we have camped. After a great night of sleep, uninterrupted by either lions or elephants, we were brought to a natural education center that was also being constructed within the park. An American tycoon who fell in love with Mozambique and its wildlife donated $40 million to protect the park. The education center is meant as a training center for both school children and locals to learn how to conserve the impressive natural diversity that surrounds them.
Traveling with South Africans and it being Saturday, rugby day, we did not rush on to Maputo but headed to Mozambique's second-city, Beira. There we met even more of the extended South African expat community and settled into a bar located on an Indian Ocean
beach to watch rugby. Unfortunately, the start of the rainy season in this part of the world brings with it huge winds and on this day they were wreaking havoc on the television’s reception. No way were South African’s going to miss out on their rugby, though. The palms blocking the front of the satellite dish were quickly chopped down and the party went on.
We spent the weekend in Beira and were treated to unbelievable hospitality. The first night we were invited to a birthday party and the next day, after a few hours at the local motocross club, another braai was held. Beira itself turned out to be not much to speak of, but with incredible food and amazing people we had a great time!
Moving on from Beira we all decided that it was not worth the hassle of pushing straight through to Maputo as it could take close to 20 hours on terrible roads. Instead, we traveled down the coast to the town of Maxixe (ma-sheesh) where Jay and I spent the night in an old camper. Having been told by every South African that we had met that we should not be too hasty with our time in Mozambique, it was here that we departed with our friends. They left for home in Maputo and we hopped a ferry across the Bay of Inhambane to the city of Inhambane.
Inhambane is a quiet and quite beautiful little town. Unlike Beira, Quilemene or Maputo the traditional Portuguese architecture does not have to compete with massive Soviet-style block apartments. Instead small cafes and aging churches lend a Mediterranean feel to the town. The florescent blue water of the bay certainly does not detract from the illusion.
From Inhambane we started our trek out to Praia da Tofo on the other side of the peninsula and on the Indian Ocean. After a good 5km walk we hopped on a local bus and soon arrived in Tofo, another incredibly beautiful bay. We camped on the beach for a night and spent another in a very neat, beachside hut all the while treated to incredible ocean views. The bay which Tofo is situated on is known as one of the best places in the world for diving. Manta rays, whale sharks and humpback whales all call these waters home. Although our budget did not allow for an ocean safari we could see whales breaching just a few hundred meters from shore.
After a few days on the beach we turned back to Inhambane and set our sites, finally, on Maputo. We spent another night in Inhambane and then boarded an early morning bus to Maputo. The ride was exactly what we expected and we could have asked for nothing more of our last leg before South Africa. An overcrowded bus and a couple hundred stops (including a few for the bus driver - who had honked his horn impatiently at a little girl as she tried to drag her bag off the bus - to smoke a cigarette) made for a long, 10 hour drive.
Nonetheless, we are here in Maputo and the worst of African public transportation is behind us (knock on wood). We were promised by the South Africans we met that we would be treated to air conditioned coach buses with capacity limits from here to Cape Town!
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Another week and another border crossing. After spending plenty enough time to become very familiar with the small city of Blantyre, Malawi we decided to move on to Mozambique. Feeling that the typical backpacker's route through the city of Tete was overused and not quite interesting enough we headed for the Milanje border hoping to find transport south. The ride there proved eventful.
We left Blantyre early in the morning and actually had an easy enough time finding a friendly driver heading for the border. Soon his minivan filled with 25+ people and we were firmly implanted between several people who have clearly had less access to a shower than we have over the past few months. There have been some interesting smells in Africa, but this ride certainly tops them. We also left figuring we could get water along the way as we have in every other location. However, after buying and immediately tossing a bottle that had clearly been tampered with (the top and the bottle didn't even match) we arrived at the border with no water.
Along the way we were treated to some of Malawi's most beautiful countryside. Massive tea plantations rolled through the foothills to Mount Milanje. A 10,000 foot peak that is supposedly guarded by spirits; although apparently paying for a guide to help you up the mountain takes care of that problem.
We crossed the border without issue. On the Mozambique side we were able to grab a ride in a pickup to the bus stand where a truck was leaving for the town of Mocuba. Mocuba was south so we hopped on. This van also did not have a capacity limit and we were crushed into a row with two other people (one of which was an old woman who was horrified to be sitting next to white people) and our massive packs. The temperature rose as the trip went on and still we had no water.
This part of the trip had little scenery and turned into one of our longest short trips so far. It took 4 hours to reach Mocuba on dusty, potholed, dirt roads. Once in Mocuba, relieved that our legs that had been cramping of most of the morning still worked, we were happy to give the local grocery store plenty of business.
One of the first things we noticed about Mozambique was the massive Portuguese influence. Portugal ruled Mozambique for over 400 years. Today, Portuguese is the official national language and Iberian culture pervades everything from architecture to cuisine (much to our liking).
From Mocuba we caught another bus, this one bigger but incredibly, even more packed with people, livestock and produce, to Quilemene. This ride was a bit shorter than the last and on paved roads, but an angry man yelling in our ears the entire time and the 5 or 6 people crushed into each row made it seem just a bit longer.
We arrived in Quilemene planning to catch a bus straight to the capital of Maputo. We inquired with the one guy at the bus station who spoke English and he told us it was a thirty, yes thirty, hour trip in similar conditions. Needless to say we decided to spend the night and reevaluate our options.
After a great meal at one of Quilemene's Portugese-style cafes we checked into the Pensao Quilemene, a hotel that will surely live on as one of the most infamous of our trip. Stained sheets and curious packaging under our beds made our sleeping bags absolutely necessary but the extreme heat made them useless. It would have been fine to sleep on them except for the swarm of mosquitoes that invade the room every night.
