Friday, December 31, 2010

Celebrating the New Year (and five months on the road) in Laos

2011 greetings from Vientiane!

First, a brief update on our RTW itinerary: We're here until 02JAN, then in central and southern Vietnam until 14JAN. We're going to spend a week in Cambodia focusing on the temples at Angkor Wat, then a month in Thailand. It's time to slow down and relax more and I think Thailand will be the perfect place. Afterward, we'll spend a few weeks minimum in India; longer if Greg doesn't hate it! :) Then on to Europe...

2010 represents the year I finally started living my dream. True, those of you who know me well also know that I’ve never been one to follow the mainstream. It has taken a lot of hard work and trial and error to get to where I am today. For me, happiness is never measured by financial or material wealth but by life experiences. Of course, I love my family and I’ve even had jobs that I loved for a time, but nothing compares to how alive I feel when I’m traveling in an unfamiliar place. In the past, many of my most memorable experiences are from times when I was alone. Sharing this trip around the world with Greg has been both challenging and rewarding. Thankfully, it’s mostly rewarding!

As I look forward into the new year and beyond, I hope for continued (reasonably) good health and for the courage to continue creating my own path in life. I have no idea what will happen when we eventually do return to the U.S., but I have to believe that everything will fall into place as it always has. I refuse to consider the alternative!

Here are a few photos of us from 2010:
loving the beer in our "new" hometown of Portland, OR
sharing good times with "old" friends in Nashville, TN
touring Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, Wyoming
feeding roos on Kangaroo Island, Australia

walking on the Great Wall in China
enjoying dinner in Istanbul, Turkey with my mom and stepdad

riding camels at the Giza Pyramids, Egypt
celebrating Greg's birthday in Wadi Rum, Jordan

on safari in Tanzania
riding an elephant in Luang Prabang, Laos

Thursday, December 30, 2010

I heart Hanoi!

We flew into Hanoi without a plan other than a 3-night hotel reservation and a prebooked airport transfer. After traveling over 24 hours (drive from Stellenbosch to Cape Town, wait 3 hours in the airport, fly over 10 hours from Cape Town to Kuala Lumpur, wait 4 hours in the airport, then fly another 3 hours to Hanoi), I was definitely glad to have someone picking us up to take us straight to our hotel, although we landed early and had to wait for the driver to get to the airport. Then, when we tried to check into the hotel, we were told that due to construction noise we were being transferred to their sister property about 2 km away. They called a taxi and soon enough we were settled in to our room.

Although we did venture out to eat lunch or dinner (breakfast was included at the hotel), we basically stayed in our room for the first two days to work on our Southeast Asia itinerary. Based on our research, we quickly decided that one month isn't nearly enough time for exploring the region. We only had to pay $200 total to push back our flights from Bangkok to Kochi, India until 20FEB (originally 12JAN). With that big step taken, we were able to make some plans and start sightseeing.
My first impression of Hanoi (on the one hour/35 km drive from the airport) was just like any other Asian city -- sprawling, hectic, crowded, crazy traffic, hazy from air pollution. But I started to fall in love with the city after my first $1 bowl of pho in a simple restaurant about a 10 minute walk from our hotel. It was already dark when we ventured out for dinner that first night and initially we couldn’t sort out where we were on the map so had to return to the hotel to get better directions. We found the restaurant easily enough on the second try, after navigating the moped-jammed streets and sidewalks, and stepping around the locals sitting on tiny stools enjoying a drink or a snack.
Even after eating pricier bowls of pho at a popular chain restaurant and variations on the dish elsewhere, the taste of that first serving haunts me, to the point that we tried to eat lunch at the same restaurant on another occasion but sadly discovered it was already closed for the day.
Of course, Hanoi isn’t all about food, although it certainly is a great place to sample the whole range of Vietnamese cuisine. What actually put the city on my all-time favorites list is the people. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered more truly friendly and gracious people anywhere in the world. From the street vendors to the shopkeepers to the hoteliers and all the locals going about their day-to-day lives, everyone always seems to be smiling, laughing, sharing and engaging. This is in spite of their basic living conditions and long working hours with minimal pay and little to no time off. Here, everyone is more or less equal and there is a communal sense of family along with a mutual caring and respect for your neighbors.
eating Christmas Eve lunch with the hotel staff
I could go on and on about what I love about Hanoi, but hopefully my pictures will convey some of that feeling:
Hanoi Photos
TripAdvisor review of our hotel

Here are my random notes on the city:
  • Many Hanoi restaurants have a few tables on the 2nd floor balcony so you can watch the action on the street below while you eat. Just watch your head - the ceilings are often less than 6 ft high!
  • If you sit in one spot long enough, you could buy everything you need from the various roving street vendors (clothing, groceries, meals, books, baskets, toys, etc.).
  • Street corner karaoke!
  • Women carrying heavy baskets laden with food would often try to put the baskets on Greg’s or my shoulder so we could pose for a photo but then would expect a tip.
  • Every time I order duck at an Asian restaurant I’m disappointed because it’s served on the bone and is often chewy or is just not enjoyable to eat.
  • Our favorite meals were at restaurants NOT listed in the guidebooks!
  • We encountered fewer smokers in Hanoi than in other big Asian cities like Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul although cigarettes were cheap at less than $2 per pack.
  • Most people wear what I call “moto masks” which look like medical masks but are meant to prevent dirt from getting in the nose and mouth when driving. They come in a wide variety of designs, colors, prints, etc. and are very stylish!
  • We were often approached by people selling illegal copies of guidebooks and novels. After awhile I noticed it was always the same 20 or so titles. Asking price was usually around $6-8 but could negotiate down to $4 depending on the title. Quality was generally good.
  • A popular way to take an Old City tour is by “cyclo” or bike taxi. We would see caravans of cyclos 20+ long peddling tour groups around town!
  • Most entrance fees were only around $0.50 per person. The best seats at the water puppet shows were $3 per person.
  • Large grocery stores are hard to find but there are mini-marts everywhere selling all the basic necessities.
  • Beer prices varied from 15000-30000 VND ($0.65-$1.50) for local brews.
  • Most places in the tourist areas were festively decorated for Christmas even though there are few Christians in Vietnam.
  • There are coins in the Vietnamese currency but we never received a single one.
  • There is free wifi everywhere!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Please help me win a trip to Cancun!

Hi everyone,
This isn't a typical blog post. I've entered a photo in a Facebook contest sponsored by LandLopers. The photo with the most "likes" wins a 5 day/4 night trip to Cancun. As the contest ends on 31DEC2010 at 11:59PM EDT, I need your help asap!
First, please "like" the LandLopers Facebook home page:
Link to LandLopers Facebook page
Then, please "like" the photo I entered in the contest:
Link to my contest entry
That's all you have to do! I'll need over 100 likes to have a chance of winning, so please forward this to as many people as possible. I'll know on 01JAN2011 if I'm the winner...
Thanks in advance for your help!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

10 days in South Africa

After a long 24 hours of traveling from Kilimanjaro to Cape Town on a total of three flights, I was relieved that we had pre-booked a transfer from the airport to our hostel and that we had already committed to spending five nights in Cape Town to have some downtime to rest after our East African safari.

I think that three days & nights would be sufficient to thoroughly explore the city, as you can easily visit multiple sights using the City Sightseeing hop-on hop-off bus. Plus many places are walking distance from Long Street, which is where you will find most of the backpacker-style accommodations. However, we opted to stay at The Backpack, a hostel located in the Tamboerskloof neighborhood below Table Mountain about a 10-minute walk above bustling Long Street. Tamboerskloof is a bit more quiet and residential but still centrally located with multiple groceries, laundromats, internet cafés and plenty of good restaurants. The day we walked down to the V&A Waterfront via the city center, it took us approximately one hour but we did stroll leisurely along pedestrian-only Government Road.
As you can intuit from my random notes listed below, I found Cape Town to be a thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan city. However it is very easy to see that a large percentage of the population lives below poverty level as evidenced by the townships just outside the city center. Also, the crime rate is quite high and break-ins are regular occurrences despite almost every business & residence having sophisticated alarm systems, high fences or walls with barbed wire or glass shards on top and security bars on the windows & doors. It is not advised for women to go into certain areas alone at any time of day and to never go out alone at night.

After our five relaxing days in Cape Town, we decided to venture east to explore more of the province known as Western Cape. Although there is a backpacker bus service (Baz Bus) as well as luxury intercity coach service (Intercape, Greyhound, Translux) and tourist trains that are quite expensive, we opted to rent a car in order to have the most flexibility. We booked the cheapest vehicle class through our hostel and got a 4-door Tata Invicta Vista with A/C, comprehensive insurance & unlimited km’s for only 251ZAR or about US$36 per day. The only catch is that it was manual transmission, so for anyone not able to drive a stick left-handed (as everything is opposite what you’re accustomed to in the U.S.), then you’d have to upgrade several classes to a more expensive automatic. One other thing to note regarding the car: it felt like I was driving a lawn mower, the engine was so weak! Accelerating to pass a slower vehicle, even on a flat stretch of road, was nearly impossible. We even turned off the A/C when going uphill as downshifting wasn’t sufficient to keep the car at a reasonable speed.

