March 27, 2011 Addis Ababa – Ethiopia
Ethiopia is no easy travel destination. Every day is a struggle, hardly
anything ever works or makes sense but the little gems – the beautiful unguarded
moments of connection – string you along and leave you thirsting for more. It’s
what could be categorized as a “second-tier country,” not the most obvious
choice for tourism and definitely lacking in infrastructure but safe enough to
explore – with tons of unspoiled potential. Expectations in comfort and
convenience are immediately adjusted when traveling overland in the third
world. A luxury bathroom experience might include a seatless commode with a
half-bucket of water next to it and a cold shower which has a functional shut
off mechanism. Group travel allows for minimal privacy and time to deal with
gastrointestinal distress – difficult to know if one has tapeworms if rushed,
long-drop bathroom time has been illuminated by a dimming headlamp for weeks on
While bumping and bouncing along in an oversized orange truck, the Dragoman
parade catches more than a glance Children come sprinting down hillsides and
trot or skip alongside the vehicle for as long as they are able…waving and
shouting “Hiland” (water), “Birr” (money), “Toffee” & “Pen.” Young men shout
this as well – from crowded ping pong tables, shop doorways and roadwork
stations. Women motion with a hand to mouth gesture. It makes one wonder where
all the aid has been going in this country….whether it’s created
self-sustaining projects or simply reliance. Despite the first impression,
these same people, when approached and warmly greeted, will reciprocate with
friendly smile, gentle eye contact, a waggley horizontal handshake and
affectionate shoulder bumping. They will help anyone in need as they would a
family member and make do with what little they have yet are aware of what life
could be and what a successful interaction with a “farangi” (foreigner) might
Camping, most nights…even out in the bush, is preferable to broken,
untidy hotel rooms in Africa. We had a cook station, treated drinking water,
sturdy tents and camp stools. Time in urban areas involved a sort of scavenger
hunt…searching for and gathering ingredients which may or may not be available
for our western recipe ideas. The end result, though, was always delicious…as
camping food tends to be. At the last lakeside campsite, a group of onlookers
showed great interest in camp set-up and dinner preparation…about 20-30
visitors gawked and whispered to each other for several hours. To liven things
up, a “flash mob” dance routine to M.C. Hammer’s “Can’t Touch Dis” was
performed by 8 members of our group which had the local children gleefully
jumping and wiggling…so much fun.
Tribal visits could be socially awkward yet visually and photographically
stimulating. Attitudes, morals and ethics were challenged as we confronted
dying babies, tales of painful tribal rituals and strict gender roles. It’s
always awe-inspiring and magical to witness a culture in its authentic state.
It’s also a little sad to know that with each interaction, these tribes will
change and begin to favor tourism dollars over their traditional sources of
income. There’s no doubt that tribal people should have contact with and
participate in the modern world….there is definitely benefit to children being
educated and land rights having protection but it’s a shame to witness the
breakdown of tight societal and family structure. The new roads being built
through the Omo Valley will provide much needed infrastructure for farming,
production and trade. These same roads will make a higher volume of tourism
available. Tourism which may or may not be environmentally or culturally
Now in Addis Ababa, removing layers of grime with hot water, snapping a few
last pics, gathering a couple of souveniers, and considering re-immersion into
the workplace after a month of college style road trip…leaves me a little
melancholy…and excited to start planning the next exotic adventure.
May 27, 2008 Central Highlands, Vietnam
Ahhh, back to civilization after 2.5 days of jungle
hiking in the central highlands. The first 45 minutes
was a killer….hot and humid and steep-ish but it was
all downhill and flat after that. We’d paid close
attention to the leech advice….spray repellent
around the socks/feet/pants, tuck the cuffs into
the socks and keep the eyes peeled for eager looking
squirmers. We looked like real troopers. At the end,
I discovered that two sneaky leeches had wormed their
way under my clothing…one enjoying a lengthy snack
on my left thigh and the other filling beyond capacity
on the back of my neck. Grooossssssssss !!! It’s my
third experience with the little beasts and I have to
say that my heart has not developed any soft and
sentimental feelings in their direction. At least
they are painless and generally disease free. The
hilltribe visits were nice….we stayed in long stilt
houses on individual mattresses with mozzy
nets….unpleasantly awoken at 3 am the first night by
a mooing vs crowing competition between the cows and
roosters (“boy chickens”). Cows, as it turns out, can
be very, very loud….doesn’t help that they live
under the floorboards of the house. That went on for
ages…long before sunrise so I’m not sure what got
them going. After an extremely heavy rain and lightning storm and a filling dinner which included the best french fries any of us had ever eaten, the second night was much more restful,
A strong morning coffee, though, is always a welcome
jumpstart to the day. Contact with the villagers was
minimal..the kids were pretty serious….not the usual
tribal visit but still a good experience. A couple of
the passengers took an elephant ride on the way out.
