Africa Part 3: Muslims, Monkeys and Marijuana

4 08 2008

This post is part of a series:
https://marksteele.co.nz/the-2008-trip/


Mark & Cobra The Monkey

Cobra The Monkey

Things are definitely turning more Islamic as we head south. The vans emblazoned with Christian messages are gone and we are now treated to Islamic prayers five times a day, thundered across the city from loud speakers high upon the mosques. Both on the island of Zanzibar and the port city of Dar es Salaam the majority of the locals are dressed in Islamic garb and much to our distress, the area is practically dry, it took my cousin Michael and I three hours of walking in the blistering heat to find somewhere to buy a single bottle of whiskey!

Zanzibar is truly paradise. White sand beaches, warm clear water, beach bars with thatched roofs, great diving and scorching sunshine; the affluence and luxury quite a contrast to the Africa we have experienced so far. We spent a week on the island; five nights on the picturesque Kendwa beach in the north of the island, then an additional two in Stone Town, the biggest town on the island. Kendwa was all about the beach. I alternated between the hammock, beach chair and a towel on the sand, and after a stressful day of this to and fro, I’d get a massage right on the beach, listening to the waves roll in while a dark skinned woman kneaded away at my muscles.

Kendwa Beach, Zanzibar

Kendwa Beach, Zanzibar

After a very enjoyable, but largely uneventful five nights in Kendwa we went south to Stone Town, which perhaps would be more aptly named ‘Stoner Town’. During our few nights there we were constantly approached by muscular black men trying to flog football shirts, crappy CDs of naff African music and then in hushed tones “marijuana, mary-jane, hashish?”

While strolling around Stone Town, Michael and I met three guys, one of which had a monkey perched nonchalantly on his shoulder. We sat down on a concrete wall overlooking the sparkling blue ocean and talked with the men about their lives on the idyllic paradise that is Zanzibar. It turned out the three were brothers and amongst other things, highly skilled martial artists. They went on to give us a demonstration of the Brazilian martial art Capoeira, while their monkey named Cobra, climbed all over me grooming my body hair with his delicate fingers seemingly in the hopes of finding some tasty lice to eat (unfortunately for him I am totally bug free!).

Tony and I Diving In Zanzibar

Tony and I Diving In Zanzibar

I asked the three Tanzanians how they came to know Capoeira and they told us they’d seen two Americans who were visiting Zanzibar practicing on the beach and asked them to show them some moves. After the Americans left there was no one on the small island who could teach them, so they obtained some instructional books and self-taught themselves to the high grade we were seeing now. Having spent so long mastering the art, they have since taken it upon themselves to share the knowledge and enthusiastically give free lessons to the enthralled local children.

As the afternoon drew on, increasingly more and more people showed up until there was a circle of about twenty smiling young men taking turns to do back flips, handstands and to jostle with one another. It was impressive to watch, these guys knew what they were doing and I think it’s remarkable they’ve gone to such effort to learn what they have. Their joy for life was palpable and I can’t help but admire their dedication and persistence to learn, despite being subject to such hardship and poverty.

Stone Town Wanderer

Stone Town Wanderer

As much as I was enjoying the martial arts show, I have to confess I only stayed as long as I did because I was totally in love with the monkey. He was awesome. Totally awesome. Incredibly awesome. We asked how long they’d had Cobra; three weeks they told us, they’d gone in to the forest one night and stolen him while he was sleeping. While I’m not sure I approve of this practice, after messing around with him all afternoon I can at least understand why they’d go to such lengths. We were so taken in fact, that later that evening while we were puffing away on a shisha pipe at a rooftop bar, Mike and I weighed up the pros and cons of one day escaping to a tropical island ourselves, setting up a beach side bar / dive shop and acquiring some pint-sized primates of our own.

Our mate Tony celebrated his 30th birthday while we were in Stone Town (although ‘celebrated’ is probably the wrong word, ‘lamented’ is probably more accurate). We dined at an outdoor restaurant, feasted on jumbo sized prawns and smoked foreign cigars with imported whiskey. Afterwards, Tony, feeling his advancing years, decided to take his wife and retire for the evening, while Mike and I decided to combine forces with some random Norwegian medical students we met on the street.

