Wednesday, April 20, 2016

That's a Wrap Folks! - Sam

We left Sudan and entered Egypt with little to no money. We had exactly enough Sudanese pounds to make it through the Sudanese/Egyptian border and no more. And when I say exactly enough I mean we were 8 USD short, which Matt happened to have in his wallet. We couldn't have planned it better. And for that matter we couldn't have spent any more time in Sudan considering the only way to obtain Sudanese Pounds is by exchanging US dollars, no matter what country you are from. On top of that, they have no ATM's on an international network so the money you bring in is the money you have.

By the time we arrived in Egypt we were pretty burned out from traveling so long in Africa, a sentiment that is commonly shared among other western travelers on the continent who have made it as far, or farther, as we had. It's exhausting. Borders, buses, trains, schedules, foreign languages, foreign currency people regularly trying to get money out of you. After four months, we were tired. Fortunately Egypt is well developed and offered us a touch of modernity that we needed at that point.

Philae Temple south of Aswan
We first arrived in Aswan, a city that kind of resembled what I imagine Las Vegas might look like. It had huge resorts on the Nile and large ships that served as floating hotels and restaurants. People would stroll by on the street in horse drawn carriages. They even had a McDonald's! I couldn't get Matt to go. I'm still bitter about it.

Egypt, clearly had a booming tourist industry before the Arab Spring. In fact, in the city Luxor at any given time there may be 300 tourists today. Before the revolution of 2011 there could be 10,000. Every time tourism starts to pick up, another violent event happens and it suffers a blow. There was a bombing in a temple in the past few years and just last year there was a plane full of over 200 people that had been shot down by terrorists associated with ISIS. With so many destinations in the world, it seems that Egypt has been pretty low on the list for westerners. As unfortunate as it is for the locals whose livelihoods are dependent on tourism, we found it refreshing to not have to share the sights and streets with 10,000 other tourists. To be honest it seems like a great time to travel is just after a catastrophe of some kind. A little food for thought for the future.

I found the sights and museums in Egypt to only be interesting the first round through. After that you basically look at the same temples, sarcophagi and tombs over and over and I'm just not a history buff. I wish I had more inspired things to say, but I was feeling burned out and it was hot. I also hadn't been feeling very well after mistakenly drinking Egyptian water. I should have known better. I did know better.

Air Balloon over western Luxor
In Luxor Matt and I took our first hot air balloon ride. It was pretty anticlimactic. The most impressive part was just seeing the balloons and the jets shooting fire to inflate them and control their altitude. The landing was the fun part. We were instructed by the pilot on how we should brace ourselves so we don't fall over. Once the basket tapped the ground we bounced and dragged across the sand until a crew of men jumped out of a truck and grabbed ropes attached to the basket and helped stop the balloon from dragging us further or toppling over.

From Luxor Matt and I went to Cairo. At last we made it to Africa's largest city and one of the largest in the world. With a population of over 25 million it has around the same number of people as Australia. We first went to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities home to actual mummies and all sorts of artifacts and sarcophagi'. Of course we also saw the pyramids which were pretty impressive. It's amazing what slave labor can accomplish. They were heavily guarded so unfortunately climbing was out of the question. What you could do was ride a camel, which we didn't do, but oh how people asked. Oh how they asked.

After Cairo, we finally went to Alexandria, where we felt the journey officially ended. We made it from the southern most point of Africa where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet to the Mediterranean Sea. We haven't tallied up the mileage, but I'm guessing we covered somewhere around 8,000 to 10,000 miles. We celebrated with a couple local Egyptian beers, which of course gave both of us a headache. One can expect no less from Africa.

Final Thoughts on Africa.

Since I've been back I've been asked all too much the dreaded "How was Africa" question. It's a question I of course anticipated and yet still don't have a good reply. I usually say something dumb like, " it was really big." It's an impossibly simple question with an impossibly complicated answer. One that requires a lot of reflection, thought and effort. It's too exhausting to explain in detail to everyone who asks the question so some people inevitably get "It's big." I will take this time in this last post to explain how I feel about my travels in Africa.

It was really big. It was also very complex and each country we went through offered new people, different languages, currencies, and often times a change in culture. I really enjoyed my time in South Africa. It's one of the few countries I would like to return to. It's landscapes are as diverse as the people with mountains, deserts, farmland and a huge diverse coast. It even freezes sometimes in a part of South Africa. That I like. It also has cities like Cape Town which is an amazing city to visit, very cosmopolitan. It has great wine, and the coast resembles that of central and northern California.

Southern Africa, besides South Africa, was honestly not that great. There was a drought that ran through the whole southern part of the continent and you could feel the desperation when you passed through towns. They were dirty, the food was boring and the people didn't have much of a culture, at least that was easily experienced. I don't think their situation in life allows for it. We traveled quickly through this part of Africa and I have a feeling we didn't miss out on that much.

Once we reached Tanzania we got out of the desperate south and into a country that had a livelier culture and more bustling cities. It was also the first time I saw veiled women in Africa and heard the call to prayer and aside from opinions on things like veiled women, it was a nice change of culture.

I enjoyed my stay in Kenya and most of all riding motorcycles for a month there and then into Ethiopia. That was the highlight of the trip for me, even though I wrecked into a car. That's just another story at this point, a thing of the past, history. Northern Kenya transformed into the real African bush with tribesman wearing traditional clothes, yielding spears, and herding goats and camels. It was classic Africa and it housed hundreds of miles of a massive, expansive landscape It was also the most dangerous road we were ever on in Africa. Thankfully, we didn't break down and again it's all history now.

Ethiopia is another country I would potentially go back to. It's a mountainous country that deserves more exploration than we had time or money for. The food is good and the people are kind, the ones of course who aren't trying to get money out of you. It was nice change from east and southern Africa.

Once we reached the Arab north and left Sub-Saharan Africa (often referred to as black Africa) it was, as Matt mentioned, a breath of fresh air. The people of Sudan are kind, welcoming and were not constantly trying to take the white man's money. The ruins way out in the Sahara were really awesome to see, much better than the tourist trap that is Egypt. But, with that being said it's the Sahara desert and it's really hot and empty. Once I've been in the desert for a week, I'm ready to go. I'm not sure I care to go back. Maybe later in life.

Religion plays a large part in the lives of Africans and I think it is important to express my take on religion in Africa briefly. I find that traveling through heavily religious countries reaffirms my disdain for religion. I think it's amazing how all of southern Africa has adopted the white colonizing religion, Christianity, so wholeheartedly. Colonization robbed them of their way of life and called them savages and Christianity, a tool by the colonizer has proved to hold it's ground well after decolonization. I think Sub-Saharn Africa, with all the millions of desperate people is the perfect breeding ground for religion. It gives reason for suffering and hope that something better is coming if they follow a certain set of rules. It also takes donations from people who have almost nothing and there are massive evangelical churches where people get "healed" and have the demons cast out of their bodies.

As for Muslims in the Arab north. I found them to be a bit more modern and their cities and countries far cleaner. They seem to have a better standard of living than Sub Saharan Africa. I also found the Muslim people I talked to to be open about talking their views and open to my lack of belief. Actually that was common throughout Africa. I believe, though that Islam mistreats it's women. Under Sharia Law a women isn't to leave her home unveiled so that she not tempt other men. A women should only show herself to her husband. She also must not leave the home without being accompanied by a man. They seem to be treated more as children or servants to man's needs rather than independent, intelligent human beings who have every right to live how they please as any man. I should note that I only observed from a distance and this comes from my own research and not necessarily from first hand accounts. I must also note that this is under Sharia Law and many Muslims are more progressive than this. Women walk the streets unveiled and as I mentioned before even some drink with men openly in places like Cairo. But they are still far from equal. But that can also be said about women in every religion including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. So Islam is not unique in it's unequal treatment of women.

