Bussing through Zambia from Livingstone to Lilongwe, Malawi via Lusaka.

Disclaimer: We arrived in Lusaka by bus at 9 pm and then left by bus at 5:30 am the next day.

First Impression: The bus station is an intense jumble of humanity and I would definitely try to avoid it in the future.

Where I stayed: Lusaka Backpackers, clean, basic, nice bar and outside area, no food service though which sucked for us as we had not eaten much that day on the bus.  Would have stayed longer but sadly we had to catch the bus the next day or be stuck on a minibus to Malawi.

What to wear: comfortable bus travel clothing

What I did: n/a

Practical tidbits:

  • People at the Lusaka bus station will randomly come up and try to sell you tickets but they are fake. Only buy a ticket from a booth/stall/cabin.  We had a horrible time finding the company we were looking for but there is a Reception desk in the middle of the chaos and they will help you there.
  • We took Kobs Bus Service which as far as we could tell, was the only bus service that goes through the border to Lusaka. Book your ticket before, it was full, we just squeezed in.

Off the beaten path: n/a

Last Impression/Wishes for “next time”:  Just wish we had had time to explore Lusaka.

Our bus broke down on the way from Victoria Falls so we were several hours late arriving.We did find that busing through Zambia is horribly uncomfortable.  We bussed from Livingstone, where we waited in a hot, dusty bus lot, covered in flies for over an hour and the only toilet to be found was in a foul bar with one of the nastiest bathrooms I have yet to experience.  We then broke down and waited in a very Christian town for several hours for the next bus to come. It matters that it was very Christian as they did not serve us beer at the restaurant and they blasted extremely bad gospel music the whole time.  We got stuck in hellish traffic coming into Lusaka, all the while stuck on an overcrowded bus with the back of the seat in front of me a mere few centimetres from my face.  The bus station in Lusaka was a total nightmare, people following us everywhere, no order to it whatsoever.  The next day, other than in small town stops, we couldn’t get off the bus unless we wanted to be followed and harassed to no end.  The bus itself was a steamy mass of people and things and the seats were half broken, I had a piece of metal sticking into my thigh for about 10 hours.

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Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

First Impression: So quaint and clean, a perfect little tourist town.

Where I stayed: Shoe String Backpackers.  Honestly kind of dirty and basic, they charge extra for wifi and the mosquitoes are a nightmare.  The food was quite good though, especially the breakfast porridge and the garden area is lined with artisans making and selling their goods.  It’s also basically the only nightlife in town so depending on how you feel about music till midnight you’ll love it or hate it. Despite the cleanliness factor we had a great time here.

What to wear: I wore leggings, a tank top and sneakers to go around Victoria Falls, its quite warm and you will get wet from the mist so clothes that dry fast is ideal. At night, cover your skin because the mosquito repellant did nothing to dissuade them from eating the back of my legs.

What I did: Wandered around town, went market shopping, saw Vic Falls (obviously), ate sadza and also a watermelon feta salad at Shearwater Café. Live music at Shearwater in the evening, drank many Castle lagers at Shoe Strings.

Practical tidbits:

  • Don’t walk around with visible bananas as the baboons will come after you. If they do though just stop and yell at them waving your hands like a mad man (at least that’s what the taxi driver did when the baboon tried to get my friend’s bananas.
  • Cover all your skin and bring DEET because none of the mosquito repellant we had did anything.  (We were there in December).
  • If crossing the border into Zambia, give yourself extra time because it took us approximately 2 hours to clear customs and walk across the bridge, etc…

Off the beaten path: It’s a bit too small and touristy for that

Last Impression/Wishes for “next time”:  I should have ziplined-I’m too chicken to bungee jump but that’s also a thing to do there.

Harare, Zimbabwe

First Impression: So green, but the city definitely had a depression era vibe, especially surrounding the banks.  Otherwise quite orderly and well kept.

Where I stayed:  It’s a Small World Backpackers Hostel.  We stayed in the large dorm.  They have a lovely garden area which is perfect for a few Castle lagers and journaling. Everything was clean and the owner was very friendly and helpful.

What to wear:Light fabric, comfortable walking shoes and clothes.  I wore the same outfit (leggings, camisole, cardigan and sandals for 2 days even out dancing-I’m not bragging it was just that laid back).

What I did: Botanical Gardens, National Art Gallery, Tin Roof Bucket Bar and Bistro

Practical tidbits:

  • Bring enough USD cash to get you through all of Zimbabwe because they have a cash shortage and it can be difficult to get money from an atm/bank.
  • Make sure any Zim dollars you get back, you spend before leaving because they are worthless and usually grimy and crumpled so they cannot be exchanged outside the country.
  • Do not take pictures of any official looking government building or site, cross the street if you see machine gun guards as you are not allowed to be on that side of the street (they are guarding a government building or politician’s home).
  • Ask a taxi to wait for you or to come back at a specific time to the Botanical gardens or you will spend some time walking to a main road trying to flag down a cab.

Off the beaten path: The Botanical Gardens

Last Impression/Wishes for “next time”:  See the Shona Sculpture Gallery, see the surrounding area of Harare and visit the Museum of Human Sciences.

Goma, and The Virunga, Democratic Republic of the Congo  (Congo-Kinshasa)

 First Impression: Well it’s the Congo so my first impression was definitely mired by the country’s reputation but once I took off the grey tinted glasses, I saw a vibrant city that is still being rebuilt from the 2001 Nyiragongo eruption.  All over town there is evidence of the volcanic rock that streamed through the city, people have rebuilt homes and walls out of the rock so the city has this very depression era, gritty coal mining town feel just simply because of the blackness of the rock.

