Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fw: Ethiopia 1

Ethiopia 1.Arrival
 Dubai.So how come they can build some of the world's greatest and now the tallest buildings, but can't provide enough toilets at their international airport?  Only place in the world I've ever had to queue 15 deep for a cubicle!.
Flying Dubai to Addis Ababa is less than 4 hours but takes you over interesting scenery of  Yemen and the Red Sea. The route takes you over Djibouti,possibly to avoid flying over Eritrea. Clouds obscured much of Ethiopia, but through the gaps the land has greened up with the rains and vast areas are cultivated, with a scattering of villages or straw roofed huts.
If you're getting visa on arrival,as  you enter the Immigration hall, on your immediate left is a prominent bureau for Hotel bookings, and just past that is an office door with a small sign up saying 'Visa on Arrival'. You can pay in Euro,US dollars or Bir.$20US each. And there are Foreign Exchange counters on the far right of the Hall. We  experienced queues at neither, and had exchanged money,bought our visa, passed through Immigration and looking for our bags within 20 minutes. Our bags we'd checked through in Wellington were waiting for us. Isn't that an amazing feat of organization? 4 flights. We had packed toiletries and a change of clothes in our carryons, just in case!
Being very jet lagged after 4 flights and 32 hours since leaving home, we could have haggled harder over the 120 Bir to our hotel Ras, about 25 minutes drive. This was  another hair raising taxi ride for our 'Taxi Rides We have Survived Chronicles'. It was bucketing down with rain. This is the height of their rainy season. But our driver seemed to believe that you only turned the wipers on if absolutely necessary. He probably believed it flattened the battery using them constantly and with the humidity fogging up the insides we just couldn't see out. But the congested traffic meant a very slow speed so collisions were avoided!
Our hotel was the Ras.....yes well how do you describe it. Long past it's heyday and ancient splendour. Yeah sure, may have had some famous names staying here in it's glory days of the 60's and 70's but now seems it's main business is the overland tour groups judging by the trucks and buses parked outside. Backpacker may be a better description.Ooops, just remembered, we're joining one!
We may just check out the restaurant. But wandered down the road to a cafe at the Ethiopian hotel. Very nice pizza served to their own unique style. A 1cm thick base, no cheese but smothered in tomato paste,paprika and hot peppers and tomatoes.
The Ras Hotel is looking a bit better this morning. The sun shining,and we're both probably (now we've caught up with sleep) more accepting that we are in a third world country after all, and if you want luxury, you book and pay for luxury. Breakfast was superb. Huge choice. But it was just dive in and try any of the dishes. The bread was excellent,fresh,and very crusty on the outer. But don't expect a bottomless cup of coffee. Refills are extra cost. All of 50 cents US.
Just back from a short sightseeing tour. We negotiated a rate of 100 Bir an hour for a taxi and guide to take us around. Merkato Markets was a must for us. But getting in to see the inner sanctum of this sprawling mish mash of markets,wholesalers and recycling small industries, as a tourist can be unsafe. We're flaunting unattainable wealth in front of the poorest of the poor, people who sleep on the street, beggars and cripples,and just abject poverty, and just the glint of a cheap gold plated necklace can bring upon you a snatch and grab. So we were warned. There was no way we wanted to miss having a good nosy, but that wasn't wise on our own so our taxi driver offered as part of the sightseeing deal, to take us through and suss out the safe places we could wander. We were warned that there'll be a clamour for money if we wanted to photo anyone. So photographing was on the move, very quick, or  taken of a general street scene. But what a wealth of scenes for a photographer! Streetlife can be so fascinating. The vibrant chaos of small craft industries, mixed with the flow of raw materials , and all manner of produce being hawked was just exhilarating to observe.
Some of the very narrow backstreets were extremely difficult to negotiate, as they are just very uneven rocks,in very poor state of repair, flowing with the wet seasons water, and here and there an open hole where you could disappear into the sewer! Quite a juggling act , watching your footing,avoiding the holes,manoeuvring through moving trucks and cars,jumping out of the way of loaded donkeys, or human 'mules ' with piles of boxes on their heads and at the same time taking it all in ! Too much going on to miss any of it. And then there was the ever present need to keep an eye out for anyone following,perhaps to thieve something. I noticed a guy had been following me up close, and turned often so he couldn't get at my back pack, but still we found the zip had been opened. Luckily, there was nothing taken, and just our rain jackets in it anyway.
It is rainy season, and at 12.30pm, it buckets down for a few hours. So we've done our sightseeing by then, and back at the Ras to catch our breaths as we'll be out tonight for dinner and cultural performance.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

