Safari

I had the chance to make it to a pair of Tanzanian national parks on a safari.  This was a last minute tour through the previous company, Spoonbill, that was already one day into things when I joined.  The pricing model, dollars-per day, meant bonus affordability.

The process was questionable but I booked it anyways.  All that remained was covering 250 km to catch the rest of the group — but only after my laundry could dry a little more on the line.  Packing wet clothes up is dreadful.  The first leg was Moshie, the town at the base of Kilimanjaro, back to Arusha.  I was shepherded onto a bus in the early afternoon and had no worries about getting lost: familiar territory and Tanzania does not have a Harlem or Harleem.  If it did I would be doomed to wind up there by accident given my track record (NYC and Holland.)

At Arusha the pickup failed to materialize.  They just promised me this an hour before, so that was odd.  I ended up roaming aorund until I got my bearings and sweated it in to the office.

The next leg was another minibus.  I was sure I heard “car” during the negotiations, but these things happen.  This bus left from the chaotic main station.  The manager, who was supposed to do the pickup, skipped town.  His secretary was the only one there so she had to track down one of the dozens of small white Nissans.  This took about 10 minutes, involved an army of dodgy touts and seemed really uncertain.  The whole process really didn’t inspire much confidence.  I wedged in the back but only had two people on my row.  This was lucky becuase in the row ahead they fit four large men, all dressed in black, into three small seats.  They were trying to sit shoulder-to-shoulder but ended up overlapping diagonally.  Loading the Nissan, with the shouting and hawking outside and negotiations in Swahili, took about 30 minutes.  It was getting close to dusk.  It was also 30 minutes to reflect on how I might not be in a great situation.  It required blind faith both in the driver, who didn’t speak English, and the company’s ability to get the details sorted.   Plus, there was much less room for error as I was off to the rural area.  While I had a rough idea of where I was going (“a campsite!”) but there was lack of anything concrete like an address or something on paper.

Then the minibus roared off.  Blind faith generally results in more adventures which is the upside.  Within a half an hour it was pitch black outside and we were heading west into an awfully quiet part of the country.

Map

There was not much except rough roads and some small places on the side of the highway  in the two hour trip.  Risks expressed as a product of probability and consequence are interesting, and I was mentally getting to higher totals as we went on.  It was late, very remote and I had all my gear – including the giant backpack.  Nothing insurmountable, but  not desirable.  The consequences would be an unpleasant night of trying to hitch a ride back to the city or finding a place to sleep without getting robbed — maybe in a house or something as there were no real motels on the strip that I could see.  The probability of a debacle seemed higher than most debacle-probabilities that I’m used to.

risk-based-inspection-04-ri

Eventually the minibus pulled into some sort of compound.  This was me, apparently.  Credit to Spoonbill, I had a room booked in what was mostly a campsite.  Here I had imagined sleeping in all my clothes in an overcrowded tent with no sleeping bag.  I was suddenly living the good life and was surprisingly relieved.  The only small issue was that there was no sign of my group and nobody really knew what was up – not that I blame the staff for not knowing what my personal itinerary should be.  I hung out for a bit and decided to get up at 6am and then hang out by the gate to make sure that if/when a ride came I’d notice it.  A few hours and many Kilimanjaro brand teas later, a surely teenager in a neon yellow Brazil football jersey and jeans saunters up.  He was the Safari driver.  By most accounts people are supposed to wear neutral colours so as to not startle the animals but this guy was more into showing his loyalty to Ronaldinho

A welcome change from overcrowded minibuses

A welcome change from overcrowded minibuses

The first day was the Lake Manyara National Park.  Our sullen driver was not happy to be there.  The Land Rover had a pop top which we stood up in while cursing around.  Deceptively fun.  I told our driver a few times to stop tailgating other trucks.  It’s a big park and there is no point eating dust.  He would get agitated and yell “I gotta pass him!” then race past on a shoulder.  These things are sort of a tip-driven business but maybe he had yet to figure it out.

While racing on the shoulder to pass it was lucky that he didn’t catch a baboon’s tail as they liked to hang out en mass on the side of the road.  Yet, there would be some karma at play if you drive like an idiot and accidentally run over a tail.  The baboon would likely give it back worse.  Especially the 100+ pound males with the 2″ teeth.  Especially when the passengers in the Land Rover deliver you to the baboon.  I’m not sure if Safari Justice is in  the guide book but that could be the entry. Anway, all baboons were safe which was good so no harm done.

baboon

At lunch we turned around and raced all the way back to the starting gate.  It took about 30 minutes.  There were five of us in the seven seater and it was comfortable but we were now off to pick up two more.  The driven got even more agitated because I called out his fly by night company (SandLand Tours) for the poor decision.  The lunch was packed and had lots of the predictable Tanzanian things like bananas and fruit juices and hard boiled eggs — all stuff I tend to give away.  I tried to pawn it off on the driver to get his blood sugar up but that was a no go.  Nobody was overly impressed but we worked out sharing spots quite well — and compared to public transit this was amazing.  Plus, the extra passengers were young women so the driver perked up.  A lot.

The highlights of course is seeing some animals.

7 ltl elllie

6 gerome

5 nasty vultures

This was a hippo a few days before. The sound of the vultures howling and squawking was wild.

Even when driving back to the campsite we kept the pop top up.  There was really no safe option for seating on the highway as the Land Rover had no seatbelts.  All there was to do was enjoy the view and hope there was no collisions.  The driver had a seatbelt though — and I don’t think that’s right.  People’s perception of risk strongly influences their driving pattern so seatbelts should be an all-or-nothing affair.
8 riding shotgun

That night we went stayed at a different camp on a ridge overlooking the valley.  The location made it a great place to check out the sunrise.  The accommodation was tents… with beds inside.  I’d never seen that before.

9 sunrise savannah

That day it was off to the Ngorongoro Crater.  The groups rearranged with more people coming and going.  The theme was confusion but things worked out.  We also had a different driver who was excellent.  The crater is part of the Serengeti plain and is a permanently inhabited and watered crater formed form a Kilimanjaro-sized volcano collapsing on itself.  It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to a lot of animals, including the “big five.”  This term persists and was coined by hunters identifying the most difficult/dangerous animals to hunt on foot: the cape buffalo,  rhinoceros, elephant, lion and leopard.

Our driver emphasized keeping the windows shut while parked in the parking lot because of the baboons.  We all walked around outside but I could see why windows ought not be left open.

9 b why one locks ones jeep

You don’t look like a trustworthy lot

3a bigger hyhenas

About 30 formidable looking hernias chased a pack of zebras and shuffled discontentedly back right in front of us after being outrun

9 c just chilling

The wildebeest seemed relaxed

9 d the rhino

A German girl excitedly started yelling she’d seen an elusive rhino. We came to a screeching halt in a cloud of dust. The warthog was not impressed at the mistaken identity.

