taking the long way home. almost to the finish line.

Monday, April 21, 2008

i checked the weather for today. for cambodia it says that it is 95 degrees and feels like 109. blech.
before i left vientiane, i went to the national museum. unfortunately, the exhibits that were in english consisted of the stuff i wasn't much interested in. namely, fossils and ceramic pots. when i got to the more recent history it was all in french and lao. but, they did have some interesting pictures around the time of the vietnam war. each one included the label (the only thing in english) "the american imperialists and their puppets." it was one of the first hints i got that laos is actually still communist.
anyway. moving on. so i hopped a bus down to the four thousand islands in the south of laos, on the mekong river. the glorious thing about traveling alone is that you have absolutely no say as to who sits next to you. so it will probably be the tallest, broadest human being on earth who has no sense of personal space and thinks that your seat belongs to him. also, he will fall asleep on you, crushing you against the window. just a warning. it's a proven fact. careful on those buses people.
so, after a wonderful night of no sleep i hopped in a little wooden boat and was off to my island bungalow!

yes. my bungalow.

this particular island has no electricity yet. so basically what you do there is hang around in a hammock all day fanning yourself and reading. oh, and waiting to watch the sunset from said hammock.

my evening view.

just before sunset you can go out biking or walking and catch some of the local scenery, which consists mostly of buffalo and rice paddies.

buffalo in a rice paddy. 2 for 1.


again, a paddy.

but it really really is too hot. and there are no fans or a/c to escape to. so most people glue themselves to their hammocks and wait for the bakery man to bike by and deliver you cinnamon buns and donuts. and sometimes nature drops itself into the mix just to say hi.

it was in my room. the body was at least the size of my thumb.

i totally wimped out and had the man who ran the place take care of it for me. but i still had dreams about spiders on me all night. turns out it was just ants and mosquitos.
so after a few days of sweating and fretting over the spider and it's inevitable revenge i decided that i needed to get out of laos. though, i have to say i was sad to leave it. i mean, the people there are wonderful. they say hi. just to say hello. they don't even necessarily want anything from you. same is true in cambodia too. especially the kids. they all run around naked (just the little ones) and waving and giggling and running away when you wave back. in thailand you dont even see the kids...
anyway. so i changed my money to dollars for cambodia. it seems ridiculous, but having a wallet full of dollars overwhelmed me. well, i suppose $50 isnt exactly full. but it was strange to have my own money again. and it has changed since i left. i mean, where did all these colors come from on all our bills. it was pretty exciting to think that i would be dealing in a currency that i understood and wouldn't have to do any conversion math with every time i wanted to buy a coke. but at the same time it made me sad because it reminded me of just how close i am to going back to america.
moving on. so, yeah. they use dollars and local money here in cambodia. the atms will only give you dollars. even the locals use them. but there is no change, so far that you get local bills.
the bus to cambodia was undoubtedly the worst i have had since africa. it was a minivan with five more people than seats. i mean, there aren't exactly aisles or anything to accomodate the extras. so three people rode on the roof. for 15 hours.
the next day was the beginning of the cambodian new year. in the villages here and in the surrounding countries the new year lasts for three days and is just a big water fight. people throw water and talcum powder on each other in the streets. but apparently in phnom penh everyone leaves the city and those who stay don't want to get mussed. there, everything just shuts down and nothing happens. big disappointment. i mean, i ziplocked all my stuff for nothing! so while everyone was sleeping through the heat i rented a scooter and had the roads to myself for a day. i took myself to the khmer rouge sites. turned out to be a really intense day. first there was tuol sleng (also known as s-21), the prison in phnom penh. of everyone who went there, only 7 lived. it was an old high school. but now you walk through and see the cells and shackles. and there is still blood on the floor and splattered on the ceilings. and pictures. mug shots of their prisoners. including babies... so after that i went to the next logical place, the killing fields. it is where the khmer rouge brutally killed people and threw them in mass graves. the first thing you see there is a tower of over 8000 skulls. and as you walk through the place there is still clothing all over the place from the victims. i teared up a bit. i couldnt help it. a really intense day.
so the next day i needed a bit of levity. it came in the form of visiting the royal palace. there is a pagoda with an emerald buddha and a silver floor (though i found the floor unimpressive and disappointing). and there are beautiful buildings all over the grounds.

example of what one might consider a beautiful building

and there was a gift from napoleon as well.


i mean come on napoleon! it looks like a terrible rusted shack that you might see at universal studios. no wonder they didnt like the french. it's a pretty lame gift.
having seen the sights of the capital i moved on to siem reap. it means "siamese defeated" and it is fairly close to thailand (siam). classy. but what they have here are the temples of angkor. they are almost 1000 years old and many of them have been taken back over by the jungle. i dont have much to say about them, but here are some pictures.

yes, those are trees growing through the temples. pretty cool, but one day was enough for me and my limited enthusiasm for antiquities.
and that brings us up to now! so, after somewhat too short of a time in cambodia i am off again for thailand. and you know what that means? it means i am booking a flight home this week. i'll be sure to let you know the details when i do.