Overall I think the trip was a success and an amazing opportunity. I am happy to have my stories and experiences and I'm happy to be back in the United States. It's hard to say what I learned the most as I really just got back and I think the lessons you learn from traveling unveil themselves over time. They aren't always obvious. Maybe I will take less things for granted, but let's be honest. How long does that really last?

Yesterday I had a beer in one of my favorite bars that plays stoner metal, hung out with good friends and didn't pay for a band that was half decent. It was great. The Midwest is an awesome place to return to. The trees are budding and the weather is cool. The thunderstorms should be coming soon, Inshallah.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Hello North Africa, Hello Desert - Matt

Well we'd waited long enough for our Sudanese visa. We tried over two months ago in Kenya and bureaucratic errors caused that to fail so we tried again in Addis Ababa. On a Monday, having heard nothing from the embassy or from our sponsor in Sudan who had said they would contact us when it was ready, we decided to try go to the embassy one last time and see if it was there and lo and behold it was. It looks like it had actually been there for four or five days. So it was on into Sudan for us but not without one last curve ball from Ethiopia.

Sam's aunt was kind enough to offer up some of her unused airline miles to buy us a plane ticket from Addis to Khartoum since we were starting to run short on time and we'd already done the majority of the distance to Khartoum when we went to Gondar. We didn't relish the idea of two more days on Ethiopian buses. So we appeared at the airport early two days later and are told that our ticket, while reserved, were not booked. Not sure what that means. We had a reservation number and a confirmation number but not the magical ticket number which no one ever daned to email us. We're then told that we couldn't even purchase tickets for this, the only, flight to Khartoum today. It doesn't look like we're going to Sudan today. Somewhat annoyed, as you might imagine, we scrambled in the airport for any internet connection to check our booking (which was much harder than you would expect for an international airport in the city which is host to the African Union). Check booking. Go back to counter to talk about it. Still no dice but now we can buy a ticket for 380 bucks for some reason. Discuss options. Go back to counter. Price is now 260. Interesting. Just a little goodbye kiss from Ethiopia.

So we ended up making it to Sudan after all. The elusive jewel of the Cape to Cairo. To bleak sand dunes and arid desert covering this particular portion of the Axis of Evil. To Khartoum. Where Osama Bin Laden hid out in in the 90s with his al-Qaeda cronies. Where the White Nile finally absorbs the Blue and the both make there long ponderous march north to the Mediterranean Sea. With this in mind we stepped off the airplane expecting a stark difference from the rest of Africa.

The first thing any non-Sudanese person will notice upon entering the country is the money. Because of the US sanctions on Sudan the country is unable to get any US currency through the normal channels. To get around this they require that all foreigners, not just US, bring US Dollars to exchange for Sudanese Pounds. Since the sanctions also mean that the entire country is not on the global banking network none of the ATMs here will work for foreigners. These two facts mean that one has to bring all the money they expect to spend in the country in the form of US Dollars, no other currency is accepted in exchange and you can't get any more once here. Sam and I didn't exactly have a lot. Working in our favor, however, was the black market: circumventing unrealistic governmental controls since the dawn of civilization. The official exchange rate is 1 USD to around 6.5 SDP. However we were immediately told by helpful people working in the airport that we could exchange our dollars for 9 SDP. Since being in the country we've heard as much as 12 SDP for 1 USD. So that gave us a little more dispensable cash than expected.

The next thing we noticed was that Khartoum is one of the nicer capitals we've seen
The Corinthia Hotel, also know as Qaddafi's Egg
in Africa. It is a small relatively quiet city, but even so the traffic is horrendous. It is cleaner than any major metropolitan area we've been to since we left South Africa. There are virtually no homeless on the streets, a huge departure from the rest of Africa. It is hot and sand piles up on the sidewalks and on the sides of road even though the entire city is paved. It is as though the sand slowly seeps up through the cracks and the sewers as the city sinks into the desert.

Khartoum is home to some nice museums and the confluence of the two immense Niles. We tried to plan our time in the city around the heat of the day, spending them in museums or A/C'd restaurants. In the evenings is when Sudan seems to come alive with people sitting along the Nile or outside restaurants socializing till close to midnight, drinking coffee and tea and smoking hookah.

One of many shady spots to sit, socialize and drink some tea.

Khartoum is also the capital of Sufi Islam in the more western Muslim states and on our short stay in the capital city we were fortunate enough to make it to Omdurman, across the river from Khartoum, and to the Hamid Al-Nil tomb in the middle of a large Muslim cemetery on a Friday evening to experience the Sufi traditional prayer practices and the whirling dervishes. This was a stimulus heavy event with much dancing, drums, incense and chanting. Everyone is exceedingly friendly and eager to talk with foreigners about their religion. From the Sufis we talked to, this branch of Islam seems to me more like new-age christian movement in America in terms of peace, love and good will towards your fellow man mixed in with strange ritual and tradition. We got there early and were bought tea and food by some regulars while we waited for the ceremony to really get going. Not really knowing what to expect, we watched for over four hours as the sun descended to the horizon and the crowd and chaos grew. The crowd in front of the temple started with just three or four people banging drums and chanting and dancing in a circle in front of the mosque. It got bigger and bigger. Then a dump truck full of people yelling and professing their
Hamid al-Nil tomb throng with Sufis
love for Allah arrived, equipped with drums and speakers, and it truly became a party. After much whirling, stomping and singing the sun finally went down and it was time to pray to Mecca for an hour before starting it all up again and going till midnight. We'd met a man in his early 30s named Abdu before the ceremony and he offered to give us a ride with his mother back to our hostel if we were willing to wait for him to pray. Everyone was exceedingly nice and all seemed to have one question, in varying forms, on their minds; "why does America hate us?"

We have been asked this a multitude of times since arrival in Sudan to which we have no other answer than "our governments are stupid and American news media make people paranoid." So now I'll fulfill the request of many Sudanese, to communicate this message: The Sudanese have no ill will towards Americans. In fact, they really seem to like us. They are eager to learn English and want to come and see New York. They want Americans to come and see their country. Sudan is the first time since South Africa that someone coming up to us on the street isn't something to guard against but something to be welcomed. We are still stared at but not nearly as much and with much more subtly. The people do their best to be helpful and welcoming even if the language barriers means they can't even understand our problem they will track down someone who can. Sudan is a breath of fresh air after Ethiopia, which is far away on the other side of the spectrum.

This is not to say that there are not dangerous parts of Sudan. Every traveller we meet doing some sort of pan-African journey has stories about Sudan and especially South Sudan and Darfur. The stories you hear are of banditry and locals taking pot shots at passing ferries, similar to stories we heard about the region south of Moyale, but these stories are back up'd with civil wars and a clear lack of governmental control. These rumors almost exclusively apply to the regions to the south and to the east of Khartoum. Everything north and west of the capitol seems positively decent.

Highway from Karima to Atbara
So, with our meager amount of money we decided that it would be best to spend it quick, see the sights we can and get out quick. Blitz Sudan. Rented a car for three days, that cost us about half the total amount of money we had, and pushed out intothe sand for a tour of desert ruins, sand blown over highways and rocks burnt black from 360 days of sun a year. Finally. Finally I am reaching that which has been a main goal from the start. In fact, the first time I heard of abandoned Nubian pyramids and ruins in the middle of the desert in Sudan when I was 17 I've been dying to get here. Now we are here, in Sudan, in the desert, making it a reality of our own.

