Thursday, July 29, 2010

More summer fun in Goma, DRC

It's not always gorillas that attract the hardcore traveler to Rwanda. Goma, that thriving, vibrant metropolis of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, sure brings them in. Um, maybe not. Gorilla viewing takes more money and time (both which are running low), so I opt to take a mini-bus to Gisenyi, Rwanda's own "beach" resort on Lake Kivu and just a few kilometers from Goma.

My guide, Emmanuel, meets me on the Rwanda side. He's very tiny and looks about twelve years old, but no, he's a married adult and extremely personable and bursting with enthusiasm. I feel sorry for him because Goma is a friggin' dump and he's got his work cut out. God almighty, what a place.

Six years ago a nearby volcano blew and combined with an underground burst of lava in a place no one expected, the lava flow took out half the city. Goma is slowly being rebuilt, but everywhere you look is broken up lava rock with not a lick of green anywhere. And the dust is so thick, you can hardly see a block away.
Main Street, Goma.

Typical lava street.

Emmanuel takes me climbing over lava flow and to the market where piles and piles of clothes--the kind of stuff you see in those mammoth-sized bales in the warehouse yards in south Los Angeles--are resold. Looking for that brown and white, Hawaiian-print polo shirt? It's here.
Goma market.

A belt for sale: only 1 US$
We drive past the airport, past UN troops, through main streets and back streets, and then down to the Congolese side of Lake Kivu where the NGOs have their mansions. I could easily do a blog post on these NGOs, but I'll think I'll save up my rant. There are over 200 different NGOs in Goma alone. They live really well.
One of the "mid-size" NGO houses in Goma.

All these photos were taken somewhat on the sly, no surprise. No problem with border crossings in either direction. And for one of those serendipitous travel moments...Back in Ethiopia at the Blue Nile falls, Rob from Oregon--an excellent traveler and photographer--and I spent a pleasant evening chatting about the more obscure places in the world, as travelers who meet up in the hostels do. In a complete coincidence we ran into each other a week later in the Ethiopian Airlines office in Djibouti, and if that isn't enough, he had just arrived in Rwanda from Goma as I was going over--over a month later and in the middle of Africa. Too funny!! One is never alone. His photography is exceptional, and here is a link to his site:

Roaming across Rwanda

Unless I want to visit another park, it's time to move on from Uganda. Some of you might be wondering what, if any, security measures are taking place in view of the bombings in Kampala during the World Cup. The only thing that affects the traveler is the constant "wanding" every time you enter a hotel, a restaurant, or even a bus. Gotta coin tucked down your backpack? Odds are you're going to have to take it out for examination--that kind of thing.

OK, off I go on a 9-hour bus ride through bumps and dust to Rwanda. I like this country! And not just because of the welcoming free visa for US passport holders. It's beautiful: mountainous with terraced, cultivated hillsides much like Peru or Nepal. People are exceptionally friendly and helpful. And in one of the best government decisions--ever--plastic bags are banned. I had heard about this back in Uganda and ditched one bag I use for my laundry down into the depths of my backpack. Sure enough, at the border officials rooted around a tote bag and confiscated a plastic bag my water bottle was in. The result is a virtually litter-free country (Somalilanders please come here and take notes!) Another policy is that they're very fussy about people with cameras. Pictures of buildings, government stuff, and whatever is banned and your camera will be confiscated. So, no pictures for this blog post!

Fumes and dust are minimal with fewer cars than Uganda. And since this is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, huge, long lines of people simply walk along the sides of the road and up and down the hills, carrying unbelievable loads of stuff on their heads and large water containers in each hand. And everyone appears industrious with little idle slacking.