Friday, April 04, 2008

i suppose that since i am nearing the end of this trip, i am nearing the end of this blog. so i guess that means i should do a few last posts before i touch down in the states again, eh? since i last updated i travelled up to the north of thailand. without too much to do i decided to try my hand at riding a real motorcyle (not the wimpy little scooters. too easy). so i splurged and got a honda phantom.

my bike

after i drove around in circles inside the city for about an hour trying to figure out how the hell to get past the moat (yes, a real live water moat) and out into the world i headed up into the hills. part of the reason i couldnt find my way out of the city and into the hills is that the air quality in thailand rivals that of bangkok (good luck with that, atheletes). so i spent all day cruising around the hills because a) they are beautiful and b) they are about 10 degrees cooler than town.

rest stop


i was hoping to get away from the tourist trap that seems to be most of thailand and see some more rural, real life type villages. and i thought i would succeed. i'd drive around for half an hour and not see any other tourists, then bam! "Hmong village" aka place where the tourists all go in big buses to buy overpriced fake souveniers. this is kind of why i decided against going on a trek. i hear that the hill tribes have been commercialized on and exploited as attractions. that, and i hate walking up mountains in the heat.
my motorcycle diaries fantasy over, it was time to head to laos. i travelled up to the area known as the golden triangle because it is where burma (myanmar, or whatever) thailand and laos all meet. the border up there basically consists of a river. so my border crossing was done by speedboat. from there it was a boat trip down the mekong river to get into some sort of civilization and out of the jungly mountains. now, you can take the speedboat, which distributes helmets when you get on board and flies down the river in six hours or you can take the slow boat which carries with it a much lower probability of death. as much as i hated the sound of a slow boat, i opted for it, as did most of my fellow travellers.

our boat looked like this, but with people, not bags of grain

from inside the boat

on a slow boat you have a lot of time to talk with your fellow passengers and, incidentally i have been running into them in every town since. really makes my trip seem unique... but it is fun to point them out as the "drunk ones" or the "old canadians" or "those girls whose names i forgot." and some of them ended up being really fun travel partners as well.
anyway. the slow boat went down the mekong for two days through great river landscapes. though i must say, when you are sitting on a board four inches wide for that long, the scenery becomes secondary and loses its charm. in retrospect though:

pak bang, the town we stopped in for the night

the boat took us to an old french colonial town on the river called luang prabang. one of the first things i noticed is how nice the people here are. i suppose they havent been destroyed by nasty travellers yet. anyway, back to our little colonial town. mostly what you do there is wander around looking at more temples and spending a lot of money. but it was a cute town.

stairs and stairs and stairs

temple, again

buddha, again

nothing special, just thought it was pretty

i went, along with a couple of my fellow boat travellers (jason and loraine) to another river town called vang vieng. it was mostly too hot to much of anything. but they have a booming tubing scene. so you throw yourself in a rubber innertube and the local kids give you a push (while hitching a ride for as long as they think they can get away with it) and you're off. along the way there are various bars and restaurants with rope swings and various sorts of sketchy things on the menus and if you stop they pull you in off the river with big bamboo poles.

jason and loraine

if you look closely, its me in a river. i have no idea who that guy is.

weatherwise, it is as hot as you may imagine from all those vietnam type movies. but it is also humid. so out of nowhere comes this downpour (i suppose you would call it a monsoon) but it is still hot. gross. i got caught in a huge monsoon with the bright idea that i would watch it from a hammock in a little bungalow. by the time it was all over, the bungalow was barely standing and i was huddled in with the bamboo, because at least it wouldn't break and become a wind propelled spear.
for now, i am writing from vientiane, the capital, but tonight i am off down south to a place called the four thousand islands. my plan is to beat the heat in the river while looking for those ugly pink river dolphins. then it is off to cambodia with me. perhaps i will write from there.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

i found myself inspired by what you might call an extreme amount of free time on my hands and wandered on down to the cafe to write a little bit to you guys. i have been in thailand for almost three weeks now and have really gotten to sink my teeth into it, so to speak.
i started out by doing a bit of the bangkok tour with andrea and tao, my companions from the airport bus.

we mostly walked around looking at temples until we thought that there was a distinct possibility that our feet might fall off.