Approaching the pyramids at Jebel Barkal

Seeing how much I've desired getting here I don't have much to say. We've seen a 4500 year old temple to Amun-Ra (the sun god) carved into the Mountain of Jebel Barkal. We've seen pyramids older than those in Giza drowning in sand with their peaks destroyed by Italian treasure hunters. We've camped next to ruins on the side of the road slowly being swallowed by sand that could be anywhere from 20 to 2000 years old. There are abandoned mud-brick walls every where and all seem to hark back to a less industrialized age. The profoundness of these experiences do not come across well in text but must be experienced for ones self.

Apart from the car rental and just the overall bureaucratic nightmare that is Sudan, the country is quite inexpensive. A large meal can be bought for two USD and a bed in a courtyard would cost about the same. However you are free to lay out a sleeping mat anywhere you like outside of the cities including, if you have a quick tongue, next to pyramids over 4000 years old.

Entering Wadi Halfa
Our tour of the desert complete we dropped the car off in Khartoum and made the 13 hour bus ride north to Wadi Halfa, the last stop in Sudan and stepping stone to Egypt. We arrived thinking we had quite a bit more Sudanese money left than we had anticipated but had heard that there are some exit fees when leaving Sudan, so it might come in handy. As it turns our we had just enough to get over the border. Actually five USD short but I had a filthy fiver from Zimbabwe that no one had been willing to exchange, for goods, services or currency, that I convinced the border man to take since we had no other money and no way of getting any. We had heard that people were supposed to register with the police after arriving in Sudan. No official ever told us anything about it so we neglected to do it. But upon leaving the country they got angry at us and made us register upon our exit. Then we bounced back and forth between various windows paying people small amounts of money in exchange for various slips of paper. That allowed us to get our stamp out of the country. From Khartoum to Wadi Halfa was 1000 kms and took us 13 hours. Wadi Halfa to Aswan is 350 kms and took us 14 hours. We sat at the Egyptian border for a seemingly unending amount of time. Security is tight here on the border.

Sudan is great and I cannot recommend it enough for those who desire to get away from western comforts and appeasement and who can handle the dust and the heat. The people are friendly, polite and respectful. The country is relatively clean and the history is rich. It will make you wonder why you thought you might ever be in danger in a place like this.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Back to Basics - Sam

Matt and I are reluctantly back to the bus circuit as we recently sold our bikes in Dinsho last week. It was not an easy decision to sell them there as we had much more of Ethiopia to visit, but we met a guy in town who said he had someone who was willing to give us a fair price for the bikes. As it is not legal to sell our Kenyan purchased bikes in Ethiopia we thought it was a smart move to go ahead and take the offer given, which was about $540, a little under half of what we paid. We thought this was a good price considering there was no way to register the bikes in the country legally.

We sat down for coffee with our friend, who was working to be a guide in the Bale mountains, and he told us about his friend who was interested in the Boxer 150's which seem to be a very sought after bike in Ethiopia. As we were speaking of what a fair price would be and while Matt and I discussed whether we wanted to sell them at all, the man who wanted to purchase them showed up. He didn't speak English so our friend translated between us as we negotiated. We agreed on a price and the man immediately went to his home and got the cash. He showed back up and handed each of us large stacks of front of everyone around. White people are enough of a spectacle as it is, especially in southern Ethiopia, and this didn't help deter interest. We were paid 23,000 Birr a very large sum of cash for Ethiopia. We were told you could have a house built for 40,000. On top of this the guy hadn't even seen the bikes. We were obviously surprised as in America you would never give someone cash before seeing and inspecting a vehicle. Little did he know I had a bent engine guard and another bent rack on the back of the bike, but let's not talk about that.

Next came the interesting process of registering the vehicles. Part of the price the man offered us he felt was fair after he calculated how much he would have to bribe officials to get the bikes registered. We were told by our friend that this man had friends that could help him make the bikes appear legal in the country. To make the bikes "legal" money had to be slipped to someone in an office, which we never saw happen, and we had to give copies of our passports to an official and sign a document that stated we gave the man the bikes as "gifts." Everything seemed to be going smoothly until we reached one major setback. The power was out in the town so the official couldn't print the proper documents. The buyer of the bikes, who was running everywhere trying to make the deal happen, knew what needed to be done. He had the official hand write what needed to be included in the document and he then ran to find a generator that he would use to power a computer and printer in which he typed up the documents and printed them off. We were back in business. We now had the documents signed, dated and ready to be officially stamped. Once the documents where stamped the deal was done. Government corruption is great, when it benefits you of course.

Our bikes sold, we then set off by bus to Addis Ababa the next day. We didn't want to stick around too long knowing so many people in town knew the two white boys had so much cash on them. That made us feel less than safe and I certainly had my knife by my bed and found comfort in the fact that Matt had the bear mace by his. All went well though and off we went to Addis Ababa.

Buses in Ethiopia can be a tremendous hassle we were soon to find out. Our friend who helped us sell our bikes also helped us buy tickets for a bus to Addis the following day. We met him in the morning and he helped us find our bus. One problem. When we gave our tickets to the ticket man on the bus he wouldn't let us on. Our guide and a friend of his who was also boarding the bus started going back and forth angrily until finally the man gave in and let us on the bus. As it turns out it was the wrong bus. The one in which we needed was ahead of this one and had already gone. We were reluctantly allowed to sit in the front of the bus on the compartment that housed the engine for about 120km until three other passengers who getting off and we would get seats.

In Addis we yet again began the process of going to the embassy and trying to apply for our Sudanese visa. We are currently still waiting on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Khartoum to run our documents and approve our visa applications. They will then send our information to Addis where it will be as little as 24 hours to get our visas. That is assuming everything goes according to plan, but as we know, nothing in Africa ever does. If our information is in Addis by Monday and we can get our visa by Tuesday off we go to Sudan. Otherwise we are calling it and flying to Cairo as we are getting quite short of time. We have less than 4 weeks before we fly back.

I found Addis to be a nice change from the week prior. We had been in rural Kenya and Ethiopia for over a week since we left Nairobi and it was nice to have the comforts of big city again. Addis is full of cafes as coffee and espresso are important parts of Ethiopian culture. We even found a small place that roasts their own beans. As Matt mentioned, food in Ethiopia is very good as well, a much needed change from all the ugali in Kenya. In all honestly the food all through southern Africa and East Africa didn't change much. You could always find ugali, rice, beans, meat and maybe some vegetables. Other than that, there was little variety and it was spiced similarly plain everywhere we have been. Ethiopian food is spiced much differently, and although there seems to be little variety within traditional Ethiopian cuisine, it is still a nice change from the rest of Africa.With every dish, you also get the standard serving of spicy green chiles, one of my favorite additions.

Ethiopians view eating food and drinking coffee as a social activity, things to be shared. Of course it is a necessity to eat, but Ethiopians show that it is also meant to be enjoyed. The food is served on a large silver tray roughly 25in. in diameter. Injera (the large sourdough crepe) is then laid out covering the entire tray. Food is then placed on the injera. If you order two servings of food you don't get a second platter, more food is just piled on. You then tear a piece of injera with your hands and use it to scoop up the different vegetables, lentils and meat. Silverware is just not needed.

As nice as it can sometimes be to have the comforts of a metropolis at your disposal, it can be equally rewarding to leave. One can only take so much pollution, large crowds, noise, and general overstimulation, so we set off to Lalibela by bus in hopes that upon our return to Addis our Sudanese visa would be ready to process. We arrived at the bus station at about 4:45am ready to find our bus, tickets in hand. We walk around the station full of buses showing people who look like they work there our tickets and having them point us in the direction of the bus we need. After wondering around trying to find the number of the bus that matched our ticket we were asked to sit and wait on the bus to arrive. There were a couple other people waiting as well, a young guy and an old man. After a while the kid tells us to follow him. We get up and head back to the yard full of buses. Every person you ask about which bus to get points you in a different direction. We zig-zag across the yard many times more and then wait a little longer. Finally someone tells us our bus isn't coming.

