Saturday, November 23, 2013


New York,  November 19, 2013


The Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan offers rooms (suites) for forty-five-thousand dollars per day.

Oh yeah, the article where I found out about that bargain, also said that efforts are under way to increase availability of such pricey hotel accommodations in town in order to satisfy the demands by well-off visitors.

A brochure offers Manhattan digs for rent, priced as high as 125,000 dollars per month. The 125,000 dollar per month one comes with a south-facing garden … duh!

85,000 per month gets you seven bedrooms and two fplcs (fire places). At another, a 8.500 per month dwelling, you are pampered with washer/dryer, wine cooler and abundant storage, but in the advertisement for that one it says specifically that pets are not allowed.

There are about fifty of those kinds of digs listed in the brochure, the least expensive I found, at 2,800 is for a one-bedroom with marble bath.

I live in a beautiful, comfortable SoHo loft that I converted in the eighties to residential from a plumbing supply warehouse. It is in a neighborhood where nowadays are local restaurants that feel to me like home away from home,  I have friends and friendly neighbors. Whatever outlandish goodies I might fancy are practically at my fingertips. When in the early morning I go out to get the newspaper, I exchange "good morning" with several people that are also out at the time. Some aspects of big city living, even in Manhattan, feel like country living.

The digs I found last year in the vicinity of a pitch dark bus stop in southern Ethiopia for 1,80 dollar per night, one of the cheapest during my recent travels, quite possibly made me a happier camper — even after having stepped into a sewage ditch, resulting in dirty smelling feet in the dark between the bus stop and the hotel — than the pampered 45,000-dollar-per-day-hotel-room-dweller in Manhattan.

As mentioned often in this blog, my purpose in traveling is to experience how people live in the countries I visit, to eat what they eat, to travel they way they travel, to experience some of the problems they experience; like police corruption, traffic and pedestrian congestions, contaminated water and strange food of questionable provenance. I also get a taste of their misery, along with their joys and laughter.

The Manhattan visitor in the forty-five-thousand-dollar-a-day-digs is not likely to find out how good some of the local Big Apple street food can be. He won't experience the culinary delight of a spicy Italian sausage with sautéed peppers and onions from a griddle, packed in between a crusty bread. When you bite into that Italian sausage, it leaves a reddish, fatty smear from ear to ear, as if painting a big smile across your mug.

He is not likely to come across classy street performers in Washington Square park or in Central park, or in Union Square park. I saw Philippe Petit doing his tricks on a rope stretched between two trees. He later became a famous sensation for his high wire walk between the World Trade Center towers and the film "Man on Wire". In Washington Square he performed for coins thrown into a hat.

The few times I happened to stay in first class hotels, eateries, or saw performances, I found they offer more or less the same standardized fare all over the world. A first class wine tastes the same at the Peninsula in Hong Kong, as in the George V or the Meurice in Paris, the Raffles in Singapore, the Carlton in Cannes, the Imperial in Tokyo, and, yes, at the Four Seasons or the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan.

One of the best theatrical/ music performance I ever saw was not in Manhattan's Lincoln Center, but in a Tanzania train station where some waiting fellow passengers did a lusty, improvised war dance in street clothes, accompanied by home made and improvised instruments.

One time, in an extremely unlike place, I hit the jackpot with wine. My brothers and I were fishing in Canada's Labrador at a godforsaken a-hole in the middle of nowhere in the barren land. The place didn't have a restaurant but two greasy spoon diners, across the muddy street from each other, both belonging to woodland Indians. On a whim, Peter, one of my brothers, asked if they had wine.
"Only one kind, red," the toothless man said.
"How much?"
"Oh, gimme five dollars," the man said. He brought the bottle.
Our eyes almost popped out. The bottle was a Mouton Cadet, Mise en Bouteille au Chateau Rothschild. The other diner across the street in the small town, we found out, had the same Mouton Cadet Rothschild and nothing else.

We figured, a container full of the stuff from a ship wreck must have washed up on the shore, or there was an over-supply of that vintage and the Chateau's business powers that be, instead of destroying it, sent a container full of that elixir for a song to that godforsaken place in Labrador where, because nobody-who-is-anybody ever goes there, it would not influence the price among the world's cognoscenti.

Traveling is much more fun, and much more exciting, when I am on a few-dollars-per-day budget. It promises totally unexpected discoveries. Best of all, I am likely to meet fellow travelers who have the same kinds of goals as I. Unlike business travelers or leisure searching blasé jet setters they also search for exciting, out-of-the-way wacky adventure places far from the organized holiday hotel, cocktail and beach crowds.

To a frequent reader of my blog it must sound redundant, but I can't help shouting out ever once in a while:

 I have a love affair with our beautiful planet!

The Darien Gap will have to wait for me 'til some time in January. We'll have a family reunion in London for Christmas. Going from a cold, wet place to another cold, wet place, from New York to London, doesn't sound exciting except it will be grandkids, kids and grandpa.

At least, unlike in the Darien Gap, in London I won't be plagued by mosquitoes and won't be stalked by jaguars, and won't have to wade across rivers and there won't be FARC rebels to deal with. London Bridge will be more comfortable for a river crossing but it will also be less exciting.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


New York, November 7, 2013 (in my luxurious SoHo loft)

I just counted from an UN list of countries the ones I have visited so far, crossed off 153 and realized I am running out of places to explore without stepping over my tracks.

To get to really know those countries, I sometimes stayed put and sometimes traveled on local buses, hitchhiked, floated on big and sometimes tiny river boats, and sometimes also on luxurious dive boats. I crossed the Atlantic four times on small sailboats,
• once from Cornwall in England with my children to New York, without previous sailing experience,
• then singlehanded from Holland, via Cornwall, the Azores to Newport, Rhode Island in the US,
• then from Dakar in Senegal, with Emilie my wife, and partly my daughter Nina, to Florida via the Cap Verdes, the Caribbean and the Bahamas,
• next from Bordeaux in France to Florida, via Ireland, the Azores, also with Emilie.

Sometimes I was driving cars and trucks, or riding on camels, donkeys and horses, for a short lark even an ostrich on a South African ostrich farm, sat in the driver's seat of scooters and mopeds, rode on back seat motorcycle taxis. Once as passengers on motorcycle back seats on a really lousy road in the former DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Vietnam we, Emilie and I, crossed over the mountains to Laos.

The brain got shaken to mush on rattling bush taxies, stuffed dallah-dallahs of East Africa or on the Paris-Dakar rally across the Sahara.

Sometimes goals were reached at a more leisurely pace by trekking;
• once over the Himalayas, described in my book A SHORT STINT IN TIBET,
• or in the Sahara, after our caravan was robbed in the middle of nowhere in the desert, when we had to walk to Timbuktu (described in the documentary film, BAREFOOT TO TIMBUKTU, and in my book SEASONS OF SAND, Simon & Schuster 1993.
• In Patagonia, Emilie and I circumambulated the majestic Torres de Paine and trekked many days between Chile and Argentina.
• Trekking in the swamps of the Brazilian Pantanal with Cato, the farmer, meant sidestepping crocodiles.

Traveling was almost always by local means, eating local food, sleeping where locals sleep.

I got treated in local hospitals;
• for a hernia  operation in Uruguay,
• an eye extraction in Tanzania,
• a festering wound on my belly in Paraguay
• an arm paralysis in Brighton, England (before the single-handed North Atlantic sailboat crossing).

I heard their laughter, and sometime joined in. I saw — and felt — their sorrows.

As mentioned a few times before in this blog:


Sometime in the future I plan to describe a few of my more memorable encounters with our planet. It will be from memory because most of those exploits took place when computers were but the stuff of science fiction. 

• • •

Monday, October 28, 2013


New York, October 28, 2013


While roaming in Google and other relevant websites, I found new information. The Panamanian National Police (effectively the country's army) has strict orders to prevent anyone from crossing overland from Panama to Columbia, which means getting through the Darien Gap.

Now next Winter's planned Darien Gap crossing seems more difficult. Apart from harsh territory and wild nature, and FARC rebels, I'd now also have to try avoiding contact with local authorities.

This won't be at totally new experience. Three times before I'd entered a country illegally, cashing borders by avoiding authorities. The first time by getting lost in north-western Afghanistan and accidentally entering Turkmenistan, from where I got out without detection by authorities, next by purposely crossing the Himalayas at Chang La, from western Nepal to get to Tibet's holy Lake Manosarowar and holy Mt. Kailash, and the third time from northern Togo into northern Benin in West Africa.

Each time these border crossings turned into a doozy of an adventure, in Turkmenistan by getting lost in a desert, wrecking the car, then repairing it in a little Turkmenistan village, in Tibet by becoming prisoners of the PLA (People's Liberation Army) for entering China illegally (described in my book A SHORT STINT IN TIBET), and in Benin in a boxing match with an officer for a "fun" resolution about how to deal with a border crasher (I lost and he let us — my wife Emilie and me — go).

Tuesday, October 1, 2013



Written October 2013 about what happened April 1995

Eighteen years after the actual events ... from memory. 

After blog posts about the East Africa journey, the Burma border crashing attempt(s), the Borneo search for whorehouses and the Cambodia happenings, this, albeit old, North Pole adventure seems to fit right in. 

Maybe, after the coming winter's Darien Gap attempt — which I plan to describe here — I'll also write about the Himalaya crossing to crash into western Tibet's Lake Manosarowar and Mount Kailash where we became prisoners of the PLA (Chinese People's Liberation Army), or  cris-crossing the Australian Outback in search of edible desert plant seeds for our place in the Sahara, or some Atlantic crossings in small sailboats (from England via Canary Islands to the Caribbean, from Dakar, Senegal, via Cap Verde Islands to Florida, from France, via Ireland to Florida, from Holland, via Azores to Florida), or hitchhiking around the globe without money, or the China trip in 1960-1961, or the Branco Casiquiare from the upper reaches of the Rio Negro to the upper reaches of the Orinoco (my River of Doubt), or my solo car trip from Uruguay, via Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Equator, all of Central America, to the Big Apple — in a twenty-seven-years-old car without power steering.

In my son's ski jacket and jeans at the North Pole.
Scene: Middle of March, 1995. Dinner with Emilie and her mother Helen in our New York SoHo loft.

The phone rings. My friend Christian, a mountain guide from Chamonix in France is calling. Christian was my navigator for the Paris-Dakar rally across the Sahara.

"Would you like to join us trekking to the North Pole from Siberia?" he said.


"We'll be flying there next week. We are about ten guys, a couple mountaineering friends and two from the French army, and oh, Françoise is coming also."

"I got no equipment for the Arctic."

"No problem, we'll get everything from the ex-Soviet Red Army."

"Where would we meet?"

"In Khatanga.'

'Where is that?"

About 300 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, at the bottom of the Taymyr Peninsula in Eastern Siberia".

I turned around and asked Emilie.

"Like to walk to the North Pole?"

"How?" Emilie said. Her mother looked across the table as if Emilie had lost her mind.

"You are not seriously contemplating that," she said.

"Christian," I said into the phone, "how we move?"

"Skis, pulling sleds with equipment."

I told Emilie we'd be going on skis, pulling sleds with equipment. 

"You know I never skied, and I don't think I'd like the idea of walking to the North Pole anyway," she said.

Her mother nodded vigorously.

"Okay Christian, I'll try to book a flight," I said. (That was a bit more complicated in 1995 because online booking — if it was even possible — I certainly hadn't heard about it.)

Emilie got a big hug from her mother Helen. Then Helen looked at me rolled her eyes up towards the ceiling, then stared at me twirling an index finger around her temple. Under normal circumstances Helen and I got along gloriously.