We were witness to a sick elephant tossing it’s
passengers (not our folks) off and laying down on the
ground. Now we are back in the city…famous coffee
region in Vietnam ….and SHOWERED !!!! Ahhhh, the
feeling of cool water all over the body…and clean
Long day of travel and transfer today. Our driver showed up at 7:30am to take us to the airport for the Kathmandu-Lhasa flight. No view of Everest as hoped for due to heavy cloud cover. The aircraft was full of foreigners in zipper laden travel pants, fancy rain jackets and mountaineering backpacks. A delightful box lunch included 4 cherry tomatoes, two pieces of chilled white bread, something resembling a slice of generic spam and a stale red bean cake. Many of these meals remained untouched after a quick peek and could probably be served again on the next flight.
Landing at 12,000 feet is quite a shock to the system—immediately light-headed and dizzy, the group moved along at a snail’s pace with blinking zombie eyes and visa papers in hand. Five hours later, after a nice big plate of yak noodles and a quart of electrolytes, I feel more comfortable—no need to fire up the oxygen machine in my room, or what I’m assuming is an oxygen machine. Do I have to put money into that thing? Another bonus in the room is the congratulatory letter (assuming that it’s something good because it is pink and filled with Chinese characters and exclamation marks.) There are also two tickets and two decoratively wrapped red bean sweets. It would be wonderful to learn what the tickets are for, however, the front desk staff stares at me blankly whenever I try to ask a question. There is also a fancy bathroom with plentiful toiletries and a big, clean bathtub. There might even be hot water !!! Bath was opted out of today because our Tibetan driver informed us that if we were feeling the effects of altitude, then we SHOULD NOT take a bath…but SHOULD drink plenty of water and even sniff oxygen from a can.
Sebastian and Arthur received a call in their room today informing us of the name of the restaurant where we might meet the rest of the group if we were to head there around dinner time. We found our way there all right, but had no idea as to the number, appearance, nationality or gender of the people we were looking for….the hostess shortly became as confused as we were but the manager somehow figured it all out and joined us with our other group members. Still no sign of the leader or any information on what time we meet tomorrow but the important thing is that we have arrived…in Tibet ! Arthur said it best…”Where else would you rather be right now?” None of us could think of anywhere better than the Yak Café on the roof of the world.
September 25, 2007 Kathmandu, Nepal
Let me first say that I am enjoying immensely the fine architectural details of my room here at Hotel Harati, my favorite being the ceramic ledge my toes come in contact with on the way to the bathroom in the pitch blackness of evening power failures. We’ll see if I have any toenails left after my time here. The second feature is a second ledge under my window which is several feet wide and runs the length of the backside of the building. It comes very close to a similar ledge on the apartment building next door. Not knowing exactly what sort of visitors might decide to join me in the wee hours, it makes me a little nervous to leave the window open at night, even in this stuffy weather. The front desk tells me that I should call down there five minutes before my shower to have the hot water switched on…really hoping that the system is in place this morning as my hair is in desperate need of a good lather and the tap water currently feels like it has been delivered directly from the peak of Mt. Everest.
We had a full day out in Kathmandu yesterday…first visiting Swayambunath, the monkey temple. I had an especially good time chatting with some of the 200 uniformed school children there on a field trip who were very eager to practice a few phrases in english. The many keychains attached to Sebastian’s daypack are extremely tempting for monkeys and they seem to lurk a little too close for comfort. A similar experience occurred at Pashupatinath…while attempting to cross a wall and a bit of grass to reach a stairway leading to the sadhu courtyard—a local man decided to call the nearby monkeys to feed them slices of white bread which he was kindly throwing in my direction. Imagine my anxiety as 25-30 little beasts came dashing towards my feet.
