Monday, December 01, 2008

Shamrocks and Beer in Ireland

For those of you who aren't familiar with the European budget airline market, it is one of the best things about living in Europe. For next to nothing you can get around to most of the countries in Europe, making weekend trips to other countries almost irresistible. Ryanair, the cheapest of all (and you can tell by their planes and the terminals they fly out of), was offering a deal a couple months ago, so I bought a ticket from Brussels to Dublin for $0.03 including taxes (yes, you read right), and off I went to Ireland in the middle of November, amid dire warnings that I would freeze to death and be rained on and it would be miserable (there's a reason they give these tickets away cheap!).

In order to avoid the checked baggage fee, I wore enough clothing that I looked like the Michelin Man on the plane... but in the end, I was glad to have all that clothing, because it was below freezing pretty much every day! However, for 5 out of 6 days, it was sunny and beautiful and didn't rain on me, so in retrospect November turned out to be a great time to go to Ireland, since I could see all the sights without tour bus crowds ruining them for me.

As to Ireland itself, I must admit I wasn't immediately charmed the way I have been in some other countries. Dublin was nice enough, but it seems there's not much to do other than go to pubs and go shopping, and I found the people in general to be fairly unfriendly, contrary to their reputation. In Dublin you can go see Trinity College, Ireland's most prestigious university, and St. Patrick's Cathedral, where the famous St. Patrick is reputed to have dunked the Irish heathens into a well. And there are lots of monuments to the various rebellions that took place in Ireland. In fact, I had no idea they had such a history of racism and apartheid - but theirs, unlike ours, lasted until much more recently and was directed towards Catholics rather than Africans.

Kilmainham Gaol, famous now for being the set of several Hollywood movies, is also a highlight - built to house 112 prisoners, in its heyday it held over 9000, including many political prisoners, several of whom were shot in the courtyard, an act which directly led to Ireland's independence from Britain. After dark, which at this time of year is at 4:30 pm, there is nothing else to do in Dublin but visit the Guinness Storehouse - mecca for all Guinness lovers of the world. Unfortunately, I am not one of them. In any case, it was interesting to see their ad campaigns over the centuries and amusing to see how they tried to make themselves look "socially responsible" by having an "educational" floor where they pretended to talk about the dangers of drinking, and at the top of the building there is a bar where you get a free pint - they even draw a shamrock in the foam for you. And if I hadn't been so embarrassed by my Stay-Puft winter outfit and my ignorance of beer etiquette that led me to take my beer before it was ready and subsequently get chased down by the bartender, I would have taken a picture for you.

Anyway, aside from Dublin I spent three days waiting around for buses because I didn't realize I needed a car (and I was scared to try to drive a stick shift on the left side of the road), and in the meantime visited Carlow, Kilkenny, Cahir, and Cashel, small towns southwest of Dublin. These were lovely and picturesque medieval towns, the latter three famous for their ancient castles and cathedrals. Although there was clearly space for large tour groups, I was alone in my hostels both nights.

On Friday night D. joined me in Dublin and we headed north to Bru Na Boinne, site of ancient Neolithic Passage Tombs, probably the most interesting thing I saw in Ireland. These were built so that at the Winter Solstice the sunrise illuminates the passage exactly, in a feat of Neolithic astronomy and architectural engineering. They replicate it for you when you visit, and 100 lucky people are chosen each year by lottery out of something like 8000 entrants to view the real thing in December.

Then we crossed the border to Northern Ireland to check out Belfast, which has lots of artwork and other reminders of the very recent violence, but looks entirely unremarkable, such that you have trouble imagining that it was a warzone not that long ago. In fact, they had a lovely Christmas market going on when we showed up. The next day we headed up the coast to the Giant's Causeway, a natural formation of pillared rocks on the coast. The area was lovely and windswept and full of tiny towns to visit, and there was a coastal hike that looked like it would have been great in summertime.

And that was all the time we had. Six days was enough to get a taste of the country, and I learned a few lessons, namely: it's fine to go in November, but only if you rent a car! But I'm glad I had a chance to see Ireland before I leave Europe next year.

Next big trip is home to San Diego for the holidays, but exciting things are coming after that, so keep your eyes on the blog...

Monday, November 10, 2008

New Zealand: South Island

One thing that surprises me about New Zealand is that most people seem to hop down there as a side trip from Australia or for whatever reason they get to Auckland or maybe Wellington, but they completely skip the South Island, even though it is hands down the most beautiful of the two islands. Sparsely populated, it boasts landscapes from beaches to glaciers, activities from hiking to wine tasting, and amazing wildlife. With that in mind, we parceled our time to spend the majority in the south, but even the 15 days we had were nowhere near enough.

The ferry dropped us in Picton, from where we took a windy mountain road, the Queen Charlotte Drive, along the coast to Havelock, world capital of green-lipped mussels, and then to Renwick, the heart of the wine country. We spent a day visiting wineries and indulging our tastebuds before heading off to Abel Tasman National Park, one of the most popular hiking and kayaking destinations in the country. I made a small miscalculation and ended up compressing a 5-day hike into 3 days, which meant we were hiking 10-12 hours a day and were utterly exhausted, but it was gorgeous. Crystal clear, azure water, deserted sandy beaches, quiet forest paths... The most unique feature was the tidal crossings - a few points on the path are tidal flats, meaning that they empty out twice a day at low tide, which is the only time they can be crossed. So you put on your sandals and wade through rivulets of freezing water. When the tide goes out, it leaves thousands upon thousands of empty shells behind, mostly small clams, which led to the frequent cry - "there's a clam in my shoe!"... and we soon learned it's rather annoying to walk with a clam lodged in your shoe.

