Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rafting the Mighty Nile

Day 28: Jinja, Uganda
On Saturday, we departed Kampala for Jinja, a town near Lake Victoria at the source of the Nile. We arrived in the early afternoon, so we had some time to relax and get geared up for our big day rafting on the Nile. This morning, we ventured down the red mud road to the Nile River Explorers headquarters, where we enjoyed a breakfast of fresh fruit and picked up our life jackets and helmets. Five girls from my group and I were rafting that day – everyone else stayed back at camp for other activities (i.e. they chickened out). Our tour leader, Carol, was kayaking but would be with us in a caravan of two other rafts and a number of kayaks.

The morning was gray and rainy, but we didn't mind as we were prepared to get wet! After squishing through the muddy banks of the river in bare feet, we hopped into our raft and began training through all the different commands – hard forward, high side left, get down, and so forth. We also practiced flipping the raft and coming up inside the air pocket underneath. After enjoying our swim in the warm water, we climbed back into the raft, only to spot a gigantic Nile monitor lizard slithering through the water right where we had been swimming! Now fully aware of the various reptilian lifeforms lurking in the Nile, we paddled towards the first rapid, wondering if we would encounter an infamous Nile crocodile.

Rapids are classified on a 5 grade scale, with 5 being the most dangerous. Grade 6 rapids also exist, but only kayakers are able to tackle them. Our first rapid of the day was a grade 4 – we followed our guide's commands and surfed through the fast-moving water, emerging on the other side ready for more. We soon reached the second rapid of the day, named 50/50 because the turbulent waves flip half of the rafts that attempt it. Our raft was in that unlucky half. Adrenaline pumping, we paddled as hard as we could, but a surge of water hit us from the side, overturning us in the middle of the violent rapids. Before each rapid, our guide informed us what to do if our raft flipped – in this case, we were to swim towards the right side of the river. But those instructions and the training we had done in flat water proved completely useless as I was plunged into the swirling whitewater, completely disoriented and with time to take only a shallow breath. Not knowing which way was up or down, much less left or right, all I could do was wait for my life jacket to pull me through the furiously swirling bubbles to the surface. I emerged in the middle of the thrashing waves gasping for air and trying to find my bearings. I was finally swept downstream past the rapids and spotted a raft, which was moving further away with the current. My life jacket was so constricting that I struggled to breathe as I swam weakly towards the raft. I finally reached it, climbed the sides, and plopped inside. It was not my raft, but there were a few others from my group in it as well. We paddled towards our raft, reunited with our group, and prepared for the next rapid.

We tackled one or two more rapids successfully before our guide informed us about the next challenge. It was a grade 5 rapid ominously named Chop Suey – our guide did not give us any paddling instructions, and we neared closer and closer to the rapid, not knowing what to do. This rapid was even more violent than 50/50, and unsurprisingly the raft flipped, flinging us mercilessly into the churning whitewater. I managed to take a slightly bigger breath this time, but it was still quite a terrifying experience to be tossed about underwater, not knowing how long it would be until I reached the surface. Seeing nothing but swirling bubbles and light, I felt like I was in a washing machine. I eventually scrambled into the raft and caught my breath. After we were safely past Chop Suey, our guide told us that we were the only raft that attempted it – the other two groups went through an easier grade 4 rapid on the other side of the river. He also mentioned that his lack of instructions before the rapid was due to the fact that Chop Suey has virtually a 100 percent flip rate. It didn't really matter how we paddled – we were destined to be overturned by the crushing waves. Proud to have the honor of being the only raft to pass through the rapid, we mentally prepared ourselves for more of the Nile.

We passed through a few more rapids before lunch. The rain ceased and the sun emerged from the clouds, drying us out quickly as we enjoyed our lunch of fresh pineapple on a long stretch of flat water. I soon began wishing for rain again, as the sun quickly began scorching my knees – the mighty Nile had thoroughly washed off any sunscreen, waterproof as it may be, and to make matters worse, my malaria medication increases sun sensitivity. Our guide said it was safe to take a dip in the river to cool off, and as we were all enjoying the refreshing water, he slapped the surface hard with his paddle a few times. He said the noise sounded like gunshots and would scare away any crocodiles that might be lurking below. Needless to say, all of our eyes widened and we scrambled back into the raft.