9 h the other side

Of the big five, it’s these guys who are reported to be the most dangerous to humans

gary larson

Gary Larson speculates on the real reason cape buffalo are dangerous

9 e park lion

This guy was on a mission to find some shade

No marbles?

No marbles?

Now, the previous three beasts all met up.  It was pick on the lions day.

chill lions

The four lions had been relaxing in the shade when some hippos jumped into the creek.  This didn’t get much attention until one of them came in close and splashed water on the cats.  They all scattered and one took an annoyed swat in the general vicinity but none of the lions wanted to get too close.

hippo trouble

Then more trouble came in the form of a huge male cape buffalo that came strutting up to the just across the creek from the lions.  Everyone in the Land Rover started braying about the imminent kill.  “The lions!  They are going to kill him!  Right in front of us!  Get him lions, get him!”  The groups’ shrill and unlikely consensus called for blood.   Except for the fact the buffalo was enormous, had his heard nearby and that the lions didn’t look hungry.  Plus, if I was a lion I’d probably think a zebra looked tastier than the biggest and most confident buffalo of the herd.

The huge buffalo then snorted and rolled his head in the muck.  H stamped his feet.  He stared.  The other lions wanted nothing to do with him.  The lead cat glared at him… for a little while.  Good think I speak animal and can translate the stills from the grainy video I shot.

seq 3

While our guide did the exit paperwork the baboons were back at it again.  Someone on a different tour left a window open in their Land Rover.  A lunch was stolen.  It was too bad they left the plastic wrap on.  Someone opened the door and stood well clear (it was a big baboon after all) and the culprit raced away with his loot.

1 freddy not pgotoshopped

You’re not supposed to leave the window open!

I was not that surprised about the baboon B&E.  I remember what seems like the majority of the Far Side comics — they are burned into my subconscious because I didn’t understand the majority as a kid in the early 90’s.  Larson also prophesied this scenario:

larosn 2

At about 3:30 pm we took off back home to Arusha.  It was about a four hour trip as the Crater is even further west.

Then, 15 minutes out of the park the Land Rover went around a hairpin turn and there was another lion — about 5′ from the truck.  This was not expected — it was a a big male lion who was rumbling up the middle of the road.  His back was clawed up so it looked like he’d lost a fight with another lion and was back for another round.  The Ngorongoro lions have it very good with so much to eat to it’s a tightly defended territory.  New males usually get driven off and this guy’s first attempt looked like it was no exception.  If they don’t get driven off they will kill all the cubs of the other males and start from scratch.

That is only one explanation.  Perhaps he got a text that Biff the Buffalo had been picking on his prospective wives and he was on a mission to make things right.

He's back

He’s back

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Mount Kilimanjaro

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro had been one of my goals for some time.  It helped lure me to Tanzania which was very fortunate as it’s an amazing country.

*I have combined the Kilimanjaro with part of my entry on the logistics of East Africa –  to skip the tales of drudgery scroll down where the mountain photos start.

I flew into Dar es Salaam from Addis Ababa and took some time to get organized.  I ended up at a business person’s hotel by accident.  With the lack of internet in Addis I ended up reluctantly borrowing my driver Yosi’s iPhone to book somewhere (anywhere) in Dar Es Salaam before getting on the plane.  I had a hunch that data would be expensive so it was a hack job done quickly.  I needed somewhere near that airport.  It ended up OK but was mosre expense and not at all suited for a disheveled man like me. All the business people continually asked about my 9-5 job.  Or lack thereof.  But on the plus side they had reasonable internet, books and even a gym with a punching bag.  So much residual air rage…  Actually, not really — the flights have been amazing so far.

Unintentionally nice

Unintentionally nice

A day and half later I took a really long and breakdown-prone bus to Arusha.  It’s about 650 km.

maps

I was happy to be out of Dar.  I took a cab 7 km at 3:30 pm to a bookstore to try and get a Lonely Planet.  It took 70 minutes each way and the store didn’t have the book.  It was about $12 Cdn which was a good deal for such a long ride in miserable traffic – the worst I have ever seen actually.  I re-did the traffic again at 6am my final morning to the dreaded Ubungo bus station: the big hub where the buses upcountry leave from.  It was a bit of a mess but not quite as bad as some of the things I had read in advance.  Arriving early, coffee-less and forewarned meant people generally left me alone but even then I was not the most polite Canadian to grace that mess of a bus terminal.  I got lost, as expected, and then bought a ticket for the “luxury” bus from the esteemed Dar Express.  The women there sold me a ticket for a bus leaving in 10m minutes.  It was the economy one and she just pocketed the difference but it was already time to go so I just went with it.  Plus, it would have been longer to wait for the departure for the nice one in another hour.

This poor woman had a horrendous experience there!  This is an excerpt from her blog that I found while doing some research:

Arriving at Ubungo after 7 AM, the taxi driver betrayed us straight away. As soon as a taxi approaches the line of ticket offices, ticket hustlers swoop down on the windows like some horror movie zombie attack and start shouting ‘where to, sister!!!’ Our taxi driver told them. All was lost. At this stage it’s important to keep your thoughts focused as you pay the taxi driver and collect your luggage and get out of the car, because each window of the taxi will be blocked by a few hustlers (mapapasi) screaming ‘Arusha Dar Express this way this way sister!!!!’ They’ll crowd in on you, they’ll walk in front of you so you stumble on them, after a while they’ll start grabbing your hands or clothes.

The bus trip was slated to be nine hours.  About halfway through we broke down but it was not too bad as it was daytime and outside of a little village.

4 dead bus

5 village

About three hours later a replacement bus arrived.  The only issue was that somehow the key to half the storage lockers must have gotten lost.  We sat there for another 30 minutes while the guys found a way to pick the lock or break in.

Enter the crowbar!

Enter the crowbar!

It was getting to be a long day living off a box of mushy ginger snaps.  I don’t know how they were the consistency of play dough but it’ll be the last ones I eat this trip.  I didn’t want to brave the street meat at the stop so I went with the cookies in the box – being sick on a bus is not fun.

We arrived in Arusha 5 hours late, just shy of midnight.  I don’t know where the extra time went because we were flying at the end.  I was stuck at the back of the bus and got, at the most, probably 24” of lift-off when the driver careened into a huge speed bump at probably 90 km/h.  It was a 14 hour trip in total.