One Night In Dar Es Salaam

One Night In Dar Es Salaam

I’m not sure of the exact statistics, but I would guess that if you are white, under 30 and in Tanzania there is something like a 93.59% chance that you are a medical student – we found them everywhere. So with our new found Doctor-to-be friends, we set up shop in a dark, smoky bar and discussed our reflections on Africa, life, and our thoughts on which is the superior African beer well in to the early hours of the morning (FYI: it’s the Tanzanian Safari and Ugandan Nile Special). Swallowing the dregs of my now-warm beer I announced I was done for the night and left an inebriated Mike to fend for himself whilst I stumbled merrily back to our hotel.

Upon getting back to the hotel, alcohol consumption and exhaustion overwhelmed me and I collapsed in a heap on my bed and promptly fell asleep. Some hours later, I heard a quiet knock on the door. “Hello?”, I inquired, only to find a bereft Mike standing on the other side. Turns out he’d returned to the room a little after me and banged on the door for me to let him in, but got no response. He then banged a little louder, then louder still, then loud enough to wake up the manager upstairs, all the people in the surrounding rooms, Tony and Wendy down the hall – seemingly everyone except for me.

Spiders In Stone Town

Spiders In Stone Town

The manager then banged the door, Michael banged some more, everyone was shouting trying to rouse me from my slumber, but the long day of drinking had taken its toll and I was well and truly comatose. Accepting defeat, Mike lay down on the tiled corridor floor and tried to fall asleep. After several uncomfortable hours on the hard slate he decided to give the door one last try and it was this time I heard him. Despite my apologies, Michael was fairly unimpressed and to make things worse, I may have inadvertently inflamed the situation when I told him to “stop being such a whinging pussy – just harden up and deal with it.” I always seem to know just the right thing to say.

I once heard someone refer to the Tanzanian city Dar Es Salaam as ‘Dar is a Slum‘. I personally am not sure it’s honestly much different from any of the larger African cities we’ve visited, but our hotel definitely was a dump. Mike and I, each armed with a piece of footwear set about assassinating the legion of cockroaches crawling around inside our room. Big ones, little ones, anything that moved got a wallop with our sandals of doom. Our �window� was actually just a series of CD sized holes leading directly outside to the street and located right above our beds, so any new roaches would drop straight down on to us, one of them literally landing on Mike’s head. Too cheap and too lazy to move hotels, we instead had a midnight rearrange of the furniture in our small room enabling us to hook up our mosquito nets and after tucking them in under the mattress we climbed inside and took happy refuge in our impenetrable, insect proof cocoons.

Camp Cooking With Michael Jones

Camp Cooking With Michael Jones

Now, if we may, let us briefly move on to some more serious topics. Namely, coffee. I won’t claim to be a coffee aficionado, but I definitely enjoy a good cup and along with Michael and Tony we were eagerly awaiting some superior blends from the continent that grows some of the finest beans in all the world. Instead we found they all proudly drink Africafe, a rancid instant coffee which they blend with powdered milk to make a vile, lumpy concoction which admittedly, we chugged back anyway for the sake of caffeine.

So where is all the good coffee? They must export it all to the West I guess. We were in a supermarket back in Nairobi when a girl dressed in Nescafe attire tried to flog us some Nescafe Instant. I shook my head and told her “We’re looking for real coffee”, “Oh, but this is real coffee” she replied. No, my dear. It really isn’t.

We’ve had a rather drastic itinerary change in the last few days, we were going to go to Botswana and Zambia, only Botswana is expensive and Zambian visas were proving inconvenient to obtain, so we’ve now decided to simply abandon the West coast all together. We’re now en route to Malawi and Mozambique before dropping down in to South Africa. Unfortunately, this route change will mean we don’t make it to Victoria Falls, and as much as I was looking forward to seeing the biggest waterfall in the world, I had previously consented to all sorts of foolish nonsense like bungy jumping and gorge swinging while we were there, which I was more than happy to wriggle out of. To further sweeten the deal, Mozambique holds the promise of diving with Whale Sharks, Hump Backs and giant Manta Rays – all of which sound like a much more agreeable way to spend my time.