Rain and drizzle kept my sadhu subjects overly clothed and under the covered portions of the temple. They were unable to put on their best gear and pose out in the prime locations. Nevertheless, I got a few nice shots….can’t go wrong with colorful face paint, 30 year old dredlocks and ash smeared all over the body. Really do appreciate that they enjoy being photographed…..for a small price, of course.
Five or six cremations were in full swing at Pashupatinath. We even witnessed a corpse procession….the body with face uncovered held high above the heads of about 20 men.
Boudha tmple was impressive, as usual…enjoyed the blasts of drumming and horns coming from adjacent monasteries. Our exuberant guide proclaimed that this stupa was indeed the “Biggest Stupa in the Universe!!”
A full day that was, actually starting at Durbar Square which was packed with Gurkha soldiers and locals there to witness the raising of a giant wooden beam, like a telephone pole using only ropes and bamboo sticks. Every minute or so, rifles would sound off, startling everyone there whose laughter may have been more nervous than joyful.
places visited on this trip: Kathmandu, Lhasa, Gyantse, Shigatse, Mt. Kailash, Lake Manosorovar, Nyalam.
May 16, 2007 Madaba, Jordan and Palmyra, Syria
Having moved on from Petra through the mysterious rain and fog around Kerak Castle, we find ourselves in a small town outside of Jordan’s capital. Madaba is home to St. George’s church, which houses a famous mosaic floor with a map of the holy land. When this treasure was discovered, it was used to uncover several other historical sites in the region. After a morning out- buying mosaic tiles for use in my new bathroom and chatting with a sewing machine repairman, I had a bite to eat before exploring some of the back alleys of the town. It’s always interesting to wander the more industrial sections…where the supply and repair shops host a more authentic gathering of local people. I was constantly called over by helpful shopkeepers who assumed I was lost and wanted to help. Eventually, a cup of coffee was given to me outside a barber shop by two Egyptians and two Iraquis and interesting conversation ensued. We all agreed that neither Saddam Hussein nor George Bush were the answer to Iraq’s problems. Then, the older gentleman made a nice gesture of Bush having his throat cut. Yikes ! Time to get out of there. The next day was partly dedicated to the Syrian border crossing…not as eventful as expected..just the usual sequence of buildings with bored looking officials and rubber stamps. Our drivers seemed pretty clued in to the process and even took the opportunity to stop for duty free cigarettes.
Damascus, being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, has a mixture of ancient architecture and other, less attractive new-ish buildings. Rebar protrudes from the borders of each roof and most of the houses are the unpainted. Rumor has it that there is some sore of law which doesn’t require you to pay taxes on an unfinished home even though it is clearly occupied.
The souk is a maze of small shops on small streets in the old walled city. It’s fun to get lost and just wander. The main street section is pedestrian only and covered with a high, arched black ceiling. Holes have been punched in the roof and small windows line the walls so walking through, even during the day is feels like an evening stroll with stars and streetlights.
Ummayaad is the third most important mosque in the world and houses the head of John the Baptist—who initially escaped death in Damascus by being lowered over the city wall in a basket. Lots of street food to be found in this city. Shaved meat wrapped in flatbread is called “shwarma.” Quart sized glasses of fresh fruit smoothies, mini-pizzas, falafel and ice cream with pistachios all keep us charged up while out seeing the sights.
Today, it’s off to more Roman ruins in a town called Palmyra…a site in the Syrian desert not far from Iraq. Hoping for blue skies and some interesting local people. Portraits have been difficult. The women are mostly covered in black robes with even their chins and hair tucked in. I don’t want to invade their privacy. Men are shy. They let me take pictures of their stands and goods but would rather not be in the photo.
Places visited on this trip: Cairo, Mt. Sinai, Nuweiba, Wadi Rum, Petra, Madaba, Amman, Jerash, Palmyra, Damascus, Aleppo, Cappodoccia, Istanbul,