Although the hotel in Quilemene was a bit rough and transportation has been nearly as bad as Ethiopia (at least they open windows here) we have both loved our time in Mozambique so far. Quilemene is a smaller city located on a river 25km from the Indian Ocean. The unique mix of Portuguese and Soviet architecture is intriguing, the people are incredibly friendly and hospitable (although no one speaks English), the food is fantastic, and between our combined but incredibly limited knowledge of French and Spanish we have very quickly picked up a working knowledge of Portuguese. We are also the only foreigners in town and it appears that we are the first outsiders to arrive for some time. People here are more curious and ready to lend a hand than interested in our wallets.
We hope to head South to Maputo today or tomorrow, and hopefully in a rented car instead of a bus. While South Africa is just a few travel days away, it looks like we may end up spending a bit longer than expected in Mozambique.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Malawi has continued to hold true to its claim of being "the warm heart of Africa" as we continued on from Lilongwe over the past few days. From the capital we traveled east to the town of Monkey Bay situated on the shores of Lake Malawi. Although we were told it was called Monkey Bay because there were actually a lot of monkeys, we never saw any. From there we hopped a Malawian taxi, or an overflowing flatbed truck, for the additional 15 bumpy miles to Cape Maclear.
Cape Maclear is a small, hot, dusty town; not much different from many other African villages we have visited. However, once you make your way through the fish market you arrive at the source of its existence, Lake Malawi. Cape Maclear's shores give way to impossibly clear water and islands that bear a resemblance to the West Indies.
We camped on the beach here for two days and were talked into snorkeling with a new Scottish friend. After a quick kayak out to one of the nearby islands we plunged into incredibly serene waters packed with what is said to be the highest diversity of fish anywhere in the world. Thousands of brightly colored fish, and the occasional crab, painted a picture more resembling the Great Barrier Reef than central Africa. We were rewarded for our challenging day on the water with an incredible sunset and an evening watching the Scottish soccer team with one of their world famous fans.
We reluctantly pulled ourselves away from Cape Maclear the next day and hopped another flatbed to Monkey Bay and another from there to Mangochi. Mangochi was not exactly representative of the Malawi we had come to know. Drunken men everywhere berated us with incredibly colorful American slang before ripping their shirts off and getting into an amusing slap-fight with each other. Fortunately we made it out of Mangochi without getting slapped ourselves and headed for Blantyre. The unfortunate part was the two massive bags of fish that were crammed into our van. We were nauseated but were redeemed when even the Malawians we were riding with couldn't stand the stench.
We arrived in Blantyre last evening and found our way to a popular bar/restaurant/campground. Blantyre is the financial capital of Malawi but you would never know how important the city is by simply walking the streets. They are absent of any sort of street vendors and almost eerily quiet, even during midday. Much to our liking we immediately stumbled upon an Ethiopian restaurant where we have already become favorite regulars.
The next step in our journey will be a bit more complicated than Malawi has been. We will be moving on to Maputo, Mozambique via a transportation system that we were warned is nearly nonexistent.
Although Malawi has been amazing, we are excited to get back to the coast!
Monday, September 7, 2009
It is truly amazing the effect a border crossing can have on a person. The excitement of leaving one country for another is always mixed with a bit of trepidation of the unknown, but in the end, there is little more rewarding than having a fresh stamp punched in your passport. This was certainly the case for us as we passed from Tanzania into Malawi a few days ago.
We spent an unexpectedly grueling day - our supposed 10 hour bus trip turned into a 16 1/2 hour marathon - traveling through southern Tanzania. The scenery was again, quite beautiful and we even saw a few elephants as we climbed into the highlands before descending back to the hills around the northern tip of Lake Malawi. Other than the length of the trip it was actually quite uneventful and proved to us once again that Tanzania, more than any other country we had visited, truly is on the right track. The roads (other than some construction) are perfect, bus parks are relatively hassle free, and beautiful schools with covered walkways from building to building, line the roadside. Of course, we have no allusions that Tanzania is a rich or problem free country, but it was nice to see the early stages of effective development.
After a very brief rest in a hotel in the small town of Kyela, Tanzania we woke early to make it to the border and hopefully catch a bus. In fact, we were too early, but after a breakfast in no-man's-land (there was a decent stretch between the two border posts) we walked into Malawi. Kudos to Malawi on good first impressions. We payed no visa fee after paying $100 each to enter Tanzania.
The friendliness of Malawi was evident immediately upon entering the country. We were sent in the right direction by some police officers and rode with an ever-laughing cab driver to a nearby town. From there we caught a bus for Mzuzu, about half way to our destination of Lilongwe. The trip followed the shore of Lake Malawi for most of the way before climbing into the arid mountains that line the coast. The landscape was nice, definitely not as spectacular as some of the places we had seen in East Africa, but the people more than made up for it. Our first observation was that it seemed everyone was smiling or laughing. And whats more, not one person tried to rip us off!
Six hours later we arrived in Mzuzu and immediately boarded another bus for Lilongwe. Like Tanzania the roads were great and the towns seemed even neater and more orderly. The only thing that struck us as negative about our first day in Malawi was the massive amounts of deforestation we passed along the way from Mzuzu to Lilongwe. Once we left the lake shore small, beautiful forests gave way to massive swaths of downed timber. As Malawi is a very poor country the scene certainly posed the question of how to go about balanced, controlled and responsible development; a question that all African nations are struggling with. The devastation went on for hours but our attention was soon robbed as the bus driver switched the radio station to the Malawi World Cup qualifying game against Guinea. The people listened intently to the rabid announcer as he switched from English to the local language and back again as he became more and more excited. In the end Malawi won 2-1 and the bus celebrated with smiles and polite clapping.
