A Travellerspoint blog

And So It Goes


View The African journey on Ofelia's travel map.

Home is a funny thing. To me, home is where my hair straightener lives. So currently, home is my friend Marianne's shed in Buckinghamshire. However, when you spend long enough travelling, home becomes any place where you spend longer than two nights. My home, it seems, was Nairobi.

I'd spent the last few weeks going in and out of the same hostel, leaving my big bag full of fabrics, woven baskets, earrings and other stuff which I'll store immediately into Marianne's shed when I'm back in the UK and forget about it, in the hostel cupboard. I knew the staff, the best time to get a hot shower (never), and exactly how much a taxi would cost to whichever part of Nairobi I was going to. And apart from seeing some real-life Freds (giraffes to those not in the know), I really did very little. Nairobi is not an unpleasant city; it is completely functionable, the main CBD is all wide roads and even a bit of greenery. It doesn't have much in terms of eiffeltowers and colosseums, but it serves its purpose well and I liked it. Mainly because it wasn't Lusaka.

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As I happened to be travelling with someone slightly sick, and ill for that matter as well, my last days were spent in Arusha, Tanzania, simply because it was close enough, and it wasn't Nairobi. I'd planned on a lot of things- a trip to the Serengeti to see the migration of hundreds of antelopes, zebra and suchlike, to climb the Kilimanjaro (yes, I know, me climb Kilimanjaro- ha ha ha, but I was certainly up for trying). Unfortunately, a quick peek at my bank balance put such silly thoughts out of my head, and considering I spend most of the time with a cold, it wasn't so bad.

The hostel in Arusha was something I'd want my hostel to one day be like- warm, welcoming and full of people. Mainly volunteers, everyone there was a fairly long-term resident, and they immediately took us in as one of them. I spent a happy few days doing not much but haggling in the market (more baskets and bowls- I really need to marry very well if I plan on a house big enough to display all this stuff) and going out with a eclectic bunch of people- six Julliard students, all incredibly talented and sweet- five gay guys and poor Megan. Erin, an Aussie girl, Harry, a very extrovert Brit, Sarah Jessica Parker -lookalike Jenna, and a random collection of people who we picked up along the way. It was a fun night- especially when a very drunken British guy came over and told me, as I was chatting to Jenna, Collin, Evan and Jordan that all my friends were incredibly good looking (Noted: all my friends. Must start wearing makeup.)

Another dusty bus ride later, and we were back in my hostel-home, for the last time. I tried hard to miss my flight- a few minutes before the taxi arrived, we were still sitting in the local pub with another long-term Nairobi resident, Andrew, and I had my last Tusker, feeling sad. I hoped we would run into terrible traffic, or my flight would be cancelled until further notice, the airport was closed for security purposes or my ankle would break. Something. Anything. And of course, nothing did, and nine months after I'd left, unwillingly, for Zambia, I was yet at another airport, thinking about life, love and geography, and how it all goes. Funny that.

Posted by Ofelia 02:28 Archived in Tanzania Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Is It a Taxi? A Minibus? A Matatu? No, Just a Boda-Boda.


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Ah, the Pearl of Africa. I'd paid a silly amount of money to get an extra ten days on my ticket home so I could see a bit of Uganda. There was only one thing I really wanted to do, but more than anything, I really wanted to see a little of this country I'd heard so many good things about. And in hindsight, it was totally worth it.

Uganda is an odd little country. In most people, it conjures up images of Idi Amin, gorillas and tropical diseases. I didn't experience any of them, fortunately. However, one thing I had heard about, and wanted to do, was the white water rafting in Jinja, at the mouth of Lake Victoria, which is one of the alleged sources of the Nile. Source or not, the pictures of th grade 5 rapids looked fabulously scary, so I got off the Nairobi- Kampala coach in Jinja and found myself, err, at a petrol station surrounded by fields. It didn't look much like a town. Actually, I've seen more happening cemeteries. In no time though, I was surrounded by boda-bodas- the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis which suddenly came out of nowhere and started buzzing around me like insects. Now, I've done seven of the world's ten highest bunjy jumps, cycled down the world's “most dangerous road”, rafted before doing the most dangerous river as well as the highest commercial drop, paraglided, hang glided and jumped out of an airplane at 15,000 ft. But the scariest thing I've ever done was this 3-minute boda-boda ride through Jinja to the hostel. Word of warning about Uganda- anyone who owns any form of transport there is without a doubt mad. Like mad mad.

