Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sitting on the dock of Iquique

Our detour around Bolivia took us to the (completely unfamiliar to me) north coast of Chile.  I don't know why, but I was expecting something Mediterranean.  But no, as we were landing in the town of Iquique, we pulled down the airplane window shade and saw a vast desert stretching away as far as the Andes.  Then all of a sudden the word "Atacama" came back to me from geography bees past.  We were in the driest place on Earth.

In Iquique, it turns out, the whole reason for the city to exist was mining.  The big sandy hills that surround the city are full of minerals like nitrates and saltpeter - minerals valuable enough that Chile went to war with Peru over them in the 1800s. The area was full of small mining towns until they were gradually abandoned in the mid-1900s, leaving giant refineries abandoned in the desert. We heard that there was a particularly well preserved ghost town just 40 km east of us.  The place was a saltpeter mine until it was abandoned in the 1960s and now it is even a UNESCO world heritage site.  It is called Humberstone, which the people here pronounce like "Ombertun." 

Our misadventure trying to visit Humberstone need not be recounted in detail.  Let's just say, due to traffic, it took us an hour to go 5 kilometers of the way there before we decided to get out of the car and turn back so that we could catch our onward bus.  We were annoyed that we couldn't make it in time, but later found out there were several earthquakes last month (around 8 on the Richter scale!) that badly damaged the highway out of town.  I felt sheepish for complaining about the traffic when I found that out.

But still, we wanted to do something before leaving.  The tourist information office recommended an hour boat trip out past the harbor.  But lo and behold, when we got there, no boats were running.  Just our luck, right? 

Dejected, we went to the dock to look at the water.  There was some kind of huge brown bean bag on the dock.  As we got closer, it opened a sleepy eye and watched us.  A sea lion?!  Was this really a lone sea lion, sitting fat and sassy on the dock of the bay?  They live in colonies, so it made us wonder why this one was alone.  Maybe he was taking a break from the group, or maybe he had been kicked out.  He seemed pretty content either way, and his serene smile made us feel better about the failed Humberstone and Boat trips.

Sitting there ended up being lovely.  Out in the ocean, the most enormous waves I have ever seen crashed against the distant breakers.  The little sandy beach was strewn with tons of large, intact mollusk shells.  A black bird with a long red beak stalked the surf, while men stood on boulders fishing for whatever could withstand that tide.  We left Iquique wishing we had stayed longer.  I know so little about the Atacama region, but what little I know says there is a lot going for this little mining town.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mercurial Mercosur

We are encountering Latin American politics up close and personal.  This Sunday only a mile from our place was a giant "celebration" of Argentine independence.  In front of the Casa Rosada, the president Cristina Kirchner gave a speech while thousands of people waved flags, beat drums, and paraded.

Granted we could not understand the speech. But it still seemed to us like the focus of the event was baldly political.  The flags did not say Argentina... They said the name of the president, her family, her party.  The cameras at the event focused on her - we watched her dance awkwardly and kiss spectators.  The audience, our host told us, had  been bussed in.  Many were drinking heavily, forming drum circles that drowned out the speech, and even in one case trying to sell us "brownies de cannabis."  From the outside, and on TV, it looked magnificent.  From the inside, it was cacophonous.  In the U.S. July fourth is also a big party, but I feel like people are celebrating being American, rather than being Democratic/Republican or being part of a televized spectacle.

But Kirchnerism and Peronism are big, we later learned, and have as a central tenet resistance to large American corporations and in some cases American " imperialism."  I do feel at a disadvantage here compared to the other places we have been because of the institutional barriers against America.  The countries here are building a retaliatory bloc, and I don't know whether this is helping them in the end.  For instance, difficulty getting money from my US account - literally every ATM (whether HSBC, Citibank, or the local ones) is using the same network which charges six dollars per transaction on my US account and has low withdrawal limits.

And then, the reciprocity fees.  Because the US charges high visa fees, Argentina, Bolivia, and others charge us huge fees to enter.  We paid 160 for Argentina ad were going to pay more to go through Bolivia before deciding, enough is enough.  We were only planning to spend 1.5 days in Bolivia en route to Peru, but the embassy here decided (after some shady internal deliberation) that it would not grant a transit visa, and would charge the full 160 dollars each.  And since we had no dollars, they gave us a terrible conversion rate for pesos, making it come out to 172 dollars each.  And then, since the ATMs here are against us (see above), actually withdrawing that money would make it closer to 180 each.  We have decided to skip Bolivia and just go through Chile (which does not charge fees for entry as of two months ago).