A week later:

After four flights; New York - London, London - Moscow, Moscow - Norilsk, where the toilets were covered by a  partially frozen, smelly, yellowish, brownish one-foot deep flood, then Norilsk - Khatanga.

In Khatanga I walked over dirty, frozen snow drifts between a jumble of wrecked Soviet air force planes through a hole in the airport's chain link perimeter fence to the one and only hotel in town. Khatanga was a Soviet forward base during the Cold War. The snow was covered by a black soot film because, as I later found out, everything in the arctic town was heated with coal from a nearby pit. The hotel looked like a dilapidated public housing complex. At the reception nobody spoke any language I also spoke but they directed me to the second floor where I heard my future French companions talking in their rooms behind paper-thin walls.

I hugged Christian and Françoise, his totally cool wife. They introduced me to the others. Most were mountain guides or ski instructors, friends of Christian from the French Alps. Two were French Special Forces soldiers who came along for Arctic training and equipment testing.  A charming, young woman, a correspondent for Agence France, and a male journalist from Forbes magazine, were also part of the group.

The leader was Bernard, a French documentary film maker. Together with nomadic Dolgan reindeer herders, he was the discoverer of a fully intact young wooly mammoth preserved in permafrost (that find was later described in a Discovery Channel documentary film). With excavating the frozen mammoth and while filming a walrus colony on an island off the Taymyr coast, he had found out about the availability of equipment from the former Soviet Red Army.

In the general disorder after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, parts of the army were literally forgotten, especially the ones in the way out, almost inaccessible far north of Siberia. Just to eat, officers resorted to selling, renting out or giving away equipment to anyone willing to part with some cash. I even heard a story about how during that time a nuclear submarine removed their ICBMs in order to transport potatoes — for pay — from Murmansk to isolated settlements along the shores of the Arctic Sea.

"Where is your luggage?" Christian said, looking at my small carry-on backpack. 

"What luggage?" I said. "Don't we get all the equipment here?"

"Equipment, yes," Christian said, "but not personal clothing.

I had one pair of spare jeans, two pairs of long johns, some socks, some thermal undershirts, a woolen hat, and wore my son Tony's ski jacket.

"Okay, I'll buy stuff here," I said. 

Bernard, who had been in Khatanga before for his mammoth recovery and documentary film, said that there was absolutely nothing to buy in town. People fly for shopping to Norilsk, or place orders with people that come from the outside to this forlorn outpost.

"Then I come along in jeans."

"You nuts?" Bernard said. "I'll lend you my pants because I'll have to stay back to organize stuff, like your equipment, transport flights, and your return from the pole by helicopter." 

It turned out his pants were too small for me. I couldn't button them — and I certainly didn't feel like going to the pole with an open fly.

One of the Special Forces French soldiers thought it was okay to go in jeans. None of the group had ever been at or near the pole. I decided to try.

While in Khatanga, we got twice daily reports from a cold war era Soviet Early Warning Observation Station on the ice of the Arctic Ocean, about sixty miles from the pole. They reported violent winds. Since the plan was for us to fly to that station in a little transport plane, where we'd get our skis, sleds and equipment, the weather made that impossible. 

Piece of cake, I thought. Walking sixty miles over level Arctic Ocean ice, what's the big deal? My jeans will do just fine. 

To pass waiting time, Bernard organized with the help of Boris, a local musher and trapper, and Sergey, a local jack of all trades, a visit to a hunting camp way out in the tundra on the shores of a frozen lake. We flew in a Soviet transport helicopter, took provisions; frozen fish and vodka. After a lot of hoarse singing, mostly a mangled version of the Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, deliriously laughing over nothing, high-fiveing over everything, and soaking wet from sweating in the over-heated cabin, and amply lubricated with vodka, we slept, snored and shared body heat in a pile somewhere in the small hut, because nobody had bothered to keep the fire going.  

Being above the Arctic Circle, it never got dark but we woke with painful hangovers to a heavy snow fall. After a couple of hours' slogging back to Khatanga, because the helicopter couldn't fly in a total white-out, we found out the weather was still not good enough to fly to our trek's starting point — this time because of the weather condition in Khatanga.

We spent another day in town, warming our frozen limbs from the hunting cabin return slog and nursing splitting headaches — Boris assured us we had not been drinking the same bootlegged stuff from an illegal distillery that recently killed many people in Russia.

Next day we boarded a small transport plane.

At the Early Warning Station we were expected. A big red cardboard sign saying WELLCOME written with the double T in our alphabet, not cyrillic, and mugs of hot tea, greeted us.  The station consisted of two tents, a radio transmitter, four men and a small bulldozer to keep open a runway on the ice. Sometimes they also had a transport helicopter.

We got skis, sleds, tents, sleeping bags, super insulated moon boots, cooking equipment, like gas camping stoves, pots and pans, eating utensils, frozen fish and loads of dried food. The equipment looked fairly new but was of such poor quality I wondered if it would survive the trip. One of the stoves, it turned out, broke the first time we tried to use it. The bulk of provisions was Ramen Noodles. I had read how, in the extreme cold and under the other punishing circumstances on such a trip we should eat close to ten-housand calories per day. I wondered how many Ramen Noodle packs that would be. 

Upon seeing the poor equipment, one of the potential participants for the journey opted out. He was going to return to Khatanga with the transport plane. I don't want to let on who that dropout was, not to embarrass him should he or one of his friends read the blog.

We stowed tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, food, onto our sleds, put on the Russian moon boots, adjusted the ski bindings to fit the boots, strapped harnesses around our waists to drag the sleds. 

As soon as we had our skis, sledges and other equipment, we took off for the first day's slog.

So close to the pole, there was practically no difference in daylight, no matter what the watch said. Cricket, an almost seven-foot tall beanpole,  a former French special forces soldier, now the leader for the trek, entered 90º North as our waypoint on his SatNav, a pre-cursor of GPS. He could have typed in any longitude, east or west, and it would have made no difference because at the pole all longitudes end in one point. At the pole you can walk around the earth by just turning around in place.

The first day we walked about ten hours. Cricket announced we had made just a little over five miles in the direction to the pole. 

The ice cover, driven by ocean currents and surface winds, is totally unpredictable. It was entirely possible we'd walk ten miles in the direction of the pole and during that time drifted back by the same amount. 

Also, we couldn't travel in a straight line. There were numerous open leads, that is open water where ice fields separated and shifted. Sometimes we had to make huge detours around them to find ways to pass over the 40,000 feet deep open water of the Arctic Ocean. When the floes crashed together, huge ice boulders piled up, creating forbidding walls through which we had to find passages. Pulling our sleds over these ice boulders was very exhausting. We had to hoist and lift the sleds. At times one person was not up to the task and needed help from others. During the whole journey everybody was incredibly helpful to whoever needed assistance. Everybody got and gave.

When we rested, my sweat-soaked jeans almost immediately
Pulling sleds over ice ridges on the Arctic Ocean
froze stiff. That turned out to be a blessing. The others in their modern high tech Gortex outfits sweated just as much as I under their outer coverings. My frozen jeans created a perfect shield agains the icy winds. I can't say I fared better than the others in their special duds, but I surely wasn't worse off.

On one of our rest stops. The others, with high tech outfits were just
as cold as I in jeans.
My little Olympus camera froze. I couldn't even slide the cover open anymore. I asked Martine, the Agence France journalist to take from time to time a picture of me. She didn't have a sled to pull because she needed to be free to go ahead of our group or stay behind, go off to the side, to record our progress.  Somehow her camera functioned during most of the trip. Hers are now the only pictures I have.

Our tents were two men jobs. I shared mine with the only other old man, Robert, the father of one of Christian's friends. When that friend couldn't make it for work-related reasons, and he had already paid Bernard for the expenses of organizing the Siberian part of the trip, something over two-thousnad dollars, the father took his place. It was a present for his sixtieth birthday, he said. — Nice guy, his son!  Even though an avid mountaineer his whole life, Robert felt that he was not in good enough condition to pull a sled so he made arrangements with Boris to have him carry his stuff on the dog-drawin sled. We two old dudes got along gloriously, especially because I was the only one in the group who had brought along what everybody came to call a 'Warm Swiss Jacket" — a bottle of Johnny Walker.

Boris the musher, who had a Georgian 'Warm Jacket", a bottle of Georgian brandy, and I with my "Swiss Jacket", became the center of attention. Everybody wanted to be our friend.

We all got three sets of gloves, supplied by the Red Army: one pair regular, knitted woolen gloves with fingers, for the second layer a pair of heavy wool mittens, for the third layer a pair of heavy canvas, fur-lined mitts. Together with the heavily insulated moon boots, they were the only personal effects we got from the Russians. The rest were skis, sleds, tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils and frozen fish. Bernard had brought the Ramen noodles from France.

The worst part of the journey for me came when I had to "go". Of course there were no toilets. The temperature was as low as — 40º F. At —40º, Fahrenheit and Centigrade converge! 

For the process I would get out of my ski bindings, trample a depression in the snow to have a solid footing and not sink into the snow, get toilet paper ready, torn off the roll and folded into convenient, ready to use sections, then I waited until I was totally certain that there was absolutely no waiting time to accomplish my mission. When thus ready I tore off two layers of mittens, dropped my pants and long johns, finished in a flash what I was doing, including the wiping and pulled the long johns and pants back up and threw the mittens back on my already freezing hands. 

Usually, after about ten to twelve hours walking. we stopped to make camp. That could have been any time in a 24-hour period because daylight remained practically the same around the clock. Together we set up a big, orange-colored communal mess tent, then melted snow on the one remaining gas-powered camping stove and cooked Ramen noodles with sparse additions of dehydrated meat and vegetables. We drank instant coffee, tea and instant hot chocolate. Preparing all that for a dozen people on our crummy cooker took forever. Luckily the French soldiers had their own, minuscule, yet efficient one, which they had brought along for field — or rather ice — testing.

The communal tent, even though also freezing cold inside, provided shelter because it allowed us to get out of the biting, ice cold wind that blew incessantly, pelting us with snow and ice particles.

On the forth day we walked twelve hours in the direction of the pole. A compass doesn't work at that latitude. It is almost impossible to calculate how to orient oneself by the sum, so we depended mainly on Cricket's SatNav information. We were spread out over a long distance as some stragglers were extremely exhausted. As always, when we stopped for camp, all the first arrivers gathered around Cricket's SatNav to see how far we had come. That day, it turned out, we had drifted back so much, we were at almost the same place where we had started. Two days later we happened on a more beneficial drift because we made close to double the distance we had actually walked.  A lot of these currents are depending on wind directions. 

One of the less cold days. That picture could have been taken at midnight or mid-day. It was all the same light, all the time.

Robert was getting more and more exhausted. Boris and Sergey who followed us with their dog sled started to give him rides. I set up our tent, laid out his sleeping bag and placed whatever remained in my bottle of "Warm Swiss Jacket" near his bag. When he slogged to the camp, he was often too tired to even go to the communal tent for food. We took turns bringing him sustenance. 

Apart from ice boulders we had to navigate over, there were cracks, sometimes water-filled, we had to cross.

On the seventh day Cricket announced, if the then current drift held, we'd arrive at the pole by "evening". The drift didn't stay favorable, but, since we were getting low on food, we decided to walk on until we got there. The wind picked up. It got worse than it had been any time during the whole journey. Cricket kept checking the SatNa. Everybody was totally exhausted. Robert was all wrapped up in furs, on the dog sled. 