We are assigned a new bus and get a new ticket written up. Matt waits outside with our things and I get on the bus to grab a couple seats. There isn't a seat in sight and the bus is already packed. I get off, tell the guy who gave us a new ticket and he gives me back my old ticket and again points us in direction that likely doesn't result in anything conclusive. We walk into an office where a man again tells us our bus is not going to come, tells us to get a refund and sends us into yet another building to get our money back. At this point Matt and I are frustrated to say the least, given we have been at the station over an hour and only utter chaos has consumed our time. We get our money back and decide to hop on a bus that is going to a city along the way. I was just happy to have a spot on a bus. The ride6 to Lalibela takes two days anyway and the city we were headed towards was the city our bus was supposed to stop in, so we made the right decision. The decision that should have been easy to make in the first place, but no one in Ethiopia speaks much English, so simple questions receive impossible answers.

Lalibella, the self proclaimed holiest city in Ethiopia, sits atop a tall hill in Ethiopian highlands and is home to the famous Coptic churches that are carved out of rock into the ground. They are quite magnificent feats of architecture and have been around for ------- years. They are also popular tourist attractions at this point. You buy a ticket that allows you access in two different compounds of churches and one more that stands alone. It's by far the most white people Matt and I have seen in quite some time as there really are none in southern Ethiopia or rural Kenya.

In the first church we entered, a holy lookin' dude was standing in a most holy and picturesque manner. Standing tall with his robe and staff with a solemn and serious look on his face, a group of older Europeans stood staring, listening to their guide and snapping pictures. Matt and I walked around for a couple of minutes looking at mosaics and holy junk when the holy dude said something in an aggravated voice to me in Amharic and gestured to my feat. He then said aggravated, "Out, out!" and gestured for us to leave immediately. This is how we found out you were supposed to take of your shoes to enter the churches. This is also the first church I have ever been kicked out of, a fact that I can't help but be a little proud of. Needless to say we took our shoes off for the remaining holy places.

As I pass holy people they often say things in Amharic. I often reply with the most holy thing I can think of in English, a phrase from Saint Garth and Saint Wayne, a saying that embodies American culture as best as I know to do, "Party on." The men, and they are never women, nod in agreement and it is clear we have a mutual understanding of one another. " on my child."

After Lalibella, we reluctantly get back on a bus and head for Gondar one of the oldest cities in Ethiopia, the original capital before Addis Ababa. Gondar is home to a castle that dates back to the 17th century, in which we explored the following day of our arrival. We began the day with a mouthful of khat (chat), a local plant that is popular in Ethiopia and is chewed to get a relaxing high from. It is considered a narcotic and Matt and I thought it only appropriate to experience the culture of Ethiopia more fully and try some for ourselves. As we discovered khat takes a lot of effort to get high from and the high you get is hardly recognizable. You must chew the plant and then keep in in your cheek sucking on the juice and swallowing. This must be done this for many hours and only after a couple hours, you feel slightly relaxed and almost feel somewhat of a buzz. It's hard to tell how much of a buzz you really have as you are hoping and waiting for one for so long, it seems as though your mind might be playing tricks on you. We kept adding more and more khat to our mouths trying as best as we knew to get something out of the plant. Not much came.

Disappointed from our attempts to experience a different cultures narcotic of choice, we thought it wise to each take a hydrocodone to help mitigate the lack of effects from khat and all of the effort we had put into trying to catch a buzz. Afterwards we headed out of the hotel to go grab a beer. Within less than a minute, as if by some divine coincidence of events, we were approached by a man who asked us if we like "rasta cigarettes". I said, "well yes I do enjoy a rasta cigarette from time to time". He then advised us to go sit and grab a machiato and he would run and grab said rasta cigarettes. We sat sipping our coffee and the man showed back up within a few minutes. We then ran back to the hotel and enjoyed the holy rasta medicine and went back out to go grab a beer. Now, finally, we were able to catch a buzz and a buzz we got. With a cocktail of caffeine, alcohol, khat, THC, Codeine and nicotine, we were able to enjoy the cultural tradition of chewing khat. Ahhh yes...khat. Yes...khat is good. Culture...yes...culture is good.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

On to the northern half of the world - Matt

It's been a week and a half of big days for Sam and I. When you last tuned in we were waiting in Nairobi for our visas to Sudan due to a clerical error within the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The day after writing, we found out that the visa wouldn't arrive for another two to three days (which could mean as much as a week in Africa time) and then it would take two or three days to get the visa to us for some reason (we'd had friends who just gone through the process). Being that it was Tuesday that meant we weren't going to leave with a Sudanese visa till maybe 7 to 10 days hence, so leave without a visa we did. We decided that to gamble and try to get a transit visa in Addis Ababa and to use the week seeing literally anything other than Nairobi sounded better than sitting around eating pizza, watching movies and drinking in cosmopolitan Nairobi.

Five days of doing nothing but riding and finding a place to sleep and eat brought us into inner Ethiopia and up into the highlands of the Bale Mountains. The first day we circumnavigated Mt. Kenya through rain and traffic and left the southern hemisphere in our dust (felt like a long time coming), ending up in a nice little hovel on the edge of Isiolo.
Sam on the equator
The next day we drove what we thought was the long and empty up to Marsibit. The landscape was much like what I've come to expect from the south western US. Long expanses of dry and fly broken up by towering plateaus and pillars of sandstone breaking up an otherwise empty horizon. Along the road side is mostly acacia trees, the occasional camel train and the local Kenyans decked out in about five lbs of colorful beads and decorative trinkets and a single pound of clothing.

We'd heard of a decent campsite outside of Marsibit called Camp Henry, run by a Scandinavian fellow, from some other overlanders. Marsibit is really nothing more than a way station on the top of a small plateau in the middle of the great plain that stretches north from Mt Kenya, allowing travelers to break up the long roadway migration from the rest of Kenya to Ethiopia or vice versa. We woke in the morning to mist you could cut with a knife. Soaking wet, we plowed our way out of the town down to lower and dryer climates. If we'd thought we'd seen empty the day before nothing had prepared us for the Martian landscape that lay before us. Small clusters of huts that would have fit right in next to tusken raider villages on Tatooine were scattered about but other than that we didn't see plant nor camel for miles for before our border crossing at Moyale.
132 km to Moyale

These two days of riding through barren rocky waste represents, for me, some of the greatest time I've spent in Africa. The riding is smooth and easy as the roads are some of the best we've experienced, I attribute this to the fact that relatively little exists in the area to ruin the road. No rain. No traffic. No erosion. The area is remote and devoid of the stresses that seem to accompany most long distance travel within the rest of Africa. But most of all, this is the area we have been told is most dangerous. It is the area we've heard that people fly over or bus through to avoid any potential dangers as hundreds of miles separate any semblances of civilization and water, nor fuel, is not to be found anywhere in between. It is the area of Kenya that has offered me the most beauty as well as the idea of accessing the inaccessible. Richard Burton, African explorer and incorrigible polyglot, described it better than I ever could 150 years ago; "around like drifted sand-heaps, upon which each puff of wind leaves it trace in solid waves, flayed rocks, the very skeletons of mountains and hard unbroken plains, over which he who rides is spurred by the idea that the bursting of a water-skin or the pricking of a camel's hoof, would be the certain death of torture - a haggared land infested with wild beasts and wilder men - a region whos very fountains murmer the warning 'Drink and away!'... Man's heart bounds in his breast at the thought of measuring his puny force with natures might and emerging triumphant from the trial. This explains the Arab's proverb 'Voyaging is Victory.'"