We're off tomorrow! Ethiopia. Quick notes!

One more sleep ( if we can...) and we're taking off to Ethiopia. We've planned this trip for so long.Wanted to go there since I can't remember and finally it's come around. Flights were booked late last year and we managed to get a good deal with Emirates Airlines. But such a long flight. Wellington/Auckland/Melbourne/Dubai/Addis Ababa!
3 weeks in Ethiopia then Addis Ababa/Dubai/Manchester. And 1 week with our daughter based in Solihull, then we'll hire a car and drive up to meet friends in the Lake District. Celebrate my birthday (not telling so don't ask!) and 3 weeks touring Scotland.
Then home. Manchester,Dubai/Sydney/Wellington.
12 flights all up $3700NZ! Pretty good considering we asked to make a change to possibly take in a side trip to Azerbaijan and got told they would have to cancel that and reissue at $5500! Azerbaijan can wait til next year!
The car hire through a 30% sale promotion  with Europcar ,560 Pounds for 21 days is really good also.

In Ethiopia we have arranged a visit with a child we sponsor. We sponsor 3 children with Childfund.
And this will be our second visit that we've arranged through Childfund.You can read about our first visit here-Visit to our sponsored child in India
So I'm hoping we have good internet access while we're there to keep this site fresh and updated with our experiences.
And we'll be doing a tour with Gap Adventures - ethiopia-explorer DEN

Keep checking in. I'll keep you updated!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Tsunami Blessing 4:The Blessing of Enlightenment..

Refer here for-
Part 1  Part 2   Part 3

Travelling  from Pondicherry down the coast of Tamil Nadu, I can remember that our view from the high seats in our Dragoman truck allowed us commanding views over the low undulating countryside. It was incredible to see an unbroken line  of wreckage marking the high tide line of the tsunami's penetration! We were miles inland at times, but still that line was so evident.And here and there villagers picking through the flotsam. Lots of plastic rigged up as shelters, as houses had been completely obliterated.
We  watched these scenes, but our comprehension of such devastation was lacking. It was almost like watching it on video, it was so removed for us. We could go home tomorrow to our warm homes, and be greeted by loved ones.How can you take in that these people were searching for their family members amongst their home's rubble?
Somewhere along the way down to the bottom tip of India, we bush camped. Dragoman trips will have a mix of nights bush camping, and accommodated.We'd hit the jackpot in Pondicherry because the tour kitty was enough to cover the cheap hotel rate we negotiated there, rather than camping at the beach camp.Didn't want to be near the beach anyway.
So it was time to bush camp.Somewhere secluded, quiet, away from the road. Growing dark and still no suitable site but a turn off the main road took us down into what appeared to be an old marble quarry. No signage, just old shattered marble blocks and tailings, and a km away cliffs of pure marble. And a quiet, reasonably flat area, and it was out  and up with our  the cook tent followed  by our two person ones. Looked a very safe area to get a good nights sleep.
Then BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Huge explosions rip through the night so frikken close! Our deserted quarry was not so deserted! It was deserted because they had blasting operations that night! We were lucky we hadn't driven further in. But this was India, with it's very stringent work place rules, barriers, hard hats, DANGER signs , gate security guards and roadblocks....Yeah right!?
Blasts went on for a while , and carried on a wee bit longer, but from our camp.  James and the lads got out all their huge firework bangers they had left over from New Years and started answering them back. Boom, boom boom! Hilarious. And probably a bit confusing to the quarry men as they would have been  in a bit of consternation wondering who planted that  dynamite in the wrong place!

