Monday, July 28, 2008

Egypt and Dubai

* If anyone is looking for a guide I’d recommend my guide as a no frills climb. He picks you up at the airport, drops you off at the hotel, takes you up the mountain, and back down and is cheaper then everyone else. However it is no frills, really basic tent, sleeping conditions and food, BUT professional.

* Dave needed a ride to the airport so we asked around for a taxi. We got a guy who didn’t speak English very well so we got our hotel doorman to translate. Dave got the guy to agree to $40 USD and to pick him up at 5pm. Come 5pm the doorman shows up with his own car to take Dave to the airport. The taxi guy and doorman started a tug of war with Dave’s bags. Dave eventually got into the taxi but according to him he still had to ‘re-negotiate’ his rates again.

* That night after Dave left, I went out to the only tourist restaurant in town and had dinner. They were packed so I got placed at a table with two Dutch girls. We had a good conversation going until my Kilimanjaro guide showed up drunk. He then proceeded to monopolize the whole conversation and even had a business proposition where I would send him clients from the US. Really annoying, yet memorable. I would still recommend him in that he's cheap.

* The hotel staff in Moshi tried to charge me twice as much as the cost of the room. First they told me the rate changed ‘last week’ and then proceeded to tell me I was in a double when I obviously had a single. For the first two days I overpaid them so on the last day I told them I only owed 1/3 of the cost cause I paid too much the first two nights. This took 1 hour because the ‘rates changed’ and then I had a double room not a single.

* Cairo International Airport is the worst airport I’ve ever flown through. By far, nothing else even comes close. People complain about long lines and long waits at US airports, but at least at those airports you can eventually figure out what the process is and know that everyone else has the same wait as you. Not so in Cairo. First I arrive at immigration, I look at all the forms and they are in Arabic except one which has a few words of English I understand so I fill that one out. I get in line for passport control. When I get to the guy, he says it’s the wrong form, gives me another one, and tells me to get in the back of the line. I get back in line and 10 minutes later with 30 people still in line they shut the booth down and move me to another line. At this point I start noticing that random lines are being opened and closed. About 30 minutes later my line closes and they move me to another line, and at the end of it too. Finally getting fed up with this process I notice the ‘diplomatic/crew' line was empty and that people we just walking up to it. I decide to give it a shot and that was what finally got me into Egypt.

* On the way out of Cairo I took a taxi to the Airport and the driver asked me which terminal. I told him I didn’t know but I was flying Egypt Air to Dubai. Now there are three ways I’ve seen airports organized. One is terminals are separated by airlines, by international/domestic or by airline and international/domestic. In either of the three cases they usually have signs telling you which terminal you need to go to. Cairo on the other hand has no signs, simply Terminal 1 or Terminal 2. The driver asks a guard and the guard says ‘Terminal 2’, which is where he drops me off. Turns out it’s the wrong one. I ask for the bus for Terminal 1, they point me to the shuttle system up front, simple right? Nope the buses that run every 5 minutes only go to the car park and back to Terminal 2. This I found out by waiting at the car park for 30 minutes, now I only have 1.5 hours before my flight. I decide to head back to Terminal 2, at which point the information guy says just to wait up front. 1.25 hours before my flight and I’m still at Terminal 2. I get to Terminal 1 at 1 hour before my flight. At this point I realize there are 3 buildings at Terminal 2. I guessed building 2 and somehow ended up in building 1, but they are all Egypt Air counters but the building is just packed with people, barely enough room for you to move around. After much pushing and shoving and asking questions I get pointed to building 2. I arrive there only to find that there is a security line before check-in and it’s long! This is where I put in my casual line butting skills to work... I get into building 2 only to be surrounded by Delta Airline signs. I ask around and everyone gives me the casual just get in line... So get in line, I picked lane 2 with 45 minutes to go before my flight. The tiny room was fully packed wall to wall with people and luggage. They are shouting at each other in Arabic and being very angry. Also none of the counters have any signs, other then the ones behind me, which again said Delta Ailines. I noticed that in lane 1 (to my left) a guy at the front of the line was shouting at the guy behind the counter and making hand gestures to the lack of signs and the guy behind the counter just points him to the another line. Two minutes later I noticed that they put up ‘Business/First Class’ sign in lane 1. At this point the whole lane 1 erupts and starts shouting and gesturing. Thirty minutes before flight and I still haven’t checked in yet. Lucky for me I realize the two Egyptians in front of me, who speak very good English, are on my flight and they didn’t look worried. When I get on the flight I find out that for some reason Egyptians don’t care for seat assignments. On the way to my seat in row 42 I found 4 people in someone else’s seat including mine. Cairo Airport is absolutely the worst!