I get the indignance that these governments feel against America.  But there has to be something to supply and demand, right?  I think this strategy is counter productive.  If you charge high fees for tourists, you are going to have less tourists.  And how does that help?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

It takes two

Thirty hours of transit, from South Africa to Argentina, and the first thing we learn to do is the Tango!  Here in the neighborhood of San Telmo, where we are staying, the dance may have been born.  And just down the street is a place that does a night called Tango entre Muchachos.

Get the idea?  All guys!  This felt like a less threatening atmosphere for me, because I would not be expected to ask women to dance, and learn to lead, etc.  Our teacher, Edgar Fern├índez Sesma, was wonderfully skilled.  Even though he did not speak much English, and my Spanish was pretty rusty, his instruction came across really well.  We learned how to walk to the music and some backing-and-forthing and sidestepping.  He got Josh and I dancing with other guys in about 90 minutes, for less than four dollars each.  (Here is Facebook - recommended indeed!)

When we joined the group, we realized we were much better at following than leading.  This led to some jokes about the personalities associated with conductor and conducido.  We were then forced to switch roles and do the leading to rather than the following.  That's the trouble and the challenge of single sex tango, I guess - learning both roles!  I think to learn to lead well would take at least a year, and we have only four days left.  So, we'll just fake it until we make it.  The next such tango night is on Wednesday - wish us luck!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

There be Drakens

Post by Josh.

The Drakensbergs form a great wall in eastern South Africa - a long series of 1,000 foot tall basalt and sandstone buttes and cliffs that stand as the natural boundary between the surrounding country and remote, mountainous Lesotho. The Zulu people called them the Barrier of Spears for their jagged peaks, but British and Dutch explorers thought instead that their lofty plateaus and cloud-shrouded ravines were surely a place where dragons still roamed wild. Several of our friends recommended them as a place of great beauty and excellent hiking, so we put South Africa on our itinerary as a place to explore amazing mountains. It did not disappoint.

The target of our trek was the Amphitheater Escarpment, a particularly dramatic part of the high mountains. Our guide told us that it is ranked as one of the Top 10 day hikes on the world. The route would its way up to Tugela Falls, the second-tallest waterfall in the world, and normally featured breathtaking views down over the lower Drakensbergs and across the infinite African plains beyond. What we saw was instead an infinite expanse of cloud. Swirling right below the edge of the cliffs were the dense clouds as far as the eye could see, roiling and seething and boiling off just before they could claim the top of the plateau as their own.

I actually found being amongst the clouds a more exciting experience than seeing the advertised distant vistas. As we climbed up the last steep gorge, clouds whipped above us in ragged tatters as they were pushed between the rocks. Our lunch location, perched on a promontory above the Sea of Cloud, saw masses of vapor waft over the cliff edge in front of us and dissipate back into the air like waves breaking on the shore. Thin mists whipped around and over us as we hiked back down, rejoining the ever-growing cloud mass behind us. It was like wandering in the playground of an aerial giant, with enormous rock sentinels floating amongst the wild heights of the sky. It was a spectacular hike, and definitely one of my favorite experiences in the trip, even without any dragons.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Deconstructing Durban

"There is nothing more Durban than going to The Cube and eating Bunny chow from Johnny's Rotis!"

Our fabulous host in Durban, Shaun, got really excited when he came up with this idea for a local experience.  We had heard about Bunny chow previously from some Durbanites we'd met in Zanzibar, who told us it was a specialty of the town.  But Shaun helped the identify the best (cheapest?) place to buy it, and the most scenic place to eat it.

You can't get more cubist than this.  The bunny is an end of a bread loaf, hollowed and filled with Indian food.  (Josh got mutton, I got kebab, and Shaun got chicken.). You are supposed to eat it with your hands.  Tear off a corner of the bread and scoop out the gravy and meat.  But it is very tempting to bring it to your face and just chew off chunks.  High marks on flavor, fun, and value!

