29 October 2008

The Land of Sheesha and Shwarma

Egypt may be famous as the land of the Pharaohs, the Nile and my boy Moses, but to me the best parts of Cairo involved copious amount of water pipes and mystery meat on a stick.

Our flight got into Cairo at about 9am, which meant it left Nairobi at the thrilling hour of 5am, which meant another exciting 2:30am trip to an airport. A few things immediately struck me about Cairo: a Cinnabon in the airport, sidewalks on all the streets, elevated highways, and (for the first time in Africa) free maps that were not part of a guide book. I was pretty psyched.

PICT0055 We met up with two other ADP folks, dropped our bags and had a nice mid-morning wander down the Nile into Coptic Cairo. This is home to some old Christian churches and an (the??) old Jewish synagogue, blah blah blah, much more interesting were the donkey carts weaving in and out of traffic, the people at sidewalk cafes or stoops enjoying a morning sheeha (hookah, arguilar, hubbly bubbly, whatever) and me trying to speak Arabic. From there we went to the Citadel which is a pretty amazing Islamic complex in Old Cairo. It features a huge, beautiful mosque with towering arches, domes and miniarets and a really cool view out over the city. After getting sidetracked for a quick minute in a sandstorm, we went to Kahn-al-Khalili, grabbed a quick bite of schwarma and kosheri (rice, pasta, beans, pasta, potatoes, pasta, pretty much every carb ever invented) and headed into Cairo's market/souk. It was just getting dark and the market was kicking into high gear, with people selling everything from spices to gold to perfumes to water pipes to tourist craps to cotton. It was a pretty awesome atmosphere, we wandered the narrow alleys and haggled with the touts for an hour or so and then relaxed in Cairo's oldest cafe (El Fishawy) with some mint tea, sheesha and watched the tourists run around. Capped off the night with McDonald's soft serve (I've now had it on 6 of the 7 continents...) and a sketchy ten minutes at a sketchy bar (Cairo has a really cool night cafe scene, but being Islamic that scene does not involve booze).

Saturday was pyramids day so we got up early (I wake up much earlier on the weekends than I do on weekdays here), had some amazing 25 cent falafel and got the pyramids when they opened. They are pretty impressive, and like all big old things (Macchu, Angkor) that much more amazing to realize it was built without modern technology. The Giza pyramids are right outside of Cairo and early in the morning we got some great shots of the pyramids with the city, dunes and camels in the background. Within about an hour, they were overrun with tourists, tour busses and touts trying to get into every photo or get everyone onto their camel. We took shelter inside the great pyramid which was kinda a cool experience (they only let like 100 people in each day), but its not like there is some cool sarcophagus or mummy chilling in there. Moral of the story: get to Giza as early as possible.

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From Giza we headed off to the Step Pyramid which is the oldest stone structure in existence and much less touristy than Giza. Wandered around the archaeological sites, debated whether the hieroglyphs were original and marveled at the way Cairo springs up out of the desert (kinda like Palm Springs). Last stop on the tour was the Red Pyramid which is out in a little oasis and was the model for the big Giza pyramids. At this point we were pretty pryamided out, started taking the most ridiculous pictures we could think of (YMCA with the A being a pyramid...) and headed back for some well deserved falafel and baklava-esque deserts. Of course the falafel turned into a sheesha and mint tea. Which turned into more sheesha and mint tea (and dominoes, cause that is what they do there). After a few hours of that, we had a good dinner at Abu el Sid (highly recommend the pigeon) in Zamelek and called it a day.

