Saturday, April 26, 2008

West Coast Style

The morning I left for Kota Kinabalu, we had no idea how we were going to get there. Theresa has done an amazing job of planning this dive/jungle escapade but she left some things open for us to do things on the fly. We wanted to get from Sandakan on the east coast of Borneo to Kota Kinabalu on the opposite side and there were several ways to do it. Hire a taxi and split it four ways, take the local bus, take the aircon tourist bus, or try to find a flight. In the interest of time (and comfort,) we decided on the plane and headed to the airport to buy tickets. Wellington and I got put on standby and started to make other plans, but luckily made the flight.

For a town I never heard of, KK is a very happening place. It's way bigger than I expected and there are lots of things to do. It is pretty cosmopolitan with lots of nightlife, shopping, wild adventures like whitewater rafting and mountain climbing are an hour or two away, and best of all there is a big five island national marine park Tunku Abdul Rahman, just off the coast. After one night's mistake of a scary local hotel, the four of us got a fabulous family room at the Daya Hotel and felt like we were living in luxury. We also discovered a fantastic Italian restaurant - who would have thougth I would be enjoying fresh, hand-made gnocchi in Borneo???

The next day, the girls elected to spend the day exploring the beaches of the island parks and Wellington and I went diving. Not just any diving, but diving on MY REEF! That's right, our dive spot for the day was named Clement's Reef - evidently a Course Director a couple of years ago discovered and named it and as soon as I saw it on the dive map I knew I had to get there. The reef around KK is not as good as Sipadan, (hell, what is?) they have a history of dynamite fishing and it showed. Dynamite fishing is when local fisherman, too impatient for lines or nets, toss lit sticks of dynamite in the water and wait for the fish to float up after the explosion. Easy fishing but unbelievably destructive to the coral and it causes permanent damage - which isn't good for the fisherman's long-term but they don't seem to think about that. Saw lots of big rubble patches, but also some encouraging signs of growth too - the park is making a difference I think. Still, the fields of coral rubble and encroaching algae were sad to see. Still, there was all kinds of good stuff to find - rays, nudis, and my new favorite crab - the Orangutan Crab! They are really cool looking but the best part about them is the underwater signal when you spot them. First you scratch your underarms in a monkey pose and then you make the fingers to thumbs motion for crab claws - I don't know why but it cracks me up. When I did it I made the "hoot hoot" noise of an orangutan in my reg when I scratched my pits...

Wellington and I dove two out of the three days we were there, spending one day lounging on the beaches and exploring all the park's little islands. At night, we wandered KK - trying all kinds of great local food at the huge local market, hitting an Indian restaurant during a blackout, and trying to find something fun to do while the girls went shop crazy. KK has lots of great shopping, and if I had brought along a sherpa, I might have indulged in some collecting.

KK was great - I am so glad we went and discovered such a neat little coastal town. It was nice and cosmo, had good local stuff to do, and of course any place with some decent local diving 30 minutes off shore is fine with me. Sadly, our time there came to an end and it was time to go. Not so sadly, actually, because our next destination was an encore performance of the awesome reef walls of Sipadan!!!

That's right, some of the best diving I hace ever done in my life - part 2!!! Only this time, with 5-star accommodations...

Debating whether or not to write about it, since I did before... Oh what the hell, it was so awesome again, I'll tell you all about it next time.

Salamat Pagi,

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Jungle Boot Camp

Wellington, my travel buddy in Borneo, described our most recent adventure as "Boot Camp in the Jungle," and in some ways he is totally right. There were no drill sergeants and no rifles (though there are rumors of head-hunting tribes around and lots of big crocs, so maybe an M-16 wouldn't have been a bad idea,) but things were definitely basic on the the Kinabatangan River.

There were lots of boots and it was definitely camping - in the mud!!

Just a couple of weeks ago it was the rainy season and the camp was closed due to the flooding. Now it's a bit drier (it only rains once or twice a day,) and the river is back within its banks, but the mud remains and it is everywhere. It is really sticky and soupy and loose and wet all at the same time and threatens to keep your boot as you walk away. Our camp consisted of some wooden huts connected by walkways and everywhere else we wore rubber boots (Wellingtons, how appropriate,) and slogged through the deep mud and leftover puddles. When we arrived by outboard riverboat and clambered up the bank, there was a big pile of dirty boots waiting for us - but none of them had sizes printed on them! So we kicked off our shoes and hopped around trying to put together a pair that fit our feet. It took a while, but I finally found some in the general range of my big hobbit feet (though the left was a half-size too small I am sure.) Then we shouldered our gear and headed to the camp, constantly pulling our sucking feet out of mud bogs all along the way. Once we got to camp, we were supposed to pile up the boots near the start of the boardwalk, but since we all took so long to find some that kind of fit, everyone snagged that pair and stashed them away for easy finding later. Since the insides of the boots were almost as sloppy as the outside, every excursion ended with a trip to the water buckets near the squat privys (yup, bucket baths too,) for rinsing with ladles of river water. Accommodations were wonderfully basic - plank huts with the smelliest thinnest mattresses I've ever seen right on the floor, and mosquito netting - that's it. Sharing with a bed with Wellington was cozy, but we were so beat from trekking in the mud several times a day that I slept great anyway. Unfortunately for him, he didn't. And he was kind enough to not accuse me of snoring. Each hut is covered in chicken wire to keep the monkeys out, but we needed to be careful in the dining area - there were always one or two looking to snag a bite. One of the guys in camp almost lost a jar of vitamins to them , but he charged them like a crazy man, with flailing arms and strange Irish warrior cries and the startled monkey dropped its prize and fled for the trees. There were also wild boars on the volleyball court, spiders in the heads of a size I haven't seen since the Seychelles, and a five foot long monitor lizard living in the puddle under the kitchen to avoid. Electric power was on from 6PM to midnight only and with one outlet for the four of us in the hut, the iPod speakers and Wellington's 20 hour Borneo playlist always got 1st priority!

It sounds like it was rough but I had a great time - boat rides and jungle treks at all hours to spy on the amazing jungle creatures is right up my alley. We saw all kinds of monitor lizards, strange birds, huge crocodiles, several kinds of monkeys (including the strange looking big-nosed Proboscis Monkeys,) wild boars, and insects and spiders galore. I politely declined to hold the scorpion (Jeez, I jumped out of a plane last summer despite my fear of heights, do I need to prove anything else to you?) I didn't get to see any wild orangutans or pygmy elephants but some in camp saw some of the cute apes on the trek back from the boat and we could hear them calling to each other every day. An added bonus was that the food at the camp was plentiful and fantastic, especially considering that every item has to be boated in and then carried up that 400m mud trail! One of the best times was when we played soccer with the camp staff in the mud. The guys working there were amazing, dealing with some hard work in difficult conditions, but I never saw one without a smile on his face and they went way out of their way to make sure we had a great time, all the time. If you are in the area, Uncle Tan's Jungle Camp is the way to go.

Sadly, our visit came to an end and we rode the river back from "Camp Kurtz" to civilization and by that afternoon we were washed, fed, and visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. It is an orphanage and rehabilitation center for baby orangutans with regular feeding times so you get to see the babies and older apes come in for a daily load of fruit to supplement what they find in the forest. I met and talked to some volunteers there and they were loving their three month programs! We must have seen 20 orangutans sweeping through for their banana lunch, they ranged in age from impossibly cute (less than a year maybe?) to grumpy old farts and everything in between. With their keen expressions, human-like hands and balding old man faces, they are very sweet looking and make you want to take one home. But they are also very powerful, and we saw decent sized tree limbs they had torn in two as easy as you would snap a chopstick!

That night we headed to the port town of Sandanak, had some dinner and poked around and Theresa and Katja did a little shopping. The next morning we were off to the airport and bought tickets to Kota Kinabalu, the site of our next round of diving...

Next installment: an amazingly cool city on the coast and a relaxing island sanctuary...

Salamat Pagi,

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Finally Wet Again!

I'm wet again, finally, and it is so good!! I've been dry to long and really needed to feel it!

I am back on the road again and back in SE Asia - which is now my favorite destination on earth. Sorry Caribbean, but despite your proximity to the east coast and some wonderful diving, the phenomenal reefs, awesome food and wonderful friendly people in this corner of the world completely blow you away.

I had not been diving since just before New Year's and was really starting to feel it in my bones. My hands needed to get pruny. I am so happy to be on this dive trip with my my good dive buddies Theresa, Wellington and the brand newly certified Katja!! My hair is salty, my neck is sunburned, I've got mask-marks on my face, and I am loving being back underwater - it feels like I'm home again.