We finally arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi's administrative capital, just as it became dark and had little time or energy left to do anything but put up our tent. Having not seen much of the town we spent all of yesterday wandering the streets. A guidebook we glanced at in Tanzania had called Lilongwe "the most mundane of African capitals," and we would probably agree. It is quiet, the streets are clean, and the typical hawkers and street vendors are almost entirely absent. So, a suggestion to the guidebook writers: change the entry for Lilongwe to, "wonderfully mundane." We were able to walk around town, largely ignored, eat a great meal and even go grocery shopping at an "American-style" shop; a true luxury at this point and something that we could not have imagined even a few days ago. Today we wandered through the wood carvings market (there are some incredible pieces that we wish we had the bag space to bring with us) and were not pestered more than being invited to look at each person's stall.
We will camp in Lilongwe again tonight, probably lulled to sleep by the laughing of the hyena's that wander right into town, before heading back toward Lake Malawi tomorrow morning. We plan on spending a day or two before heading southwards towards Mozambique. Happy Labor Day to everyone and best wishes to all of you starting a new school year!
Thursday, September 3, 2009
For most people a week on a quiet, palm-shaded, white sand beach sounds like heaven. However, for Jay and I our "vacation" did not turn out to be the relaxed pit-stop we had envisioned. Instead, after two days camping on a beautiful beach in Pangani we were ready to move on. Unfortunately, our goal of reaching Zanzibar turned out to be far too expensive to justify and we turned our eyes South instead of to the islands. Nonetheless, in the most fortunate turn of events since the start of our trip we met the "Roving Bonkers" at our waterside campsite and were treated to far and away the most comfortable leg of our trip.
The Roving Bonkers are Graham and Rosie Everett, an incredible couple from England and Ireland (respectively) who have spent much of the past decade traveling the world (check out their site and their car, www.rovingbonkers.com). They have done much of this traveling in a converted Land Cruiser that was initially designed as a rocket launcher for the British Army. Jay and I were incredibly lucky to be able to hop a ride with the Everett's from Pangani to a great campsite 7 hours further south where we camped on even whiter sands next to even more turquoise waters. It was also great to talk soccer with Graham and amazing to eat some of Rosie's home cooking! We can not thank them enough! Yet, once again, we had a harder time relaxing by the water than being squished in a public bus or hassled on crowded streets.
Thus, we moved on again today, back up north a few miles to Tanzania's largest city (not the capital, that would be Dodoma) Dar es Salaam. Dar has definitely thrown us back into our acquired comfort zone of heat, stench and inconvenience. Just to give you a taste, we inquired with a "travel agent" about a bus ticket to Malawi. He told us $90 each. Feeling that we were being quoted with "muzungu" or white tourist prices we went to a more reputable travel agency. The real price? $25.
Dar appears to be a great city, however, with beautiful colonial architecture "africanized" with vibrant, pastel paints. The streets are calmer than the other large cities we have visited and the taxi drivers far less aggressive. Whether it is the nearby water, or perhaps just the stifling heat, Dar is a nice change of pace from places like Nairobi and Juba.
Tomorrow we will leave by bus (for $25) for Kyela, Tanzania which lies on the northernmost tip of Lake Malawi. From there we will move on to the country of Malawi, a place we are excited to visit as it is known as perhaps the most friendly African country.
More updates from Malawi!
Saturday, August 29, 2009
So 10 days and 6 towns later and we have made it from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean!
We started our trip to the coast by heading north to Musoma. That trip, on a crowded public bus, took us past the gate to the Serengeti National Park. As we passed we got a taste for the animal life the newest wonder of the world holds as zebra, wildebeest, buffalo and baboons could be seen from the road. We figured this to be our "poor man's safari." In Musoma we camped on the beach on Lake Victoria, a very cool experience.
From there we were able, after several hours and a lot of walking, to find a bus headed to Karatu where we were to visit the Tanzanian Children's Fund Children's Home. Unbeknown to us, this bus trip went directly through the Serengeti National Park. Also unbeknown to us, and apparently to the bus company as well, foreigners are expected to pay to travel through the national park. Even in a public bus, not a safari vehicle. After arriving at the gate four hours into our trip we spent a good 45 minutes arguing with the bus driver and the park guards (we did not travel with the needed $100) who told us we would have to turn back, on our own, and walk back to Musoma. What they had declined to tell us at the beginning was that they accepted credit cards. We did end up having to pay but, in the end it was worth it.
While bumping along at around 60mph through the Serengeti (surely infuriating the people who had paid thousands to go on safari) we were treated to a true safari, and one perfectly suited for two people with such fickle attention spans. We saw plenty of giraffes, zebras, buffaloes, gazelles and other small animals and were lucky to see elephants, hippos, lions and even cheetahs (which is rare even for those people sitting comfortably in their safari trucks). Our driver did slow down a bit as we passed some of the bigger animals, but this was a public transport vehicle, not a tour bus.
When we pulled through the gate on the other side of the Serengeti (hours later and after stopping for lunch at a workers cafeteria) we entered a landscape that can only be described as otherworldly. A flat, white, desert plain stretched for miles with dozens of twisters swirling all around us. Masai herders were the only people around, leading their herds through the dust from one watering hole to the next. The scenery was too exciting for Jay who passed out, hard, and unfortunately missed the next part of the journey in which we climbed up and out of the plain. We ascended for probably 2 hours, Jay amazingly still asleep as his head continuously slammed into the window, to the precipice of the Ngorongoro Crater, the location of the discovery of the oldest known human skeleton. The landscape was incredible with elephants feeding on the edge of the rainforest that drapes the crater's walls, thousands of feet deep (don't worry, I have video so Jay can watch the scenery and himself pin-balling around the bus).