after a sufficiency of temples, we gave in and took the quintessential form of thai transport: the tuk tuk. a tuk tuk is like a motorized rickshaw and they are everywhere in bangkok. we took our new favorite taxi to go shopping. it seems that the a number one thing to do in bangkok is shop; buying cheap, fake name brand clothing at ludicrously low prices. so, we hit all the markets in town. we hit tourist markets, so-called local markets, night markets and even flower markets. the flower market was one of my favorites with millions and millions of flowers for sale on the sidewalks. you could hardly walk, for dodging the orchids and jasmine.

on returning from the night market, we decided to hit china town for dinner. we didnt quite know where we were and we decided to ask a group of emergency workers how we might best walk there. what happened next was either due to boredom, lack of shared language or extreme generosity. most likely it was a bit of all three. but before we knew it we were loaded into the back of their pickup truck, zipping along through the bangkok traffic on our way to china town. they turned on their flashing lights, pulled over to the corner and loaded us out again, disappearing and leaving us on a row of restaurants that looked suspiciously like any china town i have ever been to. maybe china just looks like that? so while i am on the subject of food, i should say that i misspoke earlier when i said that shopping was the national pasttime. it is most definitely and for sure trumped by eating. the first thing i noticed (to my ashamed delight) was the abundance of 7-11s. for the first time in years i am back in the land of slurpees, which to be sure was going to be the first thing i had upon touching back down at home. now i just dont know what it will be. but besides the overwhelming presence of western food chains there is also just food everywhere. on every streed there is pad thai, noodle soup, curry and so on. just food stalls everywhere.

you can buy any kind of food on a stick here. pork, hotdogs, fish, fruit, squid...

and alongside those wonderful thai dishes you all might know and love there are also a few that i havent quite gotten up the nerve to try.

look very closely.

or how about these guys?

but seriously. the noodle soup here is dangerously spicy and delicious. and though we dont speak the same language, my breakfast soup lady and i have the special sort of "soup in the morning" bond that allows us to give each other a knowing nod and bow whenever we see each other.
moving on. no more food talk. so i did the intro bangkok tour and then headed down south to the islands for the infamous full moon party. the island i stayed on was, of course beautiful, but too westernized and expensive for my tastes. kind of like eternal spring break. so i was lame and divided my time between watching movies in the air conditioned sweetness of my room and exploring the island by scooter. they drive on the left here... but so far no major incidents. the full moon party (which strangely fell about three days after the actual full moon) involved taking a speed boat to another island and basically partying on the beach until sunrise. i was doubtful as to the prospects of my having much fun as a loner in the middle of a party where everyone seemed to be having their fair share of "buckets," a delightful cocktail of coke, red bull (the real thai version... ouch) and cheap local whiskey, served, you guessed it, in a bucket. like a child's play bucket. classy classy beverage. so i was standing there wondering how on earth i would make it till three o clock (am) when the speedboats started back to my island when two thai girls swooped down on me, slathered me with dayglo paint and insisted that i join their group because i looked like i needed to dance, apparently.



so i hung out with their group watching the fire dancers and the tens of thousands of people who were just trashing this beach in celebration of the full moon and nature.

party over, i headed up to the infamous bridge on the river kwai. the town itself was quite cute and i rented another scooter for exploring the surrounding jungle. the bridge was nothing too spectactular, but i walked back and forth across it several times trying to soak up the ambience and depth of it all. once i was saturated it was back to bangkok for one last rally. and that is where i am now. my return back to bangkok was full of shopping with andrea (italian boy from airport bus). he was headed back home and needed to find some souveniers. next we knew we were sitting in one of bangkok's tattoo parlours (of which there are hundreds). i will let you guys guess if i got one or not.

i started my stay here in a quaint little one room, very charming, really.

but deciding the luxury in which i found myself was too great, i traded in my bed in a room for a bunk bed in a room of 8 people. it was, after all, cheaper. and what greater glory is there for a traveler than to tell people about your perfectly terrible, but cheap lodgings complete with cold shower and shared bathroom. half of the fun is in convincing them that any rational person would be delighted in such a room. you simply dont need any more than that. and besides, who is spending any of their travel time in their room anyway? but secretly you hope that they will take pity and insist that you take their room at the hilton for just one night...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