Over the course of five days & nights, we drove 1515 kilometers (as a point of reference, Cape Town to Knysna one way direct on the N2 is 517km) and an average of four hours per day. Obviously this is a lot of time on the road, which is not exactly relaxing, but it was the only way to see as much as possible in a relatively short amount of time. Luckily, the roads are excellent here, even the unpaved ones, and the majority of people are good drivers. Based on our experience, I highly recommend a more leisurely tour of this part of South Africa as the scenery was quite diverse and beautiful and there are plenty of activities, especially for outdoor enthusiasts.

The link to all of my South Africa photos is embedded in this title of this post. Just click on the title to view my Picasa Web Album.

Here is the circular route we traveled:

Day 1: From Cape Town, take the N2 towards Somerset West then take the R44 along the coast then northeast past Kleinmond where you can then connect to the R43. Continue south and east to Die Dam. There you turn off onto a well-signed but unpaved (dirt) road which eventually connects to the R319. Turn right and follow the 319 to Struisbaai.
*There are many scenic overlooks along the R44 past Gordon’s Bay. In season, it’s possible to spot Southern Right whales from shore. There were also many tempting, colorful little towns with art galleries, pottery shops, etc. but we continued on to Hermanus where we walked along part of the coastal trail then ate freshly harvested mussels for lunch. After checking into our hostel in Struisbaai, we drove another 10 minutes to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of the continent of Africa. There we enjoyed a beer while sitting on a bench facing the Indian & Atlantic oceans after having a look at the lighthouse and an old shipwreck.
Day 2: Take the R319 north to Swellendam where it essentially merges into the N2. Take the N2 to Mossel Bay, the unofficial start of the Garden Route. Continue east to Knysna.
*We stopped for gas in picturesque Swellendam where we encountered the first of several road construction delays. Sadly, we had to pass by scenic areas like Wilderness and skip activities like cruising on the Knysna estuary or touring the Judah Square Rastafarian Community due to our limited time in the area. We did find time for a beer tasting at Mitchells Brewery, drove up to the view point on Eastern Head then down to the beach, and ate fresh, local oysters and listened to live music at Quay Four on Thesen Island.
Day 3: Backtrack on the N2 west to George then take the N12 to Oudtshoorn.
*This was actually our shortest driving day, however we burned an extra hour driving east to Plettenberg Bay as we had hoped to ride elephants at Knysna Elephant Park but found the 750ZAR fee to be exorbitant. Then we thought it would be fun to watch the bungy jumpers at Bloukrans Bridge (the world’s highest at 216 meters) but we didn’t realize it was actually closer to Storms River and another 40km to the east. So we just decided to enjoy the drive over a mountain pass and through a hops-growing valley to Oudtshoorn. This part of the Klein Karoo is known for ostrich farms so we made sure to visit one after eating ostrich for lunch at a café in the city center. Unfortunately most attractions close by 4:30PM so we did not have time to visit the Cango Caves as well. Instead we drank beer in the hammocks at our hostel!
Day 4: Take the R62 (longest wine route in world) west towards Montagu and continue on the R60 in Ashton. When you reach Worcester, get on the N1 towards Cape Town, continue via Huguenot toll tunnel (25ZAR) past Paarl to the exit for R44/Stellenbosch. Drive approx 17km to the city center.
*We expected this drive to take us 4.5-5 hours, but pretty much had the road to ourselves until we got to Worcester, so we made good time. We stopped for a toilet break in Barrydale and did brief town drive-throughs of Montagu & Robertson, where we also stopped for a quick look around a small farmers market and bought some local goat cheese and snacked on a homemade samosa. We then ate lunch in Worcester before finishing the drive to Stellenbosch. We didn’t do too much for the remainder of the day other than picking up a few groceries, stopping by an internet café for a brief check of email and researching the wineries we want to visit tomorrow.
Day 5: Wine tasting! There are over 100 wineries open to the public in the Stellenbosch area, all within about 15 minutes drive from the city center, so it’s really up to you how many you want to visit in one day. As a general rule, most are open Mon-Sat 9AM-5PM but hours do vary and many wineries are closed on Sunday so it‘s best to get the free booklet “Stellenbosch and its Wine Routes“ for a handy map and hours of operation.
*We started just before 10AM at Lanzerac where you choose 3 wines for 20R. As we were the first tasters of the day and chatted it up with the congenial staff, we also got a taste of a rare & unique Lourensford honey liqueur as well as a private tour of the cellar and wine processing area. Next we drove to Hidden Valley, which actually has a beautiful view of the region. There we sat outside and tasted 7 wines for 30R per person. They also grow Calamata olives and make their own olive oil, so we sampled both for an additional 30R. By then we needed to eat some food to absorb some of the alcohol and our next stop was Tokara. Unfortunately we found their restaurant’s menu to be a bit above our budget (starters averaged 80R and mains 120+) but luckily they also operate a delicatessen just up the road that was offering a small buffet priced by weight (18R per 100g) so we both ate a nice meal of chicken, roast beef and a variety of vegetable salads for around 60R each. Even better, their wine tasting (of anything they make) was free! We did pay an extra 10R for a glass of their brandy. We had planned to stop at one or two more wineries but the main road to the ones we had chosen was blocked by a police officer so we ultimately decided to call it a day just a little early as it was already 3:30PM.
Random notes
Cape Town: beer & wine, slow & not free internet - hung out at Rick‘s American Café drinking beer b/c they had free wifi, walkable but many obstacles in sidewalk, Christmas music & decorations, security bars, potable water, outdoor cafes, OTC drugs, downtime after safari, planning, haircut by Carmine Mosca of Salon Capri 40 years on Long Street men’s or women’s (short) cut 65R, Rough Guide to SE Asia publish price $29.95 but 255R at bookstore
Braai (Afrikaans for grilling meat over charcoal) is a social event; most hostels have one at least one night per week; we were lucky to be invited to a friend of a friend’s house in Green Point for a more local experience - had beef sausage, lamb & salad plus wine & beer
Driving - good roads, everything opposite, slower vehicles drive on shoulder to let others pass, flash caution lights as thank you; construction on N2 resulting in lane closures that could mean up to 20min waits while traffic from opposite direction passes
A few ostriches, blue cranes
Agriculture - cattle, sheep, wheat
Beautiful drive along coast on 43, sadly whales are gone for season
Dirt road between 43 & 319
Cape Agulhas - based on what we were told by hostel in CT, expected nothing, but there are actually 2 towns with all the necessities; hostel was decent but definitely catered to a younger crowd, 2+ dogs, braai that we didn’t eat b/c they said it would be ready in 30min and over 1hr later they still hadn’t started cooking our meat
Beers: Mitchell’s (small brewery & tasting room in Knysna) 90 Shilling, Milk & Honey, Raven Stout, Forester's; Castle, Windhoek (Namibia), Hansa Pilsener, Carling Black Label; Savanna cider, Anker (Belgium), Augustijn (Belgium)
Condoms 10pk free in public restrooms
Mussels in Hermanus
Local oysters R65/dozen in Knysna Quay Four
Greg won a Collins Street band CD
The Heads (upper & lower/beach) are worth a stop but there are unofficial parking attendants everywhere and we were always weary of when to tip just to be sure the car doesn’t get broken into
Wanted to ride elephants at Knysna Elephant Park (which is actually closer to Plettenberg Bay than to Knysna) but prices were not listed on the brochure and when we got there it was 750ZAR! However you could just take the tour which does include interacting with some elephants for 175ZAR
“Ostrich extravaganza” (pasta with mushrooms, bacon, mussels, ostrich, sherry & cream - very rich!) at La Dolce Vita in Oudtshoorn
Safari Ostrich Farm - our hostel had 2-for-1 voucher that saved us R66; didn’t get to sit on or ride an ostrich because it had been too hot that day (over 30C which apparently makes the animals more aggressive) even though it was much cooler when we took our approx 1 hour tour at 3pm
Did not have time to visit both Cango Caves (famous for stalactite & stalagmite formations) and an ostrich farm as everything closes by 4:30pm
Bought groceries to cook dinner at the hostel
Have been eating pb&j again to save money although food at restaurants is much less expensive than you’d expect with the average entrée costing R55 at more budget (but not fast food) places and closer to R100 for fancier dishes like steak & seafood
Townships (ie, shanty towns) are primarily located on the outskirts of city centers but are found everywhere we traveled and are often quite large comprising thousands of residences; it appears these are “sanctioned” by the government as there are paved walkways along the main road near the townships and often signs indicating heavy pedestrian traffic; in fact, we did encounter tons of hitchhikers, often standing practically in the road (on an 80+kph highway!) and waving either 10 or 20 Rand bills to entice cars to stop which seemed to be a fairly common practice amongst the locals
Grocery stores sell zebra, ostrich, crocodile & springbok pate; you can also buy eland, kudu, springbok, ostrich biltong (jerky)
Extremely windy in Stellenbosch; brush fire near our lodging started while we were in grocery store and blew smoke & ash particles into our room; no store can sell any type of alcohol after 8pm on weekdays, 5pm on Saturdays, none on Sunday
Surprisingly, many wineries closed on Sundays (I would have thought they’d get more business on weekends so would be open)
Saw springboks in field; baboons outside of Huguenot tunnel
Lunch at Drog in Worchester - large, filled to rim glass of house wine was only 17ZAR

Monday, December 13, 2010

Marking 4 months on the road

This post was actually written over a week ago but we haven't had internet access so this is my first opportunity to post it...

