Monday, December 29, 2008

Going anyway

Well, in typical Egyptian fashion, the parents' filming work seems to have mysteriously disappeared and nothing has happened. I'd advise anyone wanting to work in Egypt to seriously take that into consideration. It is the norm.
So we are leaving to Israel on the night bus tonight, we've delayed long enough. I suppose you'd think it a bad idea but really, this Gaza thing always seems to be happening over there. It'll be a quick visit anyway and we've got couchsurfing hosts a friends there to help us out :) We won't be anywhere near Gaza and I'm sure the security will be through the roof.
On a crazy note, I have no idea how we missed it in our time before but apparently they sell fireworks here. Had we known we could've had some serious fun with the group before. But, get this, we have been here nearly 3 weeks. For most of that time there has been an American guy here (from Texas) that just arrived and wants to independently study the local dialect of Arabic (he studied a few years of standard at home, which is very, very different). We sort of took him in and corrupted his mind as to the real Egypt, showed him around, etc, etc. Well, he found the fireworks and being Texan is a bit of a nut so with dad's inspiration bought a bunch. One thing has lead to another and now he's setting off Saturn Batteries (a 25-shot rapid-fire whistling bottle rocket thing) with cigarette timers hidden in plastic bags around the neighbourhood to freak people out. Ok, so this is all quite childish and could probably get someone in trouble but I want to bring up a strange thought. Studying Arabic -> random acts of prototerrorism? I could throw something in there about the Texas - Middle East/Arabic connection too......
Pray for us.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The New Plan

Well, Merry Christmas to all of you guys. Ours was not very exciting, we just slept all day or sat around as is the usual for us here in Cairo. I've been sick lately and if fact most of us have not been feeling all that well. Maybe it's the sudden drop in (relative) temperature, but my guess is that it has to do with the going home theory of mine. I almost always get sick shortly after going home from traveling because the body and mind suddenly relax and the bugs can get you. Being back in Cairo really did feel like going home and was much less stressful than all the hectic speed travelling of late, hence being ill.
I guess I've been here about 3 weeks now already. Wow, time flies here. Cairo has a strange affect on us because after months of going to bed at sunset or shortly thereafter, suddenly we find ourselves up until 3am again. I spent the first two weeks living on the computer here in the hotel trying to upload photos and sort out the plans for the next leg of the journey. Nothing like the total freedom of saying "Where shall I fly to next week?" and totally being able to do it. In the end I think've I've come up with something that should keep you guys interested.
Ok, so the plan is this, we are going to quickly visit Israel before leaving the region since we no longer need to worry about the stamp in our passport getting us refused to the neighbouring Arab countries. We actually should be over there now except for the filming that mom and dad will do on the 27th at the pyramids. The money was too good to refuse so we've postponed a few days and now we'll have to see Israel in a rush.
From Israel we come back to Cairo and then fly to Manila in the Philippines! We found a great price on a flight and we'd love to get back to Asia again. We'll be in the Philippines for about 5 weeks before flying to Malaysian Borneo for 3 weeks and then we're off to Jakarta, Indonesia. Those flights are booked (really cheap, gotta love and we'll start making it up from there. At some point, somewhere on Borneo, our friend Jake (who travelled with us briefly in Morocco and Mauritania) will meet up with us again and we will continue together as much as possible. It sounds like fun and I am honestly very excited for this next stretch. The parents are too as it keeps them in the sun a little longer!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A new beginning

