Monthly Archives: August 2009

The blog Ethiopia didn’t want you to see II

I will contend with Africa no more- homeward bound!

I’m writing this at 10 AM (from my perspective) at the Semien Hotel in Addis Ababa, shortly before departing for my journey homeward. The end of (roughly) three weeks in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia. Wow!

Yesterday, my last day here in Ethiopia, I spent the morning repaying all the folks whose kindness helped me enjoy Lalibela and Axum. Surprisingly, doing a money transfer at a domestic bank in Ethiopia was nowhere near as mind-numbing as I had feared! After that, I headed to the National Museum. After shaking off the efforts of a wannabe rasta “student” who swooped down on me as soon as the taxi stopped and tried to steer me to other sites that he would “guide” me to, I made my way inside. Man what is it with the scammy gangster wannabe rastas in Ethiopia?

Inside, a real bonafide student who worked at the museum gave me a free guided tour. Punctuated by the lights going out in the middle of a torrential raainstorm right when we reached Lucy. They came back on eventually and great aunt ^ 3.4 million years and I got to visit. It wasn’t the real Lucy, which is usually in storage and only available to researchers (but is now touring the world for the first time ever!) but a cast, first of the bones laid out flat, and then reconstructed in a standing position. Australopithecus Afarensis was short, which I appreciate in a hominid, not being the tallest myself.

The museum was also full of a lot of other neat stuff, including some really stunning stone carvings from the 2600 year-old civilization at Yeha, and a fantastic contemporary art section. My guide was also knowledgable, friendly, and totally embarassed when I offered him a small tip at the end of the tour. We exchanged e-mails, as I have with a lot of people here, and hope to keep in touch. He’s the kind of person I hope to remember more when I think of this country, rather than predatory pseudo-rastas. Although I guess both are parts of the same reality…

After that I hailed a taxi and tried to reach the national cathedral and a market I had read about that had fair fixed prices (I just don’t have the haggle and bargain gene). The driver had never heard of any such places (even though a half dozen people in the last two days had mentioned the cathedral by name to me), but I did get a de facto city tour as he tried to find them. Finally I decided to stop contending with Africa and just return to my hotel. Boy was he consternated by that direction! It’s been a long three weeks, and I’m happy to call the contest a draw. Africa-Chris tied 1-1, both retire for the evening.

In my case that meant a warm bath and watching the end of Police Academy on satellite TV. And now I’m here, about to depart. A 2 hour flight to nairobi, layover there, much longer flight to Amsterdam, layover there, and then a two hour flight to San Francisco. At least that’s how I interpret it- I leave Amsterdam at 11 AM and arrive in San Francisco at 1 PM. That’s two hours, right? Or maybe something is wrong in my figuring…

Regardless, I look forward to seeing you all soon!

The blog Ethiopia didn’t want you to see I

I never did get to post my last two entries from Addis Ababa, as the government of Ethiopia, in their infinite wisdom on how to deal with potential dissent, blocks Blogger.com. I was able to post them as Facebook notes (which tells you what a thankless job blocking specific websites in order to silence voices is), I figured I’d post them here for completeness’ sake. First below, second to follow…

P.S. I’m back!
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Last day in Africa!

I think you could make a case that tomorrow is my last day in Africa, since my flight out of Addis Ababa isn’t until after noon, and then I have a connecting flight through Nairobi that doesn’t leave until 10 PM. But let’s not get distracted by technicalities- this is my last (full) day in Africa!

I’m currently in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. I arrived here yesterday from Axum. Many apologies for not blogging more from there, the connections in Axum were 56 kbps dial-up (I didn’t think that still existed outside of my parent’s house!) and Blogger and Facebook were just way too much for those poor little phone lines.

My second day in Axum I visited the remains of Ethiopia’s (and sub-saharan Africa’s) oldest surviving structures, a 2600 year-old temple in Yeha, about a half-day’s trip from Axum. This site is thought to be the font of all later Ethiopian civilization and completed my journey backwards in time (the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela are around 12th century, the stellea and other remains of the Axumite civilzation are from about 200 BC to 900 AD). It was truly awesome to stand there amidst walls that are still standing from before the birth of Socrates, arund the time of the Old Testament prophets.