As of 02DEC2010 we have officially been on the road for four months and are possibly at the halfway point of our round-the-world trip. I say possibly because we have not booked any flights beyond Kochi, India where we are due to arrive on 12JAN2011. I expect to stay in India at least one full month, maybe longer, and then we will fly standby (on Delta) to Amsterdam. From there we would both love to spend several months exploring Europe together but that will depend on our finances and overall wellbeing at that point. Ditto for another foray into Africa (Morocco) and any chance of going to South America before we return to the U.S.

While I’m on this topic, I’m already seriously considering extending our time in Southeast Asia. One month is not nearly enough to truly experience even a fraction of what Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have to offer. Plus I expect these countries to be the least expensive places we’re visiting, so our dollars should stretch a lot longer. As soon as I’m online again I will email Airtreks, the company that booked most of our long-haul flights, to find out how much it would cost to push back our flights (unfortunately there are three) from Bangkok to Kochi by a good 4-6 weeks….
One of the first pictures Greg & I both took in Sydney, Australia was of a sign near our hostel indicating that it’s 11,017km from Sydney to Cape Town, which is where we are at now. But, in reality, we have already traveled at least triple that distance because of how we chose to route our trip. We have also visited 13 countries, bringing my total life list to 39. That’s a lot of mileage on this 36-year-old body!

Our East Africa safari is definitely the highlight of our trip so far. Of course, it was not cheap and was more like a vacation from our vacation so-to-speak. I will not delve into the details here as I have already covered them in my previous Kenya/Tanzania post. But suffice it to say that it was absolutely worth every penny and then some!
a lioness in the Serengeti
Here are the usual monthly updates:

Damaged goods: had to reinforce both Nokia backpack shoulder straps as they were pulling apart at the seam/attachment point to the bag; Greg’s spork broke in half; the digital thermometer on my multitool stopped working; my netbook’s mouse pad stopped working and multiple attempts to reinstall the driver software did not fix it so I had to buy an external/USB mouse; the screw stripped on one arm of Greg’s (my old) Maui Jim sunglasses so had to purchase a new, cheap pair; my many years old black ExOfficio t-shirt has shrunk a fair amount so I purchased a white printed Columbia Sportswear Kaveri Passage top to replace it

Useful items of late: U.S. cash for visas, tips, and to pay bills when credit cards were not accepted; my Nikon Trailblazer 10x25 binoculars were perfect for the safari - much more lightweight and just as good for identifying animals in the distance as our guides‘ heavier full size 10x50‘s; nylon cord to lash together broken part of van transferring us back to Arusha on our departure day; our convertible button-down shirts and lightweight long pants served us well on safari - good sun protection plus kept the mosquitoes & tsetse flies from biting
Greg sporting safari attire
Annoyances: all bottles of contact lens solution leak during flight whether snap or screw on lid

Business: I only have 7 blank pages remaining in my passport and Greg has 11 but we managed to get extra pages inserted (at a cost of $82 per person plus an extra day’s car rental) at the U.S. Consulate in Constantia. We also realized we did not have proper documentation to get a Vietnam visa on arrival (you either have to get the visa in advance from one of the very few Vietnamese consulates in the world or get a pre-approval letter from the Vietnamese government via a 3rd party for a small fee - around US$15), so we filled out the application online and requested the pre-approval letters be expedited and sent via email from a company Thankfully, they responded promptly and sent the letters to us within three days.

Health: Greg’s case of athletes foot persists; I’ve had more migraines or severe headaches in the past month than on our entire trip to date; we continue to take allergy medication (10mg loratadine daily) as needed and typically find that when one needs it the other does not (ie, we’re allergic to different things); I developed severe pain in my left shoulder shortly after our flight from Cairo to Nairobi - it’s constant but sometimes much worse (almost unbearable) than others and nothing helps for very long but I’m using Tiger Balm (like Icy Hot), naproxen sodium, and narcotic pain meds as needed

Monday, December 6, 2010

Safari in East Africa

I will start this post with the Swahili “tourist song” we heard almost every day during our travels in East Africa with Tanzania substituted for Kenya when appropriate:

Jambo, jambo bwana
Habari gani
Mzuri sana
Wagena, Wakaribishwa
Kenya yetu, Hakuna Matata

The translation is:
Hello Mr./Ms.
What's the news?
Very good!
Welcome guests!
In Kenya we have no problems/worries.

As indicated in this song, we found all East Africans to be very welcoming and they often were thrilled to hear we were from the U.S. (AMERICA!) and wanted to know what state we were from as many had learned some North American geography in school. One guy even knew about TVA for all you Tennesseans reading this!

One thing we quickly learned is that going on safari is hard on your body. You spend up to eight hours per day in a 4WD vehicle (either a minivan or Land Rover) traveling mostly on rough dirt tracks which means lots of bouncing & banging around and guaranteed bruises. The guides jokingly call this an African massage. However you’re advised not to wear a seatbelt during game drives so you are free to stand up and view the animals or scenery from the open roof. There is dust everywhere which is unavoidable and will find its way into every crack & crevice of your photographic equipment, binoculars, day bag & body. Also, toilet facilities are extremely limited and often it’s not safe to get out of the vehicle, so be prepared to “hold it” for long periods of time, to “check the tires” (ie, squat behind the vehicle) and otherwise to use pit or squat toilets with no toilet paper or running water.

We typically went on one or two game drives per day, each lasting about three hours, with one early in the morning just after sunrise and the other later in the afternoon just before sunset. This arrangement leaves plenty of time for eating, lounging by the pool, reading or napping during the day. Of course, I spent the majority of my spare time reviewing & editing all the photos I had taken the previous day(s)! Alternately, if the park is vast enough or the drive time to & from the lodge is significant, you can go out on an all day game drive lasting up to eight hours with a short break for a picnic lunch. We also spent a lot of time in transit between the parks which we selected in order to see the widest variety of landscapes & animals, so many days involved an average of four hours driving from one lodge to another.

Our Kenya safari was private, meaning we had a personal driver/guide and a minivan that could seat up to 9 passengers all to ourselves. In Tanzania we had a driver/guide and a Land Rover that could seat up to 8 passengers. Here we were part of a diverse group of travelers that included two women from London who had climbed Mt Kilimanjaro for a charity fundraiser the previous week, a Belgian couple on annual holiday sans kids, and an Italian woman vacationing solo. Of course there are pros & cons to both arrangements but we actually ended up enjoying both equally. The pros for our private safari were having more 1:1 interaction with our guide, more space in the safari vehicle to move around to take pictures or just to stretch out on long rides, and the flexibility to request slight changes to the itinerary as needed (ie, extra pit stops, modify game drive start or end times, etc.). The pros for our group safari were sharing the experience with others (we were lucky to have funny, smart, well-traveled & easygoing companions) and having more eyes looking for hard-to-spot animals.

As you’ll see in my park notes, we stayed in a variety of lodges in Kenya but only Serena properties in Tanzania with the exception of The Arusha Hotel. All of our accommodations were 4-5 star which I would equate to 3-4 star by U.S. standards. Considering the remote location of the lodges, the facilities and service were excellent overall. We always had ensuite bathrooms with shower & sit-down toilet, hot water, clean sheets & towels, a reasonably comfortable bed, a fantastic view and unique properties that blended well with the natural environment. At all the lodges we were given cold or hot washcloths and fresh juice, usually mango, upon arrival.

I personally thought the Serena properties were a step above the others we stayed in, particularly concerning the quality of the food. Meal times are standard at all the lodges: breakfast is from 6:30-9:30AM, lunch from 12:30-2:30PM and dinner from 7:30-9:30PM. I would have preferred to eat dinner earlier, especially on days when we had been up since 6AM. We never were hungry for very long as most meals were served buffet-style but sometimes with the soup, entrée & dessert a la carte, especially when there were few guests. I’m sure we both gained weight from eating three meals a day, not to mention enjoying treats like bacon, sausage, made-to-order omelets, desserts, etc. that we rarely eat on our RTW travel budget. A note to vegetarians: there are plenty of options to choose from and often the non-meat dishes were the highlight of a meal. I also particularly enjoyed the peanuts, cashews and cassava chips that were served with drinks at the bar before dinner!

Most lodges offer free evening entertainment like Masai dance, acrobatics, live music or naturalist-hosted slide shows. You can also take advantage of optional activities like massage or beauty treatments, nature hikes, hot air balloon rides or traditional village visits. Surprisingly, most of the lodges had swimming pools although we only swam once, at the Samburu Sopa, as it was quite hot during the middle of the day between our game drives.