Oh and I am scared of water. I've had a near-drowning experience, so I'm not so good with the whole being in fast-flowing, rocky water -thing. Although a fun day, I felt a bit scared at a few points, and not embarrassed of admitting it- in the first rapid, a little grade 2, our wise-arse guide tipped the boat over on purpose to show us what happens when we tip over- unfortunately, I got caught under the tip of the boat, and swallowed my body weight in bilharzia water. Oh well. But it did kind of put me on my guard for the rest of the trip. Which actually was fun. I might go again. It's like a rollercoaster ride in a water park, with the exception that you have kayakers all around you in case “you get pulled under a waterfall”. Hmm

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Kampala was the first African city since Lusaka I never warmed up to. It had the negatives of Mombasa, what with being polluted, incredibly packed and with no personality, but none of the plus sides. It was mentioned as one of the safest cities in Africa, but I'd never really felt threatned in any way in Nairobi (which is meant to be the worst of the worst) and yet we got mugged in Windhoek, which is meant to be one of the safest places as well, so I've stopped paying attention to any of these stereotypes, and simply eye everyone with suspicion. One thing, however, which did get my attention, were the matatus (minibuses which are also called “shared taxis” in Uganda). Now, they are totally different to all the ones I've seen before. I stood on the side of the main road, watching hundreds of them pass, without managing to understand how people knew which one they needed to get on to. In Nairobi, matatus have numbers and routes- by far the most organised country when it comes to minibuses. In Malawi, they have little signs with the main stops written on them. In Zambia, the conductor simply hangs out of the door, shouting the name of the destination, whilst trying to pull in people who are happily walking to the opposite direction. In Uganda, there were no signs, numbers, and the conductors seemed surprisingly subdued. I decided to observe, and try to work out how it all happened. That, and the fact that I really had no idea which bus to get on to.

Twenty minutes later, and I was still rooted to the spot, and the street vendors were starting to give me funny looks. I decided to ask. A nice young man in a suit informed me (I always ask men in suits; they are usually less likely to harass me than the shabbier-looking blokes, plus men feel more inclined to help a poor white lady who is travelling on her own) that the drivers use hand signals- they usually simply point towards wherever the matatu is heading to. But of course. And I still had to get someone to show me which way the hostel was.

Besides shopping in Kampala and rafting in Jinja, I'd had my heart set on seeing some of the countryside up north, and going to Entebbe. I cannot recall why I wanted to see Entebbe; something to do with botanical gardens or suchlike. So I set off with a cheery Finnish girl, a slightly mad Dutch bloke, and looked for a minibus to Entebbe from the manic New Taxi Park. It took us 25 minutes to negotiate through the heat, buses and people, and so, by the time we got to Entebbe, we were knackered, and after realising that the gardens were really not gardens at all, we went to the pub, had some food, beer and a very fun afternoon, till we realised it was pretty much time to head back to Kampala. So my Entebbe experience included a few patches of grass, a monkey, some fried bread and beer. It was not a bad afternoon.

After a bit of faffing, I decided to go on one last splurge, and do a 2-night trip to Murchinson Falls, It is possible, with a lot of time and patience, to get up there on your own, but really, I'd left an increasingly ill-looking Rich in Nairobi and wanted to get back quite quickly. So I booked a shuttle bus (expensive) and a day trip which included both a boat trip to the bottom of the Falls, as well as a guided walking trip up to the top. My heart sank when I realised I'd be travelling with a bunch of 18 ad 19 -year old British and Dutch kids- but surprisingly, it ended up being fun.