After lunch, we were energized and ready to conquer more of the river. As we approached one of the rapids, we saw the raft in front of us flip. We paddled as hard as we could, and we emerged unscathed and satisfied on the other side, thrusting our paddles into the air in victory. We paddled further downstream and soon made a landing on the rocky shore – there was a grade 6 rapid ahead that we had to walk around. As we climbed up the banks, we witnessed a few kayakers attempting the grade 6. As violent as the grade 5 rapids appeared, this one was absolutely epic, featuring gushing swells of terrifyingly fast water and enormous vortexes that trapped kayaks in place and slung them about savagely. The grade 5 that we were going to raft was actually the tail end of the grade 6 rapid, and it did not look pretty. Two of the girls in our group decided to opt out, but I decided to go for the full experience. We climbed into the raft and paddled into the maelstrom. We lasted only a few seconds before we were tossed into the river by a mighty wave. Experienced from the flips earlier in the day, I held my breath and waited for my life jacket to guide me through the churning water to the surface. I came up under the side of the raft and had to push myself to one side to finally get my head above the water. Grabbing the rope on the side of the raft, I held on until we floated out to calmer water.

All in all, we paddled 30 kilometers and tackled twelve rapids, including five grade 5 rapids. I have rafted rivers before, but none can compare to the terrifying, exhilarating, mighty Nile.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Rainy Days

Day 26: Kampala, Uganda
On Tuesday, we headed back to Uganda. After all the rain at our campground in Rwanda, everyone attempted to dry some of their clothes from the open sides of the truck. The breeze actually did a pretty decent job of drying my jeans. After five and a half hours, we reached the town of Kabale, where we stayed at a campground with a wonderfully flat yard perfect for pitching tents. We all immediately took advantage of the rare sunshine, rushed off the truck, and laid out our remaining wet clothes anywhere and everywhere we could find – barbed wire, on the truck, or just directly on the grass. We got a few hours of sunshine before the rains started again. Kabale is just an everyday city with no tourists whatsoever, so we walked over to a local store to buy some alcohol and juice for punch and just relaxed back at camp for the evening.

After packing up our sopping tents in the pouring rain the next morning, we stopped at a fruit market in Kabale. The vendors only sell fruit in big bunches, so I went in with four other people for some bananas, passion fruit, and mango so we could make a fruit salad for lunch. A bunch of 16 fresh bananas only cost one dollar! After an hour and a half, we stopped in the town of Rukiga to buy some meat on a stick from vendors who swarmed around the back of the truck. It is a gamble as to what type of meat you might get and whether it is fresh and hot. Luckily, we got steak instead of liver.

Ankole, western Uganda © Matt Prater
An ankole in western Uganda
It was four hours further to our bush camp, which was situated on private farmland. Oasis Overland sponsored the owner to attend school, and he lets Oasis groups camp on his land in return. We pitched our tents, avoiding the numerous piles of manure while swatting at the plague of flies that swarmed around the whole area. We sat around the campfire and watched ankole – also known as "devil cows" due to their massive horns – being herded as the sun set. The cook group stuffed fresh green peppers with mushrooms and rice, wrapped them in foil, and cooked them in the open fire for a scrumptious dinner. As usual, sweet chili sauce was the perfect accompaniment – our group has discovered that it goes with just about everything. As the only American, I introduced everyone to the tradition of s'mores. I was surprised that my English friends had never heard of roasting marshmallows over a campfire! Back in Kenya, I had searched five different stores for marshmallows, chocolate bars, and cookies (to substitute for graham crackers). In a quirky African twist on the tradition, I found a branch from an acacia tree and stuck about 15 marshmallows on the huge thorns for efficient roasting. Needless to say, the s'mores were a big hit.

Bush camping with Oasis Overland, western Uganda © Matt Prater
Preparing dinner next to the Oasis Overland truck at a bush camp in western Uganda

In the morning, the family brought us fresh milk directly from a cow for our tea. After breakfast, we headed towards the equator for lunch and shopping at some local craft stores. We also stopped at a banana-filled fruit market as well as a row of drum shops on our way to Kampala. I bought a huge drum that will make a cool end table. I paid $25, which I thought was a pretty good deal for an animal skin drum hand made in Uganda! We have a compartment on the truck where we can keep large souvenirs until we have a chance to ship them home. We arrived in Kampala in the afternoon and were able to finally freshen up after three days without access to a shower!

Standing on the Equator, Nabusanke, Uganda
Standing on the Equator in Nabusanke, Uganda
Girl eating fruit at market near Masaka, Uganda © Matt Prater
A girl eats fruit at a roadside market near Masaka, Uganda

Bananas at market near Masaka, Uganda © Matt Prater
Bananas at a roadside market near Masaka, Uganda
Display of bananas and squash at market near Masaka, Uganda © Matt Prater
Display of bananas and squash at a roadside market near Masaka, Uganda

