Category Archives: Africa

Wanderlust Like Whoa

This is going to be a post about wanderlust.

Elephant. Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by MJ.

My Kansan friend just got back from a dream trip to Tanzania and Kenya. Listening to her describe her trip made me feel like a recovering cocaine addict listening to someone describe the intricacies of a recent high. I’m painfully jealous, and yearning for an adventure.

For the first time in years, I’ve had to live through my friends’ trips as I keep my mind focused on science and school. When I moved back from Ecuador, I went off my travel addiction cold-turkey — it hasn’t been easy. As we caught up and she told me all about the colorful textiles she saw, the giraffes she fed, and fun facts about the size of an elephant’s reproductive organs, she also mentioned a moment she had while visiting Serengeti National Park. It’s a moment I know all too well, but have gone too long without…

As she stood, looking over the landscape of the Serengeti, impossibly far away from home, she found herself suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. It was one of those experiences that comes unexpectedly while traveling, when an intense, pure sense of appreciation for the world just hits you like a charging rhino, and everything around you becomes insanely beautiful. In these moments, you just feel lucky. Grateful. Small in a great big, mysterious world. If you’ve ever traveled and had one of these moments, you know what I’m talking about. I miss that feeling. I crave that feeling. It is, all bundled up into one moment, what traveling is all about.

Sunset in Serengeti. Tanzania. Photo by MJ.

With less than a week before my 29th birthday, I realize that this was the first year of my life (at least since I’ve been able to walk) during which I did not even board an airplane. Yes, folks, Travels with Tavel has not left the country in over a year and it doesn’t feel right at all. I don’t even want to admit it, but it’s true. I almost feel ashamed, like I haven’t been true to a major piece of who I am. But, I know this is a temporary withdrawal. Needless to say, my wanderlust meter is binging loudly, and something’s gotta give. (My “Places” Board on Pinterest is NOT helping!) I don’t think my soul can take this much wanderlust for much longer! So, what am I going to do about it?

The bus I took from Tumbaco, Ecuador to Quito, Ecuador, hours before ending up in the hospital with a parasite. Trust me: with the stomach ache I had that day, this was NOT an ideal form of transportation!

Well, I don’t have many options. My funds are low, applications are due soon, and my priorities have matured in such a way that I feel guilty even contemplating throwing the money down for a travel escape — but is the guilt that much greater than the wanderlust? Nope. Never!

Wild horses with Cotopaxi Volcano in the background. Cotopaxi Province, Ecuador.

Luckily, there is one form of escapism that I can afford right now, and that’s daydreaming. For $0.00 I can take a day-trip anywhere in the world… in my mind. Trust me, I know this will only get me so far (technically, 0 miles away from where I am now), but I’ll take it.

29 won’t be like 28. I WILL go somewhere – mark my words. Right now, I’m trying to weigh my options and figure out where — if I can only afford one trip in two years — WHERE I should go. How does one choose?! My soul is craving the usual spots I’ve been craving for years — Southern Spain, Morocco, Thailand, Tanzania  — but life always influences the wanderlust list, and new people, friends’ Facebook photo albums, or random conversations often lead to new travel cravings. Suddenly, I find myself craving the Czech Republic, Croatia, Bosnia, Turkey and Kenya more than ever before.

Wildebeests. Tanzania. Photo by MJ.

So, I need your help. If you are experiencing wanderlust right now (and I KNOW you are!), please share your wanderlust list. Where, if anywhere in the world, would you want to go right now? If you want to suggest a place for me to go, or recommend a place you’ve been, please do so as a comment. This blog might be all I have for a few more months, so wherever it is you want to go, please take TwT with you.

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A Brief Tour of Cairo

Time to reveal the Mystery Snapshot! But first, I want to quickly say THANK YOU to the past four weeks. My staycation has come to its inevitable end, and tomorrow I head back to school for more NYU pre-med intensity. It’s been a pleasure having a social life again, but farewell dear friends… Back into the study cave I go. (Although, I am determined to have a little more control over this semester — both academically and socially, so we’ll see how it pans out.)