What we didn’t like was that smoking was allowed in the lodges’ indoor areas (e.g. the bar and lobby) and on game drives (but not inside the vehicle). We also encountered a few families with very young children under the age of five whom we heard screaming/crying during mealtimes as well as during big game sightings on safari (the jeeps would pull so close together and the windows & roofs were open so you could clearly hear your neighbors). I think the minimum age at the safari lodges should be at least 12! Another minor gripe is that all the lodges offered a bad exchange rate for U.S. dollars although that was the preferred form of payment for extras like soft drinks & alcohol plus they wouldn‘t accept credit cards for bills under $20. For us that meant that a bottle of beer priced on the menu as the equivalent of $3.75 would cost us at least $4.50 and even if we paid with a credit card the mark up due to the lodge’s exchange rate (not the bank’s since transactions were recorded in dollars not shillings) was a minimum of 7% and as high as 30%!

Tipping at the lodges is not required but is suggested by tour operators. However we found tipping can be tricky because staff often share responsibilities. For example, during mealtimes, we would have a designated waiter who took our food or drink order but often other staff cleared our dishes and even delivered the food, thus doing the majority of the work. I never saw another guest leave money on the table and I only did it once in the very beginning but thereafter decided to hand it ($1 per meal) to the person we felt deserved it the most. Another example: about half the time two porters carried our bags (one bag each) versus one porter carrying both bags but since the suggested tip is $0.50 per bag we usually gave $1 to only one of the porters and hoped they would split it somehow.

Last but certainly not least, I want to mention my friend Tim Geiss who helped to plan then made the arrangements for our safari. His years of experience traveling (as a Delta flight attendant) and leading small group safaris to East Africa were invaluable. He customized our itinerary based on numerous emails & phone conversations we had in July. This safari was a dream come true for me and Tim played a critical role in making it all come together so smoothly.

As for the remainder of this blog post, I have first listed some general observations from our travels in each country followed by a few notes or highlights from each park. I have also tried to document the names of all of the animals we saw, but have only touched on the proper names of all of the birds & plants. We were so lucky to have some amazing animal experiences which I mention briefly for each park. However, this is where my photos & videos come in handy, as words cannot do justice to what we saw but images will give you some idea.

Kenya - misc.
Kenya - Lake Nakuru
Kenya - Samburu
Kenya - Mt Kenya
Tanzania - misc.
Tanzania - Lake Manyara
Tanzania - Serengeti (warning: there are graphic photos of recently killed animals in this album)
Tanzania - Ngorongoro
I haven't been able to upload my videos due to the slow internet connection speeds here in South Africa, but please keep an eye on my Facebook page for updates as they are well worth waiting for!

Kenya - Racing the sunset
us with our driver/guide Thomas
Our driver/guide of 14yrs Thomas Kinyanzui (Kamba tribe)
Fines for staying out in parks past 6:30PM due to risk from poachers; fines for driving off-track
Huge variety of birds - too many to identify & list
We’re lucky to have a private vehicle so we can spread out to take pictures and not bump each other when moving
Kenya main roads are pretty bad; some stretches are ok, recently paved and with lines; most have huge potholes, few markings, rough shoulders, must watch out for other vehicles driving erratically, people & animals (donkeys, cows, sheep, goats); many roads are unpaved/dirt
Most villages seem more like shanty-towns; nicest buildings are almost always churches and there are many; examples of names: Redeemed Gospel, Saint X, Y or Z, Spirit Ministry, 7th Day Adventist, Christian Rock Mission Center, Refuge of Hope, Highway of Holiness Center, God’s Endtime Rescue Mission, Wonders Tabernacle Church, Liberation Ministry; one building advertised a “Marriage Encounter” sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese of Kenya
Tusker beer was referred to as “elephant piss”
Coffee & tea plantations in the Rift Valley
Del Monte pineapple plantation - biggest in Africa
Children walking to school in uniforms
Matatus - shared vans, new regulation is to only carry 14 people but we still saw some with more
Animals being transported by motorcycle or bike (live, squirming pig in sack; sheep in bike basket)
Crossed the equator multiple times but stopped once for the Coriolis effect demonstration
USAID signs in many locations
Drove past the privately-owned Lewa Wildlife Conservancy where Prince William visited in November around the time he proposed to Kate Middleton
Highlands wheat fields & greenhouses (flowers, vegetables) owned by companies like Tilaflor & Homegrown
Saw BATUK vehicles, soldiers, compound (British Army Training Unit Kenya)
Checkpoint at Isiolo where roads go to Somalia & Ethiopia
Local men & women come up to van any time we stop somewhere and try to sell us jewelry, fruit, art, etc.
Animal guidebook says hyrax & elephant are closest relatives; the hyrax is a small rodent-like creature, that’s why this seems impossible
Villagers carry machetes like we carry a purse or umbrella; babies are tied to mothers with a shawl or blanket
Due to seasonal nature of safari work, lodge employees/drivers/guides work almost nonstop during high season then take weeks off during low
Thika was referred to as “the Birmingham of Kenya” on a road sign
A Chinese company is building a highway to/from Nairobi; we questioned their motivation but believe it is to gain access to surrounding regions/countries that are mineral-rich
Had minor accident driving through heavy traffic & road construction just outside of Nairobi; luckily the other driver, a female, did not demand police intervention as it really was her fault
Masai village visit costs extra $30 per person

Lake Nakuru
Lake Nakuru Lodge sits on a hill overlooking the park & lake
Watched Cape buffalo & baboons at watering hole near the lodge’s outdoor dining area
Rhino standoff with our van
Must lock doors to keep out baboons
Slept under mosquito net

Drove by several Masai villages
Samburu Sopa Lodge blends in with surroundings; power is by generator so electricity only available a few hours in the morning & evening
Dik diks everywhere; tiny antelopes but remind me of dogs
Two lions with fresh warthog kill
At night, escorted by security guard with club to ward off animals (no fence around lodge)
Wart hogs, guinea fowl, oryx came to drink at small water hole by dining room
Elephant herd passed 6ft beside our safari van
2-month-old elephant playing with older sibling; plus saw 1.5-week-old baby elephant
Leopard lounging in tree
Ewaso Nyiro River, Ololokwe (table mountain)

Mt Kenya National Park
Serena Mountain Lodge built overlooking natural watering hole; has underground bunker plus multiple levels of open air viewing areas and all rooms have balconies
Lush, green, densely forested and much cooler at 7200ft
Squirrel in dining room; monkeys plus another unidentified animal (mongoose or genet or civet) walked across our balcony railing
Food quality was step above previous lodges; ate pecan pie on Thanksgiving day
Must lock doors to keep out Sykes monkeys; noticed that many are deformed (missing whole or part of arms, legs, tail, ears)
Animal order form: naturalist came to dinner table to take “order” for what animals we would want to be woken up for if they came to the watering hole during the night

Swahili words we learned & used:
Jambo = hello
Kwaheri = goodbye
Karibu = welcome
Hapana = no
Asante (sana) = thank you (very much)
Hakuna matata = no problem
Sowa sowa = okay
Duma = cheetah
Chui = leopard
Simba = lion

Animal checklist:
Common zebra
Olive baboon
Black-faced vervet monkey
Cape buffalo
Thompsons gazelle
White rhinoceros
Black & white colobus monkey
Rothschild’s giraffe
Rock hyrax
Common waterbuck
Kirk’s dik dik
Defassa waterbuck
Reticulated giraffe
Grants gazelle
Unstriped ground squirrel
Beisa oryx
African hare
Nile crocodile
African elephant
Savannah monitor lizard
Greater kudu
Grevy’s zebra
White-tailed mongoose
Spotted hyaena
Sykes monkey
Leopard tortoise
Large-spotted genet

Marabou stork
Cattle egret
Crowned plover
African fish eagle
Great white pelican
Greater flamingo
Lesser flamingo
African spoonbill
Tawny eagle
Lilac-breasted roller
Verreaux’s eagle owl
Coqui francolin
Vulturine guineafowl
Yellow-necked spurfowl
Grey-crowned crane
Whitehead buffalo weaver
Secretary bird
Helmeted guineafowl
Superb starling
Somali blue-necked ostrich
Glossy ibis
Fulvous whistling duck
Egyptian goose
Dark chanting goshawk
Kori bustard
Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse
Speckled pigeon
Ring-necked dove
Malachite kingfisher
Little bee-eater
Red & yellow barbet
Red-billed hornbill
Eastern yellow-billed hornbill
eastern violet-backed sunbird
Black-headed oriole

Yellow barked acacia
Flat topped acacia
Candelabra tree
Flame tree
Doum palm
Desert rose

