Lilongwe, Malawi  Dec.2016

What I know about Malawi:  There is a large and beautiful lake there, it is known as the warm heart of East Africa because people are super friendly (hard to believe people have the capacity to be more friendly than Tanzanians), beautiful woodwork and Kanga’s. What I learned in Malawi while in Malawi, it is GREEN!!! Many of the villages are quite neat and tidy, some are less so, people are both Muslim and Christian and appear to live in total harmony along those lines, you can take a tuk tuk around Lilongwe, ATM’s are not totally reliable but people ARE super friendly and will gladly point you towards another ATM.  The craft market is pretty great with some very unique and some traditional things ranging from jewelry, material, carvings, paintings, and small furniture pieces.  What I learned about Malawi after having been there: It has one of the lowest GDP PPP’s in the world, which shocked me, after having been to Zimbabwe and Zambia (not even in the top 20) where you are constantly asked for money and see people staring at you with hungry eyes and self enterprising street merchants follow you trying to harass you into buying things, Malawi was a warm respite from this level of poverty.  No one asked us for money, no one asked us to buy random things, everyone seemed pretty relaxed and happy, there was none of that desperation you see in countries like Ethiopia, China, The Philippines, or the homeless in Canada.  Malawi was indeed one of the friendliest countries I’ve ever been to and the most happy go lucky, but apparently the 6th poorest in the world, according to Gross Domestic Product Purchasing Power Parity which takes into account cost of living, inflation rates, and comparable standard of living.

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Jackie, Andrea and I tuk tukken about.  Photo by Andrea DuFour

The first night at Mabuya Camp, after our daunting 14 hour bus ride from Lusaka, we sat in the bar with our candles up on the table, shoveling food into our faces, and drinking Carlsberg beers.  This is the beer to drink in Malawi…possibly the only brand that I can remember.  After 2 days of busing, the 3 of us were completely zoned out, watching gecko’s catching moths on the ceiling with far too much enthusiasm.  Some guys tried to convince us to put our “party pants” on but we mumbled something to the effect of “bus”, and “geckos” and then we went to bed.

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Praying mantis looks like it wants to fight for my Carlsberg

The next  morning we tuk-tukked out to the craft market, there were beautiful and unusual kangas and other types of material.  I bought a blue and black pattern which I had my Abu Dhabi tailor turn into a shirt.  At the craft market they have the usual assortment of carved wooden animals; I bought a few for the kids I tutor and then picked up a few pairs of earrings; 1 for me and 1 for Andrea and Jackie.  We were set to exchange small gifts on Christmas Day at the lake.  This was the 2nd pair of earrings I bought on the trip made from a copper coloured wire, we kept seeing this jewelry throughout the trip…it’s a really malleable metal wire that enables the jeweler to create unique shapes. I don’t usually buy big things when I travel, I just like jewelry and fabric.

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We spent the rest of the day drinking iced coffees, buying delicately painted artwork made by an armless man who had made the artworks, and then lounging by the pool.  That evening a huge group checked in, they were from the Peace Corps in Botswana, and one girl’s boyfriend who had moved to South Africa to be a sailing instructor while she did her time in the Peace Corps.  Nice guy but his gf….we suspected a love triangle happening between her and another Botswana Peace Corps guy…it was kind of sad but entertaining since I wasn’t very invested in their lives.  At any rate we got on well and they invited us to go  for a ‘walk’..walks being code for “let’s go get high.”  Jackie..shockingly, went to bed before us…every other night she was always up later than us, talking really loudly as Andrea and I were trying to sleep.  But this night…the one night in 6 days, Andrea and I stayed up later.  We were on our way to bed..talking low and giggling quietly outside our room when we hear “Guys can you be quiet, I’m trying to sleep in here.”  I am not even sure Andrea and I said anything, we just looked at each other and burst out in silent giggles then proceeded to entertain each other with a lewd silent shadow puppet show and for some reason the silent macarena dance…wtf.

Nkhata Bay, Malawi

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Nkhata Bay, Malawi

After 2 very uncomfortable bus rides through Zambia we decided to throw money at the problem and hire a driver.  Stanley came at 9 am and took us to a strip mall where we chased down an ATM that worked, a Bureau de Change; Jackie nearly lost her card in 1 machine but luckily the bank was open and they helped us out.  We were told that the ATM’s around Nkhata Bay were unreliable so we decided to stock up on cash before we headed out there.  So once again, stuffed with Kwacha… we set off for Mayoka Lodge in Nkhata Bay.

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Pink River opposite Lake Malawi

Once outside of Lilongwe, we started passing through these remarkably tiny, quaint, and tidy little villages that looked so natural.  The house were made out of the same colour dirt as the ground so they appeared to almost grow out of the ground in such a way and order that only nature could be responsible for it.  The villages were set on green, leafy hillsides, surrounded by small gardens, animals roaming, and children playing everywhere.  The view from the tops of the hills was of majestic Lake Malawi.DSC_0222

Lake Malawi is the 3rd largest in Africa, 9th in the world, but there exists more fish species in this lake than any other in the world.  Parts of the Lake are found in Tanzania, and Mozambique as well.  

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Nkhata Bay, Malawi

There were 2 or 3 cop cars announcing the arrival of the President’s convoy, Stanley pulled off to the side.  Afterwards, there were about 6 or 7  black SUV’s and then the President’s SUV which was indicated with flags, with an SUV flanking both sides.  Bringing up the rear were 2 more SUV’s and a military truck stuffed full of soldiers.  I am not sure if that much security was necessary, paranoia, or posturing, Malawi seems so peaceful but I suppose after experiencing the amount of security precautions Obama had leaving Ottawa airport last summer, it was small in comparison.

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Along the way there were several police checks that seemed kind of pointless. After 5 hours or so we arrived at Mayoka Lodge; imagine Santorini Greece but instead of white and blue houses set on a cliff, it was the red smooth brick of the Malawian dirt with thatched roofs built all along the cliff with precarious stone steps and pathways winding through the grounds that overlooked Lake Malawi. We were in complete awe and a feeling of total elation of having made it here on time, to this stunning little paradise.  Mayoka Lodge is like a resort for backpackers, they have basic accommodations, dorms, small cottages, and a bar/restaurant serving happy hour cocktails and a much tamer afternoon tea.  There are kayaks, canoes, traditional dug out canoes, and a floating raft and people can just laze around on the rocks and long chairs all day without a care in the world.  DSC_0297

I remembered booking a private hut but couldn’t remember much else about it.  I had booked 98% of the trip and because we knew it was high tourist season in most of the places we were going and also that in many of these places there are only one or two reputable Hostels/Backpackers, we decided to be prudent and book all our nights ahead of time. Turns out we were quite right to do that as we watched people get turned away.  We were shown to a cottage with an incredible view, it was the family cottage with 2 bedrooms, 4 beds, 2 balconies, an outdoor shower, and a large bathroom; after sleeping in dorms this was heaven.  I took the master bedroom as a reward for planning and booking the whole damn trip. I immediately did some sink laundry and hung everything out on the balcony and things dried so quickly in the hot sun (I would remember this fondly as I trekked through Nepal).  

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Mayoka Village Lodge, Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Happy hour, too many Sea Breezes (cocktails), waiting way too long for food and drinking too much on an empty stomach, going for “walks” with the Peace Corps from the last place; we were having a great time.  Andrea came running over really excited

Andrea: Oh my God! There’s a puppy closet!!!!! (squealing with glee)

Me: a what now?

Andrea: A closet full of PUPPIEEEESSSS!!!!!!

Me: Amazing! Take me there immediately.

And off we go but the closet is locked so we carry on with the pre-Christmas festivities.  

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What else but a puppy closet! Photo by Andrea DuFour

We find a bathroom we weren’t supposed to use but since there was no general toilet in the bar area and we would have to walk up, up, up, and then down, down, down some very uneven, scary, stone steps we decided to be naughty…that was the night I learned how to pee in a urinal, classy as fuck.  So as I was learning new tricks in the forbidden bathroom, Andrea was outside waiting for me at the top of the stairs, when I came out she was at the bottom of the stairs curled up in the fetal position.  There were two men crouched down trying to talk to her, I ran down and saw that she was all scraped up, she moved and I saw her elbow, a massive scrape/gash that looked as though a zombie had chewed on her.  She wasn’t crying or making much noise at all, myself and the 2 men helped her sit up and one man who was the unofficial First Responder at the Lodge started to clean her wound very gently, with alcohol, she barely whimpered during this and it wasn’t till she kind of came out of herself and realized what was happening as we addressed her other scrapes and checked for a head injury, that she really started to understand what kind of pain she was supposed to be in…Seabreezes and “walks” had dulled her senses a little which was likely the cause but also the reason she was not in too much pain.  People tried to convince us to take her to the hospital but one of the owners informed us that they wouldn’t even see her till morning sometime and I figured they wouldn’t be able to stitch her up by that point anyway.  The next day the other owner who happens to be a doctor, looked at it and said they wouldn’t have been able to stitch anything because the skin had ripped off completely (4 months later, Andrea still has a huge red scar it’s her Malawi tattoo). The 2 men helped her up to our cottage and Jackie and I put her to bed with some water and 4 advils I stuffed in her mouth.  Jackie and I went out to the veranda to finish our beers, we were talking very quietly so as not to disturb Andrea but she heard us whispering and Paranoid Polly came out with gusto!  She was convinced…CONVINCED; that we were talking shit about her.

Andrea:  I know you guys are talking about me.

Jackie: No we’re just talking quietly so you can sleep.

Andrea: Whatever.

This similar conversation occurred a few more times before the door swung open and Andrea, looking like Ash from Evil Dead, stomped down the stairs in a huff looking for more “walks” and people who wouldn’t talk ‘shit’ about her.  Jackie followed her down to make sure she was ok…I did not because I am an asshole and I was a little worn out from the whole thing,

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Jackie and I, arriving at Mayoka Lodge, pontificating the stair situation. Photo by Andrea DuFour

From the moment I arrived at Mayoka Lodge and saw how precarious the stone steps were, I kept having little flashbacks to when my friend scraped up her leg on a broken concrete path in Muiido, SK.  I had a feeling that someone was going to injure themselves and I was pretty sure it would be me…thanks for taking the hit Andrea!

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Photo by: Andrea DuFour

The next day we did literally nothing but laze around in the sun by the lake, the only event of note was that I got stung by a bee, and we watched the Peace Corps use an inner tube and a kayak paddle to bring a crate of beer out to the floating island and a waterproof case for their weed and then we watched them return, sunburned and drunk.  The owners let the puppies out of the closet and OMG there were 11 little babies just needing to be held by me and only ME!!!!  I would have happily laid down on the floor with all of them for hours.

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Mission success!

Mayoka Lodge is truly a special place, made even more so by the owner’s adopted children who run around taking to anyone and everyone.  The littlest one decided to wander around with my phone snapping photos; I ended up with a lot of blurry photos of random people’s junk but a few very sweet selfies.  Her older brother also took a few shots of himself.  This 7 year old boy decided I was awesome and would come sit with me wherever I was just to hang and chat and show me all his battle scars from playing like a child without an iPad.
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We walked into town on Christmas Day, there are loads of Arts and Craft stalls lining the hill on the way down to Nkhata Bay.  They had some beautiful carved wooden furniture that I wish I could have bought but since I tend to move countries every few years I figured it wasn’t wise.  I did however buy a carved wooden globe jewelry box.  We walked around Nkhata Bay for a little bit looking for a SIM card for Jackie, and generally just walking about.  DSC_0317

Nkhata Bay is a dusty, bustling little town but it was really hot and sweaty so we started back up the hill.  Nearing the top there is a great little spot called ‘One Love’ Cafe owned by a happy laid-back Rasta who enjoys making “Space Cakes” if you’re feeling up for an adventurous day or he’ll whip you up some special Banana pancakes that taste divine with a beer as you look out over the brilliant blue waters of Lake Malawi, while he plays the bongo drum and you just generally talk about nothing important or say nothing at all.  This is the way to spend an afternoon!  He also happens to be the guy who made the globe box that I bought and the new living room set (hammock and table) that Jackie purchased and proceeded to carry through Malawi, and Tanzania.  

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Check out the video on my Instagram of the owner playing the bongo https://www.instagram.com/p/BOesAf6ljjm/?taken-by=joy.adventure

Mayoka Lodge hosted a great Christmas feast and the party went on all night.  We exchanged gifts after the Christmas themed karaoke competition, thankfully Jackie had swiped a roll of pink toilet paper from our Lusaka hostel, so we wrapped our gifts in that.  We hired another driver to take us to Mbeya, Tanzania where we would spend a night at a 3$ hotel and fly out to Dar Es Salaam the following morning.

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Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to Lilongwe, Malawi through Zambia

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Little buddy hanging out around Victoria Falls

DEET DEET DEET DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Victoria Falls divides the Zimbabwe and Zambia border, the waterfall flows year round but at different times of the year it can more or less impressive.  Some people told us it was better during rainy season ( November to March) because there is more water rushing over the cliffs, we were also told that at that time is can be too misty to see the details.  We went in December during their peak rainy season but it hadn’t rained much that year, I don’t think it rained once in the 4 days we spent in Zimbabwe. I think the most disappointing time would be dry season (April to October).  You can choose to stay in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe or Livingstone, Zambia; I am sure there are lovely places to stay on the Zambian side but we chose Victoria Falls because the town itself is built around the Falls, easily walkable to entrance, whereas, from what we could tell, its not walkable from Livingstone.

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Leaving Harare

We flew to Victoria Falls from Harare via Fast Jet.  Right away I could tell we had arrived in a well manicured, tourist center when I saw the pristine condition of the airport and the Ndebele song and dance troupe dressed in leopard print, performing outside the arrivals area.  Even though it was a touristy accoutrement, they were really good and entertaining.  

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Ndebele Song and Dance Troupe

 

Our taxi driver informed us that the best time to see the Falls was around 9am, having missed that time, we got cozy at our hostel and then walked around town.  Victoria Falls is very quaint and reminiscent of most small tourist towns around the globe except for the frequent baboon sightings and apparently, occasionally beligerent elephants roam through town.  

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David Livingstone statue in the Vic Falls park

Before going to Zimbabwe I messaged two friends from Montreal that were from Zimbabwe.  Surprisingly, Mordecai had a similar trip itinerary and he and his girlfriend would be coming to Vic Falls the day after us.  A.K however wasn’t going to be there until New Year’s Eve at which point we would be in Zanzibar.  AK told me his brother was living there and gave me his number to get in touch.  We shared the following text conversation:

AK: This is Anele’s number, give him a call when you get to Vic Falls.