Yesterday evening, we went out for a night on the town. An Irish bar was first, but it was packed with mzungus and very few locals, so Tim, a Ugandan guy who went out with us, took us to another bar. There was a fantastic live band that was performing reggae music. After a few hours, eight of us crammed into a taxi and headed for a nightclub. When we arrived, they wanted to charge us 25,000 Ugandan shillings each (about $13) to enter. Sybil, A black American woman who was living in Kampala, had tagged along with us from the bar. She was drunk and made a huge scene about us being charged higher prices then the locals. One guy in our group had managed to get in the nightclub for free before she started freaking out, and then the bouncers wouldn't let the rest of us in because we were with Sybil. We tried to explain that we weren't really with her, but things just weren't going to work out. Some people left at this point to go back to camp, but I stayed with three girls from our group. Sybil was just too entertaining – as long as we kept our distance from her. Tim stayed with us while she started screaming, crying, and even slapping at some of the bouncers. She threatened to call the cops because they were overcharging us, and then she finally climbed in a taxi, slammed the door, and was gone. Relieved to be rid of Sybil's drunken (but quite hilarious) antics, we walked down the street to a hole-in-the-wall place for some chips (or fries – being the only American in our group, I've found it easier to just start using British lingo). Tim helped us haggle for a taxi ride back to our campground, and we finally climbed into our tents at four in the morning.

Thankfully, today is a free day. It has been raining all day and has turned out to be a very welcome break from our busy itinerary. The wireless internet here is a rare luxury in Africa, and I have been online all day catching up on everything. Now that I have some free time, I am also adding photos to some previous posts, so be sure to look at them! Of course, the internet is painfully slow – what has taken me three hours today would have taken maybe 20 minutes back in the States. Oh well, as the acronym famous throughout the continent goes, T.I.A. – This Is Africa!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Gorillas in the Mist

Day 22: Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
After we left Kigali yesterday, we drove three hours to a campsite just outside the town of Musanze (also known as Ruhengeri) in northwestern Rwanda. The landscape here is dominated by the Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanoes along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The steep rainforest slopes shared by these three countries are home to the critically endangered mountain gorillas. It was here in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park that primatologist Dian Fossey studied the gorillas for 13 years, an endeavor which culminated in her celebrated autobiography Gorillas in the Mist. We left camp very early this morning to see the gorillas in the wild. After a briefing on how to behave around the gorillas (such as making sounds to let them know we mean no harm), we set off on our trek.

Mount Sabyinyo, Virunga Mountains, Rwanda © Matt Prater
Mount Sabyinyo, an extinct volcano in the Virunga Mountains of northwestern Rwanda
We headed towards Mount Sabyinyo, an extinct volcano and the oldest peak in the Virunga Mountains. The summit of this mountain marks the spot where Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo meet. The Sabyinyo family of gorillas we were tracking includes the largest silverback in the world, weighing 485 pounds. We started out walking through farmland for a while until we reached a crumbling stone wall that signifies the edge of the park. Then we started hiking through dense bamboo forest on muddy trails. As we continued to ascend the mountain, the trackers who were monitoring the group would radio back to our guide to let him know which way to lead us. As we got closer to the gorillas, we had to leave the trails, following our guide and porters who would cut through the dense rainforest with machetes. The hike was not terribly difficult, but it was slow going, as we had to navigate through dense hanging vines and watch out for stinging nettles. Long pants were not enough to protect against the painful stingers of these plants, and we kept getting stung on our legs with almost every step. The stingers do not actually stick into the skin, although the toxin makes it feel that way. If you receive a sting and leave the area alone, the pain goes away in a few minutes.

After two hours, our guide informed us that we were very near the gorillas. We had to leave our packs with the porters, taking only our cameras. Our guide informed us to talk only in whispers, to stay close together at all times, and to avoid pointing at the gorillas or using a camera flash, as it might seriously piss them off. It was just our luck that the gorillas had situated themselves in a dense patch of stinging nettles. Our guide had thick protective pants and kept reminding us to keep up with him, which proved easier said than done. We had to watch our every step as we trudged slowly and cautiously through the nettles along a narrow path cut by a machete. At last, we caught our first glimpse of a female gorilla. The mist hovering around the towering forest peaks gave a very atmospheric feel to the place, At one point, two juvenile gorillas ran past me, perhaps only five to ten feet away. Tourists are supposed to remain at a certain distance from the gorillas to protect them from disease, but you can't do much if they approach you instead. The gorilla is our closest living relative after the chimpanzee, and they are therefore susceptible to human diseases – in fact, you are not allowed to visit the gorillas if you have been sick in the previous three days.