PICT0237 Sunday was our last day and it followed a fairly predictable theme: falafel, walk, sheesha, repeat. After a breakfast falafel, some people checked out the Egyptian Museum while I skipped the crowds and ventured around the Nile and some of its islands for a while. We reconvened for some more shwarma/falafel, an amazing mango juice and an afternoon smoke. We walked back to the big market/souk, thought about buying stuff but mainly settled in for a few more hours of mint tea and sheesha. We decided the best way to deal with the touts was simply to say to them "Welcome to Egypt" which got most of them to leave us alone but unfortunately devolved into me trying to guess what country all the passing tourists were from and then say it to them in their language ("Wilkommen auf Egyptstein"). I also managed to pick up an awesome visor with built in sunglasses that says, appropriately, "Welcome to Bejing" and finally, finally got a straight razor shave (apparently people in Nairobi aren't too fond of letting a stranger hold a razor blade to their face).

So Cairo was definitely my favorite city that I've been to in Africa and we had a great visit. Until it was time to fly out of their airport. First, the path to drop people off involves driving through the parking lot, making a U-turn and cutting off oncoming traffic. Once inside, the screen tells you to get in really long line 1 if you are going to Nairobi. Once we finally got the end of really long line 1, they told us that to go to Nairobi you needed to go to really long line 2 (never mind that it was just two security lines going to the exact same place). So after trying to lie to the guy and say we were going to Tel Aviv (not smart), we went to where line 2 should be. But line 2 was really more like funnel 2, with about one hundred people just trying to push and hiss their way through a three foot opening. Got through that, fought with the soldiers who were demanding paper tickets (well not literally fought), then got to funnel 3 to get our boarding passes. Finally after that it was the surprisingly orderly line 4 to get through immigration and we were off. It was like they took all of the crazy that should be in an African city and just bottled it up in their airport.

And now I'm back in Nairobi where the craziness is much more evenly distributed.

This is what we looked like after three days of non-stop sheesha

22 October 2008

The Gorerilla, or, Gore in the Mist

This post has been a little bit in coming, so I'll try to make it short and sweet. After about an hour and a half flight, we got into Kigali late on Friday night. Like a lot of small regional airports (and, apparently, African capitals), there was simply a set of stairs wheeled up to our plane, a guy vaguely gesturing across the tarmac to arrivals and a decidedly uninterested man furiously stamping passports. We bartered with a taxi (which for some reason is pretty hard in Rwanda), checked into our hotel, had an incredible French dinner, spent about thirty minutes trying to find the hottest bar in Kigali (it was a patio with like 4 people) and called it a night.

The next morning we collected our gorilla tracking permits (our $500 gorilla tracking permits), decided to ditch our prearranged $200 transport, grabbed some baguettes and fromage and hit the road out to Parc Nacional de Volcans. First stop was a gorgeous two hour bus ride out to Ruhengeri, through the rolling hills and farmland that dominate most of Rwanda. An important tip: do not be the last people to board a bus, you will inevitably end up in the terrible seats that fold down into the aisle, instead, wait 10 minutes for the next one. The taxi's in Ruhengeri once again didn't really understand bartering, so we found ourselves in a 12 seat minibus crammed with about 25 folks (though no chickens, nicely) for the twenty minute trip to Kinigi. This time it was the motorbike taxis that didn't want to negotiate, so we set off the 3km to the hotel on foot. Unfortunately the rain didn't want to negotiate with us either, so about halfway we caved, paid 75 cents and got a lift the rest of the way.

PICT0404 The Kinigi Guest House is really beautiful and set just outside the national park. There are mist covered green hills running to the horizon interrupted by about five huge volcanoes which mark the borders between Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo (pop quiz: how many lies are inherent in the name "Democratic Republic of Congo"?). Unfortunately, from the hotel you still need a 4x4 to get to the trailheads, and a taxi guy quoted us $80 for the trip. This seemed absurd and no sooner had we hung up the phone than he called back. It seemed that finally someone understood how to negotiate, but no, he just wanted to know if now we were ready to book the next day for $80. We told him we were going to find a better deal and hung up. And five minutes later, he called back, but still wouldn't budge from his $80 offer. It was ridiculous.. so seriously, if you are a tourist this is why you have to barter (or it inflates prices for everyone) and if you are a Rwandan, get with the program, eh (turns out about the only thing you could barter for in Rwanda was the foreign exchange rates which is ass backwards). In the end, we split a 4x4 with some Brits and paid $10 each.