Alright…

The Mystery Snapshot was taken outside of Hatshepsut’s Temple, built just outside the Valley of the Kings (Cairo, Egypt). Andy, you are the official Mystery Snapshot winner. Good job! Egypt is one of those places I’ve been wanting to visit for years. Some day, I will actually get over there. For now, I’ve got this post.

Below, guest contributor, Raechel H. explains more about Hatshepsut’s Temple and about Cairo itself. (Enjoy!)

Guest Contributor Raechel H. w Sphinx and Pyramids in Egypt.

By Raechel H:

Random fact about Hatshepsut: She was the longest-reigning female ruler in Ancient Egyptian history.  She ruled for 22 years, when she took over for her husband.  Basically, her son, Tuthmosis III was supposed to take over, but Hatshepsut declared that he was too young to assume the throne. Instead, she sent him to military school abroad, and ruled herself.  Eventually, Tuthmosis III came back, took over, and then tried to erase Hatshepsut from Egyptian history.  She built tons of temples, obelisks, and other monuments to the gods, and Tuthmosis tried to destroy all of them – thankfully he did not succeed.

What’s really cool (in my opinion) is that for the longest time it was believed that Hatshepsut’s mummy was missing.  Turns out, they found the mummy of Hatshepsut’s favorite nurse in her tomb, and found a tooth in some kind of box. A few years ago, they x-rayed the box, and the tooth fit PERFECTLY in another mummy that was already in the Egyptian museum in Cairo!  So they had Hatshepsut’s mummy all along!

Foreground: courtyard of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (symbol of ancient Egypt). Background: Mubarak's National Democratic Party HQ, a symbol of Egyptian modernity

EGYPT:
Egypt is a place I’ve wanted to visit since I was a kid, and especially during the past year (which is no surprise to the people that know me, I’m sure).  Egypt provides a fascinating juxtaposition of ancient and modern culture, in the cross-world between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the Middle East.

Pyramids. Cairo, Egypt. Photo by RH.

Cairo itself is an enigma of sorts; it is absolutely overflowing with people (approximately 18 million officially, but more likely close to 21 million residents), and every one of them seems to have a car. All of that on top of ancient aquaducts, pyramids at the city limits (you can see the Cairo skyline from Giza), ancient markets, and the Citadel.  Traffic in Cairo is like nothing I’ve ever experienced — absolute gridlock at all times of day, with the exception of Friday mornings when everyone is at prayer or at home.

Cairo graffiti outside voting site for Parliamentary elections. Photo by RH.

During the Revolution, I didn’t understand why my friends who live in Cairo were making such a big deal about no one being on the roads, about it being completely shut down – but now I certainly do.  The traffic itself is absolutely fascinating. Cairo drivers get into this rhythm where they’re able to find every hole in every lane as they progress down a highway or main thoroughfare, and that’s how they progress from point A to point B.  Lane lines, when present, are merely suggestions – not absolute.  And most times, you’ll see at least one car, truck, or motorbike driving the opposite direction from the rest of the traffic.  As multiple Egyptians told me, this is “democracy in action – you can drive whichever way you like. If people don’t like it, they can have another revolution!”  Crazy to hear members of the Egyptian military joke about this, but it’s a good sign that people are proud of what they’ve accomplished.

Solar boat, discovered in the 1980s. It was found buried in The Great Pyramid. Its purpose was to transport the Pharoah to the afterlife (in particular, to the Sun God, Ra). Photo by RH.

I was fortunate enough to be there during the Parliamentary elections – seeing lines of men and women at the polls was pretty inspiring.  I was able to hit up the Khan el-Khalili (the famous market), wandering around the Ali Muhammad mosque and the Citadel, meandering through Islamic Cairo, trying out fantastic restaurants, and walking through Tahrir Square (although we were discouraged to do so).

