The Kenyan Landscape

Family farms in a mountain valley in Machakos. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

Family farms in a mountain valley in Machakos. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

 

The day after we arrived in Kenya, we traveled to a small village near Machakos, a mountain region forty miles southeast of Nairobi. The hilly terrain provided a great birds-eye view of dozens of terraced family farms and river valleys.

Part of the GAP Greif team in the mountains at Machos

Part of the GAP Greif team in the mountains at Machakos.

Sunrise on the drive to Marsabit, just north of Nairobi. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

Sunrise on the drive to Marsabit, just north of Nairobi. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

 

 

The drive to and from Marsabit (http://bit.ly/1PuDgo6), 327 miles northwest of Nairobi, provided an amazing opportunity to see a large swath of the Kenyan landscape. We left the house around 6am, stopped briefly in Isiolo (http://bit.ly/1cMkQxh) and Merille (http://bit.ly/1FvOunC), and arrived in Marsabit around 6pm. Our actual drive time was 10.5 hours to cover 327 miles. The first 257 miles were paved, until Merille, where the pavement stopped. There was another swatch of pavement between Merille and Marsabit, but it was only about fifteen miles long.

Travel speeds on the tarmac (the more common term for asphalt/paved road in Kenya), could reach 50-55 mph, but there were dozens and dozens of speed bumps that slowed us down. Installed in common pedestrian and livestock crossings, the speed bumps alternated between the normal single humps we see in the US, and a series of 2, 3, or 4 smaller bumps in succession that required the bus to come to almost a complete stop to avoid throwing the passengers in the back out of their seats (which still happened to those of us in the back from time to time, anyway). There were also multiple police checkpoints marked by roadblocks and tire spike strips because the highway we were on is the main road up to Ethiopia. The checkpoints were predominantly used for vehicles traveling south, to prevent illegal entry from Ethiopia, but the bus still had to slow to a crawl or complete stop to weave around the spike strips or wait for the police to remove them. It took us about five hours to reach Isiolo, 167 miles from Nairobi.

Mount Kenya and farmland, near Nyeri between Nairobi and Marsabit. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

Mount Kenya and farmland, near Nyeri between Nairobi and Marsabit. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

 

Kenya is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. We traveled from the lush green landscape of Nairobi, through grassland dotted with trees, up to Nyeri, where we saw Mount Kenya to the east. Isiolo marked the start of the drier landscape, turning to desert reminiscent of the Southwestern US all the way up to Marsabit. The town of Marsabit is the capital of Marsabit county. The town sits in a forested area on an extinct volcano, Mount Marsabit, but the surrounding area below the mountains is desert.

Camels by the side of the road Marsabit. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

Camels by the side of the road Marsabit. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

 

 

Most of the other travelers – students from OSU, Mount Kenya University, and PFC staff – slept for the early part of the trip, but I only napped for an hour, I couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on the opportunity to soak up the amazing landscape.

The view from the Hula Hula school in the mountains of Marsabit. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

The view from the Hula Hula school in the mountains of Marsabit. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

 

 

I was able to capture quite a few nice pictures after the rain stopped, and the water dried off the windows. I took even more once I realized that my window opened, and it was warm enough to do so. (Overnight temps are in the 60s here, so it is a little chilly for us to drive with the windows down, and positively freezing for the Kenyans who bundle up in scarves and parkas during the overnight hours!).

 

Desert landscape south of Marsabit. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

Desert landscape south of Marsabit. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

North of Isiolo, the landscape turns to brushland and eventually to desert. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

North of Isiolo, the landscape turns to brushland and eventually to desert. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A river on the route from Nairobi to Marsabit. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

A river on the route from Nairobi to Marsabit. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

Farmland north of Nyeri, near Mount Kenya. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

Farmland north of Nyeri, near Mount Kenya. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

Lush green landscape outside of Nairobi, en route to Masai Mara. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

Lush green landscape outside of Nairobi, en route to Masai Mara. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several days later, the drive to Masai Mara National Reserve gave us another opportunity to see more of the country. The drive to Masai Mara first took us north west, and then south west, towards the border with Tanzania.

A "cactus tree", which is actually a type of euphorbia, the same family as Poinsettias. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

A “cactus tree”, which is actually a type of euphorbia, the same family as Poinsettias. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

 

 

 

 

Again, the landscape was lush and green as we left Nairobi. Fertile farmland gradually became more desert-like as we traveled west, and finally turned to grassland dotted with trees and hills inside the park.