Eastern White-Bearded Wildebeest

Eastern White-Bearded Wildebeest

So onwards we go, a little over halfway through the African leg of this trip we now with just under four weeks to go before we depart the continent.

Stay tuned.

Mark
http://marksteele.co.nz

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Africa Part 2: Safari, Seregeti and the Complete Absence of Showers

17 07 2008

This post is part of a series:
https://marksteele.co.nz/the-2008-trip/


The Aftermath

Quad-Biking in Jinja: The Aftermath

I smell. My clothes are covered in dirt. I haven’t shaved in over a month and my beard is caked in grime and dust. Life in Africa is a dirty business. Tony, Wendy, Michael and I, have been on tour with Absolute Africa for the past 25 days, the last week of which we spent on safari in the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania.

In the day we’ve been cruising around in an open top 4×4, the boys hanging out the roof with cameras and binoculars, the humid wind whipping past our faces, while the girls sit politely below talking about whatever it is that girls talk about. At night we’ve been camping miles from civilization, our tents pitched deep inside the park, a few thin sheets of canvas the only thing protecting us from the creatures lurking in the darkness.

Elephants, lions, rhinos and scores of other animals roam freely over hundreds of square kilometres of open terrain, our guide warning us severely against leaving our tents in the night in case we encounter a hungry predator lurking amongst the tents – this message compounded by the scuffling and grunting we heard outside while curled up warm in our sleeping bags.

African Buffalo

African Buffalo

We’ve just arrived in Arusha, Tanzania this morning and it’s here that Tony, Wendy, Michael and I leave our overland tour with Absolute Africa and resume independent travel for the remainder of the African leg of this trip. Our tour with Absolute was terrific, our yellow monster of a truck handled the jarring, potholed roads with ease – although not always to the comfort of its passengers clinging on for dear life inside. The food was delicious; curries, meat and stews – a far cry from the baked beans on toast I was expecting and the guides were knowledgeable, helpful and everything else you would want in a guide. The other people on the truck were great and we spent many happy days and drunken nights exploring and enjoying the continent together. It was with some definite sadness we said our farewells this morning, although not quite ready to say goodbye for good we’ve arranged to rendezvous with the group a few more times over the next few weeks.

It’s been fascinating meeting the people of Africa. I think one of my fellow travellers summed it up best when she said “It’s arrogant to come here and pity their way of life”, which made me realize that’s exactly what I was expecting to do. It’s true that the Africans largely live a basic existence – there are still many tribes that live in their traditional ways and in the cities the public infrastructure definitely isn’t at the same standard as us in the West but this doesn’t seem to affect their quality of life much. All the people I have talked with are friendly, happy and seem optimistic about their future.

In Kenya we visited with a Masai tribe who still live in the same way they have for centuries, their homes are small, dark primitive huts made from sticks, animal dung and reeds. The huts take the whole tribe two months to build and last six years in the harsh desert sun, the dung and reeds fusing together to make a basic waterproof ceiling for the wet season.

Masai Warriors - Masai Mara, Kenya

Masai Warriors

A Masai chief can take up to seven wives, (which they normally do), and single families swell to up to 70 people and fill an entire settlement which is surrounded by a rudimentary fence to keep lions and hyenas from attacking them and their livestock at night. To find a bride, a young Masai warrior must leave his tribe and walk huge distances to other communities in search of a suitable girl. Upon finding a potential wife the young warrior must offer her family a dowry, traditionally a lion which he has killed, but in modern times with the rise of tourism the government have outlawed the hunting of big cats so the Masai trade goats or cows instead. If I was a young Masai warrior I think I’d be quite pleased with this development, I’m not sure I would fare so well against an angry lion with nothing but a spear to protect me.

Interestingly, Masai children don’t belong to their parents, but to the community as a whole so everyone in the tribe actively participates in raising the young. To enter adulthood the Masai must complete a rite of passage, for the young men this involves being held down and circumcised by the elders of the group, if they move or make a single sound during the ceremony they are deemed unworthy of being Masai men and are cast from the tribe. As delightful as this sounds, I have to confess to being pretty pleased not to be a Masai myself.