Me: Hey so you told your brother I am coming right? He’s not going to be like, ‘who is this Chelsie person?’

AK:

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So I call Anele and a woman picks up, she’s super confused, I’m super confused, then we deduce that AK has given me Anele’s wife’s number….she has never heard of me but says she will let Anele know that I called and he will get in touch with me at the hostel.  The people at Shoestring Backpacker’s were very nice about this and took a message for me when he called.  

Sadza, is a traditional Zimbabwean meal, it’s more like a side dish that goes with some cooked greens and chicken or beef.  It is made from finely ground cornmeal and formed into a mound on your plate. It doesn’t have much taste but once combined with the other ingredients on the plate it will take on that flavour.  I had a very similar dish called Ugali, in Kenya and I think the main difference between the two dishes is the name as both are eaten with your hands and generally you take balls of it and dip it into whatever meat sauce or stew you are having.  It’s definitely not my favourite food but it’s filling and the chicken that went with it was excellent.  

After dinner we just had a few drinks at the hostel and went to bed fairly early to a) get away from the mosquitoes, and b) get up earlyish to go to The Falls!

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Warning: Big slobbery, lazy, guard dog

Shoestring Backpacker’s is great for its chilled out, hippy vibe, but it could definitely be cleaner and quieter.  The bar is the main nightlife in town which is convenient when you want to party but don’t expect to get a decent night’s sleep.  Also the mosquito situation was daunting; between the 3 of us we had 3 different types of mosquito spray but nothing seemed to work, it was too hot to want to cover up but leaving your skin exposed was like fighting with fire covered in gasoline.  Lucky Andrea, her blood was not delectable to the mosquitoes but Jackie and I were irresistible and they sucked on us like horny little vampires; luckily/inexplicably the bites didn’t itch so it was merely unsightly.   We asked the owners why they didn’t plant things like citronella and such around to help fight the mosquito invasion and he told us that their policy was not to introduce plants that are not native to the area…I’m not a botanist so I have no viable thoughts on this.

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#Andreasantics

After a delicious, healthy, and hearty bowl of porridge and strong coffee, we left to find a bike tour but after we realized we’d have to do too much searching for the bike company, we decided to just walk the trails.  Turns out you can’t ride a bike around the Falls anyway (for good reason), I’m not sure where we got the idea that we could.  The entrance fee is 30USD, seeing how well maintained the area is, it’s worth every penny.  Victoria Falls did not disappoint, the water wasn’t at its highest most intense level but it was amazing nonetheless.  Massive, stunning, inconceivably powerful, the landscape is misty and humid, with short respite in the breezy shade or when the spray from the Waterfall comes down on you like rain.  Photo’s and videos can’t do the sights and sounds justice; the feeling you get when you go close to the edge and your stomach plummets as you watch the water rushing over the side.  We spent about 2 hours walking around the Falls, going to all the lookout sites and walking along the ridge, sitting on the edge contemplating the smallness of your existence and at the same time thinking how lucky I am to be able to see this natural wonder of the world.

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On the Zambian side there were people walking and swimming through the water, given how humid it was, this would have been an excellent way to see the Falls but we were trying to be thrifty so guided tours were not in the budget.  Also, guided group tours make me edgy.

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Afterwards we spent some time perusing the vendors stalls outside the entrance to the park and the craft market in town.  I bought a beautiful pair of dangly earrings with blue stones for 3 USD, Andrea and I also picked up some postcards and stamps and wrote our family’s…I found these postcards in my sketchbook a few months later…I used to be good about it but the last few trips I have forgotten to send them so I think I need to stop buying them.  The problem is, some hostels and hotels will post them for you so you just give them money and they take care of it because who has time to wander around looking for a post office?!  That’s kind of a poor excuse since the post office was quite literally on our way to and from the park, very near the centre of town.

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We went to Shearwater Cafe on the corner of the main intersection, where I had a grilled watermelon and chickpea, feta salad; this is essentially the best thing you can eat after a hot steamy walk around Victoria Falls.  DSC_0024

My friend Mordecai met up with us after lunch at the hostel for a few afternoon beers, to catch up and make plans for later.  They were still pretty jetlagged and left us for a nap.  We hung out with some hostel people for awhile and then met Mordecai, Marina, and Anele (AK’s brother) back at the Shearwater Cafe.  They often have live music at night but sadly we missed it.  The cafe closed so we headed back to the hostel (the only nightlife in town according to Anele) and we hung out there till closing.  This is when I learned the truth of AK’s deception…Anele and I both shaking our fists at him.

Anele: Sorry about the confusion, my wife called me at work, she was a bit angry with me asking ‘who is Chelsie?!’ I told her I didn’t know a Chelsie but I was worried because last weekend I went out with some work friends and got pretty drunk so I was like ‘oh no…do I know a Chelsie?!’  AK called me a few hours later to tell me that someone named Chelsie might be calling me.  I told him you gave her the wrong number and got me in trouble with my wife.

That night we said our goodbyes, promising to visit Mordecai in Cyprus and he to visit us in Abu Dhabi.  We have yet to make good on that promise.

We got a final look at Victoria Falls the next morning as we walked across the bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia.  The bridge goes over the gorge where you can zipline and bungee jump…I am notoriously NOT a thrill seeker.  I once got stuck ziplining in the Philippines and while it was an adrenaline rush, I felt little need to repeat it.  Andrea on the other hand, loves to sky dive so I think she would have loved to bungee jump or zipline.  In retrospect, after forcing myself to zipline in Costa Rica, I wish we had done it in Vic Falls.

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Bridge to Zambia

When I was 15 I got a concussion snowboarding, since then my desire for reckless activities decreased and incidentally my phobias seemed to increase.  There have been studies done linking traumatic brain injuries to emotional disorders such as anxiety, phobias, and PTSD so I guess that makes sense.  

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Banana thief

A new fear developed today as we we crossed the Zim-Zambia border…baboons.  Jackie is a delightfully frugal person, she just could not leave those 3 overripe bananas behind at the hostel so she carried them in a clear plastic bag through the border on foot.  People kept telling her to ‘watch out for baboons, they like bananas!’ but we thought they were messing with us, trying to get us to pay for a taxi across instead of the hour long, sweltering walk. But no, they were really warning our dumb asses, because suddenly this manic baboon charged towards Jackie and a man had to chase him off so that Jackie wouldn’t get accosted for her bananas. So we carried on, made it through the border, paid 50$ to get into Zambia for 36 hours and went off in search of a taxi to take us to the Livingstone Bus station.  Livingstone is Zambia’s dustier, less pleasant version of Victoria Falls.  We went all over trying to get Zambian kwacha for the bus but were having a hard time with ATM’s and ended up paying more just to use USD.  The bank lineups around town were insanely long and we wanted to make sure we had a bus ticket.  We had to wait for an hour or so at the bus station which is basically just a dusty parking lot with various types of buses and some stalls selling everything from bus tickets to food and water.  We wanted to use the bathroom before setting off on the 5-6 hour journey so Andrea went to the bar and asked to buy 3 bottles of water and to use the bathroom.  They laughed at her and said..’we don’t serve water here, you can buy a beer’. Which to Andrea seemed totally reasonable at 10am; she came back with 3 beers and a bathroom report which was essentially a scrunched up face and ‘take your wipes’.  Given the bar’s clientele at 10am I figured as much, to ensure I only went once before departure I waited until the last possible moment, took a deep breathe and pee’d as fast as I could.  This is crucial as a traveler, learn how to pee fast.  It is inexplicable to me that it takes more than 30 sec to a minute to pee but somehow Jackie is a pro at taking her sweet-ass time in the bathroom even when people and buses are waiting or the locale is suffocatingly hot, stinky, and dirty.  People always remark about how fast I am in the bathroom..to which I remark..’wtf do you want to hang around in there for! Drop trow, evacuate bladder with help from pelvic muscles, wipe, flush, wash hands, done.‘  That’s like a minute depending on the complicatedness of your pants.

A coach bus means nothing in Zambia, essentially it means that the bus is as large as a Coach but they will pack you in like an open can of sardines left in the sun too long.   I suspect that seats were added to the original floor-plan of the bus and the 1-2 bags per customer rule is unheard of.  Two hours into the bus trip my ass was falling asleep, my back aching, and sweat was coming from every pore…why are the windows closed????? Schedules also mean nothing here as our bus departed later than expected, and the 5-6 hour trip was extended to about 9.

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On the way to Lusaka

We appear to be having some mechanical bus problems but I don’t know about these things so I just ignore and hope we don’t get stranded and I have to make friends with Lions, which I think is definitely possible because we are kindred spirits…I have yet to test this theory but it’s just a feeling I get when I see them.  The bus pulls into a little town which according to Google Maps is called Kalomo and we are told that there is something wrong with the bus and they will be sending another one asap, it will be at least 2 hours.  

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Broken down in Kalomo, Zambia

There’s a cute little restaurant next to our broken bus so we sit and order food, we think to have another beer but this is a Christian establishment blasting very loud Christian music and no alcohol signs so we journal, we play cards, we walk, we find a pleasantly maintained bathroom, we eat some chicken and we get very, very restless.  3 hours later a bus rolls in and everyone hangs out around it with their bags and finally, FINALLY, they let us on..the seats are even more crammed on this bus than the last and the seats in front of Andrea and I are leaning back and its as if the passengers are sitting in our laps; the seats do not go to the upright position…awesome.  5 hours later we arrive in Lusaka, its about 9pm and we are supposed to be back at the “bus station” at 5:00a.m to go to Lilongwe, Malawi.  Other than just being frustrating, breaking down meant that we had no time to check out Lusaka and we had to scramble around the “bus station.”

 

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Journal time

The “bus station” again, is just a collection of stalls selling tickets to various locales.  We had to scramble through people who were trying to sell us fake tickets to different places, or get us in their cabs so they could over charge us, or sell us something or other.  This place was no joke, it was chaotic, crowded, the people were intense and we were exhausted and in no mood to deal with the sensory overload.  We started walking around looking for Kobbs Bus Service, the entire time this man followed us asking us to buy some kind of goods or service, or possibly to simply give him money, we couldn’t get away from him, we walked up some stairs to a more official looking building, on the flat landing at the top there were more stalls selling food, water, etc…and people sleeping everywhere on mattresses laid out on the ground.  It was unclear if they were homeless or simply sleeping there for the night waiting for an early morning bus.  We saw a sign saying reception and made a beeline towards it, the man at the desk looked at us with surprise and when we asked where Kobs Bus Service was, he looked as if contemplating how best to give directions and then decided it was easier to take us there.  At this point our stalker disappeared and we followed this man through a veritable maze of stalls and vendors and people to an out of the way, almost tranquil spot.  The man helped deal with our bus tickets and he tracked down a taxi driver and arranged to have us brought to our hostel at a reasonable rate and to be picked up the next morning to return to the bus station.  They bus service people needed to see our passports, we handed them over, some curious men came over to ask our guide what the hell we were doing there and as our passports were handed back to us, they took them and started perusing them and discussing them to each other in what may be Bemba, but I am not sure.  Passports are sacred items…they are your lifeline, having random strangers manhandling your passport at a crowded bus station in a country not your own is disconcerting; but it turns out they were merely curious and passed them over to us when they were done looking.

While we were waiting, 2 young children came towards us, they were sad little things, who very clearly needed food.  Thankfully, Jackie had saved those bananas from the baboon and was able to give them the bag, which they proceeded to rip open and devour the bananas as fast as they could.  I was for once, glad for Jackie’s frugal sensibility.

Our Lusaka hostel was really nice and it was quite unfortunate that we were not able to spend more time there.  I had originally wanted to spend an extra day here but the bus was leaving for Malawi the following day, or we’d have to wait 4 days to get the next bus or have to take a series of minibuses and taxis.  We hadn’t eaten since our bus broke down in Kalomo, 8 or so hours prior to this and we were so tired but at the same time amped up, we ordered some beers, shared a chocolate bar and a bag of chips and called it a night.  It was a damn shame that we were not hanging around here longer I noted, as I brushed my teeth and watched a very fine male specimen walk past in his boxers.  

3:45 am wake up in my clothes, brush my teeth and jump in a cab, back to the bus station, we boarded yet another overloaded coach bus.  They had  3 seats crammed onto 1 side of the bus and 2 on the other, so it’s 5 across with a teeny tiny aisle and seats that appear to have been custom made for a medium sized infant. There are families of 4 or 5 stuffed into a row of 3 and every manner of luggage fit to burst, in every nook and cranny, turning the already too small aisle into a veritable obstacle course. Inconceivably there is a mattress stuffed in the back and a table top sitting on someone’s lap. The prospect of sitting on this bus for over 10 hours did not entice but we had little choice in the matter.  To make matters worse the reclining handle on my seat had lost its rubber and since the seat was too small, my butt was hanging off the edge and this piece of metal was jammed into my hamstring.  I used a package of wet wipes to cushion the metal a bit which helped but created an entirely new problem; one leg being higher than the other for 10+ hours makes for a painful spinal cord situation.

Several uneventful hours went by, it rained the bus stopped here and there and people clambered over each other to pop a squat by the side of the road.  I was careful to dehydrate myself sufficiently but not too much. During a downpour the bus kept barreling down the road at the same rate, taking turns on a massively overloaded bus didn’t seem to faze anyone so I decided I wouldn’t let it faze me either.  I read my book, I tried to sleep a bit.  

We stop in a small town to drop off/pick up, everyone starts getting off so Andrea and I decide to go outside to stretch, even though it’s pouring rain.  Jackie stays on the bus, at least that’s what we thought; so when the bus looked like it was going to leave, Andrea and I get back on only to find that Jackie had slipped away, we didn’t see her get off, we don’t know where she went, what her intention for leaving the vicinity of the bus was…we’re in a small town in Zambia, several hours from our destination in another country, it’s pouring rain.  

Me: She can’t have gone far right, we were just there for a few minutes.

Andrea: What the hell Jackie!!! I didn’t even see her get off.

Me: Shit the bus is moving.  (We are looking outside, can’t see far because of the rain but we don’t see Jackie).

Me: Hey driver!  Ummm can you stop, our friend is still here?

Andrea: (probably giggling)

Bus people: Hey stop, there is someone back there.

(Meanwhile the bus is slowly rolling down the road)

Me: Hey, no, but really, can you please stop, you’ve left my friend.

No response, by this point everyone is yelling at the driver.  He stops for 30 sec and I sit down and we wait..everyone looking out the windows.

