113 Countries and going... Most recent longer trip: Marjo 3.3 - The Third Time Charm, Older and wiser.
Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Oman.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Qatar - A surprisingly nice visit to Doha

As per current fashion, I am just adding this post to register that we were in Doha for 4 days in December 2015. I suppose I could go on about how much nicer than I expected the capital city in fact is, but well, that would mean full on blogging again, and I'm just not doing that, for several reasons, as mentioned before. Anyhow, Qatar, December 2015 happened. Not that it matters to anyone else but to my own recollection, as usually. :)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Kuwait - June 2015

Just for the record, not much to say about it, really - spent 10 days in Kuwait this summer. Not terribly exciting of a destination, I must say, but it was a good opportunity to go, joining my other half as he had to go for work, covering the GCC clubs Basketball championship . Did a bit of sightseeing, spent a fair bit of time on malls and inside a 5 star hotel room (all paid for, including meals etc). Temperatures rose up to 49 C while we were there so we were exactly motivated to be outside during the day. The centre resembled the centre of most Gulf capitals, with big towers, large mosques and a few "traditional" markets. Not much to do at night other than driving around and taking pictures from inside the car - it is a dry country. As much as I generally hate malls, I took advantage of the many things available there and not here in Oman (IKEA, Debenham's...). Time actually went by fast and it was alright.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Seychelles - February 2015

Won't write much... Just for the record, I spent two weeks there, and it was absolutely incredible.

Oman - I live here now!

After failing to write anything at all about the continuation of my trip to Ethiopia (it went on to Djibouti, Somalia and Oman) I now find myself with  no motivation to write much at all... But just as an update: The trip was great, I really enjoyed it, and following to nearly two weeks in Oman, I went to Rio, where I spent a month not doing much. I made it back to Oman two months ago, and reside in the lame, hell hole, fine ancient city of Nizwa. It has little to offer to the resident (but it's great for tourism, for a couple of days!) but I'm incredibly happy!

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The North of Ethiopia and its “historical route” - Part 1

The north is Ethiopia's most visited region. Famous for its so called “Historical route” containing ancient cities, castles and the norotious rock hewn churches, it has a well estabilished tourism industry, however ill structured and prepared it did seem to be at times.
The North is supposedly a lot easier for travelling than the south, and I got the impression that about 80% of the travellers I came across that only had about two or three weeks to spare, were focusing their time solemly in the north.
It did promise a lot, and as I was hoping to meet people with whom to later visit the south (and share expenses, as lots of the South seem to required cars with drivers and guides), I figured I'd spend my first ferw weeks in the northern part of the coutnry.
From Bahar Dar I took a 4 hour long minoibus to Gondar – a city famous for its magnificent castle and proximity to the Simien Mountains.

Gondar – An outstanding castle and interesting interactions

The fun in my minibus ride started even before it departed. As soon as I entered Bahar Dar's bus station, a sea of touts came from all over the place trying to indicate which minibus I should get into, and of course, trying to charge me double or triple the cost of the fare. It was hot, I was tired, and was ready to pay a bit more at that point, without further argument. My fellow minibus riders, however, wouldn't take any of it, and seemed to have given the tout such a hard time for ripping me off, that not only did he not take my money, but told me he owed me an apology. Later, a man sitting in fron of me apologized on behalf of his coutnry, Fair enough, The whole commotion was a great ice breaker, and the 4 hour long ride was rather scenic, with people constantly pointing out places worthy of having their pictures taken, in their view. This was my first overland journey and Ethiopia, and as I had expected, much of the country's poverty was being displayed on the road, right on my face. A poverty different than what I had seen in poor conutries of Asia and South America. I'm not sure if poorer, maybe just more drastic. People I could see from the minibus window really did not seem to have more than what they had on their bodies.