I visit the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, which commemorates the slaughter in 1994 of one million people in only a hundred days. Despite the finger pointing of why this happened, you gotta wonder about when it comes down to a person standing there with a machete in his/her hand ready to whack a baby into pieces with whom does the ultimate responsibility lie? The Memorial is tasteful, but there are memorials in Rwanda that require a really strong stomach.
I've asked a few people where they were during those hundred days: my driver told me he and his mother and two sisters hid in a bus for two months; the rest of his family didn't make it. Another grew up an orphan. Everyone now says the country looks forward and has abolished tribalism. I hope they make it.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Murchison Falls

Some of you are probably wondering where the hell are the animals in this whole saga. After all, it's Africa. That's what you do here: chase around game reserves like something out of Hatari. OK, so here it comes...

About two hundred miles north of Kampala is Murchison Falls, a place not only in the lore of the search for the Nile, but once one of Africa's premier game reserves--until the massive slaughter of animals under that psycho of the ages Idi Amin, or his successor Obote, or the Lords Resistance Army. For much of the last forty years, Murchison Falls has been off limits, but presently it's calm and the animals are back. Before the troubles began, the park was used, in part, for the filming of the African Queen, and since I've shamelessly ripped off the movie poster for this blog, the least I can do is visit and pay my respects. And as a side note, it was here that Ernest Hemingway suffered the two back-to-back plane crashes--with the last one nearly killing him.

So, off I go with seven more-than-congenial English, German, and American companions. A backpackers hostel in Kampala offers a three-day safari for only $240--an absolute bargain.

Murchison Falls may not be the highest or widest falls in the world, but it has the distinction of being the most powerful. The Nile River at this point in its journey north squeezes from a width of fifty meters through a six-meter gorge in an unbelievable burst of fury. We hike to the top and then to the bottom.
Murchison Falls

The next morning I go on a game drive through the reserve, and the complete assortment of animals are at work, standing about looking photogenic. I've got a ton of pictures, but here are a few that don't need to be blown up...

And if that isn't enough, we follow this with a cruise for some hours up the Nile toward the falls where there is an elephant and hippos and crocodiles galore. This is the jungle boat cruise for real...

Some kind of water buffalo.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Anyone who can walk around an African city for more than a day must have fake lungs. The amount of black fumes, white fumes, and just plain filthy fumes belching at full force from all exhaust pipes can asphyxiate all but a 5-pack a day smoker. And this does not count the dust. Often I cannot see across the street. Nairobi is really bad in the fume department, so I flee on a (incredibly comfortable) bus for a 12-hour ride to Kampala, Uganda. I find no relief from chronic headaches, coughing, and blowing black out of my nose. I leave Kampala for Jinja, an hour back up the road.

Jinja, for readers of African exploration, holds a special place as the source of the Nile. And one of the greatest tales of the 19th century is the competition amongst adventurers and geographers to be the first to find the "spot." No more classic a story may be found as that of Captain Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke. Egos and a fractured friendship caused them to part ways in the middle of one of their expeditions. Speke headed out solo and half-delirious to a spot on Lake Victoria that he conjectured was where the Nile began its journey north. He was right, of course, but never lived to receive his glory, as he died in a shooting accident hours before his presentation before the Royal Geographic Society.

What would Speke think today? A small plaque and monument marks the "spot," but his name is now on a hotel, a street, and various random things around Kampala. There's even a street named after Burton. Both are probably rolling over in their graves to know the headwaters of the Nile are now a headquarters for such "adventurous" pursuits such as white-water rafting and bungee jumping. However, the site of Speke's discovery is a beautiful park--quiet and filled with bird life. Unlike the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, here the water is clean, not muddy. With a visible, strong current, I think the beach ball tossed in here would be the clear winner in reaching Cairo first.

Next stop for me: Murchison Falls

From Lake Victoria the Nile begins its journey.

This neglected plaque marks where John Speke first viewed the source of the Nile.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Swahili Coast

Places such as Mombasa, Malindi, and Lamu--Kenya's Swahili coast--have long resonated with me, and finally I bring the fantasy to reality. Some quick background: Swahili is a form of an Arabic word meaning "coast," and culturally, it's Africa, Arabia, and India all mixed together. Trade routes linking these regions of the world have existed for over a thousand years, and by the time the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, the Swahili world extended from Somalia to Mozambique.