Me: Where the fuck did she go!

Andrea:  Oh my god Jackie, why did she leave the bus!

Bus starts again, everyone yells again, driver stops

Andrea: I see her, hahahahaha, she’s running now.

Bus doors open, Jackie soaking wet gets on the bus, everyone on the bus is pretty entertained.

Andrea: You almost got stranded in the middle of Zambia!

Me: So curious, how did you feel when you realised the bus wasn’t there/what was your plan?

Jackie: I figured I’d have to set up shop until the next bus rolled through.

Me: Good plan.

Andrea:  But really where the hell did you go?

Jackie: I went to the BATHROOM!

Me: Jackie, if you need to pee, you pop a squat behind the bus like everyone else.
Lesson learned: Do not leave the vicinity of the bus, there is no proper schedule of stops, where, when or how long, they do not do a headcount to ensure everyone gets back on.

Anyway later on we hit a cow, didn’t stop and just barrelled on down the road, all the way to Chipata, Zambia.

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Children playing soccer on the way to Lilongwe, Malawi

The bus stayed in Chipata for about 2 hours..no idea why.  We tried getting off the bus to walk and stretch and maybe get some food but we were instantly swarmed by people trying to sell us stuff.  This gets exhausting after awhile and when you say no to the same person over and over again only to have them follow you and and continue to harass you, well it’s easier to stay on the steamy, hot and cramped bus.

The border was uneventful except to say that it took awhile, and what we thought was a 50$ visa entry fee turned out to be 75$. Finally after a grueling 2 days of busing through the Zambian and Malawian countryside, we made it to Mabuya Camp in Lilongwe, where we promptly inquired about hiring a driver for the next leg of our journey.

As a vacation traveler…having limited time and wanting to see a lot, you have to be prepared to throw money at problems sometimes, part of me wishes we had found a driver from Lusaka to Lilongwe but at the same time, it was an experience..albeit an unpleasant one; you learn a bit more about how it all works in that part of the world.  I didn’t need anymore of those lessons for this trip, so we hired a driver from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay and it was the best decision we’ve ever made!  When all was said and done it took 14 hours to get from Lusaka to Lilongwe, with the short stops, and the long Chipata stop, and then the time spent at the border, which btw was the only time Andrea and I went to the bathroom.  After 14 hours sitting on a crammed bus you get full on pregnant lady cankles…apparently. For those who don’t know, cankles are when your ankles and your calves become one… it is a concerning circumstance when all the blood in your body has just settled in your feet and ankles and has altered the form of your legs.  (I don’t know if that’s scientifically accurate.). That night we sat with our feet up, staring into space, unable to communicate effectively, think of anything to do, or really move at all.

Stay tuned for more about our time in Malawi.

A weekend in Abu Dhabi

 

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Desert Sunset

Warning: this itinerary does not include flashy malls or theme parks.

Abu Dhabi is a luxury destination for people who want to be pampered but if you look past the shiny façade you’ll see the grit of any big city, and experience an eclectic mix of cultures.  You’ll notice immediately how there are no addresses in the country, people give directions almost exclusively by dropping pins and telling them what business is on the ground floor of the building; although there are many big towers that have specific names like Gate Towers.

Me giving directions to my house:

When you come off the highway to Mussafah, turn left in front of Safeer Mall, turn right after the mall and then the first left at the pharmacy and then drive to the end.  It’s the building with Blah Blah Blah business.  No, I don’t know the name of the street…does my street have a name?

When you are taking taxis around the city, if its not a major landmark you have to know the landmark nearby or give up your phone for navigation.  It’s a confusing, frustrating city and when its 45+ degrees with so much humidity you need a snorkel to breathe; like its so hot some days you can actually hear the heat.  That being said, generally, it’s not wise to visit the UAE between May and October.  From October to May though, the weather is fantastic…that is when they aren’t experimenting with the clouds.  Lazy days spent at the beach and peaceful evenings walking along the path at The Eastern Mangroves are the norm for Abu Dhabiites.  So if you find yourself in Abu Dhabi during these delightful months, I have put together a perfect tourist itinerary for 48 hours in the sandbox.

Day 1 Morning:

Any proper stay in the capital of the UAE should begin with a hearty Arabic breakfast at Café Arabia.  The name is a bit on the nose but their food is awesome and the ambience is perfect for a sunny morning breakfast.  The Café is on 15th Street in Villa 637 but many taxi drivers know where it is due to its popularity.  They serve traditional Arabic breakfast but if you’re not in the mood for foul medames (fava beans cooked with spices and vegetables or labneh (cream cheese like yoghurt) then they have an excellent selection of western style breakfast, as well as veggie and vegan options.  My personal favourite is their avocado toast with poached eggs.

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Saadiyat Beach Club

After breakfast head over to Saadiyat Beach; there are 3 other beaches in Abu Dhabi, Corniche, Bateen and Yas.  Corniche and Bateen Beach are free but if you’re a female alone or an all female group you probably won’t feel comfortable there unless you pay to go to the all female area at which point you might as well just go to Saadiyat because it is far superior in every way.  Yas Beach is nice enough but you don’t get the big waves you would get at Saadiyat and sometimes jerk jet skiers think its funny to harass swimmers with waves, spray and a ton of unpleasant noise.  Last time I checked it was about 100 aed to get into Yas Beach, the only real benefit to going here is that you can order food and alcohol to your beach lounge chair.

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Me taking in Saadiyat Beach Club

Saadiyat though, is by far one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever been on (I’ve been to a lot of beaches-Zanzibar still wins though), it’s clean, the sand is luscious and soft, and you can usually find a quiet spot away from the crowds.  25 aed will get you admission to the beach, an extra 50 will get you a beach lounge chair and umbrella but then you are stuck next to the hordes.  Be aware that there is no shade on the rest of the beach and you are not allowed to bring your own umbrella or chair….even when there is none left to rent…sense, it makes not!  There is food and beverages to be bought at the beach but bring your own if you want to save some money.  Saadiyat Beach is truly a little paradise, I’ve found it is the perfect antidote to a stressful week of teaching.

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Pool cabanas at Saadiyat Beach Club

If you’re a high brow traveller than you can always head over to Saadiyat Beach Club, this place will set you back a few hundred dirhams and your right arm, but having spent 2 glorious and glutinous days there I would recommend it if you can afford it.  (FYI I won a free pass for kicking ass at a spelling bee-being an expat can occasionally be ridiculous).   The Beach club has a large pool with cabanas set up on the pool’s edge, there are regular beach lounge chairs under umbrellas around the pool and on the beach.  They have a gym and spa complete with sauna, steam room, hot and cold tubs.  Obviously you can also order food and drinks; might I suggest the passion fruit margarita.  It’s hard to leave this place, but leave you must because you HAVE so much more to do. The UAE has some of the best sunsets I have ever seen and as enticing as it is to watch the sun go down over the ocean, the most impressive and unique sunsets happen over the mosque and the in the desert.

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Sunset on Saadiyat Beach

Day 1: Afternoon

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Gold Cappuccino tasting

Around 1 pm as the sun is high in the sky, burning your retinas off, head over to Emirates Palace for lunch.  I cannot personally recommend the Camel Burger but apparently it’s a must eat here.  I can personally recommend the Gold Cappuccino-not because its particularly tasty, its pretty standard; but for the novelty of drinking gold in one of the richest countries in the world.  After lunch, walk it off in the gardens of Emirates Palace.  Just to clarify- it’s a hotel not a palace and its unlikely you’ll meet royalty here.  At Christmas time they tend to have a million dollar Christmas Tree set up in the vault ceiling lobby which is less impressive than you might think but interesting nonetheless.

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Emirates Palace

After walking off your camel burgers its time to visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, really if you go to Abu Dhabi and don’t visit the mosque then why did you even come here? I’ve been about 4 times over the last 3 years and I would go again if asked.  The mosque stands white and glimmering in the sun as you enter the city from the airport. Every tries to catch pictures of it from the car window but its better just to wait till you actually go.  The mosque at this time of the day will probably be set against a background of brilliantly saturated blue sky, perfect for your instagrammable moments.  The harrowing taxi ride or drive down Sheikh Zayed Road will have you anxious and wondering how people survive their daily commute to work without being reduced to a puddle of panic induced tears; but once you step inside the grounds of The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the chaos and the stress melts away.  An oasis of calm and cleanliness in the middle of a bustling, sweltering, and dusty city.  This Mosque is the 2nd largest in the world, purposely built to be the 2nd largest so as not to overshadow Mecca… because Haram!  The mosque features the largest hand knotted carpet in the world inside as well as some of the largest chandeliers.  In addition to the scale of things being large the columns have colourful inlaid stone floral motifs that feel very whimsical.  I find the contrast between a cathedral and a mosque interesting- where a cathedral is so austere and oppressive, but this mosque and the Grand Mosque in Muscat are bright, light and feel as though you are walking through a fairy-tale.

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View of the mosque from the Shangri-La Hotel beach

Some practical tips for the mosque:  you can wear your own clothes but your shirt should be long sleeved and not at all revealing, you cannot wear shorts (man or woman) or for women you can wear a long skirt/dress and obviously cover your hair.  You can borrow an abaya and shayla and for men a kindora (traditional clothes) at the mosque if you want.  It is free to enter and at 5pm there are guided tours but you can also guide yourself.

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Sheikh Zayed Mosque

Day 1 Evening:

It’s obviously been a long day and you probably want to have a seat and maybe some kind of beverage but you may also want to do a little souvenir shopping, so taxi over to the Shangri-La Hotel and Souq Al Qaryat Al Beri.  The Souq is a traditional style market selling traditional items.  I would say that if you want to do a lot of shopping you’re better off waiting till the next day when you have time to go to Madinat Zayed Mall.  But since you’re already in this end of town (Al Maqta) your best bet is to shop a little and then walk down the beach to Pearls and Caviar for a drink overlooking the Grand Mosque.  This spot is where you can truly appreciate the sun setting over the mosque and watch it light up with various colours once the sun goes down.

Day 1 Night:

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A chocolate fountain…really?!  Pearls and Caviar, Shangri-La Hotel

Afterwards it will be time to eat and figure out where you want to spend your night.  I suggest you go to Caramel at The Saadiyat St. Regis Resort for an all inclusive night brunch.  The UAE has some of the most spectacular, decadent, glutinous brunches I have ever seen; don’t be fooled though, this is not your average midday meal and mimosa, they usually run from 12:30 to 4:30 ish with rooms full of food and unlimited cocktails for anywhere between 300-500 dirhams.  A night brunch is basically the same thing but you can start getting trashed after dark, like civilized people. Caramel’s brunch is not buffet style as most places are, for 199 dirhams you get table service for a set menu and drinks.  They had a few different salads that were super flavourful, truffle mac and cheese bites, sliders, and tiny tacos; the menu appears to have changed since I went but its probably just as delectable.  The brunch ends at 10pm so if you’re still up for more fun then there are numerous options around the capital.  Thursday night is the best time to head over to Stills at The Crowne Plaza on Yas Island during the cooler months, as they have a huge open space outside (great for non-smokers), with various table options and ladies get 5 free drinks.  Long live ladies night in the Emirates, so no matter what night(s) you are in town there is sure to be a place to drink for free that suits your style of nightlife just look on the capitallist for up to date information.  McGettigans on the weekend will provide you with more than enough debauchery.  For a more chilled out, upscale vibe then Barfly at the Ritz will be your best bet or the rooftop of the Aloft is super relaxed.  Asia de Cuba on the weekend is another great outdoor bar and Ray’s Bar on the top of Etihad Towers has stellar views of downtown Abu Dhabi.

Right about now, you’re probably ready to collapse so head back to your hotel and make sure you sleep in the next morning.  If your hotel has a pool then do take advantage this morning, you paid a lot for it after all, and if you’re feeling the previous night’s beverages rattling around in your skull, cooled water will take the pain away.

Day 2 Morning:

Breakfast time, head to Jones the Grocer, there are a few locations around the city.  They serve all around great coffee and food, my favourite is their peanut butter and banana acai bowl.  NoLu’s is another tasty option and they have 1 location at Galleria Mall, that I know of.  They have an extensive and expensive menu, I love their Huevos Rancheros and Cinnamon Cappuccino.

Time to do some serious shopping, get in a cab and go to Madinat Zayed Mall.  Normally I would never send someone to a mall but this is not your average shopping center.  It’s basically a huge indoor souq where you can find endless spools of silk, cotton, linen and more, in every pattern and colour known to humankind.  There is a gold souk where you can find beautiful original gold jewelry as well as pearls and silver.  This is the place to haggle for the best deals and it’s also where I get all my jewelry made, so if you’re in town for a week, take your loose stones, broken jewelry, or even costume jewelry you’d like to have copied in real metal, and haggle for some truly original and stunning pieces.  There is a marvellously overcrowded shop that sells really awesome, old nautical instruments, single tiles, doorknobs, and a whole assortment of random items; I bought my Dad an old Boy Scouts Compass from this shop.  You’ll have to go on a hunt for this place because I literally never remember where it is, don’t recall if it has a name, but am always so pleased when I alight upon it.  Other awesome things to buy are Jelabiyas (traditional women’s dress-very colourful and comfortable), carpets, dallahs (traditional coffee/tea/pot), and spices.  If you’re in town for a week or so, you can buy some fabric here and take it to one of the many tailors in this city for a custom made garment.  My personal favourites are Joury Tailors, Orchid Tailors, and Ramzan Tailors. Time constraints will dictate that you go to Ramzan Tailors, because they are way faster than Joury and Orchid and actually a bit cheaper but still produce well made and perfectly fitted clothing.  Ask for Asad at Ramzan Tailors as he is the only guy who speaks English.    You can take your favourite dress and have them copy it in a different fabric, you can take a sketch of an original design or a picture of an item and they can make it as well!  Once all of your shopping is done take a drive out to Mussafah.

One of the best things about living in Abu Dhabi is that the large population of people from India, means a large and quite impressive selection of Indian food from various regions.  I haven’t been to India but I’ve been told that the UAE has the best Indian food outside of India…so I’ll take their word for it.  The most authentic experience you will have is in Mussafah, most people will tell you it’s a crap area and not to bother but living and working there has made me see it in a whole new light.  I used to live on Reem Island which is a really nice place but there’s nothing there; now I walk outside my apartment and find a dosa place, Korean restaurant and Korean market, little fruits and vegetable shops, and countless other little shops that are way cheaper than anything you’ll find on Reem or other expat hubs.  So go to Mussafah for Indian.  For southern indian food, which I find to be more fragrant, try Banana Leaf Restaurant. Prawns in curry leaves…yes please!