The crossing at Moyale brought it's own set of challenges. After arriving shortly after noon we decided to neglect declaring our motorcycles at the border since we had heard from other travelers that it wasn't really a big deal, we'd avoid a small fee, and would speed our crossing. Everything went as we were told and we crossed the border without issue by 2pm. We hoped to push on another 100km into Ethiopia and get out of the dust ridden border town. First we needed to get petrol for the bikes. Five gas stations in town and non of them seem to have any gas. Finally one of the attendants whose sitting there monitoring the empty pumps tells us 'you must go and buy at the black market.' I had to forcibly stop myself from asking him where this 'black market' could be found. One of those 'oh' moments. So we found some men on the side of the road with large plastic jugs and some smaller 2 liter water bottles full liquids of varying shades of yellow. These guys are everywhere in Moyale and the rest of Ethiopia. As soon as you know what to look for gas is at your finger tips for about 6.30USD per gallon.

With gas acquired we get about 10km down the dirt road out of town when we reach a customs check point asking for customs documents regarding our bikes. Apparently it is a big deal. We tried to talk our way through but the lady cop (they're always the honest/not lazy ones) wasn't having any of it. So we turned around and headed back into town. After bouncing back and forth from Ethiopian to the Kenyan side of the border three or four times we ended up leaving our registration at the Kenyan border office but had a paper stating that we could take our bikes into Kenya. This will make them a bit harder to sell, or at least we won't get as much, AND we're stuck in Moyale.

Next morning packed, with papers in hand we charge out of town bright and early, ready to shove our documents in the faces of whomever is manning the customs gate this morning. When we get there the gate is empty. No ones there. I guess it wasn't a big deal after all.

Ethiopia is different and it is marvelous. The charms of Sub-Saharan Africa were beginning to run stale with Sam and I and Ethiopia is a great departure. The food is rich and flavorful. Injera, sour-dough crepe more or less, about 20 inches wide is served on a large plate with the ordered lentils, cabbage, spaghetti or meat poured in the middle. The coffee is strong and made with care (sometimes they add salt instead of milk or sugar, jury's still out on that one). And since being in the country we had our meals bought for us four times by three separate strangers even when trying to avoid it. Food is relatively cheap but this is the first time in our trip that anyone has even offered to take on our financial burden.

The drive north from the border gave us excellent an display of the acacias, grass huts and 5 - 20ft tall ant hills that make up the southern Ethiopian landscape. The end of our first day's ride found us with sore butts from the terrible roads and scrambling to find a room in Dilla to get out of the rain. We scored a cheap place, 8 bucks for both of us to have a room each, but you get what you pay for. My room was had nothing but dirt in the corners and a bed. Not even a lock and key, just a dead bolt on the inside. As a sat reading, around nine or ten, and watching locals having a good time at the hotel bar, I realized that I'd seen multiple groups of three or four men and one women go to a room and have a quick discussion at the door. After which, all but one man and one women would leave and the couple would go into the room only to reemerge 15 or 20 minutes later. I didn't even consider getting under the blanket on my bed. In fact, I tried as hard as I could to isolate myself from contact with anything in my room. Even though I got us a great deal on a room, Sam still won't let me choose the places we stay.

The next day we climbed up into the Ethiopian highlands to the town of Dinsho and the Bale Mountains National Park. Smooth roads up steep winding mountain passes, a fun beautiful and challenge for our 150cc motorbikes, brought us to the gates of the national park. Talking with park rangers revealed that we were only allowed to hike the park with a guide and the route that we wanted to take up to the Sanetti Plateau and the high elevations took three to four days to climb to over 4200 meters (nearly 14,000 ft.) and traverse the high plateau. It may have been an ill conceived notion but Sam and I were short and time and immediately convinced we could do it in two. We managed to convince a guide that we were capable and agreed to meet in the morning. Now we hadn't been hiking since South Africa and hadn't even put our backpacks on in the last month and a half. Not to mention that Sam had never even been as high as we were going and I only a time or two prior.
It was painful and left us sore but we covered the 50km in the two days we allotted ourselves and climb the majority of the elevation from Dinsho on the first day. The days were cold and the nights were colder. We were both inadequately prepared since, you know, we're traveling Africa. The Sanetti is a barren and inhospitable roof of the world. The horizon always seems close with clouds at always eye level beyond it. During lunch on the second day we were watching clouds roll in over the highest peak on the plateau when our guide came to us and said we had to move now to avoid weather socking us in and trapping us in the fog, at which point we would be unable to navigate. The instant after he said the thunder rolled down from the mountain which was quickly being swallowed in the clouds. The rest of the kms were covered quickly as thunder rolled around us. We camped near to what our guide said was the highest highway in Africa, though I've found nothing to support this. It was essentially a dirt road that saw a car going either way about ever 15 minutes.

In the morning, after about 45 minutes hitched a ride down to a more civilized elevation in the back of what is essentially a dump truck without the dumping mechanism. We shared the large space with with a four or five blue poly tarps, a few spent truck tires, a couple empty jugs of engine oil and a blanket entirely covering what I was sure was a corpse for the man like shape didn't move for the first 20 minutes of our journey. Only at the exit of the park was the cadaver required to reveal itself to make sure it was not actually contraband being smuggle out of the park. A dirt covered man in even dirtier clothes appeared before us and made brief conversation with our guide before retreating back to his bed of tarp and blanket. How he slept through the ride I'll never know. Our driver seemed very confident in his abilities, as well as his vehicle, for we took corners and bounced over pot holes while descending the steep dirt road at a remarkable speed which got us to the town of Goba, and eventually back to our motorbikes in Dinsho, very quickly.

Our guide, Armaye, in the back of the 'dump truck'

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Leaving Rusinga - Ethipoia Bound! (Almost) - Sam

Well, here we are. Sitting idle in Nairobi. We were told by the agency we are going through in Khartoum, Sudan that the necessary paperwork has been submitted to the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi needed to issue our visas. And yet, here we are with no visa...waiting. Getting a visa for an American is no easy feat. When we went to the embassy to apply, they told us we would have to go through an external source that would take our information and either approve or decline our request and then send our info (passport copy, passport pictures, flight itinerary, etc...) to the embassy in Nairobi. Then we can go pick up our visa. As it turns out the agency sent our visa approval to Washington D.C. instead of Nairobi. Classic Africa. Also, for an American the visa costs nearly $160 compared to about $50 for anyone else.

One would think at this point in our trip we would come to expect delays such as these. However, one does not release his ingrained western sense of time and efficiency in just three months. No in reality it takes much, much more time than that. It also takes a conscious release of expectations. "Relax, it's Africa," a common phrase we hear throughout the continent. Easier said than done for these Americans. African bureaucracy makes going to the DMV seem like a vacation. If you ever have to wait one day, even two for something to get done, don't even think about complaining. Or if you find frustration and anger welling, just take an African vacation. It will resolve your plight through the necessary defeat that is accompanied with getting anything done on African soil.

Just a few days ago we left Rusinga Island. Our time there was a nice break from the buses, cars, trains, ferries, sickness and the constant travel we experienced through southern Africa. We got to experience the slow pace that accompanies small villages in Africa. We read...a lot. We woke up each morning and had our tea and our mandazi, traditional fried dough, and got a couple chapters in before we headed off to class at either the primary school or the secondary school. Or we would ride into Mbita and use a computer, if the power wasn't out or the internet hadn't stopped working. There were no set times, or schedules. Everything ran on African time and was subject to change.

Our last weekend before we left, Matt and I traveled to Kakamega forest, the last surviving tropical forest in Kenya, the rest, which was quite vast, has been overused and deforested. Kakamega is the small bit of forest left the government has preserved and limited the use of. On the way there I had an interesting experience. I crashed my motorcycle into a car. It wasn't very fun.