Mombasa, despite the cachet of the name, has succumbed to urban blight, fumes, and traffic and is worth only a small stop. I head to Malindi up the coast in a matatu (a collective taxi). The romantic coastline I envisage has the vibe of a 1970s style Mexican Riviera with the bougainvillea-covered white-washed buildings, red-tiled and thatched roofs, and the overall sultry air. Malindi has now become a resort destination for Italians behaving badly. Despite this, there is a monument dedicated to Vasco da Gama, the first European to set eyes on this coast, and the awesome Swahili ruins of Gede, a once rich and mysterious coastal town that remains undocumented in history; however Chinese porcelain and pottery from India have been found there. The ruins are extensive, and just the butterflies and I have them all to ourselves.

Swahili ruins of Gede. Nobody knows its origins.

But let's get to the good stuff. It's Lamu, a four-hour butt-bruising, buckin' bronco bus ride, followed by twenty-minutes in a boat that's the crown jewel on the coast. Holy smokin' swahili--it's love at first sight. The entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it's stunning. My hotel is a restored, 16th-century Swahili house, and if I'm not careful, there's no reason to leave.

No reason to get out of bed at my hotel.

Part of the Swahili "style" is its carved doors.

No cars exist on Lamu. Donkeys are the only way to get around.

You can meander on these narrow streets for hours. Around every corner is a surprise.

Lamu street scene

Friday, July 16, 2010

The 19:00 to Mombasa

In different odd spots around the world are historical trains lines, built under massive human endeavor to open up new continents to trade and settlement. In East Africa, there's the Djibouti to Addis Ababa train, now barely functioning just over the Ethiopian border and approaching scrap heap status, and the Nairobi to Mombasa line in Kenya--ready for business three times a week. Built in 1903, the line once ran all the way to Uganda, and Nairobi was founded halfway along as a result. It may be a little tattered around the edges, but this train has heart.

At the station I must check in at a special counter where a woman welcomes me and gives me an already prepared card with my name on it for the first meal service seating. This is a beautiful and graceful touch from how people used to travel, and it's not like they're being nostaligic; they're still doing it this way. My first-class cabin boasts leather seats that look like 1950s vintage. I share accommodations with a Dutch woman.

Hot, sweaty, and happy.

We pull out of the station and the train manager comes by dressed in a full suit and tie and introduces himself. He warns us to keep our door and window locked during the night. Next a steward comes down the corridor, ringing a bell to summon us for dinner. The restaurant staff have choreographed an excellent meal served on a white table cloth of soup, chicken, vegetables, rice, and fruit. People from France, Spain, Britain, and Kenya sit at the tables around me, and we all chat as fellow travelers.

The dining car--note the overhead fans.

Sometime during the night the train stops and stays stopped--for hours. What should be a fifteen-hour run will turn out to be twenty-one hours. "Not to worry," the train manager announces over breakfast, "passengers will be served lunch!" (All meals are included with the fare.) This is great news. Lying about all day on a train crossing Africa is my idea of a perfect day. As luck would have it, because of the delay, we cross through the middle of Tsavo National Park during the day. I stare out the window for hours and spot elephants in the distance.

We stop at Voi--about halfway to Mombasa.

Inside Voi's station.

Still at Voi.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Jubba Airways, the Happy Way to Fly

Mogadishu is one of those places sure to strike a chord of absolute terror in anyone's heart. While booking my ticket from Djibouti to Nairobi, I am told that the plane will stop briefly there, but not to worry, that it's perfectly safe; al-Shaabab will not storm the plane and carry off western women travelers who are kicking and screaming. I ponder this information for some days.

On my return from Hargeisa, Somaliland, to Djibouti, I fly with Jubba on yet another former Soviet piece of dereliction, but at least on this plane the seats match, although the seat belt has not been used since a few planes before. A family of five pile in the three seats across the aisle. Through the scarcely contained chaos at the airport, the flight proves a triumph thanks to the charming company of a retired French military commando/paratrooper now doing security assessments of the world's hot spots for a private corporation. The stories are fantastic and in exchange I give a small lesson in written Arabic grammar. The flight finally arrives in Djibouti, but the plane port hole windows are so fogged up, we can't tell if the plane is still in the air or taxiing on the runway.