After again being asked for another $100 for traveling through Ngorongoro National Park - this time we refused and were allowed to continue on - we arrived in Karatu, just miles outside the park gate. We camped there for the weekend, became welcome regulars at the Number One Restaurant and Jay found his new favorite dish, goat intestine. On Monday we caught a ride from a friendly Italian couple to the road that led to the Children's Home. From where we were dropped we hiked, for several hours into the foothills of the crater. And hours later, no children's home sited, we found ourselves back on the main road. Luckily, and incredibly, we had enough cell phone service to contact the children's home and were picked up by their land rover. Another half an hour later and we arrived at the most astonishing facility we had seen yet.
India Howell, an American woman who fell in love with Tanzania, founded the home in 2003 for vulnerable children. The home itself now provides 69 children with an incredible place to grow up. The facilities are directly next to a local school that is also supported by India and is where the children attend, free of cost. Jay and I were stunned by the beautiful homes where the children live. There house mothers prepare delicious looking food and the rooms are far nicer than anything we have stayed in this trip!
We had a very nice conversation with India who shares our view that small, grassroots organizations are the best way to support the children of Africa. These organizations have people like India (or Bashir in Kenya or Lon in Ethiopia) that have a personal investment in seeing the children and their communities succeed. Good luck to India and all the staff at the Tanzanian Children's Fund!
Following our visit with India and another night camping in Karatu we caught a ride to Arusha with an older British man who owns a farm in the area. The ride was, once again, spectacular. It took only about 15 minutes to descend probably close to 2000 feet off a high plateau to another arid valley. We then ascended back up to Arusha which is located directly at the foot of Mt. Meru. While there we visited The School of St. Jude's. This is a great example of what one person can do for a local community. Australian Gemma Sisia founded the school to provide free education, now on two campuses, for 1200 students. It's massive, new, beautiful dorm facilities (complete with landscaping and horses) caught us by complete surprise as they looked more like a luxury mountain retreat than a school for poor children.
Arusha is one of the largest cities in Tanzania, home to the East African Community, and the jump-off point for safari's. These ingredients make for a lot of people who want to sell you everything from the "special stuff" (ganja) to black-market safaris. We were more than happy to move on after just one day in town.
The next stop was Moshi, a smaller but similar town at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We spent a day staring at the clouds that surrounded Africa's tallest mountain but were never treated to a glimpse of the peak. We took a tip from some new Swiss friends to take a day in Lushoto, a village located in the north-eastern Tanzanian highlands.
We hopped another ride to Lushoto which took us up a winding single-track road into rainforests that disappeared off thousand foot cliffs that dropped off directly to the savanna. Not knowing anything about Lushoto, or where to stay, we followed signs through the rainforest for about four miles before reaching Irente, a site located directly on the end of the highlands. We arrived at the cliff edge just as the sun was setting over the vast savanna thousands of feet below. We camped there, above the clouds, on the precipice of the cliff falling asleep and waking up to one of the most incredible vistas we have ever seen. Living above our tent in a tree house was Allan, an Australian artist who is spending four years traveling the world and painting portraits in every country he visits. We will get you a link to his work once its available!
We hiked back out of Irente the next day and caught a bus to Tanga where we are today. Tanga is located on the Swahili coast which is known for some of the most spectacular beaches in the world. It is also, interestingly enough, the site of a major World War One sea battle between the British and Germans. Our plan was to travel by boat to Pemba Island before moving on to Zanzibar. However, after further advice from locals (and finding out it was illegal to take one of the small sailboats across the channel) we have decided to move on to the small resort area of Pangani where we can catch a boat directly to the "spice island" of Zanzibar.
So, off for a bit of much needed R&R on the beach! (By the way, Jay shaved today for the first time in two months - watch out ladies of Pangani)
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Our brief stay back in Uganda after our dizzying trip to South Sudan was definitely highlighted by all of Acen's kids being back in the home. While the place was certainly a madhouse, that is with nine kids running around all day, it was especially nice to be able to meet South Sudan Scholarship Foundation's newest student. Werro is six years old and has been in Uganda for just one term. Stunningly enough, having known no English while in Sudan, she was able to communicate perfectly with us in her knew language. She also never stopped smiling the entire time we were there. A tiny girl who was visibly still effected by the disease (she is currently under treatment for syphilis) and hunger she left in Sudan, she was constantly laughing and playing. Werro, unlike other SSSF students, does have a loving family back in Sudan. However, her mother is physically handicapped and her father is blind. Without intervention from SSSF she would have little chance of ever receiving an education let alone being able to play as any child should; two things I can assure you she is taking full advantage of today!
Back in Uganda we also had the task of trying to overcome the incredible misinformation surrounding ferry travel to Tanzania. The buses heading to Tanzania would carry us around much of what we aimed to see in the country. Our first attempt was thwarted at the dock because immigration officials had left hours before the ferry was due to depart (logic need not apply) and we could not get an exit-stamp. Finally we were able to find a ride aboard a cargo ship from Jinja, Uganda to Mwanza, Tanzania. We spent the day of our departure in Jinja, a bustling colonial town and near to the source of the Nile. That night we slept aboard the ship before being jostled awake by a four in the morning departure. The sunrise on Lake Victoria proved spectacular.