It's pretty hard to believe that the girls have gone. We said bye to Savannah 11 days ago as we rushed her off to the airport in Cairo. It was a last minute decision for her to leave and a quick dash and panic to get her there on time. We all lost a decade of life getting her there, eek! The goodbyes were so fast as she ran to catch her flight, thus no time for tears and mush. We miss her. Maybe she will write and tell what is going on now with her.
Bre, Ben and Kees said bye to us a week ago and headed off to the Libyian border. They had bureaucratic crap to deal with and got turned back at the border. They were back in Cairo again today. We had our final final goodbye (hopefully for them) with big hugs this evening on the street in front of our favourite koshary shop. Again it was fast as they have to drive all night tonight to get back to the border. They aren't going to be in England by Christmas unfortunately, hopefully by the new year. Wish them luck, they need a little or should I say a lot, considering all the hangups they have had in the last bit. We are now down to three. Ammon is happy to be in charge again and planning and strategizing the next few months of our lives. What he's coming up with is looking exciting.
Coming back to Cairo was like coming home. We know where things are and the people are the same in the hotel. Its got a different feel to it. I think it's because it's winter time. The atmostsphere both literally and figurativly is so much better. The sky has been blue, not so much smog, and the people calmer. Walking in the street is almost pleasent, there are even couples walking arm in arm (this you never saw a year ago). We got a call from Nova, our old agent, today and he has a job for us in a documentory in a few days. It will be fun for old time's sake before we leave this continent.
I really am happy with my experience in Africa. I got to see so much and meet so many people. I will miss all the big white shiny teeth smiling at us. I will also really miss the hyenas' call in the night (that is a scary sound). Crazy as it sounds I'm going to really miss the bush camping and the sleeping in tents that we've been doing for the last 8 months. We sent the tent home with the girls. We are trimming our back packs down to almost nothing for the next part of this adventure. After 8 months in a truck and not having to carry stuff we have gotten lazy and out of shape so I am dumping almost everything this time around. I'm excited!!! Back into the warm weather and shorts.
Thanks for being our fan and friend Shean and any other regulars that we don't hear from.

Monday, December 15, 2008

New photos and videos!!

After a couple days straight on the computer I've finally finished uploading the latest round of photos to get us up to date (Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan) and have also put up two videos that Kees made from South Africa.

This is us cooking an omelet with an ostrich egg in Outdshoorn, South Africa.

This is the day of shark cage diving!