Anyway, I don't have much hope for the Jubba flight on the next day to Nairobi, and I spend a restive night staring up at the black cloud of doom hanging over my bed at the hotel. I should point out that the pirates operate out of Puntland (another part of Somalia) and are a different crowd of riffraff than the hard-line al-Shaabab Islamist nutcases who hang around Mogadishu.

At the airport there are only five Somalis and me checking on. Some airport guy with a badge comes up and asks for my passport number with no explanation. We are screened and re-screened, and now our plane escort comes. The plane is exactly on time. I walk out on the tarmac to face a shiny Boeing 737-200. Huh? The smartly dressed cabin crew welcome me. The plane is filled with Somalis, also nicely dressed. The seat belt works. We are served a hot meal.

Looking toward the terminal

The plane is positioned to get the hell out of there.

Something wrecked on the runway.

Two hours later we approach the Mogadishu airport from over the water. I can see parts of a spread out, low-lying town, but not much else. We land, and the crew thank everyone for flying Jubba, and for those passengers disembarking, it's: "Enjoy your stay in Mogadishu or wherever your final destination may be. Hope to see you again soon." This is beyond surreal. It's Mogadishu, for god's sake. I ask the crew if photos are permitted, and they say of course, I could come off the plane for clearer shots. Well, why not? I do notice on the entire perimeter of the airport are white SUVs keeping watch. Our plane does not pull up in front of the terminal and positions itself to head straight out to the runway. In barely half an hour, we discharge passengers and pick up a new batch (who look decidedly happy), including a few westerners (who look like they have been living hard), and off we go. We are served another meal, and the crew address me as Miss Pamela.

The next stop is Wajir, just over the Kenyan border, where everyone piles off for immigration and screening. Back up in the plane, we finally arrive in Nairobi, to yet another check and screening. The perimeter of this airport, in contrast, is full of armed soldiers. I am met by a driver who takes me to the backpackers hostel. By the second night, people know I just came through Somaliland and Somalia, and everyone goes quiet. "No big deal," I tell them, "the Somalis are great."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fantastic Las Geel

Imagine Neolithic cave art--some of it over 5000 years old--just sitting out in the middle of the nowhere. Las Geel was discovered by French archaeologists only in 2003, and it surely ranks as one of the world's most amazing sites, with some people saying it deserves World Heritage status if not for the political situation. Slowly its existence is becoming known (try a YouTube search), but for now these superb stylistic representations of cattle, hunters with bows, cows bearing milk, etc., receive few visitors. And they say there is more out there yet undiscovered.

To get there is neither easy nor cheap. Las Geel is about 60 km from Hargeisa, and the Somalilanders take one's safety very seriously (one incident would cause a huge setback in the government's efforts to seek support from the international community). I must hire a 4-wheel drive car with a driver and then two soldiers (Shede and Abdulrahman) armed with AK47s. With permits in hand to get past the roadblocks, my private militia and I set off. I am a kind general, and while on maneuvers I only require them to help me scramble up and down cliff sides. The day is utterly fantastic.

My private militia

Summer Fun in Somaliland

Somaliland is a country that does not exist. It should; it really, really should, and this little scrap of land is doing everything right to prove to the world that it deserves to be severed once and for all from its failed brother state of Somalia. Law and order exist here, and there's a representative government, its own currency, flag, and free press. They just held a peaceful presidential election. Tourists are welcome! Yet the outside world ignores this place.

Daallo Airlines is back up and running, using its finest ex-Soviet flying heap for the 35-minute flight from Djibouti to Hargeisa. I get the business class section in the back with tons of legroom to throw my stuff around. No one bothers stowing anything, and yes, you can bring on your water bottles. The seats on my side of the plane look like they may have come from an old Braniff plane. The message on the seat back to keep my seat belt fastened in English and Spanish is this plane's only safety feature. Big porthole windows are fogged up so I see nothing. The flight is extraordinarily smooth.