and after a prolonged period of a serious lack of motivation to write anything, i'm finally back again. i suppose i will start with christmastime and work from there. jen's dad and one of her sisters were in town for the holidays, giving hilary and her family a much needed break from us. jen's dad whisked us away for a couple of nights to the lap of luxury at the stanley hotel in nairobi. there, we finalized the arrangements for the dodgiest rental car deal ever and rested up for our only african safari. unfortunately, the night before we took off, jen fell seriously ill with food poisoning, or something like it. regardless, we dragged her out of bed the next morning for our meeting with rufus, the car guy. he was late and with him he brought the smallest 4wd he could find. it was a rav4 junior on which almost nothing worked, but desparate to get started, we took it and were on our way. the first day (christmas eve) we decided to get just as far as the gate to the safari park and camp. now, when i say camp i mean plow the rav4 over stumps and small bushes, through some fields not necessarily meant for cars, find a hidden spot, light a campfire and sleep next to it sans tent. all the while, we were not entirely without weapons. we had a police baton, (which i promptly broke trying to beat some firewood apart) a masai stick that really could kill someone, an unsharpened machete which couldnt even cut down a sapling let alone kill someone and some pepper spray. at any approuching sound jen would clutch her spray, i my stick and her dad would bang the machete on a rock. needless to say, we survived the night (though with less than a restful night's sleep) and when we woke up it was christmas, tinsel and all. jen's dad had had the foresight to bring some christmas joy with us into the bush and decorate our little corner of africa for the occasion. we celebrated over campfire coffee and some gifts, packed up camp and were on the way, the tinsel now decorating our festive rav4. still not ready to hit the safari trail, we cruised around offroading for most of the day before deciding to hit a stream and wash up before setting up camp. however, there was one man who seemed to think that he owned all of the bush. he somehow stalked us from campsite to campsite threatening us unconvincingly with a spear and telling us not to camp there. we blew him off, took a quick river wash up and were on our way to find a decent site before it got dark. we found a spot that looked to have been previously inhabited by some elephants (there were broken down trees and large piles of what could only have been elephant poo) and decided that at least we would be hidden from the crazy man who owned all of kenya. we made it till about 4 in the morning until we were awakened by what seemed like a more serious animal noise than we had previously heard. we shined our flashlights around us and all we could see was what seemed like fifty sets of blinking green eyes. we weren't sure what they were, but they certainly seemed aware of us. we tried to out-cool each other for a while by staying out by what had previously been our campfire. but then the hyenas started whooping. we laughed nervously a bit, but then they came closer. and that is when we (more casually than was most likely necessary) strolled to the car to finish of the night. the next day we took off, less than refreshed to finally have our safari. we saw giraffes, birds, water buffalo, zebras, elephants and lions. one of the elephants decided that our car was too high risk to have anywhere near her baby, trumpeted (like you hear in nature shows) and chased us. really literally chased us for at least a half a minute. i dont think that rav4s are really made to withstand an elephant trampling, and the outcome if we had been caught could have been disasterous. towards dusk, our safari adventure over, we rolled out of the park to what the man at the gate said was a "very bad road." but we gave it a try anyway. what the man probably should have said was "there is no discernable road at all. it is only a giant mud field that will confuse you and get you lost. doom and gloom ahead. abandon hope all ye who enter here." it probably would have been more accurate. we skidded around in the mud flats for a bit trying to find anything that looked like a road to a city but gave up when it started to get dark. we pulled into what was our spot for the night and all got out to get ready for sleep. and that is when we heard the popping and snapping of elephants ripping down trees. a big bull elephant lumbered up around the corner and headed for the car. we all piled in as fast as we could and took off, fishtailing madly in the mud. around the corner was the rest of the elephant herd, surrounded by their howling hyena friends. this was not a good campsite. so we drove a great distance more (maybe 500 meters) and called it good enough. we blamed the mud for not even attempting to sleep outside again. instead we all sat in the car and distracted ourselves from possible impending doom by telling travel stories. the next morning we woke to find our elephant friend still wandering around looking for trouble and a river to cross that would have been ok had our car not been a tinker toy. becky (jens sister) and i patiently, and i think somewhat helpfully, sat in the car and waited while (still sick) jennifer and her dad tried to pile rocks on the way to make it through. with a crash and a bang and mud flying everywhere we made it across, and we thought, on our merry way. we thought that because we saw about three safari tours stopped to watch us cross the river. what they were actually watching was a couple of lionesses with about 8 little cubs. nice. so there we were wandering around with a pride of lions and not one of them gave us a little heads up. perhaps they were hoping to see a kill. as we contemplated the coldness of our fellow safari travelers we noticed that the car smelled strangely of gasoline. yes. our broken car was now more broken. it wasn't enough that the back door flew open periodically or that the windows didnt reliably roll up... now we may be stranded with no gas in the middle of a place where the other people traveling in it seemed to want to see us eaten by lions. awesome.
so we patched the hole as best we could with soap and limped our stupid car through the bush towards what we hoped was civilization, throwing balloons out the window to the local kids as we passed. and as soon as we made it to the paved road, our newest problem finally killed the car. not only had the gas been leaking but the transmission fluid as well. and that was the end of our glorious safari. we took a public bus to nairobi, demanded our money back and sent jen's dad and sister on their way.
simmering in the background to this story was, of course, the subplot of the kenya elections which just so happened to be held on the day we were limping our car from here to there. jens family got out with no problems and jen and i started to plan our exodus from nairobi. but no. the country erupted instead. and while we saw very little aside from abandoned streets and riot police, we had no way to get out. all the roads out were closed and we were essentially on lockdown in the city center. we were stuck there for about ten days. the city was running out of food, and they wouldnt sell it to foreigners, i have no idea why. so jenny and i sat in our little yellow hotel room and stared at each other, contemplating just how crazy we might go if we were stuck there much longer. we spent new years eve like that. but our clock was wrong and we forgot about the new year, so when the fireworks and shouting started we thought that the trouble had finally reached our part of town. it hadn't. we were just so lame as to miss midnight. as soon as the roads opened again, we were off. we ran, alongside the kenyan refugees, straight into kampala, uganda. we didnt realize that we would get stuck there for a month as well. but this time we were paralyzed by the sheer volume of foreigners around us at the hostel. as a treat we decided to stay at "backpackers" (a backpacker's hostel, duh) instead of a local place where we were guaranteed to be oddities and alone in our foreignness. the strange thing about traveling is that any friends you make are likely to be a fairly intense and quick friendship. people you have known for weeks become best buddies that you are convinced will be friends for life. i am fairly sure that this is what happened in uganda. we did almost no travel to speak of because hanging out everyday on our couches seemed so much more appealing at the time. and it is there, at backpackers that our africa trip split into our own respective trips, jenny on hers, and i on mine. it wasnt a bad split, but sometimes when you have been staring at the same person for the last 2 years in various hotel rooms, you just want a little change up. and so last week i travelled to rwanda to catch a plane. rwanda was nice, if not bland, and the genocide museum was just as wrenching as you might expect. but i have very little to say about rwanda as i was only there for 4 nights. it was just my jumping off point to get out of africa.
and i am, out of africa, that is. and you might ask where exactly i went. well, i decided to give traveling on my own a try, and where else might a cheap single traveler go but to bangkok?! and here i am. it's crazy developed. a huge urban sprawl so far. and it was a fairly huge shock after so long in the developing world. i am fairly sure that the rest of thailand will prove less so though. so, my new plan is thailand, laos, cambodia and vietnam. and as for traveling alone, i dont know how it is going yet as i was adopted by two other solo travelers right off the airport bus. an italian boy and a chinese girl. we make a fairly odd trio. so, now i will say goodbye and i am off to take a water bus down the river to a night market. if we make it, it should be cool. i hope everyone had a good new years and valentines and whatnot.