I get wet a little sooner than planned when I arrived in Bangkok last week - turns out it was Songkran festival time. I had no idea what that was either, but it is Thai New Year's and they celebrate with a nationwide water fight. Everyone from 4 to 84 has a super soaker or a bag full of water balloons and they love to douse the farangs (foreigners,) as often as possible. Once I wised up and got my camera into a ziploc bag, I enjoyed myself and tried to make it fun for my attackers, pretending to be upset and then breaking into a broad smile. With some I pretended to wrestle for their watergun a little and one time wet-hugged a grandma who had just sprayed me - sharing the soaking back - she laughed and laughed! I walked past one open square where about a thousand people were having an all-out liquid melee and watched a while until attention turned my way and then skedaddled! What a great time - I wish I'd known ahead and gotten a soaker and managed to ditch anything I needed to stay dry so I could really go all out...

After a day in Bangkok, I hopped a flight to Kuala Lumpur the next morning on the way to a diving and jungle adventure in Borneo. I ran into my to German friends in the airport and we shared flights the whole way. Wellington showed up in KL looking a little bit harried - every flight along the way had been late and he had to rush every single connection for thirty hours or so - gotta love modern air travel... Someone once said the key to foreign travel is earplugs and a blindfold and after the screaming baby on my flight from KL to Tawau, I would add that an iPod is just as wonderful!

We landed after dark on the island of Borneo and hopped a taxi to Semporna, a small town on the coast where we would be based for our first several days. Most of the town is on stilts over the water and, though our hostel was pretty nice, the smell of the port and its inhabitants can be a little strong when the wind and tide are the wrong way.

Ever since I started diving, one of the destinations always mentioned in a respectful hushed voice is Sipadan. Coral, walls, sharks, exotic macro - it is all supposed to be here in abundance and the fabled huge variety stretched my imagination. Turns out it is completely true. I simply cannot believe the dozen or so dive sites around this tiny island can have so much going on of everything divers fantasize about. Towering vertical walls, massive schools of fish, darting colorful tropicals, exotic little creatures, big pelagics cruising through looking for a meal, bright healthy coral covering almost every square inch of space. It's all here. I should have known I'd be happy when I heard our first dive site was named "Turtle Patch!" Oh and did I mention I've seen turtles on every single dive so far (10 and counting...) and saw a dozen greens and one loggerhead on just one dive yesterday!! I am in heaven! I have literally swam around a coral head and bumped into the beautiful shell of a sleeping green turtle, who could barely be bothered to move away... Oh and on top of all the sharks (white-tips, black-tips, and hammerheads,) I also dove through a school of about three thousand five foot long barracudas. Wow wow and again wow. And did I mention the nudibranchs? Yes, they are here too, in an explosion of wild colors and styles - we even got to watch some hot nudi on nudi action today... I am now spoiled forever, but will just have to survive. T, Wellngton and I have come up from dives just laughing in amazement at everything we have seen - there is just nothing to say!

Katja has been plugging away on her open water since we arrived and T and I jumped in to help a bit today for her final two cert dives. She is now PADI's newest Open Water Diver and ready to take it all in.

So we are leaving tomorrow to go do some jungle trekking. Go figure. We are booked for a three day river rafting and jungle adventure. Between my fear of centipedes and Wellington's terror of leeches and the prospect of crapping in a bucket for the rest of the week, you gotta wonder, "Why are they leaving?" And honestly, I am wondering the same thing.

Wish me luck!

Ciao and it's great to be back with you!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Itchy Feet

Well, you had to guess this was coming...  I leave for Borneo on Thursday.  

First let me backtrack a bit to let you know what I've been up to and how I've been doing re-adjusting to home.

These last two months, I've kept busy with friend and family commitments, getting to know my almost year old nephew Andrew, (when I left he was basically a lump on a blanket, now he's taking steps!) a couple of weekends of snowboarding, settling in to Charlottesville, DC United games and going out and making new friends.  
My Nana, Violet Burtt, turned 100 in March and we had a great family and friends party for her.  She made the local papers and a TV news crew showed up so that night, there she was on TV - dancing to "Y-M-C-A!"  Really.  She had a great time, but was a little tired after all the excitement.  Friends have come down from DC to visit and  we've explored C-Ville's nightlife, hit some wineries and gone hiking on the Appalachian Trail.  I even joined the local scuba club!  I also spent a week baby-sitting my six year old nephew CJ (we had lots of fun breaking my sister's rules, please don't tell her!) and ran a 10K last weekend.  Whew, I've been busy!

Life in the states is a bit weird and I've really felt a little out of step.  I am continually astounded by the choices we have - multiple strip malls each with basically the same stores over and over again.  You spend so much time in third world countries assessing where to get things you need and mentally marking them for future reference, ("hmm this store has a brand of shaving cream I recognize, or a cookie I might try,...") yet when I do that at home it feels almost silly.  Driving was weird too - when I first got back on the road I felt like I was flying when I was really almost always 10mph under the limit.  And if you know me, I tend to NOT be under any limit ;)  Also, the things we worry about as a culture seem less important to me now - I've seen some poverty and pain, people in desperate situations, damaged environments and poor outlooks.  We in the western world and especially in America don't always realize how truly lucky we are just to be fortunate enough to live here in the midst of such prosperity and opportunity.  Not everyone here has it easy or perfect, but even the poorest person has chances for survival that millions of people around the world couldn't dream of.  I realize we all have essentially won a genetic/geographic lottery by being born in America, and it has changed my view of things quite a bit.  Makes it kind of hard to worry about J Lo's baby pics, who is still on American Idol, or what some politician's advisor said about somebody else.  

I've really missed the diving - I haven't been in the water since Zanzibar and man, am I dying to get wet!  So when my German friend Theresa (you might remember her as my dive buddy in Thailand,) told me she and a friend from home were heading to Sipadan, on the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo, the wheels started turning in my brain...  

At first I was a bit reluctant, after all, I've already been to Malaysia and wouldn't be earning a new passport stamp for returning.  "Wait a minute," I realized, "how silly is that - turning your nose up at a trip to one of the greatest places for diving on earth because you cannot tick off a new country on your mental map of the world?  Get real!"  So I looked at my schedule (open) and finances, (grim but WTF,) and made it work.  Now my friend Wellington is coming along so I've even got someone to travel with, (finally.)  

So here's how it's gonna work - roundtrips were expensive so when I noticed a cheap one-way fare to Bangkok I jumped on it, planning on working out how to get home later.  So I've got a little over three weeks in Malaysia where we plan to do lots of diving in a couple different areas, go rafting through the jungle, visit an orangutan sanctuary and maybe climb a mountain (though after Kilimanjaro, that's not really high on my list...)  Next, I had to decide what route to get home.  If you read my blog from last August, you might remember that I realized that by traveling west around the world I was actually getting a day younger.  Well I decided to knock another day off my age and come home in that direction.  Now I just needed to decide where to stop - I played on for a while, tracking airfares, and dreaming about destinations.  I checked fares to Munich, Krakow, Dubai, Istanbul, Prague, Moscow, and finally found 
a really cheap one to London.  Hey, I've never been before so it appeases the passport snob in me, and I've got some friends there I can hit up for tour advice (and maybe a couch or two...,) so the choice was pretty easy.  Now I've got 10 days in the UK and am still deciding what to see.  Not doing so hot on the couch hunt so far, but I've got a trusty Risk Steve's in hand and we'll just have to see what pops up!  

I don't have a fare home yet, but I plan on being back around the 12th so that I'm here for my sister's birthday and also a week ahead of school.

Yup, that's right, I said school.  I'm taking summer classes locally in C-Ville to get ready for Grad School in Marine Bio.  This summer are Chemistry and Bio2 (plus labs,) so wish me luck as I embark on a completely new stage of my life.  I'd love to do more work with turtles but really, anything involving the amazing life to be found in the undersea world is so exciting.

Boy, it feels good to be writing to you again, I hope you keep reading and enjoy the next chapter of my journeys...

Stay Wet,

Monday, February 11, 2008

Last Stop: Spain

When I decided to add Spain to my round the world adventure, I was suddenly flooded with advice.  Way more people than I expected have vacationed or lived there and they all had very strong opinions on what I should visit during my ten day stay.  Since my best friend's little sister Lulu (or Elizabeth, hey I've known her since she was a kid, I can't get my brain around the "new" grownup name,) lives in Madrid, it was a given that I would base there and take advantage of her years of experience (and her couch!) 
Leaving Italy was hard.  No problems or anything, it's just I really loved my time there and there was so much more I wanted to do.  Oh well, next time...  