We headed down the western coast of the island to hit natural wonders such as the pancake rocks at Punakaike and the crazy possum-hater at Pukepura, passing through the local jade capital of Hokitika. The highlight, however, was arriving at Franz Josef to find an absolutely clear blue sky and giant, snow-capped mountains framing a picturesque ski town. We got a tip from someone and took off to try to reach Lake Matheson by sunset. After a very fast hike to the lake, we were rewarded with a view of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman glowing red in the sunset and reflected perfectly in the still lake.

This was nothing, however, in comparison to the next morning, when we took off in an 8-seater plane, just the two of us and the pilot, to do an hour-long flight over the tops of the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers and around the tops of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman. It was one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen. We did some hikes around the area, including to Gillespies Beach, a gorgeous, deserted beach covered in driftwood that had formed into fantastic shapes.

We spent the next day crossing from west to east over the high Arthur's Pass, ending at sunset in Oamaru, famous for its penguins. We coincidentally ate dinner in a restaurant whose foundations were full of roosting penguins, and we even had a penguin-cam to watch while we ate so we could keep tabs on the penguin sitting on his egg right underneath our table! At sunset we went over to the viewing platform for the blue penguins (the world's smallest penguins, at a max of 30cm in height), and sure enough after it got dark hundreds of them came waddling out of the water and up a hill, made more entertaining by the sea lion snoozing on the hill, who would jump up if they got too close, and cause the penguins to scatter. I had no idea penguins could move so fast! The blue penguins walk bent all the way over so it sort of looked like a cockroach invasion. By the time they were mostly on land, there was an incredibly loud racket from all the squawking penguins, which could be heard from pretty far away. We were told to check under our cars for penguins, as they tend to build their nests on the other side of the road from the ocean (not too smart, I guess). Sure enough, when we left we had to go slowly and carefully, as there were penguins everywhere - next to and crossing the road.

My birthday treat was a stay in Larnach Lodge, the country's only castle, and one with a very strange history. We were here on the Otago Peninsula for the wildlife, and we weren't disappointed. In the morning we took a boat tour to see fur seals and endangered New Zealand sea lions, as well as many kinds of birds, including the protected royal albatross, the world's only mainland colony of which was here in Otago. We followed that with a land tour, where we were amazed to come within 10 feet of yellow-eyed penguins and sea lions! It was amazing to watch the penguins emerge from the water and climb steep hills, where they nested and preened right next to the sheep grazing. It was truly an amazing experience to see all that wildlife in its natural habitat, and from so close, especially since we knew they were taking every precaution so that conservation came first and tourism second.

We continued our drive south to the Catlins, the very southernmost part of the island, a region full of isolated bays and gnarled forests. The wind was so strong you could not only feel it as you walked, but you saw its effects everywhere in the form of trees leaning dramatically over. We followed the Southern Scenic Route down along the coast and up again through Fiordland to Te Anau, which we used as a base to hike the Routeburn Track, a 3-day hike through the mountains. Although it rained on us pretty heavily for much of the time and we had some low visibility due to fog, when the clouds parted and the sun came out, the trek was beautiful. The path was often iced over, which led to some slipping and sliding, but also to lovely snow-covered plants and ferns-turned-icicles.

Back in Te Anau we visited the glowworm caves - the larva of a special kind of moth use bioluminescence to attract their prey, so you boat through the caves in absolute darkness, looking at the thousands of tiny blue lights on the ceiling. We also took a day-long cruise of Doubtful Sound, which was moody and misty indeed, though perhaps a bit too much so, as we didn't see much other than fog. The same happened when we tried to go to Milford Sound, and we had to abort our plans to see the sound at the last minute, as the mountains had completely disappeared in the fog! Somewhat to be expected at this time of year, but our luck had been so good the rest of the time, we couldn't help but hope.

So in summary, we took a bit of a gamble on the season, but on the whole October was a fine, if cold, time to be in New Zealand. We missed out on a couple of things we wanted to see, but we also missed the crowds. We felt that the country warrants months of wandering around, not the few days most people allot to it as a side trip, and the warmth and friendliness of the Kiwis made us want to stay as long as possible. It is a country that in every way lived up to our expectations and a destination with something for everyone. This was my first time in Oceania, so admittedly I don't have any comparisons in the region, but if you are going to make one trip all the way down there, I would definitely recommend choosing New Zealand.

Monday, November 03, 2008

New Zealand: North Island

Kia ora! After three weeks in New Zealand, D. and I are totally enamored with the country, which amazingly lived up to all the hype we had heard before going. What we knew beforehand was that there was breathtaking scenery and great hiking. What we learned was that the people are extremely friendly, the culture laid-back and relaxed, and the food excellent (you would think it would be like British food, but actually it’s more like all-day American breakfasts, gourmet coffee drinks, and international fusion cuisine). New Zealand is fast becoming known for its wines as well, and they have even established a "wine trail" for enthusiasts.

New Zealand is a relatively small island all the way at the edge of the world, underneath Australia. To give you an idea of how far away it is, it takes an equally long time (over 20 hours of flying) to go from Belgium via China to Auckland as it does to go via Los Angeles. One common misconception about New Zealand is that they have kangaroos and koalas like Australia. In fact, New Zealand has no native land mammals, only species introduced for hunting purposes (mainly possums, rabbits, and deer, plus stoats introduced to kill the overpopulated rabbits). It has a wealth of native birdlife, however, including the famous kiwi, most of which is now endangered as a result of the introduced pests. Although there are only 10 million people in the country (of which 9 million are on the much smaller North Island), there are over 40 million sheep. Cows and domesticated deer are also common sights in the endless countryside. The deer were domesticated after they were almost hunted to extinction by overzealous men in helicopters (Palin’s kiwi doppelgangers, I suppose).