Where I stayed: Caritas Guesthouse, feels like a throwback to another era.  The rooms were basic but it was considerably cheaper than staying in the Virunga and we had the added benefit of being able to explore Goma’s culinary scene. The food was not great at Caritas but we enjoyed sitting outside drinking coffee next to Lac Kivu.

What to wear:Around Goma just cover your knees and dress casually, no fancy jewelry, flashy clothes or tech.  For Gorilla tracking you must wear long pants and socks (tuck your pants into your socks to avoid red ants getting into your business).  Camisole or t-shirt is fine as it’s hot and a hat would be a good idea.  For the Nyiragongo trek bring layers-for the climb: hiking pants or leggings, hiking boots (the lava rocks roll and poke through regular trainers-my friend was in pain), t-shirt or camisole for the bottom half with a long sleeved shirt wrapped around my waist for the top part.  Once at the top, gloves, warm hat, sweater and wind proof jacket, extra layer of pants (leggings), warm socks.  A pocket rain poncho would also be wise as it did rain a bit which is not uncommon.

What I did: Nyiragongo Volcano Trek, Gorilla Tracking in the Virunga, eat local Congolese food, drink a Primus, have a coffee next to Lac Kivu, have a drink and food at Nyumbuni Lounge.

Practical tidbits:

  • Don’t wander after dark, get a taxi to and from your hotel but during the day was completely fine and people were lovely.
  • Don’t take photos of anything in town unless you’re with your guide.
  • Read up on the recent history of the region and delve deeper into colonial history if you can because you cannot truly appreciate the Virunga and Congo life unless you understand what people have been through.
  • If coming overland from Rwanda I recommend hiring Amahoro Tours, a Rwanda based company that facilitates everything including your DRC Visa and transfer from Kigali.  You get the added bonus of driving through Rwanda’s absolutely awe-inspiring countryside.

Off the beaten path: Eat at Magali Fan Club.

Last Impression/Wishes for “next time”: 

I would have liked to have gone Market Shopping and gone out dancing to Congolese music but we had very early mornings and not a lot of time otherwise. I have always wanted to explore the Congo but sadly, until the country becomes more stable, it really is a fool’s errand to delve much deeper than Goma and the Virunga or Kinshasa.

***Recently (May 2018) 2 tourists were kidnapped in the Virunga en route to trek Nyiragongo; their guide was also taken and the ranger accompanying them was killed, thus the Virunga has been shut to tourists until further notice.

Travel Books

I think Travel and Books are two peas in a pod and lately because all I seem to do is write about travel, I’ve also mainly only been reading about travel.  The following is an incomplete list of books that I have read about travel and a short list of books that I would like to read.

Bad Lands by Tony Wheeler Afghanistan, Albania, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia
Blood River by Tim Butcher Congo
Crazy River by Richard Grant Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi
Dark Lands by Tony Wheeler Colombia, D.R. Congo, Haiti, Israel/Palestine, Nauru, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and Zimbabwe.
Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa
Getting Stoned With Savages by J.Maarten Troost Fiji, Vanuatu
Head Hunters on my Doorstep by J.Maarten Troost South Pacific
Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux South Africa, Namibia, Angola
Lost on Planet China by J.Maarten Troost China
Love with a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRoches Mexico, South Pacific
No Touch Monkey by Ayun Halliday Romania, Vietnam, India, France, etc…
Smile When You’re Lying by Chuck Thompson All Around he World
The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner Netherlands, Iceland, Bhutan, Switzerland, Moldova, India, Qatar
The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman Ireland, Australia, Sout America
The Lost Girls by Jennifer Bagget, Holly C Corrett, Amanda Pressner South America, Kenya, India, SE Asia, Australia, New Zealand
The Ridiculous Race by Steve Hely, Vali Chandrasekaran Around the World
The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J.Maarten Troost Kiribati
The Worrier’s Guide to Getting Lost by Torre DeRoches Italy, India
To Hell Holes and Back by Chuck Thompson DR Congo, India, Mexico, Disneyland
Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams Peru
Wanderlust by Elizabeth Eaves All Around the World
What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman All Around the World
On the Road by Jack Kerouac USA
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux Europe-Asia
The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World by Torre DeRoche Italy, India
Currently Reading
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux Europe-Asia
The Fear by Peter Goodwin Zimbabwe
The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner various
On My List
The Turk Who Loved Apples by Matt Gross
A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean by Gary Buslik
Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer
The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
Vroom With A View-Peter Moore

Comment or send a message if you have a suggestion for a good travel read.

Tangier, Morocco (by ferry from Tarifa, Spain)

First Impression: Reminded me of Stone Town, Zanzibar.  The Medina area is a bit overwhelming at first, especially after dark but after a day it generally felt safe and a bit easier to navigate.

What to wear:  Conservative but loose and light material because it is hot and humid in the summer!

What I did:  Meander the Medina and Casbah, find Ibn Battuta’s Tomb, head to the American Legation Museum and Grand Mosque.  Drink Coffee or Mint Tea at one of the café’s in the Medina, hang out at Grand Socco and haggle for leather goods. Go to La Grotte d’Hercule. (Hercules Caves).  Head to the bar made famous by Jack Kerouac, The Tangerinn, it’s definitely become more upscale since Kerouac’s days which was disappointing.

Where I stayed: The Medina Hostel, so hard to find but worth it because you are in the middle of the Medina in a no car zone.  There is a rooftop terrasse where we brought our own wine and watched the sun go down, chatting with other hostel people until the wee hours.  The place was definitely bare bones and needed a face lift when we were there (July 2016)but I just looked it up to confirm the name and through the photos, it definitely appears to have gotten a face lift.