Behind us, a metal cube overlooked the town.  Local art students paint the cube from time to time, but not when we were there.  Nearby us, a couple sat having an argument, which got Shaun even more excited.  Free local drama!  The Mabhida football stadium, a relic from the 2010 World Cup, dominated our view.  We did not go inside the stadium but you can take a little cable car up and bungee jump from the top.  As we finished our bunnies, a sightseeing bus called the "Ricksha" unloaded a gaggle of tourists into the park so they, too, could ogle the skyline and take photos.

All of these things paint a fun and resort-like picture of Durban.  It is the biggest port in South Africa and apparently a favorite beach getaway for Johannesburgers, who call it "Durbs" and even "Dibs."  But what about all the stuff we learned about South Africa in school and in the news?  What about apartheid and crime?

Well no one we talked to denied that segregation is still a reality.  The townships that were created for Black people to live in are still there - Umlazi, KwaMusha, etc.  (But now the Durban tourism board helps organize Township Tours!)  The Indians have their area and their shops.  Eat at the little beachside "Circus Circus Cafe" on a Thursday afternoon and all the waiters are Black, while almost none of the customers are.  (Being there felt like we were interrupting the Ladies Who Lunch.)  I stopped counting the number of commercial buildings with signs that stated, "Right of Admission Reserved." 

Indeed, for me Durban showed how South Africa is still very much a part of Africa, with the "formal" and "informal" economies creating a striking blend.   The Warwick Triangle is a warren of market stalls just on the edge of the city center's parks and skyscrapers, where hundreds if not thousands of shopkeepers were selling clothes, electronics, and most unusual for me, "traditional" medicines and remedies.

As for crime, a guidebook told us to be careful of our valuables and belongings if we walked through this area.  But nothing happened.  It was only when we walked back to the city center that we were targeted.  Walking on a busy sidewalk, I saw an arm reach over my shoulder.  The kid behind me grabbed this Nexus tablet I was holding and tried to pull it away.  But my grip was stronger than his.  It happened really quickly and left my heart racing.  I turned around and gave the kid a pissed-off look and hoped he was embarrassed.  Of course his attempt seemed brazen to me, but I felt it was pointless to make a scene in that context.

If Bunny Chow and the Cube are Durban, so are inequality and and tension, as well as community.  And unusually expansive Constitutional rights.  If you haven't heard, the South African Constitution is one of the most liberal in the world.  I guess they are proud of it.  I saw it celebrated in street murals and mentioned on TV.  In fact, we were playing a South African board game called 30 Seconds which is similar to Catchphrase, and one of the words was "The Constitution."  Well good - if they've got it, why not flaunt it?  Now it is time to see how the Constitution will make a difference.  Will all those rights turn South Africa into a melting pot, or a tossed salad, or just a Durban Bunny Chow with a white bread surface and a gooey spicy interior?  I think that may be the worst food metaphor I have ever made. 

I will end this unusually long post by saying Thank You Again to our host with the most, Shaun, and the crowd at Jackrabbit's bar in Morningside - we'll sing "Be Our Guest" at your Karaoke night any time you want!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Shilling Tale

We are in Durban, South Africa, where it is late autumn, and a balmy 24 Celsius.  Mmhmhmhmhhm.  But there is one tiny problem.  We still have Ten Thousand Tanzanian Shillings from our time in Dar Es Salaam, that NO bureau at the airport in Joburg would take.

This is upsetting - what happened to African unity??  I get the fact that the Tanzanian shilling is pretty weak.  The ten thousand note  here is worth six dollars.  But It's not like the South African rand is that much better.  People here seem to love talking about how their currency is is going down the tubes.  The rand has dipped down to 10 per dollar.  Which makes things bizarrely cheap in a country that feels just as urbanized as Australia or the UK. 

And the breakfast look just as western too!  Except for that little tub of SPICY peri-peri.  Sawubona!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Life as a Mzungu

Post by Josh.

Wherever we have traveled, we have constantly been marked as foreigners by our skin color, language, and backpacks, which instantly makes us objects of social attention. Shopkeepers and souvenir hawkers try to get us into their shops, young adults try to practice their English on us and crowds of small children come to us to stare in amazement or to ask for money. How we are approached has varied per region. In Southeast Asia, we were called Mister. In Turkey and Egypt, it was always a warm "Hello my friend!". Zanzibar has continued then trend, with many people calling us 'Rafiki,' or friend in Swahili. Most places tended to treat us as curiosities or treated us as part of the tourist destinations that they found us in.