We only spent 5 days on the North Island (New Zealand has two main islands and a few smaller ones), so since I’ve covered some background already, I’ll tell you about the North Island today and the South Island next time.

We landed in Auckland, exhausted after two days of traveling, and were immediately impressed by the atmosphere of the city. It is springtime right now in New Zealand, and we were greeted by blue skies and chilly air. Auckland is a reasonably-sized city, and we headed straight for breakfast on the trendy Vulcan Lane. We took the ferry to Devonport and wandered on beaches and volcanoes, before ascending the SkyTower, the highest tower in the southern hemisphere, where we got a great view of the city and our first exposure to the country’s extreme sports addiction, as we watched people leap off the top of the tower, connected to two thin wires via a harness and landing on a kind of trampoline.

The next day we headed south to Rotorua, famous for its thermal srings and mud pools and smelling of sulfur wherever you go. We detoured past Mamaku Blue, where we tasted some disappointing blueberry wine, though we give them credit for an original idea. By afternoon it was raining buckets, so we visited the nearby geysers and thermal pools at Te Puia and saw a touristy Maori song and dance show before calling it a day. The Maori are the native people of New Zealand, and despite the typically fraught history they have with the white settlers, the two groups seem to be living quite peacefully together now for the most part.

The real attraction of Rotorua for us was Wai-o-tapu, where we saw mud of all different colors. The famous Champagne Pool features green water and bright orange mud, surrounded by grayish mud with big pools of bright yellow. Mineral deposits that come from deep within the earth give the array of colors to the mud and the water. There was also a pool with impossibly azure water, and mud pools boiling up and spouting mud into beautiful shapes. The steam and the drizzle made it sometimes tough to see and to walk, but the unusual scenery made it well worth donning a raincoat and going anyway.

From here our plan was to hike the Tongariro Crossing, billed as the most beautiful day hike in all of New Zealand. We stopped at the lovely Lake Taupo on the way to the national park, but by afternoon the weather was not looking good, and by the time we reached our destination, it was so foggy that we couldn’t even see the mountains we knew were around us in all directions. Nonetheless, the forecast was good, so we arranged everything, fitted up our crampons (just in case), and set our alarms for 5am. Unfortunately the wind turned, and by the time we got up, all the ski shelters had been closed due to bad weather, and the bus company refused to drive us. Without any flexibility in our plans, we had to give up on the Crossing this time.

Instead we drove through the downpour to Martinborough, where the major attraction is, for once, indoors – this is the heart of the North Island’s wine country. We tasted a few vintages and some local cheese before heading down to Wellington, a very pleasant city as well. The following day we took a funicular up to the botanical gardens and wandered back down and around past some of the major sights before we boarded the ferry to take us to the South Island. Interestingly we found out that you actually end up no farther south than you began, because the South Island juts upward such that the ferry essentially just goes west. The ferry ride was quite beautiful, and we landed in Picton with gorgeous weather in the late afternoon.

The South Island was way more beautiful and wild than the North Island, but it deserves an entry of its own, so… to be continued…

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Germany: Rhine in Flames to the Berlin Marathon

Every year the Upper Rhine region of Germany puts on a series of festivals called the Rhine in Flames, which take place on weekends through the summer and fall. The idea is that several of the little towns along the Rhine put on wine festivals, and on Saturday night they have a huge fireworks and pyrotechnics display over the Rhine River, followed by more partying. We decided to attend the Loreley Night at St. Goar/St. Goarshausen on September 20th, which features a huge fireworks show over the famous Loreley Rock (where legend has it a beautiful maiden used to sit and lure sailors to their deaths). The way to go is to take a boat cruise, so we took a boat from Koblenz down the Rhine and viewed the 45-minute fireworks show from the middle of the river - quite an experience, especially when shared with a boat-load of Germans drinking heavily and loudly singing along to songs only German people know.

Of course we sampled the famous local Riesling through a series of "Weinprobe," and we were not too impressed. Maybe it is D.'s French influence, but I did not find any of the wines to rival the Riesling from Alsace. However, to make up for it we were introduced to Federweisser. Federweisser is extremely young wine - it is still in the process of fermenting when you drink it, so if you buy a bottle, they give it to you with no cap on, because otherwise it would explode. Only available for a few weeks in September/October, it must be drunk within a few days of production and obviously can't be transported far from the source. We found it to be delcious and highly recommended!

We also got a chance to look around at the medieval castles and cute little towns along the river. Bacharach stood out as the hands-down winner in terms of charm. Oberwesel and Koblenz were a bit more modern, and St. Goar had a great wine festival going on at the time, while St. Goarshausen was just frustrating because we couldn't find the famed statue of the Loreley maiden no matter how hard we tried, though we did get a great view of the river from atop the Loreley Rock. On the way we also stopped at Burg Eltz, an old castle situated deep in the forest (unusual, as most castles are situated on top of hills). It was quite well-preserved and had the most striking scenery of any of the castles we saw.

Last weekend we made another visit to Germany, this time to Berlin. The main purpose was for D. to run the marathon, which he finished in just under 4 and a half hours. It was quite an event, with almost 40,000 people running and at least that many spectators. It also gave us a chance to look around Berlin and to visit Potsdam (which I had never had a chance to see), a nearby town with a famous park that holds no fewer than four separate castles. D. was a good sport and paid me back for my marathon support by sitting through three hours of Rossini at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (sung in Italian with German subtitles and English summaries whispered by me during the applause) - my first trip to the opera in Germany, believe it or not. Berlin is one of my favorite cities in Europe, so I was happy to have a chance to go back again and highly recommend it as a destination.

Well, that's all the exciting news for this month. The contest is still on, so bring on your suggestions for places to go. We are headed to New Zealand in a couple weeks, so even though it was already planned before the contest opened, I'll still consider Ying and Johanna to have "won" because both suggested it.