PICT0430 Sunday morning we got up nice and early, met our car and guide, said goodbye to anything resembling clean clothes and headed into the park. The hike itself was pretty full on, most of the time nothing more than a six inch trail trampled through dense rainforest, stinging nettles and bamboo forests. When we did get a bit of a view, it honestly looked like something out of a movie where there is first a wide shot of jungle covered slopes then it zooms into these eight tiny dots that turn out to people (us!) trekking. Very very cool.

After about two hours we caught up with the trackers who, umm, track the gorillas every day. We dropped our packs, hiked up a hill and in a little clearing were the 15 gorillas of the Amhora family. Two or three were hanging out and sleeping, the adolescents were playing were eachother, mothers were grooming their babies and the silverbacks were just keeping an eye on everything. The whole experience was awesome, one of the most exciting, and authentic, encounters I have ever had with wildlife. You're only allowed one hour with, so we watched as they wandered around, thumped their chests, spun on vines, ate bamboo and made funny faces at us. They were quite spectacular, it was hard to look at them and not see similarities with humans.

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After the gorillas we made the mistake of telling the guides that we wanted a good hike, thinking maybe we could get to the top of one of the volcanoes. Turns out, the guide took this as a personal challenge, turned off the little path there was and proceeded to march us through the jungle, pulling ourselves up hills with vines and crawling on our hands and knees under bamboo. It was all fun and games until I got ants in my pants... fire ants. Eventually we made it back, changed out of our absolutely filthy clothes and hopped the bus back to Kigali.

Monday was our last day in Rwanda and we spent the morning at their genocide memorial. As far as genocide memorials go, its pretty well done but I'm honestly pretty much done visiting those types of things. The genocide in Rwanda had a particularly nasty touch, with neighbors butchering eachother with machetes which, to me at least, is a different type of evil than just having soldiers shoot or gas people. We spent the afternoon riding around on mototaxis (they seemed more interested in haggling) and trying to find things to do in Kigali (hint: there is not a lot). Had a few beers, had a good dinner overlooking the city and then got up at 2:45am to catch our 5am flight back to Nairobi.

-The Gorerilla

Black Santa

A bit of real time blogging here. We drove downtown today for a meeting and passed a huge Christmas themed Coke billboard featuring a giant black santa. We thought that was pretty interesting and at lunch asked two of the Kenyans if they have the same story about Santa living in the North Pole, flying in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, hopping down a chimney and delivering toys. I don't think I've ever seen Africans laugh as hard as they did, literally to the point of tears. This was not helped by my next question of "What? Does he use wildebeest?"

Anyways, had a great time in Rwanda, I'll post some stories and photos soon. We voted last week, annoylingly Denver never sent me my ballot so I used had to use the write in version, but at least I got to vote for myself for Recorder of Deeds. Also talked our way into the actual US embassy compound to check out their "morale store" (which supposedly has Fat Tire) but it was closed. Next time.

17 October 2008

13 Months of Sunshine

According to my Ethiopian visa, I arrived in Addis Ababa at 11:45am on Friday 1/29/2001. Which is a little odd since, as most astute readers will recognize, it is October 2008. Turns out Ethiopia is on the Julian calendar which in addition to being 7½ years behind the rest of us, consists of 12 months of thirty days plus a 13th of five or six days. And their time starts at sunrise, so when they say 11:45am, they really mean 5:45pm. It had all the makings of a great, lost in translation weekend.