Temple of Hatshepsut. Photo by RH.

Obelisk built by Hatshepsut, which Tuthmosis III tried to destroy by essentially covering it up. Ironically, this just preserved the obelisk, leaving much of the original details visible. Photo by RH.

During my trip, I was able to check out Luxor. I left as Cairo started to get crazy again (there was a sit-in at Parliament that led to clashes between different sides), which was probably good timing.  Luxor is the complete opposite of Cairo: it’s pretty tiny, there are only a few hotels where tourists stay, and you absolutely have to take a cab to get from point A to point B.  Luxor is more restrictive than Cairo in that sense – in Cairo we could walk around a lot more (mainly because there were things close by, in Luxor that’s not really the case).  Since I was solo, I hired a guide and a driver (a friend of mine connected me with a good company), and saw Karnak and Luxor temples before exploring the Valley of the Kings and Colossi of Memnon.

Cartouche for Ramses II, the longest ruler of Ancient Egypt (this particular cartouche is engraved all over Karnak Temple in Luxor). Photo by RH.

The guide and I talked about a lot of things — the revolution in Egypt, Occupy Wall Street, the impact of everything on Egyptian tourism (tourism has obviously taken a major hit, which is problematic), the efforts that the government is making to regulate and organize things a bit more (to try and give licenses so folks can set up stalls to sell things outside of tourist areas rather than letting various people bombard tourists who are trying to enjoy what they’re seeing), and Luxor itself. After everything we discussed, I left with a bit of hope that maybe Egypt, post-election, can go back to a semi-normal state.

Mosque built at what was street level before they discovered the Luxor Temple. The mosque is still a functioning prayer site. Photo by RH.

Additions to Luxor Temple made by Alexander the Great. Photo by RH.

I definitely need to go back and see more – there are tons of sites in Luxor that I was not able to explore, and I did not make it down to Aswan or along the southern border (which I’ve been told is pretty amazing).  Hopefully, I’ll be able to make that happen soon – and I’m always looking for someone to travel with me if anyone is interested!

Luxor Temple, Egypt.

Egyptian Sunset. Photo by RH.

Raechel lives and works in Washington, DC; Raechel and Tavel met while Raechel was conducting a Fulbright Fellowship in Brussels, Belgium.  While Egypt was phenomenal, Raechel’s favorite place to travel is Rome, where she spent a year abroad. She hopes to continue to cross countries and continents off her bucket list, and will head to Costa Rica this Summer with her family.

So there ya have it – Egypt. THANK YOU Raechel for contributing to TwT!

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Kenya in the Philippines

Here’s a blog post that takes us to a place TwT has yet to visit: The Philippines. It is written by one of my fellow travel bloggers from the Twittosphere, so it might have a slightly different vibe to it than most of my posts. Just go with it: February is all about variety — in tone, style, material, and the guest blogger’s relationship to TwT. So here is another spoonful of something different. Eat up!

And yes, I promise it will be all about me again soon… (HA! Please tell me that my sarcasm comes through…) Trust me: I’ll put the Tavel back in Travels with Tavel once I’ve starved you all just enough to miss me and my rambles a little bit more.

Calauit Island: African Animals Deep in the Heart of the Philippines

By Raymond, AKA Man on the Lam

Man on the Lam in Philippines. Photo provided by Raymond.

Yes, you read that right.  Just about the last place you would expect to find African animals roaming freely would be on a sun-soaked island in Southeast Asia, but there they are.  Over 5,000 miles from their original home in Kenya live a mix of giraffes, gazelles, zebras and impalas among others.  Little-known and little-visited, the Calauit Island Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary is a curiosity indeed.

Entrance sign. Photo by Raymond.

The day that I went, I was one of four visitors.  That’s four for the entire day.  The day before, there were two.  The day before that, there was none.  There are no turnstyles or gift shops.  There are no crowds clamoring at the gates.  Well, there are no gates really.  The lack of crowds leads to its appeal, but it also makes you wonder how they manage to make a go of it at all.