(Sunrise over Lake Victoria)
While the ship did not appear all that sea-worthy, in the end, we both agreed that this leg of the trip was far and away the best travel experience yet. We were the only two passengers on the ship and we had a great bunk room in which we spent two peaceful nights. While it certainly was not overly exciting, the spaciousness, calmness and quiet were an incredible change of pace from bus travel. We were only in sight of land for the first several hours after departure from Uganda (during which we crossed the equator, unknowingly, for the third and last time), but that early scenery was beautiful with small fishing villages dotting the shores of small islands and peninsulas.
We spent the majority of our full-day aboard the ship playing cards and lying about on the deck of the ship, only being chased inside by the monstrous clouds of mosquitoes that we passed through several times. These swarms could be seen miles away and looked more like thunder clouds than masses of insects. After leaving sight of land around ten that morning we did not see another sign of human life until twelves hours later. In a Twilight Zone type of scene that first sign of life was miles and miles of fish farms. Atop each of the thousands of buoys that held up the restraining nets was a solitary bulb. These silent dots of light surrounded us for as far as the eye could see and on every side of the ship for hours.
We arrived in Mwanza, Tanzania yesterday around five in the morning. Mwanza is a beautiful town that sits atop several hills overlooking Lake Victoria. Homes are constructed on and around rocky outcroppings and smooth boulders jut out from around the hotels and restaurants in the city center. We enjoyed lunch at a second-story hotel bar right on the shore of the lake. Having not known what to expect, Mwanza has been a great surprise and has certainly added to what have been some very needed, very relaxing few days!
I have been battling a slight fever so we will spend another day here before moving on to Musoma. From there we will travel through the Serengeti (since we are traveling on a shoestring we hope to get a little bit of a safari out of this leg of the trip) to Arusha where we will visit a children's village and a school for children who would otherwise be unable to afford the cost of school fees. We also hope to visit the nearby Ngorongoro Crater, the supposed site of the inception of human life.
Keep checking in and be sure to leave comments and questions!
Friday, August 14, 2009
Two years ago I was fortunate enough to spend some time working in an incredible place; the semi-autonomous South Sudan. There I met a people who are at once heartbreaking and inspiring. They look desperation in the face every single day and are able to overcome it with incredible humor, hope and faith. I was excited to bring Jay to a place I grew to love but at the same time nervous at what type of progress had been made in the past two years.
This past week we have stayed with Acen's extended family just outside of the capital, Juba. To give an idea of the level of development there, South Sudan is a place the size of England and France combined and has less than 20km of paved roads (this is up from 5km in 2007). All of those roads are in Juba. There is some electricity in the capital, although it comes from a diesel-fed generator that powers a tiny portion of the offices of non-governmental organizations and government. All of these offices also have personal generators however, as they can only expect one to two days of power a week. Residents do not even dream of benefiting from the large generator.
Acen's family has no electricity and no water. The women have to walk well over a mile to get all of the water for cooking, cleaning and bathing (in fact, the women do pretty much everything from home construction to cooking, cleaning and even brewing the local alcohol that they sell to soldiers for a modest income). Even with what little Acen's family has their hospitality is incredible. We were treated to meat every night, a luxury they rarely enjoy under normal circumstances. Every neighbor stopped by to greet us and all went on at some length (the Sudanese are known for their drawn-out formalities) about how appreciative they were to see us staying in a real Sudanese home. There are some white aid workers in Juba but they all stay in relatively comfortable homes with provided transportation. So we were certainly a rare sight on the local buses and on the walk home from the bus stop.
We were also able (after way too much hassle and bribery) to make a trip to rural part of the South. It took us five hours to drive the sixty-miles to our destination (weighted down by the seven officials and security personnel needed to insure our safety and access). While the place we visited was stunningly beautiful it was also extraordinarily tragic. The area, located between Juba and Uganda, is of great strategic importance. As such, it was decimated during the Sudanese Civil War and, for much of the time since the signing of the peace agreement, was occupied by the brutal Lord's Resistance Army. The LRA are known for (among other atrocities) abducting young boys and girls for use as soldiers and prostitutes as well as for cutting off fingers, breasts, genitals and lips. Signs of these tragedies were evident on many of the people who watched us curiously from the roadside.
(A typical South Sudanese school)
Almost everyone we met here was a recent returnee from internally displaced camps in Juba and Khartoum or refugee camps in Uganda. What is most appalling is that they were forcibly returned here from their camps where at least there were hospitals and schools. In this area there is one school with just one teacher who had only a high school education. The rest of the teachers are mostly-uneducated but literate volunteers doing everything they can to help their people. There are just two primary health care units to provide for tens of thousands of people. These tiny mud huts are stocked with nothing but soon to expire first-line anti-malarial drugs and no way to diagnose the disease. The two community health workers who staffed the clinics have not been paid in months and they themselves are starving while trying to help their neighbors.
The people themselves were angry, and justifiably so. Traveling with the chief of the area we were obliged to stop at a funeral that was being held beside the road. The funeral was for a two year old boy who had died of malaria; an easily preventable and treatable disease. He had come back from Uganda with his mother months earlier where they had access to the drugs they would have needed to treat the boy. Back home in South Sudan they did not have the money to travel to Juba to get the needed medicine. As the chief said, they had to "give up and let the boy die." His tiny gravel grave is placed directly in front of his mother's hut's door signifying that he was her first born.
(A typical health care center found in South Sudan)
To add to the problem, tribal violence wracks South Sudan with return to war with the North all but imminent in the next months. The people repeatedly told us they were being brought back to die; and many are. South Sudan is in desperate need of help. We are doing our best to remove students from these horrible situations at the South Sudan Scholarship Foundation, but we need your help. Please pass along our web address to friends and family in a time of ever increasing need: www.southsudansf.org.