Cape Comorin is the furthermost tip of India, where you can paddle in the waters where the Indian Ocean, and Arabian Sea meet the Bay of Bengal.Swami Vivekananda Rock Memorial occupies an island around 500 metres offshore.A place of pilgrimage a short boat ride away.
As we dabbled our feet, a local guy came over and warned us not to do that.Thinking we were breaking some religious custom we asked him why.
"Because the water may get you" he gravely said."When the water went away, people started walking to the island, thinking prayers had turned back the waters. Then the wave came and over 300 were swept away!"
300 lives lost In one spot!What a tragedy.I think most of us by this time were very affected by witnessing the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami and it certainly added a whole new dimension to our overlanding tour.

So it was a relief to pull into Kovalam Beach and spend a few days enjoying sun, sand and sea.Here we just blobbed .It's become a very popular alternative to over touristed Goa .Smaller,less developed but still a wide range of accommodation from backpackers to good quality hotels right along the beach. And the beachfront restaurants are packed and ready to party at night.But dining on prawn fried rice was not the smartest move that evening.I learnt next day that the tsunami had scared away all the fish,local fishermen were catching nothing, and seafood was being trucked in unrefrigerated for the restaurants.3 days later, still violently ill it was off to a medical centre for antibiotics! The joys of India....

India is a vibrant, colorful,visually rich country, with layers of history. And a multitude of castes,beliefs and religions that sometimes tear communities apart. But it's also rich in spirituality, possibly the country that is most so, and many foreigners travel there seeking enlightenment, and pathways to that inner vision. I never really paid too much heed to that, and I certainly didn't travel to India on a similar quest. But sometimes you can't avoid it.Or more correctly,as in my case, it just reaches out and gently touches you, and leaves it's mark upon you.
Back in  Mahabalipuram  I had taken the time, during our never arriving lunch at a restaurant ,to wander down the little main shopping street where I had spied a sandal maker's shop.Being a shoemaker myself, the simpatico arises and I have just got to have a chat and admire another craftsman's work. And I also appreciate that leather workers in India are of the lowest castes, being handlers of dead animal skins. Over the centuries only the very lowest castes would skin dead animals and tan the hides. Untouchables. My thoughts were of how this sandal maker would be faring, as the aid , when it did finally reach this community, would trickle down from the top. And I was also aware that the  owner had just thrown a beggar out of our restaurant a few minutes ago, but that beggar was still hanging morosely around. These people would be last in the feeding chain, if there was one.
I didn't need to buy any sandals, I make my own. But I did buy, and I didn't haggle too hard for them either, just enough to go through the ritual and enable my sandal maker his dignity in knowing he could sell his creation. And he with great honesty and pride proffered me change for the notes I'd tendered. So gesturing to the beggar down the street, I asked him to give him all my change, enough perhaps for a few meals. The sandal maker ran up to the beggar, a joyful exchange took place, and a few others got involved, all looking at me.Then the sandal maker came back and in his poor English said how good I was.
"Today I can feed my family after 3 days! And Sir, you have fed another family."
Then this sandal maker placed his hand close to my forehead,closed his eyes, and started muttering.As he did that, a warm glow seemed to register in my head. I'm not too sure what was going on. I just thought I'd handed out a few dollars to buy something to ensure money got to where it was needed without actually handing out and encouraging begging.
"I have blessed you Sir.You are blessed with all my being!"
That was my Tsunami Blessing.
A simple action, an insignificant event, and over and done with in a minute. No big deal. But upon me, it left a bigger impression than a tsunami. It's probably the single most remembered event in my travelling experience.(Apart from elephants jumping out at us!) It truly was a blessing. Because whenever I look back upon how our travel has changed, that moment triggered it.
I somehow feel that that sandal maker gave me something far greater than just a cheap pair of sandals in return for my few dollars.