The last stop on this whirlwind trip is a shisha bar…because why did you come to the Middle East if not to smoke some bomb ass shisha.  For a high end option that serves adult beverages, the Rosewood Hotel has a lovely terrasse and some very high quality tobacco.  For a mid range selection, bean bag chairs, and chilled out vibe;  The Hiltonia Beach Club gives you that summer lovin’ energy where you can bliss out on your last night in Abu Dhabi.

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View from the Aloft rooftop bar

There are of course numerous other wonderful places to spend your time and as of November 7th, 2017, you’ll need to add a trip to The Louvre Abu Dhabi but since I can’t personally recommend it yet, I’ve left it out.  Whatever you choose to do, don’t forget to catch the sunset.

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Liwa Desert, Abu Dhabi

 

 

 

 

 

 

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National Art Gallery, Harare, Zimbabwe. (Photo:Andrea DuFour)

Someone: “What are your Travel Plans for Winter Break ?” (2016/17)

Me:“I’m going to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania.”

Someone: “Oh wow!  So do you take flights between all the countries?”

Me: “We have a flight from Harare to Victoria Falls and then Mbeya TZ, to Dar Es Salaam, TZ.  The other times we will take a bus.”

Someone: “You guys need to be careful, (doom doom doom) I’ve heard that people get scammed/robbed/raped/murdered/decapitated/ maimed/ and otherwise have a shit time in Africa.”

Me: “Not going to AFRICA, I am going to 4 fairly safe countries on the continent of AFRICA…you ignorant tool.  Is what I say in my head, diplomatic me says something like:

“Zimbabwe is experiencing a cash shortage but I think the only concern there is that we bring enough cash for the 4 days that we are in Zim.  We are simply transiting through Zambia because the bus schedule situation is unfortunate.  Otherwise I have been to Tanzania and its a lovely country full of marvelously friendly people and never once did I feel unsafe.  As for Malawi, I have heard its about the same as TZ; so I’m not worried at all.”

Someone: “Well, still be careful”

Me: “Sure”

Read a country’s travel advisory, exercise caution in areas of concern, but chill out.  For example, before going to Zimbabwe I read a news article that said they were experiencing an upsurge in Typhoid and Cholera so I did some research and found out that travellers rarely contract these diseases because we are already exercising a high degree of caution with regards to the water and food we consume and that the people who are contracting the disease are usually living in areas with poor sanitation facilities.  No problem then…carry on as normal.

This is not hard evidence based on statistics but I would say that 95% of the world’s 7 billion people are mostly good people who do not wish anyone harm; who may be just as xenophobic as you, who may be a little or a lot racist, who may judge you, who may downright hate you…but they won’t do anything to you.  Because most people are good people who just want to go about their lives.  It’s true, as a foreigner in most countries, expect to be overcharged for everything..maybe do your research or ask your hostel/hotel receptionist how much something normally costs..after all while the scam price may still seem fair..you definitely don’t need to be contributing to inflation and should have a reasonable sense about the cost of goods and services.  9 times out of 10..that reputable tourist agency online or the resort “outings” are going to charge you double the price of hiring a perfectly reliable and wonderful person on the spot; and then usually you are paying the person directly instead of through a third party agency, thus contributing to the local economy and well being of your hard working tour guide’s family.  Overcharging is about the worst thing that’s going to happen to you.  And just because you know someone who got mugged in some country doesn’t give you irrefutable evidence to claim that the entire country is bad and unsafe and full of terrible criminals because I could counter that one story with several from Montreal (one of the safest cities in one of the safest countries)…These fears are based in xenophobic ideals..fear of strangers, fear of the unknown;  I may be shit scared of birds but people and places, rarely; basically not once have I been shit scared of a person or place (just uncomfortable).  

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Roadside Vendor, Harare, Zimbabwe (Photo: Andrea DuFour)

Harare, Zimbabwe

I never really saw myself visiting this city, it didn’t hold much interest to me other than being the home of the notorious Robert Mugabe.  I of course could not be more interested to see Victoria Falls though and thus the idea of somehow travelling through Southern Africa with a stop at the Falls was born.  Originally I had thought about going to Madagascar but after much research I realized the weather was questionable in December, making some areas impassable and tickets prices were exorbitant.  Then I thought about flying into Johannesburg and heading up through Mozambique which I’d heard has some of the world’s most impressive beaches, making my way north into Malawi, but then I read that northern Mozambique is currently quite unstable verging on civil war and that many people were seeking refuge in southern Malawi so I thought maybe that wasn’t the best idea.  So then I decided to fly into Johannesburg and head north through Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to Vic Falls, through Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania.  But it turned out that flights were approximately the same to Jo’burg as to Harare and that we would shave a day or more of travel off if we flew to Harare.  Other considerations were the cheap flight from Harare to Vic Falls instead of buses and overnight trains from Jo’burg and that South Africa seems like a whole trip on its own..save it for another time.  So Jackie, Andrea, and I decided to fly into Harare and make our way from there.  Very little research was done about what to do in Harare but there was of course the usual craft market and we figured we’d just ask the hostel owners.  As much as I’d like to give Andrea and Jackie credit for some trip planning, they basically just helped research flight tickets.  I effectively ignored my duties at work for a little while and concentrated on researching each possible stop, the best route for time and economics, credible hostels and things to do throughout.   It was wise of me to book all of our accommodations ahead of time as we found out that December is high season and with only a 1 or 2 cheap hostels in each place we could have ended up in some pretty awful or pretty expensive places.  

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In the end for Harare, I chose “It’s a Small World Backpackers” Hostel.  We decided to mix up our adventures between dorm and private triple rooms.  Most of the time we actually had a 4 person dorm to ourselves.  At Small World we were in a 12 person dorm which is mostly fine except when people don’t know dorm room etiquette.  First of all, if people are sleeping at night don’t turn on the overhead lights unless it’s crucial..we all have smart phones..use that light.  Certainly NEVER turn on the overhead lights to read a magazine while 8 other people are laying in bed ready to sleep, proceed to have a conversation with someone and go through all your ziploc bags looking for your toothbrush.  Normally when I get to the hostel I pull out tomorrow’s clothes, my book, chargers, and toiletries during the day, that way if I have a late night I do not need to disturb everyone searching through my pack.  If I forget to do this…I suck it up and wait to brush my teeth till morning (one night won’t ruin your life).  

Anyway such was our experience in Harare backpackers but apart from this, the hostel was clean, quiet, and well maintained with lots of cold Castle Lagers!

Fun fact about Zimbabwe:

Zimbabwe’s President – Robert Gabriel Mugabe – is one of the current oldest and also the longest serving leaders of a non-royal country in the world. He has served as the leader of this country for the past 36 years and is still in service to the nation. He served as the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe from 1980 to 1987, and then assumed office as the President of Zimbabwe on 22 December 1987. He was born on 21 February 1924. (thefactfile.org)

Prime Minister turned President Mugabe came into power in 1980 after gaining independence from the UK. Mugabe grew up in UK occupied S. Rhodesia but eventually left for Ghana.  When he returned in the 1960’s (36 ish years old), he discovered that colonial rule was in full effect, black voter suppression and black voter majority rule rescinded, black leaders arrested, black families displaced from their land, and an explosion of white land owners. Mugabe joined in the protests and discussed the Marxist ideals of Ghana’s independence.  They made him the public Secretary of The National Democratic Party which was outlawed.  Eventually, under Joshua Nkomo, they formed the Zimbabwe African People’s Union but Mugabe and his supporters were not happy with the speed of change, so they formed the Zimbabwe African National Union.  Mugabe having been vocal about guerilla warfare, was jailed for 10 or so years.  Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of S. Rhodesia during the 70’s let Mugabe out of jail to go to a conference in Lusaka, Zambia.  Mugabe escaped somehow and snuck back into S.Rhodesia, gathered troops and waged war on Smith’s British majority rule government through most of the 70’s.  Eventually the colonial’s back was against the wall (neighboring Mozambique had won Black majority rule and other colonial powers had or were falling throughout the continent) Smith seceded and an election in 1980 between Joshua Nkomo (ZAPU) and Robert Mugabe (ZANU) ensued.  Mugabe won but tensions were high and fighting between the two factions continued through the 80’s.  Ultimately, they reached a peace agreement, merged their Unions and Mugabe won the Presidency and made Nkomo a senior minister in his government.  At this point they made economic growth a priority, trying to boost agriculture, mining and manufacturing.  They built public clinics, and schools and things appeared to be on the up and up for Zimbabwe.  During the mid-nineties people began to question his politics- seizing white owned land without compensation, increasingly high inflation, government official pay raises, a one party constitution and eventually accusations of ballot stuffing and voter suppression.  The economy that appeared to be on the rise was now crumbling, Inflation caused by corruption, national deficit, bill printing, and poor economic policies that lead to the printing of billion dollar bills and an eventual collapse in their currency altogether, they abandoned it and moved to mostly US dollars..  In 2000 Mugabe lost the election to Morgan Tsvangira but Mugabe claimed that the election was rigged, demanded a recount and Tsvangira’s supporters were attacked and killed. Tsvangira concluded that the runoff election would skew in Mugabe’s favour due to his use of violence and he forfeited the Presidency.  Violence broke out and Mugabe and Tsvangira decided to share power but Mugabe seized control over the country again and now holds full power.  The next election in Zim is supposed to be in 2018, Mugabe will be 94 years…well past due for retirement.  

Once a wealthy nation in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe currently has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, hovering around 90% according to various sources however according to some, this rate includes underemployment or self subsistence employment and is not a true indicator of actual unemployment..so it’s hard to say. According to tradingeconomics.com the unemployment rate is actually somewhere around 11.35%.  However despite the economic hardships, Zimbabwe has an extremely high literacy rate (90%), the highest on the continent as of 2015 and a well educated population overall.  

I have a few friends from Zimbabwe, one of whom happened to be visiting home at the same time I was there.  They were young when their parents sent them away as refugees, first to the USA and then to Canada, where they are now citizens.  He told me that he felt things had changed alot since the last time he was there and continues to change for the worse, his mother has been working in England for years and his brothers have been spread out all over Canada and the USA working as well; they have started families and new lives but their father still lives in Bulawayo.  I can feel the heart stretching between the feeling of home and the feeling of  “where I’m supposed to be”.  I catch this feeling from time to time when I think about the various “homes” I’ve known but the hardship is that I can return but there is nothing to return to in Zim these days.  Even when Mugabe dies, will there be a fair election,who steps up to the plate then, will there be more violence and if things settle into a fair and just society, how long will it take for the economic situation to stabilize.  

So that’s the rundown of what I know about recent Zimbabwean history.  Let’s talk about what I know about Zimbabwe that doesn’t involve depressing economic stuff and political corruption.  Lot’s of animals, LIONS, beautiful landscape, Victoria Falls OMG!!!!, Sadza, Ndebele dance. What I learned while visiting:  Acacia trees are amazing, the art gallery is awesome, there are high security buildings near the botanical gardens guarded by machine gun toting soldiers, Harare and Victoria Falls are well kept, clean places but according to my friend, the rest of the country is not.  Sadze is filling but would not be my favourite dish, and there are a lot of mosquitoes there (do bring DEET).  

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Acacia Tree at The Harare Botanical Garden

Harare airport was a mass of lineups at customs with no clear picture of which one we were meant to be in.  We eventually made it through; my american companions paying a mere 30$ to my 75$ for an entry visa.  We didn’t have any trouble in Zimbabwe but when we checked in for our flight at the Dubai airport they gave us quite a hard time about not having a flight out of Zimbabwe.  We showed them all of our hostel reservations and flights through other countries and finally our return flight out of Tanzania but the poor guy at the desk didn’t quite understand that we would be travelling over road out of Zimbabwe..quite literally walking across the Zim/Zambia border.  He called the manager over, and he relented giving us an ominous warning that we may have a hard time upon arrival.  In Harare, I don’t even think they asked us how long we were planning on staying.

We arrived knowing that the country was experiencing a cash shortage, we arrived with enough USD for 4 days or more, struggling in exchange centers trying to get smaller than 100$ denominations of bills.  As is my custom when I have to travel with loads of cash, I tuck them away into various pockets bra, and purse compartments.  So stuffed with cash like a taxidermy oil tycoon, I walked out into a country that just quite literally didn’t have enough physical currency to go around.  

On the way from the airport to our hostel we passed banks with massive lineups of people waiting outside, our cab driver told us that people were sleeping outside the banks hoping to be among the few who could get money out in the morning.  Our driver tells us that unfortunately as a country that doesn’t export much, all the money leaves but doesn’t come back in.  According to worldbank.org, Zimbabwe’s exports in 2015 total 2,704,095 US$ per year while their imports are more than double at 6,002,231.85 and their country growth which is based on the Gross Domestic Product and adjusted for inflation, has been declining and as of 2015 was at -10.63 (http://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/ZWE).

Investopedia explains economic growth rates in the following terms:

While economic growth is most often assumed to refer to positive movement, economic changes can be positive or negative. If an economy experiences two consecutive quarters with falling growth rates, it can be said that the associated economy is falling into a recession. If the economy begins to shrink, the percentage rate can be expressed as a negative to demonstrate the income lost over the time period being examined.

(http://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/realeconomicrate.asp.)

Our taxi driver also briefly mentions that the Chinese take away a lot but bring little in.  

ZIMBABWE has become a haven for dodgy and corrupt companies amid revelations that China Jiangsu International Economic and Technical Co-operation (CJI), a firm contracted by government to undertake the refurbishment and expansion of the Harare International and Victoria Falls airports, was blacklisted by the World Bank and African Development Bank for fraud and corruption. (https://www.theindependent.co.zw/2016/06/24/chinese-companies-zim-blacklisted-internationally/)

The article mentions other companies operating in Zim and the corruption that appears to be quite prevalent.  

So with all this mismanagement, corruption, inflation, and general economic decline, people are deprived of their cash and are forced to sleep outside banks in order to take out THEIR money so they can sustain a basic level of life.

And this deprivation is evident as we walk through the streets of Harare and children follow us, asking for money. During the cab ride from the airport as our taxi driver tells us about the situation in Zimbabwe, he shows us the famed billion dollar bills that were printed to try and keep up with extreme inflation and a young boy approaches the car at a stop light, asking for money.  Our driver immediately rolls up the windows and says “this one is a troublemaker, he just wants money to sniff glue.”  And as I looked around at the people hanging around, I was reminded of images from The Great Depression; listless men, women and children hanging around downtown in the middle of the day, lineups outside banks.  I don’t know how to take it all in.

