Archive for March, 2012

From Fish to Freedom – Tis Issat Falls

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

If yesterday was a disappointment, today more than made up for it.

It began at 5:30am when I woke up for an early morning stroll down to the river (about a mile away) to see if I could spot any hippos. In the pre-dawn there were already quite a few people gathering water in buckets for the days usage by the Bahir Dar bridge. An AK-47 wielding security guard wasn’t keen on me taking pictures at the bridge (he thought I was a spy) so for a moment I thought I wouldn’t get to see the hippos afterall. But a friendly Ethiopian named “Freedom” saved the day by offering to show me hippos. Off we trekked upstream a ways over rocky boulders. I was surprised how well he moved considering he had a bad limp from being shot in the leg during the Ethiopian-Eritrea conflict. There was a great spot of rocks that jutted out into the river where we spent about an hour watching hippos splash around and blow blasts of watery-mist in the air as the sun slowly rose over the dusky African bush. Could hear them grunting too, though he assured me hippos are quite safe and never bother the villagers. That was reassuring until he told me there are crocodiles too and they aren’t safe at all. Whatta deal. I got some pictures but can’t put them online until I have wi-fi on my laptop.

This hippo adventure was followed by an egg-sandwich breakfast back in town at a local cafe and then a walk to the bus station. It wouldn’t be right to stay in one place long. The point of traveling is to travel.

After locating the right bus to Tis Issat falls, I entered the crazy thing and waited. When the bus filled up (many moons later) we took off. The relic belched black smoke like it ran on coal. Folks inside had pretty amazing costumes too. I finally felt like I was in Africa proper. Many were wrapped in blanket garb holding their trusty ol’ stick; not unlike Rafiki in the Lion King.

Usually when I travel via bus the luggage carriers up top hold smart-looking backpacks. On this trip they were filled with burlap sacks of produce and dusty old plastic water buckets.

After an hour-long journey of jarring along on dirt roads – passing through multiple mud-hut villages – we arrived. I declined the guides who flocked to my aid (since I was the only white person on the full bus I was the primary target). I declined the guides because my official Lonely Planet guidebook said they were unnecessary. One persistent teenager (John) decided to guide me anyways, even with no promised fee (he wasn’t an official guide, just a kid who lived in the Tis Issat village). Turns out he was the best guide I’ve had so far in my journeys – at the end I paid him the guide service fee which he was happy about (and I’m sure gunning for the whole time).

Hiking around the falls took several hours. I was the only “farenge” there which made the experience that more authentic. The falls are pretty stupendous.

Highlights of the trek included: 1) drinking coffee in a mud hut with locals – a little boy was scared of me and ran out 2) walking across the dizzying gorge on a swinging footbridge 3) watching the thunderous water plummet 100+ feet to a pool below 3) swimming in said pool 4) seeing the very tree the Mysteries of the Nile film crew tied their ropes to when rappelling down the falls in the movie 5) crossing the Blue Nile river upstream of the falls in a motor launch.

Getting to know my guide John was rewarding too, he was a helpful and knowledgeable fellow. Humble. 16 years old. Had a great attitude. And he was all for jumping in and swimming. Twas a hot day.

The bus ride back was slightly packed. First, the regular seats filled up (if 3 to a seat can be considered regular). Then the middle aisle filled up with people standing. I was sitting towards the back and the bus had both a back and front door. When the aisle filled up people began loading into the area where the stairs are at the front and back entrances. Then we took off.

But! there were more people along the road who also wished to catch a ride. Of course we picked them up too. I didn’t see how another body could fit in the bus, but every time we stopped and the doors opened everyone would just skoosh inwards a little and the next stick-wielding bushman hopped in. Incredible.

A college aged guy I was sitting next to had the name of Fish (what’s with the weird names today? First Freedom, and then Fish!?) He turned out to be good company. We jawed for nearly an hour before the bus embarked, then hollored at each other over the noisy babble and blaring Ethiopian pop songs on the jouncy ride home, then grabbed some supper together at a local pizzeria (I chose pizza over Ethi-cuisine as I’ve eaten my share of Ethi food lately… plus I was paying). Couldn’t believe Fish had never eaten a piece of pizza before in his entire life. And he still hasn’t, because he got spaghetti and wouldn’t try a piece of my cheese pizza as cheese isn’t on his diet for some special religious holiday he is currently celebrating. I think the religious holiday is Easter. Though I don’t remember anywhere in the Bible it saying I can’t t eat pizza just because Christ resurrected from the dead.