I had booked a hostel out of town called the Arusha Hostel Lodge and Adventures..  There were not too many options on HostelBookers and this one seemed OK.  The drill was that it was impossible to get there via cab – it was a minibus out of town then call the manager who would trudge down a hill to retrieve me from the bus station.  I got off the bus and was mobbed by cabbies.  I sort of got them into an orderly line (English is widespread and excellent) and picked a guy willing to call the phone number.  No luck.  I borrowed his phone and tried a few times.  No luck as well.  So I hopped into buddy’s ramshackle cab with the jet black tinted windows and went off to find a new place at midnight.  It makes for a bit of stress but it worked out well ending up at a cheap hotel a few blocks away.  I paid the guy what I’d agreed to pay for the 10km trip out of town as I was very pleased that the hotel finding mission went off without any problems.

ahla

The view of the bus stop from my room

The view of the bus stop from my room

In Arusha I explored the city for a day with a couple from Vancouver and Edmonton who I met in a tour office.  I had met a tour operator named Alexander earlier at breakfast who mistook me for a very traditional Muslim man who was sitting nearby.  He insisted that he had my tour package prepared.  I gather he was given the description “dude with beard” and then he just flipped a coin between the two of us.  I ran into Alexander later and he let me use his assistant’s computer.  I really needed to do some emails and banking, both of which were tough going with non-existent Wi-Fi where I was staying, so I appreciated the gesture.  The only issue was that it might have been perhaps the most spyware-infested machine I have ever seen.  There was a triple-header of those awful invasive toolbars.  So I was stuck researching Kilimanjaro tours for quality and price points and it turns out Alexander’s company, Africa Spoonbill, checked out very well on the budget side of things.  Nothing is cheap per se as the government charges a $100 USD park fee per person per day so there is a base cost of $500 or $600.  It’s a good move: Tanzania is the 201st  richest country in the world with a GDP per head of $1600 (PPP).  That is to say: very poor.  For some reason I had always thought of the East African countries as a lot more prosperous.  As such if (comparatively) wealthy foreigners want to hang out on their natural resources they ought to pony up some extra cash.

Anyway, there were apparently a few other folks leaving on a trek in 36 hours time so I signed up.  Paying by Visa was brutal as they (randomly?) put in 105% of the price to cover fees.  I know the credit card companies charge a lot, but 5% seemed too steep so I debated this for a while.  It was really a no-win: the ATMs kick out a maximum of a few hundred for each transaction – with their own $5 ATM fee.  It was going to be a small haircut either way so the moral of the story is consider having a pre-existing wad of cash or some clever financial engineering before any big ticket items.  The interesting thing for me is how in North America merchants generally put up with losing a significant cut of the sale to the credit card companies.  I’m amazed they don’t offer discounts for cash.

The next day I was off.  I took a minibus (Dala) from Arusha to Moshi where the trip left from.  The bus was like a slightly bigger Ford Areostar.  It had a seating capacity of 12 or perhaps 14 but I counted a maximum load of 48 people.  Granted maybe a quarter were small kids but it was insane how many people can fit in these things.  It could have been comfortable with perhaps 20, but it was like the opposite of clowns coming out of a the clown car.  Bad analogy – but more on that later.  There is a fine art of the “loader” or “scooper who mans the doors and pulls people in.  This is consensual thankfully.  The van does not stop but merely slows down.  I could have sworn it was beyond full at maybe 40 people but they just kept coming.

I had no idea how that many people could be lugged.  The suspension must have to be reinforced after-market.  There were about 5 tons of people on that minibus and while a North American “half-ton” truck can carry a bit more…  it’s still an interesting contrast.

contrast

The only thing that these seemingly indestructible Nissans are not good for is getting work done.  Scott Adams seemed to call this a few days before I left:

dilbert clown cars

Not that I’d pull out my dreadful Samsung in public in East Africa.  It’s a first generation Ultrabook, a 900x1b, that is useless for pretty much everything – except of course for looking expensive. It’s only 20 months old too which is brutal.   I’ve been bailed out for basic computing all the time by my stoic HTC phone.  The Samsung, specifically, has a power cord that falls out to make charging fun, a terrible ability to connect to Wi-Fi (if at all – the network card seems to be hugely malfunctioning), dull performance, a keyboard that’s peeling off, no VGA or ethernet (my fault for picking a small thing) and the case is broken in a bunch of places.  And the screen is about 10% dead pixels just from random wear and tear.  It’s easily the worst PC I’ve had.

You are a terrible machine

You are a terrible machine

Anyway, we were in Moshi.  I had my pile of rental gear.  It was a good deal for the bigger things – $3 per item per day.  So, enter a jacket, ski gloves and heavy pants.   I got overly enthusiastic the day before and checked a few too many boxes.  One was “socks”.  One pair: $18 US.  I bought a few more identical pairs on the street for $1 US each.  I’m not sure who was the one sanctioning that rip off, asides it being my fault the end of the day more big-picture focused given the last-minute nature of things, but I gave them and my rental toque away rather than returning them.  It was either Spoonbill or a third party – a very small issue but annoying.

Bright and early the next day it was up to the departure point.  I picked the Machami (“Whiskey”) route which is the slightly harder than the Marangu (“Cola-Cola”) route.  The only major difference is ascents, scenery and Whisky uses tents rather than the huts.  It takes 6 days rather than the basic 5 days, but that seemed smart for acclimation.  I snapped a photo at the departure point hoping it didn’t come back to haunt me that I was not exactly checking all the boxes, especially #1 and #2.

Not checking all the boxes...

Not checking all the boxes…

The trek starts very well.  There is a ranger but the supervisor seems to be this guy.

moneky boss

The first day is an ascent from 1800 m to 3000 m.  This goes through an amazing forest and ends just at the first transition to low shrubbery.

kili018

I snagged a great sunset photo the first night.  It was sort of like an inverted Voice of Fire, the ever-so-expensive Canadian art pickup lounging in Ottawa.   Well, not quite, but I struggle with analogies (more to come.)

voice of fire

If anything is worth $1.8 Million it’s probably the one on the left…. oh well. Sorry Barnett Newman.

The first camp was very nice.  It got surprisingly cold – it was only 3000 m up and the summit is 5895 m.   I ended up wearing all my gear except for the big 80’s Ski Jacket I’d rented.  There was a good layer of frost in the morning.

front kilimanjaro

The next day was very easy, just gaining 900 m .  My tour of a “few others” was actually a lovely group of 40 and 50 year olds from Singapore.  They were very kind and well prepared – they definitely had the gear to do it.  They were also smart in the slow and stready approach.  But this slow and steady approach, maybe an average of 1km/h, ended up just giving me one heck of a sunburn on day two.  I hadn’t banked on that much time in the sun.  That was the last group hiking day – I branched off to do it at a faster pace as I’d somehow, magically, gone from a sluggish desk jockey to… less sluggish in the past two months.  Spoonbill had booked me a solo trip and just lumped me in with a group for company apparently.  Communication is not their strong suit.