We stop on the tarmac in Hargeisa, and everyone walks to the terminal since there is no other way. No cars are allowed to drive near the terminal, so porters carry every one's stuff out into the street. I splurge on the best hotel in town: the Ambassador. The taxi zigzags through road barriers of cement-filled drums to reach the gate where guards then check the car's bottom with mirrors. I get out and enter a special women's room where my stuff is checked and I am wanded. The hotel is great: satellite TV, room service, Internet, and a bedside light.

A driver takes me around Hargeisa in the afternoon. Wow, I am speechless. I wish it didn't take so long to upload pictures or I would post tons. Here is a friendly city trying to recover from a decades-long catastrophe. Streets are lively, store shelves are stocked. I wander around to take pictures, and because there are so few tourists in this place, you're treated like a rock star when you step out of the car. It's a very hard scrabble sort of place, but through the poverty and the shreds of blue plastic that the wind has spread across the city and beyond, there's an underlying artistic flair that is brilliant.

Soon a dollar will be worth only this.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Djibouti is a wonderful surprise

I walk the streets without hassle. The high prices are not even worrisome because they are not ripoff ferenghi prices. And everything works. And the money is clean. And there are clean, well-stocked supermarches. And the Internet works. And I'm not having to step around guys peeing on the sidewalk. And there's a gelateria where someone is cleaning a speck of dirt off the linoleum. I recover in two days. I meet a man from the Organization of African States who tells me illegal immigration from Ethiopia is a big problem in Djibouti. He commends the state of Arizona. A woman from Kenya who works for the UN is here to train people about the immigration problem. And this is Africa.

The center of Djibouti city is vaguely cosmopolitan--if you stretch it--with pastel-painted Moorish architecture. And against this backdrop, you've got tribesmen and brilliantly dressed women as amazing touches of exotica. Everything shuts down in the afternoon when the men fall into a qat-chewing stupor.

Unfortunately, it's July, and the heat and humidity are crippling. But I always believe you need to leave something to come back to, and for Djibouti, it's Lac Abbe, a plain where 100s of giant limestone chimneys blow out steam (a great backdrop for the movie Planet of the Apes). And then there's Lac Asal where volcanoes surround a crater lake, which is the lowest point on the African continent. I would love to see these places, which take a few days I'm told. I like it here.

Pictures coming when the Internet permits...

A few more words about Ethiopia...

Stomach issues oblige me to fly from Lalibela to Djibouti--a journey that feels like traveling through silk compared to the last few weeks. Although Ethiopia holds many wonders and most people are quite lovely, based on the regions I've seen, the World Health Organization needs to step in and shut this place down--immediately. Let's take the money. Most of it is so unspeakably filthy, the smell permeates through my wallet and then through my money pouch, and finally it makes my shirt stink to the point where it needs to be destroyed. At the end of one pre-dawn taxi ride, the driver has to pull out a flashlight so we can both try to figure out a mass of brown paper. "What do you think this one is?" as I hold one up. I learn to recognize size. I pose to my traveler friends reading this blog: Have any of you seen worse? And then there are basic sanitation problems, far, far too gross to enumerate on the blog. Rant over.

Anyway, a new country beckons!!

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Even in 1973, the name Lalibela held one of those mystical cachets that promised a wonder of the world--if you could only get there. Now I wasn't holding too high of expectations because often these places can disappoint, but what magic there is here! In a nutshell, there are three sites of churches in all. Over 1000 years old, the complex is attributed to one King Lalibela, whose jealous half-brother tried to poison him. He fell into a coma, journeyed to heaven or Jerusalem or wherever and was told by God to come back and start building. No matter what you believe, the truth is someone went to a heck of a lot of trouble in the middle of nowhere. Groupings of churches don't sound that awesome, but consider climbing up and down stairs chiseled into rock, and squat walking through pitch-black tunnels and secret passage ways to get from one section to another. One church is the largest rock-hewn church in the world; another (the one you see in the tourist brochures) was hewn from the top down--and they didn't have jackhammers back then.