* Cairo Taxis are old and crazy! The taxi from the airport to the hotel was a 1971 Peugeot. The rear hatch door popped open in the middle of the ride. And we saw many broken down cars along the road, seems to be a regular occurrence in Cairo. The driver tried to tell me that my hotel was shut down for health reasons. I told him I had just called them and he smiled and kept driving.

* I got scammed in Cairo. I’m still embarrassed to get into details. Suffice to say I walked into it eyes wide open. I don’t even have the excuse that in 20/20 hindsight I could have avoided it. In fact I knew every mistake I was making while I was making it. All the things that you are never supposed to do in a foreign city, I did. I even had a few opportunities to walk away and/or mitigate my loss but I didn’t do anything. I’ll tell you about it face to face, so next time you see me and are curious, just ask...

* Pyramids are just awesome. Not sure how else to describe it. There have been many books written about them to make several Great Pyramids and enough photos to examine every stone one by one. However just being there makes a huge difference. So if you guys really want to know what the Pyramids are about, come check it out!

* City of the Dead is an interesting place. For those who don’t know about it, it’s basically two cemeteries where people live. These people live in the mausoleum, they play in them and even play chess over the graves. In return for the free lodging the people take care of the mausoleums. They only part that was a bit of a let down is that the mausoleums are built like houses so it really doesn’t look like a cemetery.

* Tamer, a Canadian Egyptian I met at the Canadian Hostel, along with Jolin from Taiwan, we went to the Pyramids together. There Tamer tried to trade a $20CAD for 200E£ (Egyptian Pounds) with one of the water hustlers. In reality the $20 CAD was worth 107E£. He managed to change it for about 130E£. We were about half way around the Great Pyramid (of Cheops) when the hustler caught up with us and wanted his money back; his mother was in the hospital. Would have been poetic if Tamer pulled it off. On the way to the pyramids we had many people shouting at us to ‘come this way to the Pyramids,’ just a lure to get you into their stable or shop. I almost fell for one if Tamer hadn’t asked the guy in Arabic what he wanted, which was to come see his shop.

* Dubai is hot, hot, hot HOT! It’s 42C outside and the wind is hot too. Just crazy! Don’t know how else to describe it. I tried walk around town but it’s way too hot. I caved in and spend money on a taxi to get me around. Dubai’s efficiency is refreshing after 2 months in Africa. Things are done quickly, everyone is attentive and everyone goes ‘yes sir’, ‘no sir’ or ‘please sir.’ The airport was a breeze, 30 minutes from curb to gate.

* Dubai is a whole world onto itself. It's full of foreign worker who do all the work. The locals do all the white collar work, such as stamping your passport.

* Mall of the Emirates is a sight to behold. I've never been to the Mall of America but I don't think the Mall of America can compare. The Mall of the Emirates has an indoor ski slope in the middle of the desert! I didn't ski as I didn't want to spend the money or time.

* Anyway just a few thoughts as I'm waiting for my flight to Beijing.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I'm a walking talking ATM.

So everything has gone a little too smoothly so far, so something bad was bound to happen and as they say: "When it rains, it pours."

*After Sipi Falls we head west past Kampala and into western Uganda, near the Congo border. There late at night we arrived at a town near Queen Elizabeth II National Park, about 30km from the Congo border. There at a local hotel called "The White House" we stayed the night. A few things about this place, one there was an UN convoy parked outside, two there were no westerners and three there were no women staying at the hotel except Kim. The interesting thing about the UN convoy, as explained to me by Kim, it was a peacekeeping supply convoy; the letters were black not blue. Also the next morning we wanted to leave early, 5:30 am early. At this point we realized that every door was bolted and locked; there was no way for us to leave. At 6am we were able to get someone to open the door to the courtyard. After loading the truck we noticed that they had misplaced the keys to the gate. At this pointed they were using the butt of an AK (Yes, a machine gun) to dislodge the lock. We (Dave, Kim and I) made a point to stay away from the pointed end of the gun in case it went off. In the end they managed to pry the lock off with a crowbar; a much safer option.