The third day in Axum I had a chance to visit the old town, a winding array of old stone houses that was the area where most people lived before moving to the more “modern” concrete and electircity newer parts of town. UNESCO, which is big on preserving the historical heritage sites in Ethiopia, is actually paying most of these people to relocate, so the remains of the Axumite civilization that are under their farmhouses can be recovered. It makes sense, but also seems a shame, since those houses themselves are lovely and historic.

All-in-all, I’m glad I got to spend a third day in Axum, since it gave me a chance to appreciate it on my own (the omnipresent wannabe rastaman guide who met me at the airport had business out of town that day). It also gave me a bit of a break from the guide’s constant attempts to hustle and vercharge me for things, although there were plenty of other people around town (including one of the busboys at my hotel!) who tried to take up where he left off. Let’s just say if the people in Lalibela made that town seem like heaven, the people in Axum did a good job of presenting the other end of the cosmic spectrum…

But yesterday I arrived here in Addis Ababa, where, among other things, people are too busy being in the capital city to even care to much abut little old tourist me. It’s bliss! The city itself is also really lovely- even though the population is well into the millions, the terrain is hilly, trees are everywhere throughout, and the whole thing is ringed by mountains, giving it a much more calm, fresh and open feeling than you might expect. I visited St. George Church and the Ethnographic Museum, which is housed in the former palace of Emperor Haile Selaisse. I even got a chance to see his still preserved bedroom, changing room and bathroom!

Today I have my sights set on the national cathedral, and the National Museum, where I look forward to meeting my great^3.4 million years aunt Lucy. I’ll hopefully report about that tomorrow morning, and then I’m homeward bound!

Raiders of the Lost Axum

So here I am on my fourth night in Ethiopia, and the first in the town of Axum. Sorry I haven’t written for a few days. If you want to introduce some chaos into your travel plans in Africa, I suggest the following:

1. Leave Momabasa, Kenya for a connecting flight through Nairobi to Ehtiopia on the day Kenya airways resolves a three-day old strike.

2. Amidst the total chaos in the Nairobi airport with lines out the door, be lucky to get your (much delayed) flight, and have no time to do anything else at the airport.

3. Upon 2 AM arrival in Addis Ababa, Ehtiopia, find the one open foreign exchange window refuse to change your Kenya Shillings for Ethiopian Birr.

4. Proceed directly via a 7 AM flight to Lalibela, Ethiopia, a small town where nobody exchanges any currency except US$, and no bank will take any form of debit or credit card. You have plenty of money for the next few days, becuase the guidebooks warned you to make sure you had cash as nothing else was accessible, but you can’t use any of it.

That being said, the people I met in Lalibela are the nicest people I have met anywhere. The manager at my hotel, the Lal Hotel, said to just charge everything to my room and pay their head office when I got back to Addis Ababa in a few days. And then a very nice gentlemen at the Ehtiopian Airlines office, not wanting me to backtrack to Addis just to be able to change money, loaned me some money to be able to go on here to Axum after Lalibela. My saviors!

The town was just as beautiful as the people. It’s the rainy season, so everything is verdant green, and the whole small town is laid out up and down hills. The centerpiece, and the reason I was there, was a series of 12th and 13th century rock-hewn churches that were meant to create a “New Jerusalem” in Ethiopia and continue to be a pilgrimmage site to this day. Simply stunning to see, and to feel the power of people chanting and praying in carved out stone that has been visited continually for over 900 years.

And today I was on to Axum, which was the site of a major civilization that traded far and wide from about 400 BC to 900 AD. They left huge craved stellae (think, big stone obelisk) which I visited today. They also converted around 300 AD to Christianity, becoming the second oldest Christian nation in the world. The big pilgrammage site here is Saint Mary of Zion, built around 1600 by medieval Ethiopian emperors on the foundations of an older church dating to around 600 AD. There’s also a small chapel on the grounds that’s said to house the Ark of the Covenant.