Mount Meru in the background above the clouds

Mount Meru in the background above the clouds

Day two

Day two

He will steal your lunch

A huge raven nonchalantly plotting how best to steal lunches

Day three was up to 4600 then back to 3900 to camp.  It was a nice camp but was very windy.  It’s when I noticed that my tent was just mesh with a tent fly to keep the water out.  The wind picked up and suddenly everything was filthy.  The dust storm was passing through my tent.  I was lucky it didn’t blow down, like a few did, but battening the hatches to try and keep the dust out was a big challenge.  I first tried duct tape but eventually settled for small boulders.

Day three

And down it went...

And down it went…

...but not mine thanks to a small quarry full of rocks I loaded onto it.

…but not mine thanks to a small quarry full of rocks I loaded onto it.

Day four was a 39 to 43 to 39 to 43 then finally to 4600 m to camp.  Day four was a tough one.  Upon getting to camp (fast – I raced and even beat some porters) it’s a quick rest then a trip to the summit starting at midnight.  Next thing I knew the nap was over and my porter buddy Machate showed up with some midnight tea.  Ready to go.  The porters carry the big bags per the rules of the mountain.  I just had to carry my day bag which was getting big as I was carrying some rocks (long story) and my stellar laptop as I had nowhere to stash it safely in the hostel as I just left spare gear in plastic bags.

The summit was just me and my guide Emmanuel for the final 1285 m.  We did it in just over five hours which wasn’t bad as there is not a lot of oxygen that height and the Whiskey route trail is brutal – it’s like shuffling though a gravel pit.  Yet we made it up with no issues which was great.

kili021

Arriving at 5:21 was not ideal as it was well in advance of the sunrise and it is actually too cold to wait around in the -20 C.  There was some delay as a fellow I’d chatted previously was attempting to pull his clothes off.  He recruited his guide to help which was sort of awkward.  His fingers were too cold, evidently.  He dropped everything, including shoes, which probably makes a polar bear swim look good by comparison.  I finally got in front of the sign and Emmanuel snapped a photo.  I actually had to crop the naked man out of the corner.  Then my camera froze and died.  I had even wrapped it up in a sock and t-shirt to keep it warm.  It was probably good as I was loosely contemplating at least a shirtless photo which would have likely been a very bad idea, but no camera no hypothermia.

Emmanuel: “That naked guy is an idiot.  He will get hypothermia.”

Me:    “He’s apparently a med student… but that would be ironic.”

With no camera I was out of luck for the sunrise shot and we started to head back down.  I borrowed a shot instead because it’s pretty amazing.  I did forget a small bottle of Jack Daniels I packed as I was on the whiskey route.  I gave it to Emmanual and he gave it to the crew… who got it the morning of day five.  They drank it all, straight, at about 6:00 am.  So the take home here is maybe bringing whiskey on the whiskey route isn’t the best idea ever.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

With freezing electronics my my only surviving gadget was actually my old iPod.  It was invincible with 80% charge remaining after nearly a full audiobook in consistently below-freezing nights.  I was impressed.

kili012

The iPod really helped for the nights as they were quiet.  I forgot to bring a book and but there was not much light at night anyways.  I ended up listening to Hawkins’s On Intelligence on audiobook.  It was really interesting (and accessible even for a biologically-illiterate guy like me) and I’d definitely recommend it.

intellignece

I finished the book on night 5.  There was a part about the creativity to think of insightful and original analogies.  I tried to think of one but drew a blank and got stuck on a Zoolander quote — which was deliberately bad.

Moisture is the essence of wetness, wetness is the essence of beauty

Uh huh.  But it was not a coincidence.  My last dry layer, due to sweating and whatnot, was the stinky rental ski jacket.  As I was getting warmer things were getting more and more humid.  It too was wet but cold enough so I didn’t notice at first.  I just gave up on the seemingly unwearable layers and dumped my hot water thermos into a plastic bottle, tossed it in the sleeping bag, and went to bed at about 7pm.  The clothes were still gross and damp the next morning but it was fine as the day was just hiking from 3900 m to 1800 m and that was t-shirt weather in the sun.  Going down was tough on the knees but I the ski poles saved me (my arms were absolutely worn out from taking so much of the work.)

One downside was that Spoonbill booked me for the the solo shot.  I would not have selected it knowingly (a break-away from the nice Singaporean group was happening regardless as they booked a longer hike up than I did so they were tasked with tipping a seperate crew.)  The staff for most/all companies don’t get paid a living wage and rely on tips for their livelihood.  This meant I was basically responsible for four people’s economic well-being, rather than a proportionally lower number (approx. 2) if I had a small group (with the same one cook and guide and a few more porters.)  It wasn’t my teams’ fault that there weren’t more people along to shoulder the load.  The best advice I read beforehand was “tip with your conscience.”  Going well over the minimum suggested rate was worthwhile given what a phenomenal group who have a very tough job.  I was worn out without having to carry loads of gear on my head.

porters

And, per the economics of it all are related to being able to afford the opportunity.  Sort of a noblesse oblige (just as someone/anyone from a more prosperous country) dictates making sure people are paid properly.  The result was the standard 10% of base cost went up substantially but it seemed like the right thing to do in the situation.

On the whole it was a great experience.  The team I had was tremendous.  One guide, two porters and one cook.  I’d highly recommend it.

kili014

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Ethiopia

My flight into Addis Ababa arrived at 3:30am.  It was not my original plan, but with Egypt seeming a little unstable I decided to just connect in Cairo and not stick around.

In getting off the plane I was one of the first.  This gave me some sense of relief as I could get to the baggage claim before my gear got tossed into the Ethiopian Wall of Airport Woe.

1 airport

I was also the first one in the tourist visa line.  I was somewhat nervous.  I had not really researched Ethiopia while planning the trip as it was originally just a connection.  The day before flying I saw that they had a lengthy and byzantine set of Visa expectations, including photos, and a tone strongly implying that I should have got this done back home well ahead of time.  Fortunately, once the staff woke up (they were all dozing behind the counter given it was the middle of the night) they were happy to prioritize: I give the US money, $40, they give the visa.  Nice and easy.

I’d arranged an airport pickup as well.  It seemed to be not happening.  After an hour wait I was freezing in my t-shirt (Addis is 2300 m above sea level) plus I suddenly had nothing more to read.  I ended up waking up a fellow at a desk for a hotel and asked if I could pay to use his phone.  He let me use his mobile for free which was nice.  It turns out the driver was just not allowed in the airport and had been waiting on the other side of the door – the same wait as me but only colder.