The grassland of Masai Mara National Reserve. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

The grassland of Masai Mara National Reserve. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

 

 

The park is somewhat bowl-shaped ringed in parts by large ridges, one of which separates Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya from the Serengeti National Park of Tanzania. There is no man-made border between the two parks, and animals move freely between them.

The Mara River, with a crocodile in the foreground and a hippo in the background. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

The Mara River, with a crocodile in the foreground and a hippo in the background. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

 

 

 

Every July marks the migration of the wildebeest, who travel from Seregeti to Masai Mara. They cross the ridges and the Mara River for a few months, where they gorge themselves on the tall grasses, then mate before returning to Serengeti to give birth and repeat the process the next year.

A view of the Rift Valley in Kikuyu Escarpment Forest, Kiambu, Kenya. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

A view of the Great Rift Valley in Kikuyu Escarpment Forest, Kiambu, Kenya. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

 

 

 

 

 

The drive to and from Masai Mara also took us through the East African Rift portion of the Great Rift Valley, which stretches from the Red Sea to Mozambique.

 

 

 

Our next adventure will take us to the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for us on the shores of the Indian Ocean!

A panoramic view of the rift valley in Kikuyu Escarpment Forest, west of Nairobi. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

A panoramic view of the rift valley in Kikuyu Escarpment Forest, west of Nairobi. Photo by Alison Schwalbe

Entoto Maryam Church

Wednesday 5/21/14

On Wednesday morning we met with Dr. Hailu for our final presentation. He offered helpful suggestions for improvement, and we all felt satisfied by our work and his feedback.

In the afternoon, Dr. Hailu accompanied us to Entoto Maryam Church, a beautiful old building located up a winding forested road at the top of Addis. This is where original capital was, since it served as a strategic overlook, and where King Menelik II was crowned in the late 1800s. We saw many women carrying large bundles of firewood on their back up the hilly roads.

blue wall

blue wall

church

church

princes(s) entrance

princes(s) entrance

memorial wall

memorial wall

where to go?

where to go?

Afterwards, we did some shopping at the wholesale market Shiro Meda, where Danny and Niraj finally bought their Ethiopia soccer jerseys at a reasonable price.

Shiro Meda

Shiro Meda

We ate at the Lime Tree Cafe for dinner, a popular place with expats. We were excited by the sign reading that they wash their vegetables in bleach water, hurrah! Because then we could finally eat a salad, which we shared with gusto. It was the first time we’d eaten raw vegetables in almost three weeks. (Because the water they wash vegetables with is not safe for us to drink, we’ve been avoiding raw vegetables since arriving here.)

Finally we dropped Katie and Niraj off at the airport, who are leaving early for prior commitments. The trip is really beginning to wind down!

Three Natural Bridges

Skiles and I set out to find what we felt was the main attraction of western China, nature. It didn’t go quite as we envisioned it though.

After a bit of a circus ordeal with bussing, 3 hour bus ride, questionable lunch, and an unexpected additional tour fee we finally came to the first attraction, Fairy Mountain. The ride up the mountain seemed like there would be some pretty cool scenery once we got out and looked around. However, what we came to was literally just a prairie in a cloud. Also, we brought an empty bottle but were disappointed to find there was no fairy fountain anywhere. It did have a bunch of random cartoon characters and this guy in it though:

Yup, that's a random T-Rex. Skiles braved the water for a better picture but I decided to pass.

Yup, that’s a random T-Rex. You can tell by the tiny arms.

We then continued our tour, which was just a ride in an uncomfortable train thing back to where we started. So for those of you keeping score at home, we’ve spent a moderate sum of money and 6 hours of time to get cold and wet and see an inexplicable T-Rex in a field of grass.

At this point we departed for the second and last attraction of the day, the Three Natural Bridges. Once we got there though, our day instantly took a turn for awesome as we quickly discovered why this area became an UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007.

Our first glimpse before taking an elevator down

Our first glimpse before taking an elevator down

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IMG_2386 IMG_2450

Even I'll take a selfie at a place like this.

Even I’ll take a selfie at a place like this.

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Skiles' happy face

Skiles’ happy face

It was a breathtaking ~3 mile trail, and needless to say we left pretty pleased with our experience for the day, T-Rex and all.