Lioness With Her Kill

Lioness With Her Kill

Tomorrow night we will be leaving Arusha en route to the island of Zanzibar via Dar Es Salaam. Zanzibar is renowned for some of the best scuba diving in the world, so I see a lot days underwater ahead and mojitos on the beach front in the evening.

Anyway, I’m back in the city now so I have no excuse for being so gross. Time to find a shower and put on some clean clothes.

Mark
http://marksteele.co.nz





Africa Part 1: Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Adventures on Public Transport

4 07 2008

This post is part of a series:
https://marksteele.co.nz/the-2008-trip/


Mark and Mike At The Ugandan Equator

Mark and Mike At The Ugandan Equator

I’ve never felt so white in all my life. My friends Tony and Wendy, and my cousin Michael and I have now spent roughly a fortnight on African soil and its impossible not to notice how severely our pale flesh stands out amongst the sea of black faces, I feel like a neon sign glowing in the night.

We’ve already adjusted to ‘Africa time’, the ambling pace of life here. Never order food if you have less than an hour to spare and don’t expect your taxi driver to be putting the pedal to the metal any time soon – it’s a little annoying at first but soon enough the warm, humid hours seem to expand and a lethargic relaxation kicks in.

The four of us spent a few nights in the Kenyan capital city Nairobi before venturing to Entebbe, Uganda to join a tour with the company Absolute Africa for three weeks. Nairobi is charmingly nicknamed ‘Nai-robbery’ after the huge amount of street crime that goes on there. After reading dire warnings in the Lonely Planet which were then compounded by the unfortunate tales shared by hostel staff, we nervously made our way in to the city, eyeing suspiciously every thing that moved en route.

Perhaps threatened by our fearsome New Zealand strength, apart from one solitary chap trying to flog a budget safari, we were left completely alone as we hunted the streets for the Ugandan embassy. After a confusing hour looking for the government building we finally found it down an unmarked alley and up a winding staircase where we handed over fifty American dollars, collected our visas and were on our way.

Chimpanzee Grooming

Chimpanzee Grooming

That night, we made our way to the bus station and jumped on a rickety old bus, full of fat African women in bright colours eating and talking at full volume. Within minutes of departing the bus decided to die, prompting some emergency roadside repair by the driver. Finally, after an hour sitting in the darkness the bus rumbled back in to life and we started our bone shuddering overnight bus ride over the horrendous potholed dirt roads to Uganda.

We were thrown violently thrown side to side, up and down in our seats, the air seemingly as often dust as it was oxygen. Tired, grumpy and with a film of sweat and dirt caking my face, it was with great pleasure that after six torturous hours, the road thankfully smoothed out and the heat dropped to a non-sweat inducing temperature allowing us all to get some much needed shut-eye. Having donned my ever fashionable eye mask, bright yellow ear plugs and inflatable neck pillow I drifted off in to an uncomfortable sleep only to be roused sometime after by an angry militant sporting a Russian machine gun. After kicking us all of the bus, bleary eyed at 4 o’clock in the morning, we were given not one, but two rough friskings on the road side by the Ugandan police, before being allowed to return to our seats and resume our restless slumber.

After nearly sixteen hours on the bus we arrived the following morning in the Ugandan capital Kampala. After waiting an age for them to release our packs from customs we jumped on a crammed mini-van which then took us another couple of hours to the small town of Entebbe, where we met our huge yellow Absolute truck and thankfully completed our current adventures on public transport.

The following morning, after an evening of getting acquainted with out fellow passengers (coincidentally almost half of which are Kiwi) we took a two hour boat ride across the choppy Lake Victoria to visit a chimpanzee sanctuary. Encompassing an entire island, the refuge now provides a safe home for sick or at risk chimps which are rescued from the jungle and brought here before eventually being re-released back in to the wild. Chimps, being 99% similar to humans in DNA are susceptible to many human diseases so the remote location of the island protects the chimpanzees from our illnesses, but also from people who are out to kidnap them for zoos and private collections around the world.