Calauit Island lies on the Northwestern coast of Palawan in the Philippines.  In the 1970’s, the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sent out an appeal to save endangered African animals.  Ferdinand Marcos, never one to turn down free stuff, and sensing a photo opp to boot, responded eagerly.  And are we glad he did. The park that resulted is nothing short of amazing.

Kenyan Zebras in the Philippines. Photo by Raymond.

Initially eight species of animals, 104 in total,  made the long exodus.  Today those numbers have swollen to well over 600.  The Kenyan animals now co-exist with other endangered animals endemic to the region.  Calamanian deer, mouse deer, bearcats, and others, not to mention thousands of birds, are all part of the new host family for the displaced Africans.  The project itself has been a resounding success. The marketing however, has not.  And that’s a pity.

Furry creatures in the Philippines. Photo by Raymond.

While the furry four-legged variety here thrives, the cash-carrying two-legged variety is a rarity. The lack of tourists here has a great deal to do with the location. Getting there is nothing short of a trek in itself. After a 45 minute flight to Busuanga from Manila, you can expect up to 3 hours over some of the bumpiest dirt roads around.  The final 15 minute boat ride is a welcome respite.

Those who do make the journey though will be rewarded with the chance to get up close and personal with some amazing wildlife.  The island itself is an oddity as well.  More African savannah than Asian island paradise, the landscape lends itself to stunning vistas more reminiscent of  game parks in South Africa.

Giraffe in the Philippines. Photo by Raymond.

While overexposure for any park is never good, supporting wildlife sanctuaries like this worldwide is essential to ensure their ongoing success.  So if you find yourself in Southeast Asia, and longing for a bit of adventure well removed from the normal tourist trail, check out the Calauit Island Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  And spread the word.  They need it.

Raymond is a man on the lam.  He runs a travel website at http://www.manonthelam.com with a focus on the upbeat, the offbeat, and the word on the street. His favorite place to visit is the Middle East (he is a self-described desert junkie). You can follow him on Twitter, @manonthelam1.

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Two Trips to Africa

Today’s post takes us to Africa… twice. It is written by my friend Geordie. Now, I went back and forth on whether or not I should keep the first paragraph in because I feel silly and maybe even a little embarrassed posting it (gah, thanks G!), but… Geordie wrote it (not me – I swear!) and he intended it to be posted, so I will just leave it there and say thank you, G, for your kind words. Sorry to anyone who reads it and rolls his/her eyes… Just pretend it’s not there I guess. Or, just know that I have some pretty amazing friends.

Wait! I just realized that the last time Geordie contributed to TwT, it was the exact same time last year… Here is his post, Gone to Dogon Country, from February 6, 2010. Cool.

My Two Trips to Africa

By Geordie

Tavel once saved my life. No, not in the literal sense (although that would have been pretty amazing) but in an extremely important figurative sense. I will not take up any more of your time than necessary with this totally sincere panegyric, nor will I spell out in painstaking detail the improvements in my life for which Ms. Tavel is responsible. Suffice it to say that her keen emotional intelligence, her compassion, and her uncanny knack for finding just the right way to say just the right thing (“Focus on people, not your thoughts”), has made her one of the best friends I’ve ever had. I shudder to think where I might be right now without Tavel, and that is only a slight exaggeration. But enough of this. On to the exploits.

I am going to try and do a difficult thing in this post. And that is to combine a very serious subject with one that is not quite as serious. I have my reasons for doing this, and I will trust you to trust me on this one. And I have faith it will work out, so perhaps I should just stop talking.