* Arriving at sunrise in Queen Elizabeth II National Park, we immediately saw a lioness. It was laying in the road when we showed up and moved herself into the tall grass as we stopped and stared. Throughout the morning we spotted many more animals. After the early morning game drive we had an expensive late breakfast at a safari lodge. At this lodge we had breakfast outside, which was beautiful and full of birds. And it was the birds that started my slide into a deep abyss. First they shit on my food and then on my camera lens. It was either because of this shit or the car shaking that later broke the lens. So as of now I do not have a wide to medium view lens. I only have an old point and shot camera and a 300mm to 800mm (super telephoto) lens. I am currently in the process of trying to get it fixed; not sure how that will work.

* The second incident happened after breakfast and we were heading back out of the park. The road was a hard dirt bed covered with gravel. I was taking a nap and was woken up with the SUV swerving and Dave shouting "Solomon, step on the gas...". The SUV started fishtailing out of control, spun around, hit a ditch and flipped over. While upside down in a ditch we accessed our situation. We realized the passenger side (driver's side in the US) was buried in dirt. Dave, behind the driver, had his window closed. Then we realized the driver's window was open and clear. Our driver climbed out, after kicking me a bit. I followed him and Dave followed me and Kim came out last. I suffered some scratches trying to exit through a briar patch. Dave and Kim seeing this simply climbed over the car back onto the road, which I had to do because the briar patch was very thick. We dragged out all our stuff, found that only Dave's camelbak was busted. We physically had no injuries. With the help of locals driving by we flipped the car back over. Solomon changed the flat tire, we pushed roof back up and the driver drove it to the nearest police station. Dave, Kim and I hitched a ride with a ranger and went to the Safari lodge where we paid $400 (yes, USD) for a room. The next morning Solomon returned with another car and we drove to the police station to make a statement. The statement consisted "It was 2:30pm, we blew a tire and the car flipped over. We are all OK." and then left for Kampala.

* Dave and I flew to Tanzania with minimal issues. The only weird part was our flight was 2 hours early, which is really weird considering it was a 45 minute flight. Not sure what happened. Dave and I were a little nervous about our Kilimanjaro guide as he should up with a Toyota Corolla to pick us up but everyone else was being picked up in Land Cruisers and buses. To top that off the Corolla initially wouldn't start.

* The climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro was awesome. The first day was muddy and below the clouds. Once we passed the clouds we were greeted by a sea of clouds. Mt. Meru was barely peaking out of the horizon, a thoroughly breath taking hike. It got the point when we'd get another beautiful vista, I'd go "Yea, what's new?" The final push to the summit was a grueling 24 hours. You wake up 6 am on day four and you start a hike up and down to 4200m from 3900m for lunch. You continue the hike up to 4600m for dinner at 6pm. You sleep for 5-6 hours, and wake up at 11pm for tea and biscuit and the hike to the summit at midnight. This involved what I call the 4-count-2-step-breathing hike. You move one foot, breath in deep for 2 seconds, move the other foot, breath out for 2 seconds and repeat for 6-7 hours until you reach the summit. Reaching the summit was memorable. On one side the sun is rising, on the other side the moon is setting over Mt. Meru. The view of the glacier and the thought that you just summited the tallest mountain in Africa is just overwhelming.

* The picture I'd paint for this part of the trip again involves bodily functions. This time taking a piss at 4am. The sky was cloudless, the moon had set and the Milky Way and stars were so bright across the sky that you didn't need a flashlight to walk to the toilet. Then as you finished your business you catch a few minutes in the cold night enjoying the stars and Kibo peak before scurrying back into your warm sleeping bag and tent.