Fish and I then ran around town doing a few errands like buying Bibles from the Bible Society of Ethiopia (one of which I gave to Fish) and getting transportation lined up for me tomorrow to Lalibela. This was followed by meeting up with the Dad of a guy I had randomly met in Addis. This father-guy met us at a local cafe for a coke and turns out he was the nicest Ethiopian I’ve met so far! A highly educated man, he is a veterinarian and also a lay pastor to boot. A Christian, he converted from the ubiquitous Greek Orthodox Church to faith in Jesus a number of years ago. Now his entire family also believes in Jesus. He has traveled too, having lived in Russia 6 years at one time. Fish, the veterinarian, and I had a great visit – the vet guy even began witnessing to my Fish about Jesus Christ! Had Fish lookup certain references in his new Bible.

It seems a strange life I live.

Finally, everyone left to go back to their respective homes. And now I too, after having duly recorded the days proceedings for the benefit of mankind and future progeny, am heading towards crashing in bed after another eventful day.

Catching a bus to Lalibela 7am tomorrow.

Hope this post wasn’t too boring.

Caveat Emptor

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

If I visit India someday, I think I’ll skip seeing the Taj Mahal. I pretty much have grown to despise touristy stuff. Whether America or Tim-Buck-Two, can we please get off the beaten track?

I’m currently in Bahir Dar, a city on the edge of Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands.

THE Lake Tana that is the source of the Blue Nile.
THE Lake Tana that is dotted with islands (wherein reside ancient monasteries).
THE Lake Tana shown on the movie Mysteries of the Nile.

Yesterday when I arrived I was quite proud of myself for avoiding all the hotel hustlers at the bus station. But then later I was got by another young Ethiopian man at my hotel who setup the tour I did today to the monasteries on the lake.

He was an “in-between person,” what is commonly called a “tout.” Touts are the ones who arrange tours and take a commission off the top. I didn’t think he was a tout because he basically said he wasn’t. He said he was the boat operator. And here I thought I was getting good at spotting these leaches, but he was smooth.

On whole, the trip today went fine, and if this man had been totally honest I would have been quite the happy camper. Honest, his dishonesty didn’t help him at all, and it just made me upset. Of all sins, I think lying is the worst one.

When I was at the holocaust museum in Jerusalem (Yad Vashem) I remember they said it was easy to get the Jews to walk into the gas chambers because they lied to them, telling them they were going into a communal shower to get washed up.

The only bad thing that happened to me is I lost out on some money so I shouldn’t be upset about that as I have enough. Not to mention the whole trip today was still under $50, which is a good deal for what all I got to do and see. But it’s the principal of being deceived that makes me angry.

First thing (which I didn’t find out until later) was he charged me about three times too much for the trip. I was proud of myself for having haggled him down from 450 birr to 300 birr (300 birr is about $18). But…! come to find out, I could easily have gone with another outfit for only 100 birr.

Then, he told me this was a REALLY good time to visit the monasteries because there was a big festival going on today. If I went the next day (which I was planning to do) I would miss the whole thing. Complete lie. Only thing close to that was someone had died on one of the islands and the museum there was closed!

He guaranteed lunch was included in the price. Again, false. I paid for lunch (the tour guide was nowhere to be seen during lunch).

He promised there were TWO other tourists coming with me. False. There was only ONE other tourist, an Ethiopian.

He said he would pick me up at 8:30am today. He showed up at 7:40am at the cafe where I was trying to have a nice relaxing breakfast alone. He then proceeded to sit down at my table and bother me through the entire meal trying to sell me more trips (which I declined, finally suspecting the guy for who he was).

He said the trip would last until 3:00pm. We were done by 1:00pm.

He wasn’t even correct about little things like the HP on the boat, which he claimed was 9.9. It was 25.

Lastly, and the BIGGEST thing he outright lied about was when I asked him point blank if there were any additional hidden fees or expenses. He said no. I asked about tips and he hemmed and hawed and said if I wanted to give a tip to someone I could but they were optional. So my 300 was all inclusive. Boat ride. Lunch. Monastery entrances.

So, was that true? Absolutely not. At each of the five monasteries we visited there was an entrance fee! 100 birr at each location.

Not to mention there was a mandatory guide required at one who charged another 45 birr. This isn’t counting the tips which were expected.

I’ve wanted to visit Lake Tana for a long time. Today I got to. On the lake we boated up to the headwaters of the Blue Nile River. Went up the river a ways even. That was amazing (even though I didn’t see a Hippo). It was especially cool because several weeks ago I was in Alexandria, the exit of the Nile where it slips into the Mediterranean Sea. So I’ve now been to both the start and finish of the longest river in the world: the Nile. Over 4,000 miles long.