Baby Gorilla

Baby Gorilla

The chimps are fed by sanctuary staff five times a day, one of these feedings we were fortunate to be able to watch. We were led to a wooden viewing platform perched high above a wire fence which surrounds the dense jungle. With loud squeals and much stomping the chimps made their way down to feast on the fruits lobbed towards them by their keepers, squabbling and fighting which each other the whole time. From their physical appearance to their behaviour and interactions with each another it’s easy to see the genetic similarities with us homo sapiens – it’s kind of creepy to be honest.

It’s now been a few weeks since we met our big yellow truck and we’ve since driven countless bumpy miles, visited three African countries, seen chimpanzees, monkeys, gorillas, lions and scores of tiny black children in ragged clothes bouncing up and down, waving excitedly at us perched high up in our vehicle as we thunder through their small villages.

Christianity undoubtedly has a very strong foothold here, people merrily walk around toting Bibles in hats proclaiming their love for the Lord and vehicles everywhere are sign-written sporting Bible verses and slogans like “No Jesus, No Life – Know Jesus, Know Life”. Preachers enthusiastically evangelise on public buses, working themselves in to a frenzy of excitement, their arms flailing and their voice booming with the power of the Lord – much to the mirth of my heathen self.

Absolute Africa Crew

Absolute Africa Crew

We spent a few nights in Ruhengeri, a small Rwandan town, which is evidently a little off the usual tourist track – both adults and children alike stared openly at our alien pink skin as we wandered around buying groceries. I waved at one little girl on the street side which sent her scurrying frightfully to hide behind her mother, one cautious eye peeping out at me from behind her protectors leg.

The highlight of the trip thus far was easily the visit to the Volcanos National Park in Rwanda. After hiking through the dense forest with our trousers fashionably tucked in to our socks to protect us from the vicious fire ants, we visited a family of 27 gorillas living wild on the side of a volcano. I was expecting to view the primates from afar, but we soon found ourselves right in the middle of them all.

The gorilla family was composed of mainly adolescent and adult gorillas plus two babies and four super size Silverback gorillas, all of which seemed completely unperturbed by our presence. Standing off to the side of a narrow path in the muggy forest, we watched in awe as the gorillas climbed trees and then stormed past us in a cacophony of screams and chest beating. Once, with me at the rear of our group, we were following the gorillas up a narrow path through the heavy growth when I turned slightly and out of the corner of my eye caught a glimpse of something black behind me. I turned around to find just a metre behind me a quarter-ton Silverback idly watching me amble up the path.

Gorilla

Our guide had reassuringly warned us earlier on that running from a gorilla will only cause it to chase and beat you, so with my heart suddenly beating at a thousand beats a second I tried to slide slowly out of the way, my foot creeping back inch by inch. Suddenly the monstrous beast howled and charged forward sending me careening backward in to a bush as he crashed his way up the path, leaving the ground shaking in his wake.

Having left Rwanda we’re now camped out in Jinja, a small Ugandan town where I’m presently sitting with my laptop overlooking the river Nile, sipping a cold beer. We’re less than two weeks through the nine we are spending on the continent, so there is still plenty of time ahead. We part ways with the tour group in a little over a week, but not before doing two safaris through both the Serengeti and Masai Mara where we’ve already been warned about leaving our tents during the night in case we encounter Hippos or Elephants while doing our business.

After resuming independent travel, the four of us are going to slow the pace right down and spend a week or two diving off the coast of Tanzania and Zanzibar before continuing our journey south.

Stay tuned.

Mark
http://marksteele.co.nz





Travel Dispatch: Iceland (Jan 08)

23 05 2008

Snow Storm - Reykjavik , Iceland

Snow Storm at the Perlan Musuem - Reykjavik , Iceland

Particles of ice and snow stung my face. Shivering, I drew the drawstring tight on my hoodie and sneered in to the cold night.