A big part of why I’d wanted to stay for a longer layover was that I’d found a nice place to stay.  It supports local charities with all its profits too which is amazing.  I arrived at 5:00am and found that the basic room I’d booked was not on – they were not busy so they upgraded me to their nicest room.

bethel

Image00004

I got up late that day,  I’d missed breakfast but the staff were having lunch and insisted I join them.  It was the injera bread which is really good… but the stuff on it seemed to be neon coloured beets that were not quite my thing.  There was some contingency white bread which was lucky.

While in town the next day with the driver I had hired, Yosi, I found by card didn’t work at the ATM.  We went off to the Sheraton to change some US into Ethiopian Birr.  It seems to be a ritzy landmark and after a token walk through a metal detector and security it was on to take a tour.  It had a great view of downtown.

addis skyline

Later I checked out the National Museum.  It periodically has the original Lucy remains – the oldest human.  Very cool.  There was more security here too and Yosi had to scrambled to get his knife out of his pants before the frisking.  So, maybe he was a driver/bodyguard in retrospect.   The big card is 3.2 M year old Lucy, who National Geographic calls “the most famous early human ancestor.”

I excluded the pic of me, as a oversized oaf, beside the skeleton

I excluded the pic of me, as a oversized oaf, beside the skeleton

The museum itself was quite modest but also had interesting exhibits on art and history.  Some of the military aspects are interesting in their battles with Italy which reflect the status of only one of two African countries never colonized.

the museum

There was construction everywhere in Addis.  Much of the capital is apparently Chinese and it shows in small ways like the makes of the vehicles.

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Later a “cultural restaurant” was on the agenda.  Frisking was also on the agenda but no metal detector action this time.  It was a place that catered to non-Ethiopians.  Yet, the food was great and they put on some good live music and dance shows.  All it all it was a great time.

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When I arrived from the airport there was deceptively fast Wi-Fi at 5am.  I then went to bed and it was the last I ever saw of it for my 3 day stay.  Apparently the state owned monopoly, Ethio Telecom, does not work weekends under any situations.  I suddenly have warmer feelings for the Canadian cartel who maybe aren’t so bad after all.  Yet, their office (at least the one I drove past) could be a little nicer if they gouged a little harder.  Then they can build one like the big shiny thing TELUS is putting up in Calgary.

telus action

The next day I made it to Meskel Square.  There was an honest/sad/poinigent museam about the politcal repression when they had a military coup in the 70’s I went to.  Afterwards, I was on the hunt for a Lonely Planet book but stuck.  I needed something for the plane so I settled for a Time magazine.  Settled is the right word here.  That night I walked out to a local place for pizza with the staff.  It was a good time.  It was fun to go as a small group (and undoubtedly prudent from a safety standpoint) and everything is so shockingly inexpensive it’s a win for all because I could just pick up the entire tab.

The next day it was off to Tanzania.  Like usual I hitched a ride with Yosi which was great as the public transit looked a little frightening.  And by a little I mean a lot.  Overall, it would have been nice to go outside of Addis and see more of the country but there is always next time.  It’s well worth a visit.

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Jordan

I stayed at a place in Amman called the Arab Tower Hotel.  They did a great job of organizing tours.  And by tours it was just a mostly just matter of hopping in ta guy’s car, with or without a small group, and heading out.  It was really efficient and even cost-effective.

The highlight was the Roman ruins at Jerash.  It’s pretty spectacular.  And even better was that it was all but deserted when I was there.  It was a Jordanian holiday but for some reason it was just really quiet.  Having not been to Italy I was very impressed with what is some outstandingly well preserved Roman ruins.

I spent about three hours in the site.  On the ride up I’d came with a couple from France & Argentina.  They had apparently taken far less than three hours and had already done lunch and were now pacing the baking hot parking lot.  I took that as a sign to get a frozen Snickers bar for the trip home and call it lunch (even though they were really kind and offered to wait even longer for me to find an over-priced burger shack.)

On the way to Jerash  we stopped at Aljun Castle.  It was interesting and again deserted.  I met a Canadian family from Prince Rupert which fits with my three living stints along Highway 16.

Day two was the famous Petra.  I had forgot about the Indiana Jones connection – after seeing a lot of Harrison Ford I just thought they were big Indy fans.  Or perhaps they liked that style of hat.

I had heard that the Petra is arguably a more interesting and unique wonder than the Egyptian pyramids.  Having had to cancelled the latter due to the unrest, I fortunate to have Petra on the agenda.  It is amazing.

Petra action

the bank

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I managed to sleep in on Petra day and miss breakfast.  It’s a long trip from Amman – 300 km each way – so it makes a day trip a challenge.  I raced through the site to the end as quickly as possible and skipped the questionable looking food joints in the vicinity.  I did land a pack of crackers for the ride back.  I was back in Amman for about 7pm and raced out to get dinner.  This sparked a slew (well, only three) of  restaurant rejections.  I thought it was my beard or perhaps my dreadful Tiger shirt. Or general state of travel filthiness.  I totally forgot it was Ramadan fast breaking just after sundown – everything ad everywhere was packed with people eating socially.  I found some Wi-Fi and googled McDonalds Amman.  No luck – nothing in the area.  I ended roaming discontentedly before getting a 9 pm reservation at a seafood place.

When I got there they plunked down a 1.5L jug of water.  Evidently it’s a family-themed place and the drill stays the same for when individuals come in.  Moderation gets thrown into the wind if someone plunks a huge jug of water in from of me in the easiest of times, let along hungry in the desert.  The waiter seemed quite surprised by prodigious water-drinking abilities.  The aqua burro drained that family-sized jug in no time.

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It might have been the lack of food during the day or the questionable seafood that night, but something did not sit well with the Petra site.  I’m sending off the following multi-stage complaint.  I was not sure what the general reaction was but it seems most people are fairly pleased with their trip there.  I found a petition online to sign about animal care but it was quite spare.  The standards people ought to expect unfortunately depend on the price point.  If this was a free drop-in sort of thing, fair enough, anything goes (not that it should, of course.)  But this is a UNESCO heritage site that is taking in 700,000 visitors annually (a rough average from the 2008 to 2011 stats) at $50 a head.  That $35 Million US a year is not huge but it’s enough to give me certain expectations on how it ought to be managed.

bad petra

In the letter I also take a run at Pepsi.  What an irresponsible firm – they are using pull tabs in Jordan.  These are the tabs that must be physically removed to open the can.  I’m sure it’s because people like it but what does that matter: it’s a stupid idea.  It was bad at the Petra in terms of tabs scattered about the place, but it was worse for my third day at the Dead Sea.  This trip had me walking carefully as with the salinity I knew it would not be fun to step on a discarded and jagged remnants of a Pepsi can that littered the beach.  The image is actually (horrors of horrors) a can I bought.  It’s where I established who the culprit was as I’d seen regular Coke cans before and this.  Pepsi is getting a letter, too.

bad pepsi

Not excited to step on that tab, guys

The Dead Sea was very cool. The buoyancy is surreal.