Despite all of these uncomfortable truths, Harare is actually a very nice lush, green, clean city.  The economic vitality that once was, is still evident in the planification and architecture of the city.  We arrive at our hostel in Avondale; it is charming, tranquil, clean, and perfect for a nap after a long overnight flight.  

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Artwork at The National Art Gallery

The next morning we catch a cab to the National Art Gallery.  The exhibition is about Nkhala Ilifa- a tradition of inheritance- and its effect on on present generations.  It is a group exhibition and each artist’s perspective is so different, rich, powerful, and engaging.  The artwork is striking and unpretentious and it reminds me of what it was like to see art that actually has a purpose rather than the sterile, censored, superficial stuff you see constantly in Abu Dhabi.  

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Artwork at The National Art Gallery

The National Art Gallery wanted to tell a story that connects to their people, their generation and to open a dialogue about an issue that is of concern to them and its helps us (tourists) gain insight and a sense of understanding to the culture and society of Zimbabwe that we are simply passing through.  I don’t often visit galleries and museums, I didn’t visit The Louvre when I went to Paris (gasp!), because I feel like it’s often a superficial representation of culture but there is nothing superficial about the exhibition on display at The National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe.

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Artwork at The National Art Gallery

Afterwards we went to the Botanical Gardens where we walked around for a few hours observing a wedding reception, and some happy monkeys playing in the trees.  Everywhere we looked there were these large, gorgeous acacia trees, the sky was so blue and everywhere we looked, so green and fresh!  We saw some interesting plant life and then decided it was time for food and drinks…it’d been a long day.  On our way back to the main road we passed some very official looking places guarded by soldiers holding machine guns, they politely informed us that we were on the wrong side of the road; you don’t question a man with a machine gun as much as I wanted to ask “what’s behind the gate?” I just said “thank you” and crossed the road.

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Monkeys at the Botanical Garden in Harare

After a long day exploring in the sun, we sat down at our hostel for a nice cold Castle Lager and journaling time.  When you stay at a hostel you usually always end up meeting some very unique characters from all over the world although if I am honest you mostly meet people from countries of privilege (Australia, Canada, Denmark, USA, Norway, etc..).  Interesting people nonetheless but I do prefer hanging out with local people and one good way to do that is through Couchsurfing or occasionally if you go on a guided tour your guide might be a fun loving, young person like our Safari guide, Mohammad in Kenya.  Unfortunately we did not meet any Zimbabweans in Harare but we did meet a young Aussie chap named Ollie who had been to Zim a number of times.  He convinced us to put our “party pants” on; the leggings I’d been wearing for 2 straight days; although Jackie with her enormous pack pulled out a fresh pair of pants (show-off).  

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Cold Castle Lagers at Small World Backpackers

Me: Jackie, you’ve got Maysa in there don’t you..you’re going to surprise me in Malawi for Christmas aren’t you??!?!?!?!?!

Andrea: cackles gleefully

Jackie: Shut up

So Ollie took us to a bar called the Tin Roof which appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, and by my count might possibly the whitest place in Zim.  Ollie told us that the whites in Zim are very segregated from the blacks and since they can’t really leave the country this bar is like a escape for them.  I must look more into this:

Upon researching the relationship between black and white Zimbabweans, I learned that Robert Mugabe seized white owned land and as such, many white people were displaced from their livelilhoods and homes and thus you can sympathize that these young adults had no choice in what happened previously and are living the consequences of colonialism and President Mugabe’s regime as well. 

Anyway we still had a blast, dancing up a storm; drinking too many Windhoek’s and Springbok shots  (layered shot of Amarula and Crème de Menthe).  

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Springbok Shots (Amarula and Crème de Menthe)

The next morning, Innocence, our recurring taxi driver brought us to the airport; and off we went to Victoria Falls!

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Delicate flowers at Harare Botanical Garden

Gotta get away!!!

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Grand Mosque in Fujairah City.  Photo by Andrea Dufour

UAE: Fujairah

A rare 3-day weekend granted from ADEC  (Abu Dhabi Education Council), a mere 2 weeks after Spring Break, but I still felt a super charged need to get away again.  Having just returned from a 2-week adventure, funds were low so I opted for a staycation or what passes as a staycation in the UAE (I left the city but not the country).  Usually being car-less I end up going to Dubai and spending butt loads of money doing stuff I could have done in Abu Dhabi minus the hotel.  This year however, my friends got cars and thus road trips were inevitably planned.  Some friends have this UAE bucket list which includes going to all of the emirates and special locations around the country.  For me, there were a few places I wanted to experience; Tilal Liwa, Ras Al Khaimah, and Fujairah.  Having been to the first 2 on the list, it was finally time to drive out to Fujairah, a land of snorkeling and mountains.  Everyone says the area is gorgeous, not to be missed spot in UAE.  Off we went, Jackie, Maysa, Andrea, and I; Friday morning armed with snacks, some tunes, Google Maps, and water.

Fujairah is a northern emirate located next to Oman, a 2/12 hour drive, 10 hours of which is mostly desert and not the “oooh look at those magnificent dunes’ desert but more like ‘has the apocalypse begun?’ desert.  When driving this route around the back side of Dubai, you have to get through the roundabout of death, but thankfully Maysa was driving this time and not Jackie, who nearly turned us into road kill on our way to Al Qudra Lakes desert camping.  That’s another story though.

Eventually you come upon the red rocky mountains, characteristic of Oman and the Hajar mountains that run through Oman and creep into the UAE around Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah.  Nothing seems to grow on these rock piles, they are difficult to climb as rocks roll under foot and cut up your hands as you try to scramble up hill. The desert sand turns red here, it’s the ‘oooh look at those magnificent dunes’ desert, the sand creeps up the side of the mountain as if trying to overtake the rock formations.  Here the sand seems to invade everything; sand drifts across the road, fences that once stood above the dunes have been swallowed up by the shifting landscape.  The divide between jagged rock and soft sand is surreal with the brilliant blue sky bereft of cloud in the background.  There is so much artificial beauty in the cities, it’s easy to forget that parts of the UAE are naturally stunning.

We see signs for Fujairah and a place called Kalba, which means dog in Arabic…which was confusing but entertaining.  “Let’s go to Dog!”  we yell…clearly we still have a few years left to mature.

Goats, goats, goats, more goats!  Usually all you see of animal life are some stray cats and dogs, a desert fox and an occasional gazelle in the Dhabs but once you leave the city you see goats…so many cute little goats and of course camels…camels are so weird but you expect to see them.  The goats though…are they wild, do they belong to anyone?  Are they a food source, can you buy street goat kebabs out here like in Tanzania, is goat’s milk a thing?  These are questions I feel I should know after living here for 3 years but I don’t because no one talks about the goats.

Around 1pm we arrive at our hotel on the main street, only to discover that we happened upon Fujairah’s annual bodybuilding competition and the hotel is teeming with be-muscled men.  DELIGHTFUL!!!

Upon checking into our rooms at the Novotel we set about making a plan.  If you google things to do in Fujairah, you will find out that on Friday afternoon, the city beach hosts a bull fight and an informal parade of people’s exotic pets (monkeys, lions, etc).  Jackie and Maysa thought it was a must see but Andrea and I, not wanting to support the mistreatment of animals opted for the pool.  We ordered Corona’s, found a quiet, shady spot (the sun was strong on the roof) and laid back ogling the bodybuilders.

Body builders are a particular breed of narcissist, people who spend SO much time on their body to the point of self-inflicted near deformity; overly built, overly groomed, sporting fake tans. Strutting around the pool posing for each other either practicing or posturing, in their tiny bathing suits, which leaves little to the imagination but little for the imagination to play with.

Room service food at Novotel is surprisingly delicious, we order beers to the room and our night is underway.  When googling things to do in Fujairah, McGettigan’s Pub, a popular bar in Abu Dhabi, comes up, so obviously this is where we plan to start our night.  We were curious to see how it would stack up against the shit show that is AD’s McGettigan’s.  We down 3 Bullfrogs (not recommended) for the following reason:

https://www.cocktail.uk.com/cocktails/official-bullfrog

McGettigan’s in Fujairah, at least on this particular night, was pretty boring, but we met some other Abu Dhabi staycationers and when the bar decided to close down early we had to think fast to salvage our night.  I had seen a sign at the hotel across from ours, advertising a place called Manila Beats…clearly this had to be destination number 2.  And this is when shit gets weird.

We walk into the hotel and hear some music coming from a room so Andrea and I, alittle too happy from the aforementioned bullfrogs, go to investigate.  We run through a door which leads through a small kitchen, the staff step aside and we pop out into a room full of Emirati men in Kindoras smoking shisha, watching bejeweled women dancing on stage.   Not realizing we were in the wrong place at first, we start dancing in the middle of the room until it slowly dawns on us that we are not supposed to be there.  Turns out we crashed the man’s side of a wedding reception.

Andrea:  What do we do?

Me: (suave as fuck) “Dance out!” As I start a terrible moonwalk back the way we’d come.  “Dance out, dance out, dance out!”

And out we pop, giggling, into the lobby from a slightly hidden side door, to a bewildered looking Maysa, Jackie and our new friends.  Manila Beats is a Filipino inspired club, if there’s anything I know about the Philippines, from my time there and in Abu Dhabi, is that they LOVE Karaoke and they are damn good at it.  On stage were women clad in various sparkly, culturally appropriated inappropriate costumes, dancing and singing while a male host sporting a blonde faux-hawk and sparkly heels was making lewd motions using his microphone as a prop.  It was a little out of this world and Maysa and Jackie who hadn’t been drinking determined that the air must have been infused with drugs because even to them the whole scene was strange and confused.

The performers did an around the world melody mashup using the most culturally stereotypical pop songs-’Mr Roboto’ for Japan, ‘This is Africa’ for ALL of Africa, but the kicker was ‘Wiggle Wiggle, cause you know what to do with that big fat butt!’ for the USA.

Eventually they pulled me up on stage, possibly because I was enthusiastically and spastically dancing nearby, and let me tell you I broke it down….I’m pretty sure.  Dancing ensued, the host and some big old Arab man dry humped each other on stage, things were strange but altogether delightful.  At some point I got tired of men trying to dance with me or follow me around the bar and decided to pull a classic ‘Chelsie Irish Goodbye’ meaning I booked it without saying goodbye.  The others made their way back eventually with incident (that’s not my story to tell) but those assholes woke me up.  Since I was just wearing my “sleep sarong” I am afraid poor Maysa got an eyeful, but she knows the hazards of traveling with me (stay tuned for Ras Al Khaimah incident).  Maysa and Jackie hid in the corner of our room trying to prevent Andrea from going on a hangry burger rampage through the hotel.  I didn’t know they were there but I did know there were ‘eyes’ in the room so I rolled out of bed in an attempt to hide from them, I missed the landing and hit my elbow pretty hard.

Andrea: What are you doing?

Me: I feel like there are eyes on me and it’s making me uncomfortable.  Said I from a crouched position behind my bed.

Andrea: (Whispering loudly) When they leave I’m going to escape and get us burgers!!!! (Maysa and Jackie hearing every word)

Me: I’m good with these chips.  Apparently I had procured a bag of chips and was munching on them in my hiding place.

Jackie and Maysa gave up and left, leaving us to our fate.

Andrea: knock knock knock

Maysa: Hey

Andrea: Is Chelsie here?

Maysa: No she’s in your room!

Andrea: Hahahahahahahaha! (runs off to get burgers)

Those burgers were delicious at 5 am.

The following morning, I discovered that I had spent some time messaging with my friend who’d escaped to Budapest for a week.  Our last message was at 5:06 am.  It went through a series of nonsensical messages about him watching me, dildos and 3somes, there was no logical beginning, middle or end to this conversation but I did determine that he was not drunk so I don’t know what his excuse for this was…maybe I lead him down the rabbit hole.

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Al Aqah Beach near Khor Fakkan

We awoke slowly and painfully, and made our way to a strange little mall for breakfast at Shakespeare and Co., a popular breakfast spot in the UAE with service that is just okay.  Andrea and I were gung-ho on getting inflatable things for the beach but the problem being, we didn’t have a pump, needless to say these donuts did not get blown up.

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We drove to Khor Fakkan, a popular snorkeling spot, it was hot as balls with no shade but we just wanted to swim.     JELLYFISH!!!!! Red ones, everywhere-F^&K!!!

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Hot as hell on the beach we could only wade in up to our knees to avoid getting stung; still we napped on the beach blissfully and watched the sun descend behind two small mountain peaks that looked like boobs, the day was not a bust!

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We were recommended by the internet and Novotel staff to eat at Al Meshwar Restaurant.  It was walkable from our hotel but 3 women walking down the road in Fujairah invites unwanted attention so if I were to do it again, I would not walk.  The restaurant was not good…the seafood platter was pretty foul- like ghoulish and crusty looking; the arabic grill platter was decent but not amazing. We ate what we could and left feeling kind of gross and unsatisfied.  During our time at this restaurant we watched a small boy run around with a knife sawing maniacally at a stone post and chasing his little sister, who kept plopping down on the floor, screaming and waited for her mother to come get her.  This group was right next to us, so we asked to move, we were not obliged.  The next family that came in, ate a feast while their Nanny sat at a table by herself with 3 children crawling all over her and nothing to eat.

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Wadi Siji…allegedly

The next morning, the plan was to head to a wadi and do some trekking, but as we made our way across the parking lot, the 40 plus degree heat had us changing plans pretty quickly.  We decided to drive out to one of the wadi’s on the way home and walk around a bit, just to sightsee and then head back to Abu Dhabi. Classic google maps fail, took us to 2 or 3 wrong spots while looking for Wadi Siji.

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In the middle of nowhere

Off roading in a Ford Figo, poor Maysa’s heart pounding as we went over gravel roads through mountains with no signs of life around.  We found a dried up dam and walked up a little rocky hill (took me 45 sec)..Andrea snapped a picture of me pretending to summit and then we drove off back to Abu Dhabi.

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Photo by Andrea DuFour

We happened upon a highway that none of us had been on before, I had to pee; no rest stops, no cover for an hour and a half.  We got to Yas Mall just in time for me to actually run straight to a toilet.  While our Fujairah weekend was slightly anti-climactic and less successful than Ras Al Khaimah, these little mishaps and random happenings made for a fun weekend with good friends.