Most African countries have so far proved more direct; in Ethiopia we were Ferengies, the Amharic word for foreigner (also a alien race in Star Trek), while in Kenya and Tanzania we have been Mzungu, a Swahili word meaning to spin in place dizzily, or to wander aimlessly. It was originally applied to the European explorers and colonisers who spun circuitous paths around the continent in the 1800s and has stuck to all foreigners, particularly white ones. We hear it slip in conversation around us, or as "Hey Mzungu" when the conductor on a shared taxi wants to direct us. It is our identity. We are not individuals or even nationalities, but simply one of The Other - a foreigner, a Ferengi, a Mzungu.

Because all foreigners do stuff like this, obviously.

This made me think about what equivalent term we have in the US, but I don't think we have a good cognate. Visually, anyone could be an American - we have no definite racial or facial cast - so cannot immediately label people like that. Only after we know a bit about the people around us can we tell if they are locals, traveling Americans, new immigrants, or actual foreigners or tourists. The mixed nature of our social makeup has forced us to be more circumspect in drawing the line between 'us' and 'the other.'  Having been on the 'other' side of that line for a few months now, I am starting to look forward to being back where it is less distinct.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Monkey see, monkey do

I.  Monkey see

Meet Dinkinesh.  She lives in the Ethiopian national museum.  In the English world, we call her "Lucy," but who knows what name she actually went by.  It was so long ago, and all we have are these bones.

In truth, the upright skeleton is a best guess!  The actual bones we have are displayed flat on a shelf, and there are not a lot.  When I look at them scattered out like that, I can't believe this is the most famous hominid skeleton ever found.  There are other skulls in this museum far more haunting, showing human-like skulls with really big canine teeth, and the early stone tools they used.

Visiting these fossils and seeing how many different species of monkey-human type things there are, and in how many different places they have been found, I was more confused than ever.  What happened to the Asian homo erectus?  How do we draw any straight family lines through all these potential ancestors, and whose interests do these narratives serve?  There is a lot more digging to do.

II.  Monkey do

Nairobi, Kenya, has a bad reputation in tourist guide books as a dangerous place with not much to see.  I beg to differ.  True, you can be stuck in traffic and surrounded by chaotic crowds for a long time.  But our friend Jeff suggested a nice little refuge in the city. "Let's go the monkey park," he said.  I was expecting a little zoo full of monkeys.  But no:  It is a public park, with a little lawn, and monkeys are crawling all over the grass like squirrels waiting for people to feed them.  So we went and bought peanuts from a cart stationed there. 

"Hold out only one at a time," Jeff said, making a fist shape, "or they will try to snatch all of them."

"Are they going to bite me?" I asked, holding out an outstretched hand, palm up.  I was going to put a nut in the center and bend down to feed the fuzzy little guys.  One of them was a protective mother with her child clutching her tight around the middle.  They looked at me with big eyes, backing away slowly.

"They don't bite," Jeff laughed. 

And so I watched Josh put one nut in his fingertips and hold it out to the monkeys.  Before he had time to bend down, those little mammals had jumped onto his back, climbed onto his shoulder, and grabbed the nut from his hand. 

Others then did the same to me, and I was not even holding any nuts!  I got a bit freaked out at the sudden monkey onslaught.  Those little monkey feet are really grabby, almost ticklish, and I was just a ladder for them.  They made me open my fist and then gave up.

Eventually, one took a liking to Josh and sat on his shoulder for a good while.  Clearly, Josh is a more confident monkey ladder than me.  But the last laugh is mine, because while I still look somewhat respectable, his shirt is now covered with tiny footprints!  It looks like he's been mud wrestling with kindergartners.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Inadvertent Ecotourists

Post by Josh.

I love nature and hiking. Several of our trips in the US were to the National Parks to camp, hike, and climb mountains, and a few of the destinations on our wander around the world were set up to explore distant natural settings. Thailand was the first of those - we went on a three-day trek in the northern hill country around Chaing Mai. I was expecting to be traipsing through ancient jungles, far from the influence of modern man. Instead, we spent most of our time threading our way through the dense network of trails that connected the fields, farms, and villages of the Thai hill tribes. These groups maintain their political and cultural separation from mainstream Thai society, but their motorbikes, cell phones, and modern clothing made them seem pretty similar to what I had seen in other towns. The nature that I saw during our walk was highly cultivated - nothing that could really be called wilderness.