Lucy, and Looking Away

Sunday we worked for a few hours in the morning because our deliverable to the GAP office was due today. By the afternoon we felt ready for a break, so most of us went to the National Museum of Ethiopia, where the fossils of Lucy and other early hominds are kept. The Awash region of Ethiopia is home to many ancient fossil discoveries, and we were lucky to see some of them.

Lucy!

Lucy!

Katie + Ardi = BFF

Katie + Ardi = BFF

After the museum, a few of us went to a cafe across the street and ordered some coffee, tea and pastries. The doughnut was one of the best we’ve ever had!

Awesome doughnut!

Awesome doughnut!

After yesterday’s excursion to the textile shops, the guys wanted to do a little masculine shopping, so off to Churchill Avenue we went in search of some swords and wooden objects. We pulled up to a small stretch of vendors which had many poor people asking for money outside of them. Several of the people were tiny children. After two weeks here, I still can’t get used to that, and my heart goes out to every kid. They touch their hands to their lips, indicating, “Give me food,” and hold their palms open, ready for us to place something in it. But we don’t, because we don’t really have food with us, and if we give anything, we will immediately be swarmed.

Child

Child

And that’s exactly what happened. After about 45 minutes of shopping and haggling prices with the help of our local guide Mebrat, we got in the van and all the beggars pressed up against the sides of the vehicle, talking through the windows, asking for food, or to sell us one more item. I closed my eyes, I could not look at them. I had to look away.

We drove off to dinner, to a comfortable night in our lovely hotel, to a night full of dreams.

Be careful what you wish for…

Tuesday May 13th

When the location for GAP clients was announced, I didn’t hesitate to sign up for Ethiopia. There was no thought, no contemplation, and no matrices of pros or cons. I simply used my gut and cashed in all my chips so I could work in Africa because I knew it would be an adventure.

I am an adrenaline junky. I thrive on fast-pace heart stopping moments that trigger you into fight or flight mode. In my mind, an African adventure might be going on safari or being stranded on the side of the road hundreds of kilometers from help. I learned that a true adventure is anything that just takes you along for the ride.

I knew Tuesday would be different because a few of us were flying from Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa instead of making the more than 8 hour drive. I didn’t know that arriving at the small, resort town airport at 7am was the beginning of a long and adventurous day. Our first shock came in the literal sense of the word. Upon entering the airport, we had to put our belongings on a conveyor belt to go through security. As Danny leaned on the rollers to take off his shoes, he was zapped by an electrical current. OUCH!  We all stopped to make sure he was ok, and then continued on our journey.

Our chariot awaits

Our chariot awaits

The flight was smooth, and we were all mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape below of us (not to mention grateful that we weren’t driving on the switchback road we could see from the plane). Upon landing, we easily spotted Asres, our local guide from Addis Ababa University, and piled into the truck that would take us to our lodgings for the next eleven days.

The Nile

The Nile

As soon as we pulled into traffic we were sucked back into our version of an African adventure. Cars were whizzing by us right and left. Pedestrians were inches from the bumper of our car. We were on sensory overload from all the black exhaust, dust and constant beep, beep, beep of coming from every direction. There was bumper to bumper traffic; trucks piled high with cargo, mass chaos in round abouts, and people using the gridlock situation to sell cookies to all of us stuck in traffic. WOW!!  The adventure was back in full force and my eyes were wide open to take it all in.

Water cans, water cans, and more water cans.

Water cans, water cans, and more water cans.

After more than an hour of driving over bumpy roads, behind loud trucks and onto dirt shoulders we finally arrived at our accommodations. It was time to settle in and relax while we waited for the rest of our team. As they say, there is no rest for the weary. Our planned housing had some unforeseen issues, and while trying to decide the course of action, a teammate’s bug bite conditions became worse. We all loaded back into the truck and drove 90 minutes to seek medical intervention.

More sights, sounds and smells grabbed our attention as we waited at the hospital. Addis Ababa serves as the hub for people from all over Ethiopia to come in search for treatment of malaria and other diseases. I have never seen so many people gathered outside in waiting areas, seated on benches near patient rooms or openly weeping over a diagnosis. I didn’t know where to look or what to observe. It was the most humbling experience of my trip to Africa so far. Luckily, our teammate’s situation was quickly treated, and we left to reunite with the rest of our team after their long drive.