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Al Archa National Park (Photo: Jackie Ross @jdigdog02)

Bishkek is not usually considered a destination in and of itself but the city plays an important role as a stop for people who are trekking the Tien-Shen mountains or adventure travellers road tripping the Silk Road. I would argue however, that if you live in the area (Central Asia-Middle East) and you have a 3-day weekend with nothing to do and you happen to get a pretty good deal on a flight and have a few weirdo friends willing to go with you-then book a weekend trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; you will be delightfully surprised at what you find.

Morning:

Book a tour through your hostel/hotel to Al Archa National Park. Ask your driver to stop along the way for snacks and water, as the only place on the mountain is a fairly unfriendly lodge that may or may not have something to serve you, although beer can be had there. Do understand that you will be peeing in nature, come prepared with songs of encouragement/distraction for each other.

The hike to the waterfall takes about 3 hours. Keep your eyes open for the sign that marks the trail to the waterfall or you will end up at an abandoned house which is really quite creepy in the fog. Lookout for the curiously friendly, little white tailed squirrels but do understand that they like nuts and will follow you around when you’re trying to eat your trail mix. Definitely check the weather and dress for it, October was chilly and wet.

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(Photo: Jackie Ross @jdigdog02)

Afternoon:

Go back to Bishkek proper and grab a carb and starch heavy lunch (you just hiked so you deserve it) from one of the vendors at Osh Bazaar. Osh Bazaar is worth a look but you probably won’t want to spend much time there; its more of a local market that is crowded and difficult to navigate, it also did not yield any local arts and crafts.

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Osh Bazaar (Photo: Jackie Ross @jdigdog02)

After the bazaar you can carry on down the street and meander through whatever parks you come across all the way to Ala-Too Square. You can also take a bus or a fairly cheap taxi if you don’t want to walk but part of the joys of Bishkek is stopping in the many little parks to check out statues and look at the crumbling Soviet blocks. The whole city is like a living museum to the USSR so the walk will not disappoint. Ala-Too Square is a wonderful relic of the Soviet era; close your eyes and imagine the announcements coming over loud speakers and rallies in the square, after all it used to be called Lenin Square. In this area you will find some interesting architecture in the form of government buildings and intriguing statues.

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Alatoo Square

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Alatoo Square

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Bishkek walkabout (Photo: Jackie Ross @jdigdog02)

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Monument near the capital building (Photo: Jackie Ross @jdigdog02)

Early Evening:

After your city walkabout, grab a cab over to Zum Department store to pick up some surprisingly gorgeous Kyrgyzstani souvenirs. You’ll have to go all the way to the top floor to find the arts and crafts. Among the items found here are colourful rugs and embroidered wall hangings, traditional shoes and hats, and my particular favorite, a silk and wool scarf that is quite possibly the finest thing I own. If you don’t feel like shopping, then you can always go to Green City Spa to relax and get yourself scrubbed down before dinner.

You’re probably getting hungry again, I would suggest Navat restaurant for a simply delicious dinner option serving traditional Kyrgyz food.

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Navat Restaurant (Photo: Jackie Ross @jdigdog02)

Night:

Back to the hostel/hotel to drop off your belongings and freshen up. Now its time to check out the Kyrgyzstani nightlife. Women be warned dress UP…we did not jeans, hoodies, and boots); but probably should have, men just need to look decent, because they reserve the right to “age and face control” you! Steinbrau Brewery, to be honest, was pretty boring but if you want to start slow this would likely be the place to go, they have a great selection of beer. A slightly more upscale lounge/karaoke alternative is Center Bar, but you may be faced controlled and your Muslim friend wearing a hijab will most likely be discriminated against and told to leave. No worries though because Metro Pub is across the street and they did not discriminate.  Metro Pub was packed on a Friday night, lots of dancing, pretty decent throwback (1990-2000’s) music, and you might find a guy wearing a Putin t-shirt to take selfies with.

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Probably Metro Pub (Photo: Jackie Ross @jdigdog02)

Kyrgyzstan is definitely not a country commonly travelled by many, I went in with zero expectations and left completely charmed by the green city and total lack of pretense.

 

Just for fun, here is my friend being a creep.

 

 

 

 

The Demilitarized Zone, the 38th Parallel dividing the Korean Peninsula

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Warning of Landmines beyond the barbed wire

Every once in awhile North Korea and the USA have some sort of political disagreement, where N.K threatens to bomb something or other or generally antagonize the US, South Korea, and Japan.  The current rhetoric occurring back and forth between one American President Donal Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, continuously reminds me of what it was like to live on the Korean Peninsula, particularly reflecting on the time I took a tour of the DMZ.

While I was living in South Korea people would send me messages asking me about something scary in the News and I would be completely unaware of it until a quick google search revealed a slew of articles written in North America informing me of something happening about an hour North.  Not knowing any better at first, I would ask a Korean colleague what was happening, but they would usually laugh dismissively and shrug their shoulders in a non-chalant way.  I was a bit incredulous at first, wondering how they could be so passive about these aggressive threats of devastating violence.  I registered with the Canadian Embassy so that I would be in the know about what to do should things turn ugly; they would send me periodic updates about military training drills near the DMZ that could potentially provoke retaliation.

Two months after I moved to South Korea, in November of 2010, North Korea bombed YeonPyeong Island.  I had just finished class and walked into the staff room to find everyone around a computer screen depicting flames and chaos.  Shocked as I was, we were told to get back to work…after all the island was at least an hour and a half North of us and we were in no immediate danger.  The foreign teachers went for dinner that evening and discussed the day’s events, one of the veteran teachers explained to us that North Korea just does this crazy stuff sometimes, it won’t go any farther. He said if the South Koreans aren’t bothered then there’s no reason to worry.  As soon as the news reached Canada, everyone and their sister was messaging me telling me to get the hell out but I told them all was well and I wasn’t in any danger. For the next month or so, The Canadian Embassy sent emails telling us to be diligent, to keep my passport at hand and a bag of essentials ready,  my US Army boyfriend wasn’t allowed to leave his base for a few weeks.  Eventually the emails stopped, my boyfriend was granted some freedom and things went back to normal.  While my life felt somewhat disrupted by the bombing, in that I was for the first time ever, forced to consider what would happen should things turn violent where I lived; it was business as usual in South Korea.  People didn’t seem to give it much thought, dismissing inquiries about the North in a way that spoke volumes about what its like to live South of the most reclusive, unpredictable nation in the world.  Mainly that it is what it is, there’s nothing to be done about it, so why give it a second thought. And so that is the mentality I eventually adopted.

Nobody pays attention to North Korea unless they are threatening others, and most people have little to no grasp on why there are two Koreas, what the Korean war was about and the series of events that led to this division.  To summarize very simplistically: in 1910 the Japanese controlled the entire peninsula, tried to assimilate Koreans (there was no political division at this time), they enslaved men to work in factories and women to work as prostitutes and committed horrific crimes against the Korean people.  Japan lost control of the peninsula after WWII and the Soviet Union and the USA suddenly had control; Russia in the North and the US in the South.  They divided the peninsula in 2 along the 38th Parallel (now the DMZ); of course as we know, the US and the Soviets had vastly different political ideologies and thus Korea became a hostage of the Cold War.  In 1950, the North marched South to Busan and as a reaction to the aggression, and fear of communism spreading around the world, the Americans and the South resisted and pushed the North back to the Chinese border.  China not wanting the USA at their door, got involved and helped drive the South and their allies back to the 38th Parallel.  In 1953 an armistice deal was signed and hence the Korean peninsula is experiencing peace time but is technically still at war.  The Korean War intensely devastating to both sides.  The South was in ruins, both in infrastructure and economically but since then South Korea pushed forward stoically and have built up an extremely modern country with exceptional pride in their traditions and culture.  While the North, funded by the Soviets until the collapse of the Soviet Union was pushed towards communism; unfortunately the particular strain of communism in the North resulted in a dictatorship with supreme power resting solely with the Kim family.  After the Soviet Union collapsed funding stopped and the regime was left to fend for itself, which has not been very successful.  Overworked farm land resulting in widespread famine have been the main sources of discontent for North Koreans, but also the fear of labour camps and other terror tactics inflicted by their own government. Some say that Kim Jong Un’s regime will likely face a rebellion as more and more people grow disillusioned by the Kim family’s supreme power and information has become somewhat more accessible. 

A friend from Canada came to visit me at the end of my first year; included in the tourism itinerary we planned, was a trip to the DMZ.  We went with an organized tour group Adventure Korea; the tour took us through the DMZ and our tour guide gave us a very dispassionate account of the history of the DMZ, the whole time you’re made to feel as if this is just another tour to a museum, city, or some natural wonder.  You have to keep reminding yourself that you are heading to ‘the scariest border on earth’, that these two countries have an armistice agreement, not a peace treaty; the war is not officially over.

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Buddhist prayer ribbons.  Praying for peace, unification, and hope.

The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is an area about 4 kilometres wide that stands between the 2 Koreas.  There is a peace village on each side of the border each with their own antagonizing flag pole; we stopped in Daesong-dong for lunch.  English teachers mixed with a few tourists, largely made up the tour group and you could usually tell the difference by who dove into their food voraciously or who had to question each mouthful.  I’m not sure if I had come to S.Korea as a tourist, if I would have understood more or less, the significance of the DMZ.  As an expat, its easy to forget that you live in a contentious part of the world, South Korea is so peaceful, no one ever talks about North Korea; in other parts of the world they seem much more concerned about it all.

We stood at a lookout point with coin operated binoculars, giving you a view of Kaesong City; there was virtually no movement within the town, you couldn’t see a car or person, chicken, goat, bird. Kaesong City from our perspective looked like a ghost town.  I recall Tony Wheeler’s description on North Korea in his book Bad Lands; “At one stage, a road parallels the railway and for an hour I only see one vehicle moving, a Mercedes Benz. Throughout my visit I will never see a bus carrying North Koreans outside of the cities.” …. “You don’t go anywhere in the people’s paradise without having a permit.”  “Empty highways tell tales of a country shut down.”

Suddenly we start seeing a line of cars driving south towards the border, at least as long as 2 freight trains, it was startling to see so many vehicles appear as if out of thin air when for 30 minutes prior, nothing stirred.  We were told that this was a South Korean aid convoy returning home and only recently had the 2 Koreas reached an agreement that would allow these vehicles to pass through.  I once met an EAL teacher in SK who said that she had attended an event where South Koreans would put socks and other small, light items inside of helium balloons to send across to North Korea.  I found this to be both kind, gentle and hopeful as it was defiant, and desperate.  I wondered logistically how people received these gifts and did they know when they would come, how were they collected and disseminated, and what happened if they were caught accepting these items. Once the convoy passed, Kaesong City was dead again.  We were told not to take pictures from the lookout point so of course, ever the rebel, I casually rested my camera on top of the wall extend the zoom and snapped a few grainy photos. You can’t tell much from them but for me it’s a reminder of the surrealism of that day.

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Grainy photo of Kaesong City, North Korea

Nowadays the DMZ on the South Korean side is a tourist destination, you can buy N.K currency as a souvenir, and t-shirts depicting a cartoon soldier from each side proclaiming the JSA (Joint Security Area), visit the history museum , the statues and souvenir shops, and the Bridge of No Return.  Meanwhile, you are in a closely monitored area that is surrounded by barbed wire and signs warning of landmines beyond the fences.  This Joint Security Area does not feel like a copacetic arrangement but more like a standoff with one side refusing to back down from its totalitarian ideals and the other just trying to get on with life.  You have to wonder what the soldiers posted on both sides are thinking, if they ever gaze across to North Korea and feel sadness for the people, possibly family members, stuck on the other side, and if the NK soldiers ever look across to the South and wish they could cross over or if they think the South is a frivolous, evil place as the propaganda declares.

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Bridge of No Return

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Momument for South Korea’s allies

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The tour takes you down one of the infiltration tunnels which were built by North Korea to spy on the South.  I had always thought they were escape tunnels.  You descend forever underground wearing a bright yellow hard hat. The journey stops at a concrete wall with a rectangular hole cut out; this is when they tell you that on the other side of the wall North Korean soldiers are watching you. First let me say that in the mind of these soldiers upholding the most repressive, austere regime in the world, we must have looked like a bunch of fools peering through a rectangular cutout in a tunnel wearing yellow hard hats.  Secondly, I’d like to point out that this was the moment the claustrophobia hit and I nearly scratched, kicked, and pushed people out of my way to get back out of the tunnel. Probably an overreaction but as I would come to find out a bit later in the Philippines, underground places trigger panic in me.

Our final destination on the tour was Dorasan train station, the last stop north on the Korail network; except that no trains are allowed to enter the station at all.  Prior to 2009 SK and NK negotiated a deal where passengers would be permitted to pass through North Korea through to China.  If this train were in operation, you could go from the southern most part of South Korea (Busan) through to China, Russia and on to Europe or South East Asia.  In 2009 North Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean woman who had been out hiking and didn’t notice or heed signs that she was precariously close to the border. North Korea never apologized for killing the woman and diplomatic talks abruptly ended, as did plans for the Korean peninsula’s railroad.  Furthermore, aid was stopped and travel between the two countries banned.  Now the only way to enter NK is through China and its not a good idea to have a North Korean stamp in your passport if you want to visit the South.  You can however, freely stamp your own passport with a souvenir NK stamp at Dorasan station.  Apparently on the USO tours you can also visit the conference room on the military demarcation line used for UN talks but it requires special permission and advance notice.

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Map of the conceptual train network from Busan South Korea. Can you imagine that trip!

While the whole tour felt a bit like any old day at Upper Canada Village, there were moments of brutal reality.  The bullet peppered train, reminding us that the Korean War was truly horrific, or the stark, unceremonious concrete wall at the bottom of the infiltration tunnel reinforcing divisionism, or the very real landmine signs on barbed wire fences, the lookout towers with armed soldiers suspicious of each other’s every move, and finally the fact that you can buy North Korean currency as a souvenir because their money is so devalued and their economy in such despair that its more valuable as a scrap book item than for actual use.

Perhaps if I hadn’t educated myself on the Korean War, why the two Koreas were separate, and the hardship that most North Koreans have to endure; I don’t think visiting the DMZ would be very impactful, in fact I think the take away would be that things are fine(ish) and there’s nothing much to worry about.  Maybe that’s what they want you to think, with each side hosting their own peace village (rumours have it that NK’s village is a front), SK is a safe place, both sides guard the DMZ equally and NK is not much of a threat.