After twenty-one hours' slogging over the ice, almost without rest stops, the SatNav announced 90º North. Even though totally bushed, most of us walked around Cricket who stood on the pole. That means we hiked around the world a couple of times while almost getting blown over by a freezing wind. The temperature was — 40º Fahrenheit (or Celsius) but with the windchill factor I might as well have been a gazillion degrees below.

I tried to set up our tent but the fibre glass rods that snap together with the help of elastic strings inside didn't function because the strings were frozen stiff. Robert stayed on the dog sled wrapped in furs and I climbed into our pole-less tent that flapped like crazy in the storm. The "Warm Swiss Jacket" bottle that, thanks to judicious sipping having lasted all the way to the pole, was empty. 

All the other Russian tents had the same problem, except the French soldiers'. When they saw the collapsed tents, they defrosted everybody's frozen elastic bands. They had a two men pup tent with a heater inside. That heater was one of their equipment testing implements. After a while they handed out the rods, all ready to slide into the nylon pockets to prop tents upright. 

Since we were going to be picket up by a helicopter to fly back to some sort of civilization, we didn't set up the mess tent. With the howling wind, it might even have been impossible. We had no Ramen noodle, no Nescafé, no hot chocolate, neither Geogian nor Swiss Warm Jackets —  nothing to celebrate our arrival at the pole. 

Cricket had called the forward station for the helicopter already before we had gotten there but we waited and waited and waited for the welcoming sound of throbbing rotors. After an interminable wait it swooped down near us. They had circled all around in the vicinity of the pole searching for us. It turned out, with the strong wind, the ice we were on moved very fast. By the time we got on the copter we had already drifted miles past the pole.

Because the copter had been so long in the air while searching for us, they were low on fuel. We had to fly back for a fill-up to the forward station from where we had started our trek by ski. While they refueled none of us left the protective hull of the copter. It then flew us to a Cold War Soviet Air Force base on Zevernaya Zemla island. Because of weight restrictions Boris, Sergey, the dogs and their sled had to stay back at the forward station. They would take a later flight in direction of Khatanga, bringing back our equipment we had borrowed from the army.

Boris said to me in his rudimentary German — which he had learned in school, "Ernst, I like your attitude. Visit me in summer, I will show you how wonderful Siberia can be." 

I was very touched and told him it would be a great pleasure and privilege to see him again. 

After Serge and Boris had unloaded their dogs and and gear, and our borrowed Soviet gear they got off the helicopter. We flew on.

The frozen air force base had rows and rows of fuel tanks, a couple of abandoned-looking shacks, a few wrecked planes. The runway was not plowed. 

We were led into one of the shacks. A wave of welcome, yet stifling heat hit us as we were ushered into a large room. The floor was cracked linoleum, the wall had blistering paint, waves of giant cockroaches welcomed us. 

Some of it might have been because of the sudden heat, some of it because of exhaustion from the final dash to the pole, at any rate, all of us plopped to the floor and fell asleep. I don't remember how long the sleep lasted, I simply know I woke up from hunger pangs. Apparently the same happened to all the others. Cricket went in search of a human to find out if there was a chance to get some food. He learned that the transport plane that should bring us back to Khatanga couldn't make it in the strong wind. He also brought a rotund , red-faced lady into the room. None of us spoke any Russian. We made signs of eating. She made signs of "I have nothing". I showed her a few dollar bills and made a sign of eating. She warmed to the idea. I asked if everybody was willing to pay ten dollars for food. All agreed. In no time I had 120 dollars in my hand and waved them in front of the woman's face, again making motions of eating. To judge from her reaction, the woman, probably, having heard of what dollars can do, and accustomed to work for nothing or almost nothing at this abandoned godforsaken place way out in the Arctic Ocean, caught on to the new notion of cash for service. She became an instant capitalist. She waved the bundle of dollar bills as she waddled out. 

We, the truly dirty dozen — none of us had washed any part of our bodies for over a week — were drooling over a prospect of food. After, what seemed like an eternity, the women reappeared with a huge iron bowl full of hot, battered, fried fish. With such a successful outcome I became totally optimistic and made motions of drinking, and showed her more dollar bills. We soon drank beer, albeit, despite all the freezing temperatures around us, it was warm. Nobody complained. Robert recovered completely from his stupor.

The "diploma", signed by the participants of
 our trek to the North Pole, affirming that I did
the trip in jeans.

Once we felt revived again — sort of —, waiting for the transport plane to being us back to Khatange, the participants in the group signed the little note torn from an agenda that said in French: 


I have personally seen that during our trip to the North Pole on skis, pulling sleds, Ernst Aebi has worn nothing but blue jeans. 
Signed by the members of the expedition

(Of course, besides the jeans, I wore also other clothes. The description of nothing but blue jeans has to be seen as the grammar of a bunch of people way above the Arctic Circle, barely been reanimated by warm beer!)

Full of yummy fried fish and warm beer we all fell asleep again on the floor, roaches or not. 

Eventually, I have no idea how much later, we ended up in the same transport plane we had flown to the forward station about a week earlier. It was a very rough flight back to Khatanga. 

Had Bernard, who greeted us at the hotel, not announced that we'd get a pre-ordered meal in the town's one and only restaurant, the two shower stalls on our floor would have been occupied for a long time, but the pull of food and drink, eating at tables, sitting on chairs was even more powerful. 

We got to really celebrate our journey to the North Pole. (One strange note: Along with local fare, fish and reindeer, at the restaurant, we had baked whole chicken legs and thighs. The restaurant manager proudly proclaimed they were from the USA. All the way out in the Siberian hinterland! It is a result of American's preference for white chicken breasts. The surplus, less desirable, for Americans, the "dark" meat is exported to places like Siberia. I'd had such American chicken legs at fancy restaurants all over the world where they are routinely considered a delicacy.)

Once more we had to wait for a few days until the weather made a flight to Moscow possible. 

When a plane finally came, there was such a backlog of passengers for the flight to Moscow, the plane was stormed. We, the participants of the North Pole expedition, had tickets that Bernard had organized, but being not as familiar with local customs, by the time we got on the plane (you get on like onto a bus, there are no check in formalities, no boarding announcements, one just gets on.) Most hopeful passengers had come through the hole in the airport's perimeter chain link fence, climbing over snow drifts between wrecked airplanes, just the way I had gotten out of the airport when I arrived. 

Most seats were taken by more than one person. Our whole group stood massed near the plane's door. The isles were packed with luggage. People sat on it. 

During our time at near the pole, Bernard had found a very cute translator.  Her name was Marina. She took matters in hand and complained to someone in an uniform. That uniform spoke to the passengers and Marina translated for us:

"Everybody has to leave the airplane and after all are out, you can come back in with ticket in hand. There will be a control at the door."

Nobody moved.

"You can sit here forever. The plane will not leave before everybody has gone out and then come back in presenting his ticket," was the next announcement.

A few people trickled out. When there were but a few stalwarts, the uniformed man, maybe he was the pilot, went to each and made them leave.

It turned out that, with control, the uniformed man by the door, when only passengers with tickets could get on the plane, some seats ended up being empty. All the luggage, lots of it, remained piled in the isle. 

The rest, getting to Moscow, and a soggy farewell party in a hot Moscow nightclub, and the return to New York, was uneventful.
Back in New York I got mail from Bernard. Apparently the pilot of the helicopter who'd brought us back from the pole, is a kind of archivist for people who'd reached the pole. I now have a diploma making me one of them.

I decided to get back to Khatanga to spend a summer in the tundra with Boris and Sergey. I hoped to bring along Emilie, and maybe my brother Peter. 

° ° °

We did. Peter, Emilie and I were there the following July and August. We had a grand time. Peter ended up returning to Switzerland with a mammoth tusk, Emilie and I returned to New York after a long river journey on the Yenisey river, the Trans Siberian railroad, then through China by train and bus, then through Vietnam from the Chinese border to the DMZ, by train and motorcycle, from there to Lao, Thailand, and Japan,.

You can find out all about that  in the next post. Maybe Emilie still has some photos that I can include.

Stay in touch.

° ° °

Sunday, September 8, 2013


When I edited the East Africa entries and added photos, the post became too long. I had to publish it in two parts;
First part:    December 19, 2010 - February 04, 2011
Second part: February 05, 2011 - April 16, 20122

With my shaky IT skills the second part ended up being posted first, the first part second. It would be more interesting if you read the first part first — Duh!

I am trying to fix this but ....

Monday, August 5, 2013

EAST AFRICA, part 1 from Dec.19, 2010 - Feb.4, 2011

The beautiful farm in Vermont. 

A double rainbow over the ponds.

Part of the vegetable garden with a bee hive and the scare crow.

The first snow has fallen, anouncing it is time to get going. I plan to be out of here by beginning of January, and presumably return around the middle of May. 

Vegetables from the garden, ready for a yummy meal.
Before the main trip, from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Cape Town in South Africa, I’ll stop over in Fiji for a couple of days.

According to Sam and Nicholas’ glowing reports from their sailing trip there, this South Pacific island is close to what paradise would be if there really were one.

Garlic harvest.
Nicholas and Sam, I’d like directions to the great diving/snorkeling spots and Indian eateries you gushed about. 

Trout from the pond, already smoked, ready to eat.
Remember how, years ago, when I first roamed all over West Africa, which then was plagued by civil wars, uprisings against governments and frequent reports of pervasive banditry.

Remember also when Emilie and I trekked across the Himalayas to enter Western Tibet illegally. Another was when we attempted to bush-wack from Burma to India by land, also illegal. There were quite a few other such potential problem stints. 

At the time we did these risky exploits, I gave 
A large Bovist (mushroom) from my
fields. Roasted in slices it is a
culinary highlight.
a notarized letter to you, directing how, in case of a request for ransom by someone, some group, whoever had gotten ahold of us for extortion, my wish was to ignore it.
Now, with you all grown up with your own families, your own designs for your own destinies, and me at an age where, if stay at home, a possibility to end up in a hospital bed with tubes stuck into the body is becoming a more likely possibility, that request to ignore an eventual ransom demand makes even more sense. 

The most likely thing that could happen to me, if the shit hits the fan somewhere along the way, is having a great adventure. You surely wouldn't dare to deprive me of that.
Wild grapes from my land will become jelly.
That reminds me of a little truism coined by the Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho:

If you think adventure is dangerous 
Try routine …. It is deadly.

I do not want any of you to risk  your safety, your finances, your time, to come to my assistance unless I specifically ask for it. 

Such a request for help is a very remote possibility because, as I have always maintained, I want to depend 
A meal off the land. Beef from my cows,
mushroom from the woods, spinach, carrots,
and cucumber from the garden.
on my own resources. I am doing this kind of trip, like many previous ones, to satisfy my hunger for adventure, the search for challenges. Overcoming these challenges, gives me that immense feeling of accomplishment I strived for most of my life.

I know the following is redundant, but I repeat it anyway:
I hope this trip will be full of hassles, 

problems, hardships, and, of course, also fun.

Isn't hassle/problems/hardships synonymous with fun? 

Cooperation Vermont style.

Hard, stale bread is rejected by a complacent person yet a feast to the starving — or — comfort is a plain old mattress after sleeping on slabs of stone or gravel.

“Yeah," you might say, "like the guy who keeps hitting his head with a hammer for the pleasure when he stops.”
Charming visitors to the farm. We met in Tanzania.
I plan to travel mostly by local means, stay at local places or where trekkers and backpackers hang out. 

In a cheap pack-packer lodge I can hook up with interesting, like-minded travelers, unlike the natty dressed business, golf, or tennis crowd I’d meet in multi-star hotels. 

A local bus may not be comfortable but there I learn how the people in that country live, what they eat, where they sleep, 
The first snow reminds me that it is time to leave, to the other side of the equator.
how they laugh and cry. 