Practical tidbits:

  • Be wary of men offering taxi rides inside the ferry terminal as the price will be higher.  Just say no thank you, someone is picking you up and walk away.  Hail a cab on the street.
  • Do print a map if you are staying in the Medina and try to arrive during the day because it is a bit overwhelming at night.
  • If short on time, hire a guide or do a walking tour of the Medina/Casbah area. It was very humid and it would have been a long, sweaty affair if we hadn’t had a local guide; they also know the best places to eat.

Off the beaten path: After La Grotte D’Hercule head to Plage Sol.  From what we could tell, it was mostly local people enjoying a day in the sun.

Last Impression/Wishes for “next time”: “Next time” I would definitely take a trip to Chefchouen because it’s not far from Tangier but we did not do any research before going.

 *This guide is strictly from my experience, none of the links are affiliates, I do not benefit monetarily from this guide.

Addis Ababa and The Blue Nile Valley, Ethiopia:

First Impression:Guarded people, not overtly helpful or friendly but polite.  Addis Ababa is going through a transition from a patchwork city to an urban center. Tourism infrastructure is basic although I hear things have changed over the last 3 years.

What to wear:  Err on the side of conservatism, pants, and long sleeves, no cleavage, head scarf for religious sites.  Closed toed shoes for both city and valley.  I wore soft sole doc marten boots everywhere.  The weather around Addis Ababa is cool, so conservative dress won’t be uncomfortable.  In the evening I wore a wind proof jacket and jeans, as it does get chilly.

What I did:  St. George’s Art Gallery, Tomoca Café, Debre Libanos tour, the Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Where I stayed:Edna Addis Hotel.  Basic, Cheap, Clean. Location wise not too bad but not the most convenient.  Excellent porridge and coffee, nice little roadside terrace for an afternoon beer and place to journal or sketch.

Practical tidbits:

  • Bole Avenue might be the best and most convenient area to stay in from what I’ve heard.
  • People getting into your taxi randomly is not uncommon so don’t worry.
  • Do keep your valuables stored safely in your bag and keep your bag close.
  • Try to exchange money into Birr notes before arriving in country but if you can’t then bring USD for your airport taxi, it will also be easier to exchange later.

Fun Facts: 

Coffee was banned in Ethiopia from approximately the 12thto the 19thCentury by the Orthodox Christian Church.  Ethiopia is credited with the discovery of the coffee bean but it was the Yemeni who popularised it as a drink.

 

Last Impression/Wishes for “next time”: 

While Addis Ababa wasn’t my favourite place to travel; I probably would have had more fun if I was with a friend or two; I loved the day I spent in The Blue Nile Valley.

I definitely needed to buy more Tomoca coffee to bring home, and after reading Paul Theroux’s book ‘Dark Star Safari’ I wish I had hunted down some antique shops.

Next time I would travel to Lalibela, Erta Ale, Gondar, etc…

 

*This guide is strictly from my experience, none of the links are affiliates, I do not benefit monetarily from this guide.

Orthodox Coffee

With no idea what to expect, I arrived at Addis Ababa airport around 4/5am with an ear infection (swimmer’s ear) that had flared up on the plane ride over. No stranger to solo travel, I had not planned anything other than my hotel for an easy 3-day weekend.  The hotel told me I could use American dollars for the taxi ride from the airport but I thought it would be a good idea to get some local currency for the rest of my trip.  Ethiopian Birr is near impossible to obtain or exchange outside of Ethiopia and it wasn’t easy to find in Ethiopia, even at the arrivals of their international airport.  After waiting in what is essentially a free-for-all horde for about 10 minutes, the cashier announced that they were out of Birr and there didn’t seem to be a clear timeline of when they’d have more.

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I arrived at my hotel, intending to drop my bags, eat breakfast and head out on an early morning city walkabout but without asking the hotel clerk checked me into a room free of charge.  Since the aforementioned ear ache was plaguing me I decided it would be wise to rest a bit before heading out.  At around noon, I woke up, took a shower and started to contemplate my wardrobe for the day when suddenly a chamber maid sauntered into my room, I pulled a cartoon style cover-up, wrapping my fully nude form in my arms, while the woman’s eyes and mouthed widened into a state of shock, let out a tiny scream and slammed the door shut, mumbling something in Aramaic.  Clearly they had not informed her that I had checked in early.

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The hotel, Edna Addis Hotel, was a pretty non-descript place, in some random part of town, so I was delighted when for breakfast, they served me a steaming bowl of fragrant porridge and the strongest, bestest hotel coffee I have ever had, AND it was complimentary.  Even paying for a coffee at a hotel, I am consistently disappointed and without fail, the fanciest of resorts in any country will serve the most tepid, dirty dishwater they like to pass off as “coffee”.   But this little random, basic hotel in one of the poorest countries in the world knows how to make a better cappuccino than 5-star resort in Dubai does.

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I set out towards the Holy Trinity Cathedralwhere Haile Selassie is buried, forgetting that some sects of Christianity are just as conservative as Islam and that bare shoulders and a tank depicting a female demon, advertising a Metal Festival, might not be the way to go for Orthodox Christian Ethiopia. I stood out enough on my own that I doubt most people even noticed the shirt. I was fine to wander around the grounds but was not permitted to enter the church which was fine because I was the only tourist on site, the patrons were legitimate Christians and I felt a whole lot of conspicuous.

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There wasn’t a whole lot to see around the Cathedral but there was something so delightful about the beige stone building, tombs surrounding the grounds and the severe, grey, stone statues looking down on you like a disappointed grandfather. Trees surround the grounds cutting you off from the traffic and diesel fumes on the street, a crisp blue sky forms the backdrop, while ethereal women float around in wispy white muslin prayer shawls.  It was both delightful and surreal, I couldn’t place this church in an architectural or cultural box but that was ok, no one bothered me, except when I tried to enter the Cathedral and a very ancient priest yelled at me in one of the worlds oldest languages.  I felt hopeful for the rest of my day and set off with a bounce in my step.