BUT, the whole time out today I was irritated. I tried really hard to forget it and enjoy my time, but each priest who asked me to cough up yet another 100 birr for the sake of Mary so I could walk into one more round thatch-roofed hut they called a monastery (where I wasn’t even allowed inside to the most holy-of-holies) I remembered how this was supposed to be an all-inclusive package.

Honestly, it feels that everyone around me today has been hitting me up for money: a tip for this, a fee for that, etc. No joke, the first words I heard out of a humans mouth this morning was from the cleaning lady at my hotel: “Money!” Taken aback, and still bleary eyed, I asked, “What?” She repeated, more insistently, “Money!!”

Today on the boat I remembered Jesus’ words about how if we don’t forgive when people sin against us, our Heavenly Father won’t forgive our sins against him. So I tried to forgive the young guy who had been so deceptive. Yet I still felt angry. Is it possible to forgive and feel angry at the same time?

I was telling my friend Marshal how I had to firmly explain to one insistent local how I am NOT a bank. Marshal told me he has seen a T-Shirt that reads, “I’m Not a Bank.”

Because I am a foreigner, I am assumed to be rich. In particular, because I am a white foreigner I am assumed to be rich. In Haiti people called me “Blan” and demanded money. In Ethiopia I’m called “Ferenge” and hit up for money.

Marshal told me there is another T-Shirt that reads, “My name is not Ferenge.” I’ve been called Ferenge so many times in the last week I’ve lost count.

Of course there is also the more ubiquitous, “YOU!” I’m also called. Kids run along behind, “You! You! You! Give money!”

Being seen only as an object is dehumanizing. I think I realize a little better now how women may feel if a man treats treat them as an object.

It hurts my feelings to be treated kindly only for my money. There has been instance after instance where people appear to be different, to be truly friendly, then turns out they were only more sneaky in how they pilfered my cash.

I’m often asked what I’m learning in my travels. One thing I’m learning is to be mighty suspicious of man-kind. It’s got to where I consider everyone I meet as a lying thief until proven otherwise. In short, I’m becoming cynical of humans.

So this post wasn’t very uplifting, but that’s how I feel.

Yesterday I did meet one nice guy who seemed genuinely friendly (code: he hasn’t asked me for anything yet). Turns out his brother worked with the Mysteries of the Nile film crew. His brother even accompanied the crew on their entire three-month journey! He said his brother was the only local from Bahir-Dar that went, was hired based on his kayaking skills and because he spoke Italian.

Did his brother REALLY work with the film crew? Does he even have a brother? Who knows. But I’m suspicious.

Begging the Issue

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Been walking the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for five days now.

What to do with the beggars? They are everywhere, sitting in their misery with hands stretched out. Some blind, some deaf, others with deformed limbs, swollen extremities and missing appendages… others hunchback bent over double, some old and toothless, some women young with baby. It’s all quite disturbing.

“Give to the one who asks you,” Jesus said (Matthew 5:42). Is holding ones hand out considered as asking? Because if it is, walking down the street here is a full time job in giving.

For the beggars I feel sympathy and compassion, but also feel sick they’re forced to trade dignity for food. Saw a young guy today who looked healthy except for one leg was deformed. He was begging. I got angry. Why do you want me to treat you as charity? Why give up your dignity when you could fight your handicap? I know, easy for me to say.

I found out about a program here in Addis that offers reduced priced meals. You can buy meal tickets to this ministry (Hope Enterprise) for 1 birr each (about 6 US cents). I’ve bought several hundred of them – seems to be a handy thing to give out to beggars. Sometimes they don’t know what I’m giving them and look confused – I try to explain. Other times, they look excited.

But the needs don’t stop with beggars. Let’s talk street kids. I could talk stats, and I saw online an estimate of 50,000 in Addis, but it hits home closer when you meet them.

Filthy. Tattered rags. Skinny. Sores. Walk beside you, point to their bare feet, their scanty clothing, ask you to do something. You do something, they want you to do more somethings. Where does it stop? I can’t help them all. Can I even help some?

I’ve met people in Addis. People on the street. Randomly got plugged into a group of college kids. They want me to start a non-profit sponsorship ministry for street kids. One of them grew up as an orphan. He’s married now with a baby boy. He wants to partner with me to help street kids.

I’ve been in Addis five days.

Sahara-Ho!