I was riding on the shoulder of the road, a common practice among motorcyclists in Kenya going around 70kph. A car passed by on the road to my right, when suddenly the car slowed down and began drifting into my lane and turned right in front of me. I slammed my brakes and tried to slow down as best I could, but to no avail I could not slow down fast enough. I hit the front corner of the car and flew across the hood hitting the left side of my body on the ground. This is where the story gets interesting.

I jumped up with more adrenaline rushing through my veins than I have ever experienced, took my helmet, off threw it onto the ground, and began yelling at the driver. I lost total control. I yelled obscenities at the man and asked why the fuck he didn't use his turn signal or use his mirrors. The man exclaimed that I should not have overtaken him on the left side of the car and that it was my fault. Within a minute or two a crowd had gathered. I picked up my bike and thankfully it started. The rear brake pedal was bent completely out to where it was perpendicular with the bike and the metal bar that connected the pedal with the actual break was rubbing against my tire and making a terrible sound. People began looking the bike over. Many hands where touching parts on my bike. An older woman showed up and started yelling at random people. She had a large rock in her hand and was threatening to hit random people, people that had nothing to do with what just happened. She began touching my bags on my bike and I, still in my state of adrenaline fueled rage, yelled at her to get her fucking hands off my shit. She did. At some point I calmed myself down and talked with the driver and asked if he called the police. He hadn't and I apologised to him and said let's not call them. He said that because he was a born again Christian he wouldn't. Thank God for the colonizer's religion. I shook his hand and the hand of the passenger and the crisis was at bay. I then felt my leg which was beginning to hurt to make sure I didn't have a tib or fib poking out. I did exactly what I learned people do in such cases and exactly what you should not do. They have adrenaline pumping and are in a state o confusion and shock. They get out of their totaled cars and walk without realizing they have a broken ankle. Thankfully in my case I didn't. I walked away with a few bruises and a scraped up knee and no incident with police where bribes would have certainly taken place with the officer and likely the driver of the vehicle.

My bike was rideable, but just barely. I rode about 40kph to Kisumu, the nearest town about 15 km away, where I went immediately to the boxer shop to have the damaged assessed. There was surprisingly little damage. There were guys outside the shop, one of which looked at my bike and told me to buy a new brake lever and he would fix it for 200 shillings, or about 2 bucks. I bought the part for 1000 shillings and he got to work. He started pounding metal parts back into place with a hammer only too have two of those parts break, the bar that the break lever slides onto and the foot peg that you rest your foot on when you ride. He had me follow him around the corner to a welder who put a couple spot welds on the parts. We went back to the shop to find out that the break lever wouldn't fit back on the metal peg because the spot weld prevented it from sliding all the way back in place. Back to the welding shop. The welder attempted to grind the spot weld downg but couldn't get the large grinder to fit into where he needed. He then resorted to grinding the break lever I just bought down enough to fit it on the peg. It worked. That's African ingenuity for you. Back at the Boxer shop the guy, mechanic I guess you can call him, finished getting the break hooked up. The bike was back to workable order within an hour of arriving at the shop and cost no more than 20 dollars.

As slow as most things take in Africa, this was incredible. A shop in the US would have not only cost at least 10 times that it would have taken at least a whole day to get your bike back, maybe more depending on where you were in line with other vehicles. One of the racks on my bike is still bent and the engine guard is bent, but the guard did its job because other than the bent bars and two bend foot pegs, you can't tell the bike has been wrecked. When I go to sell it I will bend the engine guard back by hand and call it a day. That is, as long as I have no more incidents. I learned some lessons and am going to be more cautious and attempt to anticipate incidents before they happen. I may have been able to anticipate the driver was about to break and in the future I will assume the worst. A motorcyclist barely has more rights than pedestrians and people in Africa drive like absolute morons. Riding safely on this continent necessitates those two nuggets of truth.

We left Rusinga and rode the 11 hours and 450 km back to Nairobi where we expected our visas to be waiting. 450 km is a long way to ride in one day on 150cc bikes. As is the life in an African village, travelling on bikes is slow going, especially for us as we seem to get lost easily. Again, on the way back to Nairobi we got off track. And since neither of us have smart phones (I lost mine while in Rusinga as well as another nice jacket and a pair of riding gloves) it is much more difficult for us to stay on track. We do however have a tablet where the map is usually accessable offline. The issue with that is that it is much less accessable than a smart phone and we look at it less. During a break from riding, which are necessary to heal our backsides and keep from losing sanity, we pulled the tablet out and discovered we had missed our turn to stay on the intended road. Fortunately I remember seeing this route on the map and it only added around 40km to our journey so we deecided to press on. The new route stayed in the cooler Kenyan highlands much longer and offered a much more picturesque ride with lots of large pine trees, healthy cattle and vast tea plantatioons. Getting lost is the price you pay for freedom from the reliance on public transportation. One that Matt and I glady accept.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Rusinga Island - Matt

We've been on Rusinga Island for a little over two weeks now and we've had a chance get a lay o' the land so to speak. We've hiked all through the hills including a bloody bush whack to the top of the island. We've taken a weekend trip to camp in Ruma National Park. We've been teaching at a primary and a secondary school. We've ridden the ring road all around the island. And most importantly we've been living, eating and drinking the life of Rusinga.

Rusinga cell towers looking north
Given all of these recent experiences I would like to take this opportunity to depict in detail the rural African life that sits quietly on the island Rusinga. The island is covered with small tin roofed houses that pepper the landscape in varying densities. In between the houses are either shrubs and short trees in the steeper, rockier areas or fields newly plowed and waiting for the rains. Some of the denser sets of buildings have names like Wanyama and M'tare. These towns consist of a small convenience store, a spare motorcycle parts store a hair salon and maybe one other unique thing. M'tare has fish processing plant since it's right on the Lake and I use the term plant loosely here.

We live with Odula family on the northwestern slopes of the island just outside the small set of buildings called Kaswanga. These slopes give way to a shoreline with an empty horizon filled with the flat blue green expanse of Lake Victoria. The Odulas seem to be on the higher end of the economic strata of Rusinga. Michael Odula sr., our host father, is a well educated, well traveled and well thought of member of the community as far as we can tell. He has been involved with education on the island for the past 40 years. For much of that time he was a principle at the largest secondary school (high school) on the island. He is one of the UN Environmental Project's 500, which he is eager to remind of us frequently and is clearly one of his most prized accomplishments. He is on a "council of elders" that is involved with the entire lake region of Kenya. He's built a primary school on land he owns just above his property with his retirement fund, another fact he is eager to remind us about. We help out at this school two days a week. The school is a cement foundation with tin sheeting wired to wooden poles made from the local trees. It is basic but it takes in a lot of students. He has clearly done a lot in his life for which he is widely respected.
The Primary School Where We Work
In old age his passion for education, that he's had through his whole life, remains strong, however his energy and cognitive strength to accompany that passion must have faded somewhat. We have heard many of his stories multiple times. He seems to be hard at hearing which leads to some interruptions and loud repeations. And sometimes, when we're eating dinner or just sitting quietly with him, he'll murmur '...mmmMM. Yes. That is how it is.' or something to that effect. As though he is responding to the last statement made in a conversation that ended minutes ago. This by no means that what he has to say is meaningless. Far from it in fact. His experiences lend very credible and effective insight to Sam and I discoveries about Africa. 

For instance he has one anecdote Sam and I have heard a couple times about one of the conferences he's attended, maybe it was in Mexico, where the presenters show clips from, and describe the biggest slum in Nairobi, and maybe in Africa I can't remember. They used it as an example of poverty and how it hasn't got any better in Africa. At the end of the presentation Mr. Odula got up and said that they have just showed the most impoverished part of the city and that if they were to show the rest of the city or even the country it looks nothing like that. So why have they shown it? To this they did not say much apparently but invited Mr. Odula to meet with them after the presentation. They went up to their hotel room and had a couple drink and told him that if they were to show the Africa that he described they would loose funding. 