Apart from what I can learn and experience from that intimate contact with the local population, eating their food, using their lodgings, their transports, will cost much less. The way I plan to travel I could claim it is to safe moolah, at least compared to what I would probably spend if during that time I stayed at my place in Manhattan.

I can travel with an easy heart because it makes me feel good to know about what you, my kids, have become. You are all accomplished and independent. I am proud of each of you. 

I leave with a redundant advice: Remember, you have only one life, make good use of it. Don't twaddle on one kind of food / experience / happening / activity, no matter how much you like it, how satisfying it appears, because there are many others to try. If you keep looking, somewhere along the way you’ll find even more satisfying / delicious / better / more exciting ones. Use your imagination to search for new discoveries. Don't become victims of stagnation. How you go about it, of course, is your choice, but at least try to keep it active in your mind. 

You are the architects of your destinies.
I wish for you to have what I have now.

When you get older, you can contemplate a terrific past and groove with memories. Most of these memories will fill you with pleasure. You will have moment of reflection that make you laugh, chuckle, cringe, howl, shudder and, maybe, sob. No matter what else they awake in you, they are guaranteed to make you feel alive. 

You can only have great memories if great things have happened to you. Make it happen.

With love to you and to your children,

* * *



December 24, 2010

Hi family and friends,

As some of you already know, I’ll be leaving January 5 for a five-months trip. I plan to occasionally pass along a little update. 
Before the trip I still had two eyes.
The journey starts by plane from New York via Los Angeles to Fiji.
In Fiji, a place I have heard described as close to paradise, I’ll stay for about a week in a backpacker’s lodge on a South Pacific beach to do something about my Vermont farmer's tan.
Next stop will be New Zealand. I’ve never been in that land down under and plan to rent a car to get a sense of it.
From Auckland via Kuala Lumpur, Kuwait, I'll fly to Dubai. There, during three days, I hope to find out how much of my once pretty fluent Arabic is still present. Indoor skiing in the shopping mall, or staying at the famous (infamous) sail-shaped, ten-thousand dollar per night seven-stars hotel, is not in the plan.
From that, what I expect to be a fata morgana of excesses on the Arabian Peninsula, I’ll fly to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. 

Starting Addis Ababa the previous journey of regular airplane and hotel tourism from New York to Fiji to New Zealand to Kuala Lumpur to Kuwait to Dubai, will morph into a backpacker's trip, my preferred mode of traveling.

I intend to follow no particular route. There are no particular countries I intend to visit on an itinerary between Addis Ababa and Cape Town. 

The options are: Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Angola, Namibia, South Africa. 

The sole plan is to see a little of as much as possible. 

Disney World-type safari tours I have heard and read about in travel advertisements will not likely be on the itinerary. I have no desire to see the land, the people and animals from a seat in a zebra-stripe painted vehicle filled with other camera toting wildlife hunters in safari outfits. I'd rather experience it all as the local population see it and live in it, traveling, eating and sleeping with locals.        

From Addis Ababa ‘til the flight out of Cape Town to Zurich, four months later, I have no reservations. The land portion will be about 3,300 miles (5,300 kms), as the crow flies — but, unlike the figurative crow, I 'll certainly not travel in a straight line. 

With information and hints from fellow backpackers, local farmers, soldiers, hookers, grape vine, bush telephone, or whatever, whenever, or whoever,I plan to head in a southwesterly direction. Transport might be by bush taxi, bus, truck, train, river boat, foot, camel, horse or whatever else is available.

I have no idea how accessible a working internet connection with a working rentable computer will be in some in the places I hope to visit. You and I are sure to find out — you by reading trip reports, if I find a way to send them, and I by experiencing, then writing about them.

* * *


January 10, 2011

Two days in Fiji have transformed me into a lush, unwinding on white sand beaches, luxuriating in warm, azure water, observing clouds of colorful fish among life corals, sipping yummy cocktails. I got a a horn of plenty, full of the pleasant stuff I hoped to find to help me escape my Vermont and Manhattan state of mind, to slip into the groove for the upcoming trip. Now, having tasted only the introduction, I am already grooving in total feel-good. 

Tomorrow I plan to rent a car to check out more, the less accessible parts, of this pretty Island. The interior, I am told, cannot be crossed in a regular car. I’ll get a regular car and plan to check out the interior.

I ended up in Fiji without my Swiss Army knife. It disappeared from my checked luggage between New York and here. Even though, normally traveling with only a small carry-on backpack I also bring a small foldable bag. I wrap the knife into a few clothes, stuff the bag with some of my bulkier stuff and check in that bag.

* * *


January 18, 2011

New Zealand so far comes across as quaint, clean, square, pretty.

I rented a car at the airport and am now in the Bay of Islands near Whangarei where, Tania, my daughter had sailed here during her New Zealand WOMEN FOR SAIL trip. To judge from hull-to-hull, mostly sail boats, in every cove, this seems to be the country’s sailing Mecca.

The land, the people, the water, the roads, the islands, everything is pretty, orderly, well organized, and clean. 

For Aucklanders who languish in offices and other places of work, this region promises quality time in a stunningly pretty natural setting. For them it must be welcome relaxation. But for me? On this trip, I expect excitement.
The Kauwri tree, the world's third largest tree
species. Many are over a 1,000 years old.

As already mentioned, I plan to travel without a particular itinerary along the east coast toward Cape Reinga, the northernmost spot of New Zealand. From there I plan to return along the western coast towards the South as far as time allows. Along that western route lies the Waipoua forest which, according to the Lonely Planet, is a world heritage primal nature preserve.
Waipoua forest, an impenetrable jungle, something
I didn't expect to see in New Zealand. There are
also giant prehistoric fern trees.
That planned itinerary, covering long distances in a short time, offers a chance to see a little of a lot of the country to see enough of New Zealand to determine which part I like best. That would give me an idea about where I'd like to stay if I ever came for a longer visit.

Last night the only hotel I found after a long search, had a restaurant and bar but both were closed, or rather reserved for the guest of a large wedding party. On the way to my room I braved hordes of little noisy children in fancy outfits who raced and screeched in the corridors. They had been sent off from the dancing and drinking party for a treasure hunt.
"Have you seen a pink Teddy Bear?" some asked me, as they rushed by.

My first  night and meal in New Zealand  ended up to be in a very noisy hotel room. My dinner was mushy take-out Chinese from a nearby strip mall. I also had a supermarket bottle which I drank out of my bathroom toothbrush glass. I ate sitting on my hotel bed. I tuned up the volume on my TV's Sky News to drown out the wedding band’s schmaltz. The riots in Egypt, to displace Mubarak, were just starting and were still relatively mild.

Exciting? Sure, only not exactly the kind I was craving for.

* * *


January 20, 2011

Waiting at the airport to fly to Dubai via Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait. It is but a short interruption in a busy travel schedule. I am hurrying to get to Africa.

New Zealand is a country that would definitively appeal to a traveler who wants it nice, comfortable and easy. Everything I saw, and I saw quite a lot in the short time I was here, is beautiful, clean, orderly. The people are mostly friendly, considered and helpful. Traffic — even though they drive on the wrong side of the road(!) — is very disciplined. Food, except for what I will describe further on about the world famous, beautifully trimmed New Zealand lamb chops, is okay. Apart from restaurants that serve a limited selection of local food, all kinds of international fare is available. Almost everywhere I can get Vegemite, or one of this pungent yeast extract’s close cousins. That stuff grew on me in Australia. Back home in the States it is a rare find if one can even get it.

Strange New Zealand:

Tender, beautifully trimmed, very expensive New Zealand lamb chops offered in US and European supermarkets and restaurants, made me dream about stuffing my face with plenty of them in the land of their origin. I saw countless sheep on endless lush, green pastures and beautifully dressed chops in stores that made me drool. Without a kitchen to prepare them myself, there was no point in getting them from a store so I searched for them on restaurant menus. 

I scrounged around for them, asked for them, investigated about them, all to no avail.

Back in Auckland, after my long New Zealand round trip, I settled in a barber's chair. As is customary with hair cutters the world over, they do double duty, serving also as shrinks to deal with customers's woes. I was compelled to tell the man about my New Zealand lamb chop problems.

“We export them all,” he said.

“All? None served in the whole country?”

“Don’t think so, but I’ll find out,” he said, turned around to his other victims waiting on chairs against the wall for their turn under his scissors:

“Anyone know about a restaurant in town that serves lamb chops?” he said.

A long silence ensued.

“Wrong time of year,” one said.

“Nonsense, they have ‘em at the market,” said another. “There is no such thing as a right or wrong season for lamb chops.”

This started a flurry of yes, no, maybe, could be, couldn’t be ‘til the barber moderator interrupted the debate with: “So, none of you knows where this man can get a cooked lamb chop?”

“That place by the entrance to the university might have them. They specialize in roasted meat, even wild boar,” one said.

I got directions to the place, went there, not having a reservation, waited forever for a table. I eventually got my, very expensive, New Zealand lamb chops. Lamb chop mission accomplished, but for the price I paid I could also have them in the Big Apple with a lot less hassle. 

That was the high point in my New Zealand adventures.

Over all I had a better time in Fiji. With balmy breezes, waving palms and soothing azure waters lapping white sand beaches peopled by newly divorced Australian ladies, on a leave from home, some eager for adventure, it was nice — but it lacked the kind of excitement I crave.

Australian divorcees and young tourists from all over the world find each other in the Fiji beach paradise.

On par with the weirdness of the New Zealand lamb chop tribulations, I discovered the Fiji water joke. The expensive bottled Fiji water, available in posh places all over the world, is supposedly purified by volcanic lava. Sold for ridiculously high prices, I found how it is a total rip-off.

When that water was made famous by growing demand from bottled water snobs the world over, the well that supplied that supposedly magic, volcanic elixir was no more sufficient to supply the rapidly growing demand. Wells were drilled and dug for surface water all over Fiji's pastureland from where a steady procession of huge, diesel fume spewing tanker trucks transport the water to the shipping port in Suva. The cattle farmers are protesting because by exporting their water pastures are drying up.

Some parts in the Fiji interior seemed uninhabited.

I found out about these new Fiji water wells when I drove my rental car over the "impassable" mountains trough the middle of the island to the south. The island’s road map showed a secondary, dotted line road through the middle. At the gas station before heading inland I asked about the road’s condition. The attendant said that it was not passable with a regular passenger car like my rental job. I went anyway.

At first the gravel road was quite okay except at a few places where a river had washed out parts of it. The land looked uninhabited. 

The driver on a sturdy 4x4 Land Cruiser coming towards me stopped.

“Where do you think you are going?” he asked.

“To the other side of the island.”

“Got to turn around and take the ring road,” he said.

“I’d like to try the mountain,” I said.

“If you wreck the car nobody will be able to bring it back,” he said.

“I’ll take my chances.”

“Good luck,” he said, shrugged and drove off.

I figured my rental car was insured, the distances were not great, I could always walk out if I needed to, and I was in dire need of some excitement.

The five-hour trip was a gas. I lost the car’s exhaust pipe but otherwise arrived on the south side with a grin and very hungry. The grin stayed with me for a long time, the hunger was stilled in a little, very inexpensive Indian restaurant.

Along the way over this scenic marvel, I saw numerous wells connected to pipelines that bring the water, like precious oil, down to the tanker trucks on the main road.

The almost total absence of agriculture, apart from inland cattle ranches I found inexplicable. Although the soil is obviously very fertile, to judge from its lush vegetation, a large majority of fields lay fallow.