Hope you all enjoyed your summers. It was great to see so many of you! Keep in touch!


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Audience Participation

"Journeys" is on a bit of a hiatus at the moment as I suffer through a summer of horrible classes in New York City. It's great to be back home and see everyone, but my schedule is starting to really wear me down. Mainly what's getting me through all of the rote memorization of useless facts are my thoughts of where I'll get to go next year, during my last year in Europe (for now).

...And that's where you come in. I am holding an open contest for suggestions on where I should go next year. There are two separate categories - inside Europe and outside of Europe - and whoever makes the most unique suggestion *that I actually use* will get a souvenir from that destination that I will personally pick out and send to you (or deliver in person if I happen to be in your area).

If you've been following my blog, you know I've already seen the usual stuff and I'm looking for off-the-beaten-path kinds of quirky suggestions - i.e. don't bother suggesting the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum. If you know of off-the-wall festivals or great cheese caves in the middle of nowhere, bring them on.

To get you started, here's a map of where I've been already:

Enter by leaving your suggestion in the comments box below, or on my wall on Facebook, or by sending an email to me at kim at kimberlystanford dot com. Don't forget to leave some kind of contact information so I can get in touch with you if you win. You can enter as many times as you like. Entries to be judged by me, with no particular criteria except my own opinions. Results will be posted here at the end of the summer.

Looking forward to your creative suggestions!!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Eating our way through Normandy

For our last weekend away before the long summer apart, D. had the brilliant idea that we should visit France - so close that we usually overlook it, but full of so many treasures. So with what people keep telling me is the "most romantic place in France" - the Mont Saint Michel - as our target, we set out for Normandy.

Normandy is on the northwest coast of France, and you probably know it as the site of the D-Day invasion. Call me uncultured, but this was, until now, my main association with the name. Turns out it is also the home of Camembert, as well as several other tasty, protected cheeses, Calvados (an apple liquor), apple cider, and, of course, the famous Mont Saint Michel. These things can be found in the midst of an idyllic countryside dotted with the unique Norman cows.

Our first stop was Giverny, just past Paris, a town of about 500 people and 1000 times as many tourists, as it is famously the home of Impressionist painter Claude Monet. In early May there were fairly few tourists there and all the Spring flowers that so inspired the artist were in full bloom. We toured the grounds of his home, with the famous footbridge over the lake, and wandered through his mansion. It felt like... well, it felt like walking around in a Monet painting. It was a little eerie to be in such a familiar landscape, but to be there for the first time.

From here we visited the towns of Rouen, with its famous cathedral and medieval streets lined with half-timbered buildings, and infamously the city where Joan of Arc was sentenced and burned at the stake (the sites where these occurred and the tower where she was kept prisoner are all marked now with plaques), and Caen, also known for its cathedral and its castle. The next day we stopped in the town of Camembert, which surprisingly enough is about one block long... not including the President factory (you know it from the Brie sold worldwide). We gave that one a wide berth, as I'm not particularly into mass-produced food. What you know as "camembert" most likely bears little resemblance to the original cheese. The real camembert is made only with unpasteurized cheese from Norman cows, and it has been designated the world's third smelliest cheese, far from the bland taste-vacuum we are familiar with. Only a few farms still make it the traditional way, but of course we made sure we knew where they were, and we feasted on artisan bread and a fresh round of raw-milk camembert for one of the best lunches we'd had in quite a while.

Norman cows apparently produce less milk than most other kinds of cows, but due to the high fat content, the Norman farmers won't use anything else, because these cows make the best cheese (or so they say, and we were inclined to agree). The other famous AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controllee, or protected name of origin) cheeses from the area are Pont L'Eveque (world's second smelliest cheese), Livarot, and Neufchatel, each associated with a cute little timeless town where the cheese originated. We felt obliged to taste each one, of course. We visited a few farms, and drove past miles and miles of farmland, and we were very happy to see the cows grazing happily in the grass, enjoying the sunshine. In Europe, giving hormones to cows is illegal, and to a large extent feedlots have not yet become a common phenomenon. So, assured that the cows looked well-treated and happy, we enjoyed our cheese guilt free.

Apples are the other big product of this region, resulting in many kinds of cider (which in France is mildly alcoholic), a very strong liquor called Calvados, and a much more palatable one called Pommeau, which is a mix of one part Calvados to 3 parts apple juice. Normandy is right next to Brittany, which is where crepes originated, so the two are traditionally paired throughout France, and we took advantage.

Of course, while we were in the region, we visited several of the D-Day landing beaches, a quite sobering sight, as they have been preserved with German cannons still in their original housing and large blast holes pockmarking the ground. It was strange to see a handful of sunbathers enjoying the beach, which felt slightly disrespectful, but then life goes on, I suppose. We also stopped by the beautiful town of Bayeux, home of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which I've wanted to see ever since we learned about it in Middle School history class. It was quite different than I imagined - it's not so much a tapestry as an embroidered cloth, but it is indeed extremely long.

And we did see the Mont Saint Michel, which is an island off the coast that is basically a big hill with an abbey on top. During low tide, there is a vast flat plain, and you can walk all around the island, and when the tide comes in, the whole thing turns to quicksand, and you had better not be out there. The abbey was definitely remarkable, but the place was jam-packed with people going up and down the only street and had a bit of a Disneyland atmosphere, so once we saw the abbey, we got out of there as fast as possible.

On the way back, we lucked into an annual AOC fair, where we got to try (one last time) AOC foods from around the region and some from as far away as Provence, and we stopped by Honfleur, a touristy seaside town where we visited the strangest museum I've ever seen, the home of composer Erik Satie, which has been turned into a giant surrealist work.

