Austria

After leaving Germany, we briefly ventured to three Austrian cities: Innsbruck, Graz, and Vienna via the ever reliable train system. 

Innsbruck is situated along the Alps and used this advantage to host both the ’64 and ’76 winter Olympics.  The ski jump built for the occasion, Bergisel, is now used as a tourist attraction (trap) where if you’re too lazy to hike up the mountain, you can pay to visit the tower and peer out over the city.  It is a pretty crazy looking contraption.  Even though I used to be pretty good at the ski jump on the Winter Olympics game on a commodore computer like 15 years ago, I can’t imagine how you begin training in real life to voluntarily jump off that thing on skis.  Matt and I are too poor to take the easy route, so we did a short hike up on our own, but still got a panoramic view above the impressive city of a mere 110,000 people. 

Graz has a unique sense of architecture.  A renowned architectural “gem” of the city, known to locals as ‘the friendly alien’, reminds me more of a giant cow udder.  Lonely Planet compares it to a “mutant bladder”.  Another structure, an artificial island in the River Mur in the center of the city holds an amphitheater and café, and is shaped like a giant seashell…  There is little in the city to denote Arnold Schwarzenegger’s origins. 

The next stop of Vienna provided a much more classic dose of architecture, even though a lot of palaces, museums, etc. are starting to look very similar.  There are only so many buildings of comparable styles that I can see in a short time span and still be amused.  The same goes for art and natural history museums.  They did have this pretty cool program set up though, similar to Ann Arbor’s Top of the Park, which they play movies on a giant screen in front of their (beautiful) parliament building and numerous restaurants set up temporary tents and peddle their food.  Unfortunately, for yours truly, not being culturally sophisticated enough to appreciate classical music movies about Mozart, etc. I wasn’t really keen on the schedule.

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Budapest

We left comfortable Western Europe in pursuit of Eastern European flavor (no, not like in the movie Hostel) and away from the dreadful euro.  Budapest, Hungary was a simple four hour train ride from Vienna.  The impressive Castle Hill overlooks the city and gives a pretty spectacular view of the city.

The baths are a long time Hungarian tradition.  A lot of them have separate sections or even days for men and women.  Matt and I went to the most popular one; it turns out it’s basically just a public pool with massages and hot tubs available.  This public pool however was housed in the most amazing building though – never have I seen a pool you can actually swim in, in such a great building.  You know when you’re little and you swim around your friends’ pool in a usually unsuccessful attempt to create a whirlpool… well, the coolest part of this pool was an actual ring shaped structure in one of the pools with jets that did all the work for you.  You literally got pushed by the jets in a circle! (No I wasn’t the oldest one enjoying this)

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Romania

Brasov, Romania is home to Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s Castle.  Even if Vlad Tepes (the real-life Dracula) didn’t actually ever live there, they still very much play up that myth with crazy amounts of vampire paraphernalia available and people walking around like it’s Halloween in masks and black robes.  The castle itself was rather unimpressive and not nearly as imposing as you would expect; no moat with a rickety wooden bridge a thousand feet high or even fire breathing dragons.  It is pretty much just a moderate sized house with some spires and courtyards. 

The number of stray dogs was a little disconcerting; (especially because of all the shots I got for this trip, the rabies series wasn’t included) so many poor dogs wandering the streets looking for the elusive scrap of food.   

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Freiburg, Stuttgart, and Rothenburg

This one time in college, I wanted to go to Freiburg to study a semester abroad.  I got into the program, passed the German test (I don’t know how), went to a few classes for the 1 credit course to prepare me to go, and then bailed.  I figured it would be a great experience, but it would set me back one whole year in college due to all the sequence classes I was going to take, that is, if I didn’t take a class in the fall, which was a requirement for a winter class, I’d have to wait one year.  Anyway, after visiting Freiburg, I don’t regret my decision.  Sure, it was a nice place, great scenery, small town, within the “Schwarzwald”, but Germany in the last 3 months of the year probably is not a great time to travel. 

After we checked in, a Bavarian, complete with lederhosen and accordion, joined us in our room.  He was followed by one of the staff, a German.  They proceeded to speak to each other in English. Apparently, Bavarians speak such a different dialect that no one else in Germany can understand them.  From what we understand, the rest of Germany thinks Bavaria is a “country of its own”.