We ventured to the Sheraton Addis which was incredibly ridiculous and looked likePICT0129 it belonged in the French countryside instead of Africa's fourth largest city. But at $600 a night, we peaced out and checked into our government run hotel that looked exactly like it belonged in Africa's fourth largest city, but as an insane asylum. Got up early the next morning and went to the Mercado, supposedly the world's largest outdoor market. It started out sane enough with gridded streets lined by little shops offering yarn, construction equipment, furniture, ya know, the usual. After a few turns we were quickly immersed in narrow, twisting alleys full of people selling chickens out of shopping bags, huge chunks of salt and a blacksmith who was probably the most amused person in Ethiopia when I tried to hammer some burning metal. So we wandered around, had some fifteen cent coffee and the first of many sprees: a really tasty mix of layered fresh fruit juices (papaya, passion, guava, avocado, orange, etc).

PICT0311 We then hightailed it to the airport for our flight to Lalibela, an ex-capital of Ethiopia with these incredible five hundred year old churches. But not just old churches, old churches that were carved from a single piece rock. But not just from a single piece of rock, they were carved from the top down into the mountain, then the insides were excavated. Pretty amazing. The city itself is also really nice, bisected by a big cobblestone road and set amongst a bunch of gorges, hills and green farmland. We checked into our "tukol", a really nice round house with a balcony overlooking the churches, then ventured around the town with a steadily growing gaggle of children trailing us wherever we went.

PICT0281The next day we woke up early and started our tour of the churches. They are really incredible to see, supposedly took 25 years and 40,000 people to construct 11 of them. They are pretty well preserved (I guess that happens when you just use one big rock) and have some sweet old paintings, wooden doors in rock walls, altars, carvings and manuscripts in cool languages. Probably the coolest part was the people that were in the churches, all wearing white robes and head coverings that looked really Muslim even though they were all Christian (there were also Jewish stars of and Hindu swastikas on the temples) and praying in an ancient biblical language. The priests were also pretty decked out and most would happily dawn sunglasses so the tourists (not me of course) could take flash pictures of them inside. We hit up all the rock churches, took a bazillion photos, learned how to write Saint Gore in Ahmric (Saint Gore) and then headed back to Addis.

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We decided that the asylum/hotel that is Ras hotel wasn't quite going to cut it for us, so we stumbled into the lovely Addis View Hotel which was really really nice and gave us a really really great rate (twin room for $40 including breakfast). Went out for some Ethiopian food which consists of a tangy pancake covered with lots of different veggies and meats and Tedj, a traditional Ethiopian honey wine (as we would continuously discover, Ethiopian wines, both grape and honey, have a way to go). Barhopped a bit, checking out some traditional dancing, a cool rooftop bar and a really strange bar under a mockup of an airplane (one really nice thing about Addis was being able to walk around at night and not be very concerned about safety).

PICT0345 The next day we toured the city, catching a really cool Ethiopian wedding (lots of singing and dancing and drum banging) and visiting Lucy, our 3.2 million year old great-great-great-great-great-great-you get the picture-grandmother. While Lucy wasn't terribly impressive (she's only 3.2 feet tall), the rest of the people in Addis really were. Tons of people came up to us offering help when we were looking at maps, they stopped us on the street to say hello and shake our hand and were really happy to show us the way to a restaurant or tea house. I admit that I was initially suspicious of most of the people, but in the end I think Ethiopians are some of the most genuinely friendly people I've met. Unfortunately, on the flip side of that, the poverty in Ethiopia is much more striking than most places I've seen. People begging on their hands and knees or just lying in the middle of sidewalks (but hey, at least there are sidewalks!), a guy very resignedly picking food out of a trash pile or the woman who (best as we can tell) offered us her child because she couldn't take care of it. And honestly, thats probably a very small slice of the true rural poverty and famine that affects Ethiopia. So, like most of Africa, Ethiopia is a country of contrasts.

Anyways, we had a mediocre dinner of Arabic food (overall I was not that impressed by the food there), smoked a little sheesha, had a hilarious exchange of the waiter trying to figure out whether he should hand us the bill or put it on the table and called it a trip.

And just in time for me to finish this post, I'm off to Rwanda to go gorilla trekking.