To end with a humorous note (for you, not for Jay, Acen and I). We returned to Kampala yesterday and were prepared for the long journey. We were not prepared for the lack of suspension and the 40 plus speed bumps we hit in a three-mile stretch (still no idea as to their purpose). We also stopped about five hours from Kampala to get food at a gas station. Incredibly, an hour after we had left the gas station we ran out of gas. So, after leaving at five that morning we arrived back in Kampala at midnight.
We will update with our plans again soon and with stories about the newest additions to SSSF!
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Almost two years ago I met several students while working in Southern Sudan who were at the end of the line in terms of education. They were in only the Fourth Grade. This past week was the first time since the South Sudan Scholarship Foundation (SSSF) was founded that I have been able to reunite with some of these children and to meet some of our newest students.
For the past five days Jay and I have been staying with Acen, the caretaker of the SSSF students and the woman who first alerted me to the crisis these children were facing. Living with Acen is Sarah, one of our newest students and sponsored by the Mount Mansfield Winter Academy (MMWA) in Stowe, Vermont. She is a junior in high school and attending one of the most respected schools in Uganda. Jay, Acen and I were able to visit her school after weaving in and out of traffic and briefly getting lost on motorcycles. Sarah was attending another school under another sponsor but was dropped this past year. She was facing having to return to Sudan before SSSF and MMWA stepped in to provide her scholarship.
After our visit to Sarah's school we hopped back on the motorcycles, Jay comfortably wedged between myself and our driver (yes, three grown men on a dodgy Chinese motorcycle), and headed for Manasseh's school. This was an incredible visit for myself as Manasseh was the inspiration for SSSF as the face that first told me of the hardships faced by students in his shoes.
This day he walked through the door of the headmistresses office a new person. Strong, healthy and beaming Manasseh looks nothing like the hungry, sick and exhausted boy I met in Sudan. I spoke with his teachers, all of whom told me what a diligent and motivated student he is. We were only able to meet briefly but we will get to see him again soon after the next leg of our trip, Sudan.
(Manasseh [furthest to the right] with his new family:
[right to left] Sarah, Werro, Opio, Moga, Acen, Ocen)
Yes, we will be backtracking quite a bit when we leave for South Sudan (today or tomorrow depending on the status of our permits) but this is one of the most important parts of the entire journey. There we will meet with several NGO's to discuss their role in the development of Southern Sudan while also doing some legwork for SSSF.
This was a quick update as we have to run back to the Sudan People's Liberation Army's office to check our permits, but stay tuned for updates from Sudan and to hear the story of SSSF's newest and youngest student!
Friday, July 31, 2009
After a few nights staying with our fantastic hosts in Nairobi it was on to Nakuru, Kenya to do some more work. The drive there was rather mundane compared with the previous stage of our trip; just a four ride in a rather comfortable van. It was quite scenic however, as we climbed out of Naiorbi over the Rift Valley and then down into one of Africa's most ecologically diverse landscapes. We were able to see some zebras and baboons but not a whole lot else.
Nakuru was an interesting town to visit. We spent the first night in a rather dodgy hotel and were treated to a strange array of nightlife. We ate at a Chinese restaurant where Jay contemplated ordering the "whole fish that looks like a squirrel." It ended up being the high price rather than the name that changed his mind. Following this strange meal we ducked into a locals bar where a band was playing and soccer was on TV. In a scene reminiscent of the one in Animal House where the boys take their dates to a roadhouse, all heads snapped around to see what may have been the only Mzungu (white people) to ever enter the dingy establishment. Astonishment quickly faded into a warm welcome by many of the well-lubricated patrons. Jay had the luck of being sandwiched between a prostitute (who everyone warned was HIV-positive) and a guy who accentuated each word with a volley of spittle. I was seated next to an extraordinarily friendly, and oddly sober gentleman who turned out to be a former Kenyan national soccer player. I know Jay, not fair.
Nakuru is located on a lake encompassed in one of Kenya's famed national parks. Traveling on a shoestring prevented us from entering the park but a hike to the entrance gate allowed us to look out upon masses of buffalo, hippopotamus, flamingo and monkeys.
Our real reason for stopping in Nakruru was not tourism but to meet Rhoda, John and Samuel, three Sudanese orphans who were living with relatives while pursuing their education. I was alerted to their situation by their concerned uncle now studying at Johnson State College in Vermont and by his friend, SSSF super-intern, Julia Van Raalte.
These children have been living with relatives in a cramped Nakuru apartment for several years following an upbringing in a sordid refugee camp in northern Kenya. Today the children are facing yet another obstacle to their educations and healthy childhoods. Their relatives, still supported through a refugee resettlement program, have been given the opportunity to move to the United States. While this is an incredible development for their family it is also one that will leave the three orphans (none older than 17) without a home. This could mean all three dropping out of school to find jobs to support themselves.
We chatted with the children in an effort to find a way for the South Sudan Scholarship Foundation (SSSF) to support their education in the absence of their family. Fortunately, we were able to find a caretaker for them in Nairobi. Now SSSF will look for a suitable boarding school for them to attend this coming spring. Please help by logging on to www.southsudansf.org and donating to help Rhoda, John, Samuel and the rest of the SSSF students.
(John, Rhoda and Samuel outside their Nakuru aparment)
We left the children and Nakruru for Kisumu, Kenya, a city on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria. The trip from Nakuru to Kisumu wound through some beautiful Kenyan highlands including a major tea-growing region. Single plantations wound on for miles with images of their colonial origins dotted throughout their lush, green rows. Hundreds of small, white blockhouses inhabited by the workers are set far away from the road while several luxurious mansions abut the regions main thoroughfare.