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Haile Selassie’s Tomb

Last minute trips with no planning can, in my experience, turn out one of two ways, a whirlwind of spontaneous ridiculousness, or kind of a let down.  In this case, Addis Ababa was the sadly the latter, in Paul Theroux’s words “Addis Ababa was a sprawling high-altitude settlement resembling a vast rusty-roofed village scattered over many hills. (Dark Star Safari, p.92-93)” Spread out as it is, you need wheels to get around and being the foreigner that I am, wheels cost more than it should and everyone wanted to “take me for a ride.” I did briefly look up things to do in and around Addis Ababa, my hotel booked me a day tour of the Blue Nile Valley and 13thC Monastery for the following day, so I had the afternoon to explore Addis. I often rely on hotel staff to have the best advice on what to do, but it doesn’t always pan out and in this case it really didn’t, as they didn’t seem too knowledgeable about or interested in the attractions in their city.

My ear infection was bothering me and draining my energy so I decided to head to a famous café I’d read about, I jumped in a shared cab, a blue and white contraption from the 1960’s, I still needed to get local currency so I had the cab drop me outside a bank near the café. There was a mass of people in the bank and no line to speak of.  If you’re going to survive in Ethiopia for any period of time you’re going to have to forget everything you know about line-etiquette and just enter the fray. I had not reached that level yet and so waited…and waited…and waited.  Someone took pity on me and asked me what I wanted, and then politely informed me that they did not have any currency to give me and sent me across the street to another bank.  As soon as I walked in a bank manager ushered me to an office and exchanged a giant wad of old Birr notes with my crispy American dollars. I figured since I didn’t know when I would be able to exchange money next I would exchange more than I’d likely need, this was both smart, and a mistake as the currency exchange center at the airport was not open in my terminal upon departure and I had to search high and low for a place to exchange the Birr in Abu Dhabi and the buy rate was so low, I lost approximately 40$.

The bank manager watched with amusement as I tucked bills into both sides of my bra, boots, a hidden pocket of my purse, and finally, the small bills in my wallet that I then clipped to the inside of my purse, finally I stuffed a scarf over my valuables…pickpockets would not be getting anything from me.  As I was crossing the street to the café, 2 young boys about 9-12 years old came up one on each side of me. The boy on my right tapped my arm continuously repeatedly going “hey hey hey hey hey hey hey hey” while simultaneously trying to sell me a random magazine, the boy on my left was getting conspicuously close to my purse.  I stopped and put my hand out, said STOP, quite loudly, and as if timed perfectly, the light turned green and my short but powerful legs took me across the street and into the café before the boys could process that I was gone.

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Tomoca Café is not a sit down and chill, read your book, check your email kind of place. It appears to be a place where people stop in for the sole purpose of drinking a quick coffee and carrying on about their day.  There is no food served there so don’t make plans for lunch either as I did because you’ll end up starving with caffeine jitters.  You order your coffee at the front desk and then proceed to the back where you hand them your receipt through the crowd and watch in fascination as they manage to get everyone’s various espresso based orders correct.  They do not have a ‘to go’ option to my knowledge, so you can either take your coffee to one of the stand-up tables occupied by many and stand there awkwardly sipping coffee as people have conversations around you or you can accept the kind gentleman’s invitation to sit down on the only bench with other older men and cheers him with the best goddamn coffee you will EVER have in your life…I’m not joking.  You know when you have something for the first time and it’s so unexpectedly delicious, that it transcends all that your taste bud’s have ever known or could ever expect?  The rich, bold flavours cause your eyeballs to pop out of your skull, and you have literal tingles spread from your nipples to extremities, because you have never had something so wonderful and then you get emotional because you know nothing will ever be as good, not ever.  I got teary eyed as I wrote that, the memory (nearly 3 years old) is that strong.

Fun Fact about Ethiopia: coffee was banned by the Orthodox Christian Church until the mid 19th Century.

After my existential moment at Tomoca Café, I was in dire need of some food and a bathroom.  Someone directed me to a bathroom in a random building but I could not get passed the foot of murky water on the floor.  Nothing takes the wind out of my adventurous sails as the need to pee, one quick look around this area and I determined that I would neither find much in the way of nutrition or a bathroom so my survival instinct kicked in, I hailed a cab and directed the driver to take me to the Hilton.  I knew there was one in town and I figured they’d have reliable wifi, food, and a bathroom.  They had 2 of the 3…I had to pay for wifi…wtf!  Feeling a bit like a tourist who eats at McDonalds instead of trying local food; I ordered Fish and Chips and a Cider, got very sleepy and decided to call it a day.  I hoped my ear infection would be better after a good sleep.

I started my day with a strong coffee and hearty bowl of porridge and then jumped into a van with a driver and tour guide, off to explore the Blue Nile Valley (part of the Great Rift Valley), the 13thC Monastery, Debre Libanos, and a Portuguese Bridge.  This is an incredibly easy day trip from Addis Ababa and worth every penny, since I was alone it cost me a bit more (120USD) than if I had been with a group.  I didn’t see any other tourists there which is an unusual treat, I guess that shows how off the beaten track Ethiopia is for tourists and travellers alike.

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I knew I would have to dress conservatively for the monastery visit so I was much more appropriately attired than the day before, in addition, I brought a scarf to cover my hair.  This was not enough apparently and the most adorable little monk; he reminded me of a Christian Merlin; wrapped me up like a mummy in white muslin.  He told me in no uncertain terms that if I was menstruating or had fornicated in the last 48hours I would not be permitted inside the church. Wellllll…..I was menstruating but I had not travelled all that way to be turned away because my body was doing the biological thing that literally sustains our species, sooo I kept it to myself and entered the church.  I have not been smote yet and things have been going pretty good for me, so I can confidently say you should ignore that rule.