We stopped briefly in a dusty nowhere town of Masindi, sleepy town where people play pool by the road side and sit under a tree- I've seen dozens of such little towns all over Africa, and they are all the same, but still somehow fascinating. We camped in the lush National Park, with hippos and warthogs roaming around in the surrounding bushes, and I saw the biggest crocodiles I've ever seen. An obligatory game drive was included, but apart from a few oribis, we didn't see much- elephants from a distance, and two hungry-looking lionesses. The boat cruise was nice and relaxing- Fred made a lot of friends and got to steer the boat, but the walk up to the top was breathtaking- Murchinson Falls were somehow even more impressive than the Victoria Falls- no other tourists around, no gates, entry fees or even railings- you could go in as close as you chose to. What makes the falls exciting though, is that the narrowest part is only 6 metres wide, making the flow of water incredibly powerful and intense. It was hypnotising to watch.

Back at the camp, I decided that if I couldn't beat the young people, I'd better join them. And so I played drinking games for the first time in many years, and it was an absolute hoot- it included members of the party to join an elderly Indian couple and tell them how much they love ketchup. And for two people to waltz in the middle of the restaurant, and another one to drink a shot of HP sauce. Juvenile, I know, but oh so funny. Being thirty really might not be so bad.

And so I got my little taste of Uganda. Sure, I could've easily have spent another week in the southern parts, quite happily so, but I'm more than happy to leave something for the next African trip. Especially since I only found out on the way out that Jinja has a bungy jump as well- serious lack of research from my part. In any way, Uganda was just enough off the beaten track to make it interesting, but I also managed to meet both the nicest backpackers in Africa, as well as locals. Next time, Uganda can have a lot more of my precious travel time.

Posted by Ofelia 02:26 Archived in Uganda Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

A Leopard Crossing


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, I know I'll sound like a snobby world-weary backpacker on this blog entry, but I really have seen a lot of good game parks and animals. Lots of them. In biiiiiig quantities; prides of up to 30 lions, schools of hippos totaling up to about 100 each, dozens of elephants grazing; I've been attacked by a frustrated rhino, I've seen a pack of nearly-extinct African wild dogs hunt, and i've been face-to-face with giraffes on a walking safari. So, as far as everything goes, I've been pretty lucky; or even more than lucky- I've seen South Luangwa, Chobe, Kruger, and Etosha, all amongst the best game parks in Africa, and many of the smaller ones in various countries. Still, I really wanted to go to Masai Mara. Mainly because after a long scrutiny, it seemed to have all the possible African animals in it. So I haggled a while, booked a 4-day trip to the Lake Nakuru and the Mara, and left Rich in Nairobi to work on his friendship with the staff at Nairobi hospital.

Now, the one thing everyone wants to see whist in Africa is the so-called Big Five. So-called, because although (some) of these five animals are actually big, not all of them are rare or even interesting; they are simply called so as they all were prized hunting trophies to the rich Europeans in the early days of African safaris. However, a huge business centers around the “Big Five”- t-shirts, keyrings, carvings and other odds and sods that people lug back to Europe or States to show everyone that they belong to that special caste who've been to Africa and seen the Big Five.
Admittedly, I've never really been sure what belongs in the Big Five. A lion, yes, and elephant and rhino, all big and impressive, but I was a little unclear on the other two. Hippo? Certainly big. Cheetah? Fastest land mammal, so surely it as well?

A British man on the tour found it impossible to understand that I did not know these essentials. “But how do you know otherwise what you are meant to see?”, he wanted to know. Err, I thought you just look out of the little car, and see animals. The park was full of giraffes, zebra, various antelopes, wildebeest and buffaloes. At one stage, we were surrounded by a heard of 300 buffaloes. But it is wonderful. People seem to carry a little check-list of “animals seen”, which instantly earns them cool backpacker points amongst other travellers. Now, I've never really seen a leopard, the holy grail of any animal spotter, except hiding in some distant tree, with only a tail showing, so I never really considered that I'd actually seen one. Fortunately, and quite unexpectedly, I'd seen one walk right past the car in Lake Nakuru, with two young ones hovering in the background. A set of stunning, magnificent animals (although very small in real life) and I was incredibly happy to have seen them. Unfortunately, though, I was suddenly the object of hostile-ish envy in Masai Mara; some people actually went as far as suggesting I might have been, if not lying, then certainly exaggerating this rare sighting. Animal spotting is fierce some business.