We arrived in Kisumu with little knowledge of where we could stay. A long, extraordinarily hot walk throughout almost the entirety of the city took us from a bustling city-center to green suburbs and back before we found our place to stay. Kisumu is a weekend spot for wealthy Nairobians and, as such, is quite expensive. We were finally able to negotiate with a surly hotel manager for a spot to put our tent on the hotel's roof. This turned out to be quite fortunate, not in the least because of the extraordinary view our perch provided. However, it was also on the roof of this hotel that we met some British medical students working for a small NGO, The Keyan Orphan Project (KOP) (they were quite bemused by our living arrangement). When we explained our trip to the students we were invited to Hope for Victoria Children or HOVIC, a local shelter for the street children of Kisumu.
(The staff of HOVIC and our friends from KOP)
One of the first things we had noticed in Kisumu was the multitude of young children living on the streets. They huffed glue to keep away the hunger and cold of nights on the street. In contrast to this harsh reality, HOVIC is a truly happy place even with every child weighted by a tragic back story. To give some perspective to their lives, we met a boy no older than three or four who had wandered in to the shelter the previous day. Both of the tiny boy's parents had died and he was left to fend for himself. We were told by some of the older boys that the night before the Kisumu police had caned him in an attempt to drive him back to his home. While HOVIC provides an upbeat environment it was incredibly depressing to learn that only about 100 children have discovered the support provided by HOVIC while more than 20,000 other street children continue to live on the streets alone. Thank you to HOVIC and KOP for an amazing visit. Keep up the great work!
After our day spent at HOVIC we returned to our lofted abode and shared some farewell beverages with the British students. At one in the morning we left for the bus station. The short, dark walk left us with a poignant memory of Kisumu as street children jockeyed around us for sleeping arrangements, glue and bits of garbage to eat.
Unfortunately we were unable to see much of the scenery on this bus trip as we left Kisumu at one-thirty in the morning for Kampala, Uganda's capital.
Today we are in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. We are staying here with Acen, the first caretaker for SSSF, and her family. This is the most exciting part of the trip for me as I will get to introduce Jay to the SSSF students and to check on their progress since I last saw them in Sudan. We will be sure to update you about them and the next leg of our trip soon!
Friday, July 24, 2009
Our day in Moyale, Kenya started relatively late considering the five in the morning departures we had become accustomed to in Ethiopia. We ate breakfast at a small shop (75 cents for the two of us) and were able to get dollars to pay for our visas, which we did without hassle.
The next task was to book a spot on a truck to Nairobi. The typical route takes you through the Kenyan desert and into the highlands past Mount Kenya, something we were excited to see. We were informed however, that this two-day route was far too dangerous. Tribal conflict was making passage impossible. Instead we would have to travel East into the Somali region and then South. This was a much safer options for the Kenyans, but Somali-American history added another element of danger for Jay and I (see Blackhawk Down).
After quickly talking our way down from the Muzungu (Swahili for white person) price of 2000 schillings to 1000 each we found ourselves on the top of a steel cage that covered the back of a late model Mitsubishi lorry. Our fellow passengers included 2 Kenyan soldiers who we quickly made friends with, several other Kenyan travelers, and about 20 cows standing below our perches on the steel frame.
Jay and I both could not wipe smiles off our faces as we descended out of Moyale and into the desert. We could hardly comprehend the comfort of being able to breathe fresh air rather than the nauseating, stagnant air commonplace on Ethiopian buses. The metal bars cut the circulation from our legs, and the charging of the bus over nearly nonexistent roads was harrowing, but being outside was a liberating feeling.
Before leaving the last signs of civilization we were stopped several times by Kenyan police to check passports and IDs and in the process picked up more passengers. Now our relatively comfortable spots became precarious inches on the metal bars; an old woman's foot rested on my hand and a younger girl laid her legs squarely in Jay's lap. Fortunately these new, unwelcome travelers stayed on for only about two or three hours. In retrospect this does not seem terribly long, but at the time we had no idea the length of this new route.
Turns out the trip, on top of this cattle truck, through nothing but desert, on nothing but a bumpy, sandy track would take us 14 hours. We were able to keep the trip in perspective for most of the time, knowing it was a once in a lifetime experience and that the discomfort would not be repeated after the trip was over. However, when the light began to fade and one of our soldier friends informed us that we still had six hours to go, we began to recognize the absurdity and danger of this adventure. Furthermore, our palms were becoming calloused from gripping the metal bars and our legs had long since gone into a painful sleep. Sore, exhausted, hungry and now a bit scared we lunged on, well past a blazing-red sunset. Our driver decided that now that he couldn't see the oncoming potholes that they no longer existed. So he sped up.
Now this wasn't exactly an express journey. Our fellow bovine passengers were sleepy from the outset and apparently, we weren't told why, the cows could die if they lay down while traveling. So, at least 15 times throughout the trip, we had to stop for their "caretaker" to tie a strap around their mouth and nose, suffocating them until they stood up to fill their lungs. Their gasping and eyes bulging from terror probably mimicked our reaction to the technique. We also stopped at various police checkpoints. The police always made a point of grilling our passports in an attempt at proving their power. We stopped once late in the afternoon in a town with far more camels than people for spaghetti with potatoes and beans and no silverware. The gruel was washed down with a cup of warm chai and ten minutes later we were hustled back aboard the truck.