I landed in Madrid in the middle of the afternoon and followed Lulu's directions to the bar where she had me wait for her to get off work.  A couple of cold beers later, she popped in and we eventually headed to her apartment.  Later I met her boyfriend Mike (not Australian, amazing!) and we went out to dinner.  Spaniards are known for eating late and the restaurant we went to doesn't even open until 9PM!  We had a long leisurely dinner and then we walked all over town and they pointed out the sights at night.  It is really a late night town, the streets and bars were with people and we even saw parents with kids out walking around after 1AM!  
The city is filled with Plazas and grand boulevards and I spent days wandering around local neighborhoods, sampling Spanish cuisine at tapas bars, and seeing the sights.  Madrid has some of the best art museums in the world - the Prado, the Thyssen, and the Reina-Sofia where I spent a long Sunday afternoon with Lulu and Mike.  I have a very large print of Picasso's Guernica, it's one of my favorites of all the prints I own - his vision of a horrible Nazi bombing during the Spanish Civil War and the power and anguish the he projects in the tortured figures is so compelling.  
This massive piece is displayed there along with many of the sketches and studies Picasso drew as he prepared to paint it.  I could have spent hours just looking, it seemed every time I was about to turn away I would notice a new element of figure that I never noticed before in my much smaller copy.  One night, Lulu found us a true Flamenco show in a tiny out of the way bar.  While the singing is not exactly one of my faves, the whole effect of the musicians and the dancing in the dark smoky club was fantastic, and I would really recommend seeking out a good local show when you visit Spain.

One day I took the high speed train to Toledo, a small city with tons of history.  This medieval shows off a blend of the cultures that shaped Spain through the centuries.  Moorish, Christian and Jewish influences are visible in many of the old city's buildings.  There are some pleasant little museums and I really enjoyed the views from the old defensive walls of the town.  Many of the streets are tiny winding alleys that reminded me of Stonetown in Zanzibar - must be the Arab influences...

Barcelona is a city I've always known I would visit and fall in love with, so I couldn't wait to have my friend Vicki show me around - but then she went and got an internship and decided to stay in the Seychelles a while (who could really blame her, I mean - c'mon, wouldn't you want to stay in paradise and play with turtles for another 10 weeks?)  So when I visited I was sadly on my own.  The hostel I picked turned out to be fantastic, and its location on Passeig de Gracia could not have been better situated for visiting this wondrous city.  I walked down the famous boulevard Las Ramblas, poked around the Barri Gotic and El Raval, looked in on markets, drank wine at a cafe overlooking the harbor, and sampled yummy Catalan cooking.  There were some great art museums here, too, MACBA (contemporary art,) one specifically for Picasso and one for Miro.  Definitely my kind of city.  One day was my modernista day and I visited all the buildings and parks created in this style.  The greatest examples of the genius of Gaudi, the Father of the movement, is la Sagrada Familia, probably the most stunning cathedral I've ever seen - and it's not even finished yet!  Started in the late 1800's, artisans and architects are projected to be working to finish Gaudi's masterpiece sometime in the middle of this century... 
Two more recent jewels of the city are its fantastic aquarium (with a walk-through shark tunnel,) and all the Olympic venues on Montjuic.  I made the long long walk up that hill before noticing there is a special graded metro train that makes the steep trip.  The restaurants in Barcelona are amazing and my last night there, I had one of the best meals of my entire trip with my roommate Maddie.  Then we barhopped around the city and wound up dancing until 4 or 5 (I think...)  I was a little groggy the next morning, but all I had to do was survive the short jet trip back to Madrid.

When I got there, it was Carnaval, so Mike, Lulu and I watched part of a parade before going out for an awesome Paella dinner.  The next day we wandered through street markets, ate tapas at tiny local places, shopped some more and then went to the movies when we couldn't take the rain anymore.  I went online to find out which teams were playing in the Superbowl and at 12:30 AM, headed to an irish bar to watch it.  Not too surprisingly, the place was almost deserted, with only about seven of us watching the game.  Through the first three quarters it wasn't very exciting, and the situation was made worse by the fact that the Spanish feed doesn't show any of the highly anticipated commercials.  When the game paused, (and it sure paused a lot!) the feed was just a long range shot of the entire stadium from deep in an upper deck corner.  It got pretty boring waiting for the next play to start, and the halftime show took forever,  so I wasn't too upset when the staff closed the bar and tossed all of us out at the end of the third quarter around 3:30.  Little did I know how good a game it would turn out to be and of course I missed the best part...

I really enjoyed Spain, while not flashy and covered with touristy options like Italy, it has a good feel with lots of low key things to do.  The museums are top-notch, the transportation options were easy and everywhere, and the food and drink are great and despite the saggy dollar, not too badly priced.  The people are more reserved than in other countries, but the combination of uniquely Spanish things to do and visit made for a great stay.  One difficulty that surprised me was the language.  I've picked up a fair bit of Spanish traveling in Mexico and around Central and South America, but with the accent, the speed of delivery and tone range spoken, I could never figure out a thing anyone was saying in Spain.  I did like the whole concept of getting a plate of tapas with every round of drinks you ordered, and was very amused that if you order a Biquini, you get a grilled cheese sandwich.  Even funnier was the number of mullets on display - I had hoped this horrible hairstyle was dead everywhere in the world, but no - the Spanish male thinks it is a cool expression of coolness.  

After Madrid, the next stop was home so the next morning, I packed my bag for the last time and said farewell to Lulu already feeling some nostalgia and an urge to be on the road again.  I think I've got the travel bug bad - a condition made obvious to me on my layover in Heathrow.   With several hours to kill, I caught myself in front of the travel section at the Borders books, rifling through the guides and had to laugh at myself.  Not even home yet and already dreaming...

I've been home now for a couple of weeks - the family is visited, friends recontacted, cell phone activated and even Voodoo has forgiven me my long absence.  My backpack is completely empty for the first time in months and looks pretty forlorn.  There is still some sand in the corners though...

What's next?  Who knows?  But no matter where I end up, I will always have this wonderful journey of world and self-discovery to look back on and smile.  

Plus, I'm a whole day younger!

Thanks for traveling along with me here, I hope you enjoyed it almost as much as I did...

Friday, February 8, 2008

All Roads Lead To Rome…

                                          Even at Four AM.

It was good to escape the menacing streets of Kenya and head for the reportedly safer streets of Europe. My flight to Rome connected through Heathrow the day after a runway accident there had made the news even in Nairobi, but I was still surprised by the impact it was having over 24 hours later. So a plane misses the runway – there were no serious injuries, just drag the wreckage out of the way and get on with it. But not at Heathrow, there they decided to close one of their two runways to investigate. I’m confused a little bit but then again I’m not so smart, wasn’t the problem that the plane missed the runway, why close it? So while I managed to escape on time a riot-torn African city where the government has possibly stolen power, hundreds had been slain, and tens of thousands are homeless refugees, in England the next leg of my flight was five and a half hours late while authorities looked at some torn up grass. Ahhh, civilization. So I grabbed a meal, found a comfy spot and started to read the new Lonely Planet I bought for Italy. (Holy shit, books are expensive in the UK!)

I finally landed in Rome at 3:30AM, long after the public transport options had closed and shared a taxibus into town with six other travelers. For 30 Euros apiece!!! Already I was getting the authentic ancient Roman experience - being treated like a Sabine. Dropped at the door of my reserved hostel at 5AM, I vainly knocked on their locked door for 15 minutes before pulling out my Lonely Planet to see what other options were available in the neighborhood. Squinting at the text and tiny maps by streetlight, I wandered several streets and knocked on several doors before luckily finding Freedom Traveler’s Hostel near Termini train station.

I slept through the free breakfast the next morning and got a late start on my sightseeing, but still managed to pack a lot into my day. With a tourist map in my fist, I headed to a street market to get myself some warm clothes - after months in Asia and Africa, I was freezing my ass off! Before this trip, I had always hated haggling, but I must have learned well in the markets of Thailand and Zanzibar, because I left a trail of upset salesman in my wake. Wearing my new black jeans, faux Gucci belt, black turtleneck sweater and a black coat, (when in Rome…) I walked all over Rome for hours seeing sights I’d only read about – the Colosseum, the Forum, Spanish Steps, the Vatican, Trevi Fountain and the Parthenon. I wandered through winding cobbled alleys into astonishing statue filled Piazzas, stopped for coffee in tiny cafes and sampled pizza or gelato whenever the mood struck me.

After walking around for eight hours or so, I dragged my tired butt back to my room and met the roommates I had tried not to disturb the night before. Anne from Gaucher college and Naomi from Australia (another one – is there anyone left down there at all?) had been in Italy for a little while and gave me advice for my visit. The next morning, Anne took off for Naples and Naomi and I headed out to explore. In between frantic searches for Twix bars and gelato, we actually saw lots of stuff. Vicki had advised me to avoid the line at the Colosseum by getting the ticket for both at the Palatine Hill, so we visited there first, enjoying great views of the city and centuries of ancient Roman ruins. Then we waltzed past the people in line like J Lo at a nightclub and were soon imagining ourselves as gladiators waiting to enter the arena for a fight to the death. Compared to modern sporting arenas, the 50,000 seat Colosseum is nothing special. But then you recall it was built almost two millenniums ago by people using only muscle power and it is astonishing. I wonder if Washington DC’s RFK stadium will still be around in the year 4008?  Doubtful.