Yes, that’s right, the Ark of the Covenant. Legend has it that it was brought to Ethiopia by the Queen of Sheba’s son by King Solomon. The Ehtiopian Emperors, right down to Haille Selaisse, continued to claim descent from Solomon. Only the head priest can enter the holy of holies hwere it’s kept, but I did my best to soak up sacred emananations from a distance without bursting in to flame.

Tomorrow I’m hoping to visit the even older ruins of a civilzation at a site near here called Yeha, and then one more day here after that before heading back to Addis Ababa for the finale of my Africa excursion. I hope to write more tomorrow!

Last night in Kenya

I’m back in Mombasa now after a sweaty, jostly but otherwise quite fine ride down the coast from Watamu. This is my last night in Kenya- tomorrow I do some sightseeing around town, and then head to the airport for the flight to Ethiopia. This is also the halfway mark of my journey overall, the first half in Tanzania and Kenya, and now the next half in Ethiopia. In honor of this, I’d like to mention a few things about the Tanzania/Kenya potyion that didn’t make it in to the daily narrative:

– I love women’s dresses. No, this isn’t some kind of long overdue confession. Rather, just an appreciation for the incredible colors and patterns I’ve seen in dresses all over these two countires.

– Matatus rock! They’re these litle minibuses that are the main means of transport, and they’re much cheaper than any taxi or bus, and always colorfully decorated. usually with religious themes, but I’ve also seen Jay-Z, Eminem, Ludacris and Led Zeppelin.

– Safari moments that didn’t make the main narrative, like when my driver got out to pee at one point, and a distant herd of elephants trumpeted and formed a defensive circle around their young, or when he caused a mother lion to long around puzzled when he mimicked the meow of one of her cubs.

– The sounds and smells of safari. You know the images, buy you have to include the smell of dung, pervasive mooing of wildebeest, and incredible racket of hippos.

– Also that it’s not all fun and games. I saw bones scattered all over, we came across hyaneas chewing on the head of a wildebeest, and at one point we came upon a dying hyeana by the side of the road, after it had probably fought with others or (m guide guessed) been kicked by a buffalo.

– Cats! I never saw any in Tanzania, but there was a black cat at the border crossing with Kenya (good sign) and I’ve seen them around in cities and villages all over Kenya.

– The sound of the call to prayer at all hours of night and day. Tanzania and Kenya are both about half and half Muslim and Christian, and the coast in Kenya where I’ve been for the last few days is mostly Muslim, so there’s always a mosque nearby.

These are a few things that come to mind now, I’m sure I’m missing many others. But soon it’s on to Ethiopia, with all new adventures to share! I’m arriving very late, so probably I’ll check in the day after tomorrow. See you all then!

Chris

My Life in Ruins

Hello from Watamu! Which is a coastal town in Kenya, about 50 miles north of Mombasa. I arrived here yesterday by a little 9 seater van, the ubiquitous form of inter-city transport here in East Africa. It was a pretty uneventful journey, although the old lady next to me was wincing the whole time. At first I thought it was me, but then I realized she had some kind of pain. Other than the general pain of being jammed in a mini-van with 8 sweaty people.

I came here to visit the nearby ruins at Gede, which I went to today. There was apparently a very prosperous Swahili trading town here from around 1200-1500, although no historical record mentions it. It was large though, with a palace, inner and outer walls, and numerous houses and mosques, and the people there traded with Arabia, India, the Meditarranean and China based on goods found there. All of it now is stone ruins, crumbling into the jungle. It really struck me, bing there in this place that was once busy, touching stone walls that somebody had erected 600 years ago, and then eventually totally abandoned it. There weren’t many people there, most of the jungle trails I had to myself, so much so that I occassionally wondered if I’d get back to the entrance on my own. I did though, and had some quality monkey and butterfly encounters along the way.

That mission being accomplished, I’m heading back to Mombasa tomorrow, and then flying on to Ethiopia the next day. Until then, I’m going back to my guest house and it’s resident herd of goats and swarm of cats. Now that’s wildlife!