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Symbol of the Korean War

People, governments, analysts often disagree about whether or not the world should take North Korean threats seriously, many argue that Kim Jong Un knows that any aggressive move on his part will not be victorious in the end.  Some argue that the threats should be taken seriously considering their nuclear weapons, their ability to fire missiles on Seoul and Japan.  They argue that North Korea is like a toddler who throws his food on the ground to get attention, to instill fear in the world to bolster the Kim families power as supreme leaders.  I myself don’t have an opinion on this issue, all I know is that while governments and the News discuss missiles and power plays as remote issues, my thoughts turn towards the students I worked with and how their lives could be disrupted by such unnecessary aggression, and the people I’ve never met in North Korea who have nowhere to go. As theme park-esque as a tour of the South Korean side can be, the DMZ is still a blunt reminder that horrors exist in the world and for North Korea, they are almost completely inescapable.

 

30 Days on a Greyhound Part 2:

Part 2: Murica: Mormons, Rednecks, Mennonites, and Strip Clubs…about what you’d expect really.  5,524km/3,349miles

I know some people in the USA, family, friends, and my boyfriend.  Before this trip I’d only been to Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York. Usually when people travel to the USA from Canada they go to Florida, California, and New York.  I tried to map out a route that took me from Seattle, to San Francisco, to Denver, to Kansas, and finally Philadelphia.  This was a logistical timing nightmare, I thought about flying some legs but couldn’t really afford it, so in the end I cut out San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Seattle is about 4 hours by bus from Vancouver, an easy evening trip and an uneventful one at that.  Border crossing is annoying when you’re on a bus, mostly because they make you get off the bus and go through customs similar to that of an airport.  Everyone breezed through without issue except one guy…black with long dreads…of fucking course, the only typically profile-able person on the entire bus gets stopped, questioned, and searched by the USA border guards.  It was just so damn obvious and the guards were so shameless about it, like ‘yeah this is a totally normal and random search, what are you looking at Blondie?” Because I was looking, without caution, at this blatant display of discrimination.  The outcome-obviously this guy was fine and they let him into the ‘Greatest’ country in the world. And that is how I entered Murica.

What I know about Seattle; grunge, coffee, a giant needle, and apparently a very impressive fish market.  Basically I drank a lot of awesome coffee at some cute little coffee shops that I don’t remember the name of and walked around the city for 2 days.  My long-time friend Colin had moved to Seattle with his girlfriend, now wife Audrey; they were amazing hosts; they took me to a bar at way too an early an hour because their University’s football team was playing a match and that’s what people do there…it made me happy that hockey games are on at appropriate drinking hours.  They took me to a great bookstore where I bought a book on how to make books (this was incredibly handy later on).  My last night, we went to a bar in their neighbourhood called The White Rabbit (incidentally this is one of my favourite songs and one that I sing exceptionally well at Karaoke).  True to its nature and reputation, Seattle was gray and rainy most of the time with little outbursts of sunshine but I had a blast nonetheless.  Obviously I did not go the Space Needle or the fish market…I am not the best tourist, I just like to wander around cities and do my best to avoid line ups.  I could have spent an entire week in Seattle and not been bored but I had a timeline and it was time to move on.  

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Colin and Audrey at the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA

My next main destination was Denver but it’s a long road to Denver from Seattle so I planned to stop in Salt lake City for the day and catch the night bus to Denver… sometimes things don’t go as planned…sometimes they go better than planned!

This is what I know about Salt Lake City; they hosted the Olympics at one point and evidently there is a Salt Lake in the vicinity. There was also a movie made called SLC Punks but I never watched but it lead me to believe there might be some punks about.  The only other thing I knew about SLC is that it is home to The Church of Latter Day Saints….Mormons, which happens to be the largest most imposing building in the city.

I just need to stop here a minute and let you guys know that I did this trip without a phone and internet…in 2011…I know you’re thinking, I must be total hero but actually my phone was attached to my job in Korea and I just couldn’t be bothered to get one for 1 month.  In that regard, I wasn’t able to look up “things to do in….” or even get in touch with anyone to let them know I missed my bus, I am an hour behind schedule, etc…

Back to Salt Lake City, the home of the Mormons…I feel like I can’t say too much here, because whatever, to each their own…however the reports of abuse that come from that community, essentially has me thinking this whole religion is 100% a cult.  Armed with this knowledge, I was wary of everyone I met… of their overt friendliness, of looking directly into someone’s eyes for fear of being hypnotized. Regardless, I persisted in my exploration of this actually really beautiful city.   When I got to SLC I had been on a bus for way too long and felt pretty grimy.  I also really needed some clean clothes so at about 6am I walked a few miles to the closest laundromat and did all my laundry.  I had intended to freshen up in the bathroom but it was nasty and I feared contagions so I decided to go back to the hostel I passed and ask to pay for a shower there.  The hostel was pretty weirded out about my request and told me to go to a truckstop which weirded me out a bit…so eventually they agreed to charge me a truckstop shower fee but the towel was not included.  Squeaky clean and still slightly damp, I walked back to the bus station and put my stuff in a locker; it was about 9 a.m ish by this point and I was famished and in desperate need of coffee.  Well fuck… apparently Mormons do not drink coffee and no one had any positive leads on a source of caffeine.  Having spent the night on a Greyhound, and coming down hard from my caffeinated adventures in Seattle, I persisted and eventually found a place.  The barista was a really pleasant, LGBTQ friendly guy who told me in no uncertain terms NOT to bother going to the Salt Lake…he said it smelled like rotten eggs. Apparently from overwhelming, “unstoppable bacteria decay” (www.deseretnews.com). Why did they name this city after a Lake with an odour issue?  I tried googling that question and came up with a list of things you may not know about Salt Lake City from Matador Network.

Among them:

There are more non-Mormons than Mormons.

Sorry to crush your vision of what Salt Lake City is ‘supposed’ to be like, but the Mormon majority is a thing of the past in the city, with the rest of the county not far behind. The non-Mormon population has been on a steady rise for the last decade, and despite the fact that this is the headquarters of the religion, not everyone you’ll meet here will be Mormon.

It’s got one of the largest LGBT communities in the US.

Betcha didn’t know that Salt Lake City was Advocate‘s #1 “Gayest City in the USA” in 2012. It dropped to #6 in 2013, but I’m betting that’s still a lot higher than you expected. SLC was the first in the state to pass anti-discrimination ordinances based on sexual orientation, and the LGBT community here is HUGE. The Pride Festival is one of the biggest events in the city and draws over 25,000 attendees, including (for the last couple years) a hundred or so members of the Church of LDS who come out to show their support.

Most people are ridiculously friendly and hospitable.

Maybe it’s all that fresh air and nature that surrounds the city, but the people here are just crazy nice. Whether you encounter them on the slopes, in the bars, or on the SLC streets, strangers won’t recoil at the sight of out-of-towners like you. Welcome to Salt Lake City!

While the statement about Mormons is not backed up by data in the post and I’m not about to delve any further into the topic, it is easy believable.  Normally when we travel to places we try to recall anything we know about the place and the people there…inevitably there will be stereotypes that pop up and while traveling you’ll unknowingly or knowingly be on the lookout for them.  As they say stereotypes exist for a reason but usually the reason is a small but loud minority. And seeing the facts about the LGBTQ community and that they apparently receive support from the Church of LDS further shows that the ideas we have are not based on real knowledge but assumptions.  Statement 3 is 100% true; people randomly striking up conversation with me as I was waiting for the light to change, wandering around the state capitol building, walking up gorgeous streets surrounded by mountains, and when at last I sat down at a bar for dinner and a beer (yes, I found a bar!).

So I sat down at this bar serving local brewed beer at about 6-7% alc.; I was planning to stay for about 1-2 hours (I had been walking up and down hills all day), I ordered some pretty decent calamari if memory serves, and a very strong beer…and then another…and eventually got to talking to a traveling sunglasses salesman from Florida who was super friendly and we got along awesomely.  The bar was packed at this point and I asked for my bill but the waitress informed me that the machines were down…at this point I had 30 minutes to get on a bus to Denver.  Well I didn’t get my bill in time and didn’t really have a plan except that me and this guy should probably just buy some beer and drink somewhere else. Basically we had a dance party in his hotel room, passed out and woke up ridiculously early to get on the day bus to Denver with a hangover.  Good times.  I know, I know…DON’T GO TO A FUCKING STRANGER’S HOTEL ROOM!!!!!!! Right whatever, listen most people you meet are good people, blah blah blah…if you can’t trust your instincts…and let’s be clear-I was NOT drunk when I hatched this plan…then maybe stay home in your bubble suit.  This guy was great, perfect gentlemen, tons of fun, and I came out the other side with an “I got stuck in SLC for a night and met a traveling salesman” story.

The only bummer about getting stuck in SLC was that I missed out on a whole day in Denver because I spent that day on another damn bus. My journey compared to that of many others riding the bus, was one of absolute leisure.  One man sitting next to me told me that he was a truck driver and his truck had broken down outside Salt Lake City; the truck company told him to stay put and they would sort it all out.  Two weeks later, he was still sitting in and paying for a motel room with no news from the trucking company, so he hopped on the Greyhound to make the long trip back to Georgia (nearly the opposite end of the country). Sadly, in many circumstances, newly released convicts were put on buses in the middle of nowhere to be sent back to their home state; making their journey to get home, after serving their time in prison,a 2-3 day greyhound journey; well done America!

Surprisingly I was not totally sick of the bus yet… Like I said in Part 1, I was figuring my shit out on this journey and I don’t know when I had my lightbulb moment but I did eventually.  Rolling through North America’s surreal landscape is nothing short of inspiring and the fact that you are trapped on a bus with nothing to do but stare out the window, contemplate this beautiful land and where you fit into it…it’s fucking cathartic. Wyoming, in particular, astounded me with its unusual rock formations, stripes and colouring.

Here is my things I know about Denver list: Mountains, snowboarding, artsy, Jack Kerouac and other Beatniks.  I love all of these things, so obviously I was stoked to walk the streets that Kerouac had walked and think Kerouac thoughts…Really I just got in late one night, went to a Whole Foods for snacks and fell asleep.  The next day I walked all over the city and met up with an old friend who was going to school there.  We went out for food and drinks, first at a very respectable place on a main street with lots of respectable people around and then in a bar that looked like maybe there were supposed to be motorcycles out front and someone getting a Hepatitis tattoo in a booth, all in all it was a good day.  Chris offered to drop me at my hostel but I fancied a walk so we parted ways and I started heading off in the direction of my hostel in the sketchiest neighbourhood in the city…I think… but can’t be 100% certain of this because I didn’t look it up.  The hostel that I stayed in was not your average backpackers, it felt more like a temporary home for recently released criminals and drug addicts (a halfway house).  

What I learned about Denver: Truly beautiful city with an old industrial vibe, friendly people everywhere…I’m Quebecois, we’re more reserved and not very friendly so this talking to strangers things was very new to me.  

What I also learned in Denver; there are 2 places called Junction City, one is in Colorado and the other is in Kansas…I was Kansas bound and very nearly lost another day ending up somewhere else in Colorado…thankfully I got sorted out in time….another thing; the bus station is crazy busy, massive lines…fairly fucking unpleasant.  Up until now all of my buses have left on time but this one left an hour late.  Back to the lack of phone on my person, I was unable to inform Douglas that I would be an hour late.  Also up until now, I’d really only met nice, interesting, somewhat boring people on the bus but things start to change once you begin crossing the Midwest bible belt.  11 hours of the most incredible Rednecks I’ve ever seen or heard in such close proximity…it was like watching TV …I was fascinated….Here’s the thing about stereotypes, they exist for a reason and these guys here… they were the reason.  I couldn’t tell if they were drunk or they just came like that but one thing was for sure… they were loud, ignorant, and obnoxious…everything people assume about Americans and are usually wrong about-well these guys were all of it.  Anyway I eventually had to stop eavesdropping and listen to music because it’s considered rude to stare.  I did sit beside a lovely young man who was an average, mildly interesting person trying to get somewhere.

At long last, Junction City, Kansas; the city where dreams are made, the geographical centre of the USA, the Land of Oz, and the epic final destination to my long voyage.  This also happens to be where my boyfriend was posted and literally the ONLY reason I had gone to the Mid-West.   As previously explained, my bus was an hour behind schedule and with no phone to call and warn him of this, I was worried he would not be there waiting for me, thinking I had abandoned ship and decided not to come. No matter, I thought, I’ll just get out at the bus station and call him from a pay phone. HA!  The greyhound stops somewhere along a dark highway outside an eerie little shop-like place down the road from some questionable motels.  Douglas wasn’t there!  No one was there except myself and 2 others that had debarked the bus. There was thankfully a pay phone but of course…I didn’t have any change sooooo I asked the strangers to use their phone, which they didn’t seem too pleased about, but recognizing my circumstances as being not too favourable, they relented.  He didn’t answer…well fuck.  The strangers left and I waited a bit longer hatching a survival plan.  As I started walking towards a distant gas station, Douglas comes tearing into the parking lot, hops out, and chuckles his very Southern, very good hearted chuckle and says, “You made it!”  I was like “What the fuck Douglas!  You’re over an hour late to pick me up!” He was not as it turns out he was on time but heard from someone else waiting for someone that actually the bus was running late and he left to pick up something up….So basically I’m the jerk of this story.

Douglas and I checked into our hotel, made good use of the room, ate some pizza and passed out.  The next morning, bright and early, he had to go to work, he’s in the army so it was REALLY early.  I got up some hours later, and not being a fan of hotel room coffee, got dressed and set out to find some coffee and breakfast.  I found neither; after an hour and a half or so of walking around I found an Advocate’s office, an army surplus store, a few fast food chains, an army surplus store, a Walmart, a notary’s office, an army surplus store…and well you get the idea.  While it was a pleasant, albeit uneventful place to walk around on this fine October morning, it didn’t take long to figure out that I had seen it all and the most interesting thing to do in Junction City is go to Walmart by day and then stop by the liquor store by night.

I went to Walmart, picked up some food and some craft supplies (there were a lot of hours left before Douglas finished work), and headed back to the hotel room.  I relented and drank hotel coffee, which was not as bad as expected, then I opened up my “How to Make Books” book and got to work.  I’m fucking terrible at making books apparently. But it kept me occupied for a while.  I honestly don’t know what happened to the rest of the day…probably took a nap but at some point Douglas called with some piss poor news that someone had skipped out on guard duty and he drew the short end of the stick and had to work all night…ugh. What the hell was I supposed to do all night by myself? I had exhausted my resources and was not too keen or curious to  venture out on my own. If the coffee selection was that bad, what would the nightlife be like in this town? As I gazed out the window forlornly I saw the unmistakable bright lights of a liquor store…fuck it, if I am going to be stuck here alone, I might as well have some wine!