Mountain gorilla with baby, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda © Matt Prater
A mountain gorilla and her baby on the slopes of Mount Sabyinyo in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Young mountain gorilla in tree, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda © Matt Prater
A young mountain gorilla sits in a tree on Mount Sabyinyo in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

We saw a few more members of the group, including a baby and one of the silverbacks, before it started to rain. I had stupidly left my poncho in my backpack, which was with the porters, so I covered my camera with my clothes the best I could, but it took a while to get back to the cover of the bamboo forest. We stood in the rain for another hour before it finally began to let up. By this time, my camera was soaked, and I put it in someone else's waterproof bag for our second trip out to see the gorillas. I didn't want to risk further damage to my camera if it started to rain again (luckily, my camera ended up without permanent damage after drying it back at camp that night). We had stayed out for 20 minutes before the rain started, and time with the gorillas is limited to an hour (and eight people), as the gorillas begin to get uncomfortable with more than that. That gave us 40 more minutes before we had to begin the wet descent down the mountain. We managed to find much better views of the gorillas the second time out, seeing the large silverback and all additional members of the group. I was cold, shivering, and lamenting not having my camera on the most amazing wildlife experience I've ever had. But I managed to forget my desire to take photographs and just enjoyed the experience.

It started drizzling again, and before long it was time to leave the gorillas. The descent down the mountain was almost as much fun as seeing the gorillas. The rain had made the path nightmarishly muddy, and it was quite a challenge to keep from slipping down the steep slope. The walking sticks we were given were invaluable – with every step, I plunged the stick deep into the mud on the slope in front of me, putting all my weight on it as I descended a little at a time. I then pulled the stick out and began the next step. The mud was so deep that my shoes and socks were completely submerged with most steps, and the suction of the mud almost pulled my entire shoe off on several occasions. Everyone in our group fell at least once. And remember, there were stinging nettles on both sides of the trail, so falling in the mud was very much preferable. As we neared the bottom of the mountain, we were so filthy that we didn't care how deep the mud was – it was impossible to get any dirtier. Mud was slopped on my pants all the way up to my thighs, and my shoes glistened with thick ooze. I squished with every step I took, as there was a thick layer of muck inside my shoes. The rain had also provided another surprise – earthworms slithering out of the mud were a good two feet long and as thick as small garden snakes.

We finally made it back to camp, cold and dripping with mud. There was no water in the showers, so I had to just change into clothes I had worn about ten times before. Laundry has proved impossible in this rain and dampness. Clothes that I washed two days ago are wetter now than when I hung them up to dry. But it's all part of the experience, and I am absolutely in love with Africa!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rwanda, Land of a Thousand Hills

Day 21: Kigali, Rwanda
Terraced farmland, northern Rwanda © Matt Prater
Terraced farmland in northern Rwanda
Today, we had another early start, crossing into Rwanda and driving towards the capital, Kigali. Rwanda is one of the smallest countries in Africa – slightly smaller than Massachusetts – and it is situated at a fairly high altitude, causing a cooler-than-expected climate for equatorial Africa. The lush, green landscape of Rwanda is even more beautiful than Uganda, and the kids are even more enthusiastic to see us, as they don't see many tourists. In countries like Rwanda that have a recent history of war, people are generally very happy to see tourists because it indicates that their country is safe again. Of course, they also are happy because it is a chance to obtain some spare change – calls of "mzungu, mzungu, give me money!" were plentiful. In one instance, a group of kids spotted us and began running down the road trying to catch up with our truck. The road, like most roads in Africa, was full of potholes, so the kids actually managed to catch up to our slow-moving truck. One boy leaped up and hitched a ride on the back of the truck until we began going too fast and he dropped off. The kids have a good sense of humor though – they laugh when we hold our hands out and tell them to give us money.

Towns in Kenya and Uganda were marked by rows of building painted with advertisements for mobile networks and other products, but towns in Rwanda were distinctly more bare, as it is a poorer country. But the landscape was one of the most beautiful I have seen. Rwanda is know as the Land of a Thousand Hills due to its mountainous landscape of picturesque terraces, banana trees, and tea plantations.

Girl waving from farmhouse, northern Rwanda © Matt Prater
A girl waves from the door of a farmhouse in northern Rwanda

Kigali, Rwanda © Matt Prater
The city center of Kigali, capital of Rwanda

Memorial wall, Genocide Memorial Centre, Kigali, Rwanda © Matt Prater
The names of Rwandan Genocide victims on a memorial wall at the Genocide Memorial Centre, Kigali, Rwanda
After a few hours, we reached Kigali, the center of which is built on a hill, with a few tall buildings under construction at the top. The surrounding areas are mostly comprised of earth-colored shacks. We visited the Genocide Memorial Centre, which was an eye-opening and incredibly emotional experience. The museum educates visitors about the causes that led to the Rwandan Genocide, starting with Rwanda's history as a German and later Belgian colony; progressing through the artificial colonial segregation of the society into Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa ethnic divisions; and climaxing in 1994 with the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus. Approximately 800,000 people were slaughtered, almost 20% of Rwanda's population. The museum does a good job of not censoring photos or other accounts of the torture and murder of genocide victims by machete, bludgeoning, or other brutal methods. The most moving section of the museum illustrates individual accounts of children murdered by cruel, inhuman means. I left with a much greater understanding of the apocalyptic nature of an event that absolutely decimated an entire country's population. Over half of Rwandans today are younger than 18. The Rwandan people remember and talk about the genocide every day, and the forgiveness and reconciliation that has occurred since 1994 humbles me. If you ask someone in Rwanda today if they are Hutu or Tutsi, they will reply, "I am Rwandan."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lake Bunyonyi / Visiting Orphans