I thought we were simply going to pick up the rest of the group and head back to our housing. We said goodbye to the University of Gondar driver, Amara, who had accompanied us for nine days. After hugs of gratitude, the adventure tapped on my shoulder to remind me it was still there. Our accommodations had not been settled. I watched as our hosts huddled around a computer and spoke in rapid succession. I don’t speak Amharic, but I am smart enough to know that they weren’t talking about putting us up in the Hilton. They entertained us by giving us a tour of the heritage museum on campus, which is housed in the former palace of the king.

Saying goodbye to Amara

Saying goodbye to Amara

palace selfie

Roar!!! The palace turned museum

 

Sitting in the office of the person who would play a hand in where we would live while in Addis Ababa, I thought about taking a shower and climbing into bed. I knew we had a long day ahead of us, and all I wanted to do was stop moving. But as before, the adventure heaved me out of my rest and kept chugging for many more hours. With no real solution in sight, calls were made to Ohio to seek help for our situation. Kurt, Heidi, Wondwassen Gebreyes, and Christine O’Malley were responsive, compassionate, and instrumental in our attempt to solve the issue.

While waiting for arrangements between OSU and Addis Ababa University, the team headed to dinner near the National Museum. My body relaxed and enjoyed the sumptuous food. We all agreed that we had found the best pizza in Ethiopia. Considering we had pizza almost every day, this was a huge discovery. But wait, there’s more. Yes, that’s right, the adventure wasn’t over. Lodging was finally secured for us in the center of the city, but now we had to drive more than an hour one-way in traffic that hadn’t died down — even though it was 7:30pm — to retrieve our luggage from the very first place we traveled to after landing in Addis. All of us were weary after having started our journey at 5:30am that day. I volunteered along with Danny to get the luggage while the others handled the check-in at our hotel.

Driving at night is no different than the daylight in Addis Ababa, except it is harder to see the people crossing the street inches in front of your car. The same gridlock we experienced at 1pm was still present even though it was 7 hours later. The place we were headed to locked the entry gate at 9pm, and I didn’t think there was any chance we were going to make it in time. Just when we would finally get moving, I would see brake lights ahead. It was touch-and-go for a while, but we arrived at 8:45pm.

With the luggage on board, the last leg of our adventure was coming to an end. For me it was full of ups and downs, twists and turns, peaks and valleys. Just when I thought I could breathe, a new roadblock appeared. Though it was exhausting both mentally and physically I wouldn’t have it any other way. I believe that anyone can have a normal day where things run smoothly and fall into place. But what is the fun in that? What do you learn if there is no adversity? Only by tackling what is in front of you does true adventure appear.

 

Gondar Churches

On Saturday most of the team got up early to drive to the Simien Mountains, the second-highest point in Africa, with tons of wildlife and natural beauty. Carla and I chose to stay back in Gondar to explore the city. Our university guide and host Sintayehu met us at the hotel and accomodated our request to walk into town, about an hour walk. Since Saturday is a market day, we saw lots of people from the villages walking through town with their wares and animals (donkeys, mules and chickens). Carla and I enjoyed walking past the shops we normally drive by, because we got to see a more close-up view of the surroundings. For example, we saw there was a barber shop and some vendors selling some delicious-smelling, fried street food. We stopped in a Western Union to get some cash, and it took a really long time. We have noticed that “lines” here, such as they are, don’t really exist. People often crowd around a bank teller or post office window, and try to get their attention.

We went to our first stop, King Fasiledes Bath. It was built during the 1600s as the king’s personal pool, and is quite large, about Olympic-sized. Now it is empty, except the one time of year when people go swimming for Timkat, the Feast of the Epiphany for Eastern Orthodox (the main religion in Ethiopia) in January. There were huge trees with roots growing out of the stone and bricks, and we also saw parrots and other brightly colored birds.

Hellooooo from inside the pool!

Hellooooo from inside the pool!

We next took a bajaj (motorized three-wheeled rickshaw) to Qusquam church. We were trying to get to the Selassie church, but the bajaj driver took us there by accident. It was a lovely accident, as we were able to explore the ruins of old stone buildings. We learned that many historic buildings in Gondar had been bombed by Somalis during the war.

Qusquam Church (detail)

Qusquam Church (detail)

For lunch we stopped in the Four Sisters restaurant, a tourist destination that capitalizes on foreigners’ interest in traditional Ethiopian customs, like ritualized hand washing. Sintayehu’s cousin Eden joined us, and then we all went to (the real) Selassie church together. We had to take off our shoes and there were separate entrances for men and women. Inside, the small church was covered in religious paintings that are about 200-300 years old. With Sintayehu translating, an elderly man dressed like a priest told us about the art. According to him it was painted on fabric and then pasted on the walls. He also explained the different saints, some of whom were Ethiopian, and Carla and I were not familiar with. Others were more universal, like Jesus, Mary, and the holy trinity. Selassie actually means “trinity” in Amharic.