Once in Gondar, a CS member came to pick me up in his Bjaj (tuk tuk). He had misunderstood me as I had told him I already had a host, and soon enough he dropped me off at a junction where my host came to meet me. It was an odd CS ezzperience, “Alex” took me to the simple compound where he lived and initially seemed very nice, /he told me he didn't want my “business” but would help me getting to the Simien Mountains, and together we tried to see if I could fit into any potential group he might have. He turned out to be another agent, or tout, He didn't use CS for that, and he ended up indeed helping me, but he seemed rather jealous of ofther travellers and at times gave me the impression he wanted something else. Although the initial idea of experiencing true Ethiopian life in his place sounded alright, I ended up getting sick from something I ate and couldn't bear with the facilities available at his place whilst sick for over a day – so it turned out to be a great excuse to move to a hotel.

On my second day, I met my friend Dorota from Poland, as indicated on a post of its own. Gondar hadn't been that impressive up till that day. Nature was ok, but nothing phenomenal. I ended up visiting the Royal Enclosure on my second day and that was indeed out of this world amazing, Not only because it dates back to the 15th century and is one of the oldest castle complexes in Africa, but because during sunset it was virtually empty, looked beyong beautiful and I had it all to myself. As a town, there wasn't much to Gondar, but the castle was indeed worthwhile. During January, Gondar is the main city for the Timnkat celebration, one of Ethiopia's biggest holidays/festivals, attracting more visitors than ever.Most of the people that go there only spend a day, visiting the castle and organizing a trek for the Simien mountains. I ended up spending three nights, which was alright as I was sick one day, and wasted a lot of time going around with Alex while he went on about his ways trying to find people. By the end, I was fed up with him and vice versa, and ever since I left his house, the whole “I want to help you” thing seemed to have died. I din't care. I wa enjoying spending time with Dorota, Toma and Alec (from Germany). In the end, I was ready to look for other “agents” but he ended up “helping” me a bit. I joined one of his groups but only for the transportation, and whilst I still did pay, he did charge me less than most agencies were asking. All good in the end, Some people just don't get Couch surfing, but that isn't any news
Another interesting thing about Gondar and that region is that it is the original home of the “Beta Israel”, the “Falasha” or the “Ethiopian Jews”. I had seen and learned about them back in Jerusalem, Although their history is rather interesting and remains of those people would have been interesting to visit, they are nearly entirely gone, having been air flown into Israel after suffering harsh persecution in Ethiopia for their religion. There is a “Falasha village” in Gondar, just outside of the centre, but apparently with nearly nothing there but a crafts workshop and a fe visiting jews.
On my last night Tom and Dorota came to my room, and we had a bit of Tej together (Ethiopia's honey wine) while we had the most wonderful conversations about our travels, with aims of meeting again later on.

Simien – Reaching my limits

I was meant to be picked up at 8AM in order to start my 3 hour ride to the Simien Mountains. It is the top visited National Park in Ethiopia with mountains higher than 4000 metres, boasting the most amazing panoramic views, peculiar wildlife and challenging peaks to the trekking/heavy hiking types. Certainly not me. Although I would love to have the physical ability to go on 7 day hikes up and down the moutains carrying a bunch of equipment and fighting the altitude, that sinply isn't me, and I know my limits. Or do I?
I had decided to take part on the first day hike: Driving through Dembark into the National Park, being joined by the company of the mandatory armed scout, than hiking for about 4 hours before taking the keep back into Gondar, as promised. Well, that isn't quitee what happened. Alex's car as delayed by nearly 2 hours, which didn't affect the others in the group as much as it affected me, as I was the only one that had to return that same day. The road can be tricky in the dark, so his delay pretty much cut my time in the mountains in half. As a consequence, I didn't hike as much as I had been promised I would, and I was rushed to do everything in a much faster rhythms than what I was physically prepared to do.