Day 20: Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Yesterday, we left at 6:30 in the morning to drive towards the equator. We ate breakfast at the Equator Cafe, where I had a fresh fruit smoothie and the biggest muffin I've ever seen. Full, we continued west towards Lake Bunyonyi, stopping for lunch near Nyakahita. The yells of "mzungu, mzungu!" increased as we entered into areas less frequented by tourists. Sitting on top of the "beach," the open area in the front of the truck made us feel almost like rock stars. Every once in a while, someone would flip us off, but the vast majority of people seemed genuinely happy to see us. After all, we are "rich" Westerners bringing income to their country. In the afternoon, as the children were leaving school, the frantic waving and screams were almost overwhelming. But the entire experience was so incredibly enjoyable. This is perhaps the first time I've been anywhere where there were few or no other tourists anywhere to be seen. It's a shame, because Uganda is the friendliest country I've ever been to. As we neared Lake Bunyonyi, the landscape became even more majestic, with steep hills covered in terraced fields. One thing I find surprising about Africa is that women work in the fields as well as around the house. I'm not quite sure what the men do! Our campsite beside Lake Bunyonyi was gorgeous. My tent buddy, Tom, and I decided to upgrade to fully furnished tents that sat on platforms overlooking the lake. It was only $7 each, and it was well worth it to have a bed and soft pillow.

Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda © Matt Prater
Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda

Farm house and terraced hillside, Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda © Matt Prater
Farm house and terraced hillside, Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda

Posing with orphans, Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Posing with a group of orphans, Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Today, we had a full day in the area, and I opted for a visit to a local orphanage. We hiked for quite a while into the beautiful hills and fields above the lake, arriving at the orphanage after about an hour. It was an experience I was not expecting. As soon as the kids saw us, they began screaming and waving, and as we entered onto the orphanage grounds, kids absolutely swarmed us, grabbing our hands and arms and clinging onto us. It was actually impossible to take pictures at that point, but as the kids calmed down, they were more than enthusiastic to pose for photos. They loved seeing the pictures of themselves on the camera display, and every time I was taking a photo of one child, more jumped in.

Girl and boy at orphanage, Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda © Matt Prater
Girl and boy at an orphanage, Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda
Boy at orphanage, Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda © Matt Prater
Boy at an orphanage, Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda

After some time with the children, we sat down so they could perform some songs and dances for us. They were incredible to watch, and seemed so happy to be performing for us. Afterward, as we left, the kids ran after us, taking our hands and clinging onto us. We had to literally pry them off to get in the van that took us back down to the lake. As we returned to the campsite, it started raining, canceling activities for the rest of the day. But that was fine, because the day has been unforgettable so far. We all sat at a table under a roof and played cards for several hours before dinner. The pace of this trip is perfect so far, with just the right balance of activities and down time. Tomorrow we head for Rwanda, so I'm off to enjoy my last actual bed for a while.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bush Camp / Entering Uganda

Day 18: Kampala, Uganda
We camped in the bush on the third night of the overland tour in Eldoret, in western Kenya. It was pouring rain, and it was my first night in cook group. Oasis Overland asks travelers to participate in certain tasks, such as cooking and cleaning. There are 14 people on our truck, including our tour leader, Carol, and two drivers. Carol plans the meals, and each cook group rotates every few days, cooking dinner and breakfast one day and cleaning the truck the following day.

Bush camp isn't really that different than a campground, except there are no showers or toilets. Every day when we arrive in camp, we set up the tents. We have three-person tents that are very easy to set up, but we only have two people per tent, so it is fairly spacious. The rain cover did a good job of keeping the interior of my tent dry last night. Even though it was raining, we had a campfire and sat nearby under a tarp playing some drinking games and just enjoying the outdoors.

Village along road between Nakuru and Eldoret, Kenya © Matt Prater
A village along the road between Nakuru and Eldoret, Kenya

Today we had our first long driving day. In the morning we packed up camp and left at 6:30 for the four-hour drive on a horrendous pothole-filled road to the Ugandan border. This drive was our first true taste of Africa – we passed villages with bustling markets, pastoral landscapes, and countless round huts with thatched roofs. Every time children spotted our truck, they would run towards the road, waving and shouting mzungu, the Swahili word for "white person." The smiles on the kids' faces were so genuine and enthusiastic that I couldn't help but smile and wave back.