Anyhow, I had a great time in Masai Mara, except that I did finally get some sort of a stomach bug and spent most of the time outside the game drives sleeping and feeling feverish. We saw a tiny jackal pup chasing a large heard of very disinterested -looking impala, getting breathless- if impalas could laugh, they certainly would have done. We saw a large pride of lions eat a wildebeest, with the smallest cub getting tangled up in the tail it was carrying around. We saw a huge male lion stalking a heard of nervous-looking buffaloes, a female cheetah with two young cubs, and a lake full of pink flamingos. It was, all in all, money well spent. And my total amount of cool backpacker points is on the rise since leopards and cheetahs. Now, if I could only get hold of a Lonely Planet somewhere I could find out all the other stuff I need to see in Eastern Africa. It's an awfully long tick-list.

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Posted by Ofelia 02:24 Archived in Kenya Tagged animal Comments (0)

Are You Sure We're Still in Africa?


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Going to Kenya was so efficient and easy that I seriously doubted if we'd accidentally changed continents.
A quick swing of a rubber stamp, the jolly immigration officer relieved us of our dollars, stamped us in, and off we went on a rickety bus to Mombasa, bouncing along yet another pot-holed dirt road (well, some things never change). Mombasa is a big city, and although a fan of big cities, I immediately disliked it; it's not that it's crowded (after all, London is crowded and I still love it), but it's just tight. Every imaginable surface of the city is covered; every inch of the pavement is full of people selling socks, belts, rubic's cubes and axes. Shops are narrow, tiny affairs, designed impossible to enter, and if you do so, all the paraphernalia confuse you so much that you end up buying a string of beads instead of bread. There are people everywhere, cars which all drive to their own rules, and nothing green or leafy. And all the streets look identical. I wasn't impressed.

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But then I found an ice-cream parlour and it was all ok.

The next day, we stumbled into the old town after I'd battled with the post office (again) and Kenyan Airways (I now have an extra 10 days to see Uganda), and it was wonderful. The old town is a bit like Stonetown in Zanzibar, but it looks more real, more practical and lived-in, so I immediately warmed up to it. I'm not a big fan of overly pretty cities; something like Prague has always been a bit too prissy, too Disney-like to feel real. I like cities where I can imagine actual people living in, where real dramas take place; and Mombasa is just that, not a sealed and polished Unesco-heritage -city. I happily snapped away with my camera, trying to shake off a wanna-be tour guide.

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Another thing I'd been obsessed about were the white beaches of Mombasa. All Finnish kids are. It's in our genetic pop-culture make-up. So I convinced Rich, who is, by all accounts, not a beach person, to come along for a night. In the end, I picked a beach almost in random; they all seemed to have big hotels lining the beach, and so I went with Tiwi, the least developed one in the south. Unfortunately, the lovely owners (yes, I'm being sarky) did not believe in keeping the beach clean, and anyway, it was seaweed season, and so, despite about 3 attempts, I didn't manage to swim. I was left with a bikini full of tagliatelle-like seaweed, which I can tell you is not pleasant.

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A taxi, minibus, ferry and a tuk-tuk later, we were at the railway station in Mombasa, getting ready to leave for Nairobi- this is the second train in Africa I've taken, and it also left on time- what is up with the universe? Usually, people are segregated in second class, which we were travelling in, but as the train is hardly ever full, Rich and I managed to share a compartment in the nearly-empty train. Rich had made queries about the train a few days ago- we took a while to decide if we wanted 1st, 2nd or 3rd class- and the lovely lady in the sales office very nearly refused to sell us tickets to the 3rd class- apparently, it's no place for white people. There are 120 seats, but they sell 300 tickets to each train. You do the maths.

Having our own compartment was lucky, as during the journey we both started feeling a bit queasy. Especially Rich, who suddenly went very white, and spent a restless night going between dozing and the toilet.

The train arrived 3,5 hours late, and as far as two cynical and fairly experienced travellers were concerned, it was pretty damn good. For once, neither of us felt like haggling (a true testament that neither of us was well) and gladly paid for a taxi to the hostel.