"They once were sugar cane and grain producing", an Indian cab driver told me, "but now nobody plants anymore". He told me some convoluted stories about frictions between the original Fiji population and the other half, mostly descendants of indentured Indian laborers brought in by former colonial rulers. Different fractions claim ownership of the land and as a result nobody gets to use it. From his explanations, in very rudimentary English, I gathered the situation was made worse by rampant corruption.

Trouble in paradise!

I send you greetings and wish you barrels of fun with shoveling snow.

Next news will probably come from Arabia.

All Best,

* * *


Dubai, January 23, 2011

In this town of unimaginable wealth and hubris I consider myself lucky to have found a computer that almost works. Just for these few words I had to backspace several times. The letters on the keyboard, if they work, are so worn down that, if I didn’t know where which one is supposed to be, I could not write at all. All signs inside this "cyber café" are in English, not a word in Arabic. It suggests users of these crummy computers are the hordes of foreign workers who try to stay in contact with their families back home in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

I planned not to write and bore you about the trip anymore until things get interesting with African adventures. Now, seeing this weird place, I can’t help doing it anyway. I am compelled to convey the extraordinary sights — and lunacy — in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The sail-shaped 7-star hotel with stratospheric
room prices.
Like just about everybody else, I have heard about, read about, seen pictures about this place plenty of times. I knew about ski lifts in the desert, artificial islands and buildings that reach far into the sea and even farther into the sky. The reality is way beyond of what I imagined. It is beyond the scope that can be grasped by casual contemplation.

Dubai has not one town center. I saw several concentrations of huge architectural fantasies — or rather phantasmagorias with countless modern, elaborate structures like skeletal fingers reaching for the sky. Most of them are empty, unoccupied. Streets are devoid of people. Many parts look like ghost towns, only the tumbleweed is missing.

Bourj Kalifa reaches one kilometer into the sky.
I couldn't even get all of it on the picture.
These agglomerations are a couple of miles apart from each other, as if oil-rich Ali and a few of his friends had said:

“We don’t want to be in Hassan’s and Moulay’s backyard.”

Mohammed and his friend Sidi said:
“We don’t want to see either of them from our buildings.”

Dubai and Abu Dhabi consist of a few city centers on a long Arabian Peninsula beach front, each out of sight of the others.

On arrival I took a taxi at the airport. and said to the Afghan driver

"Bring me to a medium priced hotel near the center of town."

The kind of architecture Hassan has built to impress
During the drive we passed the Burj Kalifa, the tallest building that reaches one kilometer up into the sky. I'd seen pictures of it.

After setting into a reasonably priced hotel room I went for a walk figuring I'd see that tall structure from anywhere. I reasoned, I could use it to navigate my way back to the hotel, yet, no matter how much I searched the horizon, during my walkabout, it was nowhere to be seen.

Instead I found the Dubai beach where I knew the oft-photographed seven-star hotel must be. I'd previously seen plenty of pictures of that fabled sail-shaped structure.  Yet, no matter how far I walked along an endless promenade, the sail-
A large hotel on the artificial palm-shaped island.
Fully grown palm trees cover the island that
had been built only two-years ago.
shaped structure also, was nowhere to be seen.

Next day I asked an English speaking Pakistani taxi driver to drive me for a couple of hours around town, “I’d like to get an idea of the layout and see the sights,” I said.

I got totally confused. When we came to a cluster of a few hundred fantasy skyscrapers I thought that was the city center, even though the two landmarks I knew, the tall Burj Kalifa and the sail-shaped, helicopter pad topped hotel was nowhere to be seen. 

We left this city center and drove for a couple of miles along sea-side villas,  or rather alongside endless walls that hid the huge properties. We saw jungle-like vegetation peeking over barb-wire or high tension electric wire-topped walls. 

Lush rain forest vegetation in the Arabian desert where it almost never rains?

“They have lagoons, wild animals and golf courses in there,” the taxi driver said.

During our ride of exploration we drove through four skyscraper clusters, each chock-full of architectural fantasies — or rather phantasmagorias of minds afflicted with delusions of grandeur. Boarded up entrances, empty parking lots, and an obvious lack of upkeep, suggested most had never been occupied. Some, not finished, are "decorated" by rusting, immobile cranes. No workmen are seen. The real estate glut here doesn’t seem to bother any of the property owners. Despite many unfinished ones, new structures are going up all around them.

“Ali has five of them, so I want six,” Hassan says.

The palm-shaped island, full of empty luxury villas, is so huge, my driver got lost. He had to ask for directions to get back to the mainland.

The taxi dropped me off at a palatial entrance to the Mall of the Emirates. The place, built of mainly polished mosaic marble, attracts shoppers by huge indoor ski slopes.

I couldn't resist. Yours truly decided to go skiing despite a previous decision not to fall for that folly.

Freezing in my rented ski outfit while outside it is almost 100°F.
Since I wore flip flops, a T-shirt and a light bush jacket, I had to rent everything, socks, boots, jacket, skis and poles. I must have looked pretty goofy in a pretty fancy ski jacket with a flip-flop sticking out of each pocket.

Inside one ski lift and one cable car gondola bring you to the top of the slopes. Midway there is a stop to let off intermediate skiers. I managed only three runs because in my rented outfit I shivered in the machine-made winter climate. 

In the evening I took a taxi to go from my skyscraper cluster to the one with the Bourj Kalifa, the world’s tallest building. Tickets for normal mortals to go to the top (almost to the top, it turned out) were sold out for the next two days. I paid dearly for a VIP ticket and went up — just because it is there. On the visitor’s platform, about a hundred floors above sea level, there is, among a lot of useless tourist junk, a gold bar vending machine that operates with credit cards.

With the discovery of the multiple city centers, it is easy to imagine how many business people come to Dubai, have meetings in one of the skyscraper clusters then think they've seen the the city. If they happened to be in the cluster with the marina, they'd see snazzy, opulent, power yachts, hull-to-hull, that, from the looks of it, never leave the dock. They see tall fantasy, glass, steel and marble buildings, one leaning at a greater angle than the leaning tower of Pisa. They'd assume they have seen Dubai. None of the other ski-scraper clusters are visible from there — except, maybe, through the haze from the top of tall buildings.

A couple of money bag buddies creating a city away from the city of another couple of money bag buddies?

The Dubai Marina, many yachts have Russian names.

Today I took a taxi ride (about 1 1/2 hours each way) from Dubai to Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi's sky scrapers are not as plentiful as Dubai's but most
are even more elaborate.
In Abu Dhabi the private sea side estates with mansions peeking out over landscaped forests seem even larger than the ones in Dubai. The town itself doesn't have that many ski scrapers. They make up that lack with mosques. We drove past mosques everywhere.

One, the famous one, sheik Zayed mosque, is so big that St. Peter's Square together with its basilica, could probably be accommodated. It dwarfs the Taj Mahal.

The Sheik Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi could probably accommodate
St. Peter Basilica in Rome.
 It is all snow white polished marble. Money clearly no object, it is also fitted with intricate mosaic, some even made of precious stones.

Back in Dubai, the driver dropped me off at another of the city’s several malls. Apart from an ice rink, it has one of the world’s biggest indoor aquariums surrounded by an indoor rainforest's zoo. They offer scuba diving lessons and excursions in the aquarium. The incredible amount of fish could surely feed all of Dubai for quite a while. 
The inside of the mosque is cavernous.

In the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai is an aquarium so big, they offer scuba diving excursions in it. 

My information about these strange places comes exclusively from cab drivers. They are from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Afghanistan and the Philippines, etc.. They have no ties to the land or its people except for the jobs that allow them to send money home to their families.

A short list of local trivia I have gotten from them:

The average wage for a foreigner in Dubai, is about thirty dollars per week plus board and lodging, the lodging is included in pay mainly so Dubai can control where their workers live.

Locals generally don’t work. If they are not chauffeured around, they stroll about in the cool evening air in snow-white, meticulously ironed jellabias, their flowing gowns. During the day they are holed up in luxurious, air-conditioned digs, eating, sleeping, chatting, watching TV and often, tormenting the help. A rare few go to some sort of office from time to time. 

There is an elaborate water park for local kids who are brought there by their Asian drivers and watched over by European nannies. According to my Afghan driver, admission is a hundred dollar per person for half a day.

The huge shopping malls attract shoppers from all over the world, but mainly from Russia, China, the former Soviet Republics and — yes — Afghanistan, many of those Afghanis are probably spending the development funds from the US. 

All goods in Dubai are sold tax-free. 

The inexpensive hotel where I stay is a destination for resale shoppers from the Stans; Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, etc. When they leave, the lobby fills up with mountains of bundles, boxes, bags. Taxis driving them to the airport are invariably large vans.

I am glad I stopped over to the region even if it is mainly for the resulting feel-good of not having to live here. 

Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving for Addis Ababa. From there on things will surely change dramatically.

* * *


January 24, 2011

Hi. Finally hailing from Africa.

After being bombarded in the Arabian gulf region by a weird cacophony of artificial sounds, outrageous sights, and weird impressions, I am back on the continent where I feel really alive. Although East Africa is quite different from West Africa, where I lived for three years, I have an affinity with the land, the people, the sights. Sounds and impressions emanate mostly from humans. Although surrounded by unspeakable poverty, dirt and many funky smells, I feel more at home here than I did on the Arabian peninsula.

The hotel/guesthouse in Addis.
My Addis Ababa lodging is in an inexpensive guesthouse/hotel room with a seat-less, cracked toilet. The leaking toilet bowl spreads a smelly puddle under my bed. I got one of the "fancy" rooms with a private bathroom because, with the frequent urgencies caused by my old bodily plumbing, it becomes sometimes difficult to wait for my turn at a communal facility. My room costs 19 dollars per night instead of eight for the toilet-less cubicles. In this place, by the looks of it, even the cheap rooms have the luxury of windows. 

At the airport in Dubai, while waiting for boarding, I got into an interesting conversation with an interesting and beautiful woman about life in Dubai compared with life in Kampala, Uganda, where she is from. Her opinion formed after a short stay in Dubai assured me that I am not alone in my harsh judgment about the weirdness in the Persian Golf.

She gave me her card and said I could stay at her place in Kampala if I happened to pass there on my journey. She said she'd love to show me around in her land. Of course, considering who extended the invitation, with her looks and the easy, interesting conversation we had during a casual encounter, I made an urgent mental note to include Uganda on my Addis Ababa to Cape Town itinerary, even though Uganda is quite a bit off the as-the-crow-flies route.

Our seats on the plane were far apart and I didn’t see her anymore because she, unlike yours truly, didn’t get off the plane in Addis Ababa. She flew on to Kampala.

During the flight an Indian businessman, Thomas, from Addis Ababa sat next to me. Even though on a completely different level than my airport lounge conversation, we talked up a storm. Thomas was intrigued by my planned journey. He offered to show me around in Addis, his home and place of business for the last thirty years. He’d been to Dubai on business. Import and export, he told me.

His chauffeur picked us up at the airport. First we drove to his house for a drink and then the chauffeur brought me to the guesthouse. It was grandiosely called "hotel". Thomas lent me one of his cell phones.

“Stay in touch,” he said, “I’ll show you around the local sights and then we can go to nightclubs."

He offered me the services of his very cute, young servant girl:

"She can escort you around town. She speaks English," he said.

The girl appeared very shy and was clearly intimidated by my presence. Also, I noticed how, every time she passed through a door, she crossed herself. The proposition felt awkward and I declined that offer with thanks.

My resolution not to accept her service felt even more justified when I saw how Thomas dealt with her and how I was expected to treat the girl.

