MARIES WORLD TOUR: Sixth Installment
My two-week Guerba (guerba.com) "comfort camping" safari came to an end in Nairobi on the last weekend in September. "Comfort camping," with its canvas beds and large tents, hadn't won me over, but we'd seen phenomenal numbers of lion, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, hippo, hyena, gazelle, buffalo, and elephants. I left the group in Nairobi and caught an overnight bus to Kampala, Uganda. I was going to see the rare, world-famous mountain gorillas at Bwindi National Park. Only twelve permits are issued for each day, to see two groups, and I had scored a spot by booking ahead on the Internet (visituganda.com).
After a few days in diesel-choked but easygoing Kampala, I caught a bus for a day-long ride to Butogota, gateway to Bwindi.
GORILLAS OF THE BAD GAS
A local bus took me from paved roads to mud tracks, past tiny shacks and villages. We had a flat tire en route, and at dark the headlights shorted out. Both were successfully repaired. After twelve hours, the bus arrived in Butogota where I hired a pickup truck to drive me the last 17 kilometers to Bwindi.
I was lucky. The Mubare group of gorillas -- the one my permit was for -- had been spotted near camp. Our search for the gorillas would be easy. The other group was far away, and tourists with those permits would have to search all day.
In the morning, I joined a group of five other tourists, one guide, two trackers, three porters, two armed guards, and one Ugandan university student who recorded the gorillas' every movement. Ugandans had great pride and scholary interest in their gorillas. Gone were the days of indiscriminate poaching and trapping.
After only ten minutes of breathless hiking up and down muddy overgrown slopes, we stumbled onto the Mubare group.
The dominant silverback and one adult female were initially on the ground in plain view, but then climbed the trees to join the others. They were all up on densely covered branches, hunting for fruit. Our permits did not guarantee sightings, just tracking. If we didn't actually see the gorillas during the one hour we were allowed to spend with them, it was our tough luck.
Perhaps, I thought, we couldn't SEE the gorillas, but we could certainly hear them.
We spent forty minutes listening to gorillas farts.
"Do they always do that?" I whispered to our guide.
He nodded. "They are vegetarian."
Finally, with only a few minutes to spare, the gorillas descended. The big silverback was about half my size and the others were small and squat. Their funny shapes didn't impede their agility, however. The gorillas -- for the most part -- gracefully propelled themselves earthwards by using branches and vines. They seemed to exert no effort at all. A few of them were less graceful, and nearly plummeted to the ground. It was gorgeous to watch -- twelve fat little apes descending as one.
"It's been one hour," said our guide. Reluctantly, we plowed through the mud back to the road.
I headed back towards Kampala, then Nairobi. I was desperate for a little downtime in an anonymous, big city.
JAMBO, I'LL HAVE YOUR MONEY NOW, OR, A WEEK IN NAIROBI
Kenya, according to my guidebook, had the world's third biggest gap between rich and poor. And Nairobi, nicknamed "Nairobbery," was reputed to be a lawless city, where tourists and locals alike are subject to frequent muggings and confidence scams.
With my big backpack and pale skin, I was an obvious target. Beggars followed me, touts shoved safari and hostel brochures in my face and kids demanded money for school projects. Toddlers barely able to walk or speak swarmed me demanding money and pens.
One man fell into step alongside me.
"Still walking, huh?" I didn't know what he was talking about. I'd never seen him before and hadn't been walking for long. I made a noncommittal noise.
"You don't remember me, do you?" he asked. I stifled a giggle. The "remember-me-from-the-hotel" scam was well-documented in the guidebook and on the "Lonely Planet" website.
I shook my head.
"John. From the hotel," he said.
"I'm not staying in a hotel," I lied.
"I mean the hostel. You don't recognize me out of my uniform."
"I'm not staying in a hostel." I looked at him levelly.
He knew I was on to him.
"Son of a bitch," he snarled and strode away. I was too surprised at his anger to correct his English usage. I'm no one's son.
I spent a week in Nairobi, where I saw families living on sidewalks, rich expats in SUVs, and trendy Kenyan youths haunting hip coffee shops. One deranged woman wore only a plastic bag, and a see-through bag at that. Nairobi's inhabitants, like its extreme economy, were bipolar. I had met open, giving, and friendly Kenyans in Nairobi. I had also encountered some of its most destitute. The schizophrenic population matched the statistical gap between rich and poor.
DENIAL AIN'T JUST A RIVER IN EGYPT, IT'S IN ETHIOPIA TOO
Dragoman (dragoman.co.uk) took me north to Lake Turkana and on into Ethiopia. Dragoman is an overland company, one of many in Africa but also one of the more upscale, reliable companies worldwide. Overland trucks, with their camping gear and kitchen equipment, are self-contained little worlds. They're a good way to see a region on a limited time budget, and in cases where there is no public transport they're the only way.
I had grown to hate groups in Southern and East Africa, where hostels and campsites were dominated by large truckloads of tourists. But since public buses did not go through northern Kenya to Ethiopia, I had little choice. I could either take my chances hitching on top of a cattle truck (where I'd be exposed to wind and sun for days on end) or I could go with Dragoman.
I left the group in southern Ethiopia and struck out on my own for Addis Ababa. I was trying to get a visa for Sudan, and anticipated it taking several days. I wasn't too optimistic, given world events. The Sudanese government had its hands full with civil war, and I doubted they'd want to worry about the safety of a solo American in the aftermath of September 11. To complicate matters, the U.S. had recently voted to maintain sanctions on Sudan. I had a few backup plans in case I didn't get my visa. I could take a train to Djibouti and catch a ship. Barring that, I'd have to backtrack to Kenya by cattle truck and find a ship there.
Addis Ababa was even more impoverished than Nairobi, but the destitute there begged instead of conned. It was tougher to react to beggars... I knew how to react to confidence tricksters. I ended up following local Ethiopian examples, and gave small change to beggars as long as my coins held out.
The group caught up to me on Wednesday, and to everyone's surprise (my own included), I had a brand new Sudanese visa to show off.We left Addis on Friday, and headed off on a three-week trip through Bahir Dar, then Gonder, and finally Axum.
Bahir Dar is the gateway to the Blue Nile Falls, the source of the Blue Nile, and the 15th-century island monasteries on Lake Tana. Gonder, with its 17th-century medieval castles, is the Ethiopian Camelot and Axum features some ancient, mostly unexcavated stelae fields.
Axum might also feature the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopia's claim is as credible as any, and certainly more so than most.
Ethiopia is often referred to as the "India of Africa," and it was no misnomer. It was chaotic and over-the-top, as much with excessive energy as with rich culture. Children waved and chased the truck, some threw rocks, and lots of people stared at us whenever we pulled over to eat lunch.
And yes, there was food in Ethiopia. There are still bouts of famine when rains don't fall, and the country still features an illogical food distribution system, but it is not a desert country (that would be Sudan). Much of Ethiopia is lush, and its famous "We Are the World" famine was as much a result of war politics as of food shortages.
I left the group again in Axum, taking my truck friend Monica with me. The group was going to the mountains, but Monica and I were striking out by bus for Lalibela. From there I would take public transportation back to Gonder and on to Sudan. Monica would wait in Lalibela for the group.
LOOP TO LALIBELA
Monica and I were helped onto the bus by a local Ethiopian man, and we were not among those evicted when the bus was overcrowded. We drove on to the Tigrean capital of Mekele.
The next morning, we caught the bus to Woldia, where we tried to line up transport to Lalibela, Ethiopia's top tourist site and home to rock-hewn churches.
A Land Cruiser driver agreed to take us to Lalibela for a small fee. With a Cruiser, wed get there in three or four hours. The bus would have taken eight.
But the driver kept delaying his departure and finally, by 10:30 in the morning, wed given up and were trying to hitchhike out of Woldia.
After hours of sitting in the sun and hailing vehicles, we ended up getting a lift on an Isuzu cargo truck. But it was illegally overloaded, and couldn't leave until dark. At seven, we pulled out of town with four of us in the front cab and about 40 locals perched on top of the heavy cargo. The driver was chewing qat, a popular leafy stimulant. The Isuzu broke down once, and it was midnight when we finally turned onto a dreadful dirt track the driver called "Lalibela Road."
The ride was interminable and it got cold in the cab. The passenger window was permanently cracked open and rolled neither up nor down. The door handle was missing in addition to the window handle. A coat hanger got us in and out.
Finally, between four and five a.m., mirage-like lights appeared in the distance.
"Lalibela airport," declared the driver.
As we stared ahead at the airport, our headlights cut off. All indicator lights, parking lights, and electricity just vanished.
The driver panicked. He jerked the wheel left while hitting the brakes. The left side of the Isuzu clearly, in seeming slow motion, crested over the shoulder.
We flipped, landing at a 45-degree angle, squarely on the drivers side. The driver and other cab passenger were silent, stunned in the darkness. The windshield had spidery cracks across it and a startled wailing had erupted outside.
I broke the silence in the cab.
"OPEN THE DOOR," I said.
"I cant," replied Monica. The passenger blocked her access to the coat hanger handle. For a minute, I thought we were trapped as the only working door handle and window was now parallel to the ground.
Monica poked the passenger and made him help her. Together they managed to lift open the door, which had become very heavy in its new incarnation as a hatch.
The passenger climbed out and turned to help Monica. But the driver suddenly came to life and clambered over us in a rush to escape. He disappeared off into the darkness. He probably feared mob justice.
We climbed out, and walked around the truck to a scene of chaos, lit by wavering flashlights. People and cargo were strewn everywhere, and everyone was screaming their heads off.
No one was trapped by the cargo or the truck itself, and it was impossible to tell if anyone was actually injured as everyone was wailing with equal gusto.
"Were going for help," we told the truck guard. He nodded. The other passenger told us not to go - everything about this was illegal, and the police couldnt get involved.
"Too bad. Were going." We walked off quickly before anyone could stop us.
We began a forced march, ignoring our little pains here and there. Mine was behind my left knee, in my left ribs, and along my left thigh. Monicas was in her shoulder. But we didnt want to stop and examine our injuries. Whatever they were, they could wait. We were both able to walk, but we couldn't say the same for the people back at the crash site.
Then, just before a bridge, a small old man appeared. He may have heard the crash, or the wailing, or he may just have seen a flashlight and two foreigners coming down a deserted road at five in the morning.
I opened up my phrasebook to the "Emergency" section in the back.
"Theres been an accident," I pointed out. "Danger, emergency."
The man nodded and strode off in the direction we showed him.
As he went, he emitted several shrill Xena: Warrior Princess-like yelps. A minute later, returning cries echoed across the fields. People woke up and started towards the crash site. It reminded me of the "Twilight Barking" in 101 Dalmatians. He was raising the alarm.
Monica and I continued our walk, with me being amazed that I was able to carry my heavy pack so far without difficulty. Adrenalin was pushing us on, and giving me the ability to ignore the pain in my ribs and leg.
Finally, it occurred to me that it would do me no good to bleed to death. I paused and looked at my wounds. The back of my knee featured a deep puncture wound, but everything else was just bruised. Monicas neck was sore, but she didn't think it was serious. Shed impacted only against me, but Id impacted against the gearshift, a plastic tray, a Coke bottle, and the driver.
We walked our forced march for an hour, passing Ethiopians en route to the crash scene, none of whom seemed surprised to see us. There were no phones out there, but word had traveled quickly by yelp-telegraph.
After an hour, we reached the airport.
A soldier wearing an AK-47 and a blanket approached us. We explained the situation using the phrasebook. He woke other soldiers, and they stared at us.
"Call ambulance," I pointed out.
They nodded, but didnt move.
"Many people dead?" asked one.
"I dont know," I responded, wondering why they werent springing into action.
One of them went somewhere, possibly to radio in the emergency. Or maybe he just went to pee.
"Two hours," said a soldier. Was that two hours until the ambulance got there? Two hours until the airport opened and we could get a ride out of there?
Then we realized the reason the soldiers werent reacting. They had no vehicle, and there were no proper emergency services in Lalibela. It would be two hours before there was anyone to call.
Eventually, we made it to town, saw the churches, and went our separate ways. I headed to Sudan via Gonder, while Monica hung around Lalibela waiting on the Dragoman group. She heard later that no one was killed in the accident, although there were many bruises and breaks.
SICKLY IN SUDAN
Ethiopian buses slowly took me to the Sudanese border. In the rainy season, the trip is made by trucks and can take days down the mud road. But in the dry season, daily buses run through the area. I was at the border before ten a.m., and was through with formalities and sitting in Sudan looking for transport by noon.
I scored a lift on a cargo truck, with a sack of charcoal as my seat. Fifty hours after being in an overturned cargo truck, I was back in the same risky circumstances, with no alternatives. Every time we hit a pothole or bump, I (along with everyone else) was airborne. Upon landing, my bruised ribs ached and complained. A knee was in my back, a crotch by my ear and god knows where I was putting my hands. My behind was wedged in between two sacks and my underwear stuck out for all to see. So much for Muslim modesty, I thought.
We banged and clattered along our filthy way for ninety kilometers. It took five hours. We were lucky. In the rainy season, the same trip had taken Australian writer Peter Moore (petermoore.net) several days.
At nine, we finally made it to Gedaref. After a night of being tormented by insects in a fenced-in yard with beds, I sat through an excruciating hours-long process of filling out paperwork and paying fees to get a travel permit, then caught an air-conditioned new bus over paved roads to Khartoum.
Just after sunset and a meal (it was Ramadan), we pulled into a disorganized huddle of shacks and small buildings. This was the edge of Khartoum, itself merely a larger collection of huts, shacks, and cement blocks, albeit mixed with a few embassies and luxury hotels.
I caught a taxi to the Danah Hotel, where I happily stood in a cold shower, letting the cold water rinse away the filth of Ethiopia and the Sudanese desert.
My plan was to go to see the pyramids of Meroe, catch the train at Atbara, and continue on for the 40-hour train ride to Wadi Halfa, where I'd catch the ferry to Egypt.
Instead, I spent two days vomiting violently in a Khartoum hotel room. At the end of my delirium, the BBC called.
"What were some of the highlights of your trip?" asked the interviewer.
All I could think of was my illness, the Isuzu accident, and starving through Ramadan in Khartoum. I thought of the confusing Sudanese tendency to quote prices in thousands when they mean hundreds. I thought of children demanding pens in Tanzania. I forgot about canoeing past hippos in Zimbabwe, barreling down sand dunes in Namibia, and watching the stars amidst Russian seamen on the "Direct Kiwi." Gone was the race for the bug-eating gold in China, performance art in Berlin, and riding ponies across the Mongolian Steppe. I blathered something inadequate about Ethiopian religious culture and hung up to mull over my bad articulation abilities in private.
My vomiting time had eaten up the last of my schedule's flexibility, and I had to fly to Wadi Halfa, on the Sudanese-Egyptian border. I hadn't made it around the world without flying, and would have to redefine my trip.
A squalid ferry took me on a 20-hour ride to Aswan, Egypt. The overcrowded hold reeked of overflowing toilets and bodies, but the ride was made tolerable by a German aid worker who was riding his motorcycle home to Munich. Together, we crept up to the flying bridge with our sleeping bags and slept out under the stars, waking up only to admire the view along the Nile as we passed the tombs at Abu Simbel.
From Aswan, I caught a train to Cairo and a bus to Israel, and a few days later took a Grimaldi (grimaldi-freightercruises.com) cargo ship from Ashdod port to Salerno, Italy.
I took advantage of sleeping four nights in one place and scrubbed the accumulated filth of four months in Africa out of my shoes and bag. I marveled at the cleanness of my clothes fresh out of the washing machine. I slept -- a lot -- and woke up in the morning dizzy and disoriented after coughing all night. My ribs still ached from the Ethiopian truck crash.
Did I have malaria? Were my truck accidents serious? I'd head to Rome to get a thorough checkup.
After the freighter docked, I walked through Salerno and caught a train for Rome.
I checked into a hostel, headed to the "International Medical Center," where I was diagnosed with a chest inflammation. Later, I would learn I'd been cavorting through Europe with a cracked rib, which had led to my various respiratory infections.
I was thrilled by the mundane. Subways worked efficiently, postal systems worked slowly but well. I could use any ATM, and could sit down on a toilet instead of perching over a broken seat.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I was inordinately excited about pedestrian things.
I was thrilled, for example, to:
After a week in Rome, I headed north to Zurich, and returned to Milan by the scenic Alpine "Bernina Express" railway. An overnight train took me to Paris, where I spent another week acclimatizing myself to the rhythms of the West. A ferry took me across the English Channel, and a friend took me shopping for evening wear in Southamption, England. I was embarking on the final leg of my journey -- an Atlantic crossing on the QE2 -- and I needed suitable dinner clothes.
On December 11th, I nervously boarded the most famous passenger ship in the world.
The QE2 (cunard.com) was not built as a cruising ship. She was originally (and sometimes still was) a Trans-Atlantic ocean liner. She was, in fact, the last of the great ocean liners, a breed of ship whose heyday predated modern passenger airplanes. She had been refurbished since her liner days, but would never be as glitzy as the most modern cruise ships. That was okay though. You don't go on the QE2 for the glitz. You go for the history.
Still, the QE2 had more than enough amenities -- a movie theater, casino, three restaurants, one cafeteria, room service, a gym, a sauna and spa, two pools, medical facilities, computer center with internet, a handball court, a shuffleboard court, launderette, beauty salon, auditorium, several bars, a library, a bookstore, and a Ping-Pong table. It was a good deal better than every single place I'd stayed over the last eleven months.
Unfortunately, all this fine living was wasted on me, a weary traveler with a sore chest and a lot of writing to do. It was a good way to see the world if you needed more comfort than my trip had involved, or if you were older and less mobile than me.
It was a fabulous way to finish up my year of discomfort -- battered and exhausted, I'd arrive home with a bit of class. Cruising, I thought, was like Internet dating. I was glad it was there for people who needed it, but wouldn't normally choose to do it myself. Still, if I was going to do it, I was glad to be cruising in style.
I disembarked in Fort Lauderdale, happy to be in the land of the free ketchup packets and the brave creators of "South Park." It felt strange and anti-climatic to be back on home soil. Suddenly, I didn't stand out. I had welcomed anonymity in Paris. Now, I suddenly felt totally un-special, like a big nobody. Just an American in America.
A taxi pulled up. While I was waffling about whether to catch it or look for a bus, an attendant said, "You better take it. Cabs here are as rare as hen's teeth."
I took it, laughing at the colloquialism that assured me that I had indeed gotten off at the right stop. A West African driver drove to the train station on the outskirts of town. I checked in my pack for the late afternoon train.
I walked to the town center, past hundreds of proudly-displayed American flags. A few things had changed while I had been out chasing cheetahs and facing down corrupt officials.
"God Bless America, Discount Auto Parts, Drills On Sale," read a sign on an auto parts store. I laughed, but the humor wore off over the next few weeks as I traveled up the East Coast to New York. I struggled to understand the groundswell of patriotism that was rooted in events that had occurred while I was out.
The worldview of many seemed altered to a comic-book style outlook in which good and evil were polarized, while gray did not exist. It left me scratching my head until I got to Manhattan, the glorious "Island of Misfit Toys."
NEW YORKS A GO-GO
From the New Jersey Turnpike, the skyline of Lower Manhattan looked completely generic, like Anycity, USA. I'd lived downtown for thirteen years, but now wasn't even sure exactly where the World Trade Center had been.
Safety precautions were in full force for the New Year's Eve celebration. Taxis weren't allowed near Port Authority, so I caught the 'A' train downtown. A middle-aged working man got on and addressed the car.
"This is ridiculous," he said. "They're out there welding down manhole covers. We have to stop somewhere. We can't keep living this way."
I nodded heartily.
"And we haven't even killed as many of them as they have of us yet," he continued. I froze, and stuck my nose in my book.
I had the keys to my friend's apartment, as he was out of town for the holidays. I went in, to the same place I'd left in early January. My computer was still there, although he had never hooked up my printer. I contemplated the empty skyline from his back window, and thought about fear and anxiety.
Fear, I thought, is largely based in misunderstanding, in the unknown. If you face down a fear, educate yourself about it, or simply recognize it, it becomes less scary. When I thought of taking the Trans-Siberian Railway alone across Russia, I'd originally been apprehensive.
Taking a cargo ship alone with a crew of 23 men had sounded scary. The entire continent of Africa has intimidated me, like Central Asia, East Timor, and going to see the Ugandan mountain gorillas in the park where tourists had been massacred less than three years before.
To apply this lesson to today, I knew that a lot of people were afraid of terrorism. Cowering or panicking, like the guy on the subway said, is no way to live. The point of terrorism is to terrorize. So face it, think about it, and go back to trying to live a better life. It's what New Yorkers have done.
It felt weird to be sitting on East Seventh Street, looking at a familiar but unfamiliar skyline. But after being away for a year, after going nearly everywhere and especially after September 11, I could say there was no place like home. New York was still a vibrant, multicultural, cynical but hopeful, fabulous place.
I picked up the phone and ordered delivery pasta, and watched Times Square's New Year's Eve, with all its sealed manhole covers, on television.
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