We spent the rest of the day exploring Rome on foot, finding all kinds of cool back-alley shops, cafes and cathedrals. We had lunch in fabulous Piazza Navona - my favorite in all of Rome. After hours more wandering, I took pictures and watched the sun set behind the Vatican. Crossing the Tiber to Castello Sant' Angelo, we stopped and watched ice skaters circling endlessly before finding a tiny trattoria for dinner and a bottle of good wine. It seemed to be locals only and many very satisfying courses later, and after some wrong turns, we headed home.

The next several days were a blur of sights, museums, famous works of art, cathedrals, great food and wine, and passing time in piazzas. There was always a fun crowd around the hostel, so finding people to eat, wander and go out with was easy. I took a walking tour with Will, one of the staff, who seemed to know all the out of the way cool stuff and good stories I like in a tour. We even went inside a Capuchin Church crypt where over hundreds of years, the monks had used their brothers' bones to decorate the rooms. The tour included some sights I had already visited, but Will's insider stories made them fresh and interesting.

I decided to spend a couple of days in Florence and Will had recommended I stay at D'Archi Rossi Hostel, and once again, he scored big. It was a larger place and I stayed in a 12 person dorm, but the place was clean, had lots of hot water, and was amazingly painted with murals by all the guests. looking at the replicas of Italian works of art, modern interpretations, and original pieces, I felt distinctly untalented. It seemed the norm in Europe was fun hostels with lots of cool programs and I gladly took all their advice and enjoyed the city. For a tiny city, there was tons of history, and signs of the taste and power of the Medici family was everywhere. Highlights included Il Duomo Cathedral, Botticelli's Venus at the Uffizi Gallery, and Michaelangelo's massive David. I think I hit every art gallery in the city! All in all I packed everything there is to do in Florence into just a couple of days, and even had a fun night out in a local Irish bar (the only place showing soccer games.) I had gone there to meet up with my hostel roommates (Adam, Kevin & Sean from where else - Australia,) who were hours late. I think they were actually blowing me off, so imagine their surprise and disappointment when they walked in to find me sharing a table with four American girls - a bunch of students from GWU taking a year to study art at the local Florentine University. We talked art, travel, sky & scuba-diving and DC for hours until the bar closed and I headed back to the hostel where all my roommates were long in bed. I bet they are still wondering about "that old American guy."

The trains to and from Florence were fantastic, just like the rest of the public transportation system seemed to be, especially in Rome. The Metro and Buses are easy to figure out, maps are simple, getting tickets a breeze, it's all in perfect shape, and it goes everywhere you need to be. The direct line to the airport, the Leonardo Express, has to be one of the nicest trains I've ever ridden but it was sadly taking me away for my flight to the last stop of my world tour - Spain.

Ciao for now,

Italy Notes And Musings…

After a week of museums, sculpture, cathedrals, Roman ruins, Renaissance Palaces, and the Vatican, my only question is: how is there any marble left on the planet?

After six months of wandering through parts of the world that might seem a little sketchy to the untravelled Westerner, (seedier parts of Bangkok, Communist Viet Nam, remote areas of Muslim Indonesia, tragic Cambodia, plus Africa with all its strife and corruption,) it was in Rome that Bank Of America decided there was too much “unusual activity” on my ATM card and locked me out of my account! What does that say about BofA’s opinion of Italy? Funny, but definitely a pain in the ass.

While I think Italian is a beautiful language, and appreciate its flow as well as its history, any two people speaking and gesturing together seem like they are having a full-on argument.

Italy is the home of the exotic sports car and the names just roll off the tongue. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Lanzia, Alfa-Romeo, Aston Martin…, huh? Yup, the only stop-me-in-the-street exotic sports car I saw the entire time was an English one - an Aston Martin Vantage, driven by a fat hairy old guy in some really nice clothes. The car looked fine enough to be Italian though…

I have been warned repeatedly about crazy driving in Italy and that every driver here acts like a frustrated Formula 1 racer.  After the streets of Bangkok, Singapore and Saigon it seemed pretty tame.  I did have lots of troubles crossing streets however - almost every country i've visited has been left side drive and it seemed I was always looking the wrong way when I stepped out!  Some very close calls...

Holy crap, everyone smokes a lot! It’s worse than a coffee break at the tobacco farm.

Everyone said Italian men and women are all outrageously beautiful and wonderfully dressed in the most fashionable clothes. I would agree that there were lots of pretty people there, but not that many more than in any other city I’ve visited. As for fashion, well I’m definitely not the one to come to for advice but if high-fashion means ugly high-heeled boots I last saw at a Bon Jovi concert in 1987, then sure – everyone in Italy is fashionable. Everything else they were wearing looked really cool though.

The smallest note in the European currency is the 5 Euro. I like the one and two Euro coins and think America should come up with a good design (one that’s not almost exactly the same size and shape as the quarter. Maybe polygonal or something?) and get rid of the dollar bill. The only down-side is how heavy the change on your pocket gets and it’s surprising how quickly it adds up to real money!

Art!! Food!! Wine!! Italy is heaven on earth!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Quickie: Europe And Home

Hey all, Iºm in Barcelona (awesome city, looking for a job here...) Italy and Spain posts are coming, I promise. Just been busy running around Europe.

I am home in the States on Monday night (has it been that long already, seems like I just left!) and checked in on US news today (to find out who is in the Superbowl actually - is it this weekend?)
I noticed that the US economy lost 17,000 jobs last month AND ExxonMobil posted record profits. I think that was the exact same news when I left... To quote the great Yogi Berra, it seems like deja vu all over again!


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Kenya, A Little Scary...

The day after returning from Kili, fresh from two great meals, three looooooooong hot showers, and a fantastic night’s sleep on my Splurge Hotel’s Queen size bed, I met my Kili guide, Arushaa, and his wife for lunch and a little shopping. First I set him up with an email account and showed him how to use it – he wants to start doing some guiding without the tour companies taking the larger share of the money, and I think the web is the small business’ key to the future. Then we went to an open air secondhand market and we found me some jeans and a pair of shoes. I’d been noticing strange American t-shirts all around Africa – "Lake HS Class of ’98," lots of college t-shirts, political slogans, work softball team jerseys, and a memorably profane one from a Fire Dept in Elkhart Indiana; now I realized where all these shirts were coming from! When you donate old clothes to charity, those that don’t get sold in the States are sold in bulk to people who ship them to Africa where they are resold cheaply to the locals. I wondered how long it will take for all the ones I gave away last April to get here, and half expected to spot one.

Then I bought Arushaa and his wife lunch at a tiny locals place that was really good. As I sat there at a common table rubbing elbows with the Africans on either side of me, eating I have no idea what, in a place whose conditions would have horrified me seven months ago, I realized moments like this are what I’m really going to treasure from this trip. It’s meeting people from all over the world, making friends and learning about their lives and how they look at life.

At 2PM I caught a shuttle bus to Nairobi for a three day visit before flying to Rome. With the recent post-election riots and mayhem on my mind, I had my eyes peeled for trouble but the only thing I noticed was squads of geared up riot troops on many corners.

The next morning, I met Waswa, a connection of Arushaa’s who owns his own business doing Outward Bound style team building and consulting with Kenyan companies. We decided to go to Hell’s Gate National Park for a day of mountain biking with all the herd animals I’d only seen from a safari truck before. We went off road to work our way closer to the animals and I followed gazelles, antelopes, and zebra until they got tired of me and wandered off. I chased some families of warthogs and tried to approach cape buffalo – but it was they who drove me off with their defiant formations and intimidating size. I didn’t want to push too close as I wasn’t sure I could pedal faster over the uneven terrain than they could run! It is safe to bike because there are no lions, but leopards have been occasionally seen and we kept out from under trees where they like to sleep on low branches during the day and ambush prey when hungry. Later we parked the bikes and climbed down into a beautiful gorge, past geothermal vents that give the park its name.

After a long drive back to Nairobi with a great conversation that could have lasted all night, I ate at the hotel bar and watched a French League soccer match. Due to the planned opposition rallies, I decided to stay in the city the next day and carefully poke around the city. After the game I watched the local news which included some pretty graphic footage of police shooting two protesters at close range with AK-47s, then kicking the wounded men on the ground as they died. Later, CNN had a story citing “alleged reports” of the deaths, and I wondered how they had missed the local footage, which didn’t look very “alleged” to me.

After breakfast the next morning, I headed out to look around. There were many people out but most businesses were locked up tight. All I saw were lots of riot police and some groups with clubs shooing people away. After the second time I was stopped by police or troops (I couldn’t tell the difference,) in riot gear, I was getting worried. They checked my passport several times and kept asking if I was a journalist as they reviewed the pictures on my camera. I wasn’t sure of the better answer and decided to hole up in the internet café across from my hostel for the rest of the day.

On my way to the airport the next morning, my taxi got stopped at a roadblock where the police tried to shake me down for not wearing a seatbelt in the backseat. Saying it was my responsibility to know the local laws, they were sorry but they “would have to take me to police HQ.” I just stayed calm, refused to get out of the cab, admitted nothing and kept saying they there was no reason to arrest me for that. When they finally did pull me out of the car, I just said that I lived in DC and to make sure they called the US embassy so someone would meet us at the station. That’s when they put me back in the taxi and waved us on. After, the taxi driver said it’s a common police scam to stop cabs on the way to the airport, invent an infraction and try to get bribes from foreigners worried about missing flights. What a racket!