This is a huge part of the problem in our misconception of the way the world is improving. People want their organization to continue to be effective and profitable so they have to present the most heart wrenching data/images/stories possible to gain financial backing. 

It is difficult for me to say what is better. To have the misconception that much of the world is impoverished and thus acquire the financial ability to at least try and correct the problem, or, to spread the more objective truth about the matter and lose much of the ability to fix the many problems that are still present within impoverished communities. What I can say is that Odula long ago stopped attending these conferences. He can't understand how people can pay for him to fly business class around the world to stay in hotels that presidents stay in and are given stipends while there all to talk about how to fix poverty, and for that matter neither can I. What he has described to me would cost at the very lowest end 2000$ per person for a conference of at least 100 people, then add in who knows how much for speakers' fees and the cost of putting one of those one is huge. Looking around Rusinga I can see how just the cost of Odula's trip to that one conference could change the lives of many here on the island and Odula sees that as well.

The Odula household. Kitchen on the left. Living room on the right.
Though his accomplishments are somewhat unique to the island his position is not. The eldery in Kenya retains a respect and reverence, regardless of merit, that is seldom given to those in the US as far as I can tell. I would attribute this to the strong family and community bonds that permeate and sustain the culture on the island. Every single day we have neighbors walking onto the Odula property, essentially in between our bedroom and the kitchen and the living room since these are all separate buildings. Maybe they're neighbors asking for a cup of maize flour, maybe kids on their way to school, maybe it's just a cousin walking to town and decided to stop in to say 'hi'. Whatever it is they are all welcomed.

Since there is a lack of traditional western stimulants (TV, internet, books, model trains, etc.) due to lack of electricity and access and since the weather is so hot, many people spend their free time outside in the shade of their houses and talk. Talking is what humans used to do for fun before Thomas Edison and Alan Turing came along and ruined everything. This eagerness for human interaction seems to encourage keeping up relations with your local community.

Another reason for strong local ties could be this; Jane Odula, our host mother, told us yesterday that she has six sisters and five brothers and uncountable nieces and nephews, most of whom live on the island, just after she got back from a funeral for one of her cousins. On an island with maybe 5,000 people on it is not hard to see how families of that size would enforce and require strong community ties. Just the fact that we were able to find the people we were supposed to stay with just knowing their first names AND thinking they were white shows an interconnectivity that I could never imagine existing in the town of 8,000 from which I come in Idaho.

Think about it. How many unannounced visitors come by your house a day? What would happen if you went to a small town in America or Europe and started telling strangers that you were supposed to be living with Pete and Diane and they live somewhere in town. I don't see the reaction being more than a half hearted 'good luck'.

The Odula living room. With tea and chapati laid out.
A day in the life of the Odula family looks like this. Family's up with the sun. Young Michael and Gloria off to school which starts a 6am and goes till 5pm. Jane makes tea and breakfast for Michael sr., Sam and I. Breakfast is usually just a bread product. Chapati (fried flat bread), white bread and butter, fried chunks of dough, etc. Michael Martin (that's the middle Michael who graduated from secondary school last year and is waiting on his A levels results before going to college.) usually eats later in the morning if at all. After breakfast Michael sr. heads off to the secondary school he is the principle at and where we work. Sometimes he'll spend his morning checking in on the primary school he built he's involved with near their house. After he has left, Michael Martin cleans up the house, does the breakfast dishes, makes sure the solar panels are charging the batteries and takes the donkeys down to the lake to water then and fill up large jugs of water which the donkeys haul back up to the house to fill a large tin basin which stores all the water used for anything that isn't drinking. Drinking water is collected in a large black tank behind the house from rain gutters along the house and then treated with some chemical that tastes like bleach. After chores are completed then Jane and Michael Martin relax through the heat of the day or take care of any social matters they have.

The Odula kitchen where Jane spends most of her time. Notice the chicken.
In the evening Michael sr. will return at various times depending on the day’s work load. He has the time to relax and maybe shower, which is down by filling a bucket with water from the afore mentioned basin and taking it to a ring of tin sheeting around a pad of gravel. From there you strip down and pour water on your head, soap up, and pour more water on your head. Michael Martin will take the cows down to water by the lake. The kids come home from school and Gloria will start doing her homework, little Michael just hangs around and Michael sr. snoozes in his designated chair. Dinner happens sometime between eight and nine pm. We come in a little before and sit with the kids and Michael sr.. Little Michael and Michael Martin bring in the food and set it out in the living room. After washing our hands and a quick prayer it is time to eat. Sam and I are always allowed to serve ourselves first. Michael sr. is next. Then Little Michael and finally Gloria is forced to put her homework away and eat. About one out of two days we have Omena (the little sardines). About two out of every three days we have a stewed cabbage. And about three out of four days we have Ugali (essentially corn flour and hot water). The meal seems entirely dependent on what Jane can find at the market. She has been looking for Nile Perch since we arrived since it is the classic fish of Lake Victoria but has been unable to find it. Apparently, it is all shipped out to places like Nairobi and Mombasa now. After dinner everyone kinda sits around in a food comatose, Michael sr. will sit with his shirt unbuttoned leaving his huge hairless belly free to expand as necessary, until about 10 o'clock and then it's time for bed.

Ugali and fried omena (sardines)
Weekends change in that there is more food ate and they go to church on Saturday for four or five hours. And other than the essential chores they just relax and eat.

Life he has been a relaxing and eye opening oasis from the stresses and tunnel vision of the road and travel. It has given Sam and I the time we need to prepare for the second half of our journey. Our Sudanese visa has been applied for and should be on its way to Nairobi soon. We've mapped our itinerary for travel north through Ethiopia and are already feeling the calling for the road and the next leg of our journey. But it will be hard to start up from the peace, quite and relaxation that has characterized our time here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Arrival on Rusinga Island - Sam

We arrived in Mbita, the town you reach before you cross over to Rusinga Island, with little information about the family we would be staying with. All we knew was that they were connected to a school (of which we didn't know the name), that they lived on Rusinga Island, and that their first names were Jane and Michael. We have been in contact with them for the past couple months talking briefly with one another through email. A few days before we left Nairobi, I realized we didn't know much more about them than their first names and the area in which they lived. I emailed them to get some more info about them, but got no response. We left for Rusinga a couple days later. 

We arrived on the island in the evening of the Feb 1st, the day they should have been expecting us. We knew Rusinga Island was small enough that we expected we could ask around and find them. After asking a local man if he had heard of them, he said, "Oh yes!" and directed us towards a school. He also said something about them being muzungus (white people), which was news to us. We then went to St. Joseph's Secondary School, an all girls Catholic school. We talked with a woman and asked her if she knew of a muzungu couple, Jane and Michael, who worked with a school on the island, whom we only assumed were actually a couple. She said no, but directed us to a man who seemed to be of importance with the school. He, not knowing who they were, then directed us to the Priest Father Sewe. Father Sewe was very friendly and welcoming, but didn't know who we were asking about so he gave his friend a call to ask if he knew of a muzungu couple by the name is Jane and Michael. He hands me the phone. The man on the end didn't know who we were looking for, but gave us another clue, the number of a muzungu woman, Linda, who runs an eco-lodge on the island. With this information Matt and I retired back to Mbita and got a hotel. We had been riding all day and decided to give up for the day hoping we would get a response from them by the next morning. Back at the hotel we decided we might as well call Linda. She, again, wasn't sure who we were asking about, but said she would call someone and get back with us. Within the hour she was back on the phone saying she has found Jane and Michael! She gave them our number and within the evening their grandson Michael Martin was in contact with us. We then made a plan to meet with them the following morning. It took 8 people and about 4 hours to find Jane and Michael Odula. As we learned, if we would have known their last names it would have taken far less people and we would have been at their house that evening. That's village life on Rusinga Island for you.