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Interestingly too there is a lot of pay-per-use infrastructure.  I was at a place that had a pool like a standard all-inclusive but was $15 to get in for the afternoon.  The concept of unbundling what’s found in an all-inclusive is interesting.  There are even smarter ways of doing this it seems though – later in Tanzania I met an English group who didn’t really do much else in Dar Es Salaam expect swim in posh pools at places like the Sheraton.  I guess they just paid out low level bribes to the staff and off they went –  it even included towels.

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A prior stop was Bethany, where Jesus was said to be baptized.  It’s right on the Jordan-Israel border.  It was interesting people-watching there.  This is looking at Israel from Jordan and seeing the wide range of folks who visit.

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Unrelated to anything was an odd kiosk right at the steps of my hotel.  It was selling basically everything that you would not want to try and get through airport security.  Knives, clubs, brass knuckles and some sort of saw.  Oh my.

 

arms dealer3

 

I obviously wasn’t too sad to avoid buying this gear.  But where I would have been thwarted by airport metal detectors was in the traffic cop’s crazy helmets.  That is something I’d take home with me.  Only for formal occasions though.

crazy hats

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Smart society

Many of the sites have made me think about how society becomes smarter.  For instance, the Hagia Sophia is an interesting example of a building that has shifted uses dramatically over its history before landing as a museum in 1934.  I thought it was a great place to visit.

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Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

Conversions like this have been, and continue to be, contentious.  The “other” Hagia Sophia, in Trabzon, had been a museum since 1964.  The Economist notes that a 2013 court decision saw it converted back to religious use as the culture ministry was deemed to have illegally occupied it for presumably cultural purposes.

I’m biased towards museums. I think they play a major role in smart society and ought to be subsided to a large degree.  London, an otherwise expensive city, has an amazing collection of free museums.  I made it to the British Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the Tate Modern. There was a deal where you get three for basically the price of one with the National Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory and the Cutty Sark.  Not free but a great deal.  The much smaller Transportation Museum, which was ok, cost £15.00 — steep for an hour’s visit.  It cost more than it ought to have because the cantankerous old man there declared that my U of Alberta student card was a fake.  Lovely.  Anyway, having physical cultural and educational infrastructure is going to be more important as trends towards digitization increase — see things like MOOCs for instance as tremendously exciting educational innovation.  After hunching over a computer for learning it’s great to amble around a museum for an afternoon.

The connection between museums and religious buildings is often notable.  The name Hagia Sophia means holy wisdom.  So the wrangling in Turkey may shed some light on changing trends towards the sources of wisdom.  For instance, the Natural History Museum looks very much like a religious building.

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The grand marble statue in the background is Charles Darwin.  Reverence is a fluid concept.

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Smart society is a worthy goal and ought to be pursued much more vigorously.  There are some major considerations of course, chiefly revenue loss and over-crowding, but there may be ways to avoid this.  Much like London’s traffic calming has been successful, perhaps museums could be free but only at certain times.  A price discrimination scheme could all them to be free during non-peak times.  That would ensure people can either plan to go for free or drop by whenever and risk paying the regular rate.  Crowding is also an issue.  Amsterdam’s museums were spectacularly busy despite charging admission.  Granted, Amsterdam does a great job with the I Amsterdam card that includes museum admission and full transit access for a subsidized price, so they are clearly on the right track.  Well, it didn’t include a bicycle which was the only drawback.  Amsterdam’s cool city pass would be fun to replicate. It makes me wonder if there are political considerations – Taxi lobbies?  Funneling throngs of tourists onto public transit on the cheap is good for everyone but cabbies.  Yet, there will always be a market for door-to-door service.

amsterdam

Another aspect of Smart Society should be ubiquitous free Wi-Fi.  There are so many things to look up or stay in touch with during lines and queues or any downtime.  I think it will pay dividends for societies that treat this as a worthy goal.  I’m partial to the adage:

In an age of information ignorance is a choice.

Smartphones and tablets are the future.  It doesn’t really matter what information is consumed – silly to serious – as any new knowledge gained is good knowledge.

Barriers to information are frustrating.  I hope that they have their place in the dustbin of history in short order.  At Ataturk International Airport, a place I uncharitably described previously, the Wi-Fi was a debacle as I would have expected. If the man for whom it was named was alive today he would be awfully unimpressed.  The airport, or some consortium of vendors, are kind enough to provide free internet.  They even translate the log-on page to English.  The result however is an Orwellian nightmare.  The invasiveness is preposterous.  I had a pocket full of Lira to spend and would have some willingness to pay to not have some sinister database overlord get their hooks into the work history, education history and birthdays of the 500+ people that I have on Facebook.

WTH

Such a bargain.

 

Maybe it wasn’t all that bad.  There were terms and conditions to read.  They are only in Turkish.  Chrome dutifully offers to translate to English but only once the internet has been connected.  Oh, the circularity.

Granted, I’m a tougher critic when the infrastructure is generally good.  A country like Ethiopia deserves much more slack.  In Addis Ababa I was on the right track but then the WiFi broke.  It stayed broken for the next two days.  The plus side was I got to find a local internet cafe… but then the power then went off.  Eventually as the clock ticked down to flying into Tanzania blind with nowhere to stay, not the worst thing of course but can make customs a hassel, I made a booking on my friendly driver Yosi’s iPhone. I didn’t know what the data use was like (probably expensive) so I set a speed record and booked the first place I saw.  Now I’m in a way-too-nice place catering to business execs.  They all ask my what line of work I’m in.  So, the lack of WiFi was merely an adventure in Addis.

Ironically, one of the few things I managed to look up in Addis was at 5:00am after getting in from the airport.  I googled the  practice of using loudspeakers for prayer times.  It’s Ramadan so it’s quite pronounced — I was staying near a mosque..  It was noticeable but nothing objectionable.  What I found though was in in Indonesia there is a movement away from the status quo of prayers-blasted-through-huge-loudspeakers that everyone, even the faithful, agree with.

Now, here in Dar Es Salaam I’m behind walls in my room and it is piercing.  Behind a set of loud headphones and still hearing it all.  It is far and away the loudest set of loudspeakers I have heard.  I’d put it somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 decibels at the source, at least.  Far too loud.  One abuses their right to be heard at their own risk — the movement to limit the noise in Indonesia could catch on in Tanzania as well.