So now we’re in Kenya…

…Mombasa, to be exact, the second largest city in Kenya with a lovely location right on the Indian Ocean. I am so happy to smell ocean again! What can I say, I’m a coastal kind of guy… In any case, I arrived here through what has probably been the most dangerous part of my journey to date, a 9 hour bus ride from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It actually wasn’t too scary, and I ended up going with a really local carrier, a girl from China, 2 Spaniards and I were the only non-Africans on the bus. The most heart-stopping moment came when we debussed for lunch. I didn’t know what was going on, and by the time I got my order together and started eating, the bus was making like to leave the parking lot! Much fun scrambling ensued. Anyway, I’m here now and I quite like here.

A lot of people in Arusha pointed out to me that the Bush from Arusha to Mombasa is actually faster than from Dar es Salaam, so i didn’t need to fly there first. The reservation was already pre-paid, though, so I went with the wheels that were already in motion. I kind of wish I had known about it beforehand, though, becuase Dar was chaotic and most maked by a fight with my hotel when they said I couldn’t downgrade from deluxe to regular. At which point I walked out, and headed to a hotel next door. I’m still looking for the hotel police to bust me, but I guess I’m safe since I’m in another country now.

Flying there did get me a stop at the island resort of Zanzibar on the way, though. The white sand beaches and coral reefs were duly spectacular from the air. And sitting with a bunch of bus goers in a dark alley at 6 AM waiting to disembark is it’s own kind of fun too. I’ve been up at or before 6 half the days I’ve been here so far! I think I need to look up the meaning of the word “vacation”…

For now, though, I’m just happy because this city is pretty groovy, and my room has a bathtub, something I’ve been coveting. Tomorrow I’m up at a reasonable hour and taking a bus up the coast to a small beachside town where I’m going to stay for two nights, as a base to check out the ruins of an old Swahili trading town. Internet allowing, I’ll check in from there tomorrow.

Lions and hippos and boars, oh my!

I’m back from my three-day safari to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro parks in Tanzania. This will be a little brief and impressionistic, as I am a bit bleary thanks to three days in a row of 6 AM awakenings. Some of the things that stand out for me, amidst an overall experience that was amazing and outstanding:

– The red and purple-garbed Maasai herders tending animals along the roads.

– The variety of climates from arid semi-desert ot mountain rainforest to grasslands.

– Did I say grasslands? Vast grasslands in the Serengeti, stretching to the horizon with a sky bigger than you can imagine.

– Camping under the unfamiliar, and yet not, diamond blaze of the southern stars.

– Baboons swarming across the road the minute we entered Ngorongoro Park.

– The first sighting of an elephant emerging from the mist.

– Seeing a hippo chasing a lion away from a watering hole.

– Lions? Yes, many, often quite close. Sometimes with cubs.

– The roaring and tense stare-offs that occured when one pride of lions strayed too close to another.

– Not to let the rest of the feline world be outdone, cheetahs, a leopard, and a serval cat (a litle spotted wildat, which darted across the road with something in it’s mouth).

– Zebras wandering through our campsite at Ngorongoro, and the elephants that came to drink from the watertank there.

– Ngorongoro itself, a crater formed by the collapse of a twenty-mile wide volcanic crater, with tropical rainforests on it’s flanks, and runoff feeding in to grasslands down below and creating a lake in the center.

-Olduvai Gorge. I could write a whole entry on that place alone. Suffice it to say that being where our whole genus was born was a profund experience for me. Go Homos! (and props to Australopithecines as well).

These are just some of the things that come to mind. In a basically two-day period (minus driving two and from, two days in the parks themselves) I saw elephants, giraffes, hippos, a rhino, buffalo, wildebeest, more different kinds of antelope and gazelle than I can name, zebras, lions, cheetahs, a leopard, a serval cat, hyaneas, jackals, baboons, monkeys, ostriches and assorted strange and wonderful birds. I’m sure I’m forgetting something in this list, overall an amazing experience, well well worth it. Thanks to my tour operator, Kilidove, and especially to my driver/guide and cook, who went above and beyond the call of service for helping me work things out along the way.

Tomorrow I’m flying to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, from which I’ll take a bus the next day to Mombasa, Kenya. More to follow…