Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Blue Nile Falls

Tis Isat (the Water that Smokes) may not be the biggest, the highest, or the mightiest waterfall in Africa, but it has played no less a dramatic role in one of the world's most famous rivers. Initially discovered by the Portuguese (history seldom gives credit to real discovers), Scotsman James Bruce attempted to present his version of the true source of the Nile to 18th-century England. A dilettante, who at his own expense, spent ten years in the region, suffering unimaginable hardships, returned to England only to have no one take him seriously. He returned to his estate, grew obese, and stiffed the ghost writer of his books. People were more horrified at his accounts of the natives eating raw meat than his premise that Lake Tana and the Tis Isat was the source of the Nile. Later he was to be proven halfway right; this was one of the sources, but not the only one.

For a few dollars I join a ferenghi bus (ferenghi being a foreigner) with a few Americans, a French guy, and three girls from Madrid to drive out to the falls. I highly recommend this because the driver employs a "guide" to walk you up to the falls. My guidebook says: "Independent groups are not obliged to pay extra to hire a guide, but the alternative is pretty gruesome--a train of children demanding money, yelling, hurling stones and generally doing their utmost to ensure they spoil the experience." Lovely.

On the climb up the hill, dozens of these kids circle around you, pushing gourds and scarves in your face. "My name is Marta. Marta. Remember only me when you come back. I will be here, waiting." And there are about fifty Martas. But the day is beautiful and the climb is pleasant. Since it's been so rainy, the falls indeed deliver--cascades of muddy water crashing and plunging wildly over the precipice. I wonder if someone threw a beach ball in how long would it take to reach Cairo.

On the way back down the path, those cute, polite little children morph into howling, shrieking banshees. The guide whacks a stick into the ground, and they turn in unison and thunder out of there, much like sheep or some sort of hoofed animals stampeding in the face of danger. But they come back. I'm almost left alone, but the Spanish girls are doomed. The kids start screaming for pens, sweets, anything. It's insane. We pull away in the van through the gauntlet, and one little boy runs for all he's worth, sticks his head in the window, and yells: "PAY!!" Take any of these kids, clean them up a bit, and put them to work at the Limited Express or the Gap at the mall, and they'd make a killing.

Spanish girl mobbed

Roadside Ethiopia

No pictures for a while since connections are agonizingly slow here. Will put them up asap.

I arrive in Addis Ababa at 3am, so I find a quiet corner of the airport and sleep until morning. Since I was here last in 1973 during the days of Haile Selassie, I think I want to remember it from then and not the teeming, impoverished mass of a city it is today. Visas are fast and easy to come by though, and I buy a bus ticket to head out of town.

Buses to anywhere leave before dark, and since it's the rainy season here, you can bet on a torrential downpour and lots of mud to begin a journey. The bus is full, but everyone is polite, and a guy even serves snacks and water. Two hours in though, the Ethiopian music and videos jolt me awake. It wouldn't be so bad except this music is hypnotic and frenzied, and it doesn't stop for the remaining nine hours.

My journey goes from Addis to Bahir Dar to the northwest, climbing down hairpin turn after hairpin turn from off a plateau and through some spectacular canyonland. Ethiopia has never been seriously invaded--except by the Italians for a while. And so did the British, who launched an expedition in the 1800s to rescue some Servants of the Queen. These poor hapless civil servants were imprisoned in fetters and tortured for two years by one of history's classic nutcase emperors, Theodore, because Queen Victoria failed to take him seriously.

Anyway, what does roadside Ethiopia look like? Pretty squalid. Hovels are constructed of mud and wattle, occasionally you see concrete, but for the most part this looks like a country that has endured famine and war and failed communist experiments. Some sections are so muddy and derelict that the color tones between people and landscape don't change. Teeming hoards of children run alongside the bus, and if you ever wonder where some of your castoff clothes go--that old blue cub scout shirt with den number 12120 or the old high school t-shirt with "Home of the Jaguars"--here they are. At one point I look out the window and a squad of big, pissed-off looking monkeys are charging down the hill and chasing the bus. In another spot there's an old rusted-out tank. Vultures circle overhead.

After what seems forever, we stop in Debre Markos--barely halfway--for lunch. What kind of appetite can one have after being motionless for seven hours? (well, except for the occasional piss break along the road). And that bag of overpriced Italian cookies I bought back in Addis tastes like manna from the Gods out here. I walk around the town and discover there's quite a big Jewish population, if the signs are any indication. Also at the rest stop, I discover there's a girl from Santa Barbara on the bus who has spent the last several months filming a documentary on Kenyan street children. Although the bus journey may be difficult, it's meeting one's fellow travelers that makes it so memorable.

At about nine hours into the bus ride, I break down and plug in my iPod for sanity's sake. Finally, at Bahir Dar, on the 11th hour, the bus stops, and I stagger through the inevitable crowd of touts, and go straight into my $19/night hotel alongside the beautiful Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

No Visa for Me

Perhaps it's good in one way that there are still some countries out there that haven't sold out to the tourism god. Even brutal dictatorships such as North Korea and Myanmar can sniff a dollar out there, but the Sudan? Uh, uh. Not to say obtaining a visa is impossible, but if one holds an enemy passport, permission must be granted from the Ministry of Interior in Khartoum, and for this one needs an advocate inside the country who cares. Even a famous author such as Paul Theroux had to wait for weeks in Egypt, and he was not allowed to enter by land. Euro passport holders have a much easier time. All I have to offer is a letter of invitation from Khartoum and lots of charm, but that's not good enough. So, I offer a salute to the consulate pictured above.