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Debre Libanos is one of the holiest sites in Ethiopia, pilgrimages are made by many, especially sick people, where they receive holy water from a sacred mountain spring, to cure what ails them.  The church, both inside and out is very basic and filled with the actual faithful and not a bunch of tourists which makes the general vibe very sombre, I felt like a voyeuristic gawker.  The most impressive part of the church are the stained glass windows that were made by Afewerk Tekle, a famous Ethiopian artist.  “Merlin”, the monk who guided me around the site told me Tekle’s artwork was sent to the moon but I could not find any information about this so I can neither confirm nor deny.

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Afewerk Tekle’s Stained Glass Artwork

The church and monastery on site are not actually from the 13thC, as it was destroyed a few times throughout history; the latest church was built by Haile Selassie in the 1960’s.  There is a museum on site that houses many artifacts and displays but I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much, except learning that in the adjacent cemetery, people build little houses over their loved one’s graves and pilgrims or those in need can stay in these little houses for a night or two, monks also stay there. Clearly their creepy senses are much lower than mine because I’m pretty sure that sleeping in a cemetery is how many terrible horror movies from the 80’s begin.

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Cemetery with the little grave houses

A local teenage boy guided us down the rocky foot paths to the Portuguese Bridge, the bridge itself is not so impressive, you can tell its quite old, and it’s curious as to why the Portuguese built this bridge in the middle of nowhere, but the waterfall under the bridge is stunning and the baboons that hang out on the bridge are fun to photograph, like furry bridge gargoyles.

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What is beyond impressive is the gorge that the bridge overlooks.  Apparently the gorge is comparable in size to the Grand Canyon and is 1km deep.  The wind was strong up on the cliffs so I stepped gingerly as I made my way around the waterfalls and up onto a point where my driver, guide, and I ate lunch. It truly bother’s me that I don’t remember their names or the name of the tourist company because they were really lovely and we had a lot of fun jamming out to tunes in the van.  The tour company had packed us all a lunch which is essential because there didn’t seem to be anywhere around to buy food. The lunch was a bit disappointing though because they packed me a western style lunch but the driver and guide had a traditional Injera lunch.

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The Cliff where I ate lunch

The teenager guided us back to the road and then presented 3 beautifully carved crosses made of different coloured marble and without a word pointed across the Gorge to a section of cliff that looked as though it had been scratched at by a very large cat.  My guide told me that the boy gets marble from the cliff and carves these crosses to sell to tourists. I was both confused and impressed as to how he obtained this marble from the side of a kilometre-deep cliff.   I wasn’t really in the market for a cross as a non-religious person, but they were so beautifully carved and the marble was so fine and otherworldly, that I bought one, hung it in my home and every time I see it I am reminded of that beautiful day eating lunch on a cliff in Ethiopia. That day I learned that swimmer’s ear can be cured by strong winds on a cliff top, because that evening when I got back to the hotel, I realized my ear ache was gone.  Henceforth, every time I finish a swim, I dry my ears out with a blow dryer to avoid swimmer’s ear.

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The next day I set out to go to the National Museum but it was closed, so then I asked the taxi to take me to St. George’s Art Gallery.  We drove around a lot, asked many people, and after a very long time, learned that it was close to the Sheraton and the cab driver dumped me outside the Sheraton, figuring it was my fault that we had gotten lost and didn’t know where the Art Gallery was. The Art Gallery happens to be an art institution in Addis Ababa but it was definitely my fault for not knowing it’s precise location even though I had presented him with a screen shot of the google maps location.  Did I mention the general attitude in Addis Ababa, toward foreigners is somewhere in between aloof haughtiness and a give me money mentality.  From Hotel staff to Art Gallery curators, to almost everyone on the street, they seemed disinterested regardless of whether you’re asking for directions or just saying hello. I tried to ask questions about various points of interest or the artwork in the gallery and for the most part the answers were non-committal mumbling, offering no insight or useful information whatsoever. I have only ever encountered this general ambivalence once before and once since, in Beijing, China and Harare, Zimbabwe. All 3 cities felt depressed and bleak, even when the sky is blue and the sun brilliant, the city feels shrouded in grey.   All 3 cities have been economically repressed and politically oppressed so I guess it makes sense.

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Despite the difficulty of finding the place, St. George’s Gallery was a worthwhile stop.  They have beautiful Art, furniture, jewelry, and textiles that are of high quality.  I bought a gorgeous turquoise, silk scarf that I left in a taxi 2 years later and nearly cried about it.

I kept hearing about this upscale, trendy area of Addis Ababa called Bole street, so on my last evening I thought it would be prudent to check out the nightlife, even though I had to get up at 4:30 am for my flight.  I had the taxi drop me somewhere on Bole street and started walking, it was a chilly evening so I wore a jacket.  The street wasn’t well lit and I kept seeing disconcerting dark figures off to the side whispering at me, I was also really hungry, so I stopped at the first place I saw and had Blue Nile Perch which was just ok.  I used the free wifi and found a bar not far from the restaurant called Black Rose Lounge.  The music wasn’t obnoxious so I stayed for a bit but it felt like the kind of place you go with friends so if you’re solo, there’s no where to set up shop and chill.  Eventually my standing around, turning in circles became just awkward and some men decided to talk to me.  They turned out to be very friendly and we had a good time shooting the shit and then we went to a nightclub somewhere else; these guys were the friendliest people I had met in Addis Ababa who genuinely just wanted me to have a fun night.