The views were amazing, truly enchanting. Up in the mountains, one can find the incredibly, incomparable Galata Monkeys – a baboon type of monkey that is extremely docile, affectionate and not scared of himans. I learned a bit more about them through Tom, and one of the most interesting aspects was that the way they communicate resembles a language of its own, apparently with 30 something different tons. And they were indeed around, and in massive bunches, at a gew parts of the park. I was really happy to observe and hear them, but my time with them had also been cut short.
My hike basically ended up being from the village of Sankab to the Waterfall and back. Regardless of the issues, I wouldn have done it again, because it was a truly magnifice3nt hike. Nature up there as lush, nobody was around and the air was fresher than anywhere in all of Ethiopia. The driver was a really nice guy, and although he realised that I ended up hindered with the delay, he insitd that for safety reasons we had to go back at a certain time. The scout kept on rushing me and on the way back my left leg was really suffering. I had hiked for only about 3 hours, mostly uphill and through terrain that was at times, tricky. I was quite scared my leg would give up and I'd fall. In the end, I could hardly feel it and it just wasn't responding as it normally did any longer, Furtunately, it was near here thre car was to wait for me, so I dragged mysdelf back, at times with the help of Mola the scout, and at times, just by really pushing myself in ways I might have never pushed myself before.
It may have been a good thing that I didn't get to have my full hike due to the delay., Or maybe not. Maybe covering more territory would have been ok without having been rushed, But one way or another, I didn't feel bad. I wasn't sure I would have had the opportunity of doing the daytrip to the extent that my capabilities would allow me, and I did, and I was so happy to have done it. The landscape was way too special to have been missed!
Back in Gondar, I didn't care to say anything, or complain or anything at all. I focused on what I did end up having and forgot what I could have had and didn't. I felt good about having paid little due to Alex's “help”, for it made me less angry and in better terms with not having had the delivery of what I had been promised – as surely I would have been pissed off had I paid full price,

Axum – Underwhelmed by the city and short tempered with the touts.

Following the “beaten track” of the Historical Route, I moved on into Aksum, by air on a heavily discoutned flight, The city is famous for its Axumite Stelae, tombs and ancient civilization remains. Aside from all that, it is pretty close to Eritrea, and although the border has been off limits for over a decade, I felt like I should get as close to it as I could, for my own stupid little reasons.
Axun was to me, a disappointment. From the moment I got there I felt a lvel of hassle I hadn't yet felt in Ethiopia (it got worse later I think, but I didn't know that back then). People would come from all over to bug me and I was just sick of stupid small talk with people wanting business from me at a time I didn't feel lilke having guides, or my shoes cleaned, or to buy souvenirs or whatever else on earth I was being approached about.
To add to all that, the citty was all under construction, full of dust and no roads being repaved. My leg was hirting. It was really hot. I was really not in a good mood, And I decided I didn't have to hide that, which was a bit of a shame for those that were out to bug me, for I was letting it out back at them.
I dragged myself into the main Stele Park, and I was just not feeling it. Surely, the cimment really tall ancient Axumit tombs of old were all still standing and well preserved. Surely all the other tombs, ruins of palaces and whatever else people go there for might have been truly interesting to history freaks, but I just wasn't feeling it., Maybe because of the construction forklifts standing right next to them, killing the vibe. Maybe because of the heat. Maybe because to me it was just not that interesting. I don't know. I sdaw the main Stelae Park and didn't care to move myself all throughout the city for more ruins or anything like that,

Instead, I walked through Maryam's Church into some back streets of town, which ended up leading me to some really interesting markets displaying nice craftsmanship, such as the Saturday basket market. But all the joy was gone as kids would run towards me yelling “Mini mini mini” (meant to be “money”) or demading “candy” and “school pen”.
I tried hard to see a bit of what seemed interesting to me (everyday market life) for as much as I could before getting too fed up. Then, when I got fed up and rather tired, I went back into my hotel, cancelled my plan of spending two days in Aksum and called it a day. Although it isn't listed as a highlight of any sort by any guidebooks, I don't know, I expected a bit more frm Aksum. But going there was indeed important, for the road that awaited for me the next day would be a truly magnificent one.

To be continued on Part 2...

Friday, November 28, 2014

On the stupid "This is Africa" excuse and its negative effects on the continent and its people.