Tanzania - Safari Njema
the Tanzania safari gang
Sumawe was our driver/guide with 14 years experience
Overall main roads were much better than Kenya’s; park roads (which are really just very rough dirt paths) are comparable
Safari vehicle was a 4WD Land Rover with 2 gas tanks and 8pax capacity; more suited to the rough terrain than the minivan we had in Kenya
Our traveling companions were Hayley & Mimi (London, England), Hans & Arianne (Bruges, Belgium) and Vicenza (Rome, Italy)
Tried Kilimanjaro, Serengeti & Safari beers
Flew in on 11-seat Air Kenya plane; 50min from Nairobi’s Wilson airport to Kilimanjaro airport; 10,000ft or lower for most of flight; some turbulence which was a bit scary in such a small (but very nice & modern) plane
Visa fee was US$100 per person cash
Lots of signs for orphanages
Saw Masai animal herders as young as 5-years-old alone
Alternating sweet & earthy smell
Sumawe calls old male Cape buffalo “retired generals”
Masai wear bright colors, particularly red, to scare away wild animals
Saw one Masai in traditional attire carrying a spear but wearing a white cowboy hat; saw another wearing a fancy watch
Children by the road waving but sometimes holding out hands for money or making hand to mouth gesture
Serena hotels were all very nice but king size beds were hard
Masai village visit costs extra $50 per group
Loved the strong coffee although one day it almost made me sick from too much caffeine because I drank three cups at breakfast

Lake Manyara
Lake Manyara Serena Lodge overlooking lake & valley; baboons near our room, squirrels & birds in dining room; checked on Tim’s tree
Turndown service includes mosquito net
Were supposed to have “bush dinner” (picnic) but it got rained out
I thought the nametag for a dessert called “malabia” said “malaria”
Hippo pool with all kinds of animals around
Baby monkeys playing; baboon grooming
Small car overloaded with bananas
Boys with chameleons on a stick

Scenery truly is “endless plain” but there are plenty of green, brushy areas (tsetse flies) & water
Serengeti Serena Lodge turndown service includes mosquito net; required to have security escort after dark (no fence around lodge) - saw elephant near our room, owl on nest, dik diks, guinea fowl; told that water buffalo drink from the pool every night; Vincenza saw lions outside her room
Male impalas fighting for domination
Saw two leopards in one day
Watched female lion (leader of pride) get up from resting spot under a tree to slowly hunt & kill zebra
Bat swooping in & out of lodge bar
Rained in the late afternoon or evening both days
Saw a cheetah

Oldupai Gorge is a bit anticlimactic; tiny museum has good info & displays but otherwise not much to see
Heavy rain on drive from Serengeti then again during lunch the following day and in the evening
Ngorongoro Serena Lodge sits on the crater rim; saw a bushbuck near our patio
Saw another cheetah
5-legged elephant
Black rhino
Two old male lions are called coalition brothers
Had to eat picnic lunch in jeep due to black kites

Animal/bird/plant list (only includes different species than we observed in Kenya):
Black rhinoceros
Silvery-cheeked hornbill
Masai giraffe
Masai ostrich
Coke’s hartebeest
White-bellied bustard
Black-bellied bustard
Bateleur eagle
Dwarf mongoose
Magpie shrike
Speckled weaver
Black-spotted hyena
Yellow-billed pelican
Blue monkey
Fireball lily
Golden jackal
Black backed jackal
Black cobra
Black kite
Grey-headed social weaver
Crinum lily
Sacred ibis

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jordan in Seven Days

As usual lately, I haven't found much spare time for writing. The trip has required daily planning or research that exhausts most of my mental energy and that, combined with our busy and sometimes physically exhausting sightseeing schedule, is more than enough "work" on any given day! I still keep a daily log to try to record any particularly memorable occurrences and take the time to caption most of my photos (which, by the way, can be viewed by clicking on this post's title).

Trying to sum up our time in Jordan is a bit challenging for me. The country has a young ruler, an environmental program encapsulated by the RSCN, and a modern capital city (Amman). The highways are in decent condition and you can get a cell phone signal in the middle of the desert. There are enough sights from north to south to warrant a week or two of exploration, depending on how much time you want to spend lazing at a resort on the Dead or Red Seas, exploring the ruins of Petra or riding camels with the Bedouins. However, as with any country in the Middle East, traveling is not always as easy as you might hope but the challenges are certainly not insurmountable. And, as with any foray into unfamiliar territory, it helps to do some research in advance so you know better what to expect and how to handle certain situations. Still, you cannot anticipate the traffic jam caused by a town luncheon, highway signs entirely covered with political posters thus making it impossible to determine the speed limit or which way to turn, etc. Thus the most important advice I can give fellow travelers is to abide by the Girl Scout Motto and always "Be Prepared" for anything!

Daily Log
Border crossing: took 5 min bus ride from Israel Bet She’an terminal; no ATM at Jordan entry gate so had to convert cash from my stash of USD to pay for visa; once across border, no way to get anywhere other than by taxi and then you have to go to nearest town and take small crowded minibuses
Luckily I befriended a guy with a US passport who spoke Arabic and thus negotiated a much lower rate for our shared taxi to Amman
Got caught in traffic jam about 30min south of border due to newly elected official hosting lunch for the whole town
While we were in the Jordan Valley, as far as you could see greenhouses/agriculture, lots of sheep, some goats & cows
Based on recommendation from I booked our rental car with Reliable; Mohammed came to pick us up from Abdoun Circle
Getting out of Amman was interesting; luckily I am now quite comfortable driving pretty much anywhere and don’t hesitate to honk my horn and maneuver in & out of traffic just like the locals, while dodging other vehicles, people, animals, etc.
Arrived at Dead Sea after dark so just had dinner at the hotel’s casual restaurant before using wifi for a while then going to bed
Got up early - 7am to have time to float in the Dead Sea before breakfast; water feels oily, leaves stain on clothes; one drop tastes so salty it makes you gag
Toured Bethany beyond the Jordan; watched documentary on flight from Amman to Cairo which explained the search for the baptism site
Drove to Mount Nebo where Moses is supposed to have first viewed the Holy Land just before his death; windy mountain road, almost hit by out of control car coming down the mountain around a curve too fast and he lost traction on the sand
Drive to Madaba - not far from Mt Nebo but city was chaos; people in the streets everywhere apparently it’s a holiday week; couldn’t find parking anywhere near church with Byzantine mosaics so just went to visitor center to get directions to Kings Highway/Petra
Wadi Mujib was vast and beautiful at sunset
Got turned around in Kerak; no clear signage once you get into town
Drive took much longer than expected: most directional signs were covered by campaign posters; trash (primarily plastic bags) strewn along highway everywhere
Arrived in Petra after dark, around 7pm
Ate dinner at Moda Restaurant: mansaf
Slept in today but awoken early this morning by call to prayer from nearby mosque; this one seemed to last for hours as I drifted in & out of sleep; it is Eid Al Adha, a Muslim holiday
Ate simple breakfast of cooked-to-order eggs & pita bread with jam in hotel’s “restaurant”
Drove to Petra visitor’s center; parking not well-marked or organized
Paid 55JOD pp for 2 day entry ticket (1 day was 50JOD); entry prices are increasing drastically but with no obvious impact on tourist facilities or site preservation
Took about 45min to walk from visitor’s center to Treasury
Walked around Petra as far as royal tombs then hiked up to High Place of Sacrifice; actually rained off & on all afternoon
Ate dinner at local shawarma place
Got up at 8am and had breakfast
At Petra entrance by 10am; much fewer tourists so easier to take pictures; hiked all the way up to Al Deir “monastery”
Main complaint about Petra is visitor’s brochure and overall site could have better directional signs; also constantly had to watch where we stepped because of donkey manure
Drank a celebratory “we conquered Petra!” beer in Petra Palace Hotel’s bar, one of the few places in town that sells alcohol
Ate dinner at Moda Restaurant: kabsah
Info about Wadi Rum taken from a tour company: “…a beautiful desert oasis. For centuries the local Bedouin people pitched their tents here to water their flocks and so Rum has long been a central gathering point. Wadi Rum was the setting for the film "Lawrence of Arabia" which depicted the campaign of the enigmatic British officer T.E. Lawrence when he accompanied the Arab cavalry as it attacked and captured Aqaba from the Turks during the Great Arab Revolt of 1917-18 ACE.”
Obeid met us at visitors center and drove us to the camp
3hr 4WD tour of Lawrence of Arabia sites
Dinner was cooked in a sand pit - roasted chicken & potatoes, rice, cucumber salad, cucumber & tomato salad, pita bread, orange soda or Pepsi
Surprise birthday pound cake for Greg, eaten around the campfire + a free beer from Obeid’s brother
Would have seen more stars in the desert but the moon is getting full and was very bright - didn’t even need a flashlight to walk around at night!
Left camp immediately after breakfast so were in Aqaba by 9am; luckily hotel let us check in early
Walked down to seashore but it was windy so decided just to wade in the Red Sea, not swim or snorkel
There were many Arab women & girls swimming or wading in full burqas or in more modern clothing still covering entire body
Drove back into town (our hotel is on South Coast, 10km from Saudi border) which was extremely busy as it was Friday and thus their weekend; 6pk cans of Amstel was only 7JOD at Aqaba supermarket when we had to pay 5JOD per beer previously at hotels
Relaxed by the pool all afternoon
Ate fresh grilled whole fish for dinner
Started taking malaria medication (doxycycline)
Decided to take malaria medication as soon as I woke up (so no food in stomach); was nauseous and throwing up within 30min!
Ate breakfast then started driving north on Desert Highway towards QAIA
Highway signs covered with campaign posters but not as bad as on King’s Highway
Lane markers are suggestions only so have to use lights and/or horn to indicate you’re going to overtake someone so maybe they’ll move over into their lane
No rest stops and few gas stations along Desert Highway from Aqaba to Amman (over 300km)
many of the road signs were ENTIRELY covered by campaign posters; this one was an exception

Saturday, November 20, 2010

One week in the Holy Land

Before any more time elapses, I want to post a few of my thoughts about Israel. True, we did not travel throughout the entire country but based ourselves in Jerusalem. We originally intended to spend five nights in the Old City, but I became ill with a debilitating headache about mid-way through our visit and thus we extended our stay to seven nights with the final two in Zion Square in the New City.