And now we plan our travels differently.Our return to India 2 years later was to visit a child we sponsor through Childfund. Read about our village experience here-The Village Pump! On that visit, the genuine hospitality of the villagers was so humbling. And since then we've sought out volunteer projects with a mix of wildlife conservation and work with village communities. In a few days time we leave to visit another child we sponsor in Ethiopia.So for us, the Tsunami experience had a deep effect on us and on our expectations from our travels.It's more about people and their lives or giving back in conservation projects.

So for all you other travellers, have you ever had a moment on the road where something made you stop and think about what you are doing? What are you seeking? What impact are you having on the people and places you visit? Was it a sudden kick in the pants that made you stop and consider your actions? Or has it been a cumulative gaining of experiences and wisdom that slowly came upon you,and made you question ?
Or do you  even question your impact as a traveller upon the communities that allow you entry?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Weekly desktop photo.5 Real Africa!

My wallpaper photo this week is The Big Tusker !

Can you imagine being so close to that? Just a few metres away. Your life in the balance of that huge creature's whim. But it was strange not being afraid, just admiring that huge bull ele, and feeling such delight, such amazement at being so close to such a beautiful creature. The largest land animal of all.
And we had been much closer...just minutes before! And the amazing thing is, that we never saw it!
How can you not see an animal that big, even when you drive past him, as near as 2 metres away? But in Namibia I had seen how invisible they are. You can be searching all over the landscape, but you won't see them....until they move! Stock still their legs to the inexperienced eye look just like tree trunks. The body covered in dirt from their dust bath will perfectly camouflage them into the bush and colour of the landscape. And that's why they can be so dangerous. Because you can drive up so close before you see them, and they may interpret your approach as a hostile threat, and react.
And now we had driven right up and past one, by the width of the thickness of a bush!

 This was on our private safari, with Russell Frankish of Green Bushpig Safaris. I had started off relating our tales of this so exciting time on our safari. Read here- african-safari-with-greenbushpig.html
and had told of our time at Imbambala Resort at Loskop Dam and our rhino experience. So a few days later on we had made our way down to spend 3 days on safari through Kruger National Park. Kruger is a jewel in the tiara of South Africa's National Parks. There are many parks, each having their own great features, and while most one-time tourists will head to Kruger, do research the others. And the best place to do that, is a wonderful forum with every bit of info you would want to know here at SA's National Parks website and forum-www.sanparks.org/forums
The members there are tops in offering advice, welcoming you, and putting up all sorts of information. I love browsing their forums.

 Getting back to our time at Kruger, We stopped for lunch at Skukuza at the restaurants and shops there. Buying our lunch and looking around for seats, we wondered why, in the heat of midday, no one sat right in under the shade of the open sided sheltered area. But you only had to look up and see why! Bats! Bats in the ceiling rafters. Rather cute...but you don't want them pooping in your flat white, or mayonnaising your salad! So everyone sat just outside in that outer ring of confidence.

 Now most people want to check off the Big 5: Elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino, leopard are what most want to see. But there are so many other wonderful animals to see. And my favourite experience was seeing quite unexpectedly,was a pair of Southern Ground Hornbills walk right out of the scrub and across our path. These are huge birds, the male resplendent in his glowing red wattle and huge beak, his partner quite drab in comparison, around the size of a turkey.

 Isn't he beautiful! That bird wandered right up to our car. My window was down, and I'm poking my Canon out the window and that cheeky bird pecked my camera!
Then he went on to pose and adopt various positions as if he was a model, attempting to get his best posture and profile to the camera. Someone must have trained him well.
Sadly his friendly nature may be his undoing. They're high potency fetish material for native witch doctor practices, muti it's called. And numbers are declining rapidly.