Finally, around 3am I thought I should get back to my hotel for a quick disco nap but drunk me forget to set the alarm, or I set it wrong, or I didn’t hear it.  Either way I was awoken by loud knocking at my door, thankfully sober me had arranged an airport transfer and they were waiting for me.  At the airport I was sent to a terminal that actually looked like a defunct airport out of a horror movie.  There was nothing open in the way of food or water, I was still drunk so I was in dire need of water.  Every seat was taken so I sat on the cold floor with my head in my hands in pure agony. The bathroom down a long hallway lit by one flickering light bulb was cold, dirty, water was everywhere and if a rat had scurried across the floor I would not have been surprised.  The flight was over an hour delayed so I got to Bahrain too late to catch my connection to Abu Dhabi.  The hangover was in full swing so I set up shop in the Irish Pub drinking Bloody Mary’s for approximately 8 hours.

Addis Ababa is not a city I’d return to any time soon but if I had the chance I would go back to Ethiopia to visit Lalibela and a few other places of note; the country boasts many fascinating historical and natural attractions, a unique cultural heritage, and the best damn coffee in the world.

 

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Once in awhile something comes along that gives me a very unusual sense of regret, like when I discovered quick dry towels and thought about how many times on past trips I’d brought along a tiny hand towel and had awkward communal shower moments trying to pull on a pair of leggings even though I wasn’t completely dry.  Well I recently discovered Sygic Travel (a travel planning app) and that sense of regret filled me once more.  I thought about all the places I had travelled in the past where it would have come in handy to have an offline map that showed me where all the attractions, restaurants, bars, shopping, parks, public transportation stops, etc were.  I usually download a city’s google map so that I can get around easily but the Sygic App just has so much more that streets and directions; everything you can think of is laid out in a visually friendly and organized manner on a map that is available to download and use offline.

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I’m not the most organized person so my trip planning usually consists of making lists of possibilities which usually get left behind and then I have to rely on wifi connections and hotel receptionists to offer up good advice.  There are two versions of the app, one is free and the other costs 36.99 AED (about 10 USD). Sygic Travel Planner allows you to plan entire trips down to the minute; if that’s your thing or at the very least, logistically see what sites make sense to visit on the same day.  The map will show you how far apart they are, how long you would typically spend at each spot,  what public transportation is available for those areas and what restaurants, hotels, nightlife, parks, etc, are nearby. There are organized tours available to book through the app which is especially helpful if you’ve only got a short time and the tours are reviewed as are many of the local attractions.

Sadly, I was not able to use this on my last trip in the Seychelles but I perused the options for my hometown Montreal, and my current City, Abu Dhabi, and even though I know so much about each place the app made me feel like a tourist, as there were so many attractions I had never heard of.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 3.16.46 PMTrip planning often falls to me when travelling with friends, which I don’t normally mind but sometimes I feel like I’m controlling everyone’s time and this is against my nature, I also feel like the mother hen because I always have to remind everyone what time to set their alarm for.  In that regard, my favourite feature of the app is that if you are travelling with friends or family, you can share the trip with them and they can help plan and see what’s coming up each day at what time.  The only suggestion I would make is to include a budget option where you can calculate daily cost and who paid for what.

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The app itself is really user friendly, everything is clearly visible, I can’t wait to use this app on my next trip as I know it will make trip planning solo or with friends, so much more efficient and enjoyable.

 

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Goma, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Are we actually going to the Congo? We asked each other this questions on multiple occasions before actually going to the Congo.  The trip was booked we were in the deep and quite frankly I was thrilled, Maysa nervous but also thrilled.  If you check the advisories and the news and ask anyone who knows where the Congo is, they will tell you, you’re a damn fool.

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I’ve never been one to take these advisories too seriously, more often than not I feel like it’s your country’s way of not being liable for their citizens should they travel to a certain place, and often these advisories shroud an entire place in danger instead of explicitly calling out certain locations.

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At the end of the day, all the hyped up trepidation we felt was for naught…Not to say I’d be meandering around Goma on my own at night but the warnings of being raped, kidnapped, mutilated, and robbed was a bit far fetched.  I could see myself getting mugged there should I be wandering the streets alone at night but anything worse would be a slight on every single wonderful person we met while visiting the DRC.  I’ve had hotel staff in Nairobi who were uncomfortable letting me walk to a bank alone in broad daylight, and in Goma our hotel staff did not seem too enthused that we wanted to venture out for water and other supplies in the late afternoon/evening, but they gave us the directions nonetheless and didn’t seem too surprised when we returned with smiles on our faces instead of lines etched with paranoia.

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The most remarkable thing about Goma city proper is the sheer amount of UN vehicles you’ll see driving around or parked in hotel parking lots.  Another interesting aspect are the roundabouts which are decorated to memorialize things like the 2002 Nyiragongo eruption in which about 147 people died, destroyed thousands of homes and left over 100,000 people homeless. The eruption came through fissures in the side of the volcano letting lave stream through the center of town, 15 years later you will still see piles of lava rock on the side of the road and notice that some people have used the rock to make stone walls.  Since the rock and dust is black it makes Goma look a bit grimy, almost like a coal miner’s town in the Great Depression, but life is so vibrant and the landscape so green, its easy to enjoy the contrast.

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The absolute most fascinating thing I saw in the city of Goma were the boys on Chukadoos (wooden freight bicycles) transporting loads of wood at the speed of light.  Sometimes they were racing each other, usually with two young men on each-one steering, the other securing the load of thin logs. While we were waiting for our ranger, BienFait, to escort us to the Virunga I stood outside the ranger station on the street photographing and filming Chukadoo drivers.  I guess the few tourists that do come to Goma these days don’t usually get out of the car at 7am with their camera, as I received many a curious/incredulous stare.  David, our Goma driver and guide, told me that I could photograph and film anything as long as he was there but if I was on my own I could get fleeced for a photography license.