As usual, we did not have a set itinerary for this part of our trip other than knowing that we both wanted to visit as many of the holy sights as possible. Old City Jerusalem can be a bit overwhelming to the first time visitor with its maze of alleyways and layers upon layers of history. We decided the best way to orient ourselves was to take a free, three hour walking tour (tips appreciated) with SANDEMANs New Europe Tours, which we did on our first full day in Israel. While the tour only touches on the many sights in the Old City, it does provide a good, albeit condensed, overview of the city’s history. Most importantly, it helped us understand how the city is divided into different sections: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, etc. so we would know where we wanted to explore further.

After that first free tour with Sandemans, we decided to sign up for a (not free) four hour Bethlehem tour the following day. While Bethlehem is accessible by taxi or public transport, it is much easier to go on a guided tour, not to mention that our guide had connections at the Church of the Nativity which allowed us to bypass the VERY LONG lines to see the birthplace of Jesus. Also, as Bethlehem is technically in Palestinian-controlled territory, there are security checkpoints to negotiate.
Greg at the barrier wall between Israel & Palestine
I should also mention that we seriously considered hiring a private guide in order to get more out of our time in Israel. Based in part on recommendations from “Israel: A Personal Travel Guide,” a free 48 page PDF distributed via email by Douglas E. Duckett, I contacted both Sam Salem & Madeleine Levine. While Madeleine was not available, Sam was more than willing to guide us. However, his daily fee average for the Jerusalem/Bethlehem area is $300.00 (includes using his car) and Bethlehem as half day is $130.00. Galilee and the coastal sites (Caeserea; Akko & Haifa) are around $420.00 on one day basis. If you want to tour for 2 or 3 days up north to include the Golan Heights then the rate is $350.00 a day. Obviously this is quite a bit of money although I’m sure it would have been totally worth every penny. But, considering the length of time we are traveling and all of our other expenses, we ultimately decided to either sightsee on our own when feasible (Yad Vashem, Israel Museum), and use Sandemans for everything else.
Our guide Danny explains some history to us from the Mount of Olives overlooking Old Jerusalem
One place where we picked up some helpful information was the Jaffa Gate Tourism Center. They had good, free maps of Jerusalem as well as one page printouts detailing the location and opening/closing times of all the major sights. I also enjoyed reading the 20 page pamphlet “On the Paths of Christianity” which includes an Old City self-guided walking tour and information about all the Christian sects. We also obtained the necessary information as to how to cross the border into Jordan via public transportation, although they made it sound much easier than it actually turned out to be!
In summary, other than being stricken with the worst headache of my life, I found Jerusalem and the surrounding area to be a mostly enjoyable place to visit. Even in four days of active sightseeing, we barely scraped the surface of all there is to see and understand about the history of the city. Sometimes it was hard to get in the right mindset, religious or otherwise, to appreciate the importance of the area, as there are so many shops, restaurants, hotels, and other tourists “obscuring the view” so to speak. You will definitely be rewarded by early morning or late evening exploration as well as having plenty of patience to sit back and take it all in at a more relaxed pace.
view of Old City Jerusalem & beyond from the rooftop of the Austrian Hospice
Here is a list of some of the key sights we visited:
Mount of Olives: (where the gates of heaven will open up on Judgement Day)
Dome of the Ascension
Pater Noster (Our Father)
Jewish Cemetery
Dominus Flevit
Church of All Nations/Basilica of the Agony/Grotto (Gethsemane)
Tomb of Mary
Muslim Quarter:
Austrian Hospice
Via Dolorosa
Western Wall

Jewish Quarter:
Roof Promenade

Christian Quarter:
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
New City:
Mamilla Mall
Yad Vashem - The Holocaust History Museum, presents the story of the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective; divided into “chapters” telling the story in chronological order from “the Jewish world before the Holocaust” to “Hall of Names” commemorating all those who perished
Israel Museum - houses the most extensive holdings of biblical and Holy Land archaeology in the world; illuminated manuscripts; Shrine of the Book (Dead Sea Scrolls); 1:50 scale model of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period (66CE)
Machane Yehuda - Jerusalem’s market
Marakiah - Time Out calls it a “bohemian hole-in-the-wall” serving homemade soups; we had sweet potato & lentil with Staropramen draft beer
a busy Friday near closing time at Machane Yehuda market
Reflections on the Holy City (in no particular order):
  • Hearing the sound of church bells for the first time in many weeks 
  • Streets empty after 3pm on Friday; everything closed, buses stop running
  • Smell of freshly baked bread (oval sesame) in the morning
  • Sound & light show at David’s Tower could be heard from our hotel room multiple times per night 
  • New Imperial Hotel - quirky, lots of character, low water pressure, doors that don’t close, didn’t have reservation correctly in system so we had to change rooms for our last night, decent cold breakfast for $5, had to wear earplugs every night as not very soundproof and too much noise in alleyway at night
  • Jerusalem Hostel - first looked at “the nest” a cozy alcove on the roof but you have to cross outside to the other side of the roof to access the shared toilets & showers so stayed in a more expensive Class A room instead; “breakfast” is a relative term here (instant coffee & toast + spreads only)
  • 8 years to build light rail; still not running nor any sign of work being done in the week we were there (another sign of poor infrastructure)
  • Lots of littering, minimal recycling, dirt & dust in general although I did see a street sweeper on Jaffa St early Sunday morning
  • Lots of cats; come out at night to dig thru trash
  • The old city is overrun with touristy shops; got hassled more in the Muslim quarter
  • Everything expensive: food - average entrée 80NIS unless you order sandwich or fast food type meal and then more like 30NIS; accommodation in budget hotels averaged 300NIS per night; public transport reasonable at 6.20NIS per ride although not super efficient
  • Took 3 tours with SANDEMANs New Europe Tours; level of guiding varied; only complaint would be during Bethlehem tour, guide never gave an opportunity nor pointed out restrooms except at first stop; it was a 4+ hour tour! Said we were taking a break but took us to a tourist shop where they served us coffee/tea which we had to drink standing up as there was nowhere to sit
  • Tour groups at Yad Vashem - shouldn’t allow more than 10 people per group as the areas are not that large and the big groups would completely block access to the displays as well as impede forward progress
  • Israel Museum was nice, but as it has been recently renovated, needs more directional signs throughout; also, as we were there on Saturday, none of the cafes were open so there was nowhere to get anything to eat or drink on the entire property
  • Colors/sounds/smells of the market, bugling horn to signal close of business plus they came back to scold shopkeepers who did not appear to be closing fast enough
  • Wanted to take pictures of religious people (monks, nuns, etc.) but felt like I was intruding nor thought it appropriate to bother them to ask permission; so only took a few from a distance
  • Old city walkways are extremely slippery wet or dry as the stones are so worn down from millions upon millions of footsteps; also it is not flat so lots of uneven steps; because the “streets” are so narrow, almost impossible to orient yourself until you come to a more open area and can spot a landmark like one of the church domes or mosque minarets
  • Worst headache of trip so far - no medication not prescription migraine nor narcotics would ease it; stayed in bed all day with ice bags, feverish; gradually got better over following 24hrs but continued to have abnormal pressure behind both eyes
  • Bet Shean border crossing - bus 961 filled with young soldiers carrying machine guns with clips; waited one hour for connecting bus (16) but then it passed by without stopping, no taxis in sight the whole time; finally flagged down a taxi and paid 40NIS for a 5min ride; processed out of Israel (98.50NIS exit fee); paid 5NIS each to ride a bus across the river into Jordan

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pyramids & Palm Trees

“Egypt, or baksheesh for everyone” is what I really wanted to use as the title for this post, and while I think it is a fair assessment of reality, it doesn’t set a nice tone for my blog! As the mini guide book that the Egypt Air flight attendants distributed when we boarded our flight from Istanbul to Cairo states “In Arabic, tipping is called baksheesh and although not obligatory, it is expected in most situations.” I had been warned about this by my friends who had traveled to Egypt and it is mentioned in every guidebook and discussed on every travel website’s forum. But nothing can really prepare you for the daily hassle of determining how much money you should give each person you come into contact with or how to politely but effectively ignore all the random requests for money. From drivers, guides, handlers, attendants, and hangers-on at every tourist sight (including the tourist police!), everyone will ask for your “appreciation” and may even follow or harass you until they receive a satisfactory tip.