Priest displaying works of art

Priest displaying works of art

Ceiling

Ceiling

Outside church

Outside church

We took the bajaj back, and it was so helpful to have Sintayehu with us. Not only for his friendly companionship, which really added to our experience of the day, but for his local knowledge of negotiation, and ability to get better fares for us than we would have gotten for ourselves.

Bajaj selfie: Carla, Sintayehu and me

Bajaj selfie: Carla, Sintayehu and me

 

 

St. Mary Festival Day

Friday May 9th

 Today was a holiday, the first of the ninth month in the Ethiopian calendar, the feast of Saint Mary. Ethiopians use the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian (which Americans and Europeans, etc use), and their current year is 2006. Their time follows the traditional Middle Eastern 12-hour clock, in which the start of the day begins at 6am, which they call 12.

Due to the holiday, our time would be limited, so we headed out to the rural areas to conduct some interviews. We drove about 30 minutes outside of Gondar to the village of Ambezo to interview the Health Extension Workers there. We were curious to discover what type of things they encounter in the rural areas when dealing with health issues of the villagers.

One thing that has surprised us and brought much joy is talking to the local children. When driving on country roads we see a few people, but once we pull our vehicle to the side of the road children swarm the van. They seem to come out of no where to look at the “firenje” (foreigners). During this particular stop we handed out pencils and showed the children how to do O-H-I-O.

Giving pencils to kids O-H-I-O

A particularly confusing stop for us was when we thought we were walking to a “kebele” (neighborhood), but it was really just a lookout point. It was a worthwhile stop because a little girl, Tigist, took Katie and Danielle by the hand and walked to the edge of the view point. She was very soft spoken and so sweet. We have found most of the children here to be very affectionate. It is so heartwarming to see the way they embrace us with so much trust and love.

Tigist

Kebeles have leaders, and we met with Asfow, the leader of the Charambazo kebele. He told us how laws passed from the government are enforced at the kebele level. For instance, Ethiopia recently had a very successful HIV campaign to raise awareness of how the virus is spread and can be prevented. The kebele leaders organized HIV testing and gave HIV-positive individuals agricultural jobs. One thing that would not happen in the U.S. is the manner in which the interview was conducted. We drove to a location where the kebele leader was waiting for us on the side of the road with a rifle over his shoulder. We picked him up, and drove him to his next meeting, all the while asking questions. One week into our GAP project and we are learning to just roll with it, as none of us objected to the gun.

The last interview of the day was with a local religious leader of the Eastern Orthodox faith, which is the most popular religion in Gondar. His time was limited due to the holiday, but he was forthcoming with information. The site on which we met him had a large building under construction that will soon be a home to people with HIV and AIDS.

Before lunch we stopped with our Amharic speaking client ambassadors to get a plane ticket from Gondar to Addis Ababa. This is where we learned the power of patience, and discovered just how valuable our translators were. We arrived at at the ticket office at 11:45am and the agent behind the counter worked on our transaction for over 90 minutes. Hunger creeped in and we shared two granola bars between 7 people. Luckily for us a distraction in the form of a “firenje” allowed us to take up the time. Shached, an Israeli woman doing volunteer work with the local street children, shared the wait with us. We compared notes on Ethiopia and talked about our experiences abroad. If you would have told me that I would spend over an hour and a half in an airline office, I would have told you no way that would happen because I buy my tickets on the internet!

After lunch we walked to a historic landmark in Gondar called Fasilidas Castle. We were shocked by the 200 birr entrance fee per person. Though that equates to $10, we haven’t paid more than a few dollars for any meal, and $0.50 for souvenir post cards. Again, our client ambassadors came to rescue by negotiating for us to get the student rate. We each showed our BuckIDs (yes, all of us brought them all the way to Africa!), and paid just 75 birr per person. The castle makes Gondar a tourist destination in Ethiopia, and lends to the richness and vibrancy of the city beyond what you may read or imagine to exist in Ethiopia.