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

When I think desert, I think sand.  In particular, sand dunes.

In Israel I never saw sand dunes.  Neither the Judean Desert nor the Negev had the type of desert I consider proper. 

But thanks be, finally I saw the real deal at the Siwa oasis.  Siwa is located in the heart of the Sahara, about 150 miles from any major town.  While the area around the springs are fairly lush, it doesn’t take much of a walk before you’re into the outback.  In Egypt, once you go East or West of the Nile river you’re into desert, as the satellite photo below shows.

Siwa is a long way from Nowhere

Yesterday Tomasz and I hiked about 12 miles around Siwa…  on this hike we tramped through town, across the desert, over sand dunes, then had lunch and took a nap in the midst of this remote sand-swept Sahara. 

On our circuitous route home we traipsed across salt-encrusted wastelands, leaped irrigation ditches, trekked through cool palm-tree forests, and finished off with a swim in the salty oasis.  Quite a day. 

Nick and Tomasz

The heat, wind, sand, and walking was wipeout tiring, but I still say it beat a day at the office.

The Siwa Oasis itself is more of a lake than a pretty well surrounded by palm fronds, as I imagined an oasis to be (my impressions no doubt tainted from Kings Quest V). 

The lake itself is below sea level and quite salty, though freshwater abounds in the marshes nearby.  Tomasz and I were surprised to find we floated about the same in this lake as we did in the Dead Sea.

Siwa Oasis

Out in the desert, the scenery was breathtaking.  So far in my travels I think it is the most exotic place I’ve been.  Knowing this was the real deal, the real Sahara, made it all the more surreal. 

Tomasz Walking

Climbing a dune is more difficult than it looks.  I was huffing and puffing by the top of each one.  Believe it or not, I saw snowboards for rent in town…  not for snow of course, but for sand dunes!  It looked fun, but also dangerous.

Up a Dune 1Up a Dune 2

Being out in such large open spaces brings a bit of a lonesome feeling.  When I got up after my nap break there was sand built up around my backpack from the wind, and sand in my clothes.  Made me realize one single person is insignificant next to this vast tract of bleak, inhospitable wasteland. 

It’s said an entire Persian army sent by Cyrus the Great, 50,000 strong, was headed toward Siwa to capture it when they totally disappeared, swallowed up by the desert.  Recently their bodies have been found.

The Sahara is a Big Place

My personal archaeology research wasn’t quite so impressive, but I did come across a bunch of bullets.  Not casings, but the actual bullets.  Most were old and rusty, but some were recent with no corrosion.

Bullets

Along with my point above regarding the lonesome feeling in being so long a ways from no-where, I found comfort in remembering God still has tabs on me.  Nothing escapes his notice, I believe.

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.”
(Psalm 139:17-18)

10 Experiences from Egypt

Friday, March 16th, 2012

Right now I’m at the Siwa Oasis – about fifty miles from the Libyan border.  See map below, which shows the 1,000 mile route I’ve taken so far since entering Egypt.  From Taba (the border of Israel) down to Dahab, then on to Cairo, Alexandria, and now Siwa.  All Egypt is desert except along the Nile and the scattered oasis’s.

My Bus Route through Egypt

Here are some events that have happened or things I’ve observed since posting on here last, in no particular order.

1) Visiting the world famous Cairo Museum.  It may be world famous, but the inside resembles more of a musty old storage warehouse than anything else: thick layers of dust, poor lighting, and many exhibits unmarked.  However, I was happy to see King Tut’s golden mask and sarcophagus, as well as a bunch of mummies. 

I didn’t see King Tut himself, but amazingly did see both his mother and grandmother.  While some mummies look like freak props out of a horror flick, it is surprising to see others remarkably well preserved.  For instance, King Tut’s grandmother Queen Tiye had more hair left on her at the ripe age of 3,402 then some people do at the ripe age of 50.  Here she is:

Tiye

The craziest thing about Queen Tiye (I thought) was how she was just laid out in this old glass/wood box that looked like something I could have cobbled together!  No sealed, air conditioned exhibit case for her.  The pride and care the Egyptians take of their antiquities is astounding.  I’ve heard this lack of concern is partially to be blamed because modern Egyptians aren’t descendants of the ancients, but that may not be true.

2) Had multiple locals try to scam me and also openly lie, which has been upsetting.  The good news is the Berbers out here in western Egypt are honest folk.  They are restoring some of the faith in this country I had hitherto lost.