Market in Kipkaren, western Kenya © Matt Prater
Market in Kipkaren, western Kenya
Pothole in road between Eldoret and Uganda border, western Kenya © Matt Prater
A car evades a huge pothole in the road between Eldoret and the Uganda border, western Kenya

After we went through immigration and crossed into Uganda, which took about an hour, the people seemed even more friendly and welcoming. The landscape of Uganda is gorgeous, lush, and green. After five hours, including a lunch stop, we reached the capital, Kampala. Our campsite here is very nice and has hot showers, a rare luxury. Tomorrow is another long driving day.

Sunrise near Kampala, Uganda © Matt Prater
Sunrise near Kampala, Uganda

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Into Africa

Day 17: Nakuru, Kenya
I finally made it to Kenya! The people here are incredibly warm and friendly. I had no problems finding my hostel in Nairobi and meeting up with my tour group. I have booked a 73-day overland truck tour from Nairobi to Cape Town with Oasis Overland. There are only 11 of us in the group now, but we will pick up more people when we return to Nairobi in a few weeks. The weather has been great, although we did get some rain. I just had my second night camping last night, and I'm starting to get a routine down. At our campsite on the shore of Lake Naivasha, we could hear hippos grunting during the night just feet from our tents. There is an electric fence between the campsite and the lake, but I wasn't entirely convinced that a couple of wires would keep out a 4,000 lb highly aggressive beast. In fact, the hippopotamus is the most dangerous animal in Africa.

Yesterday we toured the area around Lake Naivasha, viewing a huge flock of flamingos on nearby Lake Oloidien, and doing a game walk in Crater Lake Game Sanctuary. I was able to see tons of zebras, giraffes, impalas, and other wildlife. Everyone has seen these animals at zoos, but it's so exciting seeing them in the unpredictability of the wild. I was able to approach within fifteen feet of a giraffe. I would elaborate more, but I am in an internet cafe and this computer is excruciatingly slow. I have to get going so I can buy some groceries before heading back to the Oasis truck.

Lesser flamingos on Lake Oloidien near Lake Naivasha, Kenya © Matt Prater
A flock of lesser flamingos on Lake Oloidien near Lake Naivasha, Kenya

Impala sparring, Crater Lake Game Sanctuary, Kenya © Matt Prater
Impala sparring in Crater Lake Game Sanctuary near Lake Naivasha, Kenya

Three giraffes, Crater Lake Game Sanctuary, Kenya © Matt Prater
A reticulated giraffe and two Masai giraffes in Crater Lake Game Sanctuary near Lake Naivasha, Kenya
Three zebras, Crater Lake Game Sanctuary, Kenya © Matt Prater
Three plains zebras in Crater Lake Game Sanctuary near Lake Naivasha, Kenya

The truck is awesome, by the way. It has open sides and two rows of seats that face each other. There is also an open area at the front called the "beach" with soft cushioning. It is an awesome feeling to just lounge up there with the refreshing wind blowing in my face and the gorgeous landscape of the rift valley spread out in front of me.

We are bush camping tonight (no facilities) and will be entering Uganda tomorrow. So far, Africa has been amazing, and I can't wait to see more!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Qatar in a Day

Day 13: Doha, Qatar
I had a quick stop in Qatar on my way to Nairobi. It was only an afternoon and one night, but it was pretty much enough time to see everything in Doha. Like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Doha is undergoing a massive building boom, constructing a modern skyline from scratch in less than five years. However, the city is smaller and more manageable than those cities in the U.A.E. My CouchSurfing host, Hin-Yeong (from Singapore) was generous enough to pick me up from the airport, and he showed me all around Doha. First we visited the new Museum of Islamic Art, a modern masterpiece designed by I. M. Pei, and then we walked along the corniche, which wraps around Doha Bay and has fantastic views over the sparkling water to downtown. There was a park nestled below the modern skyscrapers, which was bustling with picnickers since it was the weekend.