Nairobi looked like a pretty modern, western style city at its center, and the rest of Kenya seemed intriguing too. It’s a shame I couldn’t see more of it.

Next stop – Rome!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Slogging Up Kilimanjaro...

My flight to Tanzania had a layover in Nairobi, so on the southbound leg, my window seat included a great view of Mount Kilimanjaro. Her snowy peaks and crater burst up through the clouds into the sunlight and seemed to almost scrape the underside of the jet's wing as we passed overhead.
"I 'm going to attempt that?" I asked myself, trying to calculate how much worse 5896m (19,457 feet) is than the 13 thousand or so feet I endured skiing in Colorado last year. "Well, I am going to give it my best," I decided, worrying a little about the 30%-50% failure rate the guidebooks claimed.
Cut to: a couple of weeks later.
In Arusha, there are probably 50 companies running treks up the mountain and there are almost as many different ways to make the climb. There are around seven routes of varying difficulty and scenery, then you decide how many days from five to eight or nine with the longer trips offering more acclimatization time. Of course more days = more money. Next decide how "gourmet" you want to travel. There are all kinds of amenities and services offered from meal quality to better lodging and bedding. I even saw one group with a tiny, tented, private port-a-potty! No sharing the nasty wooden hole in the floor outhouse for these climbers. Of course more luxuries = more money! I got pretty lucky and found a group doing one of the routes I was interested in, Machamé (scenic and not too crowded but one of the harder routes,) leaving the day after I got back from safari, taking six days and in my price range - hooray! They even had cold weather and trekking gear I could rent.
So early in the morning, I joined a French couple, Christelle & Christophe (another language workout!) who live on Reunion Island near Mauritius, and set off with 12 porters and a guide up the mountain.
The climb is broken up into reasonable daily hikes to allow for some acclimatization and not completely exhaust the tourists. Our first day we were supposed to leave from the Machamé entrance gate at 1700m, but our van broke down a kilometer short of that so we had some bonus hiking right at the start at no extra charge. It was a very pretty hike through the green rainforest, moderately strenuous most of the way, but it got a little steeper after we broke through the treeline and approached our goal. Four and a half hours after starting, we arrived at our first night's camp at 3034m and found the porters had pitched our tents and dinner was almost ready. We all went right to bed after eating and I tried to sleep all bundled up in my chilly little tent.
Day 2 started with breakfast at 7:30 (porridge! - am I back in the -Seychelles?) and then hiked another 4.5 hours up to 3800m with great views most of the way, but the clouds closed in and it started raining just after we reached camp at 1:15. The rest of the afternoon was acclimatization time and we all napped after Christelle, who is a biology and geology teacher, worked on my French. Christophe has just a little English, but Christelle's was about level with my French, so conversation was pretty easy. It was a cold, cloudy, and cold (did I mention it was cold?) camp with some weird sci-fi looking plants growing in the rocks all around.
After a very cold night (-10°C) we woke up to sunshine glinting off the frozen tents and a beautiful view of the high peaks and glaciers up on Kili's summit. I had slept badly due to the cold - Nature Beauties gave me a crap tent and sleeping bag. And who designs a thermal mat that is narrower than a person? Every time a part of my body touched the ground off the mat, I was quickly wakened by cold seeping in through my layers. If I didn't lie like King Tut with my arms crossed on my chest, not moving at all, I kept waking up and I could feel exhaustion beginning to take its toll. I was chilled as I don't think my gear was designed with this kind of camping in mind. That day, we hiked six hours up to Lava Tower at 4600m and back down to Barranko Camp which is just under 4000m, to get more used to the altitude. It was bloody cold and even planning to wear most of the clothes I owned, I was not looking forward to that night. I had a solid headache due to altitude and effort despite hydrating like crazy. And peeing every hour made sleep even more difficult. I was worried what the next day would bring...
All the clothes did not help and I spent a mostly sleepless night trying to find the warmest position and then not move. After a quick breakfast that I really didn't feel like eating, we packed and hit the trail on a long ascent to altitude for our last camp before the summit push. The combination of altitude, hard climb, cold and lack of sleep were beginning to exhaust me and I felt awful all day. By lunch the hike and altitude robbed us of our appetites, and we huddled out of the wind behind some rocks, staring at bag lunches we barely touched. I forced down what I could and packed in a liter of water on top of that. I knew dehydration in the thin dry air must be avoided and I swallowed the icy water knowing that we would at least get a breather every time we stopped to pee. After lunch, conditions got worse - colder and wetter - and Christelle started getting sick.
Staggering along, I caught my mind considering ways to quit and end the misery and controlled it by forcing everything out and just counting my steps. Left foot odds and right foot evens and trying to focus on any interesting numbers I passed.
34- my lucky number...
1066 - William the Conqueror...
1492 - Columbus...
1776 - Declaration of Independence...
1968 - my birthyear...
1990 - college graduation...
2002 - CJ is born...
2068 - I turn 100...
3434 - lucky number twice.
Soon they lost all meaning as I moved slowly up the mountain and I really had to focus during the breaks not to lose count. Christelle got sicker, puking every couple hundred meters, and I was now fighting the nausea and taste of my own old food. "What is that awful taste? Hard-boiled egg? I threw mine away at lunch, can I be fighting down yesterday's lunch?!?" The step count grew until after six hours of hiking, finally we stopped at Barafu camp, altitude 4662m.
Step count - 7192.
The plan was to nap, grab some dinner, then sleep for a couple more hours before rising at 11:30PM for a midnight start on the summit climb - hoping to arrive around dawn.
Here is where I got lucky. I had been trying to come up with a better way to sleep and decided that half my trouble was the mummy style sleeping bag that I just could not get comfy in. So this time, I put on all my warmest clothes and lay down directly on the thermal mat with the unzipped sleeping bag over me like a blanket so I could lie on my side, which was all but impossible before. Our guide Arushaa had noticed my struggles with poor gear and the cold and dug up some decent socks for me. Between the two, I got a decent nap before dinner and felt a little better.
By then Christelle was so sick she could not even get out of her sleeping bag - she wouldn't be going any further and would head down to a lesser altitude as soon as possible. The thought of eating turned my stomach and Christophe had it worse - all the difficulties we were sharing, plus a ton of worry about his girlfriend. We stared at the food for a while, and I eventually managed half a bowl of soup with a piece of bread crumbled in, two spoonfuls of plain pasta, and some tea. Chris only had soup and I struggled to encourage and cheer him up in French. Then it was back to our tents for some sleep before the midnight hike.
As I zipped the flap, I noticed how the strengthening winds were rattling my tent and I thought it might blow away if me and my pack weren't inside holding it down. Every time I needed to pee, I stayed inside and used the water bottle trick I had discovered in the Serengeti. Only this time, I augmented my new sleep system by huddling around the warm bottle until its heat faded. When I woke with a stuffed nose, I just blew it right into the sleeping bag without even uncovering my head, "I've only got to sleep in it one more night," I thought as I drifted back to sleep, "my snot is the next guy's problem." This way, I managed to get another decent five hours of shuteye.
I awoke to a porter calling my name, quickly dressed in my planned ascent clothes, drank the cup of tea, and downed the cookies he left. The wind was really buffeting my tent as I put brand new batteries in my headlamp and mentally got ready for what lay ahead in the dark on the frozen hill.
Decent sleep made all the difference and I felt pretty good. My blood was up and I just knew my goal was within reach. Determination took over and now I just had to get it done.
Then Arushaa came and I crawled out into the frigid dark to begin the final climb to the summit of the highest mountain on the continent. Chris was nowhere to be seen as we started out, but I barely gave it a thought and just focused on keeping the beam of my headlight on Arushaa's boots and trying to step in all the good spots he used. "Poley poley," I thought, rerpeating the Swahili words for "slowly, slowly," over and over again in my mind. Step step breathe. Step step breathe. An hour and a half in, my head lamp died - the batteries killed by the cold. With chilled fingers like dead meat, I struggled to reinsert the half batteries I had pulled out in my tent, and opened my jacket to put the dead ones close to my body where they might get some more life as they warmed. The constant wind gusts were trying to knock me off the exposed rocks and for the first time, I feared not making it for reasons other than my own exhaustion or reaction to altitude. I knew I had the mental strength to drag my body to the top and well beyond, but "What a shame," I thought, "if I failed because of no lights or a fall in this shitty wind!" When the second set of batteries gave out, I pulled out the the dive light I usually keep on my BC and had luckily brought along as a third backup. Poley Poley, higher and higher.
Even though I could no longer feel them, I kept wiggling my toes and fingers, trying to keep the blood flowing. It hurt every time I scraped the snotsicles off my nose, so I figured I was safe from frostbite there, at least.
Around 5AM, the divelight died and when Arushaa seemed a little frustrated while I was switching back to the headlamp and changing out batteries, I almost snapped at him, "I brought TWO flashlights and THREE sets of batteries," I raged but kept it inside, "and you didn't bring shit - so get off my back!" This time, the rewarmed first batteries lasted no more than 20 minutes, and I was about to chuck it off the mountain. But Arushaa came through and scrounged two AAA batteries from another guide, and with the one leftover I remembered sticking in my pocket from the four-pack I had opened in the tent, I thought we would have light until dawn. Back to the climbing, up through the wind and the cold.
I was still plodding along, somewhere deep in my own mind where it wasn't cold and painful, when suddenly Arushaa was hugging me, "Congratulations," he shouted in my ear, "we're here!" and I realized that it was light enough to see and the slope had gotten more gradual. We had reached Stella Point, not the top top yet - that lay several hundred meters up, but was just a 45 minute walk instead of a climb through the really thin air. Looped on the lack of O2, I staggered into the wind on to Uhuru Point, arriving at 6:20AM, just over six hours after leaving camp.
I dragged out my camera, inserted the battery I'd kept warm against my body, and took some pics at the wooden sign. It was cloudy and the top is pretty flat so there wasn't really any views. I pulled out a sign I made as a joke for some GVI friends and found some people to pose with it. The relentless wind tore one of the pieces from someone's grasp and it was instantly gone forever - I didn't even bother to look. I just tried to shoot what was left before it got snatched away, too. Drunk with success and the thin air, I put the camera away and pulled out the Mars Bar I'd carried all week to celebrate and almost broke a tooth on it, "We'll eat that later," Arushaa cautioned, "you'll just throw it up, here." And with that we started back down.
Now I noticed the exhausted and desperate faces of those on the way up as we passed. "Almost there," I cheered them, "you're doing great!" I tried to give them some of my energy to make it. Few noticed and soon I was far enough down that I felt silly saying anything so I just looked at them, wondering who would quit. Lots had, I realized when I compared the numbers of people I saw around the summit with the hordes that left camp back at midnight - the cold and altitude had taken their toll.
We descended back to Barafu Camp to the east and soon the sun cleared a peak and shone horizontally under the clouds, warming me as we almost skiied down a dusty gravel slope. I could have slipped and fallen all the way back to my tentand not cared - I had made it! I'd been scared my body couldn't handle the altitude, but it had. I'd survived days and nights of dreadful cold I'd never expected and wasn't prepared for. I totalled the hours of climbing in my head and realized that I had hiked 4.3 km vertically and 26.5 hours to the summit in five days! Finally I reached camp around 9AM where Arushaa let me sleep for an hour before waking me with a quick bowl of soup and then we were off for another three hour hike to that night's camp down at 3089m.
I rolled into Mweka Camp on rubbery legs with a small smile and asked Chris & Chris how they were doing. Her stomach was lots better and they hugged me and we shared my Mars Bar. I know Chris could have made it, physically I think he was stronger than me, but I also think he had to stay with his girlfriend. I told him this and said he had made the right decision and he looked relieved. Then this Quebecois guy named Simon showed up and we talked in French until dinner. How did I get stuck with the only three French speakers on the mountain?? It was OK, though, I could follow most of it, and they talked slowly and helped when I needed a translation. Simon works in Montreal as a Survival Instructor (!) and incredibly he had summited in the dark before 5AM, took two pictures and was back in his tent by 6:30 - when I was still at the summit. Wow!
The next day was a quick morning walk in shorts and a t-shirt and we descended quickly in the newly thick-feeling air. At the gate, we signed out of the mountain and I bought the porters a round of beers (at 10AM!) to thank them for the amazing job they did. Their job is very difficult, walking with huge loads balanced on their heads at twice the tourists' speed, while we were struggling with a light daypack. By early afternoon I was checked into my "splurge" hotel and was vainly trying to run them out of hot water.
The grand totals? - Six days. 34 hours of hiking. 1600m to 5896m and back down, about 8.6km of vertical change, (actually way more with all the ups and downs in between.) Four huge blisters and about 2kg of weight lost. Most importantly, I'd found inner strength and resolve I never knew I had. Arushaa said the summit temp was -13°C and we had gone up in the worst wind storm on the mountain in five years.