Amazingly, almost everyone in Freiburg (and the rest of Germany, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands) cruises around in bicycles.  Anybody know where we can find this in America?? 

There wasn’t much to do in Freiburg except enjoy the scenery.  It is a fairly hilly area of Germany, coated with trees, and has buildings spotted all over the valleys.  Climbing to the top of the Schlossberg spire and getting a view of the city was the highlight of Freiburg.

After Freiburg, we made our way to Stuttgart.  Home of Daimler-Benz.  There are actually a few signs leftover that say DaimlerChrysler”.  Daimler has installed a state-of-the-art history museum of its company on its campus in Stuttgart.  It was one of the best museums I have been to.  The audio guides used wi-fi sensors to detect where you were in the museum and would activate when you walked into a new room.  And if you wanted more information on a specific car or whatever, you pushed this little button, and it knew exactly where you are.  The audio guide wasn’t what made this place (although it was pretty sweet), it was the fact that it started at the very beginning, showed how both Daimler and Benz companies struggled in the early 1900s, how and what the Mercedes tag did for the company, how they made it through 2 wars, then recovered after every Daimler plant was destroyed in WWII, and then the “Merger of Equals”, and also the future of automobiles and Daimler. All this jam packed in an eight story building shaped like a helix.  Pretty impressive. 

Also in Stuttgart, we got an extensive private guided tour of the city from one of Jill’s former water polo players that was an exchange student; a knowledgeable guy who taught us the history of the city.  

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a small medieval walled city, was one of the coolest cities we’ve been to so far.  We saw brochures in the train station for a Christmas store, and Jill was getting worried that we made four train changes to go to a city she could’ve gone to 1 hour north of Troy, Michigan called Frankenmuth.  Thankfully, the city was nothing like Frankenmuth.  We stayed in a pension, above a gift shop on a cobble stone street.  You could walk perimeter of the city on the wall next to the ramparts, and view the city from above. Everything was so crammed in.  It is almost stereotypical Germany (excluding the Bavarian stereotypes).  There isn’t a whole lot to do here, except walk around and enjoy the city. Eat some currywurst, and these things called “Schneeballen” or snowballs that are very similar to elephant ears that you’d get at a carnival.

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Dresden, Hamburg, Köln

After we left Berlin, we spent 6 days in 4 cities throughout Germany.

Matt in DresdenFrom what I remebered in German class, East Germany (in 1998) was still living in the ’60s, kind of like Cuba, and many of the buildings had not been repaired since WWII.  Fortunately for Dresden, this was not true.  It has been rebuilt and to us, looked no different to any of the Western German cities that would follow.  When we were in New Zealand, we met some Germans who mentioned that most young people were fleeing East Germany to West Germany for a higher paying job and a higher standard of living.  As unfortante as this is, from what we could tell, East Germany seems to be headed in the right direction.  Germany is at the forefront of not only supplying loads of cash to East Germany, but also to the weaker countries of the European Union.

Massive statue of Otto von BismarckIn Hamburg, we went to Ballinstadt.  In the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, Hamburg was the world’s leading exporter of Homo sapiens (not only Germans, but mostly Polish under Russian oppression).  Ballinstadt (actually the person running the place) was where these people would go before headed to the New World.  Ballinstadt now is a museum that showed how people lived as they waited to go to the New World, explained the types of people, their origins, and what it took to leave Europe to the New World.  As a side bonus, you could use the ancestry.com resources for free while you were there.

 

Matt in front of the Rhein and Cathedral in Koln

Köln boasts the largest Cathedral in Germany.  After seeing St. Peters in the Vatican a few years ago, cathedrals really don’t impress me anymore.  Other than that, Köln is pretty much a missable city.

 

 

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Das alles ist Berlin

So who knew trains could go onto ferry boats?  So that is how we got to Germany from Copenhagen.  We made our way to Berlin after entering Germany.  Apparently Germany is very trusting when it comes to S-Bahn usage.  S-Bahn is the above ground urban railway system.  You can just jump on without going through a turn-style and in effect never have to purchase a ticket.  Of course, we didn’t do this, we were able to use our Eurail passes for free S-Bahn all throughout Germany. 