Tuta Onana
Saint Gore

15 October 2008

Blog Action Day: Poverty

On October 15th, thousands of blogs around the world will focus on the global issue of poverty. This is a particularly interesting topic to discuss while I'm on a project in Nairobi, Kenya. From the children begging for money outside the Westlands supermarket to the tens of thousands of people living in the Kangemi slum where we eat lunch to the man solemnly picking through a heap of trash by the side of the road in Ethiopia, poverty is something we see almost every day. Sometimes it is easy enough to look away, other times the realities can be gutwrenching.

I don't think there is any sort of big, universal answer to poverty. Which is good in a way since big, universal things are really hard to do, especially at an individual level. Luckily, there are lots of organizations, doing both big and small things, that we can get involved with to make a difference:

  • Kiva - A neat organization that allows you to make microloans directly to entrepreneurs in developing countries. Given the state of the economy, not the worst investment in the world.
  • World Bicycle Relief - Bikes are one of those disruptive things that can provide a tremendous benefit by increasing the distance people can travel and how much they can carry by over 500%. WBR builds bikes locally, distributes them and creates maintenance jobs.
  • Heifer International - In the same thread as Kiva, except instead of giving loans you give animals (chickens, goats, water buffaloes, bees, etc). The recipients get eggs, milk, plows, honey, etc (not meat) and then gives  two of the offspring to other people in need.
  • Habitat for Humanity - There's not a much more concrete way to battle poverty than helping to build a house for someone. Plus, its a lot of fun and you get to build shit.

So go make a loan, give a bike, donate a cow or build house!

Have other cool organizations or ways to get involved? Leave em in the comments.

07 October 2008


The Fokker is the second coolest name of an airplane that I've ever flown in (that honor belongs to the Twin Otter). It is also the plane that took us to Mombasa , one of the oldest cities in Kenya, a huge port town with a strong muslim influence and a former stop on the East African slave trading route.

PICT0003 We headed south to Tiwi beach and after a quick bribe stop by the police (apparently the tint was too dark on our taxi), a thirty minute ferry ride across a 100 foot wide river and then a bumpy ten or fifteen miles, we arrived at the Sand Island Cottages. It was, in a word, magnificent. We had a five bed cottage with a huge patio that looked right onto the palm trees lining a completely deserted beach.  The tide was out, crashing against the reef, and creating a shallow sand island in the middle of the bay. We wandered, we swam, we frolicked, we ignored Kenyans trying to sell us fresh octopus and "medicine".

Eventually we headed back into town, getting there just in time to see them close the gates at Fort Jesus (a big ole Portuguese bastion). No worries, we hung out with the kids playing soccer in the courtyard then ventured into the old town. I really liked the old town at night, there were tons of people walking around, lots of restaurants and street food, and a really lively atmosphere. We had dinner at Tamarind which is one of the more renowned restaurants in Kenya, it was good but nothing spectacular (though the tree tomato sorbet was scrumptious). Had a few rounds of Pontoon in the casino and called it an early night.

PICT0056 Saturday morning we caught sunrise over the beach and started our day long dhow boat trip with Charlie's Claws. We had breakfast in an old cave that used to hold slaves before they were sent to Zanzibar which was a bit creepy and kinda the exact opposite of the champagne breakfast we had in the Mara. But shortly after that we jumped on a really nice wooden boat, sprawled out on some deck pillows and were cruising towards the little islands that dot Kenya's east coast. The scene reminded me of Australia's Whitsundays, white sandy beaches, palm fringed islands, blue water, sea breezes and a few dolphins thrown in just for kicks. Did a quick dive (pretty mediocre: 10m vis, lots of dead coral, no whale sharks) and some snorkeling then we headed to Wasini island for lunch.