Museum of Islamic Art and city skyline, Doha, Qatar © Matt Prater
Museum of Islamic Art and city skyline, Doha, Qatar

City skyline, Doha, Qatar © Matt Prater
City skyline from the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar

Vendor in Souk Waqif, Doha, Qatar © Matt Prater
Vendor in Souk Waqif, Doha, Qatar
In the evening, we drove to Souk Waqif, which is a restored traditional Arab market. It is very picturesque, if a bit touristy. However, most of the people milling about were locals. There was a large area of the souk that sold rabbits, cats, and birds; an area devoted to falconry, a popular past-time in the Gulf states; and many restaurants specializing in cuisines ranging from Iranian to Iraqi to Lebanese. We settled on an atmospheric Moroccan restaurant, where I had a traditional dish of camel meat with Moroccan spices. It tasted like lamb or beef, but fattier. We walked around the souk a bit more after dinner, soaking in the exotic ambiance of colorful shops packed with Moroccan lamps and shisha pipes, before heading back to Hin-Yeong's apartment so I could rest for my early flight to Nairobi.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The World's Largest Collection of Superlatives

Day 12: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
After a last-minute hiccup caused by the strikes in Greece, I flew to Abu Dhabi a day early, and I am so glad I did! The weather in Greece was terrible, and it turns out that there is so much to see in Abu Dhabi. I flew on Etihad Airways, which was recently ranked as the best airline in the world &nash; and it really was the best flight I've ever taken. For one thing, the plane was only half full, and I had an entire exit row to myself. The food was fantastic, and there were 80 movies to choose from on my personal TV screen.

In Abu Dhabi, I stayed in a hotel on Yas Island, a partially man-made island about 45 minutes from the city center. The one thing I noticed immediately about the United Arab Emirates is that the distances are needlessly vast. Abu Dhabi doesn't have that large of a population, yet the city looks like Chicago and is spread out like Los Angeles. The taxi ride from the airport to Yas Island reminded me of Speed Racer or F-Zero with futuristic neon-lit buildings in the distance. There is a gigantic Ferrari theme park under construction on Yas Island. It will be the world's largest indoor theme park &nash; the entire complex is under a sleek red shell emblazoned with the Ferrari logo. Next to that is the newly completed Formula One race circuit, which runs underneath the brand new Yas Marina Hotel. The roof of this building is a vast network of color-changing LED panels that create an organic, futuristic shell &nash; it is of course the world's largest display of LED lighting.

Yas Marina Hotel, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE © Matt Prater
Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi (Yas Marina Hotel) is built across the F1 Yas Marina Circuit, home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Color-changing LED glass panels form a curvilinear shell over the building. It is located on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Yas Marina Hotel, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE © Matt Prater
Yas Marina Hotel on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Yas Marina Hotel, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, UAE © Matt Prater
Yas Marina Hotel on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

My first full day in Abu Dhabi started at the bustling Mina Fish Market, which is full of exotic seafood such as shark, barracuda, cuttlefish, and strange varieties of shellfish. I walked along the corniche that runs the entire length of the city, showcasing the neon turquoise water of the Persian Gulf. At the other end of the corniche is the Emirates Palace Hotel, the most expensive hotel ever built. It does indeed put many actual palaces in Europe to shame with its sheer size and opulence.

Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi, UAE © Matt Prater
Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Grand staircase, Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi, UAE © Matt Prater
The grand staircase in the Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Fresh seafood at Mina Fish Market, Abu Dhabi, UAE © Matt Prater
Fresh seafood at Mina Fish Market, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

I walked a bit more around the city trying to find a taxi to take me back to my hotel. I was really impressed by everything in the U.A.E. except for the transportation. Abu Dhabi has no public transportation system, and the only way to get around is via taxi. Luckily they are cheap, whereas everything else here is incredibly expensive. Abu Dhabi is also not really a walking city &nash; my poor feet were killing me after walking about 13 miles on Wednesday.

Thursday morning I took a taxi to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the world. The building contains 80 domes, the world's largest (and possibly gaudiest) crystal chandelier, and the world's largest carpet. After going all the way back to Yas Island to check out of my hotel and pick up my backpack, I took another taxi to the central bus station in Abu Dhabi, where I boarded a bus to Dubai. Arriving at a bus station in Dubai, it took quite a while to figure out how to get to Dubai Marina, where my CouchSurfing hosts, Adnan (from Pakistan) and Musti (from Turkey), live.

Courtyard of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE © Matt Prater
A panorama inside the courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Dubai Marina, Dubai, UAE © Matt Prater
Dubai Marina at sunset, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Adnan and Musti drove me all around the city the evening I arrived. We went to the Dubai Mall, the largest in the world, and saw the newly completed Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, which is accented by the world's tallest fountain display. It was all very … big. As crazy as Abu Dhabi is, Dubai is even more impressive &nash; more construction sites, taller skyscrapers, bigger malls, and more world-class restaurants.

Today we started off by driving out to the Atlantis resort on Palm Jumeirah, a massive man-made archipelago in the shape of a palm tree. Then we went back to the Burj Khalifa to see it in the daytime &nash; it is unimaginably tall and the tapered structure gives the effect that the tower continues into orbit when viewed from below. We ate at a fantastic Pakistani restaurant for dinner, and finished off the evening by spending more time in Dubai Mall and going to a movie.