Friday, December 14, 2007

and i'm back! i know it has been a long while since i posted, but there really hasn't been much of anything to write about. unless of course lounging by the pool to tan off the prison pallor of jordan piques your interest. so, we have, of course, been mostly in nairobi since just before thanksgiving. the house we are staying in is, well, to say that it was luxurious would be perhaps an understatement. hil and her parents have graciously let us stay for more time than any reasonable people might expect. especially reasonable people who show up looking and smelling like they have been living in bus stations and acting as though they have never seen food before. ever. our accommodations mean we get (at least) three meals a day (we routinely clean out the leftovers in the refrigerator like vacuums), real beds without fleas, and very few bus rides. i think we are getting soft.
thanksgiving was great. i made pumpkin pies and the three of us made the turkey. i think it was a first for all of us. despite our lack of experience it actually turned out to be pretty delicious.

the dinner was massive and considering our on the road diet an amazing treat. A few of hil's friends came over to celebrate with us. all in all it was a cozy little get together and intro to some of the expats here.
our days are mostly spent lazing around, but there have been a few highlights. we accompanied hil to one of her masters' classes at a local university. all of her classmates, and her professor are african, but their jaws dropped and a flash of confusion and something like horror at being stuck in a room with two lunatics crossed their eyes when we explained to them what we were trying to do. after opening it for questions all they could think to really ask was "why?"
another fun way to pass the time is to head on over to the golf course for a walk, which of course involves giving the resident monkeys the right of way.

and finally, you can go down to kibera and go second hand shopping. kibera is the largest slum in all of africa. 750,000 people live there in a mass of sheet metal shacks. (if you have seen the constant gardener, it is that one). but this may have been one of the best places we have been to here, as it is the only one where nobody gave a damn at all about our existence. most places in africa people call out to you with whatever their word for foreigner or white person is (just in case you forgot), but in kibera nobody cared to talk to us unless we were buying from them.