I believe it.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Wild Kingdom

One of my most vivid childhood memories was watching two nature shows on TV with my family: "The Undersea World With Jacques Cousteau," and "Mutual Of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. I'm sure everyone knows the French diving legend, but the other show (What was Mutual of Omaha anyway? A bank? An insurance company? Why Omaha? Did they do business outside of Nebraska? And what is so Mutual about it?) was as memorable for the amazing wildlife footage as for its host's wacky upswept hair. Every week, they brought new exotic wildlife right into my suburban home from all over the world, sparking a boy's imagination and generating an interest in animals and exotic destinations that has at least partially led to my present adventures.
Wild Kingdom and Jacques Cousteau eventually gave way to cable and my love of National Geographic and The Discovery Channel so it should be no surprise that the first thing I did on arrival in Arusha, Tanzinia, was to book a safari. I soon found a six day safari group that was looking to cut their price by adding a fourth member - that meant a good price for me, and since their plan included many of the parks I wanted to see, it was an easy decision to make.
The next morning I arrived at the safari company to find that things had changed a bit - for the better. Two of the other clients were held up by the violence in Kenya, so it was just myself and an Aussie named Libby to start and the others would try to catch up later.
Our first stop was Tarangiri National Park, and I could tell it was going to be great when we spotted impala from the entrance and an elephant only 500m inside the gate!! We spent the rest of the day riding around the park, standing on the seats for a great view out the open-topped Land Cruiser as our guide and driver, Bekka, described all the wildlife he was finding for us. We enjoyed close encounters with several herds of elephants, troops of baboons, some ostrich, giraffes, warthogs, waterbok, velvet monkeys, dik-diks, and even a lioness snoozing near her kill.
Next to a stream full of impala and a about 20 elephants drinking and tossing mud around with their trunks, I looked over at another approaching safari truck and one of the pasengers looked sorta familiar...
"Annette!" I called out, and sure enough, it was my friend - also fresh from dorm three and The Seychelles Experience - now enjoying Africa with her husband, Tim and we shouted updates to each other as our vehicles passed. Of course it's such a small world that when we camped for the night in a Maasai village, they were in the very next row of tents.
The next day we visited Lake Manyara Wildlife Conservation Area for more safari action, this time less wooded and skirting the edges of a massive lake where we spotted hippos and clouds of flamingoes. We also saw our first herds of zebra, cape buffalo, and wildebeest. Two of the zebras were injured and hobbling and the harsh reality of nature meant that they were probably someone's dinner that night of the next - and judging by the white bones scattered here and there on the green grass, there were definitely predators nearby...
The Lake was definitely better than Tarangiri, and we were beginning to see the massive amounts of wildlife Mutual Of Omaha promised. Annette had said that our safari route and park order was perfect - each would be better than the next and I couldn't wait for the next day and the legendary Serengeti!
The next morning, Libby and I awoke early and rolled out of our sleeping bags and tents to find our almost private tour had grown by one - the Swedish and Dutch girls were stuck in Uganda and had to cancel, but we were joined by Petr, a Czech engineer. So three people in a seven seat Land Cruiser was a hardship we would just have to endure and we got to know each other a bit on our morning drive to the next National Park.
In Swahili, Sirengit means "endless space" and long before we even approached the park entrance, I completely understood how the Serengeti was named. Formed when huge amounts of volcanic ash covered an older mountain range so only the occasional tip pokes out, the park is a vast flat grassy surface where animals roam everywhere. Our safari truck sped down a lonely unpaved track, across the dry grasslands and gently rolling hills. We passed Maasai villages or Boma with adorable kids frantically waving and yelling "Jambo! Jambo!!" and lean tall traditionally dressed tribesmen watching their herds of goat and cattle and gently shooing away some wildebeests and zebra tagging along for protection.
All signs of man apart from the long, straight, dirt road disappeared once we crossed into the National Park and it really began to feel like the Africa in the wildlife shows. Small groups of antelopes, impala, and zebra grazed together under the scorching sun from horizon to horizon as far as the eye could see. And the wildebeest were starting to mass together for their annual migration, not yet in the millions, but definitely in clumps of thousands. We drove through this magic environment for two hours with only an occasional stand of acacia trees or a kopje interrupting the vastness. It was here on one of these rocky islands that I got to see a young male lion, dozing like a prince on the sun, his half-grown mane styled like the Beckham faux-hawk - wow!
Our campsite was in a woodland area next to a riverbed so part of Bekka's evening briefing was a little off-putting: absolutely no food in the tents, and "if you need to get up to pee, shine your flashlight all the way around in a circle and look for eyes reflecting back from the dark." He recommended gathering a small pile of rocks next to the flap of our tents to chase animals away and wondered why I had only grabbed a couple?
"If whatever is out there doesn't leave after I've thrown this many stones at it, I've already pissed myself so it won't matter any more," I explained to the group's laughter. No one was laughing later that night when we heard the coughing grunt of lions and things breathing and sniffing around the tents. It's amazing how thin the fabric of a tent gets when your imagination is running away with you. It turned out two lions did roam through in the dark but most of the noises were from some hyenas in the bush and a pack of warthogs looking for scraps. I could have sworn something huge was testing the strength of my shelter all night. It was very sobering to see those big kitty pawprints in the dust right next to your tent in the morning light... After that, I started keeping an extra empty water bottle in my tent every night and then quietly tipping it out every morning in the bushes.
We had about two full days in the Serengeti and roamed all over. We saw many prides of lions, some with cubs, a leopard snoozing on a branch, hippos, a croc, and best of all - a cheetah moving through the tall grass! They have long been my favorite animal and I was hyped to get to really see one in the wild! Everytime we passed a herd of gazelles after that, I was secretly hoping to see a blur of yellow and black spots to ruin their day, heh heh heh.
Libby, Petr and I were a pretty good spotting team by our third day in Serengeti, and had seen so much that we were barely calling out sightings to each other unless there was something unusual to see like a baby giraffe or elephant, or vultures circling some doomed animal in the distance. Our last sighting before leaving that Park was just the bottom four inches of a leopard's tail as it snoozed on a branch obscured by the leaves, and we didn't feel like hanging around for an hour to see if it moved.
We packed up the camp and were excited to be heading to the famed (and almost unpronounceable,) Ngorongoro Crater National Park. After another long dusty drive across the savannah and herds of everything barely flicking an ear in our direction as we sped by, I convinced Bekka to make a slight detour so we could visit Olduvai Gorge, where the Leakey's made their amazing Australopithecus Boisei and Homo Habilus discoveries I studied in school. The gorge is not breathtakingly pretty, but it is awe-inspiring to look in and think that our ancient ancestors, as tiny and hairy as they were, once stood up, made basic tools, and walked around on the very earth I was standing on literally millions of years ago. It gave me the pricklies, anyway, and the museum was quite good.
That evening we arrived at the scenic Crater Rim and set up a camp as the sun set and the temperature plummeted, giving me a little unpleasant preview of my coming Kilimanjaro expedition... So cold I could barely sleep as the wind whipped around, I heard the familiar sounds of hyenas sniffing through the camp and suddenly remembered the bag of trail mix I had forgotten to store in the truck. So I huddled in the dark, headlamp and leatherman pocket knife at the ready, but I guess that hyenas don't like raisins, nuts, and M&M's too much so they wandered away after a while. Not a great night's sleep...
As the sun rose, we drove around the rim of the huge volcanic crater to the entrance road and headed down. The extinct structure is almost a kilometer deep and ten across so the view was fantastic! On the floor we headed towards the lake, passing elephants, buffalo, ostrich, zebra and gnus (same as wildebeest but the word is shorter and I'm getting tired of typing the longer one,) along the way. The lake had a pink tinge to it and when we got closer, we realized it was a huge flock of flamingoes, standing on one leg, scooping food from the shallow water. We spent the rest of the day cruising around getting very close to all the animals and I had a few highlights from the day. First was a black rhino trotting towards a morning drink or mudbath in the lake - this completed our "Big Five" (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino - basically all the stuff that can eat you or stomp you to a pulp,) and we were all pretty excited about it. Next was the lion vs. buffalo standoff we watched until the lions gave up and wandered off into the river brushes. Though I think the 15 safari trucks jockeying for the best view had as much to do with it as the group defense tactics of the buffalo... At lunch, some kind of huge eagle swooped down and snatched a big piece of food right out of Petr's hand, scaring the crap out of all of us! Last was following some vultures to a group of hyenas tearing into something they must have just brought down an hour or so before - gory but cool - a true wild kingdom moment. Ngorongoro is especially terrific because the place is so scenic and all the abundant life is concentrated on the crater floor where they roam around almost uncaring of the humans trying to get a glimpse into their lives.
Too soon, our time was up and Bekka turned the car back towards Arusha and the end of our safari. We dropped Petr on the way, and Libby and I went to dinner at a rooftop lounge right near our hostel. It was not a big night as I knew I was leaving for a six day climb to the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the morning...
I'll try to get the pics up soon - they are absolutely amazing!
Usiku Mwema,