I'm just SO SICK AND TIRED of the stupid “This is Africa” mentality, often used to justify problems in the continent, regarding patterns of behaviour from its people, the level of service offered and so on,
I wish people using this stupid excuse all the time (particularly foreigners!) would comprehend tha this doesn't help, it doesn't serve as a motivating force for a positive change. It just allows people to accept the unacceptable and to continue patterns that are in need of change. Why should a certain continent be less worthy of civility and minimum standards? Why should foreigners accept acts when travelling in Africa that they wouldn't in their home countries? If it was an instance such as “Well, this is Africa, there are electricity shortages or water shortages, because this particular country struggles”, THAT would be acceptable,, but the whole “This is Africa” excuse is usually only applied in instances where it shouldn't be, for the particur country's history and current situation do NOT prevent from a constructive behaviour being applied, or from a standard of respect towards people, being applied. An example?
Ethiopian Airlines gives me a quote, confirms a reservation and gives me 12 hours to pay in full I return with the cash and am informed that there was a mistake done by the agent due to a system issue, and that I now owe double. NOT acceptable. Decisions were taken based on that guarantee given, and if there was a mistake of either an agent or from a system, the “Star Alliance member” that claims to be “Africa's best airline” should take responsibility for their errors. And as I argue,reasoning with the agent that whilst I understand there was an error, the error should be sucked up by the airline, not me, a foreginer sitting nearby by says “Listen, this is Africa”. FUCK THAT SHIT! How does this create a respectful customer service environment, educates generations on civilities or create a better society in any given way? It doesn't. Then you constantly hear Africans using this saying to accept things they themselves should not at all accept. It has nothing to do with natural resources or with any deficiency the continent might have that is beyond their control. It is all a matter of education, the basis for change in this continent, before anything else!
I'm so sick of observing foreigners contributing to the shitty situation many of these people are on by not being aware of their environment or not giving a shit about what impact their visit will leave to future generations, The whole begging coming from every single child in Ethiopia is due to the stupid foreigners filled by a stupid sense of “Western guilt”, not knowing (or caring to learn) what to do with themselves or how to properly help and walking around distributing pens, candy and money, creating a society of beggars with no sense of dignity or pride!
I'm done ranting. The whole begging issue is a whole different ranting posting, as it will very soon have a negative short term effect in Ethiopia's tourism industry – asd people are not at all enjoying the begging or treating foreigners like money tree culture, and that will soon stop preventing tourism from growing.
Today, after a whole day of dealing with Jubba Expreress airlines inneficiency, and finally having them tell me I would have to pay $45 for a change already made instead of $15, I decided that was it! NO WAY. I reasoned until I couldn't any longer and told them that if their agent made a mistake quoting me, the cost would not come from me. Wouldn't happen. I was ready to either sit there for the entire evening or force myself to cry. After a lot of reasoning, the manager, who originally was absolute bullshit helping me, called Dubai, and ended up charging me nothing, Maybe this instance will teach them for future references that foreigners are not made of money and even if they were - might not be able to suck up other people's mistakes every single time. Maybe it will motiovate them to better train their staff so that no wrong information is provided, Maybe they will increase their quality assu=ranc and customer service. It was SO MUCH MORE than the $30 difference - I was just not going to take it again. And in the end, the manager ended up charging me nothing at all. It felt good - not just for the principle of it and all that is behind it, but for I am indeed low on cash and Somaliland has no functioning ATMs.Finally, I score one, in a region that has being forcing me to acept things absolutely unnaceptable anywhere in the world, with nothing but big massive capitalist corporations behind it, using the "This is Africa" attitude for pure disrespect. 

Anyway, enough ranting. UGH!!