3) Spent a couple days at the port city of Alexandria.  There I visited an ancient Roman amphitheater (and stood right where the gladiators of old enacted their macabre deeds), the mighty Citadel fortress guarding the harbor (and explored the ramparts and towers therein), the underground catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa, and the massive Alexandrian library (which replaced the famous one burnt to the ground back in the 3rd century).  In the Alexandrian library I saw a section of Louis L’amour books, which convinced me the new library is undoubtedly superior to the old.

4) Have observed abject poverty and squalor… some places coming close to rivaling Port-au Prince (my gold standard for misery).  I’ve seen areas pictures wouldn’t do justice, and that couldn’t be appreciated unless you visited them yourself.  Also, many buildings in Cairo and Alexandria are old and crumbling apart while the occupants remain inside!  I saw one occupied high-rise apartment building leaning at a pronounced angle!  Not safe. 

5) Have walked through crowded, tight little streets.  One I was walking yesterday was lined with open market stalls and jam packed with two-way car traffic, two-way animal cart traffic, thousands of pedestrians, and two-way tram lines!  All this in a street half the width of Maize back home.  Incredible.  At one point I saw a man with his back to the street (not a good idea) looking over a table of merchandise when a car literally backed into him, squeezing his legs against the table.  Luckily the car wasn’t moving fast, and when it moved forward again the man was released and seemed to be OK, just quite angry and yelling at the driver, “what for.”

6) Hardly seen any Westerners (except at the Pyramids).  The tourists I do see are mainly Egyptian.  Egyptian tourists seem nice enough, and, believe it or not, frequently want their picture taken with me.  This has happened quite a few times.  Celebrity status is a new one…  Maybe I should start charging money?  Once, to be funny, Tomasz and I stepped into the edge of a group picture some Egyptian tourists were posing for.  They all seemed to think this was quite hilarious and moved us to the center of their group so we could be front stage in their photo!

6) Played soccer with a group of teenage locals I ran into on the street.  That was fun, except my team lost.  The game ended by my shooting on goal and the goalie deflecting it into the Mediterranean sea!  I was glad they recovered it without incident.  Before I left, they wanted a photo-shoot:

Playing Soccer with Egyptian Youth

7) Astoundingly inexpensive food.  Here are two examples, for the mathematically inclined:

Ex 1: This morning I purchased a stack of ten pieces of pita bread hot right out of the oven for only 1/2 EGP (9 cents).  Then a bunch of cheese for 6 EGP (50 cents).  That fed Tomasz and I both lunch and supper today, for the grand total of 59 cents!  Granted, the meals weren’t balanced, but we were both stuffed for both meals.

Ex 2: Foul (pronounced “fool”) is something like a bean burrito you can buy in cafes here.  They only cost 1 EGP (9 cents).  A nice supper of three fouls and a can of coca-cola fills me up and only costs 6 EGP total (about 1 US dollar).

How in the world food can be sold so cheap is beyond me.  I’m guessing it has to do with gasoline being ridiculously cheap.  Which reminds me that I heard the #1 money maker for Egypt is tourism, followed by #2 money maker being fees on the Suez Canal, followed by #3 being oil exports.  None of those three they have to work for much.  If the local gasoline prices ever go up, I’m afraid the millions here who live in poverty will be really hurting.

8 ) Hearing the call to prayer multiple times a day.  This evening here at the Siwa Oasis Tomasz and I climbed up high to see the sunset… then the deafening call to prayer began from the loudspeakers of every minaret in town and we decided the calamituitous noise was more impressive than the sunset, though it too was impressive: 

Mosque Sunset

9) Travelling by every which way of locomotion.  So far in Egypt I’ve been transported on tram, subway, train, bus, shuttle, taxi, camel, horse, and my own two feet… I leave the country by plane.

Horse Riding in the Sinai

10) Sights I’m not used to seeing…

1) All the women wear head shawls in public: some covering just their hair, some covering all their face except the eyes, and some (the Berbers here out west) covering their entire face – these latter resemble wraiths.  Here is a picture of the “slit-for-my-eyes” variety:

Veiled Woman in Dahab

2) Women talking on their cell phones hands free… by sticking the phone into their head shawls! 

(I don’t have a picture of the hands free head shawl trick, but here is a picture of two Berber men jabbering away)

Two Men Talking on Cell Phones

3) Donkey carts everywhere… they look fun

Donkey Cart

4) Men dressed up funny-like…

Robed Guys

5) Restaurant chain spinoffs…

Pizza Hot

Ok, sorry for the abrupt ending, but it’s late now – so that’s my update!