Monday, January 14, 2008

Very Quick Update And Medical Question...

Hi there,
Tanzania wonderful.
Safari Incrrrrredible!
Just came down from Kilimanjaro this AM - I made it!!! (I'm the only one of group who did...) It was VERY hard, Lynne, Marc & Mike - it was way harder than the Boiling Lake. According to guide, the wind was the worst in 5 years, and the temp was -13!!
Here's the medical question for any of the RN's or MD's who read this:
My rental cold weather gear completely sucked, from the sleeping bag to the tent and clothes, too - especially the gloves. Although I never had any signs of frostbite like the whitening or grayness or blisters, my wedding ring finger tip has no feeling (no jokes about my related symptom of apparent lack of appeal to the opposite sex, please,) more than 35 hours after summiting. Color is normal, response to pressure is the same as all the other tips, and the skin temp feels the same as the other 9, too, just no feeling.
Any idea what this is?
Ahsante Sana,

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

There's Sand In My Toes

Zanzibar has many sides. Indian Ocean paradise with swaying palm trees overlooking crystal blue waters and pristine white beaches. Mysterious marketplaces where the senses are overwhelmed with the scents of a hundred spices and the sounds of haggling in another hundred foreign tongues. A historical crossroads of trade and power between ancient East, West, and African cultures. I managed to find all three in my short week on this tropical island off the east coast of Africa.

I had planned to visit for a week of fun dives and unwinding on the beach after months of working hard in the Seychelles, but finding a place to stay where I wanted was turning out to be impossible. I finally settled on a small beach lodge just outside the main town for a couple of nights, and would plan the rest of my stay from there. I spent some time exploring the twisting alleys and markets of Stonetown. I visited local museums, ancient forts, and art galleries. I dove in warm waters (medium vis,) with beautifel reefs teeming with fish and healthy coral. (And found some cool new corals - GVI has made me a coral geek!) The rest of my time I lazed along the miles of white sandy beaches in Jambiani. Running along the tideline at dawn, reading and relaxing in and out of the sun all day, and enjoying fresh seafood by torchlight under the stars at night.

Now it's my last day on a beach and there's sand in between my toes. There's also some in my ears, my hair, my pockets, the velcro on my watchband, and by the tiny itch I'm feeling I bet there's a grain or two in my butt I must have missed in the shower, too. It's Zanzibar sand - very white, powder fine - the kind that is hard to get rid of - and I know I will be finding gritty traces of it in the things I'm carrying for a long time to come. It will mix with the sand I've picked up from all the beaches and islands in Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sulawesi and the Seychelles I've visited, and soon the dust from the African Savannah and historic cities of Europe will be added to it.

These tiny unintentional souvenirs join the more conventional ones I've picked up along the way - lots of pictures, some t-shirts, and a gift or two. But what's really special to me are the things I've gained that are less tangible but just as solid - experiences, friends, stories, attitudes, outlooks, lessons, new perspectives, and the chance to share it all with you here.

I can squish my toes around and make little sand piles because I'm just finishing breakfast and that's one of the perks of sitting at a table on the beach. I'm enjoying Jambiani, on the east coast of Zanzibar where the almost deserted beach runs for miles in both directions. Blue green waters lap quietly and warm tradewinds waft traces of seasalt and exotic flowers across my browned body. I take a sip of my tea, stare down the gecko who seems to be debating a raid on my last piece of pineapple, and concentrate to fix this moment in my mind. Sadly, these are the last few hours of sun, sand and sea I will have for a while. After this meal, I will be heading inland to mainland Africa and eventually on to Europe and home to the States, so I don't know when I might have another magic moment like this. I'm not looking for pity, (after this trip, it's not likely you'd give me any, anyway,) it's just I've come to realize I'm a person who is called to the sea and it's unsettling not to know when I'll see her again. Soon, I hope...

A last chestful of ocean air, a long glance towards the blue horizon, and a half-hearted attempt at rubbing the sand off my feet just before I don my flip-flops and I'm off...

Stay wet and a little sandy,


PS: Now I'm ready to head to mainland Africa for a safari adventure!

Monday, December 31, 2007

The Most Stunningly Beautiful Girl...