This last week we went down to mombasa. it is on the southern coast of kenya on the indian ocean. the bus ride down was a mere 7 hours and everyone on board had their own seat! it was glorious. a predetermined amount of personal space? unheard of. when we got to our little beach cottage it was dark and we had no idea what kind of lodgings we had. but in the morning when we wandered down towards the sound of the ocean we found that we were staying on a perfect white sand beach that was practically deserted.

at any given time it was more than likely that we were the only people within sight on the beach. this gave us plenty of opportunity to lay in the sand or swim in the bathwater-warm ocean without worrying about people seeing just how badly worn our swimsuits were. our only other company on the beach itself were tiny white crabs that scuttled down into their holes when they heard us coming. up by our lodging, however, we had visitors of another sort.

our place was right next to a monkey reserve. we even had occasion to see two pink assed baboons. but their teeth are huge so we crossed the road and gave them their space.
our cabin had a kitchen, and everyday fruit and fish mongers would come up to us and sell us whatever was fresh that day. and of course the ever present smell of fish brought us yet again, more animal visitors.

on the return trip from the beach we decided to take the train. when the train was first built it ran from mombasa to uganda (it no longer runs to uganda) and was nick named the "lunatic express." being the lunatics that we are, we convinced hil (fairly much against her wishes) to take third class due to its being the absolute cheapest option. 18 hours later we stumbled out of the train (which was pretty much like all the other stupidly uncomfortable and slow public transportation that we take), ankles swollen and ready for a shower and a nap. thanks to hil and her family this was immediately possible. however, the train trip was not so bad. along the way we saw zebras, wildabeest, some sort of antelope and again more baboons. like a mini safari from the most uncomfortable vehicle possible. and as we pulled into towns along the way all the children ran out to wave at the passing train. it was pretty amusing to see the absolute shock on their faces when they saw the three of us waving back out of the cattle class. most everyone had tried to dissuade us from taking anything less than second class, but we figured that if kenyans can do it, there should be no reason that we couldn't.

so that is the update on life in kenya. the stars are all wrong in the sky. the equatorial sun burns like wildfire, christmas comes in summer, and it quite often rains all night. and that is about it. i hope that you all enjoyed thanksgiving and are gearing up for a merry christmas!

Monday, November 19, 2007

ok. this one is going to be a long one. so grab something cold to drink and settle in for the long haul.
the last time i updated we were in khartoum, sudan. the remainder of our visit with our new friends was fun, including attending a fashion show put on by one of their students. that's right, a fashion show, in sudan. getting our visas to ethiopia went smoothly and we left as soon as we got them. our first stop was to be kassala, near the eritrean border. we woke up around dawn and headed out to the road, deciding to try our hand at hitchhiking. we struggled over the construction of a sign for about 20 minutes, to the great amusement of the gas station attendants nearby. we finally got our destination scribbled in arabic on cardboard with a ball point pen and set out to waving down cars. after about half an hour, a nice old man in a truck hauling who-knows-what stopped for us. so we rode in the cab with him, sharing peanuts back and forth (which, aside from oil seems to be sudan's only crop) and watching the scenery fly by. he took us about 3 hours and dropped us off at our turn. thrilled with the great success of our morning we treated ourselves to a coke, spilled them, and went back to flagging down trucks. however, while we were working at it, the bus to where we wanted to go came by and the large-ish crowd of onlookers quickly ushered us on to it. the bus, in a previous life, had been a truck of some sort, and the bus body that had been attached seemed just a touch long for the wheel base.