After dropping us off at the house, the driver was immediately sent out to buy cold coke.

“I unplugged the fridge while I was gone,” Thomas said.

The young servant girl was sent to unload his heavy luggage from the car. I wanted to help. Thomas held me back:

“Can’t do that with servants,” he said.

I must have looked incredulous.

"This is the African way" he said and smiled.

He offered to change me twenty dollars so I’d have local currency before I get a chance to go to a bank. He threw a wad of bills from his briefcase on the table and ordering the girl to count out the proper amount then hand it to me.

As soon as I was settled at the guesthouse I went out to arrange for a trip to Djibouti and from there via Somaliland back to southern Ethiopia.

“Can’t be done,” the lady at the government travel office said. She explained how Ethiopia issues no more visas at land border crossings. If I left the country to go to Djibouti, my Ethiopian visa, which I got upon arrival at the Addis airport, would be cancelled. That means, I could not get back into Ethiopia and would thus have to find a way from Somaliland down to Mogadishu in Somalia and from there to Kenya. There is no legal way to get to Mogadishu because there is no official government that could issue a visa. Also, Somalia is not exactly a vacation paradise whereas Somaliland, even though also not a recommended destination, has some sort of government.

The cyber café near the guesthouse where I am now, is hard to describe. By the looks of it, only a miracle would help to send out this message online. The place, two blocks from my guesthouse, is tucked away in the basement of a dilapidated two-story house. To get in, one needs to climb down over a set of stone stairs that are covered with soggy clothes and rudimentary furniture set out to dry, probably as a result of a flood in the house. One has to crouch deep down to pass under a mess of free-hanging electrical wires. The circuit breaker panel, with all the functioning cyber café wires connected to it, lies on the floor. I know the wires coming from it are for the computers because I followed them into the space. If there was a flood in here, every computer user would be electrocuted. Despite the hazards, the machines work better than the ones I used in affluent Dubai.

I am still searching for a taste of good Ethiopian coffee. The one I had at the guesthouse could not have been the kind that made this local product famous all over the world.

That is it for now even though not much has happened yet. I just had to write to tell you all how happy I am to be back in Africa.

* * *


January 31, 2011

Sorry I didn’t get to write a lot about Ethiopia. When it started to rain, the cyber café I described earlier got flooded. When I looked down into the wires over muddy puddles, held up by sticks and string, a potential death trap, an electric chair without the comfort of sitting down while getting fried I chose to stay out.

Okay, this might not be a good excuse. There must be other computer facilities in Addis Ababa, I just didn’t look. Fact is I was so busy discovering other aspects of the town, I simply forgot to send a report.

Some recollections:
Addis Ababa, about 8,000 feet above sea level, is not quite as hot as most of Africa. Even though the high altitude keeps the climate reasonably cool, it has a disastrous effect on the thin air.

As I experienced with my old diesel Land Cruiser in the Andes, thin mountain air causes diesel engines to spew black clouds of stinking exhaust. Mostly old, cranky vehicles, almost all diesel powered, thus transform Addis’s mountain air into a dark, smelly murk. Everything you touch is coated by a sticky film of black soot. Lungs are protesting. When walking up even a short incline — and there are plenty of inclines in this hilly city — my breath sounded like an old asthmatic's.

My new Indian friend Thomas, a Christian, took me to an old pilgrimage church in the mountains. The supplicants approached it across a large foreyard by prostrating themselves on the hard ground every step of the way. I felt sorry for the old people who tortured themselves under groans all the way to the inner sanctum. 

Thomas and I simply walked. Nobody objected.

Thomas apparently needed to cleanse his soul by visiting the sanctum before getting into what he planned for the rest of the evening. 

We drove to a run down section of town where he led me down through a dark shaft into a cave that looked like a dungeon where men were sitting shoulder to shoulder on narrow benches.  They sucked on vials filled with bright yellow liquid. The tightly packed mass of drinkers oozed out of the way to open a passage for us to melt into their midst.

"You have a strong stomach?” Thomas said.

“Yeah, guess so,” I said.

“I can’t drink this, it gives me the runs,” he said. He shouted over the men’s heads to a giant standing by a barrel. A vial filled with the yellow liquid, was handed by a forest of hands over the sea of heads towards me.

“What is it?” I said before tasting.

“Honey beer.”

I took a small gulp. It tasted sickly sweet, but with a thousand eyes following every one of my moves, I didn’t want to appear like a wimp, so I drained the whole thing.

I got nods of approval. 

From the direction of the barrel another filled vase came my way above the heads, transported by the same forest of hands.
My camera flash didn't flash in the honey beer cellar.
I told Thomas to let the men know I had enough, gulped down that second one, desperate to avoid wincing, and got up to leave.

Despite Thomas being suited like a businessman in white shirt, tie and jacket, and I, a foreigner among the local men in work clothes, a sea of grinning faces showed we were welcome. 

After that basement visit Thomas took me to a restaurant. 

We sat on cushions of the earthen floor when a woman placed a large brass platter between us. It was covered with a thick slab of soggy, sour-smelling bread and two heaps, one of roasted meat, the other mixed vegetables. Thomas scooped meat and vegetables on a shred of torn-off bread threw the lump in his mouth. 

Ethiopian bread is very different from its Indian version. It is thick, sort of mushy and very limp. It didn’t seem very suitable to be used as an eating utensil. When I tried to copy Thomas’s eating technique I ended up with vegetables and meat splattered all over me.

Next day he invited me to his office for lunch. His staff treated him with great deference, as if he were royalty. Bowing, with frozen smiles, they served us an Indian meal that had been brought in from outside — Take Out Food in Addis Ababa.

“I envy you for your trip,” Thomas said. “I want do it also. What do I need?” he waved away his attending staff. “My wife and children are in India where the kids go to university. I am now alone, and like you I had prostate cancer treatment. All my life I did nothing but work. Now I could spare about 600,000 dollars for a trip. Think that is enough?”

“To travel like I do?”

“Yes, the same way.”

“Six-hundred-thousand dollars enough?” I had to laugh. “You got to be kidding. That’s way more than you need. With that kind of money you can travel 'til the end of your life and still have left overs.

He looked dubious.

“Except for plane rides, I expect to spend less than thirty-dollars a day.”

You can’t even live in Addis for that amount,” he said.

“Maybe not living like you with a car and driver, servants, a big house, fancy clothes, business expenses and entertaining people like me.”

“How would I start?”

“Buy a Lonely Planet backpacker travel book covering the places you want to go to, pack a little bag and take off.”

“I’ll do it.” He said. “You will hear from me.”

Later that day, back in my room, navigating around the toilet puddle, I reduced my luggage because with no more plane rides 'til Cape Town, I’ll be a backpacker. I'll have to carry my stuff. 

The cleaning woman showed her gratefulness for the plastic bag filled with all the things I didn’t absolutely need, by mopping up the toilet water puddle under and around my bed.

Still dark and frigid cold, about five in the morning on Thursday, January 30 I was at the Addis Ababa central bus station with a ticket for a regular class bus down to Moyale on the Kenyan border. I had tried to get a first class ride but on that route there is no first class service.

The bus station could have been what Dante had in mind when he described inferno. A thick pulsating mass of people, loaded down with wild assortments of luggage, about a hundred diesel-fume-belching rickety busses, a cacophony of shouts, howls, pushing and shoving from all sides, made organized motion impossible in the gray dawn of a freezing cold new morning that threatened a stifling heat later on.

Pushed around by the masses I tried to find bus # 68, the one, according to my ticket, supposed to go down to the Kenyan border. The numbers on the busses were small and written on the sides below the windows, most of them covered by the flipped-up panels of luggage compartments. There was no discernible chronological line up. Next to #3 could have been # 89 that was followed by #26 and then #102. 

I asked around for information about my bus, but everybody ignored my pleas because everybody in the pulsating mass of humanity was frantically searching for their own rides.

Waving a dollar bill, I attracted a man with an official-looking tag pinned to his chest. Plowing through the crowds, he dragged me to bus #68.

In the bus, even though it was supposed to leave right then, were only five people. I looked forward to have reasonable legroom and settled in for the long two-day ride when someone shouted in through the door in Amharic. The other passengers grabbed their luggage and rushed out.

A boy, about twenty said in broken English:

“This bus no good, we take other.”

I grabbed my pack and pushed again through the maddening crowds after him. The new bus was really rickety and totally full. More than normal shouting ensued and with my young guide trying to explain I understood that our regular class bus had not enough passengers and that now we had to board this second class one. Nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact it was already full. The five of us, together with our luggage were, without ceremony but lots of yelling and giggling, pushed into the human pudding.

Inside one of the busses.

Everybody laughed. I didn’t get the joke.

The bus took off with us newcomers standing in the isle. The seats were very narrow and the legroom between a seat and the backrest of the one in front was barely enough to accommodate diameter of a normal size leg but, incredible as it may seem, the seated passengers squeezed closer together to make room for one more, me. Others sat on laps, doubled up on narrow seats or on luggage in the isle.

When the sun rose, our rattling tin box, stuffed as tightly as a sardine can, started getting hot. I looked longingly at the buss’s closed windows. The pretty lady next to me saw my desperate expression and slid a panel open, just a little crack to let in fresh air. In the row behind a man, whose face had been covered by a ski mask, started yelling at her. Intimidated, the lady closed the window again.

A few others, among them the young man who had brought me to that
bus, argued with mister ski mask. Another opened the window and others joined a chorus, debating the pros and cons of open versus closed windows, if open or closed windows created a greater risk of catching tuberculosis. My pretty neighbor, in rudimentary  English, informed me that the discussion was mainly about different opinions as to whether fresh air promoted tuberculosis or prevented catching it. The preventer-crowd seemed to get the upper hand and the window stayed open. Mister ski mask kept protesting.

Instead of continuing back and forth arguments, everybody laughed.

That initial window open or closed scene was the beginning of hours of fun, one of those situations where you can't stop laughing. 

When I mockingly fanned myself, window all around opened up wider, accompanied by laughter. When others tried to close the windows, it also provoked laughter. Everybody thought it was hilarious when one of the passengers pleaded for a toilet break, but when the bus stopped for her, everybody else also pushed for the door and pored out to disappear in the bushes. 

When a passenger bought fruits through the window from an outside vendor and the bus left before he got the change, that was reason for laughter. 

When we hit a particularly deep pothole that catapulted passengers towards the ceiling that was reason for high-fiveing.

To my surprise the driver's assistant handed to the five of us from the regular class bus from where we'd been ejected, the ticket price difference because we now had only a cheaper second class ride.

The pretty woman I was squeezed into — four people on a row of three small seats — was returning to her job in Moyale at the border where she works as an Ethiopian customs inspector. She was returning from a holiday with her parents in Addis.

The young boy, Gamechisa Fida, who had brought me to the bus was trying to reach South Africa, to work there illegally to support his ailing mother back home. 

Another, Bereket Hintsa, about thirty-years old who introduced himself as an itinerant preacher, joined our English-speaking chat group. He too was trying to get to South Africa for work. He hoped to get a job with missionaries.

From others that had gone before them, brothers, friends, neighbors, the two "illegal immigrants to South Africa" (or should they be called undocumented workers?) were made aware that many of the East Africans who try to sneak into South Africa die along the way. When they cross through the Limpopo region of Mozambique into the adjoining Kruger Park in South Africa, a border that is not controlled, many get eaten by lions. The South African government doesn’t police the region because lions in the huge wildlife park have learned that unarmed humans who beat a path through the bush at night are easier prey than swift antelopes. Even with that threat hanging over them, so desperate for work, many still attempt to cross that border.