It's not that big a deal since I've seen the merging of the two Nile Rivers before while flying into Khartoum in 1973. I hear the Sudanese people are among the most hospitable and unspoiled in all of Africa, and for this I regret not getting in. But things (like not getting a visa) always happen for a reason. The Sudanese probably did me a favor because it's now 50 degrees (that's over 120F) in Aswan, and it's not like there is a ton of shade in the Sudanese desert.
This description from the Victorian traveler, Lady Duff Gordon, sums it up: "The silence of noon, with the white heat glowing on the river which flowed like liquid tin, and the silent Nubian rough boats floating down without a ripple, was magnificent and really awful."
As much as I like Aswan, it's back on the overnight train to Cairo to catch a flight to Ethiopia. Time to keep moving south...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Off to Aswan

A traveler's definition of bliss is an air-conditioned, private train compartment with no other passengers! An attendant even brings breakfast to me in the morning! I'm so happy, and I lie here and wonder why this train can't go all the way to Cape Town. About 14 hours later I arrive in Aswan, a very cool town, but only in the figurative sense cause it's over 110 degrees here. Yikes!!


But who cares when for $16 I have a room with A/C, satellite TV, and breakfast? And in what other Egyptian city do they power wash the sidewalks? For less than $5/hour I spend the day sailing around the Nile on a felucca--down past the first cataract, lots of white ibises flying about.

I tell the Nubian captain that I have a thing for traditional Nubian architecture, and he takes me to a village that is more than I can ask for. Check it out...

But the main reason to come to Aswan is for Abu Simbel. It's just a few kilometers north of the Sudanese border and probably about as close as I'm going to make it to the Sudan, but more about that later. Anyway, I get up at 3:30am, because the only way down here, besides flying, is to join a police convoy. The drive is about three hours through a bunch of nothing, but this is so totally worth it:

Anyway, Egypt is just to figure out the plan for the bigger trip down south, and this is just some blog filler to pass the time. It's too hot to even think in this place, let alone put together complete sentences. So, sorry this is still kind of boring. Don't worry, the fun is yet to come.

Killing Time in Cairo

Too much to say, and this is a blog, after all, not a book. I'm at the mercy of these really funky computers, and I'll mention from the get go that PCs really blow. Anyway, about Cairo:

Traffic: No lanes, no rules, 24-hour gridlock, and any one of these drivers would be highly qualified to drive the shuttles at LAX--evening shift, arrivals level.

Head scarves: Unlike 1972, now most of the women wear them. I can't figure out if they're making a fashion statement, bending to social pressure, trying to keep their hair clean, or hiding the dirt. With the men, I think their act of piety is to sport a big bruise and/or bump on their forehead. Is it from banging their heads on the ground, or what? It doesn't really matter because the Egyptians have always been warm, kindhearted people, and quick with a smile.

Fashion or function?

Neighborhoods: I walk the streets. Near my hotel there are shoe shops with enough shoes to shod the entire city for years, and shop windows filled with unknown stuff that looks like it hasn't been moved since the days of King Farouk, and ghastly lingerie shops. Across the river in the upscale areas, it's much more tasteful.

I've always held a fascination with mannequins that end up in developing countries-these look like children of the damned.

Security: It's on every corner. Go the the pyramids and there's a bag check; go to a 5-star hotel to use the bathroom or check out a Ramses burger and there's a bag check. The Hilton even has a bomb sniffer dog.

These guys are watching the World Cup.

Still here

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Tut, tut, Mr. Tout

"Madame, madame, MADAME! Welcome, welcome to Egypt!! You like see pyramids on camel, maybe Neel sunset cruise?" The touts lurk everywhere, on street corners and bus benches, in front of hotel entrances and ice cream stands, and one guy even jumps into my taxi on the way to the pyramids:

"You want beautiful camel to ride?"

"No. No camels, no horses, no donkeys, no guides, no nothing."

"It beeg hill."

"I don't care."

"You like perfume maybe, nice papyrus?"

"You are so wasting your time."

Despite Cairo's reputation for toutism, I generally walk the streets unharrassed. After all, salespeople completely ignore me in the stores at the malls back home, so why should it be different here? I just don't look like easy money.

Travelers always know that you can't go back and visit a place and expect it to live up to the original impression. Perfect experiences in places like Petra, the Taj Mahal, or Ankor Wat are better left to the memory. Cairo, nearly forty years later, remains surprisingly the same, but bigger, with a gazillion more people (please airdrop some birth control in this country), and layers of pollution that will surely corrode the pyramids into grit within the next millenium--that is if the ooze of urban sprawl doesn't cross the road and knock over the fence and carry them away first.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Adventure Begins

For all of you lolling about your shaded terraces this summer with iced, fruity drinks in hand, here's a bit of entertainment to make you feel glad about where you are. So read on; there are thrills galore on this trip! It's Cairo to Cape Town by surface, at least as much as I can humanly stand. I promise lots of dereliction, weirdness, and glorious moments, so check in from time to time!

And of course there are the usual reasons to once again flee Orange County, but most of all, the romance of seeing places like Ujiji, the Serengeti, the sources of the Nile, and Zanzibar is too overpowering to resist. Colonialists out there will recognize the Cairo to Cape Town journey as one of the great classic routes, and that is reason enough to head out the door.