In addition to baksheesh, there are numerous businesses targeting the tourism industry: papyrus museums, perfume & incense factories, alabaster or other stone carving facilities, etc. Once you enter one of these places they make it very hard for you to leave. First there are personal introductions, followed by a demonstration of the method of production. Usually you are offered a complimentary beverage (tea or something similar), and there is a grandiose presentation of special “works of art” in their showroom. Then the hard sell begins and every attempt is made to counter any argument you might have about the cost, ability to transport the item, quality, etc. The salesmen will often act personally affronted if you do not purchase something from them or if you try to bargain to a very low price. Note that stops at these places are often included in group tours as many tour companies have contracts which make such visits mandatory.

Also, the Egyptian government basically forces tourists to exit each sight via a bazaar with semi-aggressive salesmen holding up clothing, scarves, statues, postcards, guidebooks, etc. and quoting a ridiculously low price to spark your interest. For example, 1 Egyptian Pound (less the US$0.20) for an embroidered white cotton scarf. However, if you try to give them just 1EGP the offer is quickly retracted or an excuse given as to why that is not the correct price for that particular item. So, in reality, if you really want the scarf you’d end up bargaining and paying something like 15EGP, possibly more. A fair price? Perhaps, but not exactly an enjoyable way of doing business!
the only exit from Hatshepsut's Mortuary Temple site
These were some of the reasons I chose to work with a local travel agent to put together an itinerary for the Egypt portion of our RTW trip. I hoped that our personal guides would shield us from as much of the haggling as possible. Based on recommendations from friends & guidebooks, I first contacted (via email) five different companies this past July. Three are based here in Egypt, one is in the UK, and one in the U.S. I provided each of them with the same information: dates & flexibility of our travel plans, a detailed list of the sights I wanted to see, activities I did or did not want to do, some general info about Greg & I and how we are traveling, and a budget range. Based on their responses, I quickly narrowed the list down to two companies, one Egyptian, one British. And after a few more weeks of emails, I ultimately selected the Egyptian travel agent, Ramses Tours, to book our trip. This was primarily because they offered us more excursions, the Nile river cruise on a comfortable ship, and 5 star hotels for a comparable price as the UK agent quoted for a similar itinerary but with fewer excursions, the cruise on a felucca with no facilities and 3-4 star hotels. The other companies either could not provide the services I requested, did not respond in a timely manner, or quoted much higher prices.

We spent a total of $2688 for 9 nights/10 days in Egypt which was $488 more than the base price of $1100 per person for our tour. The additional cost was comprised of approximately $120 for meals & drinks not included in the tour, $200+ in tips, $104 for add-on activities (camel ride & felucca), and the remaining $60 included our Egyptian visas and miscellaneous costs like replacement sunglasses for Greg’s broken ones and restocking toiletries or other supplies.

Our customized itinerary included:
  • Guides & drivers, gas, parking, tolls, all transfers
  • 1 full day tour in Cairo (which was really only a half day tour so we paid extra for a felucca ride to kill some time before being dropped off at the train station)
  • 1 full day tour in Alexandria
  • Admission fees per person (EGP): Pyramids 60, Egyptian Museum 60, High Dam 20, Philae Temple 50, Kom Ombo Temple 30, Edfu Temple 50, Valley of the Kings: Three Tombs 80, Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple (Hatshepsut) 30, Karnak Temple 65, Luxor Temple 50, Montazah 6, Kom El-Shuqafa 35, Roman Theatre 20, Library 10 = total 566EGP = $98USD
  • Horse drawn carriage to/from Edfu temple
  • Motorboat to/from Philae Temple
  • 1 day use of Luxor Little Garden Hotel (not on original itinerary, complimentary add on by Ramses $35*)
  • 2 nights at Mercure Le Sphinx, Cairo w/breakfast (total value of $275*)
  • 1 night at Iberotel Aswan Hotel w/breakfast $200*
  • 1 night at Alexandria Azur Hotel w/breakfast $350*
  • 3 nights on Nile Saray river boat full board $500*
  • 2 nights on sleeper train including dinner & breakfast $240
*Note that I checked the hotel websites for their rates during the dates of our stay to help estimate if our tour represented an overall good value. We had the option to stay in 3-star hotels for $940 or 4-star hotels for $1020 (instead of $1100 for 5-star) but based on what we saw of 3* versus 5* properties, I definitely recommend the upgrade. 3* hotels in Egypt are comparable to backpacker hostels with private rooms and ensuite baths. They are not especially modern and can be a bit shabby, but seemed safe enough. A Four Seasons which is rated 5* in the U.S. would be more like 10* based on what we experienced. Bottom line, the rating system is strictly based on facilities, not on standards!
our room at the 5-star Iberotel Aswan
Not included:
Egypt visa $15pp
Tips - at our discretion…
Optional add-ons per person: inside pyramid $20, 15min camel ride $15 (we paid $25 for 30+min), mummy room at Egyptian Museum $20, felucca ride $20 for 30min (we paid $25 for 45min), sound & light show at pyramids $30, Abu Simbel day trip $90, Luxor hot air balloon $100, full day Sakkara pyramids + Memphis + Old Cairo $60, Cairo-Nile dinner cruise $45-60

Our tour did not start out as smoothly as I would have liked, but eventually we learned that things would fall into place, even if not exactly as we expected. Amongst other things, the person that greeted us at the airport in Cairo and transferred us to our hotel did not give us any information, particularly our final detailed itinerary which I only had as an email from Ramses (not a PDF attachment or anything more formal and excluding details like the name & location of our hotels, the tour start & end times each day, etc.). Also, the representative told us to check out of the hotel and to meet our guide in the lobby the next day at 10:00AM. The next morning our guide was quite upset when he arrived at 8:30AM and spent the next hour looking for us (while we were eating breakfast) as he had been instructed to pick us up at 9:00AM, not 10:00AM. Every day there was some issue related to the tour that was a bit annoying for us (e.g. we finally were given a printed itinerary on day 7 but it was the same as what had been sent via email and still had no details about pick-up & drop-off times, hotels, etc.). I have written a detailed review of the pros & cons of working with Ramses Tours on Trip Advisor for those of you reading this who are considering a trip to Egypt.

I really do not want to dwell on the negatives, as I have mentioned them to some extent in my daily log. Instead it is better to focus on the most enjoyable aspects of our tour of Egypt:
  • Riding camels at the Giza Pyramids
  • Kushari for lunch with our guide Hesham in Cairo
  • Steering a felucca on my own
  • Our suite on the Nile Saray (plus large, modern hotel rooms throughout our tour compared to the budget backpacker accommodations we’re more accustomed to on our RTW trip)
  • Vivid colors, drawings and hieroglyphics in the tombs in the Valley of Kings
  • Our helpful and informative guides who really educated us as to what we were seeing

Some factual information related to the sights we visited:

We traveled 899km from Cairo to Aswan one way or 1798km round trip via train & Nile river cruise. We then traveled 221km from Cairo to Alexandria one way or 442km round trip via private van.

Egypt’s history can be roughly divided into the following periods, and I have included the sights we visited from those times:
  • Old Kingdom c2700-2200BC: Giza Pyramids (Khufu, Khafra, Menkaura or Cheops, Chephern, Mycerinus) & Sphinx (represents strength & wisdom of Egypt)
  • Middle Kingdom c2080-1640BC: ancient city of Thebes/Luxor
  • New Kingdom c1550-1069BC: Temples of Luxor & Karnak, Tutankhamon’s tomb (only famous b/c of treasures), Valley of Kings tombs, Deir el Beheiri (Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple)
  • Ptolemaic & Greek era c305-30BC: temple of Horus at Edfu, Temple of Sobek & Haroeris at Kom Ombo, Temples on Philae Island
  • Roman & Christian Era c30BC-618AD: Roman Theatre in Alexandria
  • Arabic & Islamic Egypt 639-1517AD
Temple of Horus at Edfu
 Here are all of my photos from this leg of our RTW trip:
Egypt - Nile River Cruise

My Daily Log
Ramses contractor (Mostafa) met us at baggage claim exit; his only purpose was to retrieve us from the airport and check us into our hotel; both him & the driver talked on their cell phones at least half of the 1hr transit time
Interesting ride to hotel: wedding caravan with people piled on top of belongings in trucks and/or sitting on roof of vehicles, honking horns; donkey carts sharing 8 lane highway; camels & horses coming home from the Pyramids (it was almost dusk); people along side of highway waiting for or cramming into minivans
Nice, unexpected suite (3083) at Mercure Le Sphinx
I realized my contact lens solution had leaked during the flight and need to buy new bottle but nearest store (Carrefour) is 30min away according to concierge
Wanted to get some fresh air and look for something cheap to eat but concierge’s directions were not 100% clear and map wasn’t detailed enough; Greg attracted attention of tourist police (or guy dressed like them) who offered to lead us to the dining street but instead took us to a “papyrus museum” where we were practically forced to listen to salesman demonstrate the paper-making process and show us some artwork before the hard sell; drank complimentary hibiscus tea
Have already been asked multiple times where we are from, if we are married, have kids, etc.
After the papyrus hassle, plus it was completely dark, decided to return to hotel for dinner
Ate on rooftop terrace, disappointed pyramids were not well lit but still nice view when we could see them; listened to local musicians while I ate tabbouleh & hummus w/tahini and drank wine; discussed w/Greg how we could make up names & stories to tell touts just for fun