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Back into Egypt

I know that we trashed Egypt with our previous stay because of all the problems we had there and one year later I can honestly say not many of us were looking forward to being back. Oh sure, there were a few things we missed like koshary and cheap goods, but on the whole we would've skipped it somehow had we been on our own I think. But time heals all wounds (for most people, Savannah excepted) so we weren't exactly traumatized by the thought of going back and had almost convinced ourselves that it couldn't possibly be as bad as we thought. Maybe we were just in bad moods and a second visit would be a good way to prove that we overreacted the first time.
Here I was trying to be open-minded and give a fresh chance to the country, but, unbelievable to me, I was disgusted with Egyptians almost immediately upon entering the ferry terminal in Wadi Halfa, Sudan. 300 of the 450 passengers were Egyptian and I swear you could feel the intelligence and decency running out of the room like a blast of cold air. Even the Sudanese were complaining about them. There really is something different about them and an uncomfortable seediness to the guys that really didn't exist with Africans or even the Sudanese. We just avoided everyone but I must say that without Magdy helping us out it would've been pretty rough in the terminal. Talk about mass chaos with lots of pushing, shoving and shouting. Recently the Egyptians found a guy with guns getting off the boat heading to Israel so now there are "increased security measures". All that means is more chaos which probably makes it easier to sneak something through. They set up a very crude barrier of chairs so force people through one way and get searched and the next thing you know, people are shoving each other through the line past the guards and hopping over the chairs to get around. We must've gone through at least 6 checks before getting on the boat. It left 3 hours late as a result. The best place to stay on the boat during its 17 hour journey to Aswan is under the lifeboats on deck. You can isolate yourself and be in the fresh air and not cramped inside. The ride itself wasn't bad, most of it was through the night so we didn't see much actually. Not that rocky desert and no life right up to the edge of the water is anything really to see.
We thought 17 hours was the time to Aswan but no, that is just the sailing time and then you have to deal with the Egyptian authorities. That meant sitting outside port for 2 hours while a little boat came over to check us out. Then we pulled up to the dock, parked perpendicular to in and waited another 2 hours while immigration stamped everyone's passport on the boat. After that we pulled up and mass chaos ensued while everyone rushed off the boat and into the customs building. In the customs building they randomly searched most people's bags (not ours) amidst lots of pushing and shoving. Through another check after that and then finally, just when you think you're free, there is another check at the exit gate with a bag scanner and a metal detector that everyone has to pass through. As if people hadn't been waiting long enough and been through enough checks. You can imagine that nobody was interested in lining up or being friendly anymore, including us. We cut to the front of the line and like all the others, did plenty of pushing and shoving. The worst offender was an older guy who was downright vicious and almost got his head bashed in by a black Sudanese guy but whenever he was criticized he would just shout "Allah Akbar" (God is great) and expect the waters to part for him. Didn't I say something about these kind of people in my last blog?
Anyway, dad nearly got in a fight and guards were about as incompetent as they come. We had to resort to literally throwing our bags over people's heads to get them in the machine (as everyone else was loading it that way too). When we finally got out we were pleasantly surprised to find Ben and Kees waiting to pick us up and take us into town. It is always interesting to come back to places you already know and Aswan felt so much more developed than the rest of Africa. If you compare it with another town of similar population you would laugh at how backwards the others are. It's not really something you can explain but lets just say that I will never be tempted to think of Egypt as being part of Africa because it has nothing in common with the rest of it in my mind.
I think I'm just going to try to not comment much about Egypt itself at all and stick to the group as you already know my opinion of the place. I will say one more thing though, after checking into the hotel, it took less than 2 blocks of walking down the street before some young guy intentionally bumped into mom and touched then her butt. There is seriously something wrong with these people. Never in all of black Africa did we even consider such behaviour a possibility (there were other worries but not this).
Ben, Kees and Savannah had already been in Aswan for 4 days so the following morning we took off. The most excellent recent news in Egypt is that only 3 days before the rules regarding foreigners needing convoys to travel anywhere along the Nile are no longer in place so you are free to travel at will during daylight hours. You still can't get to Abu Simbel on your own but for us it made life much easier. I was surprised that the myriad checkpoints actually were aware of the change in rules (because there are maybe more checkpoints in Egypt than anywhere except Cote d'Ivoire and Nigeria over similar distances) They're rules are not all that well thought out though because we still aren't sure what would happen if you tried to keep driving after sunset if you were on a remote stretch. You are definitely not allowed to bush camp in Egypt.
We bypassed Luxor and headed to the Red Sea coast because Ben wanted his last little bit of sun and a chance to go diving. It took us two days to get to Hurghada where we had great difficulty finding a place to park and camp. It's disgustingly package-touristy, over-built and still a construction zone type of town with almost more tourists (picture horrendously ugly and disgusting tourists in bathing suits walking down the middle of the road) than locals. It's no wonder the Egyptians have a problem with us. The lack of respect between cultures is far too obvious there. Anyway, Hurghada looks different from the rest of anywhere else in Egypt we've been and nobody in our group liked it at all. After one night Ben head the group south again to find a more remote strip of coast. Most of the coast is completely barren and rocky, right up to shore with pockets of tourist resorts scattered along the road for hundreds of km. I didn't want to go back there and was more interested in getting to Cairo and working on new plans so at Hurghada I left the group and took a bus to Cairo on my own.
Wow Cairo. It was really strange being back in Cairo, in the same hotel with almost nothing changed. It's like I never left. I'm almost tempted to be more impressed with Cairo now than I was before. It really is one of the great cities of the world. It exists on a massive scale that you will find few other places and certainly not with such a long history. And it definitely has the best minarets.....
Our most recent plan called for a complete separation in Cairo as Ben, Bre and Kees would go through Libya and on to Europe. The rest of the group arrived in Cairo a few days after me and that very afternoon Savannah flew home. That's it, the family trip is officially over. You wondered when it would happen and now it has.
Ben, Bre and Kees left Cairo this morning and still hope to be home for Christmas. It's going to be a close race for them. Bre will then fly home on Jan 12th.
As for mom, dad and me, we are sitting in Cairo doing nothing at the moment, trying to come up with a plan since the parents don't want to come home during winter. Any suggestions?