the end result of this was that jenny and i, who were riding crammed in the very back of the bus were catapulted inches off our seats every time we went over a bump; which in sudan seems to be every few seconds. the ride went well enough for about five hours, with the obligatory police check points every hour or so. but then some "secret police" who fancied themselves important noticed the foreign girls on the bus. they got us off the bus and started to talk to us about how the paperwork in our passports was wrong. we tried to tell them that perhaps this was due to the fact that they were looking at visas to egypt and argentina upside down, but they would have none of it and kept talking to us about "another piece of paper" (read: money). we played stupid and refused to bring up the matter of a bribe and the whole bus sat and waited for us. we got increasingly angry as they asked us useless questions about where we were from and whether we were democrats or republicans, and our fellow passengers got more and more fed up with having to wait for the stupid foreigners. eventually it came down to all the passengers standing outside watching us scream in bad arabic at the men who were threatening us with pulling our luggage off the bus and telling us that we had to ride somewhere with them in their car. we screamed no about ten times and grabbed our passports (which actually had about seven separate stamps from sudan and were fine) from their hands and stormed back to the bus. as a final goodbye they gave jenny a hard shove from behind as she walked away, much like any normal, mature adult might do. we got back on the bus, one of us crying for dramatic purposes, and the other explaining how hard it is to travel when everyone hates you. our fellow passengers rallied telling us that they loved us and hiding us whenever we went past a police stop. a couple of hours later we got to kassala where we were instantly told we must register with the police. having a bit of a chip on our shoulders from our last encounter we were reluctant, but they forced us to. it was legitimate and we went and found a hotel room to collapse into, swearing to leave as early as possible the next day. however, just as we had settled in there was a knock on the door. it was the hotel manager telling us that we had to, yes, register with the police. again, we objected, but it was no good. he dragged us across town to register with another policeman, with another registry book. we stormed back to our hotel and locked ourselves in, swearing that we would cut off one of our toes before we would miss the bus the following morning. and so we set off bright and early to secure seats on the bus. everyone in the bus station was really helpful. in fact, they helped us find our way to yet another required police registration, this one not ever even finding our sudanese visas and writing our information over the top of some scribbles on a cigarette carton...
and we were off. we rode various buses and mini buses all day in our desperation to get out of sudan, registering all along the way with every police stop we came across. all in all we registered 9 times in sudan, and 8 of them were in our final two day exodus. we got to the border at night, kicking ourselves for not being able to cross as soon as possible, but an ethiopian man told us that the border didnt close and we walked across it in the dark. so for halloween, we were time travellers. ethiopia just celebrated the year 2000 in september. and there we were in ethiopia, fresh faced and 18, looking forward to college, talking about how dumb the y2k scare was and being slightly disappointed that that prince song was finally out of date. the border town had no electricity and was run by generators. we were led through immigration and customs with a flashlight. customs consisted of two women with a flashlight sitting on a hill who didnt even make us take off our backpacks. we settled in to our dirt-floored hotel rooms and discovered that apparently in ethiopia, chamber pots are still a thing. we went outside to wander the town and were delighted to find that it was the anti-sudan. every other building was a bar and women in short sleeves ran rampant throughout the town. another nice feature was that everything was really, really cheap. draft beer ran about sixteen us cents and you could get lunch for about fifty cents. we hung around the border town for a day to get ready for more buses and explore the village.

we went on a walk out of the main part of town and as we went amassed a group of children who were all chanting "you, you!" and when we emerged back into town we had enough of them following us to start our own soccer team.
the next morning we got on the bus at 5 am to go to gondar, a town about 700 k away. even though we were the first people to get on the bus, and there was a plentitude of two person seats we were seated in a three person seat. we were also horrified to find that not all seats were the same distance from the seat ahead of them and ours seemed to be the smallest available. so we were crammed in a seat where our knees pushed the metal back of the seat ahead of us with an extra person who smelled strongly of body odor and ethiopian food. i should tell you a bit about the seats. they are metal benches with a thin layer of padding with seatbacks at a 90% angle and headrests consisting of a metal bar. so we rattled along on this bus on a dirt road gathering various bruises for about 10 hours until we reached gondar, a small mountain town in the west of ethiopia. off the bus all we could think of was finding someplace to stay as soon as possible. we checked into the first cheap hotel we found. the room was missing a lock but they promised it would be replaced.

turns out, the hotel was a brothel and the lock never would be replaced. so we compromised with them. we didnt complain about the various types of contraceptives we found under our mattresses, or the fleas that were biting us in our sleep and locked our entire wing of the hotel. they objected, but after enough of our screaming relented, still unwillingly. within a couple of days we had checked out and moved on to stay with a belgian couple living there and working with a local ngo. their ngo worked with local street boys, who were everywhere. they had a small orphanage and worked to get the boys some employable skills. we stayed for a few days, visiting their jobs and meeting their friends before moving on to Addis Ababa, the capitol. the trip to addis was a breeze. we took a minibus where everyone had their own seats. the road was paved and it only took 10 hours. it would have taken 5, but the road closed down for five hours for roadwork. also, we had the added benefit of catching a glimpse of some giant porcupines. they looked to be the size of a dog with quills at least a foot long or more. in addis we got our kenyan visas and basically just rested up for the trip to nairobi.

the trip turned out to be punishing, at best. five days of bus travel. getting to the border of ethiopia was not so bad because all of the roads were paved. also, by that point we were smart enough to choose our own, roomy (ish) two person seats. although, the seats are only about a person and a half wide. the bus to the border seemed only to be fueled only by the constant use of qat (a leaf that they chew that seems to have some sort of stimulant properties).