Buffet breakfast at hotel - busy, mostly Europeans
Went into lobby to use wifi; our guide Hesham found us there and was angry we weren’t ready to leave; we had been told 10am by yesterday’s guide and it was apparently supposed to be 9am…
Went to Giza Pyramids, walked around (not much to see unless you want to pay extra to go inside a pyramid), rode camels for about 30 minutes, returned to pyramids to see the Sphinx
Went to Egyptian Museum for about 2 hours, no cameras allowed inside, no air conditioning!, we didn’t pay extra to see the mummy rooms as there was enough to see otherwise
Had lunch at local kushari restaurant called Tom & Basal (garlic & onion)
Went on felucca ride; eventually driver asked if I wanted to steer the boat; I ended up “driving” it for at least 20 min of the 45min ride -- hard work on your back! -- at the end I even got to steer the boat into the parking spot, supposedly first time tourist has done that according to our guide
Drove to a supermarket so I could buy contact lens solution but they didn’t sell it; had to walk a long block to a mall that had a pharmacy; it was behind the counter so had to ask staff to retrieve it
Got dropped off at Giza train station; very dilapidated; no a/c seating area or safe place to store bags so sat at outdoor café surrounded by cigarette smoke to wait for 2 hours; had to pay 1LE to use toilets that were not exactly clean
Boarded train just after 8pm and had our own sleeper compartment with seats, fold down beds, sink; hot dinner was served within 30min of departure
Stayed up until 10:30pm then went to sleep

Woke up around 4:45am as others were getting ready to disembark train at Luxor
Ate light breakfast (asst breads); arrived at Aswan around 8:30am
Our guide Mina met us right outside our car’s door
Visited High Dam (you can only go on top of it, must get special permission to tour inside) & Philae Temple (reached by motorboat)
Checked in at hotel but then requested that Mina take us to local place (ie, falafel stand) to get lunch and duty free shop to buy beer & wine
Returned to hotel; ate lunch & drank a beer, showered, took 2hr nap
Lounged by the pool to watch the sun set
Worked online in hotel room, chatted with Mom on Google Talk
Ate dinner in hotel restaurant (nothing else nearby); only option was 140LE buffet or small “snack” menu; I ordered a cheeseburger with fries, it was actually pretty good
Returned to room to drink another beer; went to bed around 11pm

Got up around 8am; ate buffet breakfast
Power out for 2 hours at hotel but still had internet access so uploaded pics, posted Turkey blog, etc.
Mina picked us up at 1pm for short drive to our river cruise boat; interesting boarding process involved walking thru lobbies of two other boats to reach ours
spent 30min talking to Ramses Tour operators on Mina’s cell phone to sort out issues with our itinerary plus found out that flight to Tel Aviv is on Air Sinai not Egypt Air as we previously thought
Ate buffet lunch and went to our room; soon discovered (after exploring the rest of the boat) that we were in one of two suites! We have king size bed, huge sitting area, armoire, full size dresser, two nightstands, flat screen tv (with 6 channels but only works when we‘re docked), full size couch, etc. PLUS huge private outdoor terrace on the front of the boat
Sat outside on terrace taking pictures until we reached Kom Ombo; met our guide Samuel in the boat’s lobby to walk to temple (approx 1hr tour); Samuel’s favorite word is habibi which means “beloved”
Had to wait for one boat to move and another to park before we could board our boat again
Drank a glass of wine in our room then had dinner with our tablemates: a couple from Winchester, England whose daughter & her family lives & works in Cairo and a girl from Tokyo, Japan; other cruisers are a British tour group and a German tour group plus a few other “independents”
Our boat holds approx 100 passengers
Returned to room for another glass of wine and to do some writing before going to bed
Every place we stop, our boat is boarded by one or two machine gun-toting tourist police

Awoken at 4:45am by call to prayer from multiple mosques by the boat dock in Edfu
Meet Samuel in lobby at 6:45am
Horse drawn carriage to/from Edfu Temple; 1hr tour
Return to boat; eat breakfast
For a reason not yet explained, our boat doesn’t leave Edfu until 1:45pm but was supposed to leave at 9am
This means that we didn’t reach the Esna lock until 5:45pm and thus it was already dark
River scenes: fishermen “beating” the water, donkeys braying, cows lowing, birds migrating, sunset
Crossing lock was interesting; since we were late, all boats were coming from opposite direction; much shouting and arguing, flashing of spotlights; had great view from our terrace
Ate dinner; drank wine on sundeck with our dining companions
Finally reached Luxor at 10pm; belly dancing & whirling dervish-type performance in lounge
Ramses operator called to confirm our schedule for tomorrow; his every other word is inshallah (god willing)

Got up at 7:30; ate breakfast
8:45 p/u by Mohammed to tour Valley of Kings (tombs of Ramses IV, XI, III), temple of Hatshepsut, Colossi of Memnon
Returned to boat by 12:30; ate lunch
Didn’t realize until Mohammed made brief mention of it during our tour that the Luxor massacre by Islamist militants on 17NOV1997 was at Hatshepsut’s temple; 62 people were killed including 58 foreign tourists
Took nap (have had constant headache since 11/1)
Mohammed retrieved us again at 3:45pm; toured Karnak & Luxor Temples
Went into old mosque attached to Luxor Temple; man followed us around, tried to get money from us (“donation for the mosque/imam“)
Ramses Tour staff (Ehab) picked us up and brought us back to boat at 7pm
Ate dinner, showered & packed

Wake up call at 7am (which we didn’t request); another call at 7:30 to “eat breakfast now”
Checked out at 8:30 and walked to main road to await Ehab
Drove into downtown Luxor, toured local market where Ehab bought us some fresh mint, picked up falafel sandwiches from street vendor
Dropped us off at 3* hotel at 10am; drank complimentary hibiscus tea/juice
Rested in our room all afternoon as I continue to have a headache & now also stomach cramps
Ehab picked us up at 6:45pm and took us to train station; helped us board our train which departed at 7:30pm
Ate dinner on the train (included with ticket) and took various meds so I could try to sleep

Rough night on the train - the jolting was so bad that I actually considered using my luggage strap as a “bed belt” to better secure me in my top bunk
Got up at 4:45am; disembarked in Cairo at 5:30
Slept off & on during 3hr drive to Alexandria; highway was rough at times and had lots of diversions and security checkpoints so driver had to slow down to go over speed bumps and make sharp turns
Arrived in Alexandria by 9:15; waited at coffee shop for Heba, our first female guide!
Spent full day walking around/touring Montazah (king‘s palace gardens/waterfront), Kom El-Shuqafa (catacombs), Roman Theatre, & huge, modern Library with stop for lunch at shopping mall and to buy more Lamisil from a pharmacy
I felt awful all day and could barely stand up straight by the time we checked into the hotel around 5pm
Rested in room until 7pm but when we tried to go to the Lebanese restaurant on hotel property were told it was closed; ate dinner at hotel’s outdoor café with everyone around us smoking shisha; I had to try the local specialty “beef liver Alex” despite not eating anything else all day because of my stomach issues

Actually slept pretty well and only had to get up once during the night; virus seems to be almost out of my system however Greg now has diarrhea but no other symptoms so his may only be from food
Ate very light buffet breakfast
Relaxed in room until noon p/u for transfer back to Cairo
Scenes on drive from Alex: natural gas refinery, salt fields, soft drinking bottling plants, commercial farms, trucks hauling produce, donkey cart almost caused pile up, ramshackle tea & snack stands in middle of highway; realized that reason for all the diversions is road construction stretching all the way from Alex to Cairo but not obvious as to exactly what the end result will be
One rest stop around halfway point; small zoo (various animals in pens) attached; note that parking lot attendants “wash” (really wipe) your car whether you want them to or not and, of course, then you have to tip!
Arrived in Cairo just after 3pm; took 30+min to check into hotel for no apparent reason; room not nearly as nice as our suite from the first night
Lounged by the pool until sunset drinking Ceralyte (oral rehydration concentrate) YUCK!
Used free wifi in lobby
Ate dinner at hotel’s Italian restaurant - ordered two types of simple pastas and shared as we’re still suffering from digestive problems

Up at 5:15 for pre-6am p/u for airport; at airport by 6:30
Checked in, cleared immigration, no real seating area in Terminal 1 so left Greg in coffee shop while I went to VIP Lounge
Cleared security at gate around 8am - made us dump all liquids even if purchased in the airport (ie, bottled water, canned soda, etc.)
Bused to our very remote pad around 8:45; they made everyone positive id our checked luggage prior to boarding the plane
Note: The flight is operated by EgyptAir staff, with EgyptAir boarding passes, EgyptAir equipment, catering, etc. but our tickets said Air Sinai. The exterior of the plane was solid white with no airline affiliated markings of any kind. When I had our tour guide call EgyptAir directly in Aswan to reconfirm the flight they said it didn’t exist. Later, I looked it up on their website and sure enough, you cannot find Tel Aviv as a destination nor is that route listed in their inflight magazine.
With no explanation ever given, we sat trapped on the plane until almost 11am before finally taxiing out to the runway for takeoff (our scheduled departure time was 9am).