Sunday, December 07, 2008


In a way we are lucky we waited an extra year before going to Sudan (we originally planned to go south from Egypt). Like everywhere else in Africa, Sudan has been busy engaging in road work and where once Sudan was notorious for terrible desert roads of dust and sand, most of the way we proposed to take was recently paved. Sudan, in contrast to Ethiopia, and in spite of its reputation in the western media is well known by travellers that have been there as one of the friendliest and hassle-free countries in the world. Yes, they have serious problems and yes it is difficult and expensive to get a visa and they do have some terrible bureaucracy to deal with but on the day to day, street level it is supposed to be great. At the border Kees and Ben disappeared for a long time dealing with customs, not because they were having problems but because they were being loaded with coffee. Ah, back to the Islamic hospitality.....
Despite all the problems in Sudan (and I did mention the south before) the area of the country between Ethiopia, Khartoum and up the Nile to Egypt is quite safe and and any problems are almost always mechanical or related to the heat. Having come out of the cool mountains of Ethiopia to the low dry desert of Sudan we immediately noticed the change in temperature (it was now 38C instead of 22C during the day) and a sudden need for more water as our bodies dried out. The population density of Sudan is quite low in the north so it is possible and common to bush camp anywhere without any problems at all. Northern Sudan really is what you picture in your mind. Flat, sandy desert with nothing to see. There are a few villages and although on the way to Khartoum almost everyone was black, it was obvious that we'd left "Africa" and had arrived in the Middle East. The men wear the long white robes and the homes are the same mud-brick Middle Eastern style and no longer little round huts. Women were covered or non-existant of course. The strangest thing was that all along the road to Khartoum (and even after for a while but not nearly as common) were dead animals. Camels, donkeys, cattle, sheep and goats all in various states of slow decomposition and desiccation and smelling terrible were just scattered along the road with nobody seeming to care. Lots of police checks along the way and the police tended to be rather curt and a little on the power-trippy and demanding side, though did not give us any problems.
Khartoum was another surprise. Much more modern and busy than we were expecting. It looks like the capital of a wannabe rich oil country. Khartoum is not actually very old and so doesn't have the rich Islamic history or architecture of capitals like Cairo or Damascus, in fact there are quite a few large cathedrals in addition to the mosques. Khartoum was built up by the British because of the strategic advantages of being on the confluence of the two Niles. We were camped at the Sailing Club, right on the Blue Nile with a great view over the river. Just downstream was the confluence, where the White Nile, coming from Uganda and south Sudan, joins the Blue Nile, coming from Ethiopia. Because it has a shorter route and doesn't evaporate in the swampy regions of south Sudan, the Blue Nile provides ~80% of the water at Khartoum. The river then continues north to Egypt and the Med with only one other tributary flowing into it over the next ~2500km. The thing that amazes me is that over that distance the river only drops 400m as that is the elevation at Khartoum. That gives you an idea of how flat Sudan and Egypt are if you follow the river.
We spent 2 days in Khartoum. Kees had to fix another broken leaf spring (the road out of Ethiopia was rough) and Ben and I had to register all of our passports. All foreigners have to register their passports within 3 days in Sudan though the whole system is quite stupid now and amounts to nothing more than another money-grab for them and a wasted day for us. But Khartoum doesn't seem like a bad place to get stuck if you can afford it. The internet was good for the first time in a long time, the people speak good english and generally seem friendly and educated. Ben even got a few emails from curious locals in Khartoum that saw this trip website on the side of his truck as he drove through town. Goods are expensive because of the sanctions I guess and it is a cash-only country. We went to one bank that was rumoured to have an ATM or give advances on a credit card but once their we learned that they were doing it by routing it all through their head office in Beirut but the Americans recently forced them to shut the link down. The more chaotic areas of town around the market reminded us more of Egypt than Africa and we did have one road rage incident with a crazy old man. A must say, I absolutely cannot stand people that get all pious and high and mighty and think that just because they get respect from people for their religious devotion that they should get extra powers too. Just because you can quote chapter and verse, in any religion, and they exist in all, does not mean that you can break the rules, cut in line or drive like a maniac with impunity. Speaking of religious devotion, the mosques don't seem overpoweringly numerous in Sudan, nor the calls to prayer as loud or as long. I was quite surprised that I usually did not hear it at all, even in the middle of Khartoum.