So very sad to be leaving Normandy already, we returned to Brussels, and soon after I headed back to New York, where I'll be till August, dreaming of all the other places I want to go as soon as I get a chance...

Monday, April 28, 2008

From the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro to the Beaches of Zanzibar

I was hoping to write this while it was all a little fresher in my mind, but life kind of got the better of me. Anyway, without further ado... the conclusion of our Tanzanian adventure...

Some fast facts about our Kilimanjaro trek:

Length of trek: 7 days
Route: Machame Route (the "whiskey" route)
Trek company: Paul Shayo's company (which goes by several names)
Altitude reached: 5,895 m (19,340 feet)
# of crew for 2 of us: 8
Random Trivia: highest peak in the world with GSM service
Local catch phrase: Pole pole (= go slowly)
Most heard phrase in our tent: Dammit, I have to pee again

Day 0:

Moshi was, as promised, a much nicer town than Arusha, though still no place to spend a lot of time sitting around. We were picked up by Paul, an ex-Kilimanjaro guide who now runs his own company and who claims to still take hikers up when he has time (though our guide seemed to think Paul was now "too fat" for this to possibly be true). The tourist business has obviously served him well. He recommended a hotel for us, where we were extremely happy to finally take a shower after a week of camping, only to find out that every time we turned the water off, the electricity on the whole floor would go out. So, flashlights in hand, we repacked our things for the hike and I filled my new Camelbak for the first time, but my technique was not developed yet and most of the water ended up in a giant puddle under the bed and all over my clothes. Not the most auspicious start to the trek...

Day 1:

Both of us felt sick this morning, probably a combination of nerves and all the fatty food from the safari. In the morning we drove to Machame gate, picking up porters and crew on the way there. We sat around for a while waiting to deal with formalities, and we were amused by the quantity of vendors selling everything from ponchos to hiking poles, in case you forgot anything. The first day's hike is through the rainforest at the base of the mountain and wasn't so bad. We had beautiful weather and when we arrived after 4.5 hours, our camp was set up and there was warm popcorn and tea waiting for us. Not too bad so far...

Day 2:

We finally met our guide, Aaron, who had not accompanied us the day before because of a problem with one of the porters. Aaron wasn't particularly friendly but seemed professional. This day's hike took about 4 hours (there is a lot of resting time to acclimatize), and we were feeling rushed by Aaron, who doesn't believe in taking breaks. On the bright side, he walked really slowly, so we didn't push ourselves too hard. We ended at Shira Camp, around 3840m. The terrain had definitely changed and now looked more barren and windswept, though we were not above the treeline quite yet. We were following instructions and drinking a ton of water so we weren't having too much trouble with the altitude, though by now we were out of breath much more quickly than normal and my resting heart rate was up to 100.

Day 3:

This was acclimatization day. We went up to the Lava Tower at 4600m and then back down again to 3950m for camp at Baranco. We ate lunch at the top, where little mice and birds were boldly attempting to steal our food. It was really cold and I couldn't sit still, so we left quickly, and there was a bit of a storm on the way down so we were pretty wet by the time we arrived at camp. The terrain was mostly jagged rocks and some cactus at this point, but there were still small animals and birds around. Our highlight was watching the cook make ugali for the crew and turn it by taking the boiling mass out of the pot with his bare hands. By now the altitude was starting to catch up with us in the form of frequent urination. We were told we had to drink at least 3 liters of water a day, so every 20 minutes or so we'd put on all our layers and boots and make a run from the tent. This was amusing at first.

Day 4:

By now it was really cold and we were wearing a few layers. We had pretty much lost our appetites so we didn't eat much for breakfast. I was lucky if I only had to get up once during the night to go pee and I was getting a little sick of it. In the morning we ascended the Great Baranco Wall, which looks like a giant, sheer rock wall, but in reality you can climb it with some scrambling and no special equipment is needed. More impressive, though, were the porters, who climbed up and down the wall with giant packs on their heads, barely even looking down or holding on. It put us to shame. The wall was followed by some relatively flat parts and then another huge wall. As we were climbing, it started to rain. Although our guide was generally very slow, whenever it would start to rain he would always speed up. However, with the altitude, I couldn't go any faster. So when he urged me on, I told him "I'm trying." Ever supportive, he told me "well, try harder". No fond memories of our guide from this trip!

We were very relieved to be at camp and put on dry clothes. However, at 4100 meters I was now out of breath if I walked too fast up the hill to the bathroom. We spent the afternoon running back and forth from the tent to the bathroom to pee and trying to stay warm and dry. By now I was getting boiling water in my nalgene bottles every night to warm my sleeping bag up because I wasn't able to warm it myself. Another effect of the altitude is that it keeps you from sleeping... the nerves about tomorrow's summit didn't help either. So I was up most of the night reading.

Day 5:

We made good time up to base camp at 4600 meters, and as we signed in we saw a few people looking extremely dazed and being more or less carried past us. Ok, we'd come this far, so we decided to try not to be nervous. It was so foggy that there was no view at all, and it was drizzling, so we retreated into the tent until lunch time. My fingernails were a slight shade of blue and my resting heart rate was up to about 104, but otherwise we were doing ok. As I frantically put on my boots and hat and ran to the bathroom for the hundredth time, I realized I probably spent more calories doing the pee-pee dance on this hike than I did actually hiking. I was not going to miss that aspect of the altitude AT ALL. After an early dinner, Aaron stopped by the mess tent to give us a pep talk and make sure we had everything prepared for the summit attempt, and then he told us to try to get some sleep. Yeah right.

So sometime around 6pm we repacked all our things and got our bags prepared for the coming hike. We snuggled into our sleeping bags and I think we slept a little bit, but a major thunderstorm hit, so mostly we lay in the dark wondering what we were getting ourselves into.