Mopti, Mali (December, 2003)

Picture, if you will, a young man of 20. He is spending the year in Africa on his junior year abroad. It is Christmas vacation, he is travelling in Mali, and he finds himself on Christmas day with scarcely a penny to his name (the only ATM machine in the town being broken). That evening he is boarding a boat to Timbuktu (yes, THE Timbuktu), for which he has bought a five dollar ticket which entitles him to a concrete bed under the stars. With his final few francs he purchases a thin blanket for himself and his platonic female travelling companion. The temperature that night is frigid. They are sleeping on the concrete upper deck of a ship. To have purchased a bed would have been more expensive and shamefully less adventurous. Still, it is very cold. He eventually abandons his companion (thus depriving her of his body warmth, only later does he realize) and eventually finds warmth on the floor of the second class bathroom with Ayn Rand’s The Fountain Head for a pillow. It is miserable to be sure, but what a story! That morning, he goes up on deck and sees the entire sunrise — total darkness, merging into streaks of pink and purple before finishing as a vault of brilliant blue sky. All of this while floating down a river that seems lost in time, surrounded by men in robes and turbans lounging on giant burlap sacks. Even as the sun is rising he scribbles frantically in his black moleskin notebook, trying to capture every moment of this glorious experience.

Kigali, Rwanda (January, 2011)

Picture, if you will again, this same young man, now a robust 27, standing in Kigali, Rwanda. The mission is different this time. He is not here for pleasure, nor is he here for adventure. Or if it is adventure it is certainly of a different sort. The young man is now a PhD candidate at a large Northeastern university. This  university has agreed to pay for this young man to travel to Rwanda in preparation for his future writing (dissertation, journal articles, books, who knows?).

Kigali Rwanda. Photo by Geordie.

Traveling to Rwanda is a difficult undertaking, and not just because it is far away and getting there is tremendously expensive, but because of what happened there. The more time the young man spends in Rwanda, the more he speaks to people about what happened, the more he visits the different sites where the massacres took place… He feels something changing, or rather something becoming more the same… Well what?… It’s hard to put into words. It’s just one of those things. One of those things that’s hard to explain. And one of those things that he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to explain. That is his job, he realizes, trying to explain, understand, that thing he feels that feels impossible to explain.

Dogon Country, Mali (January, 2004)

The adventure for this young man continues. Timbuktu is one and done. There was a camel ride, eating with his hands out of a communal bowl while squatting outside a hut in the desert. He met a group of other tourists on the ferry, and now they call themselves the “Timbukcrew.” He went on a camel ride wearing a blue turban.

 

Geordie in Tumuktu, as seen in previous post. Photo provided by Geordie.

But Timbuktu is done. Now they are in Dogon country, a beautiful part of Mali, except they are there with a lying, cheating Malian guide, who grows angry at us for not giving him more money. He flecks my face with spittle as he admonishes us for our lack of understanding. He is not a cheat, we are simply ignorant. Since no one else in our group speaks French, it is I, the French major, who gets shouted at the most. However, despite the yelling and its mind-numbing unpleasantness, we can’t deny that Dogon country is beautiful — simply gorgeous. Like the American southwest, except with whole villages built into these enormous hillsides, blending in seamlessly as if the huts had risen organically out of the earth.

Geordie in Dogon Country, as seen in previous post. Photo provided by Geordie.

I sit on a mountain ledge, our trip completed, looking out over this flat, endless plain. My god, I think, as I look out, My god. Life. Everything. Life is so complete right now. It is everything right now. I’m in the moment. I’m here. I’m in Africa. Incredible. Just simply f’in incredible. Sure, later, there’s a trip to the police station because half our group won’t pay the guide, and sure there’s a 50 hour train ride back to Senegal (my home during the year abroad) where enormous, loquacious women take up all the seats in our compartment and where I have no bed, a trip (the train ride) that feels less adventurous and more just plain shitty. And then when we get back to Senegal I get really sick, and eat almost nothing for a week. Did I mention during this whole trip I was missing a front tooth? But it was glorious. Simply, simply, simply glorious.