* After climbing Kilimanjaro Dave and I went out to the local Indo-Italian Restaurant where we met two women from Germany Mika and Anika (who come into play later...). Dave then arranged to have his flight leave the next day. The next morning I found out that I had left my ATM card in the ATM machine (incident number 3). Too bad for me it was Sunday and the bank wasn't open. I worried about it all day. Later that afternoon I got contacted by a friend of my Kilimanjaro guide who suddenly had a safari going Monday, previously he had one leaving Sunday and Tuesday but none Monday. Dave and I joked that was Mika and Anika because they had been thinking of doing a safari and the schedule fit theirs and it was last minute as well. Now, for those who've travelled in third world countries you know that the USD is gold, everything is priced in it and they prefer to be paid in it. So for the safari trip they wanted USD upfront and I didn't want to pay USD. So I decided to pay in TZS but I didn't have enough cash on me and my main ATM card was missing. Long story short I paid 2/5 in TZS 1/5 in USD and then 2/5 the next morning when I could withdraw money again.

* The 4 day safari to Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater was awesome. We saw so many animals in all sorts of environments. It got to the point where we went oh, another zebra, giraffe, elephant, lion, wildebeest, hippopotamus, etc.. etc... The only truly rare animal was the leopard and rhino. We saw a leopard sleeping in a tree and when the wind blew you could see the back of its head. The rhino was also a tough spot, as it was lying on the ground and every time it shifted you could see the horn moving around. Otherwise even the cheetah which is supposed to be rarest animal to see, we saw it three times. So the story behind Mika and Anika is that they were on the safari and it was them that decided last minute to join a safari.

* I saw this commercial that was really funny. It was black and white, a scrawny kid about 6 years old, going after scrawny looking 6 year old girl. He gets her flowers, cards and gets beaten up by bullies to protect her. Then you hear him say "I believe in starting investments early and watching them grow into it..." On screen the girl is introducing the boy to her mother who is definitely a hottie. And it was for a investment management company.

* A few small things. I've realized that I'm really annoyed that people assume I'm Japanese. There isn't anything wrong with being Japanese. However when you walk down the street and the touts shouting 'Hey you, Japan.' it gets on my nerves! I deal much better with 'Hey friend, where are you from?' I've also discovered that I'm a walking talking ATM machine as everyone assumes I have money to spend on something...

That is it for now folks...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Uganda gives me hope for Zimbabwe

I wrote this in Uganda and just posting this now, will post stuff on Tanzania and Kilimanjaro in a few days...

* So the Apple Pie reference in Zimbabwe was because I was getting Apple Pie for desert. The food portions were not enough for me, for several reasons... So I didn’t need another full entree but I needed more food. So I usually ordered dessert and no matter where I went, they had a list of deserts of which they only had Apple Pie with Ice Cream. So I had a lot of Apple Pie in Zimbabwe.

* Uganda has recovered so much from the days of Idi Amin and his successive dictators who looted and destroyed this country and it’s people. Today Uganda is full of hope. I see roadside stalls selling food, cellphone minutes, cloths and other trinkets. I see people out late at night drinking with friends and family. I see smiles and not flies on kids faces. I see joy and contentment in the people as we drive by. This gives me hope for the rest of Africa. If Uganda can come back from Idi Amin, imagine Zimbabwe in 10-15 years! I hope that when I return to Zimbabwe, and I will return, in a few years I will notice a considerable change.

* One thing I never thought I’d ever do was white water kayaking the Nile. I figured if I learned to white water Kayak, it would be some place closer to home like Great Falls or New River Gorge. No, the first white water kayak experience I get is in the Nile in Uganda. It was an awesome experience, though I did spend as much time under and out of the boat as I did in it...

* We arrived in Sipi Falls during a power failure. As I’m writing this blog, it’s the only power I’ve seen in this region in the past 48 hours. Every outlet in this lodge is plugged in and every piece of electronic equipment is being charged. Crazy how dependent on power we are. Can’t say I was suffering the past few days, but definitely a bit anxious and worrying whether I’d be able to charge my camera, my GPS and my laptop. And now we are out of power.... Back, 30 minutes later we are power again and there now another mad dash to re-plug everything back in.