Day 6:

At 11:30pm we got up, and outside everything was covered in snow. There was quite a bit of it coming down, but tonight was our only chance, so we had to try. We packed up, put all our waterproof stuff and every layer we had brought on and were ready to go. They had made us tea and cookies but both of us were so nauseated that we didn't eat anything. At midnight, headlamps on, we started up the mountain. It was quite the sight, really - ahead of us tiny lights shined in the darkness and behind us as we ascended, more lines of little lights showed us we weren't the last ones up. The first bit was up rather steep, slippery rocks, which in the dark and the snow were a bit scary. Aaron went first, followed by me and then D. and then our assistant guide, Peter, who came along in case one of us had to turn back (it's standard policy). After an hour or so I started to get really hungry, but since Aaron didn't believe in breaks, I took a bite of my protein bar and kept walking. Of course, this made me acutely nauseated, which slowed me down for about an hour until I threw up all over the trail and felt much better. In any case, I didn't get sick from the altitude, and although I didn't realize it, D. pointed out that Aaron was checking our pupils every so often and paying much more attention to us than usual, and I think he was keeping good tabs on our health status, even if he pretended not to care. The snowstorm turned into a full-fledged blizzard, and we trudged up and up and up and up in the snow for the next 6 hours till we reached Stella Point. The snow must have been 6 inches thick on the ground, and I felt like I was taking one step back for every two steps forward. I was beginning to think we would never arrive, when finally we got to the crater rim.

We stopped for a moment and I took stock of the situation. My gloves were soaked through and I couldn't feel my fingers, so I decided I was going to give up my poles and put my hands in my jacket before the situation became permanent. I felt a bit like Mary Katherine Gallagher from SNL but I didn't care. The sun had started to rise and we had about another hour and a half from here to Uhuru Point, which is technically the tallest point on the mountain. We couldn't see anything except the snow in front of us, and I had almost lost interest in reaching the top of the mountain, but Aaron was not letting me give up yet. I thought it was never going to end, but finally we reached the sign signaling we had made it. We took some triumphant pictures and then started the walk back.

The sun had come out by now and the snow was literally blinding. Peter had my sunglasses, but by the time I reached him, even with my eyes mostly closed, I had managed to get a nice case of snow-blindness (which in less severe cases just gives you blurry vision, rather than making you totally blind). On the bright side, no pun intended, the sky had finally cleared and we had an absolutely amazing view of the top of the mountain and the valley beyond. I can say with certainty that the glacier on top of Kilimanjaro is not melted yet! Our timing turned out to be perfect in that respect, as had we been any faster we would have missed the stunning views at the top. D. had to take all the pictures, though, as my hands were still frozen solid.

The way down was considerably less tough. I held up my poles and slid a good portion of it the old-fashioned way, and the sun and the warmth of the day helped my mood considerably. We passed a few people still on their way up, probably the ones who would be carried back to camp later that day. Some guides are definitely less responsible than ours was. We got a bit sunburned on the way down and towards the end there wasn't enough snow to slide anymore so the careful climb down the rocks started to seem truly interminable. We had been hiking for almost twelve hours on basically no sleep or food and everything hurt. When we arrived in camp, everyone came over to congratulate us and give us some juice and then we had a little time to rest. I lay down in the tent and closed my eyes because they were burning as though I had gotten hot peppers in them. I found out later this is a symptom of snow-blindness. No matter what I did, I couldn't stop the burning, so I just tried to keep my eyes closed and my sunglasses on at all times.

After we had lunch, we had another 4 hour hike down to the next camp. As we left base camp, we saw a stretcher heading up the mountain, a final reminder to appreciate what we had accomplished and that we came out of it more or less in one piece. I was totally exhausted and my vision was blurry, so I managed to slip and get a nice, big bruise on my backside, which added to the general soreness that was now getting to the point of making it hard to move. I was extremely relieved to arrive, put on dry clothes and lie down. Already I wasn't peeing anywhere near as much, which was also a big relief.

Day 7:

A few more hours hike down to the gate and I was ready to be done with hiking up mountains for a while. Two of my toenails were on their way to falling off and everything hurt. My vision was still blurry, and I couldn't wait to take a shower and put on the one set of clean clothes I had set aside for this day. We signed the book to show we were leaving the park and felt strange to be back in a car again. We were dropped at our hotel, where we received certificates and said our goodbyes. The rest of the day was spent repacking, showering and generally enjoying not being in a tent for essentially the first time in 2 weeks.

And for the record, no, I am not typing this with my nose - my fingers are fine and my eyes recovered after about 5 worried days.

Well... the next day we flew Precision Air to Zanzibar, and since you are probably tired of reading already, I'll be brief. Zanzibar is a small archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. It used to be its own country, but then about 40 years ago it joined with Tanganyika to form Tanzania. It's an island that has some of the largest influx of tourist money in Africa and it's also one of the poorest areas in the region. Historically Zanzibar was important as a center of spice trade, being the source of cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, and many other seasonings and dyes for the rest of the world, and now I think its main industry is tourism.

Anyway, we spent two days on the gorgeous Pongwe beach relaxing in a banda that was about 50 feet from the ocean. It was just what we needed after the mountain climb. Since it was low season, we had the beach pretty much to ourselves for a few kilometers, and it was just about exactly what you would imagine a tropical paradise to be. We collected tons of sea shells, walked on the beach, and let our bodies heal.

Then we went to Stonetown, which is the biggest city on the island. It's a very Arab maze of tiny streets with a lot of character. We took a spice tour to go see the plantations where they still grow spices for export, and we took a morning to visit Jozani Forest, the last remaining home of the rare Red Colobus monkey. We were happy to find out that the monkeys are not too shy, so we got to see them playing and hanging around in the trees. We had delicious local food, which is largely Indian-influenced, and we generally relaxed.