You may notice blackish specks on his wattle, they're ticks.

A click on any of the photos will bring them up on your screen full size.

There's a lot of wildlife in Kruger, and sometimes it seems that if it's not standing posing for your camera it's coming straight at you! That ele in the pic just above gave us a warning that we better not come any closer. She was outrider, or flank guard for her herd. We needed to drive down that road but she was on one side, the herd on the other. The last thing you do, is drive between them. Foolhardy. You just don't do it! That is the zone she is guarding.

Well, a full on warning charge happened later on. As we were driving down another dirt track, we spotted a small herd of elephants to our left down in a shallow gully, with a car on the road watching them. For some reason Russell pulls up beside the car, not behind, luckily.... because at that moment to our right, we hear a high pitched trumpet of panic which could only be a baby elephant hollering for it's mum! That baby had been slack in crossing the road with the herd, had finally woken up to the fact it was alone, and had sounded off in panic. Suddenly the car beside us shot backwards at full speed! Had we been behind they'd have come through our windscreen. The female driver was white faced, knuckles clenched around the wheel in panic, as a huge elephant charged straight up the bank at her! And as she reversed so quickly out of the way, that left us in the path of that onrushing eles wrath! Ears out wide, trunk high, she came at us! Slowly Russell reversed a few metres, and the elephant carried on past our front towards her panicked baby. Phew!

To his credit, Russell kept his cool, and calmly and slowly reversed out of the situation. And we often think back to that experience and remember that the excitement of an unexpected happening like that, is real Africa. There is an underlying tension wherever you go that no other place can offer.
That's what draws us back.

Shortly after, we drove down a very narrow dirt track, and passed a thick high bush where the road dead ended. Russell reversed and turned around then drove the car over a fallen branch. Strange, that we hadn't seen that before...where had that come from? Now you're not supposed to get out of your vehicle in any National Park for the very reason we're about to experience....that underlying tension may just snap unexpectedly!
Russell stopped and said he'd better get out just to see if there was any damage.
"Nope, no damage.....uh oh .... " Then very quietly Russell says for us both to just freeze and not do anything.
"I'm just going to get back into the car and we will all just sit quietly.There's a big elephant in the bush beside us! I can see his tusk poking through the bush!"
We looked up just as a branch snaped and the bush was shaken.Thiswas happening just a few metres away. We'd driven past that bush, and it brushed the side of the car!
Then the elephant took a few steps through the bushes and this monstrous head and huge tusks came into view. Kay said later she had never been so frightened before. It was a moment that locks into your mind forever. Even I was unedged and it takes a lot to rattle me. This was so unexpected.
So there we were, so close to a massive bull elephant, and we'd never seen it. We even had the best guide in all of Southern Africa with us. But I guess he was too busy looking at twigs under the car. Must have been distracted I suppose.
"We're just going to sit here quietly."Russell whispered."That bull knows we're here.He's comfortable with us.If he wasn't he'd have let us know by now. Elephants have got used to cars in Kruger, but you never know."
"Problems can arise in a situation like this where a tourist reacts to spotting that bull by slamming the door, revving up, and screaming out of the way.And that could provoke a real charge by the elephant."

We moved away slowly a few more metres, and then the bull walked right out into full view. Magnificent. So huge, and yet so peaceful and quiet, and so comfortable with us and the car.
That was just one of those unforgettable moments

And that was real Africa!

As I said, this guy was a real poser. Top male model of the year SA 2009!


Monday, August 2, 2010

So You've Thought About Volunteering? 2

Let's follow up what Norbert has to say here-So you've thought about volunteering I'll add further to some of the questions Norbert from Globotreks has raised, based on my research and actual hands on experience.I got interested in voluntourism as a result of an incident that I'll be relating in the Tsunami Blessing series I have guest posted on Globotreks.So you'll have to go read about that there, when it appears!  I have researched a few organisations, and projects, been on a couple of projects, and followed some of them over recent years so hopefully my advice can help others.