 

Back to WiFi access, it’s crucial for me as a Canadian.  We have some of the highest-cost telecom service in the developed world.  It’s frustrating to have to deactivate a phone rather than get prohibitive expensive service for very basic functionality on the road.  This is clearly an anomaly.  Not that I base all my research on what I see in the Cairo Airport, but Vodophone and Verizon seem to have very competitive international rates.  The former is showing a list of the teleco who’s-sho (everyone but Canada pretty much) who can get home court data rates for the same plus about $2.50 Cdn.  Not bad — I’d love something like that.

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With Addis a government monopoly runs the teleco.  They say it’s to ensure rural service happens and not just the economically-viable urban markets.  They also don’t work on Saturday and Sunday (the days my access was down.)  Maybe there is some parallel to Canada which I’m sure took a lot of capital to wire up.  Fair enough.  But myself circa  2005 to 2012 (perpetually in the 110 dB range in the north) perhaps ought to have been paying a lot more for cell service than my more urban incarnation.  I think that Verizon can’t enter the Canadian market soon enough.  Telecommunications have become inexorably linked to smart society and we need better rates driven by stronger competition.

Anyway, /rant.  Off to Arusha for the Kilimanjaro climb shortly.

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Istanbul

Istanbul was a really interesting place to spend six days.  There are a lot of famous sights which are spectacular.  The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in particular were awesome.

Blue mosque night

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The park area between the two is popular.  There were a lot of families and groups of friends there.  Many were getting ready to break the fast as it was Ramadan.  There was a lot of perceptible excitement as the food came out and the sun dropped lower.

The Hagia Sophia was fascinating.  It’s the photo above with the purple fountain.  It’s a was built as a cathedral and became a mosque.  It’s final incarnation is that of a museum, ever since Ataturk decreed it to be the case in 1931. This conversion from religious use to secular is fascinating to me.  A conversion like this must have cost some serious political capital.  Atatürk is still a cult of personality here –  ubiquitous as the face on the money, a common postcard, a piece of street art and the namesake for a slew of infrastructure.  I like to find a good biography on the man whose namesake is “Father of the Turks” who truly created the nation in his own image.  It’s amazing to have been that progressive so long ago (i.e. women’s suffrage ahead of some of the prominent European countries like France and Italy.)  Enter a reforms, a new alphabet based on Latin, compulsory primary education and a modern republic.  Ataturk seems to have had mixed a lot of traits that appeared later being handy with a gun like Teddy Roosevelt, the presence of a Winston Churchill and the statecraft of a FDR.  And politics is easier then you’re in absolute control like Stalin I suppose — which usually doesn’t work out too well.  Pulling out the religiosity of the beloved Hagia Sophia and implementing Western dress and attire are symbolic.  Perhaps the true legacy is in education.  I was shocked to have not learned any words in Turkish.  I’m clearly no linguistic prodigy but the basics accrue from necessity.  No matter where I seemed to be, kiosks off the beaten track or kabob stands, everyone had a workable command of English.

The people were very kind.  On the way out to the airport needed some small change to make the two-part tram and metro connections, and had 80% of it.  I decided to drop by my routine kiosk to buy one last water to break a 20 Lira ($10 Cdn) note.  With the big backpack in tow I was clearly headed out of town so the fellow who I’d been to see a dozen times prior insisted that he give it to me for free.  It was very nice and we chatted a bit.  I left to the tram, very pleased, until I realized I’d completely forgot about the reason for my purchase.  This meant I put a 20 into the machine and seemed to win a slot machine victory.  One token and 17 coins, 1 Lira each, came cascading out.  Small change has been a struggle for me, so this sea of metal got spent with a vengeance on junk food at the airport because I accidentally bring it to Jordon or beyond I’m stuck with it.

slot machines

good kiosk

A good kiosk is right here!

On the way in I grabbed a seat and tried to fix my wonky zipper for about 5 minutes.  The fellow across eventually must have gotten tired of the noise and offered to help.  He struggled with it and the end solution, prior to me hauling out my duct tape, was to pen in my old Nike runners with the two sliders and ignore the broken zipper line.  He turned out to be an Italian studying business in Turkey.  There is no punchline to the joke of ”how many MBAs does it take to fix a zipper” as it’s still up in the air.

One of the interesting parts of the trams is that they run on dedicated rail lines in the middle of the street.  When It’s rush hour bad drivers will get stuck in the middle of the road.  I saw cars not move for an entire green light cycle because a slew of cars (big Benzes, usually) would be blocking the intersection.  The crazy part is when this happens to the trams.  The cars have a standing capacity of 98 people and are usually pretty full.  Say there are three cars to a train.  I’m amazed they put up with this.

I did some quick math below, thinking that that wasting hundreds of peoples’ time would get expensive and quickly.  That would make a great hypothetical fine.  Unfortunately, it only came out to $22 based on my assumptions so I added an imaginary $300 surcharge on stupidity.  Traffic chaos is obviously par for the course for a city with 12 million, but Istanbul does have a 2020 Olympics Games bid in so a starting to hammer home some civility on the road might help the case somewhat.

table

There was not always a lot of variety in the food.  I didn’t notice too many grocery stores, yet there were a few small ones in the neighborhoods.  The street food was invariably pretzels (a tough sell for me after the amazing German ones), fish sandwiches or some sort of sugary and sticky looking desert pretzel with a greenish tinge.  On my last night I went to a sit-down place to class it up a little and had some meatballs.  They ended up being square cubes of hamburger sort of like a meatloaf idea – and there was a lot of it.  This was great because I stashed my leftovers and got to feed some friendly cats and dogs on the way home.

Meatball Cat

Meatball Cat

My meatball leftovers went to good use

My meatball leftovers went to good use

There was one final type of street food in the mix: street mussels.  Normally street seafood is the only thing riskier than street meat, so I was fairly cautious.  But I kept seeing people eat them – Turks more than tourists – and eventually decided to go for it.  Picking the bones out of yet another fish sandwich (it would have been my 7th) was just not doing it for me.  I devoured about 4 of the mussels which are stiffed with rice on my way to the ferry to do a tour of the Bosphorus Strait.

Street Seafood

Street Seafood

The ferry was very easy – it was just one more link in the Istanbul transit system.  Pump in 3 Lira to a machine and out comes a token – good to go!  It leaves from the European side and docks in Asia which is cool.  Halfway through the trip it occurred to me that perhaps my pre-trip meal of mussels in the sun, in an unrefrigerated container, might not have been the best idea.  Thankfully all was well. Taking Dukoral the oral cholera treatment may have had something to do with me being able to get away with this.