Burj Khalifa and mosque, Dubai, UAE © Matt Prater
Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, is seen behind the dome and minaret of a mosque in Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Jumeirah Lake Towers and metro station, Dubai, UAE © Matt Prater
Almas Tower, centerpiece of the Jumeirah Lake Towers development, soars above a Dubai Metro station along Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

I was seriously impressed by the U.A.E., even though it does have its problems. Transportation will get better as Dubai continues to develop its futuristic-looking metro system. But the society here is another issue &nash; Emiratis comprise less than 20% of the population and are obscenely wealthy because of their connections to the royal family. At several sites, there were signs posted not to take photos of Emiratis &nash; they get special treatment in all aspects of life. You can identify local men by their traditional white one-piece dress and head scarf. Women, like elsewhere in the Middle East, are segregated in many aspects of life, such as seating on buses. However, they get the good seats in the front &nash; men stand up in the back of the bus, which was not fun with my big backpack.

The vast majority of the country's population is from India or Pakistan, but there are people living here from every corner of the globe. No matter how long you live here, it is impossible to ever become a citizen. That privilege is by blood only. It is one of the most diverse societies I have seen, but at the same time, the U.A.E. does not seem to have much cultural history of its own. Everything is new and futuristic, and the whole country feels a bit fake, like a supersized Disney World. However, the rich diversity has created one of the best restaurant scenes I have experienced.

I had such a great time here, and Adnan and Musti have been such fantastic hosts, that I am going to try to visit again in the future. Until then, I will surely miss the magnificent architecture and amazing food of the U.A.E. Tomorrow, I am off to Qatar for one night before embarking on my grand adventure in Africa!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Ancient Temples, Baklava, and Strikes

Day 8: Athens, Greece
I arrived in Greece two days ago, where I was welcomed by miserable weather and inconvenient strikes and construction. I am CouchSurfing with my host Priyam, who recently moved from India to the Athens suburb of Kifissia. We went to a Carnival party in Athens on Saturday night, and it took like an hour and a half each way to get there. The metro line was closed along part of our journey, so we had to make a connection by bus, which took a ridiculously long time to travel a short distance due to the traffic. I was exhausted from a long day of travel that started in Paris and involved five metro trains, six buses, and a three hour flight. After the party, we finally arrived back at Priyam's apartment at about 3:00 AM. After all that (in the cold and rain, no less), I passed out for the night.

The next day, it rained ALL day. We went into Athens again and walked up to the Acropolis, which is free on Sundays. It was so rainy and windy that I could hardly even see the Parthenon and other sites because I had to shield myself with an umbrella, which blocked my view and kept turning inside out every two minutes. I didn't even attempt to take pictures. Since pretty much all the tourist attractions in Greece are outside, there's not much to do when it's raining except eat, so we ducked in from the rain into a restaurant for a Greek salad and souvlaki. We decided to start the long journey back to Kifissia mid-afternoon so I could catch up on e-mail and relax.

Today I pretty much did the same thing as yesterday, except by myself and without the rain. I went up on the Acropolis again, and this time the weather was gorgeous. There was a grand view of Athens from the top spanning from the mountains to the Aegean. I walked around the narrow old alleyways surrounding the Acropolis and photographed some of the cats that lived on the tile roofs overlooking the city. Then I went to the National Archaeological Museum, which contains all the best examples of ancient Greek art. It's always exciting to see pieces that I studied in my art history courses during college. It started sprinkling again when I came out of the museum, so I guess that meant it was time to eat again. This time I had gyros and baklava.

Parthenon, Athens, Greece © Matt Prater
The ancient Parthenon dominates the Acropolis in Athens, Greece
Cityscape from the Acropolis, Athens, Greece © Matt Prater
Cityscape and Lykavittos Hill from the Acropolis, Athens, Greece

Bronze statue, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece © Matt Prater
Ancient bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon (ca. 460 BC) in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece
Marble statue, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece © Matt Prater
Ancient marble statue of an athlete (ca. 100 BC) in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece

The day was going pretty well until I arrived back at Priyam's apartment and checked my e-mail. Air traffic controllers are striking in Greece Wednesday, which is the day I am supposed to fly to Abu Dhabi. I am going to call the Etihad Airways office tomorrow morning and try to book a flight for tomorrow. So we'll see how that goes! The other bit of bad news is that the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building that just opened in Dubai a month ago, is already closed for repairs! I just booked my ticket for the observation deck three days ago, so I guess I'll see how that plays out. I'm not having very good luck tonight. I should probably just go to bed before anything else happens!

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