Home Sweet Home
The next day we rode to their house and were greeted by the family. There is Michael Odula,  that patriarch,  and Jane, his wife, their two grandsons, Michael Odula Jr. (known as Martin, his middle name) and Michael Odula III (known as little Michael) and one granddaughter. They are Rusinga Island natives and are certainly not muzungus, a fact that certainly made it more confusing to people when we searching for them. Michael showed us to our room which has two beds with mosquito nets. The property consists of four concrete buildings with metal roofs. There are chickens that roam around, a couple cows, and occasionally goats roam through the yard. I'm not sure who the goats belong to. Probably a neighbor nearby, but people often let their animals roam around freely so it's hard to to say for sure.

Our Room

That afternoon we accompanied Michael to Wanyama Secondary School where we would be volunteering. It is a small building that has two offices and three classrooms, although only one of the classrooms is being utilized as there aren't enough students, or supplies, to fill all three of them. Michael is working to get more students at the school and four more have recently shown up. With that being said other students seemed to have disappeared. The day before we arrived, Michael said he sent a few students home to try and collect their school fees. That may very well be why there are students that do not always show up to class. The school has a cook who cooks the lunch for everyone at the school. She cooks on an open fire right behind the school. There is a small room on the backside of the school where she can keep wood and prepare meals. 

Mr. Michael Odula
That same day, Michael sent Michael Martin with us to town to get some groceries on our motorbikes. As we were walking around the grocery store I began to wonder if we were going to be paying for these groceries. Occasionally Michael Martin would look at me and wait for me to pick out a brand of coffee or a brand of bread. I would look at him and say, "I don't know man. Whatever you guys usually get is fine." Then there would be an awkward pause and he would choose something. When we got up to the counter and everything was rang up and ready to be purchased, Michael Martin just looked at me. Again, an awkward pause. "Are you expecting me to pay for this," I asked. "Yes." I replied as if I should have assumed as much. "Well will I be reimbursed," I asked. With which Michael Martin assured me, Oh yes, yes of course." Of which I knew immediately was not the case. In Africa if people are unsure of what you said or feel uncomfortable they just tell you "yes, yes!" 

I was a little pissed off about the complete lack of communication that had just occurred and the assumption we would pay for everything. Upon returning to our host family's residence I showed Michael the receipt. Upon which he exclaimed dramatically, "Ohhh people in America are so kind and generous!" "No", I said dryly. "Am I going to be reimbursed the groceries I just bought?" His tone immediately flipped to a deep sadness, again very dramatic. "I am not sure how it will be possible." I explained to him that this time it was okay, but I did not appreciate him assuming I would buy things without any prior communication. I also added that on their page on, the site we used to find this place, it clearly states that there is an exchange of volunteer work for room and board. Many other people are honest about needing a little money to help out with food and potential costs and that's fine. A large reason Matt and I can afford to travel as long as we are is because we are volunteering for a month. But everyone in America is wealthy right? No, of course not. Well, sort of. Wait...Maybe?

Last year I made far less than the standard poverty level wage in America. I also have the privilege of working jobs that pay for my room and board, so I am able to save much of what I earn. I also don't have a wife, kids, or even a girlfriend for that matter. That has allowed me to invest all my time and money into traveling a third of this past year. So no I am not rich, BUT I am traveling a third of the year and Matt and I just bought new motorbikes that cost about $1200 each. We are living a life of luxury and excess compared to that of a rural Kenyan. We just learned today that five students at a local primary school cannot afford their school fees that cost only $2.50 per month. That mean no education this month and quite possibly next month as well. After that who knows. So the question remains, are we wealthy? At this point, I barley have enough money to get through the rest of the continent and get home, let alone get back to work in Oregon. I'm counting on selling my bike at a somewhat reasonable cost. That may be a long shot. I honestly don't have the answer to the question. It's very clearly circumstantial, but I do have the insight at least to see how I am lucky and clearly privileged. Sometimes it makes me feel like I shouldn't be here. Sometimes I feel like an asshole for complaining about splitting a $40 bill with Matt with a family that barley has enough money to get by. And maybe I am. Other times I think why shouldn't I be able to travel and experience different places and meet different and inspiring people along the way. I didn't choose where I was born or what advantages I have in life. I'm just playing the cards I am dealt. Again, I don't have the answer. I suppose there is truth to both scenarios.

I think it is fair to also add that after getting to know Michael Odula a little better I believe he is a sincere man. He is passionate about education and has worked his entire life as an educator and principal. He is also well traveled and has studied education and environmental studies around the world. It may be that the incident on the first day was due to cultural differences and expectations of ones culture that in Michael's case turned out to be a little skewed.

The Secondary School Class
On a more positive note we are making progress with students that we are working with here. They are very shy and are not very inspired to participate in class. This proves to be a large obstacle as the only guidance we have been given for volunteering is, "Just interact with them." Yeah, interact with a group of 13 students from 2 -5PM who don't answer simple yes or no questions. Easier said than done. With the help of our cultural exchange that we have set up with my sister Diana's class, however, we are making some progress. The kids, ages 15-17, are beginning to come out of their shells and seem to be very interested in interacting with students from America. This week we are going to try and buy a soccer ball and volleyball for the school and teach a PE class. We're hoping that if we can get out of the classroom and get the kids moving and laughing, we will make even more progress. The kids are after all very bright. They just have never had a muzungu from America interacting with them in their class before. They are a little out of their comfort zones and that is OK. In fact is a very good thing and we hope that in the next 2 or 3 weeks we can create a more open and comfortable environment. At least as much as we can within such a short frame of time.

Me Enjoying Ugali and Sardines
The meals here have been quite interesting. Simple, but interesting. A common dish is a stew made from sardines that are caught regularly here in Lake Victoria. They are caught in large numbers and then dried and taken to market for sale. They are found in markets all through Kenya and in Tanzania as well. They have a wretched fishy smell that fills the air unmistakably when one gets even near a market. They are then stewed  in a salty broth that actually doesn't taste too bad. It isn't great, but not horrible. Today, however, there was no broth. Just salted, cooked sardines and ugali. Ugali is another staple food of both Kenya and Tanzania. One that the people here eat enthusiastically as it provides them with nutrients and energy to perform their daily tasks. It is made from maize and is a bread like dish that has little to no taste. I personally don't love it, but when eaten with salty fish or beans and rice, it isn't too shabby.

One of my favorite dishes we had just two nights ago. We had chicken that was cooked in a broth with rice, ugali and a green that resembles kale mixed with seaweed, also very popular. The soup had whole pieces of chicken in it and before I knew what I had grabbed I realized it was the chickens head. This honestly excited me as I love trying strange food that I am not familiar with. It is part of the joy of traveling. I began tearing the head apart and eating bits and pieces of meat including the comb, the fleshy red thing on top of the chickens head. Unsure whether I should eat the eyes, I turn and ask Michael whether I should indulge or not. He looks at me blankly and says, "I eat everything," and immediately returns to eating. So I pop one in, chew it up and swallow. It was as delicious as the comb, although the texture was a little unsettling. It had a rigid, almost crunchy bit that must have provided structure to the eyeball. After picking the thing clean, all that was left was the skull and what was inevitably inside. It is here that I regrettably refrain from continuing. I nibble at the brain stem momentarily and give up. That was a bit more than I was willing to eat, but as I am writing this I feel should have indulged a bit further. They may be time still before Matt and I depart for redemption. One of the worst meals I had here was plain beans and maize. It was not seasoned and the maize was not cooked thoroughly. It was a bit of a chore to get through. Neither Matt or I could finish the heaping bowl that sat dauntingly in front of us.

Matt and I on his Birthday