How to Select a Good Volunteering Program.
Only one answer here-RESEARCH! Get to know as much as you can about any that you are interested in.Google them.Get on Facebook and Youtube and do a search for them. Ask about them on travel forums, such as Tripadvisor.Then bookmark the site and keep checking for new info.And ask any questions there.You'll hopefully get past volunteers responding with their experiences.
Verify which organisations are marketing  projects, and which are actual projects.Then contact the project directly. But only after you have researched it thoroughly and had other first hand referrals about it,and then book directly.You'll save heaps, and know that what you pay goes directly to the project.

Why should you volunteer?
Covered very well by Norbert.But I would add that it is also about passing on your knowledge and skills to others.This is where you can leave a bit of yourself behind that can make a big difference in the lives of others.Teaching children in South America or Africa is great, but pass on what you know to other local teachers also,and they can then forever pass that on.
Another point : wildlife conservation volunteer projects are great on your resume', if you're studying any of the environmental sciences.You've got out there and shown a prospective employer you can do the hard work in a far off place with few facilities.You're not another desk jockey!

Why should you pay to volunteer?
Well covered by Norbert.I can  add that some projects use this to sort out those who are really dedicated and intent on contributing.After all, that money you paid is a big incentive to go the distance, and not pull out prematurely because you didn't like it, and you paid nothing so you can chuck it in easy.
For a struggling project with no income,just feeding and lodging you is a major expense to them.Expect to pay.But check thoroughly what your money is being used for.

How much are you willing to pay?
Comes back to your judgement and ability to pay.

What do you want to do?
You may be surprised how your volunteer experience helps develop your potential.And it can really push out that horizon of possibilities! It creates more options in your life.

How much time do you have?
I know of women in their 60's working their way around wildlife and community volunteer projects in Africa,enjoying up to 6 months stretch at a time.And High School kids using their 2 week school break.
 What do former volunteers say?
This is important.That first hand information is what you are seeking straight from them.Get on Youtube,Facebook, or travel forums such as Tripadvisor.And check out Gap Adventure's  wateringhole  travel forum.Gap Adventures operate voluntours,and you can also find first hand information at Planeterra here-www.planeterra.org/.
And here you can read a comment from Poppy who has volunteered in Namibia this year.Comment number 8-volunteering                                                    

What do the projects say?
Here you will find one project's view of volunteers.
Why volunteers matter!

What will you learn?
You'll learn not only about other cultures and people, you'll learn about yourself.Some projects will challenge you, your comfort level, your beliefs, and how you work with other people.
In my 2 weeks in the Damarland desert I learnt more about Namibia and it's people and history, sitting around a campfire chatting with a local guy, than I did on the 2 week tour we did previously.I heard his stories of his growing up.He entertained us with tales of his life, his community problems, and his adventures as a guerrilla fighter in their war for Independence.And he shared his hopes for his people.

Organisations I have volunteered with.
Elephant Human-Relations Aid, Namibia.  http://www.desertelephant.org/
Naankuse,    Namibia.            http://www.naankuse.com/

Organisations I have researched.
Global Volunteer Network.   http://www.globalvolunteernetwork.org/
Biospheres Expeditions    http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/
Gap Adventures/Planetera    http://www.planeterra.org/pages/voluntours/
Enkosiniecoexperience     http://www.enkosiniecoexperience.com/

Each of the above organisations are reputable and offer good value experiences.Check over their offerings thoroughly.You will find they will have a mix of their own projects, and may market others.This works in favour of many projects that just don't have their own skills or resources to undertake their own international marketing.

My next volunteer experience will be back to EHRA and the desert elephants,next May, and if anyone wants to come, give me a yell.I just might have  a camera team with me!Shush.Big secret still..........