After dark the bus stopped in a small town. Most passengers disappeared in the night. The two young men, the customs lady and I looked for a place to eat. I’d had neither food nor drink all day to avoid a need for toilet breaks. I offered to pay for dinner because the boys didn’t want to spend their meager funds on frivolities like food. 

Dinner at bus night stop with the customs inspector and the two boys on their way to South Africa —
to become illegal immigrants. 

A copious meal, virtually the same Ethiopian fare I had with Thomas in Addis Abbaba, with sodas for my guests and beer for me, cost less than two dollars.

The boys wanted to sleep under the bus but the custom inspector woman said she knew of a reasonably priced hotel. We went searching for the place in a pitch dark part of town. Even though I had a flashlight I stepped into a drainage ditch. To judge from the smell of my feet it drained toilets.

My room was 1,80 dollar for the night. It had a comfortable cot. The toilet was a hole in the ground, the shower was a bucket with water and a ladle, all was reasonably clean.

My 1.80 $ per night room in southern Ethiopia.
When we got to the bus at six AM it was chock full with different people than the ones we had traveled with from Addis. They had plastic bags for luggage.

“They are also on the way to South Africa for work,” the itinerant preacher told me. He explained that, unlike he and Fida, they were led by an organizer who, herded people down to South Africa for pay.

We had tickets for the bus but no more seats. The driver threw a few of the men out to make room for us.

“Don’t worry about them,” Hintsa said, “they’ll be on the next bus.”

With these terse new passengers that portion of the trip passed in morose silence.

In Moyale, the customs lady brought us to emigration to get our exit stamps so we wouldn't have to bother in the morning when we were heading for Kenya, then she took us to her small, rented room where she treated us to an elaborate Ethiopian coffee ceremony. She covered a large brass platter with little plates with nuts and dried fruit. Each of us got a small mortar and pestle, one with coffee beans, another with cardamon seeds and one with dried herbs. While we pounded the stuff she fired up a little brazier with charcoal. To make the feast complete, I sent a kid out for roasted meat from a street vendor.
The custom inspector's coffee ceremony.

Next morning, in the Kenyan office for immigration my two companions were refused permission to enter the country. The immigration officers clearly knew what the deal was and expected a bribe. 

Completely improvising, I intervened and told the officers they were my servants and that I was responsible for them. They got their immigration stamps.

Unlike the expected mayhem at African border crossing, the Ethiopian office, was in the middle of nowhere, with no stores, no money changers, no aggressive touts. 

We walked on the road leading south for about a kilometer to Kenya. There we were mobbed.

“You want lodging,”





“Where are you from?”

:Where you want to go?”

“What you want?”

“Change money, good rate? Dollar, Euro, Yen.”

“Transport to Nairobi,” I said to no one in particular.

An indescribable shouting and shoving match ensued. A forest of hands pulled me in all directions.

“Get off me! I’ll look for myself!” I yelled at the top of my voice. I might as well have yelled against a wall.

Even though Africans themselves, my two companions where completely intimidated by the wild scene. By themselves they might have been ignored. 

Unlike in Ethiopia where most people look reasonably clean, just about everybody in the screaming mob around us was in filthy rags. The scene seemed completely out of control.

A couple of bullies got the upper hand by punching others out of the way. One tried to rip my backpack from me and I pulled it out of his hands so violently he stumbled to the ground.

Surrounded by the mob, we were herded across the dirt-littered, dusty square to a rusty iron box on wheels with blowtorched holes cut out of the sides. The holes were the windows, the box was mounted on a truck chassis.

“Nairobi!” someone shouted from the Mad Max contraption.

I went closer to check it out. Inside every seat was taken, from the looks of it most by more than one person.

“It is full.” I said to no one in particular. A man produced a smelly, diesel-leaking jerry can and indicated I could sit on it in the isle. Since I knew the trip to Nairobi would take two days, I walked away.

An elderly man in a relatively clean white jellabia and turban tried to take me aside.

“One of my trucks is going to Nairobi. For forty dollars you can ride with it.”

“Show me,” I said.

Her brought me to a loaded truck, several people sat in the cab and on the cargo.

“Where would I be?” I said.

“In the cab,” he said.

“With all those people?”

“No.” He ordered people out of the cab. They climbed onto the cargo in back.

“Okay, but my two companions, have to come also. They’ll sit on the cargo,” I said.

Our truck was by far the nicest, cleanest, newest of all the vehicles at the border.
He held out his hands for the money. For a brief moment I contemplated bargaining but when I noticed the mob milling around us to offer alternatives, I dropped forty dollars into the man’s hands.

Between the driver and me, like an immobile statue, sat a fully veiled woman in black. On rare occasions, when she didn’t stare straight ahead, I saw her eyes through the slit in her facial shrouds.

The driver understood and spoke a few English words. I tried to find out when we’d arrive in Nairobi. In two days, he said.

From the backpacker grapevine I’d heard how the road from the Ethiopian border to Nairobi defies description, that on some stretches it would be easier to drive in a rocky river bed. When we started to the south in our newish truck there were a few potholes in the gravel road but I had seen much worse. After about twenty kilometers we left that okay road and veered left onto a sandy track in the desert. My pocket compass showed we were heading due East, in the direction of Somalia.

The track we took towards Somalia. Later it became more sandy and the landscape totally dry.

Since, for lack of a common language, I couldn’t really talk with the driver I just sat in the bouncing seat and wondered what I got myself into. In a billowing dust cloud we drove all day in a southeasterly direction through a desiccated, shrubby semi-desert. Ostriches, giraffes, warthogs, antelopes, hyenas were running before the truck. We passed long processions of people hauling huge bundles of old, dripping oilcans on heads, on backs, on donkeys over incredible distances from a few wells we passed. The crowds waiting for their turn at pulling up water, from these rare water stations were immense, clear signs of a serious drought where village wells had dried up.

The few times the truck stopped for letting overheated tires cool off, my companions in the back complained. They were bruised but were still happy to be on the way in the general direction of their ultimate goal.
I mulled over the possibility of having become a valuable foreigner who was being delivered to some Somalia fraction for ransom demands. Why, I wondered, would my driver make that huge detour on the way to Nairobi? A smuggler avoiding military road checks? Was he bringing supplies to Somalian rebels? The cargo on the truck was in bags. My buddies said dried beans spilled from them. Beans being transported so far over such terrain? What is under the beans? The whole thing smelled fishier and fishier.

We stopped for food at a shack in the desert. I little hand-painted sign said: HOTEL AL JAZEERA. The boys and I had oily flat bread and tea. The bread looked and smelled like the main ingredient was goat droppings.

Our food stop on the way to Somalia.

About 10 PM the driver stopped the truck in the middle of nowhere, got out and walked away.

The two driver's assistants in the back who had been thrown out of the cab when I got in, said that the driver probable went to sleep in the bush.

“When will he be back?” I asked. 

They shrugged and went to sleep under the truck. My buddies joined them.

Afraid to leave the truck so it couldn’t leave without me, I climbed back into the cab, next to the veiled woman. We exchanged not a word. She fell asleep and sometimes slumped over me. Every time she became aware of that she bolted up again. Neither she nor I had a restful night. Apart from wondering how to behave with my strange sleeping companion, I was also covered with a sticky paste of a sweat and dust.

Somewhere around 3 AM the driver climbed into the truck. Without words and without looking if everyone was on board, or who was under the the truck, he started the engine and roared off.

Around dawn, after winding our way through a mass of desperate-looking humanity in a huge refugee camp, we hit an asphalt road. From studying my map, I guessed it was the one leading from Kismayo in Somalia to Nairobi. My hope to now get fast to Nairobi where I imagined myself luxuriating under a shower was soon dashed. It turned out progress on this stretch of relatively good road was slower than on the rough track through the desert. As soon as dawn spread a bit of its gray light over the desolate scrubland, the country’s pests awoke also — police and armed patrols. Every few kilometers we were stopped at a roadblock.

They said the driver tried to avoid a military checkpoint.
The routine was always the same. One of the “control post” dignitaries asked the driver for documents. The driver took a stack of official-looking papers from a dashboard shelf, added a few shilling notes from a stack on his lap to it, handed all to the control post dignitary. A man, sometimes a woman, rifled through the papers, fond the shillings, pocketed them, handed the papers back to the driver and waved us on to continue to the next control stop, barely five kilometers further down the road.

In the vicinity of Nairobi my seat neighbor for two days and one night, the formerly totally voiceless veiled woman, pulled a cell phone from her shrouds. She talked in what I took for an Arabic dialect. She then gave directions to the driver who got off the road. Soon we were met by a fancy, chauffeur driven SUV. The woman clambered over me and jumped off the truck. In parting she said in perfect English:

“Bye- bye. It was nice traveling with you.”

We entered over and around mountains of garbage into what looked like the worst slum in Nairobi. The driver stopped somewhere and motioned for me to get out. The boys thought they were near some friend’s house where they planned to say. I gave the traveling preacher a hundred dollars and the young boy, who had only sixty for the long trip to South Africa, two hundred, then stopped a passing car and asked the driver if he could bring me — for pay — to the Stanley Hotel. I had read in the Lonely Planet, this was one of the best in town, the place where Hemingway used to hang out when he wrote Green Hills of Africa (by the way that is the book I like the least of all I had read by him. I once used pages form it for toilet paper in the Sahara). With the money I’d saved on my budget journey from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, I reasoned, I could splurge. The hotel cost three-hundred-thirty dollars a night, breakfast included — and I don’t recall enjoying a shower as much as the one at Nairobi’s Stanley Hotel. 

Ha! The previous hotel had cost 1.80 per night.
Totally clean now, my freshly washed clothes hanging to dry all over my fancy room, with a prospect of getting the latest world news on a big TV after a nice dinner in town, and my fill of cold beer I'll stretch my legs, I send you all my best, while you probably shovel snow.

Hugs and kisses

* * *


February 2, 2011

I'd just written a report. I am sure it was the best ever, witty and informative. Just when I was ready to click "send" it vanished. The screen went black because the rented, pre-paid computer time had run out. 

I am not sure I have the patience to go through the whole process again in the present sticky atmospheric heat but I'll do my best.

Arrived here in Kampala yesterday after a steamy, 15-hour bus ride from Nairobi.

Africa presented itself with its magnificent, ever changing landscapes. We passed through extensive tea plantations — I wasn’t aware Kenya was such a big tea producer. The plantations were not quite as impressive as the ones I had previously seen in Sri Lanka, Darjeeling and Sikkim yet the uniform worker housing looked almost palatial compared to private dwellings alongside the road. On some parts of the journey we passed through areas of indescribable poverty, horrendous disorganization and the disastrous consequences of a rampantly growing population with its resulting pollution.

Food and toilet stop — and leg stretching — and meat market —  on a long bus ride.

Around midday the bus stopped at a place with food stalls and toilets. Even though we had plenty of time — we didn’t have to get back on the bus for forty-five minutes — I was not able to break through the wall of hungry humanity in front of the food stalls. Just as well, I shouldn't eat before we get to Kampala, I consoled myself even though the scent of roasting meat wafting over the place created hunger bangs in me. 

Despite the prevailing hustle, the friendliness of the people is unique. 

Even when all the seats are taken, people still pile into the bus.
The upholstery on my bus seat was missing. On the first leg of the trip a woman lent me a blanket to pad the space between my butt and the rough sawn wood, on the second leg I got a bag full of fabric for the same purpose.

When we passed a rural road, fellow passenger pointed out to me that it led to Barak Obama’s father's home town.