* We managed to find some short bolted routes in Sipi Falls. Dave decided to take the first climb. All geared up and ready to go, half way up the climb he got stung by a wasp. Now, those who know Dave, Dave is allergic to bee stings. So he immediately took some Benadryl and we kept an eye on his swelling. After a few hours of climbing we returned to the lodge for Dave to call Marty. Dave asked about the max dosage for Benadryl he could take and took it. The problem was it as all the Benadryl Dave, Kim and I had. So we had to look for more anti-histamines. Now the good news was the Benadryl stopped the swelling from creeping up Dave’s arm and at times even decreased the swelling. However, we still needed Benadryl in case the swelling came back up. As you can imagine, you can not get Benadryl in Uganda, so we had to find another anti-histamine. The first clinic gave Dave pain meds, the second clinic/hospital required prescription and there was a massive line for the doctor. So we decided to hit the roadside pharmacies. Showing them our empty Benadryl containers we asked for ant-histamine and allergy medication. All the answers were we don’t have that until, we hid the Benadryl containers from view and simply asked ‘What do you have for allergy meds?’. This question bought out two possible pieces of medication of which only one had an indication sheet. We purchased extra tablets and again made a phone consultation with a Doc back in the states. Dave as of writing this blog is still alive. Doctor says if it doesn’t kill you in the first 90 minutes, you are usually fine.

Dave is fine now, we are in Tanzania.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Crying for Zimbabwe

I was going post this as "Nothing says Zimbabwe as Apple Pie.." but thought better of it, I'll explain the alternative title later...

My main point of this post is to explain the life here in Zimbabwe and I've only seen the 'better' part of it. As I mentioned in my other post things here are terrible and as I have met the locals, things here are dire. I'd like to share some stories with you all.

* Ndooga was my river guide for my canoing (really a raft...) trip down the Zambezi river, the river that feeds Victoria Falls. This guy was funny and smart, knew almost everything there was to know about the river and wildlife. Though because of him we got charged by an elephant, but again that is another story. The point of mentioning Ndooga was during our lunch break we started talking, one thing led to another and then I noticed he was crying, or at least brimming on the verge of crying. I paused and realized we were discussing the finer points of rent prices in London and New York how a 'small' room costs $1500 to $2000 to rent. Here was a man struggling to feed himself and his family. How absurd was the topic, I really didn't know what to do at that point, what do you say to a person like that? It will get better? Always hope for the future? Tomorrow is another day? We talked about other issues, but I was surprised to see a grown man cry. In the end I gave him a 100Rand tip, but that was probably more to assuage my guilt more then anything else.

* Roy is the night watchman at my hostel. He's 70 years old, gray haired, hunched and missing most of his teeth. Yet he has so much stoicism and yet sadness. This is the only second grown man brim with tears in a very long time. This time we were talking about Zimbabwe, it's people and his family. Again what do you do? What do you say?

* Phillip was my waiter at Mama Africa (in Victoria Falls), he was so skinny I wasn't sure he had a decent meal in years. How does a person eat thinking about that? And then there is a Mama Africa itself, set up like a dinner party expecting guests that will never come. All the gas lamps, the silverware, the napkins and place mats, all laid out and I was the only guest there.

* Then there is the chef at the hostel where I stayed. At one point he tells me he doesn't have a receipt book and would like me to pay him cash and we all keep it hush hush. The way this place was supposed to work was I ordered food, I got a receipt and the carbon copy went to the bosses and I paid the bosses on the way out. So him asking for cash was basically stealing from his boss. I knew he had a receipt book or that he could've just walked 15 ft to the office to get another one. At first I agreed with him, handed him $5 CAD in cash (as all my USD was in twenties and RAND in hundreds). After eating the food, it didn't settle very well knowing that just helped someone steal from his boss. So in the end I asked him for a meal slip and told him to keep the cash. Later in the day he made a page from a regular ledger and gave me that as a meal slip; not sure if he was covering his tracks or what... But how desparate does a person have to be to steal? Risk his job?