at the border we checked out of ethiopia that night because immigration did not open the next day until the bus had already left. the next morning we crossed the border before kenyan immigration opened, reserved our seats and went back to get our entry stamp. we sat on the bus at 8 am and watched as everybody yelled and screamed and got kicked off the bus and snuck back on for two hours. the commotion seemed mostly to be about seat numbers, which were written nonsensically on the backs of the bench seats. around ten, the convoy (all vehicles from the border have to travel in a convoy) took off, for all intents leaving the bus behind. but we eventually got our start down the dirt road. the bus ride that followed was the closest i think i have ever been to actual hell. the bus rattled down the road, the inside a swirl of dust and noise and smell. it was a 900k trip that took us until 1:00 pm the following day (28 hours). no stops for sleep. the bus broke down at some point and we all got off in the middle of the night so that they could pound on it by the light of their cell phones. this is when we learned that apparently white people glow in the dark just enough to attract all the giant beetles to come beat themselves against your face. just minutes before we went clinically insane we rolled into nairobi. and here we are. recovering with a peace corps friend and her parents. we get hot showers (none of the hotels we had in the past 2 weeks had water) and there are absolutely no buses involved. also, i hear that we will be having a big american style thanksgiving, mashed potatoes and all. we will be here at least through christmas. phew... so there you have it. the update of the last month and our trip from sudan to kenya. mr. ament - i know you waited a really long time for this one. i hope it satisfied.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

And here we are in bright and sunny sudan. we left aswan monday morning and caught a train to the port on lake nasser. on the way we met up with some more westerners who were bound for sudan with us. so our group of six found our way onto our tiny ferry boat and down into second class, which consisted of a room full of slightly padded, narrow benches, and got to know each other a little. our new travel buddies were: carlos - an italian guy who quit his job to backpack around. he's been at it for two years and wants to go for two more. curtis - a canadian who trades in silver and gold to finance his cheap travel. leslie and eowin - an irish lad and an american girl who randomly met while traveling and decided to join up and go down to rwanda. so now we were six strong. we sat and watched for several hours as the boat was loaded by hand. it would seem to me that the entire undersection of the ferry was filled to overflowing with hostess twinkies and tiger tails. and for the next 24 hours we alternated chatting with terrible sleep and passed around sections of a sensationalist version of joan kennedy's biography. and in a mere day, we had chugged our way up the nile and into sudan. we changed money (which is crazy strong for a cheap traveller - 2 per american dollar) and set off to find a hotel. our stop for the night was wadi halfa, a desert outpost that exists solely to usher passengers from the train to the ferry or from the ferry to the train. it is dry and hot and constantly dusty.
our hotel ended up being a room (sort of) with a dirt floor and beds made mostly of woven string. we took "showers" from a bucket, ate some overpriced fish and lamented the presence of only non-alcoholic beer. cokes from glass bottles worked well enough for washing the grit out of our mouths. the rest of tuesday night was spent steadying our nerves and filtering tons of water for the train ride the next day that was said to last anywhere from 18 to 50 hours. we showed up at the train station the next morning (it had been closed the night before) and tried to spring for some second class tickets. turns out, both first, second and third classes were booked solid. no seats. so we showed back up and bording time to find that a semi riot was going on at every door with people trying to get on for standing room. we wandered up and down the train, looking for a lighter crowd. instead we found, at the very back of the train, an old ratty car with no seats or lights that smelled strongly of fish. we set our new american girl friend to flirting with the policeman outside and we were ushered around back where no one else could see, shoved inside the train car and told to "shut our mouths." we crouched in the dark for what seemed like ages, until the train finally lurched forward and we were off, stowed away like tramps with about 7 other sudanese men.
a few stops later a policeman got on and got a $10 bribe from each of us. we were mad, but what else could we do? get off in the middle of the desert and walk to the capital? so, we rode through the night in our fish car until we were woken up and kicked off the car so that it could be loaded full of twinkies and tiger tails (which is apparently the national food of sudan). we snuck up into third class and found some newly vacated seats for the remaining two thirds of our trip. we filled our time by dangling our legs from the door and watching the desert slowly drag by and trying to sleep on the hard wooden benches. however, even the company of our new travel companions could not keep us entertained for the next ten hours. and when we stopped for 2 hours at a rest stop that was another 10 to 12 hours from the capital, all six of us gave up hope for remaining at all sane and benadryl'd ourselves to sleep, some on benches, some in the inches of dust that had accumulated on the floor. and voila! a mere 33 hours after we had borded the train, we were in khartoum and only slightly close to being certifiably insane! by this point it was friday morning and we had been fairly consistently travelling since monday night. we pounded down hotel doors until we found the cheapest we could and collapsed onto our cots. what you might not expect about sudan is that it is insanely expensive. also, none of the atm's here take foreign cards. so, even though the people here are, for the most part, great people, our next move seems to be hauling ass out of here for the next country on the trip. to cushion the financial blow of sudan, we found a great couple who are letting us crash in their guest room while we are in khartoum. the man is irish and his wife is a kiwi. they are teaching english here and we think that we just may have found the most generous people in the world. and now we are killing time waiting for our ethiopian visas. only this time we are only waiting a couple of hours instead of a couple of months. so the next time you all hear from us we will be sweating our tails off not in sudan, but ethiopia.
ps. i tried to give you pictures, but all the internet in khartoum hates me.