“The easiest way to extract money from a tourist is to catch him taking photographs.  In fact, the DRC’s ‘no photography’ regulations don’t seem to be enshrined anywhere; they probably fall under Mobutu’s famous Article 15–debrouillez-vous–that you have the right, indeed the duty, to ‘improvise’ or ‘get by’, making money anyway you can.” (Tony Wheeler, Dark Lands)

David took us to a popular local restaurant called Magali Fan Club where you eat buffet style, an awesome selection of traditional and fragrant Congolese food, it would be the single best meal we had in 4 days in the Congo.  We were recommended Nyumbuni Lodge another day for dinner, the food was not local and it was just so so but the restaurant has a calm ambience for an evening meal and drinks.

At really early o’clock, David picked us up at our hotel, Caritas Lodge, we stopped for a bit to wait for our ranger escort, Bienfait, and then carried on down some seriously harrowing roads to the Gorilla trekking station in the Virunga.  We drove by children waving, some with the hands out asking for money others yelling “Biscuit!” at us.  Is that a thing here, do tourists gives kids cookies in the Virunga?  In Tanzania, Kenya, and the DRC when I have gone on safari or in this case a gorilla trek, kids run out when they see the tourist vehicles looking to get money and gifts from tourists.  I have literally never thought to bring anything with me, can’t afford to hand out cash, and have always been told never to give money to random people but to donate money or items to a charity instead of giving to individuals.  I’m curious to know how often these children’s efforts are rewarded.

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We were ushered into a room with chairs set up facing a map of the park and a white board with the names of the Gorilla families and how many of each type of gorilla belonged to each family.  There were about 8 other people there eagerly awaiting to begin the trek.  We were given the run down of how we needed to act around the gorillas, what not to do and which families we would visit.  Were were split into 3 groups and then told to tuck our pants into our socks to avoid getting accosted by red ants.  Everyone was wearing long pants or leggings except me. I had worn a ¾ length pair of leggings and my hiking boots so there was a 2-3 inch space of bare skin.  My reason for this was that I knew it was going to be hot and I didn’t think about needing to cover my legs.  I felt that David or Amahoro tours should have mentioned this in their information package.  They had done an excellent job with everything else.  There was nothing I could do but brave the jungle in my ¾ length leggings and hope for the best. This didn’t detract from the incredible experience I had while watching the Rugendo gorilla family, a swarm of red ants could have been crawling up my legs and I would still have been wide eyed, in awe, snapping photos and just staring at the most magical creatures on our planet.

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We walked up and down small hills and through farmer’s fields for about an hour in the sun, one ranger in front and one in the back.  Our head ranger DeoGracias, went in front and I behind him.  We started to ascend a pretty steep hill, not sure how long we’d be ascending for, I stopped part way up because I hate being in front of others and I was hot.  Turns out it wasn’t long because the Rugendo family was just chilling on the edge of the forest and the farmer’s fields munching on bushes; secure in the knowledge that there were 2 rangers protecting them.  Once we got within 30 feet of the gorillas they told us to put our masks on, this is because gorillas can contract human ailments.  There are about 900 Mountain Gorillas left in the wild, just over a hundred are habituated to humans and they live between Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC.  The rest of the gorilla families are not used to humans and would become quite aggressive if we tried to hang out with them and watch them eat.  The Rugendo family does not mind our presence but you can tell that they only trust us because the rangers with us are known to them.  They still watch us, seemingly passively but as soon as we are near to the baby, Mom watches our every move out of the corner of her eye.  Baby wants to come play with us, babies like to play with the rangers so they are curious about humans.  The Rugendo’s 4-month old little nugget kept trying to stumble toward us like a miniature furry drunk, but we knew we had to stay 5 feet or more away.  It was awkward on the hillside rife with plants to scramble backwards from the baby so the rangers were cutting down bushes left and right for us to move back.

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The hour was up too soon, I could have spent a full day hanging out with these incredible animals, I so badly wanted to scoop up the baby and play with it and if a silverback had fist pumped me I would have been pretty stoked but sadly it was time to go.  The rangers are so nonchalant about what they do but their job is incredibly important and at times extremely dangerous.  Rangers get killed all the time by poachers and militia, in the last 20 years more than 160 rangers have died protecting the gorillas and the Virunga. About 2 weeks before we arrived 13-14 Tanzanian soldiers were killed in the Congo, the country is still incredibly unstable but for now the Virunga and Goma are safe.  How is it that a country so rich in natural resources can be so corrupt, violent, and poor?  I guess you can thank Belgium for fucking up a perfectly beautiful country.

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Returning to Goma, Bienfait, our escort blew a tire on the poorly kept road and we waited while he loaded his motorcycle on top of a ranger jeep. We bounced and jerked to and fro all the way back to Goma, passing the site where a huge military gun was left from the M23 militia uprising against the military.  They were trying to destabilise the Virunga so that Soco Oil could drill in Lake Edward.  The government won because the UN got involved and convinced Joseph Kabila to protect the Virunga and send Soco packing.  There is still much unrest in the Kivu region.  It’s a strange site to see a gun being overtaken by weeds, that just 5 short years early was being used against the town and the rangers, as civilians fled on foot and overloaded trucks to get away from the fighting.  The village in present day looks so peaceful and normal but you know the 10-year old herding goats down the road probably had to run for his life when he was 5.  When I visit Quebec City or Santo Domingo, DR, there are old canons lining ancient city walls that are left as a reminder of the past and who fought and won the right to call that place home, for our present day freedoms.  Those canons are simply a symbolic reminder of the past, why this massive gun was left outside this village for 5 years I cannot with certainty say but it seems as though its more because no one has thought or been able to get rid of it.