So you can imagine it was quite a shock coming back to Belgium after that! Fortunately the days are starting to get warmer and sunnier here, so it's not been too bad, but I would still rather be back on the beach in Zanzibar, which I highly recommend to anyone considering a visit.

That's all for now. The only vacation I currently have planned is considerably more tame - a long weekend in France to visit the Mont Saint Michel and the cheese makers of Normandy. I'm looking forward to hearing everyone's summer plans and getting inspired for a future trip!

Enjoy your summer and happy travels!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Lions and cheetahs and elephants! Oh my!

Being an animal lover and an amateur photographer, it's been something of a lifelong dream for me to go on safari in Africa and see the big animals in their natural habitat. I always felt silly about the term "safari," although really it just means "journey" in Swahili, and it does not necessarily mean that you carry a rifle and wear a goofy hat. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, to be greeted by hordes of locals calling out "hakuna matata" as they jockeyed for our attention and dollars, I started to feel I might as well have had the goofy hat. Thankfully we only spent one day in Arusha before departing on our 7-day camping safari.

We saw so many wonderful things that I can't fit them all here, so I'm just going to have to give you the highlights. I'll leave out the pictures, so you'll have to check them out here:

Day 1: Lake Manyara National Park

We were picked up at our hotel by our crew from Sunny Safaris: Severini, our super-friendly guide, and Felix, a cook, who arrived in an overloaded jeep and drove us to Lake Manyara National Park, famous for its flamingo-filled lake and lions that - unlike anywhere else in the world - sleep in trees. Lions like to be able to roll around and sleep on their backs, but there are so many elephants in the park that the lions have taken to sleeping where they can't be accidentally trampled. Luckily for us, we actually saw one of the lions in a tree, although we woke her up and she took off. We also saw many giraffes, who seemed more interested in us than we were in them and would stare and stare at us, lots of elephants, and tons of baboons and impalas. To finish off the day, we went to the lake, which surprisingly made the sound of the ocean - would you believe that thousands upon thousands of flamingos squawking in unison sounds like the tide coming in? We camped inside the park, and because it was the beginning of the rainy season, we were the only people there, so we went to bed listening to the sounds of birds in the trees, bushbabies rustling in the camp, and hyenas whooping in the distance.

Day 2: Lake Manyara to Ndutu Area (Ngorongoro Conservation Area)

Today we spent the morning in Lake Manyara NP and then drove to Ndutu. Notable funny animals of the morning were mongooses mating on the road and vervet monkeys, whose balls (forgive me) are so fluorescent blue you could see them a mile away. Seems like it would attract predators to a sensitive spot, but maybe I'm missing something. On the way to Ndutu we got our first view over the famous Ngorongoro Crater and some very close views of zebras and gazelles.

Day 3: Ndutu (Ngorongoro Conservation Area)

We had come to this area on the recommendation of someone who thought the wildebeest migration would be here at this time of year, but an added bonus is that, because it's not a national park, you can drive off the road for better views. In the morning we picked up a park ranger to help us locate the wildebeest, and not long after we set off, we came across four cheetahs hanging out just at the side of the road. It was a mom and 3 juveniles, who were playing around, practising their hunting skills, our guide said. Later we went to the riverbank, which was dotted with carcasses being picked apart by vultures - quite the dramatic sight. After lunch we came across a pride of lions lying in the grass. First we saw 5 females sprawled out and digesting, and then a little ways away, the male, relaxing and guarding what was left of a zebra. As luck would have it, the females (who do all the hunting) spotted a wildebeest, so we got to watch them hunt. They eventually gave up on it, but one of them did have a go at a jackal, who narrowly escaped. And finally we did find the "great herd" of wildebeest - over 2 million of them gathered on the plain. They are not migrating at this time of year, but they run around and chase each other to keep fit, and well, seeing 2 million wildebeest, even if they are just standing around, is still pretty impressive.

Day 4: Ndutu to Serengeti National Park

In the morning, the first animals we came across were two hyenas feasting on a dead wildebeest, surrounded by vultures and storks waiting their turn. Later on, we saw an abandoned baby wildebeest waiting for its (presumably killed by a lion) mom to come back and get it, and it was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. The babies are totally helpless on their own - no other wildebeest adopts an abandoned baby, so they just stand around and wait till a lion comes to eat them. I wanted to bring him home, but we decided the quarantine process in Belgium was probably too complicated. Anyway, we arrived at the famed Serengeti and it looked a lot like you would imagine - the twisted acacia trees and impossibly flat landscape ("serengeti" means "endless plain" in the local language) - but unfortunately it rained all afternoon, so we hung out at the campsite.

Day 5: Serengeti National Park

We saw a lot of animals, but we were a bit spoiled by our luck at Ndutu, plus the fact that we could no longer drive off the road and that there were 10 times as many people here made it less impressive. We saw more lions, 2 leopards far away and sleeping in the shade, lots of birds, a big group of hippos (including one baby nursing under water), a horny elephant trying unsuccessfully to mate, an endless herd of buffaloes running past us, accompanied by a flock of egrets, some of whom were getting a free ride on the buffaloes' backs, ostriches, warthogs (who run with their little tails straight up in the air), zebras (who really do roll around on their backs like they show on the Tanzanian postage stamps), and more. There must have been 30 jeeps clustered around the leopards and lions, though - we were lucky it was the low season. We heard in summer the jeeps are so thick you can barely even see the animals.

Day 6: Serengeti and Olduvai Gorge

Today we went to the "cradle of humanity," which they asked us to tell everyone was misnamed by a German guy with poor attention to detail, and the real name of it is the "Oldupai" Gorge. Anyway, the oldest known footprint in the world is there, but it's been covered up for conservation, so you can only see a cast of it in the museum.