Castle

Though we are thousands of miles away from home, Gondar allowed us to keep up with our daily practices. Friday prayers were attended in a local mosque, and Danny and Danielle went to Shabbat services at a local synagogue. Danielle noted that the temple was simply an open air space with a corrugated metal roof, and basic benches with a curtain separating men and women, as in the Orthodox tradition. Most women wore all-white: white head coverings, shawls and dresses underneath. She also noticed that while some of the prayers were similar to the ones back home (like L’cha Dodi – welcoming of the Sabbath bride – and blessings over the bread and wine), others were different. Congregants repeated the rabbi after every word, and at the end of the service, women called out a high pitched “ay-ay-ay!” sound, which would definitely not happen in most American shuls! It is nice to be so far from home and be able to keep up with some of our traditions.

Coffee is very important in the Ethiopian culture. They have a formal ceremony for roasting the beans and pouring the coffee for guests. There is even a special dress that the women wear for the occasion. Though some of the others on the team have seen this ceremony, I had not. To my surprise, when we returned to our hotel a ceremony was set up in the lobby. With no one around but my teammates, I saw a photo op, and sat in the seat to pretend pouring coffee. I was nervous when the lady who was supposed to perform the ceremony caught me in her spot, but she was gracious and covered my head and shoulders with her scarf. It was so touching that she let me enjoy the moment and embraced me with her clothing.

Coffee Ceremony

The night ended by participating in another Ethiopian tradition called “eskista,” which is apparently the dance that the Harlem Shake is based on. This is shoulder dancing, and it is exactly what the words describe. You move your shoulders in various ways to the rhythm of the music. I couldn’t believe there was actually going to be an audience for the shoulder dancers when we first walked into the night club. We were the only people there. After just a short time the place filled up with Ethiopian twenty-somethings dressed to the nines in nice jeans and shirts for the guys, and colorful blazers, dresses and cropped pants for the women, who also had their hair styled in sleek side-sweeps and wore bright lipstick. There was so much energy, especially when the musicians and singers performed popular songs that had the whole crowd up and shaking The dancers came into the audience and danced with us. It was so much fun and a truly Ethiopian experience. Another entertaining moment was when a male singer sang some double-entendre-loaded songs to the audience. It was all in Amharic, but we know at least one verse referenced us, because the whole club looked at us and laughed. I couldn’t think of anything to compare it to in the U.S. for our hosts. I felt like I was experiencing something truly unique to the country I chose to work in for the next few weeks.

At the end of a very long, but culturally rich day we all fell asleep easily. We knew the next day was going to have more adventures as some of us were going to the Simien Mountains for exploration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drive from Addis to Gondar

Screeeech! Thump.

I braced myself against the back seat of the van and waited to see what had happened. Our driver for the day pulled over to the right side of the road. A goat herder in a white turban carrying a walking stick approached us. To our left, the goat we had apparently just hit ran to the grass for safety. Kids started slowly collecting to our van like filaments to a magnet. Our driver and guide got out, while the guide’s beautiful young wife stayed with the rest of us. The seven of us looked at each other in shock and confusion. “Close the doors,” Ale said, as the crowd gathered. Javed and Niraj got out and stood at either side.

The goat herders, our guide and driver walked to the grassy area on the left, where the goat stood, its face bloody. They were talking in Amharic, arguing from the looks of their dramatic arm gestures. Our guide picked up the goat several times, perhaps weighing him, or indicating that he wasn’t badly injured. On our right, children from around ages 4-14 gathered. They had varying hues of dark skin and eyes, with closely cropped hair, a few shaved in geometric patterns. Big bright eyes, open and looking, mouths smiling when we smiled. By then, we had determined the temperature of the situation and had opened the door. To entertain the kids, Alejandra recited the few words in Amharic she had written down: “Hello,” “Nice to meet you,” “What is your name?”

Kids

Kids

On our left, the men were still arguing, lifting the goat.

Back on the right, Alejandra asked, “Should we count to ten and impress them?” So she did. One of the kids told us her name in perfect English. We looked at each other in awe. “Pencil?” another one asked. But we didn’t have any pencils available; everything was packed in our luggage and loaded in the back.

The driver came back to the van and got money out of the glove compartment. He brought it to the goat herders; later we found out he paid 500 Ethiopian birr, or the equivalent of $25. Our guide walked back to the van carrying the goat upside down by his legs. Some of us started clearing room for him, but others loudly refused. We had three more hours til Gondar, and barely enough space for the 10 of us and our luggage as is.