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The next day we would be climbing Nyiragongo for 5 hours and needed some healthy sustenance and a good sleep to get us up there.  I had read that the beginning of the hike was pretty easy and the rest got harder.  I felt moderately prepared, I work out 4-5 times a week usually and I trekked for 5 days in Nepal; I was not prepared. The first part of the hike is fairly easy and quite pleasant but the next 4 hours are awful, I mean the views are great but when your anxiety takes over and you can’t breathe you don’t notice the view.  Maysa stayed with me as I lagged behind literally taking 1 step at a time.  The whole time your feet are rolling around on loose lava rocks going steadily up and up for hours.  But once you reach that final rest stop, the wind whipping around your head, catching your breathe before the final 20-30 minute ascent, that literally looks straight up; you know you can do it and the effort will have been worth it.  I rarely give up on anything but about ½ way up I wanted to quit.  I powered on of course, I knew I had to see the lava lake.  We bought wooden walking sticks at the bottom, I was sceptical at first but after about hour 2, I was extremely pleased to have one; especially on the descent when rolling rocks threatened to dislodge your feet and send you tumbling to the ground.  We dumped our stuff in the cabin and piled on the layers, it was sooooooo cold at the top, like above the tree line cold.  The barometer read 8 degrees but with the wind chill I would have wagered it was 0 at most.  I really wished I had bought those ugly pink gloves in Dubai because as I was trying to photograph the bubbling lava, my fingers were solid blocks of ice.  Of course as a desert dweller for the past four years and having never been particularly fond of winter, I can’t handle weather much below 15 degrees.

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Nothing, no amount of google image searches, and blog reading can prepare you for the sight of hot, crackling bubbling lava lake in all it’s dragonesque, mordor glory; 700 metres below you at the top of a 3400 metre volcano.  Knowing this very pit of lava nearly leveled Goma in 2002, smelling the sulphur, and perched on the razor edge of a cliff trying not to let the wind get the better of you, its surreal.  I can’t explain it because such things should not be read but seen in person.

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After watching the lava lake in a gray haze for a little while we went down to the cook’s hut and sat next to the fire, warming our stiff and frozen bodies.  Thomas our cook served us a delicious potage and beef spaghetti.  The perfect meal after a hard climb and shivering at the edge of the lava lake.

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After dinner I went back up to the edge of the cliff to stare awhile longer.  The glowing red of the lava was even more striking now that the sky had gone black.  We shivered awhile longer, completely dumbstruck, I was extremely happy I had brought my telephoto lens so that I could get some really close shots of the lake.  I was so cold I just wanted to curl up inside my sleeping bag and drift to sleep. A little rum and hot chocolate would not have been remiss and if I had to do it again, I would have brought some.  I tried to convince the Rangers, Porters and Cooks that they should start a rum and whiskey beverage service and offer calf massages!

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My hopes of a warm, snuggly sleeping bag were dashed when I crawled in and realized that my sleeping bag was thin and had thinned out considerably around the zipper area leaving a substantial area of mostly nylon to shield me from the cold that permeated our little cabin. My sleeping bag was a worn out piece of crap that let my dwindling body heat slither out through the worn nylon into the night sky.  The cabin itself is outfitted with two small mattresses and pillows covered in vinyl and while the cabin blocked the wind it was not insulated from the cold.  I resolved that once I was tucked into my sleeping bag, I would not be getting up to pee until morning.  Maysa came down a little later needing to pee but not wanting to go down to the outhouse because it was so dark and the path precarious so she opted to squat behind our cabin.  Thinking that everyone had gone to sleep, she ventured out but to her dismay people were out and about with their flashlights so she got stage fright and couldn’t go for awhile, I think she may have been out their with her bare ass to the wind for a good twenty minutes; I tried to help by singing to her such bathroom classics as “Let it Go” and “You can do it put your back into it,” I was not being helpful she said so I stopped, ignored her pleas to the night gods for a quick and steady stream, and went to sleep.  I slept fitfully that night, woke up to Maysa talking incoherently in her sleep, feeling heavy gusts of wind violently shaking our cliff-side dwelling.

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Waking early the next morning, I was so miserably cold I felt certain that I could just not get up, that I would just have to remain a frozen popsicle in that cabin for the rest of my life, but my bladder got the better of my and I forced myself out and down to the outhouse.  The outhouse was an unpleasant structure to enter but it was open to the cliff side overlooking the most incredible views, so while you were trying to hover over the seat aiming your stream into the hole you were blessed with a view that lasts a lifetime.  The sun was still rising, the sky all pinks and purples, the hopelessness that I felt before I got up disappeared and I felt excited about the next few hours ahead.

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Thomas served up a hearty breakfast and we all began our descent down the steep cone of the volcano to the first rest stop.  Maysa’s fear of heights took over on the descent so it was my turn to wait for her as one of the Porter’s graciously assisted her all the way down.  I fell once and cut the heel of my hand, fell a few more times but did not suffer any more cuts or bruises.  One man fell quite hard as he was descending the first part and with already bad knees and his walking stick jamming into his ribs, he was unable to descend as quickly as the rest thus a ranger stayed by his side the whole way down.  It was precarious but I learned to watch the sure footing of the other guides, rangers, and porters and followed them down to firmer ground.  The last section of the trail is the most pleasant, descending through woods on firm packed dirt, watching out only for roots crossing the path.

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After 3 of the most incredible days of my life visiting the Gorillas, and climbing Nyiragongo, often called the most dangerous volcano in the world, I felt extremely fortunate and cheerful, completely exhausted but excited for the next 2 weeks of our trip.

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I never once felt unsafe while visiting Goma and the Virunga, in fact I left with the desire to see more of the DRC.  More people visit Rwanda and Uganda to see the Gorillas but with the rising cost of Gorilla trekking in Rwanda, more people are starting to head to the Congo.  Being able to also trek Nyiragongo and visit the famed Virunga was the selling point for us but all the little experiences we had while hanging out in Goma made me wish we had stayed another day, if only to eat more Congolese food and dance the night away to Congolese music.

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