The biggest logistical hassle in the whole Cairo to Cape Town overland route, and I think everyone will agree, is the Egypt-Sudan ferry on Lake Nasser. Because of travel restrictions (and also because it is a huge cash cow for somebody) from both countries (though I largely suspect Egypt is mostly to blame) no foreigners are allowed to cross between the countries by road, they must take the ferry. There is a passenger ferry that runs only once a week and vehicles have to take a separate barge. The barges don't run on a set schedule but only on demand. If you hire one yourself then it costs $3500US so most people try to find one already going or get a group together to split the costs. In Khartoum we learned that there was a barge scheduled to leave the following day with an overland company's truck but that it would wait a day or two for us if we paid the port fees to keep it there. As this would save Kees and Ben a small fortune the plans were immediately changed to a mad dash to Wadi Halfa to catch the barge. We left that afternoon heading north and camped in front of the most popular tourist attraction of Sudan, the pyramids of Meroe. The northern part of Sudan was part of the kingdoms of ancient Egypt and some of the later dynasties were actually centered around these southern parts. Their power had waned considerably by then but they still copied many of the old traditions like pyramid tombs, though on a much, much smaller scale. Some of the pyramids at Meroe were built as late as the 4th century AD. There were ~100 in the area but only about 2 dozen are still standing. Some have been rebuilt and in comparison to Egypt they cannot compete. We did a quick run around in the dark and then at sunrise before the gates officially opened and then hit the road again for a drive that was to last until 2:30am to get to Abri ~200km south of Wadi Halfa. We were lucky that the old sand tracks were now paved and there was beautiful road with no traffic passing through the middle of nowhere with no sign of life around for hours at a time. If only we could go faster than 75 km/h!
At Karima we visited Jebel Barkal, a "mountain" once believed to be the home of the Egyptian god Amun. I had to visit! At the base of the mountain was once an important temple that is nothing more than rubble and ruins now, and nearby are some more pyramids from an earlier period than those at Meroe. We were quickly back on the road again and at Dongola the road disappeared. We were back to a terrible, dusty, bumpy, half-constructed mess, but this time in the dark until we finally had to give up at 2:30am and get a little sleep beside the river.
The next morning we took off again to finish off the last 200km of bad road. In another year it'll be perfect like the rest but in the meantime I think that if I have to see one more dusty, bumpy, bad road I will scream uncontrollably or just lay down and die. I am at the end of my limit and I simply cannot stand the thought of another bad road right now. In Wadi Halfa we were met by Magdy the general fixer for most people passing through. There was another guy, also helpful that we met but Magdy must be about the nicest guy on the continent. His services aren't cheap or essential but when you see the amount of paperwork and office visits required to get yourself, or especially a vehicle, in or out of Sudan by ferry, you'll think him well worth it. Everyone knows him and he knows everyone in all the right places and while all that is going on he keeps bringing you tea and lets you just sit back and relax. The problem with the ferry to Egypt is that it is subjected to the most retarded and illogical system possible, which could only have been imagined in the bureaucracy of Egypt. They more or less run the show and have made the rule that nobody is allowed to ride with the vehicles on the barge but must take the ferry. The Sudan side complained and now going north only, the driver only is allowed to go with the vehicle. Heading south absolutely nobody gets on. The problem with this was that we were going to be a split group because the ferry didn't leave for another 4 days. The girls were pissed and Savannah managed to freak out enough about being stuck on a ferry full of Egyptians that Magdy arranged for her to be on the barge with Ben and Kees as another "driver" for the big overland truck. Mom, dad, Bre and I then had to sit around Wadi Halfa for 4 days but Magdy to great care of us, helping us to lots of tea and fuul (the beans that are pretty much all they eat in town), getting our hotel, tickets and paperwork organized and just being friendly. For the most part we just hung out in our little hotel hiding from the heat and flies and trying to pass the time. Wadi Halfa is very quiet and empty feeling most of the time and then gets busy when the ferry arrives. The port is pretty much the town's reason to be now, since the old town was drowned with the creation of Lake Nasser and most of the original inhabitants moved away. According to Magdy there is a road being built to Egypt that will link up with a small ferry to Abu Simbel that foreigners will soon be able to use (late next year, inshallah!) to bypass the current hassle.