The next few days were a bit of a nothingness. After resting a day, I felt much better, whereas Rich commenced a long-standing relationship with the Nairobi hospital. Hostel is nice, though. It's ran by 2 very cheery girls, who do my laundry and refuse payment; I have to insist they take a small fee. "but please don't pay too much", said Sara, and took a tiny bundle of cash for doing all my dusty clothes. In the evening I resist a temptation to check the map to make sure we are still in Africa. It is a bit of a different Africa, that's all.

Posted by Ofelia 02:22 Archived in Kenya Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Zenzational Zanzibar (despite the rainy season)


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Some places have always had it in their name - Burkina Faso, Patagonia, Easter Island, Zanzibar- that slight exotic tinge that so makes me want to travel there. Zanzibar has always conjured up a fairytale setting of narrow cobblestone streets, ornate, heavy wooden doors with shiny brasshandles, women swathered in colourful scarves, brightening the narrow alleyways like peacocks, fragrant spices I've never smelt before. And for once, it was just as I imagined it.

We arrived to Stonetown late, and immediately decided to stay for a few days. The Polish Mafia was heading up north to the beaches the next day, but not before they introduced us to the foodstalls by the beach- dozens of vendors selling seafood snacks, samosas, kebabs, zanzibari pizza, sugar cane juice and spicy masala tea.

I was possibly most excited about shopping (OK, I was most excited about photography, but shopping was a close second), and after dragging Rich to all the possible shops to look at sandals, bracelets and fabrics, I told him the following day to go and do boys' things, and I'd go shopping on my own. Oddly enough, he decided to lock himself in the hotel room, and not come out while I checked out the local markets. Men, huh?

I really didn't do much in Stonetown- just watched the old-fashioned sailing boats, dhows, coming in from the sea after sunset, eating (lots of really good) ice-cream, drinking cocktails on a plush hotel balcony overlooking the sea, and getting lost in the winding little streets (whilst occasionally stopping to look at a bracelet, of course). It felt wonderful to have some unhurried time, and it almost felt like a holiday.

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We headed up north on a rainy, damp morning, with a vague idea of going to Nungwi where our friends were. We got a ride on a dala-dala, a new thing to me- half-truck, half-bus with an open back and bright plastic seats, full of chickens, children and firewood. Oh, and lots and lots of people. Beata and Anya were waiting for us, and after a big of haggling, we found a little guesthouse that suited my low bank balance, and we settled in.

The next three days were equally lovely and frustrating, the guesthouse being only half-built and therefore not having a reception, or any sort of a contact person anywhere in Nungwi. So we had no one to complain to when we discovered there was no water whatsoever. Teaches me to pay for a hotelroom in advance, I suppose...Despite of being able to only flush the toilet three times, and only washing my hair once under the weakest drip ever (all fours on bathroom floor, nevertheless), Nungwi beach was lovely. Possibly too resorty, but it had fine, white sand, turqoise water, and it didn't even rain very much. I didn't get my usual seafood-related foodpoisoning, which was an added plus. Rich might have malaria, though.

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As we left, the man supposedly looking after the guesthouse magically appeared, demanding money for the 3rd night which we had yet not paid for. I refused; after all, the deal had been that we would not pay unless the water was turned on (which it wasn't). It was, at least, a slightly amusing exchange, one of those where two people are just so far apart in what they're saying that no middle ground can be found. It was established that although it was agreed that we didn't have to pay unless water came on, we still had to pay, although the water wasn't on. Why? Because we had to pay.
We left with our token polish people, without paying, and arrived to a very rainy Stonetown where the haggling started all over again, now over the ferry tickets.

The rainy season has well and truly started. I am currently holding a one-way ticket to Mombasa, purchased this morning with an idea of "I'll get a first direct bus, wherever it might be going to", and watching the non-stop rain beat the empty streets. A sidetrip to Kenya seems appropriate, as anyone who spent their childhood listening to Finnish pop music knows, but I have fond feelings for Tanzania, and I'm sure I'll be back in no time.

Posted by Ofelia 02:21 Archived in Tanzania Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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