The most stunningly beautiful girl I've ever seen in real life, I met at an internet cafe in Zanzibar town.
There are certain places whose names evoke the mysteries of the far corners of the world and the fabulous riches or exotic beauty our imaginations hope to discover there. Bora-Bora, Bali, Persia, Rio, Fiji, and Zanzibar are some of mine, (notice how many end in vowels?) Just the way the names sound rolling off my tongue promises wondrous adventures. We can all think of places that excite our minds and tempt our senses, I bet yours have exotic names too.
Zanzibar had been an Indian Ocean and Far East trade hub for spices, gold, ivory, and slaves for 800 years before the Portuguese stumbled over it in the 16th century and it remained a crossroads of commerce under all the countries that have controlled the island ever since. Stonetown, the oldest part of its largest city and port named Zanzibar town, is a maze of skinny, winding cobblestone streets whose Arabic style buildings seem to rise up and almost meet overhead, dimming the passages below. Scooters barely squeeze by the merchants displaying their goods on low tables and rugs, but every so often, you wander into a sunny courtyard or tiny green park.
With my diving finished for the day, and seasalt crystallizing in my eyelashes, I stopped into a tiny internet cafe for a glass of fresh juice and on hour or two of contact with the modern world. . I remembered I had until a 31 Dec. deadline to complete a DAN Instructor update online and I worked my way through its 75 pages, trying and mostly succeeding in not getting caught too blatantly visually eavesdropping on the surfers next to me. Of course I had noticed her when she stepped through the door, even the fans pushing the warm air around the room paused their sweeps for another look. I concentrated even harder on my own screen as she sat down next to me, testing my strength not to gawk at her like every other guy around her was doing and probably had been doing since she hit puberty.
That's why I jumped when she tapped my arm, "Are you a Dive Instructor?"
So I'm not the only one who looks on other people's screens! "Yes," I replied, "at least until I quit my job to go traveling. Are you a diver too?"
She has her Open Water and is friends with a girl who teaches at a dive shop in Ras Nungwi, the island's northernmost point where I'd been trying fruitlessly to find a room for weeks. It turns out her friend is pulling her hair out, trying to handle a group of 130 Swedes visiting for the New Year who want to get certified, (no wonder I can't find a room there!) and is desperately looking for help.
"Shoot, I wish you'd found me yesterday," (truer words have never been spoken,) and visions of a place to stay, free diving and a chance to teach the Swedish Bikini Team will remain forever unfulfilled - I had just bought a plane ticket to Arusha for the next day. Even though I very regretfully declined and couldn't help her friend, we kept chatting and after I finished the update, (I think. I hope DAN will let me know...,) I found myself in the cafe across the street, listening to her sultry voice and trying to place her enticing accent. She has long wavy dark hair insouciantly (I've always wanted to use that word,) gathered up in a clip, dark-golden olive skin, and a big glint of mischief and intelligence shining from her deep brown eyes. I realized that without a doubt, Nadine is the most stunning woman I've ever seen outside of a magazine or movie screen. And she eclipses most of them, too.
Ahhh, Zanzibar... we trade backgrounds and stories. Mine, you know. Hers? Single and dumped like me. "Mostly from the UK," with an Irish Mom and Pakistani Dad (now I get that accent.) She's spent the last six months here in Zanzibar volunteering with HIV+ children, (a saint too!) She's impressed by my GVI project and the AIDS volunteering I did with Triad Health Project back in Greensboro. Next stop? Amsterdam with friends just fell through, so it's off to Buenos Aires on her own to work on her Spanish and learn to tango. "Hey, I just did that!" She wishes she were going on a safari too, and tells me how much I will love Rome and Barcelona - another person in love with that city, what is it about Barca?!
For an hour she's been ignoring her chirping cell, but I need to catch a share Dala Dala across the island at 5, and her friends are waiting... So with the goodbyes I get the European cheek kiss, but three times - left, right, left - what does that mean? I thought it was just two? Then she asks if I have a cell# while traveling but I don't so I give her my email instead, (so if this post suddenly disappears - you'll know why.) As I cross the street, I look back to a warm smile and a fingertip wave from the hand holding her cell to her ear.
Ahh, Zanzibar...

Friday, December 28, 2007

"I Like To Move It, Move It..."

Every time I think the word "Madagascar," I mentally picture Gary Ridley singing the Disney song "I like to move it, move it..." in that funny voice on the Costa Rica trip and crack myself up. The name Madagascar also conjures up images of exotic wildlife prowling lush green jungles. Since it's estimated that 85% of the island (the fourth largest in the world,) has been deforested by humans trying to scratch some wealth from the land, that might not be the reality on the ground anymore but I managed to encounter some of what remains in the parks and reserves of Andasibe and the Perinet.

My buddy Zeph/Jeff collected me and all my stuff at the Sakamanga at 7AM and after dropping my excess dive gear at his home, we headed east on RN7 (National Route 7 - paved and two lanes, mostly,) for three days of trekking, nighthikes and hopefully, some amazing wildlife encounters.

The 130km journey wound through the mudbrick villages and rice fields of modern Madagascar and there were some startling reminders of what that entails along the way. Scorched hills and muddy rivers showed the result of slash and burn agriculture. Bare peaks and open pit mines reflected the the local population's scramble for wealth on this resource rich island.

Saddest of all was the hourlong backup where everyone left their vehicles to watch while the local gendarmie cleaned up the 36 bodies from the previous night's bus accident. It had overturned on a dark curve and rolled down a 30m embankment into a flooded rice field below. As I stood back and watched the gawkers running and jostling for the best view, I couldn't help wondering if CNN had picked up the tragic story like they sometimes do. I decided W's blather, Hillary's latest non-answer and spin, or Mitt's hair had probably gotten the airtime. Standing on that crowded yet lonely hillside,I don't think Ive ever felt more disconnected from home...

LIke all tragic traffic jams, this one eventually cleared and just a couple of hours later, I was hiking up a hillside finding brilliantly colored chameleons, geckos, and butterflies. Well, to be honest, my guide was finding them and I was frantically snapping pictures while trying to figure out how he was spotting them all when all I could see was a tall wall of thick green foliage.

That night, I took a night walk through the rainforest guided by Prosper, a Park Ranger friend of Zeph's. Although we only found just a few chameleons and geckos and only one fat-tailed lemur, I count the two hour trek as a success mostly for its challenges. First of all, it started raining, (shocking - in the rainforest!) about five minutes after we left the Ranger Station and just didn't let up the whole time. No problem, I was using a waterproof flashlight and put on my rainslicker. Of course, the flashlight died just over halfway through our walk, (damn rechargeables, I don't think I stayed up that late reading the other night...) At one point, I felt something strange on my lower lip against my teeth, and I cautiously probed it with the tip of my tongue. "Cool and slimy - must be a piece of leaf," I thought, but when I tried to brush it away, it held on to my lip! "Oh Shit! A Leech!!" I realized as I tugged it harder and harder, "I've got a leech in my mouth!" A strong pinch where it had attached to me got it off and I flung the twisting bloodsucker into the jungle. Back at the Ranger Station, Prosper used a lit cigarette to remove the three on my legs and arm. I never mentioned to him the one I soundlessly yanked off my lip - I was just glad I didn't scream like a girl.

The next morning, light was just beginning to show in the east when I was awakened by the haunting calls of the Indri Indri, the largest of the lemurs, who are territorial and like to let the neighboring groups know it nice and early so no there's no confusion. As I breakfasted on fruit and croissants on the terrace of my lodge, I could watch the family moving through the treetops as they called out to each other. Now THIS is the Madagascar I was dreaming of! The rest of the days were a blur of parks, reserves, and a four hour hike led by Prosper's brother, named confusingly (or maybe not,) Prosper. The wildlife seemed intent on finding us and I saw five different species of lemurs, some bright new chameleons and all kinds of cool birds and insects. But we needed to go to an enclosure to find the seriously endangered Fossa. Though they don't look as evil as in the Disney flick, they were a very impressive animal - kind of a cross between a big cat and a monkey. There are pics of all of these on my Flickr page...

Back at the lodge, I played two hours of ping-pong with Zeph, then had a Christmas Eve dinner with a Belgian family I'd just met. We drank THB beer and played pool until they kicked us out and shut the bar. They were divers, too and showed me the most amazing photos from their trip to the Galapagos last year - a white whale shark!! I never heard of such a thing, and if I hadn't seen the pics, I probably wouldn't have believed it.

After breakfast on Christmas morning, Zeph drove the four hours back to Tana, where he had invited me to have dinner with his family. Along the way, he pointed out some Zebu to me. They are essentially a big ugly ox with a really tall hump and some exotic horns, and he promised me it would be part of the meal - obviously hoping for a reaction.
"Already had some," I coolly replied, describing my meal at Sakamanga.
"Not the traditional way my wife makes it," uh-oh, what was I in for? Among the Malagasay dishes using rice, chicken, fruits, manioc, yams, beef, and nuts was Bouche du Zebu, (Zebu mouth,) prepared with onions, peppers, and vinegar. Afraid to ask what specific part of the mouth was used, I tried it and found it interestingly firm and really tasty. This trip is definitely about trying new things...
Then Zeph and his two college aged kids dropped me at the crappy hotel I booked near the airport, (bedbugs!! And who charges a dollar for two pats of butter?!?) and very early the next morning I was off to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, on my way to Zanzibar!

All for now - Tatty Christmas!