Lalibela and Gonder

From Addis we drove for two long and bumpy days (lots of Chinese road construction) north to get to Lalibela. Whatever you think Ethiopia looks like, forget it, you are wrong. It has to be one of the most visually misrepresented countries in the world (thanks to the NGO fundraising conspiracy). The people are not fly-covered and starving in the desert. It is green and very mountainous. Not forested but with agricultural fields, herders, villages and great views. I know I keep saying this but it really is one of the most beautiful countries. I will admit that it is mostly dry farming and with not many rivers (and those were pretty dry) so that with any drought they really would be in trouble. We had to go over passes of 3500m and the turn off road to Lalibela, in the right lighting was one of the most beautiful I've been on ever. On the way to Lalibela, in the mountains we also saw "bleeding-heart" baboons which are unique for the bright red patches on their chest.
Lalibela is a UNESCO world-heritage site because of it's rock-hewn churches. Lalibela was near the capital of an ancient kingdom that ended up leaving behind numerous churches in the area, all carved from the rock. Ethiopians are among the earliest Christians in the world, with some of their old emperors claiming descendance from Solomon and the queen of Sheba. They also claim Ethiopia to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. But their Christianity is Ethiopian Orthodox and is quite different from any of the others due to its very early origins and long separation from other Christian centres. They follow the old calendar, with 13 months and is 7 1/2 years behind ours. It is currently 2001 in Ethiopia, Sept 11th being the start of the new year. They don't eat meat on wed or fri, their crosses and art are slightly different, their churches are round, domed and colourful like other orthodox churches, and many holy sites are not open to females, including female animals!
To me Lalibela sounded like the most interesting site in Ethiopia to visit, especially as there are 11 churches right in the town and they are still in use. I was expecting the something akin to the great carved out temples in India, Jordan or China but apart from them also being cut out of rock, they were quite different. All other rock-hewn sites I've seen so far were cut into the side of a cliff and stood out majestically to be admired from afar. The goal of most religious structures is to impress the people through towering, awe-inspiring size. Lalibela goes completely against that. These churches are carved down into the rock so that you could easily walk by them without knowing they were there. Some are big, multi-storied affairs with pillars but it was always possible to see them from roof level by climbing up the rock around them. The gap between the rock and church is often no more than several feet so it feels like you could quite easily get a running jump right onto the roof of the church. A lot of the frescoes inside and any carvings done on the outside has been worn away so they are quite plain as well, usually. A few are more detailed and are the nicest. Inside they are dark but have little alters and the priests are usually kicking around somewhere as well. The whole site is just in the middle of town with no fencing so the locals can just walk through at any time while we were constantly asked to show our tickets at each church. There churches had been built in two main groups (though the most impressive one was separate) of 4 and 5 churches with lots of tunnels built into the rock to connect them. It was all quite nice and fun to be able to explore a site again and was exactly the kind of thing I've been missing lately.
From Lalibela we made it to Gonder on another very long driving day through more construction. Gonder was the capital of a much later kingdom and is referred to as Africa's Camelot. The royal enclosure with the ruins of a few palaces and structures from that time is also a world-heritage site. We spent a couple hours inside exploring the ruins (mostly just the empty shells of the buildings remain) and again had a great time. The buildings date back about 250 years and we didn't go see the other sites, like the royal baths and a few churches that were also nearby. We were supposed to meet Bre and Ben again in Gonder but decided to spend the night at Lake Tana nearby and have them meet us there. Lake Tana is famous for it's monasteries near Bahir Dar (which we didn't go to) and is also the source of the Blue Nile. We were camped out at a very and quiet and remote spot where we could enjoy the stars and the sounds of nearby hyenas. The road from there to the Sudan border was another painful one and although less than 300km, we got off to a late start and managed to successfully bush camp without getting mobbed along the way (we did wake up and pack with 3 guys staring at us the whole time though).
So with mixed feelings going in, I came out with mostly good feelings in the end. Ethiopia was not nearly as bad as I thought and I enjoyed what we were able to see. I suspect I'll be back there again some day and won't dread the thought of returning, though something really should be done about the hassle and rock-throwing in the countryside.