Bahar Dar and Lake Tana: Monasteries and meeting other travelers

Bahar Dar – Going up North

After 5 days in Addis, it was time to move up north. As internal flights are awfully cheap for passengers that have flown their international segments on Ethiopian Airlines, I payed the £25 and avoided the 10+ hour $18 bus ride.
Still at the airport, I met Jenny - a German girl doing her internship in Bahar Dar. My new friend Celie, whom I had met a few days prior in Addis, put us in touch, and even before checking in we met one another. Later on, through Jenny, I also met Toby and his visiting family. He was also German, but had been living in Bahar Dar on a Rastafari community for nearly 10 years. Once we reached, he kindly gave me a ride to my pension and assured me I had picked a decent place.
Funnily enough, that is sort of what Bahar Dar best offered me, in my 2 day sta there: meeting people. After settling and going for a walk around the iconic Tana Lake in the vicinity of the Ghion Hotel (backpacker guettoi overpriced hotel, but apparently a good place to meet travelers) I went to meet Alex – a German guy with whom I had been in touch through Lonely Planet's forum. He was also arriving on that day and starting his 3 week long trip. Our plans weren't exactly the same but we made plans of meeting up.
Alex was a cool guy, but rather funny to observe, as this was pretty much his first time backacking. Ever, The things he saw as interesting were often really funny to me, and the things he found appalling were nothing out of the ordinaty on my view. It was, if anything, sort of refreshing to observe the world through the eyes of a newbie. And he was open minded and kind, eager to “learn”. As soon as we met at the place of his choice (some guide book listed bar) I noticed he was carrying his whole backpack. d”Haven't you checked into your room?”, I asked. His reply? “Yes, but I don't have another small bag, so I'll just carry this one, it's not too heavy”. His backpack was massive and over 15 kilos. I suggested we hunt for a daypack for him, and he quickly agreed. It was funny but adorable to observe that.
Now the part that wasn't funny was that Alex was not used to being harassed by aggressive touts. Not being able to say no firmly at first, touts kept on following us, being aggressive and clearly trying to rip him off. Once I told him I had our Lake Tana trip sorted for the next morning (for under a quarter of the price he was being quoted) the tout got seriously pissed off at me, and abused verbally, following me for a while. That really ut a bad taste in my mouth, but we got over it.
Later that night we were joined by Jenny, her hosting family and Celie's visiting parents, and had dinner together. I was tired.

Next morning was our day to actually visit Lake Tana, its archipelago monasteries as well as the source of the Nile river. We met a few cool independent travellers, and although the monasteries were nice, I would much rather have gone there on a passenger ferry and have spent more time in the actual islands, observing daily life, rather than just bing a tourist off the boat, into the monastery and back on the boat.
They were impressive, old monasteries though, and even though the short hikes leading up to their entrances wre full of souvenir selling stalls, the people were friendly. I chose to enter the second monastery, one of the oldest in the island, and it was indeed interesting, for its colours, and for the fact that it had been there for so long, but a church is still a church, and I often don't see the need of seeing many portraits of Christianity's history over and over. As the group either visited the monasteries or waiter outside, I made my way back to where the boat was waiting, and had the chance of chatting a bit more with locals and playing with children, which was cool.

We continued the tour into the source of the Nile river, where my tour mates thought they'd see hippos. I never thought it could be the case, although it is indeed allegedely possible. It was nice for observing nature and bird watching, but nothing out of this world. Am I too jaded? No, don't think so... It was really underwhelming.
Following out day trip we hung out with the cool German travellers we had met, exchanged travel info, travel stories and went for a few drinks. My first attempt at Gondar Ethiopian wine: BLERGH! I was asked if I wanted the sweet or the dry option: “The dry one please”. I honestly cannot even imagine what the sweet must have tasted like, as the dry was disgustingly sugared!

The second big thing that people do from Bahar Dar is a visit to the Blue Nile Falls. I have become a bit of a Falls snob, I guess, after having visited Niagara, Iguassu and Victoria. After I herd tht it was full of annoying touts and that there was little shade on the hike up there, I gave up, and took an early bus towards Gondar the next morning. Alex made the trip to the Falls, and even though he hadn't seen any of the big 3, he said it was underwhelming, and that only about 20% of the water could be seen at the time, Phew. I felt better.