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Banana stand in Addis

Banana stand in Addis

The day had started about 10 hours earlier, when we left Addis Ababa bright and early 6:30 Sunday morning. Plenty of people were walking to church wearing thin white shrouds, sheer fabric wrapped around their hair and bodies like a toga.

We were surprised to notice many runners up the steep hilled streets around Addis. Lots of men running, stretching, doing push-ups on the side of the street.

Banana, people at church, Rift Valley

Banana, people at church, Rift Valley

As we drove further from Addis, crowded city streets gave way to houses and shacks further apart. The soil was red. We passed a cement factory, horses, donkeys, people herding cattle, oxen and goats. After a few hours the elevation grew higher, the air grew colder and thinner as we approached the Rift Valley. We stopped for gas, some kids approached us and we gave them some marbles.

The Rift Valley was extremely winding and extremely beautiful, mountains full of clouds and trees. A baboon ran across the road, then another and another, and we saw about seven or eight in one small curve of the road, including a mom holding her tiny baby. Near the top, women and children were selling plates of fruit, and Alejandra bought two full plates from a woman with intricate tattoos (either a pattern or script writing) covering her neck. It cost 60 cents for all the bananas and limes we then ate.

Rift Valley

Rift Valley

It got warmer as we descended, and then cooler again once the elevation once again rose.

We stopped for lunch in the afternoon, during a rain storm. Out of the restaurant window we saw at least two wedding processions around the street’s roundabout, including several donkeys wearing woven blankets, songs pouring out of cars, bajajs (small three-wheeled rickshaws), guys dancing in the back of a pick-up truck and dump truck, and the wedding parties wearing flowing outfits. By the end of our weekend, we’d counted over 10 weddings (asseh in Amharic).

Niraj stays classy with bottled water

Niraj stays classy with bottled water

We bought some cake for the road. Some of us were carsick and took more medication. Further along the route we encountered the beautiful light of the setting sun, people of varying skin tones and clothing styles carrying wood down the side of the street, and eventually, the goat.

* * *

After the guide heeded his wife’s quick response to our unease with the goat’s accommodations, and piled the goat onto a bus that had just stopped, we continued in the deepening dusk to Gondar. The roads were very winding and trucks were using their high beams in the dark. Our driver was exceptional, however, at navigating the potholes, sharp turns, people and (almost all) animals with grace and precision. We arrived in Gondar just before 9pm, grateful to have made it to our destination, to no longer be crunched in the van, bouncing around with luggage, and thankfully no goat.

Getting Lost

Recently, I made a trip to Lake Como in Italy.  Lake Como is renowned for the beauty of their scenic landscape.  It is a lake surrounded by large hills that are right on the water’s edge, and gorgeous mountains in the distance.  Lake Como is about forty minutes by train from Milan, Italy so I, along with five other friends of mine, decided to travel there for a day trip and return by evening.

We all met up at the Milan Central Station, which is the main hub for trains coming to and from Milan.  From there we bought the train tickets at a ticket machine, and we had two options, to either pick the train that would leave in fifteen minutes or the train that leaves in an hour and a half.  We decided to pick the train that was going to leave in fifteen minutes, however, that ended up being a poor decision because we were incredibly rushed.  It took a while for the tickets to print and by the time we all got our tickets, we only had five minutes to find our train.  It was the first time any of us traveled by train so we did not know how to read the tickets or which train was ours.  In a frantic rush we tried asking people passing by in our broken Italian, and everyone we asked would point to a different train.  We heard the station bell ring for last minute passengers so in a panic we all decided to board the train nearest to us.

None of us knew if we were on the correct train or not until the ticket stamper came around asking for our tickets.  He looked at our tickets and was about to give us a fine for taking the wrong train!  In hopes to avoid a fine, we all blurted out the few words of Italian we knew, and him, realizing that we were all confused foreigners, told us that he wouldn’t fine us, but that we would have to get off at the next stop.

On the wrong train, but still smiling :)

So when we got off, we realized we were in the middle of the countryside and all we could do was wait for the next train.  The next train came about thirty minutes later and we were on the wrong train once again!  In total, we rode on three wrong trains, and almost got fined three different times, but finally we hopped on the right train the fourth time around.

Getting lost usually frustrates people, but for me, it was a positive experience. I not only learned that I should always plan ahead for my travels and my studies, but it also gave me an opportunity to strengthen my relationship with my friends.  There was something about struggling together that allowed us to trust each other and to know that we could depend on one another. Also, since we had a lot of time to waste while waiting for trains, it provided us the opportunity to have enriching conversations and grow in our understanding of each other.