In Ethiopia, I figured we would try the whole 'wilderness adventure' thing again. The Simien Mountains, in the north of the country, were advertised as a playground of dramatic volcanic ridges, twisted into fanciful shapes by erosion and blanketed by one of the richest ecosystems in the country. The park was also divided into a cultural reserve, with traditional villages and farms, and a separate nature reserve which allowed us to focus on uninhabited nature. I was pumped to explore the place. Until we found out that you are required to hire an armed guard, and a guide, and probably pack horses and a horse handler and a cook to enter the park, and that they expect you to stay there for five or more days while we only had three. Guidebooks, however, also mentioned another mountain park in the south of the country - the Bale Mountains - where you did not need a guard and where you could hike between a network of camp lodges set up by a German NGO.  Reassured, we headed south.

It wasn't until our first night in the lodges that I realized that we weren't even in the Park itself, but instead in a protected area of the mountains set asides for tourism. We had again become unwitting EcoTourists and spent the next three days wandering amongst the hillside farming communities of the local Oromo peoples.

Maybe Thailand had tempered my expectations, but I actually wasn't let down by this. Maybe it was because of the incredibly rich landscape, which felt like a bizarre tropical Eden and filled my head with all sorts of emerald green Ethiopian pastoralist fantasies. It still feels fresh and exotic to see horses grazing in mossy fields lined with banks of tropical flowers, or to encounter herds of goats amongst thyme and juniper bushes at treeline. We saw a cave and waterfalls, a colony of Colobus monkeys, and got to hear the whimsical cry of the endemic Abyssinian Catbird. At every turn, local farm children were there to wave at us from over rustic fences or offer us shy hellos as we passed them on the herding trails. The forest felt as though it had been shaped by generations of farmers and herdsmen in gradual and subtle ways, so while it never felt wild to me, it always felt rich and coherent.

We ended up sharing the lodges with a group of four French people who introduced us to the card game 'Bang!' and two Germans, Hans and Joerg, who worked in a local town and offered to host us the night after we left the mountains. Joerg runs an example farm, trying to promote the mechanization of Ethiopian agriculture, and offered to show us his fields before we left. Perched above the edge of the Great Rift Valley, his farm gave us the animal sighting experience that the settled mountain hike had not - we saw bounding antelope, brilliant blue, yellow, and lime green birds, and a pod of about 16 baboons wrestling and foraging in a fallow field. It was a surprising end to our hiking adventure, but demonstrated again that we don't have to find 'wilderness' to experience the awesome animals and environment of an area.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Tea thyme

Winter is coming...

In the southern hemisphere, that is.  We are not south of the equator yet, but are already experiencing the seasonal shift.  Here in the Bale mountains of southern Ethiopia, it is getting colder.  The rainy season has just begun and some beautiful plants are blooming.

This thing is the Red-hot Poker and it is now one of my favorite flowers.  You cannot eat it but it is used as medicine.  I like how it stands out so strongly against the vivid green moss and grass.
And another local bloomer here is thyme.  When we asked for tea at the first rest stop on this two-night trek, they gave us water steeped with dried plant stalks, sweetened.  We had no idea what we were drinking but we knew it was amazing.  Then as we climbed higher in altitude to the African alpine forest, we saw the wild thyme growing everywhere, and recognized it as the tea we had been drinking.

We got here from Addis Ababa via a couple of minibuses to the small town of Dodola.  In Dodola, a shopkeeper befriended us and showed us a good place for lunch.  We had berberi, which turned out to be injerra with lots of tangy sauces, veggies, and cheese.  We ate it with our hands, except hose two bites that our host put directly into our mouths with his hand.  How could we refuse?  He said it was a sign of great friendship.  After, he took us on a walk to see some waterfalls, and Josh took the opportunity to have fun with some local kids.  He pulled his shirt tails over his head and acted like a leaping monster.  Needless to say, they loved it.

But like I said, we are not in the southern hemisphere yet.  I have never been there but will cross that frontier on Tuesday when we reach our next stop: Nairobi!