Istanbul Ferries

Istanbul Ferries

Istanbul was very peaceful despite the recent uprisings over the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unpopular decision to disregard popular opinion and develop Taksim Square.  I made it to the square and it was very tranquil.  There was even a folk concert happening.

Taksim Folk Concert

There was a residual police presence in Taksim.  There were at least two armoured crowd-control trucks with water cannon on them.  Yet, to my knowledge there were no deaths.  This is in direct contrast to the rash of killings in Egypt which is very lamentable.  I had to cancel my time in Egypt and will now just get off in Cairo to change places whole en route to Addis Ababa. I hope that things improve there very soon.

Armoured car in Taksim Square

Armoured car in Taksim Square

Taksim in on one of Istanbul’s many hills.  There is an inclined railway, or funicular, built that goes up to Taksim Square.  I’d been walking in the past but decided to try it out.  Apparently it opened to much fanfare in 2006.  Unfortunately, Chile ruined this for me with the creaky, colourful and fun funiculars of Valparaiso.  This one was underground, utilitarian and just outright boring.  All future trips were just treks by foot.  One evening I was walking down the hill and saw some cool t-shirts at a little store that was perhaps 10’ across.  I kept on going but by the bottom of the hill I had a chance to reflect on how I was short on T-shirts.  Back up I went.  The incline plus the 30-something heat meant I was a sweaty guy.  I bought a psychedelic tiger shirt without trying it on because in my current state trying would be the same as buying.  At least by not trying it on it would not be stuck on for hours until I found some airconditioning.

Dreadful Tiger Shirt Dreadful Tiger Shirt

The tiger shirt, it turned out, would have fit a lot better had it not been for me ability to eat street seafood without becoming deathly ill.  It is an awfully tight fit.  I was not expecting this – I must have accidentally stopped at a place for emaciated tourists.  I was hoping to have a place catering to the sturdy Turkish fellows and therefore get something with a lot more breathing room.  Who knows, perhaps the African cuisine will have me swimming in the Tiger shirt by the end of August.  Well, I sort of doubt that as I know Ethiopian food is very good per the place on Whyte Ave.

I made it to the most famous Turkish bathhouse as well.  It’s where you get scrubbed down and massaged with a fair amount of vigor.  One blogger describes the attendants on the men’s side (there is no gender mixing allowed) as “men of few words and many pounds.”  It was an interesting experience especially since I’d been backpacking for the past six weeks and had some worn-in travel grime.  Halfway through the sandpaper style scrubbing the fellow pretzels my arms and does a chiropractic-style body slam.  Then is the inquiry”

“I get good tip right?”

I nod enthusiastically.  Or defeatedly.  Maybe that is what prevented any more amateur chiropractic moves on a huge marble slab.  I was relieved either way.  About an hour later I was done and ready to head to the showers.  All was well.  Nope, I was summoned back.  There was another scrub down requited.  It was getting a little tedious by then but I guess I’d paid for it so why not.  Things weren’t terribly comfortable as it was a pumice stone of some sort.  Then even less comfortable but I was trying to be a good sport.  Then I figured I’d better save my skin in a more literal sense.  I squirmed my way out the of the line of attack because it was not much fun.  Saying yet to the final scrubbing was a mistake because I left looking rougher than I came, with red scrapes on the eyes and back of the neck.  It was my fault for carrying on the tough act too long and for possibly having a pre-existing sunburn that would have been exacerbated.

On my last day I braved the Grand Bazaar and its 4000+ shops.  This fellow had some interesting observations about salesmanship and the effective use of humour.  It was not as intense as I thought – I made it a full 10 minutes before even aimless wandering before even getting one solicitation.  This might be an indication that it’s time to shave.  Or perhaps find a better fitting tiger shirt.

Mighty Bazaar

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The upside of standardization

All that is generic and standardized tends to get a bad rap.  Conformity is bad.  Anything prefaced by a Mc is worse.  

To drive across Canada or the United States there is that highway-culture of predictability  There will be the same fast food joints, gas stations and coffee shops. I’d often taken a dim view of this in the the past. Now, while changing cities on a nearly manic basis, things are different.  I am tending to appreciate boring consistency it for what it is – a sure thing.

It’s not always necissary of course.  I got an amazing double espresso this morning in Istanbul on an open-air mom & pop place.  It was very good and they obviously serve up a valuable commodity. Yet, I had a book so I wasn’t too concerned about their lack of another valuable travel commodity — free WiFi.  It’s tough to get in the best of times, let alone a signial that has enough bandwidth to load a basic website within ten seconds.  This is where Starbucks comes in.

Starbucks Vienna

Starbucks in Vienna

I have found that in budget hostels the Wi-Fi is terrible. Well, the performance is at least — it could be just weighed down by heavy usage.  It’s become a pretty valuable commodity for me as well as it’s inexorably linked to planning further travel, staying in touch and writing bad blogs. Enter Starbucks. This coffee chain has bailed me out constantly with free Wi-Fi that actually works. I see the green mermaid and get giddy.

starbucks_austin-powers21

Sorry Austin Powers, I’m not feeling the satirical love

A more European-focused example of constancy is in a pattern I’d noticed in hostels and tours. I’ve stayed with an outfit called Meininger four times in four countries  The first time it was set apart because it was a very civilized place. It is a cheap hostel that buys out low-star (looks like 3 or so) hotels and fills the rooms full of beds.  They are always in good locations and really are far from adventurous but sometimes it’s good to just to get something predictable: no weird smells, overcrowded rooms or lack of lockers and a guaranteed easy place to find if arriving in town late at night.

The final standardized concept was walking tours.  An outfit called Sandeman has a free walking tour in 18 (mostly European) cities now.  I was very skeptical at first (there’s no such thing as free!) but they have enough of a marketing engine in conjunction with hostels to get groups of 20 to 30 out it seems and with an average tip of $10 per person it’s not a economic model.  These free general tours set the stage for the subsequent themed (and paid) tours.  It’s a very good idea.  What impressed me was the the quality is very high — they recruit a lot of theatre and history students who can sell the drama.  I’ve done nine of these Sandeman tours so far in six countries.  All have been excellent.  The tenth tour, in Krakow, was with a different group and was…  not so great.

Sandemans New Europe

Sandeman Prague

My group in Prague

It seems that I was packing up and heading to a new city so often in Europe some degree of predictability became very welcome.  But from here on in: Jordan / Ethiopia / Tanzania / South Africa I have longer stays which will set the stage to venture farther into the unknown and away from the omnipresent green mermaid whose siren song is all too compelling….

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