I spend the day climbing and descending, stooping and twisting. And every time I enter anything, the shoes must come off with the strictness of a TSA edict. Impossibly photogenic priests stand about--doing I'm not sure what--in dark interiors, which hold a few chairs, not-so-ancient paintings of religious subjects propped against a wall, and some empty and dusty plastic water bottles on the floor.

Since I'm only a blundering ferenghi tourist, I pay for a guide to navigate me through the day. And there are the Spanish girls! We hug and kiss like old friends.

Back to Lalibela, I think what makes the place so evocative is that it's a glimpse of how Christianity must have been practised in its most ancient form. Fascinating.

The Ethiopian Bus Station at 5am

Airfares are prohibitive in this country, leaving the next best option: the bus. All buses leave around 5:30am, and I am told to report to Gonder's "bus station" at 5. Not a problem. It's pitch-black outside, and I can see through the locked chain-link fence dozens of buses dimly lit by some florescent lights in the distance. Hundreds of people are kept outside in the street, dodging the incoming buses that are also waiting for someone to unlock the gate. Suddenly, noise, fumes, glaring headlights, smoke, and stampeding people mark the beginning of the transport day. It's a mad scrum to find my bus, grab a window seat, and try to ignore or insult the various scam artists who clamber on. I put my head down until they go away. When the buses get going, all is mellow, and my fellow passengers are interesting to chat to, and they look out after you.

Today's challenge is to get from Gonder to Lalibela. I'm told, if I'm really lucky, I might make it in one day, and if not, I will have to stay the night in Gashena--a town that's not even on my map. All goes well, and we only have one flat tire, but the driver is careful. My fellow passenger tells me that we are now passing through Gashena and yells at the driver to stop: Gashena looks as miserable and windswept as anything off the I-80 in Wyoming. I jump off the bus and walk along the road and spot a minibus, parked facing the direction I want to go. I point and ask some people along the road: "Lalibela?" and they nod: Cool! People pack on the bus, standing room only. The driver comes, and I plead my case. Ferenghi prices mean there's always room, and I even score a seat for the two-hour drive up a gravel road: Again, everyone is very helpful and seems to be fascinated that I come from a place where Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor.

Gone to Gonder

Admittedly, I know nothing about ancient Ethiopian history, nor do most people since it's not taught in the schools and you're not likely to find an engrossing book on the tables at Barnes and Noble: Yet, if you get past the blur of names and dynasties, Ethiopia offers up some great historical visuals.

I leave Bahir Dar for Gonder--a name suitable for some kind of fantasy video game--a mere 3-4 hours away in a stuffed mini-bus: As long as I sit next to a window, I can create my own personal space, and the run is tolerable. At least the music is not too obnoxious, and the countryside is marginally more prosperous than that between here and Addis. Had the Sudan worked out, I would have entered Ethiopia in Gonder.

Anyway, why come here? First there's the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Fasil Gebbi, better known as the Royal Enclosure--a 17th-century complex of castles and palaces. It was here that Scottish explorer James Bruce wrote about a bacchanalia of raw-meat feasting where women, sitting on either side of a man, would place large cubes of steak into the men's mouths, it being beneath male dignity to touch the meat themselves. After everyone is thus sated, couples would retire behind a screen to make noisy love. 18th-century English society was shocked by these reports and dismissed Bruce's entire work as unbelievable: The dining halls are now empty, but it doesn't take much to imagine what went on in the place.

To the other extreme, Gonder has one of the most interesting churches in Ethiopia. It is a survivor of 19th-century Mahdist/Islamist fanatics who burst out of the Sudan and laid waste to the city. Not too astounding on the outside, the interiors of Debre Birhan Selassie offer a marvel of frescos, topped by at least a hundred faces of angels--Ethiopian style. It's utterly charming.