After the Uganda border crossing. Uneventful, except, as I found out later, I was overcharged for the visa, I chatted with a seat neighbor. For a couple of hours we talked about life in Africa. We drove alongside Lake Victoria. He told me he works for Uganda water and sewer systems.

"Is lake Victoria polluted?" I asked.

"No, no, maybe along the shores, but out in the middle the water is okay," he said.

In Kampala, I planned to call the interesting woman I'd met at the Dubai airport. She'd offered to lodge me and show me around town. No matter how long, intensively and desperately I rifled through my meager possessions in the crowded bus station, I couldn’t find her card anymore.

Not having made alternative plans about where to stay, I asked a taxi driver from the bus station for a cheap place.

“Any place,” I said. After the long bus ride I was tired, dirty, starving and thirsty. He drove me to a lush mountaintop quite a way out of town.

“You will be safe here,” he said.

The place turned out to be very inexpensive, beautifully located on a hill, overlooking town, yet as soon as I got out of the taxi I realized something about the place was not quite what I’d expected of a hotel in Kampala. It was a Christian retreat. Very pious-looking people in subdued conversations sat primly in the lobby on quaintly arranged cozy chairs. They drank tea.

After my long bus ride where I didn’t dare to eat or drink for fear of needing to step out — even though I’d made a futile attempt to get lunch — I desperately wanted a beer. They served no beer and the kitchen was already closed. I was able to buy a pack of crackers and a bottle of water at the reception, to consume in my Spartan room. The place was way too far out of town to go find a store for more substantial fare. The crackers tasted stale, the water was, well, water.

Next morning I checked out as soon as I could rouse someone at the reception to pay my bill. Just after my account was settled, a taxi dropped off an early Christian guest.  

"Yeap, there must be a god.”

I told the driver to bring me to a guesthouse, a flop house or a hotel, any place near the bus station where I'd seen, upon arrival the previous night, life with milling mobs of people, eating places and stores.

An inexpensive Indian hostel for 12 dollars per night, with shower and fan, I found to be dirty compared to last night’s digs, but, even with signs of (ant) life, I felt at home. 

I again searched for the woman’s card, yet again without success.

A taxi driver whom I’d asked to show me all he considered worth seeing in Kampala, drove me around town for about two hours. Afterwards, on foot, while wandering the lively, but pretty dirty streets I discovered absolutely nothing that tempted me to stay any longer. In my hostel's lobby I booked a bus with the owner who doubled as ticket agent, for the following morning to Kigali in Rwanda.

My way of traveling promotes intensive contact with local people. I eat what they eat, drink what they drink, sleep where they sleep — even if it is crackers and water in a Christian retreat — and use the same toilets and showers they use. I learn what troubles them, what pleases them. They tell me their opinion about America, Europe, their world, their work.

Compare this kind of traveling with the one of a tourist who arrives at, say, Nairobi airport. He/she gets picked up by a hotel coach, then is driven to a hotel where he/she can eat whatever they'd eat at home. Their room has A/C. They can shower and shit just as if they were home. Next morning (if they don' t suffer too much from jet lag) an air-conditioned coach picks them up to drive to a comfortable wildlife lodge in the “wilderness” where off a veranda, or from a vehicle painted in zebra stripes, they can watch the "wild" animals that are attracted by laid out food, like in salt licks, or a tethered goat. Their whole experience has almost nothing to do with real Africa.

Along the Somalia border I saw already several kinds of antelopes and gazelles, warthogs, giraffes, flocks of ostriches, hyenas and a bunch of strange big, black and red running birds, probably vultures. So what, I had no guide to identify them for me. Those animals, out in the bush, are the wild ones who don’t gather around salt licks within reach of tourists' cameras.

Tonight I plan to check out Kampala nightlife and tomorrow I’ll be off to Rwanda to see how the Tutsis and the Hutus are getting along these days.

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February 4, 2011

Even though way out of the direct route between Addis Ababa and Cap Town, I wanted to see what I imagined to be one of the worst-off countries in Africa.

In 1994 Rwanda suffered one of the most horrible genocides in modern history. Remember, some of it was shown in the film HOTEL RWANDA!

Four-fifth of the population was dislocated, many swept into refugee camps in neighboring Tanzania, Uganda and even Congo. 800,000 people were slaughtered, mostly hacked to pieces by machetes. Because of that horrible recent history I imagined to see today hordes of physically and mentally wounded all over the country.
Even with all the horrors I imagined about Rwanda’s woes, it was difficult to imagine how it could be worse than the abject poverty, the indescribable dirt, the complete disorganization, the chaos and the prevalent brazen oppressive corruption of police and army I’d seen along the way so far. What I had witnessed on the truck journey from the Ethiopian border to Nairobi, made everything I saw déjà vu when I traveled from Nairobi to Kampala. The bus driver on that route also kept peeling banknotes from a bundle of bills to pay bribes to be allowed to get past frequent army or police road checkpoints. If that is how they do their business, it should not be a concern of mine, yet the additional hours of being stuck during a journey in an overcrowded bus because of the frequent stops I consider a royal pain in the butt.

The Kampala to Kigali bus was swift. During the whole route it never stopped to pick up or let off passenger. Legroom was reasonable, that is, if you sat at a slant, and there were no fellow passengers sitting on your lap. As on all the previous routes, the only stops were for checkpoints where Ugandan shillings were handed over to uniformed officials and for pee and poop sessions in the bush. During those "comfort" stops prudish women — and men — had to walk substantial distances through the sparse vegetation because the brush was not tall enough to hide them properly from the eyes of other passengers. I didn’t see anyone bringing along either toilet paper or a water jug and yet, even after our stops, there were no discernible new odors in the bus.

We came to the border post in low mountains between Uganda and Rwanda. As when I entered the country where I was overcharged for the visa, we had to deal with the total border crossing mayhem, the dirt, long waiting lines and disorganized bedlam. The officers were so lethargic, they barely moved. They had this annoying habit of flicking fingers for a document. I was supposed to guess which one he or she wanted; Passport? Immigration form? Yellow fever vaccination certificate? Money? Actually, when it was a question of money they'd make an exception and state a number.

After braving their bureaucracy and getting the required exit stamp, I walked to the Rwandan side with my Rwandan bus seat neighbor. We'd been chatting during the nine-hour long trip from Kampala. He was very proud of his country. He had painted a picture of an African paradise.

The way across to the Rwanda border post was about half a kilometer, across a bridge, then up a hill.

A neat, clean square opened up before us. Immigration, Emigration, Customs, Custom Cashier, Toilet, Forex, all was clearly marked. Waiting areas with benches stood in front of offices.

 My jaw dropped.

"I told you. That this is what Rwanda is like," my newfound friend said.

The Rwandan officials in neat, clean uniforms were very friendly and efficient. The visa was free. 

(Ethiopia's was 50$, Kenya's was 20$, Uganda's was officially 60$ but they’d charged me 100$.)

The border formalities finished with zero hassles, we drove for about 80 kilometers through beautiful agricultural land towards Kigali, the capital. Slopes were neatly terraced for irrigation, bottom fields were planted with cotton, tea and corn, some hills were interspersed with plantings of pineapples and fruit trees. Villages we drove through were spotless clean. Most have vegetable plots and flowers around the houses. There was no litter alongside the road.

Even though we occasionally saw police and army along the way, none of them stopped us.

Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, straddles a few gentle hills.

I could barely believe my eyes when we got to Kigali, a rather large city spread over several hills. The heavy traffic — we arrived at evening rush hour — was orderly and disciplined. The blaring honking cacophony, so prevalent in other cities, was absent. Red traffic lights had the effect they were supposed to have, vehicles stopped. On pedestrian crossings pedestrians had priority, and, priority was granted to them. Traffic-controlling roundabouts were landscaped with flowers and further decorated by weed-less gravel beds. Curbstones alongside roads were painted in black and white patterns for better visibility at night. Most roads had sidewalks.
From the bus stop I took a taxi to the Hotel des Milles Collines that became famous through the film HOTEL RWANDA. I had read that the hotel depicted in the film is somewhere in South Africa but I liked to see the real thing.

The landscaping and general infrastructure in Kigali, and from what I have seen, in the whole country, is
beautiful, clean and meticulously maintained. 

As usual on my travels, I had no reservation. Hotel des Milles Collines was fully booked. The apologetic receptionist told me they had practically no more vacancies, ever, since the time the film made it famous.

OKAPI, the hotel I found not far from Milles Collines, is also in a beautiful setting, overlooking the city. My room has a balcony, a bath with hot water, a mosquito net, a TV with CNN and it costs 50$ per night, breakfast included. I had a delicious curry at the hotel restaurant — with a beautiful nigh-time view of the city— and washed it down with several bottles of cold, inexpensive beer. 

That dinner, beer and lodging might not have been such a highlight, if I had not starved myself all day during the long bus ride and the memory of what marginal "delights" I'd just had "enjoyed" in Kampala.

Despite indications he was responsible for the shooting down the airplane, causing the death of Rwanda’s and Burundsi’s former presidents, and thus the ensuing mayhem in both countries, Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s present ruler, who looks on photographs like a skinny, shy kid, has created something extraordinary. From a totally devastated country Rwanda became in a short time the best run country in Africa — judging by what I have seen so far.

Rwanda has no welfare system, instead every citizen is guaranteed at least 100 hours per month of paid government work. The work offered is the kind of infrastructure-related tasks that hardly anyone would consider doing unless they really needed the income. They have to clean out drainage ditches, paint curbstones as traffic guides, plant and weed landscaping alongside roads, sweep and clean all public places. Those are powerful incentives to find a better occupation. Many farm stands demonstrate how small scale entrepreneurs, male and female, now thrive. They sell food that they or their family grew.

According to my Rwandan bus friend, corruption is minimal.

Officially there is no more difference between Hutus and Tutsis. Rwandans are proud of their well-functioning country.

One of the reasons for Rwanda’s cleanliness is the total absence of the ubiquitous shopping bags, the colorful flying plastic garbage that decorates most of African, poor Asian, Central and South American countries’ landscape. Plastic shopping bags are illegal. Shoppers have to bring their own non-plastic ones.

Here, practically in the center of the African continent, I am writing this report in the neatest, best-organized cyber café since the kind I used in the economically developed world of New Zealand.

It turns out Rwanda became a dead end for me. The only long distance bus connection to a major city is the one to Kampala. In order to head south I’d have to backtrack, going again around the northern shore of Lake Victoria via Kampala. From there I could get to Arusha at the foot of Kilimanjaro where I’d be able to take a bus down to Dar Es Salaam.

If I wanted to go by bus through Tanzania to Malawi, my next goal — or, if I was totally crazy, through Congo where my map shows no road in my direction but which is a war zone — I'd have to take small, local trips on Dalla Dalla, the usually overloaded minivans that go from village to village. Worse yet, I knew from the backpacker grapevine that the police and army checkpoints along the roads in Tanzania are even worse than the ones in Uganda and Kenya. I estimate it could easily take me ten days for less than a 1000 kilometers. These Dalla Dallas only go when they are full, which might mean long waits.

I decided to take a flight to Dar Es Salaam. From there a 48-hour train goes in a northwesterly direction towards Malawi. I'd still have to take local buses to get into that country which lies on my ideal route towards Cape Town.

Already before starting this trip I decided to avoid places like the Serengeti, the Okavango Delta and other such African tourist safari spots with luxurious wildlife-viewing lodges, salt licks that bring animals into comfortable focus of your camera lens, iced cocktails, and tourist vehicles. I don't think those Disney World-like tourist spots have much to do with the Africa I’d like to explore.

From here, in the pleasantly warm climes, I wish you all as much fun as can be gotten by shoveling snow.

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