* At the airport I decided I wanted some Zim Dollars as souveniers. I went to the exchange office and got $2 USD changed into into 30 367 407 992 Zim Dollars. It was a 1 USD to 15 183 703 966 ZIM Dollar exchange rate. Now the messed up part was when I arrived the exchange rate was like 1 USD to about 12 billion Zim$. That is a 3 billion dollar or 20% increase in 5 days. Talk about inflation. One of the guys at my South African hostel was in Zimbabwe in November and it was 1 RAND for 100,000 Zim$, now it was 1 RAND for 1.3 billion. Adding on top of that, the exchange rate wasn't consistant. In Victoria Falls the rate ran from 13 billion to 15 billion for 1 USD in Harare it was like 40 billion for 1 USD. The Victoria Falls owner to cover his basis would phone multipe banks to get the best exchange rate. Also prices for some items were subject to change on an hourly basis (if quoted in Zim$).

Anyway, that is the serious part of this blog. I figured if I can't do anything about there or anywhere else, I'd at least tell you all about it. Hope that you tell everyone you know about it and maybe, maybe we reach the right people who CAN do something about it. In the end I ate the food, in fact I've never cleaned up my more then I've cleaned my plate in Victoria Falls, and those who know me, KNOW I usually CLEAN my plate. I also tipped very well, hoping a little here and there would make some difference.

* I took a canoe trip down the Zambezi river, the river that feeds Victoria Falls. During the trip we ran into an Elephant on an island. The guide beaches his canoe and goes ashore, I do the same as does the American couple on the trip. I make sure to keep the guide between me and the elephant. When we got about 30 ft away, the elephant decided to charge us. We all turned an ran, I stoped at the shore, the American couple ran into the water and fell face first into it. The guide at that point turned around put up his arms and the screamed, the elephant stopped about 20 ft away. The guide approached the elephant again, and again the elephant charged, stopped and then walked away... a very interesting experience indeed.

* I say that British tourist are as bad as American tourist, key here is differentiating tourists and backpackers. Tourists are short-timers. I was on a lion walk with a bunch of English tourist, one of the guys was dressed in typical safari dress and one of the women had a wide brim hat you'd commonly see the Queen wear, and it even had a faux flower on it. Lions like all cats yawn here and there. At one point the hat woman goes 'Can you make him yawn?' I was astounded! I was annoyed the lions were as well trained as they were, but here she goes 'Can you make him yawn?' WTF!?!

Anyway time is running out, photos are being uploaded, this blog will be proof read later.. I hope..

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Canada Day in Zimbabwe

Hello from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, here are a few thoughts from the past week...

* I rented a car in South Africa and did some driving. Surprisingly it didn't take long for me to learn to drive on the left side. The stick on the left wasn't so bad either; just have to give the left hand some practice with it and all is well. The joke going around was you weren't comfortable driving on the left side until you accidentally pull into the wrong side of traffic. This is because until you are comfortable, you concentrate on driving on the left side.. once you are comfortable.. you let your guard down.. and poof... back on the right side again.

* I've been meeting so many people people out here... it's crazy... I'm trying to keep everyone's names and faces straight. Talking about travelling or discussing the finer details of international politics over some wine... just priceless. It is also very exhausting... but well worth it.

* I did a township tour in Cape Town. It was interesting, superficial but interesting. The people there seem so optimistic and hopeful. This is not to say they are not suffering or down in the dredges of life... but they believe that tomorrow will be a better day, it's so refreshing. They do not ask what the government can do for them, they do for themselves what they need. They start their own businesses selling sheep heads, corner fruit stands, trinkets for the tourists or giving a tour of your own room to the tourists; all to make a living.

* Zimbabwe is a mess. I've met a few locals asking for money or trying to trade stuff for cloth or food. One kid who walked with me for a bit in the end begged me for a pair of socks... I would've given him some if I had more then two pairs on me.... I walked into the local supermarket and the shelves were empty. Even with all the foreign currency I had on me, I couldn't buy what I wanted... I had dinner out last night.. as I was eating my food I felt guilty looking outside; some of those kids outside probably hadn't had a bite to eat all day. All those poor, starving African kids that your parents used to threaten you with if you didn't finish your food, were not an ocean away... they were right outside.

* Victoria Falls is just awesome. There is no other word: Awesome. The water is loud, the mists high. On the flight in you could see the flume of mist flying into the air at least 100km away. When you are by the falls, the mist being blown back up just pours down on you like a thunderstorm.