Everyone starts going up north from Bahar Dar, and it is maybe the easiest place in all of Ethiopia to meet travellers (Aside from the backpacker guetto hotels in Addis, apparently). Although it wasn't anything out of this word, it is a good looking lake, that would certainly be better looking if it didn't have as much trash around it, I would have done it again, it was an enjoyable, so so day tour, and I was always surrounded by interesting people while up there...

On local transportation in Ethiopia - Moving like they move

Riding in shared taxi lines, locals buses and minibuses have provided me with some of the very best local interaction opportunities I had in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, authentic local interaction has been rather difficult to find, as it seems that travelers are constantly seen like not much other than a money tree or walking cash machine, and all the possibilities easily available for taking to locals, or in fact, to have locals talk to you, concern some sort of service they are trying to offer, or begging, or things like that.
 I could write a whole posting about that so, won't devote much into it now, but the point here is that while riding public transport, a traveler has the opportunity of engaging in conversation (language barrier permitting) with people that are simply going on about their day, and those experiences have been extremely rewarding to me.
 People are often rather shocked to see a tourist in a $0.20 bus or shared taxi, as they are BEYOND over crowded and uncomfortable, but in my point of view, these rides are priceless, as I would pay the $20 people pay on an air conditioned tourist bus just to have these smiling faces looking at me, trying to help me and simply being genuine – something I really missed experiencing in Ethiopia...

One rides where one can manage to find space...

My sistah from another mistah.
 The rides, drivers and passengers have a crazy dynamic, which at times I though I understood, than realized I didn't. I was always told my minibus was going from point A to C, not having to change in point B. Than, of course, at point B, all of a sudden, everyone would move into another similar mini bus. I never understood how come – maybe the other car had more fuel? And then, during these changes, original passengers would miss out on their seats, fights would start, passengers would revolt, and a long time after, all would resume. Much to my luck, people always seem to decide to take care of me, and ensuring a seat was guaranteed on the next car for me. Even in the original boarding of the buses, weird changes would happen. A person would come wanting to join, talk to the “cash collector/organizer”, than he would poin point someone out, tell them to leave, and replace them. Maybe a person paying less, for some odd reason? But the fun actually started when you thought they couldn't possibly fit anyone else, than all of a sudden, we were told to move, and two or three more would join. Then they would tell someone to leave, and replace them with two more... It was insane. Interesting to watch, fun to experience and awfully uncomfortable and unsafe to ride. Women would bring tons of shopping bags and babies, the entire mini bus would be jam packed, fitting minimally double the maximum amount of passengers. Every single part would be occupied. Then police would stop them at check points, bla bla bla, pretend to be reprehending the driver, and let them go. And it was like that, again and again.

 Addis was brilliant for that – the shared taxi line rides were short, but precious. I think they made me particularly enjoy Addis as I felt outside of the “farangi” (word for foreigner) bubble for a good few moments... Bus rides were slightly more comfortable, but only if you were there early enough to guarantee yourself a proper seat. If not, tons of floor space or sitting on top of other parts of the bus (anywhere you could find space) would always be a better option than waiting for the next bus to get full enough to depart.
 My last big bus ride, from Harar to Jijiga (nearing the border with Somalia) was rather interesting, as I had to squeeze into a small part of a metal box used for car tools (I think). People often fight once getting accommodated, but a few minutes after the ride starts, everyone warms up to the other passengers, make a bit of room available (the same room they were being requested to make available and refused, in the beginning of the ride) and enjoy the ride. This last ride, everyone seemed shocked to see me seating where I was, but yet, nobody offered me their seat. Fine by me – why should foreigners on “holidays” have preference over people struggling with their every day lives? But funnily enough, when a police man stopped the bus for a check point, he told them all (as it was translated to me by a fellow passenger) “Shame on you all for riding comfortably and letting her ride the journey like that”. After that (and nearly in the end of the journey), one of the English speaking, comfortably seated passengers offered me his seat. I refused. I was fine and happy to be having the opportunity of going through everything they go through themselves when it comes to transportation in Ethiopia... It is the least I could do to try and get a slight glimpse of what goes on in their lives and appreciate it.