Iceland – the land of murderous Vikings, ferocious geysers and dark bleak winters. Staring out the taxi windows at the overturned cars buried under a foot of snow lining the streets, I suddenly became acutely aware of the ominous slide of our own vehicle as we drove the icy roads. From my perch in front of the hot air vent, I glared at our Kaiser-Chiefs-humming driver who seemed blissfully unaware of our loss of traction, or the concerns of his six foreign passengers holding on tightly in the back. Davíð Stefánsson, the Icelandic poet, once said, “Það er löng leið frá Íslandi til Himnaríkis” or “It is a long road from Iceland to Heaven.” I was starting to have similar thoughts of my own.

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Travel Dispatch: Paris

18 03 2008

We sat in the brightly lit bar of our Parisian hostel, the smell of fresh paint and construction hung heavy in the air. I stabbed a large chunk of gelatinous meat out from my bowl and peered suspiciously at the oily brown liquid dribbling from it. Beef Bourguignon, a French delicacy, apparently.

Expressing Myself Through The Medium Of MusicI hacked off the fatty portion, deposited it on a napkin and placed the remaining sliver of chewy meat inside my mouth. Blurgh. My sister Lisa, who had been delicately removing small bones from her minuscule salmon steak looked equally unimpressed. With a sigh, we pushed our barely touched plates to the side of the table and vowed we would never eat at the hostel again.

Still hungry and €30 poorer, we did the only sensible thing one can do in these situations and ordered a round of strong drinks. A few minutes later we were necking shots of a mysterious blue liquid and thankfully feeling much better about the events of our evening.

The following morning, after trying to counter-act our hangovers with half a dozen cups of watery hostel coffee, we set out on a guided walking tour of the city. Walking tours, I have decided, are the best way to see a city like Paris, neither self-exploration or the prerecorded bus tours come close. Our guide told us lively stories from the history of the city, from the rule of Napoleon to the breaking of Bastille and the French revolution. We heard about the public guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the controversal glass pyramids at the Lourve. Despite the fact this trip was my third visit to the French capital I had obviously missed so much of the city’s fascinating history before.

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Travel Dispatch: Pisa, Pizza and Penises

13 02 2008

We’re in Florence at the moment, and I’ve finally relaxed in to this whole travel gig again. For whatever reason it always takes me about a week to get to the point where I’m just chilled and enjoying whats going on around me, free from the constant feeling of needing to be doing something of importance.

My sister Lisa and I haven’t even been close to squabbling once today, a rarity so far on this trip, and in fact it’s actually been a really fun day; I think we’ve finally found our travel groove together and we’ve got a good few weeks ahead. Bought myself a sweet black fedora hat at the markets before and together with my blue scarf I look like an art critic, or perhaps a wine snob, I haven’t figured out which. Nevertheless, either way, it’s quite appropriate considering I’m spending much of my days surveying frescos and sculptures, and my evenings sampling the many fine vinos from this fair land.





Diving with Whale Sharks

24 10 2007

My first published article!
http://matadortravel.com/travel-writing/mexico/travel-place/diving-with-whale-sharks

The engine slowed down and settled in to idle. It was late afternoon and the intense heat of the day had finally dropped a little, but the sun still tingled on my sunburnt face. Our boat bobbed up and down in the waters of the Sea of Cortez; the city of La Paz just off in the distance. My fellow divers and I looked quizzically at our dive guide, mystified as to why we’d suddenly stopped out in the middle of nowhere.

The skipper of our boat was staring at our guide who was in turn standing on the bow gazing fixedly out towards the waters around us. In curious silence we all followed his gaze trying to find the reason for our sudden cessation. Slowly our guide gestured toward the waters beyond; I turned my gaze but could not see anything remarkable, until I noticed faint shadows moving in the water. “Get your gear on,” our guide instructed in his thick Mexican accent, “Whale Sharks!” Evan, my dive buddy, a pool digger from Los Angeles lit up and a wide grin spread across his face. “I’ve been trying to see these things for over ten years!” he shouted excitedly, “This is going to be incredible!” We hurriedly put our wet suits and masks back on as the boat circled back around, and on the guide’s instruction we dropped off the side of the small white boat in to the sea below. Mildly disorientated, it took me a second to gain my bearings, then suddenly I recoiled in horror; I was face to face with a monster.

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