We arrived at Lake Como about four hours later when it should have only taken forty minutes.  Lake Como was beautiful, but surprisingly, I enjoyed the journey to Lake Como more than the destination itself.  Trying to communicate with strangers about how to get to the proper train, solving problems together as a team, and trying our best to tear up when almost getting fined, were more memorable than picturesque mountains.  This has taught me to be flexible with plans because they can, and did go wrong, and to adapt well in any situation I find myself in.  I guess it is true what Ernst Hemingway once said.  “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

We finally arrive at Lake Como!

Lake Como was definitely beautiful

Weekend in Cambodia

This past weekend I traveled to Cambodia and I had an amazing time. I traveled with a group of three other SMU students. We flew in Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia) on Friday and we left Monday afternoon (taking advantage of my 3-day school schedule!).

On the first day we arrived in Phnom Penh, our flight was delayed so we didn’t arrive in the city until 6pm. As soon as we got there we took a private taxi to go up north to Siem Reap where the great temples of Angkor Wat are. The trip took about 6 hours including a stop for dinner. It was a long ride so by the time we go to Siem Reap, we checked into our guesthouse and just went to sleep.

Riding the tuk-tuk from the airport to the center of the city

The next morning we woke up and set out to explore Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is a magnificent Hindu/Buddhist temple complex. It’s dedicated as a UNESCCO World Heritage Site to further protect and conserve the ruins. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century under the Khmer Kingdom. There are many different temples but Angkor Wat is the entrance to the entire park. It was the biggest and grandest temple.

The magnificent Angkor Wat!

We spent two days exploring the temples and there was still more to see! I could of easily spent another day exploring as the temples were so peaceful. Also, since it’s currently low season (rainy season) for traveling in Southeast Asia, there were fewer tourists around which made it even better. Luckily for us, the weather was in our favor; the most it rained was an hour during one day.

A part of Tomb Raiders (featuring Angelina Jolie) was filmed in this temple!

The best part about Angkor Wat was that nothing felt contrived. Although some parts of the temples were obviously restored, nothing about the temples felt perfect which made it even more beautiful. For example, there many statues that had their heads cut off because there was a period when riots happened and people stole Buddha heads to sell off to foreign countries. This didn’t make the temples any less beautiful, it fact it made it even more authentic.

If you look carefully, you’ll noticed that one of the statues in this picture is missing a head…

Although the temples were beautiful, I was more surprised by the poverty I saw in the surrounding area of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, and villages not too far away from the city. Outside the temples, there were many food and souvenir vendors and every time we got off our tuk-tuk (motorcycle bike with rickshaw attached) to visit a temple, hordes of children would surround us and ask us to buy bracelets and postcards for a 1$. These children were very young too. All of them were barefoot and their clothes looked like they haven’t been washed in months. They were extremely clever as they tried to persuade you to buy their items by saying things like “Buy 1 post card get 9 free!”. Another young girl asked my friend to buy some bracelets for his girlfriend and when he responded that he didn’t have a girlfriend, she said, “You know why? Because you no buy these bracelets!”.

It was sad seeing this because it makes you wonder whether these kids go to school or if they don’t have time because they have to help support their families by selling souvenirs to tourists. After coming back from Cambodia, I researched more about it and found out that despite the tourism that Angkor Wat brings in, 36.6% of the population lives below the poverty line (less than 45 cents per day). Many Cambodian children go to primary school (80%) but less go to lower secondary school (25%) and even less go to upper secondary school (9%).

I witnessed even more poverty when I traveled back to Phnom Penh on Sunday afternoon. We drove pass beautiful green rice paddies and along these rice paddies were houses where the farmers and their families lived. The houses are better described as simple shacks as the whole thing consisted of only one room. Even though we were only driving by, I could tell that there was no kitchen or electricity in the shacks. Bedding was just a blanket on the ground or a hammock outside. Kids ran around barefoot and naked but they all appeared to be very happy and carefree.

I didn’t realize that Cambodia is still so underdeveloped (which sounds very ignorant of me), but I’m glad at least now I’m aware. I wish I could of done more to help but we had such a short amount of time there.

I’ve realized that the most important part about traveling is not seeing new things or famous sights, it’s about learning and letting these experiences shape you.