Day 7: Ngorongoro Crater

For many people, this is either the highlight of their safari or the only thing they do if they have only 1 day free in Tanzania. Essentially it's a big natural zoo - it's a caldera: a giant plain surrounded on all sides by steep walls. So there are many animals in a small area with very little to hide behind. The same could be said of the tourists. Still, it's one of the only places in the world you can see rhinos in the wild, and we did, complete with baby rhinos. Not just that, but a lake full of flamingos, various members of the antelope family, jackals, many kinds of birds, zebras (lots and lots of zebras - did you know baby zebras are brown?), wildebeest, buffaloes, ostriches... We also got a nice show from a hyena nursing her baby about 20 feet away from us. We learned that hyenas are really good moms - they take good care of their babies and most of the babies survive to adulthood. This was pretty clear to see, as the mom let the baby nurse as long as he wanted, and she put her arm over him to protect him. It was touching.

The highlight of the day - of the trip, even - came when we followed the trail of jeeps to a pride of lions lounging around on the grass. There were two adult males, several adult females, 4 adorable 1-month old cubs, and a young (maybe 1 year old) one too. The lions were all panting in the heat, and so when cars would come up, the lions would lie down next to them to get some shade. Now, male lions have two jobs in life: 1) mark their territory by peeing on everything, and 2) mate once every 15 minutes for a week when a female is in heat. Not a bad life. Anyway, one of them decided he liked the shade provided by our car, so he made sure nobody else was going to take it by, er, marking it. A lot. And then he and a female lay down half under our car.

Our guide did not like this very much, so he very carefully and slowly moved the car until we were able to get away from the lions. At this point we went a little further to check out the wildebeest they had just killed. A young male was still eating, and there must have been 30 hyenas waiting nearby for him to finish before they descended on the carcass. The lion left the carcass and came towards us with a whole leg in his mouth and settled in the grass to eat in peace, and the hyenas and vultures had a major party on what was left.

We eventually went back to the group of lions, where the cubs were now jockeying for a place underneath the mom for shade, but the mom was having none of it. We learned now that lions are terrible mothers, and that most of their cubs do not make it to adulthood, simply because they get neglected. We saw the contrast with the hyenas - one of the babies tried to nurse, and the mom let him for about 30 seconds before rolling over, taking the baby, still clinging desperately to the nipple, with her.

Well this was quite the grand finale for our safari. It was something really unique - and we know this because our guide, who has been doing this for over 8 years, took out his camera for the first time and started taking pictures. You know it's special when that happens!

Day 8: Return to civilization

Today was our drive back, and we visited the human zoo that is Mto wa mbu, a village put together by Dutch people in which all the tribes of Tanzania live together and let tourists come see them. Highly not recommended. And then we went to the snake park, where we saw many of East Africa's venomous (and non-venomous) snakes, thankfully behind glass. After we returned to Arusha, we were whisked off to Moshi to shower (finally!!) and begin the next phase of our trip, which I'll write about later on, since most people probably already stopped reading several paragraphs ago.

Anyway, for anyone considering going, I highly recommend our company Sunny Safaris and going in the low season - it really didn't rain that much, and it was totally worth it for the relative peace and quiet.

Stay tuned for tales of Kilimanjaro...


Thursday, January 31, 2008

Castilla y Leon in Winter

I thought Spain would be a lot warmer in the winter. In fact, the weather forecast thought so, too. Well, D. and I spent New Year's bundled up against the cold, but enjoying the central region of Spain - a part of the country I had never seen before. We got lots of super-thick hot chocolates to bolster our spirits and raise our temperatures, and we enjoyed the thinner crowds in the winter season.

All in all, we had nine days, which we split between Madrid, Salamanca, Segovia, Avila, and Toledo, historic towns with incredibly well-preserved ancient sandstone architecture and winding medieval lanes. We were especially impressed by how well illuminated the buildings were at night. Along the way we visited Franco's enormous monument at Valle de los Caidos and the equally enormous monastery of El Escorial, and tiny mountain villages in the Sierra de Francia, where it felt like the modern age hadn't quite infiltrated local life yet.

As for culture, this region feels quite different from Barcelona, the only other part of the country I've seen. Spain was considered to be "developing" until relatively recently, due to the hardships of the Franco years, and it has some of the atmosphere of a country that is enjoying newfound wealth - most of the women are wearing fur coats, absolutely everyone is smoking all the time, and the place is a vegetarian's nightmare. D. and I actually celebrated New Year's in our hotel, because not a single place in Salamanca had even one vegetarian option on their menu that night! In the end, though, it was a blessing - we bought homemade bread, a delicious local manchego and some sparkling local wine, and I swear it was better than whatever we would have gotten in a restaurant!

We enjoyed most the small towns that we visited, where the houses were picturesque and the people friendly - oh, and the homemade marzipan that is Toledo's specialty. Out in the mountains, we encountered a herd of wild goats grazing on the road, and we were constantly impressed by the ornate architecture of the old churches and castles. Madrid itself is best visited for its art - it was very exciting to finally see some of the most famous paintings in the world "face to face." Madrid definitely left its mark on us, though - our hotel had bedbugs, which we made major efforts not to bring home with us - but D.'s face unfortunately showed the results for a week or so after we got back!

I haven't gotten around to getting up pictures from South America yet. Someday soon. I've put a bunch more from this trip to Spain below, so enjoy, and don't forget you can click on each one to make it larger. So that's all for now... I'll be back with another installment in a couple of months.


Cathedral in Madrid

Views of the valley in Toledo


Roman aqueduct in Segovia

Valle de los Caidos

Mountain goats on the road on Peña de Francia, near Salamanca.

Cathedral of Salamanca at night

Adventure map for 2009...