Nyamata, Rwanda (January, 2011)

Most of the memorials in Rwanda are sites where massacres occurred that the government has since converted into memorials. In Nyamata, around 10,000 people went into the local church, in the vain hope that the killers would balk at committing massacres in a sacred space. I am standing outside the church with my group, listening to a guide tell us what happened. The Tutsis hiding in the church barricaded the door from the inside, she explains. Unable to break down the sturdy  metal door, the Hutu militia then used a grenade to blow open the door of the church. I should clarify that the people hiding inside were civilians (ordinary men, women and children) not soldiers. They were the neighbors, and sometimes also the relatives of the people trying to kill them.

In the door of the church you can still see the large hole blown by the grenade. You can still see the holes from the shrapnel of the grenade on the ground by the entrance of the church. We move inside the church, and the guide points out that there are also holes in the ceiling of the church because they actually throw grenades inside before going in to finish people off with guns and machetes. Inside the church are dozens of wooden benches covered with clothes of the victims. Just rows and rows of dusty brown tee-shirts, pants, hats, dresses…The church had formally shown exposed bodies but they had since been removed. One body, that used to be prominently displayed, now has its special crypt beneath the floor of the church. There is another crypt nearby where you walk down a narrow flight of stairs into a small corridor where there are bones and skulls arranged on a wooden platforms that are ten feet high. The effect of all of this is at one powerful and surreal. What you find most moving often surprises you. I got choked up looking at the blown off bottom section of the door. At a “Cornell” sweatshirt taken from one of the victims.

It’s also so overwhelming and so awful that your mind sort of shuts off. It wasn’t until I got back to the States that I could really process everything I’d seen (as much as anyone can ever really “process” seeing something like that).

 

Geordie with Rwandan Friend. Photo provided by Geordie.

While the rest of our group was wrapping up the visit at the church, I noticed that one of our Rwandan chaperone’s was sitting in our group’s van by himself. He was about my age and we had gotten friendly the day before so I decided to go over and keep him company. As soon as I sat down he said:

“I was here, you know.”

I was stunned.  “Here in the church?”

“No, no,” he said. “But I came by after it happened. I saw the bodies and everything, it was awful.”

“Yeah,” I said, “that must have been awful.” (What else can you say?)

“Yes,” he said, “It was awful. The bodies, the blood, everything, it was awful”

Rwanda has made remarkable strides since the genocide happened. The government, which is unfortunately far from perfect, has nonetheless done a remarkable job of keeping the country stable while allowing it to grow economically. When you arrive in Kigali today, you are struck by how clean and orderly it is (one of the governments new initiatives was to ban plastic bags). It is also a beautiful country, (Rwandans calls it “The Land of a Thousand Hills”) where you are almost always in sight of a lush, green mountain tops.

View. Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by Geordie.

Ahh, but methinks this blog entry is drawing to a close. Perhaps you are asking, so what of this young man (now almost 28) with whom you have shared the last few moments of your life? Well, he is back in the northeast, reading massive piles of books in French, thinking about past adventures, and figuring out how to do good in the world from his tiny corner of academe.

There we have it my friends. Thus ends my contribution to this blog which I have been such a fan of for such a long time. Another tip of the cap to Mademoiselle Tavel, to whom my entry owes its very existence, on so many levels. Hasta luego, compadres…

Geordie is in the first year of a PhD program in French Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He attended Bowdoin with Tavel where he played squash, did improv, and watched ungodly amounts of French Canadian TV. His favorite place to travel is Africa, but he loves France as well.

If you want to learn more about the genocide, Geordie suggests Philip Gourevitch’s book “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families”, the Front-line documentary “Ghosts of Rwanda” (available on Youtube), and, as a feature film alternative to Hotel Rwanda, the movie “Sometimes in April” which is also available on youtube.

There is also a wonderful charitable organization that helps orphans of the genocide. It was started by Geordie’s former college professor who got him interested in Rwanda. If interested, you can learn more about it and/or donate here:  http://friendsoftubeho.org/.

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