The lunch starter was one of the more incredible meals I've ever had. They gave us these miniature wooden baseball bats, dropped a huge platter of jumbo crabs on the table and let us go at it. There is nothing (nothing!) more fun than bashing something with a club, eating it with your hands and having it be super fresh and delicious. And when we had just about finished the first platter, they asked the most magical four words, "do you want more?" and dumped an even larger platter on the table. And that was just the starter, we also got some weird coconut bitings (bitings are like tapas here), a whole fish in coconut sauce and some fruit to finish us off. Tre bien. Had a quick boat ride back to the bus, a not so quick bus ride back to the cottage and finished off the night on our porch playing drinking games with Salvador's Pepino Surprise: vodka, sprite and cucumbers.

Sunday picked up right where Saturday stopped: drinking and eating. These guys walk around the beach selling fresh seafood, so we snagged some lobsters, prawns and generic fish. But with some very very important activities to attend to, we decided to splurge the $6 and hire a chef to prepare us lunch. So while we explored the reef and sat in hammocks, our chef shredded coconuts, made a curry, bbq'd the lobsters, uncorked the wine and served us a feast on our porch. A pretty fantastic way to cap off a pretty fantastic trip to the coast.


P.S. For the old people out there, we managed to avoid both the headless gunners and gin. Thankfully.

06 October 2008

Its Called Pontoon

So its been a fun few weeks here in East Africa, unfortunately I'm feeling equal parts tired and sunburned from a weekend in Mombasa so this is gonna be a quick one.

  • A Kenyan Wedding: Two weeks ago one of the drivers from the organization that is hosting us invited us to his wedding. Despite everyone not being 100% clear on names, we hopped in a cab, got lost in the outskirts of Nairobi, showed up half an hour late which was about two hours before the actual wedding started. The ceremony itself was a nice, fairly standard Christian affair (except replace old white church with large un-air conditioned iron roofed building) with a lot of gospel singing and dancing thrown in. Most of the service was in swahili and english, though they did most of the prayers just in swahili which was a-ok for me.

  • PICT0031Mount Longonot: The day after the wedding we headed up the Rift Valley to climb Mt Longonot which is an old (technically "senile") volcano. The hike up took about an hour and as soon as you reach the summit you see into this huge collapsed crater that looks totally different from the surrounding valley. Very cool, very jurassic park like (or maybe more the land before time). Had a really nice dinner at Drifters, a floating restaurant out on lake naivaisha. Most importantly, we did not run out of gas.

  • Brewery, Safari, Toga: Last Friday we decided to check out East Africa's only brewpub, Sierra, located just south of downtown. The place takes itself a little too seriously, but the food was good and the beer was a great change of pace from Tusker. After trying to name all the African countries (I was not even close) and the US states (damn you Indiana), we asked a cab company to send us a van and of course they sent a pop up safari van. So we raced through the streets of Nairobi with the top up, listening to gangster rap and drinking beer. Once back in Westlands we grabbed bed sheets and some vines and headed to a UN toga party. What's a UN toga party like? Well there are people wearing togas who are actually from Rome and you end up arguing with Somalis about why they really should not have pirates any more.

  • The Day After: I felt pretty much like shit. So after a fantastic breakfast burrito at Java, went over to an apartment complex with a pool and hung out, got massages, hung out, had a sauna (yeah in Africa, weird right?) and pretty much hung out.

  • Its Called Pontoon: Sunday I was feeling much better and we decided to tackle the links at Puttomania in Village Market. Had a great time, though the course was ridiculously hard including one absolutely absurd hole. Had a nice dinner at an Ethiopian place here in Westlands then ventured over to the Las Vegas Casino (only replace impressive lights with christmas tree lights). The casino was reasonable, had probably 10 tables and we ended up at the closest thing to Blackjack, called Pontoon. And everytime we asked a question, the response was simply: "Its called pontoon". Why are you taking my money? Its called pontoon. What is surrendering? Its called pontoon. Why is it called pontoon? Its called pontoon. So now, instead of the classic "this is africa", we're going with "its called pontoon".

So that ended up not being so short and I'll put some good stuff on Mombasa soon. In the mean time, we found out that post system is pretty good here (took about 2 weeks), so if you want a postcard, send me your address.