Once I made my selection, I went to pay for it…as one does, and as I expected by a country whose legal limit is 21, they carded me (I was 26).  Like a well-seasoned traveler in America, I pulled out my passport and confidently handed it over.  Instead of being rewarded with a curt nod and ‘that’ll be x$’ this lady says to me:

Cashier: Ma’am we can’t accept foreign identification in Kansas State liquor stores (plug your nose and say this out loud slowly while rolling your eyes) You need and American ID.

Me: Wha..?!?! But this is a passport and seeing as how I’m only here for a few days…how would one go about acquiring this American identification?

Cashier: Well you can’t

Me: So only American Citizens can buy alcohol in Kansas?

(Meanwhile, I could see out of my peripheral that the older wino-esque gentlemen behind me was getting pretty antsy)

Cashier: Well you need an American ID.

Me: Bu…

Wino-esque Gentlemen:  Ma’am (at cashier) That’s an internationally recognized form of identification (my passport), you HAVE to take it.

Cashier goes to find manager.  Manager agrees to let me buy alcohol… I go back to room, drink some wine and fall asleep to the TV.  So much for my romantic Kansas getaway.

The next day we went to Topeka, Kansas, the state capital.  We ate breakfast at an Ihop while a table full of dusty, old, bigoted prunes stared daggers at us.  Similar attitude at our hotel check-in, similar encounter at Starbucks and with almost every person we encountered in Kansas except this one lady who I think was just flirting with Douglas and didn’t have a clue why I was standing in the vicinity smiling. Incidentally, Kansas was the first to conclude that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional.

 

Topeka, Kansas, not much going on there…we tried to find some lively nightlife but found an Irish Pub that appeared to be hosting a staff party and us.  Inevitably, we ended up at a Strip Club on the highway that we had passed on the way into the city.  We went out wanting to dance but ended up watching women dance…and let me tell you, these women were not paid for their dancing skills; some places do actually employ talented dancers. Topeka has approximately 127,473 residents 126,000 of which are most likely agoraphobes or hermits or out of town.  The last time I visited Douglas we stayed downtown Topeka the whole time, this is not a weekend place…I had to search high and low for coffee and food and ended up in an Irish Pub which was the ONLY place open and served dismal coffee.  Every time I go to Kansas I have to go through caffeine withdrawal; maybe this is why our relationship didn’t work out.

But in case you were wondering why I bothered to make the trek to Kansas, here’s a picture of Douglas without his shirt on:

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After a few days, it was time to go back to Canada and eventually back to Korea.  I bought another book for the bus trip from Kansas to Barrie, it was not long enough and I had to read it twice.  A day and a half of picking up recently released convicts in their plain grey sweat suits and brown paper bags through the prison dense state of Missouri, in stark contrast to a large family of Mennonites who also happen to be riding the bus, to a single Dad and his 2-3 year old child moving a day and a half away to grandma’s house.  This kid was so well behaved, but not surprisingly he was getting a little antsy so I pulled out my “How to Make Books” book and we made mini insta-books that we filled with mini drawings of cartoon animals.

Back in Barrie, Ontario to visit with Lindsay again before meeting my brother in Toronto. Surprise, she’s pregnant!  The following year when I came back from Korea, she would have a tiny little nugget named Liliya, who is my Goddaughter.

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Taken about 1 year after this story ends

The next month would be spent very broke, at my brother’s place in Ottawa, Ont, interviewing for jobs in South Korea, going through the arduous Visa process, applying for my Bachelor of Education at the University of Ottawa, and playing with Jaida and Bernie.

I flew back to Korea with 100$ in my pocket and no regrets!

The End of the Great Greyhound Saga of 2011

Across Canada 4,967 km (Oct/Nov 2011)

I didn’t realize it at the time but I was adrift in my life, no idea what I really wanted to do or where I wanted to be.  Somehow the solitude of long, boring bus rides between cities; staring out the window at the varying landscape, gave me some sense of purpose.  There’s a lot of time to contemplate your life when you don’t have internet, or really anything much to do but look out across the magnificently flat Prairies, become immersed in the green Spruce forests and winding hills of Ontario or stare down at a Rocky Mountain runaway lane on the Coquihalla Pass.

After 30 days and one giant circle of approximately 9894 kilometres, I arrived at my brother’s house in Ottawa and began the long arduous process of applying to Teacher’s College and obtaining a new Visa to return to South Korea for another year, depending how the aforementioned application worked out.

I am getting ahead of myself, obviously in 30 days I did more than stare out the window of a Greyhound, I should probably start by telling the story of how I came to decide on this trip and this particular mode of transportation.  I had been living in South Korea for a year; it was my first time outside of Canada or the USA and my first time away from family and friends for such an extended period of time.  When I decided to go back to Canada, I knew I wanted to return to South Korea for another year but I just needed to see my family and friends for a bit.  I had this overwhelming need to see EVERYONE! And everyone had dispersed across Canada like a dandelion seed head in the wind around the same time that I left for Korea.  I had friends all over so I thought, why not see some more of this continent and visit some people while I’m at it.  Maybe I was loosely inspired by ‘On the Road’ (Denver and San Fran were on the list-made it to Denver not to SF) but being unwilling to hitchhike, unable to drive, and too poor to fly; I discovered that Greyhound offers a hop and go ticket deal for about 500$ (2011).  I spent the first week back in Canada hanging out with friends and family in Sherbrooke and Montreal.  Then one fine, chilly Autumn day, I boarded a bus to Toronto.

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Sherbrooke Dam Downtown.  Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada

To be honest I don’t have much to say about Toronto, I’ve never spent enough time there to form an informed opinion about the place.  I met up with my friend Will who lives in Korea Town.  I ate Korean for dinner which was pretty decent but upon seeing a 20$cdn price tag on a 1,500won (1.50$cdn approx.) bottle of makgeolli made me sad and confused. I went to see Will and Tim’s band, Staycation, at a bar I don’t remember the name of.  I took some fun shots of them performing, we had some drinks and the next morning went for a pretty delicious breakfast at a diner I can’t remember the name of and then I hopped on a Go Bus to Barrie.  All in all, it was a good time that I could have had anywhere.  I was pretty excited to see my BFF after a year so I wasn’t too concerned about Toronto, it’s been there for a while, it’s not going anywhere, I could always go back.

Barrie, Ontario, not a top destination for most people but set on Lake Simcoe, it’s pretty damn nice.  I took a Go Bus between Toronto and Barrie because I was informed by someone that it was more convenient-it was not.  I had to change buses halfway through and hang out in a cold bus station for an hour.  Then some scumbag, degenerate, douchebag attacked our poor bus driver because he didn’t have enough money or the right ticket or something.  Anyway the driver was ok but totally rattled (obviously) and not able to drive at that point.  The cops were called and they took statements from some people and we waited for another driver to come. Interestingly and perhaps related though I’m just speculating; Barrie is the home of the Central North Correctional Centre which is a maximum security prison and one of Canada’s most violent prisons.  Having just come back from Korea where the worst you normally see is a drunken red-faced wrestling match ending in hugs and handshakes, I wanted none of this shit.

I was stoked to see Lindsay, my BFFL. We had a blast catching up, hanging out, she showed me around her new city and we basically just ate, drank and walked for 3 days.  After a few days it was time to head West, but first I had to go back to Toronto on a Greyhound and hang out downtown for a bit to catch the overnight bus to Sudbury. If you’re planning on driving across Canada, you can skip this part and go through the US; it’s much faster. Crossing Canada from Toronto to Calgary takes 2 days and 2 nights straight on a bus.  Yes, I know, it sounds horrible but I’d been told by several people who had done this trip before, that the bus is half empty so you can usually have 2 seats to yourself most of the way.  I had planned to fly from Toronto to Calgary but due to bad timing, it being Thanksgiving weekend (Canadian) the flights were way more than I wanted to spend. Also due to it being a holiday, the bus was jam packed-not an empty seat on the bus for 2 days and 2 nights.  ‘It’s Ok’ I said to myself while breathing deeply, my friend gave me a travel pillow and some Neo-Citron (I had a cold to make matters worse); ‘you have your laptop with some movies, your MP3 player, and a large Game of Thrones novel to get through, you’ll be fine.’ The buses I had been taking up until now were new so they came equipped with wifi that sometimes worked, plugs, and USB ports. The bus they give you to cross the 2nd largest country in the world doesn’t have any of these things; it’s old, drafty, with scratchy, hard seats.  My laptop battery died in no time, eventually so did my MP3 player and I read the book too fast so I had to start over.  I drank Neo-Citron and passed out intermittently through most of Ontario.  We reached Regina, Saskatchewan a day and a half later, where I finally had some time to partially charge my electronics.

What I remember: It was cold ALL the time, the only places to eat were fast food chains and gas station convenience stores; I ate a lot of cashews, apples and beef jerky.  I remember being a little weirded out in Brandon, Manitoba, and that some small towns in Saskatchewan that were so flat you could see right through them, and somehow the lack of tumbleweeds rolling down the empty streets was almost more unsettling.  Finally, I remember pulling into the Calgary bus station early in the morning and getting to my friend’s apartment and finally lying down. Lying down for the first time in 48hrs was an intense feeling of relief and freedom from my body I think I could have cried.  Nowadays I dread 12 hour planes rides and often try to schedule a short or long layover half way through.

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Poster at the Glenbow Museum

What I knew about Calgary before arriving:  Pickup trucks, the annual Calgary Stampede and their affinity for conservative politics and an oil based economy.  What I learned about Calgary: they have a great museum outlining the settlement and railroad development of the West, a majestic horse sculpture downtown and Calgary’s downtown core was easy to navigate on foot and every time I looked out at the horizon I would see the Rocky Mountains surrounding the city.  The weather was pretty disagreeable while I was there, so I headed over to the Glenbow Museum, which is both Canadian Art and History museum as well as showcasing artifacts from other cultures.  Being from Quebec (Lower Canada), which was the first settled area in Canada, we know our history well but we only glanced over the history and settlement of the West. Our history museums exhibit relevant history to the culture of QC and the Indigenous people of the region.  Glenbow Museum was successful at educating me about the frontier settlements and Indigenous culture of Western Canada.  They had some excellent displays about the railroad that looked as good as those you see in the Museum of History in Ottawa (my favourite museum).

Kristina was a great hostess and she took me around to some bars. We went to a semi-pro league hockey game at the Saddle Dome which felt like a very Calgarian thing to do.  I am terrible at remembering names of places I’ve only been to once so don’t ask me to recommend places to eat or drink because it’ll most likely go something like this:

Friend: Do you think it will be hard to find Vegan food in Vietnam?

Me: Not at all, my friend was able to find Vegan friendly food everywhere we went.  In fact we went to an all Vegan restaurant in Ho Chi Minh that was awesome!

Friend: Do you remember the name of it?

Me: No but I remember it was on this busy, touristy street next to the hotel I stayed in, it’s Vegan and super delicious- so yeah try to find it- it was definitely left from the hotel and it was right beside it.

Friend: What was the name of the hotel?

Me: Uh, well, I’ll have to look that up for you.

(actual conversation on where to eat Vegan in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam)

I spent 2 days in Calgary and then hopped back on an overnight bus to Kelowna, British Columbia.  When the sun came up the next morning, we were rolling down a mountain into the Okanagan Valley.  My only regret about this trip is that I couldn’t just ask the bus driver to stop so I could take photos. But to say that the view was stunning, is not enough, although anyone who has seen the sun rise over a remotely impressive valley will understand.  I clearly do not ever get up early enough to see the sunrise. I had lived in Kelowna twice for 4 month periods-between Winter and Fall semesters but I had only ever flown in and out.  Driving in made me realize what a secluded and special place the valley is.  

Nowadays, the Okanagan Valley is known for the longest lake in North America, Ogopogo, forest fires and of course WINE!  It’s an incredibly popular tourist destination in the summer and hotels are typically sold out on weekends.  When I was working there as a Front Desk Hotel Person, I would get phone calls and walk-ins all night from people desperately seeking some sort of shelter; they’d been to every hotel and campground they could find, and my advice would be-sleep in your car or pitch a tent somewhere but don’t get caught and next time book ahead!

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Kelowna City Park Beach.   Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada

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Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada

Anyway I was super excited to be back in Kelowna, I stayed for the first 2 nights, at my old house, ‘Kamp K.L.O. which was essentially a crash pad for people passing through Kelowna for a few months at a time.  Since it was around Thanksgiving, we got a turkey, covered it in bacon and had an incredible feast with my lovely BC friends. We picked hazelnuts and biked around a bit.  Afterwards, I went to stay with my dear friend Lianna; we went for a hike, ate delicious food and had some time to catch up.  I had a great time walking around the downtown core, having a delicious and fresh brewed coffee at The Bean Scene.  I picked up a few bottles of wine to share with friends throughout the rest of my journey.

One incredibly fun and popular activity to do is go on a wine tour.  There are upwards of 70 wineries in the Okanagan valley alone.  In addition to world-class wine, many of these wineries also offer a delicious selection of food and spectacular views of the valley.  As you’re traveling along sampling wine, you can also stop in at Carmelis Goat Cheese Farm.  They had so many different kinds of goat cheese for us to try we actually had to quit part way through because it was simply too much; but thankfully they also make Gelato which was an excellent palate cleanser.

Unfortunately, after a few days in Kelowna it was time to move on. The day before I left, I posted on facebook, my intentions to pass through Vancouver on the way to Seattle.  An old high school friend saw the post and sent me a message letting me know he was living in Vancouver and was free for the day.  He met me at the bus station and took me around Vancouver making a long and extremely pleasant stop in Stanley Park for snacks and beer.  I am terrified of birds, Stanley Park is therefore a terrifying place for an Ornithophobe; there are all the usual suspects: pigeons, seagulls, crows, and tiny birds I cannot name, but there are also massive Canadian Geese and Swans.  I saw a tourist chasing a Goose trying to get the perfect shot, I was both amused and horrified by this scene.  Stanley Park is 400 hectares of forest, hills, paths, ponds, and beach, we might have explored 1/100th of it. We walked to the beach, it’s rocky but still quite pleasant, as we were eating our snacks and drinking our beer this brownish seagull perched itself a little ways away and squawked irrationally at us for about an hour.  I made my friend chase the gull away from time to time but the jerk kept coming back. Regardless, Stanley Park is the optimal place to spend an afternoon if you’re ever in Vancouver.  I left Vancouver that evening, back on a Greyhound into the USA.

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Aaron Turner in Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada