Mike's photo adventure weblog

Mike's photo adventure weblog: August 2007

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Africa #4

The conclusion of my adventures in Africa has come. The final days proved the most exciting and eventful, because of a few memorable journeys.

The bus trip down the coast to catch my ferry was sticky and humid, yet nobody would open the window. I had the aisle seat, so bus etiquette meant I had no control over windows. Then the woman in front of me opened a window! Ah, a breath of fresh air. But just then a woman across the aisle leans over, says something in swahili while scrunching up her nose and pointing to her kids, and the window begins to close. Usually I'm very accommodating but this time I had to protest. It was close to thirty degrees, cloudy, and 100% humidity. The woman said "But there are children here!" and waved towards her two kids, both clad in bright new fleeces despite the heat. "Your kids won't freeze. I can't breathe in here, I need the window open." She agreed, but continued to scrunch her nose everytime the breeze flew towards her.

I met two British guys while scouring Dar es Salaam for a hotel the night before my ferry ride to Zanzibar. We ended up sharing a triple room and traveling together for the final 5 days of my trip. They were both interesting secondary school geography teachers. Yesterday after two days on the beach - and a nice sunburn - in the north of Zanzibar island I bid them farewell. I chose the $1 daladala instead of the $5 tourist taxi for the 60km ride back to the main town. (Distances in Africa are better measured in time than kilometers, because of the strong variation in both bus and road conditions. This trip was to take 60 minutes in the tourist van but twice that in the daladala). The daladala bus was a small truck, with wooden bench in a U shape around the tray, with open sides and a thin roof. It was 'licensed' to carry 20 people, which believe me is enough already. The trip began with about 10 and I kept my bag with me, as opposed to on the roof where they'd like to put it. This proved to be one of my best decisions ever. The truck soon filled to 20 people, and my each time the vehicle screeched to a halt I felt the weight of 10 people sliding into me, pinching my knees together so hard I thought my bones would shatter. Each time we stopped (which was every few minutes, whenever somebody waved down the bus using the 'dribbling basketball' motion common to Africa), people would move on and off and I would have a second of respite from the pressure. At least my squashed body would have a variety of squashing, so no part would be numb for too long. At the halfway point of the trip, some men with large baskets stopped the bus. Each basket was nearly a meter long and half a meter high, and filled with fresh fish. These baskets weighed well over 100 lbs each, because it took 5 men to lift them - up onto the roof of the bus. After the two baskets were up, I turned to see what else they had. I had to look a few times to believe what I saw - a giant manta ray, more than a meter in wingspan, and dripping with slime and blood. As they heaved it onto the roof, I noticed a gooey liquid dripping off the side of the bus. The fish baskets were loosely woven, and the ray was merely strapped on, so nothing prevented their slime from running freely off the side of the roof. The locals on the bus noticed this and quickly unrolled the tarpaulin window covering to prevent goo dripping onto our backs. Seemed like a good idea, but proved otherwise. Instead of the slime dripping dangerously close but usually missing our backs and falling to the road, it was now being randomly ejected in all directions by the flapping tarpaulin - sometimes away from the bus but often flinging droplets into the seating area. I'm sure glad I saved a clean shirt for the plane home.

As my flight is midday today, I opted for the cheap night ferry back to the mainland last night. It would also save me a night's accomodation. Seemed like a brilliant plan to me. It wasn't, but like most terrible adventures they are worth it for their stories. We boarded this boat at 9pm and with a handful of other backpackers were shown to the 'VIP lounge' upstairs, with couches and foam mattresses. And cockroaches - but only the small ones. Later on, another dozen well-to-do Tanzanians joined us upstairs. I visited the bathroom, and noticed it was in a sorry state. I expected not to revisit it and was thankful for that. Upstairs, I slept well at first, despite the exceedingly rough seas that tossed the small ferry up and down, giving you the feeling of weightlessness characteristic of rollercoaster rides. I've always enjoyed that feeling, when your stomach goes up into your throat, and started to wonder how people could become sea sick. At 4am I awoke and the violent tossing was rolling me around too much, so I watched the angry waves splash over the bow from my bed beside the window. As I thought of something I had to write down, I took out my notepad and light. Within seconds I felt sea-sick. As I tried to sit up and breathe slowly, I took out my earplugs and heard the wretching of several others in the dark room. The air in the room was stuffy and unpleasant. I realized that fabric furniture, carpeting, and foam mattresses are not appropriate for a place that holds a handful of seasick passengers on a nightly basis. The air began to feel much more unpleasant at that thought. I scrambled downstairs to the bathroom, which condition had, as expected, deteriorated noticeably. A bathroom that starts out messy does not improve during a journey. I wasn't going to be sick, just wanted to use the toilet. But in this part of Africa people squat, they don't sit. So the toilet seat was covered in muddy footprints, and I had to use it in the same fashion. Believe me, that was a tough balancing act. I'm quite proud that I managed to avoid both being thrown off by the rough seas, and becoming sick given the conditions at hand. I went outside to get some fresh air and all was well again. I wish I could have had a photo of the second class seating on the boat. Bodies lying everywhere, limbs strewn over armrests, boxes, and railings. I even saw one man sleeping on a staircase - now that is a feat.

And so I've found myself back in Dar es Salaam, and ready to go to the airport. Don't worry everyone, I managed to find a shower at the YMCA early this morning, and saved a fresh set of clothes for the trip home. This whole summer has been an unforgettable and eye opening experience, and I appreciate all the feedback I've received from everybody. I hope you've enjoyed my tales and anecdotes.

I haven't posted my photos since the last update, because a hostel fried my card reader. (I'm glad I didn't plug in my iPod!). The latest photos will prove the best, so please check in a week or two for them!

Africa photo set


Monday, August 20, 2007

Africa #3

Since my last update I've experienced almost a week in
Kenya. I spent most of that in Nairobi and found the
city surprisingly safe, and refreshingly modern. The
people spoke English perfectly and the busy
cosmopolitan city was bustling with smartly dressed
professionals; suits, shiny shoes, and a mobile phone.

But the traffic was strikingly bad. Despite having
public transit (no subway, only busses; this is Africa
remember) the streets were choked with vehicles - most
of which would never pass any first-world emissions
test. It seems the tuktuk hasn't been discovered here,
which would help the traffic somewhat. During rush
hour, I could walk the 3km to downtown from the hostel
at least 20 minutes faster than any vehicle could make
it. And it's a 20 minute walk. Oddly, the traffic
police direct things during daylight hours, and the
traffic lights are ignored.
The taxis were overpriced ($5 for a 5 minute ride), so
I frequented the busses and matatus (aka daladala, aka
collectivo. They're private minivan busses, pouring
smoke from the exhaust pipe, filthy and crammed with
I met a woman on the bus while traveling back to the
hostel. She was smartly dressed, a receptionist, and
her english was perfect. She suddenly told me "I live
in Kibera. Have you heard of Kibera?". My eyes
widened. Kibera is the largest slum in the world, and
is located on the western edge of Nairobi. I told her
"Yes of course I've heard of it. But.. how can you
live there? What's your house like?". "I live in a
shack." Wow, I have since learned that lots of
gainfully employed people reside in the slum and some
even like the neighbourhood.

On my last day in Nairobi I was wandering the National
Archives and while searching for a balcony I found an
industrial scene on the rooftop, and took a photo of
it (see flickr). The security guard brought me down
to the directors office, and I kindly went along.
Thought it would be interesting, and curious what it
was about. Of course, he suspected me of terrorism,
because only terrorists take photos of non-touristy
things. Later the security guard outside the enormous
Kenyatta Conference Center stopped me while taking a
wide photo of the enormous edifice. He asked what I
was doing: "Taking a photo. I'm a tourist - it's what
we do", I responded. He slowly and emphatically
replied, "That's a very bad idea." Later I wanted to
take a photo of some movie-theater hot-dogs, but of
course that wasn't allowed either.

Another strange thing about Kenya is that smoking is
banned in public places. Outside. But inside bars
and restaurants its fine. This is one of those laws
that run contrary to logic (like Zambia making cars
daytime-running lights illegal). Its best not to
think about these things and just accept it: This is
Africa. Logic is out of the question.

One night in Nairobi I went out to a nice pub with
live African music and a relaxed outdoor atmosphere. I
knew that prostitutes were common in bars in Africa
and wondered how you could tell them apart from just
regular women being nice. After 20 minutes an
unattractive black woman sat down beside me. She was
even missing a tooth, and asked me my name. I told
her, and she told me hers. "Lucky". Well, I didn't
have to wonder any longer.

Everytime someone sees my Canadian flag they say
"Canada! Vancouver Toronto Montreal?" Always in that
order. They tell me that most people they meet are
from Vancouver. Perhaps Vancouverites are just more
likely to speak to the locals here instead of ignoring

Its nearly everyday that I do a double-take and see
something totally random that makes me laugh. Most
people in East Africa buy second-hand clothes, and
most of these clothes come from North America. So you
encounter the most random and fun shirts. Example: a
kid on the side of the train tracks in Tanzania with
an old-school Canucks logo on his sweater. Or a
begging man on the street wearing a Vancouver Sea Bus
shirt. Or a guy in Dar es Salaam wearing the high
school phys-ed uniform from the school that a fellow
traveler attended in Washington DC. Two of my
favourite shirt sightings were a teenager with a shirt
reading "#1 Grandpa", and another time a young man
with a shirt explaining "It's not a bald spot, it's a
solar panel for my sex machine".
And it extends to vehicles too. A matatu (remember,
minivan bus) painted with Toronto Blue Jays colours
and logos all over it. And Africans don't even like

I also spent two days in Hell's Gate National Park with a dutch traveler. The park is one of the only you can bicycle and hike through, and the Rift Valley scenery was beautiful. I discovered that zebras and gazelles are terrified of humans on bicycles or foot but completely ignore vehicles. We even explored a naturally carved river gorge and had to rock climb over hot-springs. This area is very geologically active and the government generates electricity from geothermal energy. It reminded me of Iceland.

Last night I took a night train to Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast. In the morning we passed through Tsavo, famous for the man-eating Tsavo lions. Back when the railway was being built, over one hundred workers were eaten by lions. There's even a movie about it which I've seen: The Ghost and the Darkness. Now I'm heading south to Zanzibar where I'll spend the rest of my trip on the sunny archipelago rich in history and culture.

As usual check out my flickr photos by clicking the thumbnail above!


Monday, August 13, 2007

Africa #2

I've returned from my safari to Lake Manyara, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater. The wildlife was plentiful and we saw everything I wanted besides a rhinocerous (I'm told on cold days they hide in the woods.) We even saw a rare tree-climbing lion, and the very shy and hard to spot leopard. I also loved the elephant that charged towards our landcruiser, but happily ran past when we moved out of its intended path. But the wildlife wasn't the highlight, it was the scenery.
The African Rift Valley extends from Ethiopia to Mozambique and represents a failed attempt by the earth to rip apart the continent. As a result a stunning landscape was created with sharp escarpments and steep valleys. On route to Serengeti, you climb an escarpment and look out upon the vast Lake Manyara. The lake seems enormous, because you cannot see across it. The air is not very clear, likely due to the dust created by the dry conditions of the season. As you climb the escarpment up hundreds of meters, you eventually begin to drive along the rim of the Ngorongoro crater. This is the largest caldera creater in the world, formed by a massive volcano exploding and collapsing into itself. The views had to wait, because we drove up in the morning, and all we saw was an impenetrable fog and an increasingly thick jungle of vegetation. We saved the crater for last, and continued towards the Serengeti. As we descended back down the hundreds of meters to the plains, the scenery once again changed to dry savanna; the monotony only broken by an occasional stand of small trees or a kopje (granite outcrop) in the distance. As we approached the gates to the Serengeti National Park the plains seemed to get larger and before long, nearly the entire horizon was a laser-straight line and I felt at sea. Perhaps this is what living in Saskatchewan feels like, minus the lions and giraffes.
We went to the crater last, and camped on the rim. We arrived in the dark and a thick fog was rolling in. The camp was packed full of tents and one huge umbrella tree loomed over everything, its silhouette just barely visible in the dark and fog. My guide advised me to move my tent away from the edge of the clearing - elephants and wildebeest frequently barge through. In fact, in the pitch dark that evening an elephant walked right into camp and drank from the water tanks, and a wildebeest loudly munched in the bushes just behind the toilets. The next morning we descended through the fog into the crater and witnessed another impressive landscape. This crater is a permanent home to many species like zebra, wildebeest, buffalo, elephants, lions, and rhinos. And everywhere you turn there are huge herds running past you, or a lion sleeping only a few dozen meters from some overconfident zebras. It was marvelous.

The whole safari was very cheap, because of course I chose the cheapest budget company I could find. I was considering going with the second cheapest option, but when the cheapest option director mentioned the group would be me plus three ladies, it pretty much sealed the deal. Boy was that a mistake.
My luck would put me with three British ladies who had never camped before. Never even slept in a tent either. And being a budget safari, we were putting up and taking down our own tents each night. Rather, that's what supposed to happen. Instead, I was doing everything. And these are old-school canvas tents with broken poles and bent pegs.
The first night I was showing them how to put up their tent and one said to me "But Mike, we don't need to learn how to put up a tent. We never go camping." One morning I even had to lend them my torch (they only had 1 between them), and pack my belongings in the dark. Then take down and put away my tent in the dark. And they still hadn't even finished packing. But they learned something about camping and I learned something about patience, and we all got along in the end.
Two of the girls had SLR cameras, but one of them really said some silly things. Like "SLR - Standard Light Reflex" or after using my camera for a photograph she commented "Hah, very nice fake-shutter sound" (my camera's a D-SLR and makes the same mirror-flip sound like every other SLR).

My favourite quote of the trip from one of them was the night we rolled into the very basic camp in the middle of the Serengeti, where lions have been known to sleep with their head against your door. This camp has no power or running water, and only pit toilets. She asked, "Where can I charge my iPod?". Classic.

I've since left Tanzania and spending a week in Kenya. I'm in Nairobi now and the people are even nicer than in Tanzania, and the city seems even safer than Arusha or Dar es Salaam despite what the guidebooks say about the dangers of Nairobbery. I've found a wonderful backpackers hostel, which is harder than you think in East Africa. (This place isn't well set up for budget tourists' accomodation, like South America or Europe. Most tourists to Africa are very wealthy and you're never short of $500+ hotels).

As usual I've been posting photos on flickr (click thumbnail above). More are coming when I can find a card reader. The last hostel's computer fried mine. At least it didn't fry the photos too.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

Africa Update #1

So, I got robbed. Well, maybe the correct word is
conned. Where can you draw the line? If you figure
out you've been conned within 10 seconds, and the
perpretrators are still visible, does a connery turn
into a robbery? I was trying to change money on the
street because the official places were closed on
Sunday, but instead I paid $50 to learn a valuable
lesson in Livingstone (on the Zambian/Zimbabwe border).
After they had taken the money
I yelled 'thief' and gave chase, but my groceries
slowed me down and they hopped into a van around the
corner. A woman with some friends on the street
scolded me afterwards: "Why didn't you yell louder!?
We would have caught them if we heard you. Next time
don't be so quiet!".
It was essentially my first day traveling alone, and I
felt pretty stupid. I have encountered so many
friendly Zambians (all of them) and let myself become
naive. I was pretty down on myself, but tried to
forget about it because the next morning I was going
to bungee jump off the bridge to Zimbabwe -- one of
the highest bungees in the world. That would help me
forget about what happened.
But in the morning I find out that the bungee doesn't
run Mondays. It's the worker's day off. Why close
one of the biggest tourist attractions in Africa for
1/7th of the week, rather than switching staff? If
you're asking such logical questions like this, you
haven't been in Africa long enough. I had to catch a
45 hour train ride to Tanzania the following day so I
couldn't wait, and I didn't get the chance to bungee.
However, during my day wandering around town, I was
going to pay attention to everyone's face so I could
try and catch my conman. After the entire day of
errands and sightseeing, I resolved myself to the fact
that any man smart enough to con tourists was also
smart enough to lay low for a day.
Around 16:00 I realized I still hadn't changed money,
and rush to the official FX office. Comparing rates,
a man tapped me from behind and asked if I needed to
change money. I turned around and couldn't believe
what I was seeing: the stupidest conman in the world,
staring back at me without even recognizing who I was.
I casually put my arm over his shoulder and explained
who I was, asked for my money back, as I looked for a
policeman on the street. The guy protested at first,
then bounded away like lightning when he realized who
I was. I learned my lesson from yesterday, and within
seconds my chase was joined by 5 guys. Then my 5
helpers yelled ahead and we were joined by 10 more.
In under a minute, the man was caught and my posse had
grown to 30 people. They asked me what he did and I
told them. Then the fun began. The thirty enraged
townspeople were climbing over each other to slap-down
the conman. Hard, echoing, open-hand slaps rained
down on his face, his smooth head, and his back. The
cops arrived and we stopped the crowd after a minute,
and dragged his sorry ass the the station. I didn't
expect my money back, but figured this was $50 well
spent. Fortunately, his father came and offered to
repay me if I dropped charges. I accepted, and in my
remaining few hours in Livingstone before catching a
nightbus north, I had a wonderful dinner with a
friendly Welshman I met.

I'm now in Dar Es Salaam after a wonderful 50 hour train ride from Zambia to Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). The Chinese built railway line and railway cars made me laugh -- the toilets were just holes in the floor, the signs were all in Chinese, and the sink and shower drainage was ridiculous (check my flickr page soon for those photos). I met more fascinating people, this time a group of young Christian 'believers' with whom I spoke for hours. The trip was wonderful, cheap (half price for students costing me $22), and didn't seem long at all despite the 1900km journey. We passed through game parks and purchased delicious food out the window everytime the train stopped (which was very common and usually without apparent reason).

And now Dar es Salaam. This city has a wild mix of Indians, Arabs and Africans, with most people of muslim faith. I know this because this morning before dawn a man with a megaphone was outside the hotel, booming the arabic morning prayers to whole neighbourhood. And this happens every morning. Here the weather is humid and stuffy, and despite the proximity to the ocean there is little breeze. I think I got athlete's foot from walking for 10 minutes with sandals down the filthy and odour-filled streets. The city is not very tourist friendly, and things are expensive ($15 hotel and $8 for a nice restaurant meal). The hotels' single rooms were all full, but I met a Jewish-Canadian and we shared a double room. And lots of travel stories. The Tanzanians are far less kind than Zambians, far more aggressive, and speak far less English (Swahili is their common language). Zanzibar is near, but I'm heading inland to Arusha to find a safari.

Click the link in the thumbnail above for my flickr photos!

Kwa heri,