We were able to see some of Kenya's famed wildlife while on the truck: Giraffes, DikDiks, Ibex, a snake (fortunately Jay didn't see this one), Jackals, Ostriches and Gazelles. At one point that night, just seconds after a hyena crossed through our headlights, we had to stop for the cows again. Our stopping place was not fortuitous. The truck struggled to restart in the deep sand and we were told that the increasing rustling in the bushes meant hyenas had honed in on the distressed mooing of the cattle. Finally, with a few brave soldiers helping to free the truck, we jolted out of the sand leaving a pack of disappointed hyenas in our wake.
Finally, as exhaustion neared delirium, we made it to the Somali (Somali people, not in Somalia) town of Garissa. Or almost made it. The truck decided to stop at a police checkpoint for the night 10km outside of the first eclectic lights we had seen in hours. Luckily the soldiers we had befriended, one a new father, were just as eager to reach Nairobi as we were. They borrowed the police phone and called for a taxi that we split into Garissa. The relief at sitting in the comfortable seat of that car was unbelievable.
We made it to Garissa at 2:30am, a half hour after the last bus to Nairobi had left. So, we spent the next 3 and a half hours in a hole of a Somali-owned "restaurant" playing cards, drinking tea and eating the scraps of the food left over from what they had made for the guests who arrived at normal hours. Beyond our bruised bodies, hunger, and exhaustion, an angry Somali not pleased with our arrival yelled at his friends while staring at us (the only word we recognized was "American") making the stay just a little bit more uncomfortable.
Plenty ready to leave we eventually hopped a bus for Nairobi at six that morning. Again, unaware of the actual distance, we expected to arrive around eleven. Instead, after about 30 police checkpoints and plenty of moneyed handshakes by the driver we were dropped in Eastleigh, the Somali part of Nairobi around four in the afternoon. Thanks to Peter, one of the soldiers, we found the right Matatu (one pumping massive amounts of base into our already delirious heads) to Westlands where our amazingly hospitable hosts, Nate and Jill, live. After taking probably the most needed showers of our lives we went out for even more needed food heading straight for a pizza place that I remembered from my first visit to Nairobi. Beer and pizza have never tasted more gourmet but, having not eaten a meal for two days we went directly to the burger joint next door after each finishing a pie.
It looks like we will be heading to Nakuru, Kenya tomorrow to interview children for The South Sudan Scholarship Foundation (www.southsudansf.org). Later next week we expect to arrive in Kampala, Uganda where we will meet the original SSSF students and stay with their caretaker, Acen.
Sitting here in an Internet Cafe in a modern Nairobi mall that I had frequented two years previously, it is truly astounding to think back to the leg of this trip Jay and I completed just yesterday; down what is known as the most dangerous road in Africa.
We left the comfort of Dr. Abebe's home in Addis Ababa on Monday at around 4:30AM to catch a bus to the border town of Moyale (there is a Moyale, Ethiopia and a Moyale, Kenya). Unfortunately, the bus was full by the time we lugged our massive and aptly named, Jandd "Goliath" packs through a bustling station. Thanks to the wherewithal and successful jockeying of Abebe we were instead able to catch a bus to Dilla, a university town about halfway between Addis and Moyale. Completely underestimating Ethiopia's environmental diversity we both expected to find ourselves in increasingly flat and more arid landscape as we got further South. Instead, we rose out of Awassa and Shashamene into the high mountains of what we were told is the place of origin for coffee (not sure if any South American country would argue this point). Dilla itself was beautiful and a nice stop. This was especially so considering the bus driver, who we later discovered had never driven this route before, seemed hellbent on launching us off one of the mountains. He had no idea how to downshift, so in order to make it up hills he would put the petal to the metal on the preceding downhill to get momentum for the uphill; oncoming traffic, pedestrians, corners be damned.
We left the next day, again at 4:30. Surely this time we would be heading into more arid terrain. Again, we were mistaken as we climbed even further into the lush green mountains. After a breakfast break in one of the mountain villages our bus, not unpredictably, broke down just on the outskirts of town. We got off to wait and were soon surrounded by probably 30 or 40 kids. For some reason the "you you you" and incessant begging had been left behind in Dilla and these kids simply wanted to practice their limited English and play soccer with us. The hour and a half break turned out to be a great experience.
After the bus was revved back to life we finally began our descent out of the Ethiopian highlands. The ubiquitous herds of sheep and goats turned into camel trains and we were soon in desert scrub-land. We had no idea how long this part of the trip would take. Whenever we passed over any sort of vertical change in the landscape we would hopefully look ahead for signs of a town. We looked for buildings for hours until finally, 10 hours after leaving Dilla, we pulled into Moyale, Ethiopia.
Being late in the day we half-expected, and feared, that the border would be closed. Instead we passed easily under the make-shift gate and into Kenyan customs where, ironically, they would not accept the Kenyan Schillings for which we had exchanged our Ethiopian Biir. No, the Kenyan Government only accepts American Dollars. After much hassle we were able to convince the border agents to allow to return the next day with dollars and were allowed to spend the night in Kenya with out a visa.
It was a neat feeling for me to return to Kenya having worked there two years before. That night we naively asked the Somali owner of our hotel where we could have a beer. As a Muslim he said he did not drink and furthermore, that all of Moyale was Muslim. Then, in a hushed voice he told us of a secret bar hidden behind the local prison. Here, the Christian policemen stationed in Moyale could sneak away for a drink. We thanked him and made our way, rather nervously, to the speakeasy. Once there we met a friendly Kenyan engineer who offered us a free stay on the Kenyan coast. Unfortunately those resorts were never part of our itinerary.
The next day we were to leave for what would probably be the hardest part of our journey.