Anyhoo, Berlin.  We stayed in East Berlin very close to the longest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall.  This however, is basically the only remnants left of Soviet occupation (that we could see anyway).  Outside of this area, the wall or where it used to be anyway is symbolized with brick pavers along its entire perimeter.  There has been so much construction that it looks as modern as any major US city.  We were expecting big concrete lifeless buildings, but we saw modern buildings with modern architecture. 

One of the best things about East Berlin was the prices, which along with the rest of Eastern Germany is apparently still trying to catch up to the economic powerhouse of Western Germany.  We could get Doner Kebaps and pizzas for 2 Euros.  Anywhere else in Western Germany is almost double that. 

Outside of our budget crisis (OK not really, but Europe is expensive), Berlin is a fascinating city: Tons of museums, tons of history in the streets from Brandenburg the principality to Prussia to Otto von Bismarck’s and Kaiser Wilhelm’s unified German Reich to the Third Reich to behind the Iron Curtain to modern and free Berlin – You get it all.  We ended up going to the German Historical Museum, which apparently is pretty new, and encompasses German history from about 500 B.C. or so.  We spent the majority of the day there learning about the aforementioned societies of Germany.  We also hit up the main tourist spots like Checkpoint Charlie, the East/West Berlin checkpoint during Soviet Occupation, Babelplatz, the area of the infamous ‘30s book burning, and Brandenburg Gate, where Reagan demanded to Gorbachev to tear down the wall.  

Back to the budget crisis, our hostel we stayed at was running a promotion for Americans only called “ThxAmerica”. This meant that we paid US dollars instead of Euros, same number, switch the currency sign.  We immediately booked a few more nights in Berlin and our stays in Dresden and Hamburg with the same company to take advantage of what amounts to a 60% savings.  This allowed us to catch up from the “extravagant spending” in Scandinavia, London, and apparently Tanzania, which somehow cost us tons of money.  We still don’t know why our hostel was thanking America.

By the way, currywurst is the best, which is basically a bratwurst with a savory ketchup type sauce with sprinkled curry powder on top.  Yum yum.  And where are the Doner Kebap stands in the US, or at least in Michigan?  So good. But then again, nothing tops Qdoba. 

After 5 days in Berlin, we decided to move on to Dresden.

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Køpenhavn

After leaving gorgeous but expensive Sweden we landed in Copenhagen, Denmark, which is probably more expensive and less gorgeous.  Walking out of the central station you look upon the Tivoli Park walls, where you can see the some of the rides rise above them. This park has been the most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen since basically the US Civil War.  Walter Elias Disney even came here before he built Disneyland in Anaheim to get ideas about what a theme park should really be.  Although Disney totally outdid Tivoli, it was still interesting to walk around the grounds, but not even dare going on the rides as they set you back about $4-12 per ride.  

According to Hostelworld, our hostel was supposed to be a “15 minute walk from Central Station”.  Yea right!  More like 40 minutes.  Jill was yelling at me the whole time for screwing up the booking as we’re carrying 30 kilos on our back and front.  It is high season right now and we booked late.  It was either that hostel for $45 per person per night with 2 beds in a room, or a bed in a room with 66 total beds for $35 to be a little closer, what would Brian Boitano have done?  

We only stayed in Denmark for 2 nights, mostly for budgetary reasons.  The tourist office had about a 6 mile walking tour or so hitting up all the major spots. Of which includes the Little Mermaid statue.  Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen story (news to me), this was a hot spot for tourists, mostly popularized by the Disney movie, I would have to assume.  The changing of the guard seemed to be less disciplined than the UK or Sweden.  The guards were laughing and asking each other what they needed to do next. 

Oh my god the bugs!  They were everywhere, little gnats flying everywhere all over the city.  We had to peel them off our faces and brush them off our clothes so frequently. 

All in all, we didn’t experience Sweden and Denmark that much, but we definitely recommend if you could only go to one, go to Sweden.  No, I’m not saying this to get brownie points from Applied Value, the Swedish/American company I used to work for.

On to the fatherland!

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Out of Africa

So we made it out of Africa in one piece.  My biggest fear of getting horribly sick and having to seek African medical attention didn’t come true (I just hope that my other big fear of getting malaria symptoms once I’m back home and have no health insurance doesn’t come true either).  There were no major episodes of food poisoning and I even managed to gain weight in Africa.  We weren’t even the victims of “informal wealth redistribution”.   If there weren’t pictures to prove we actually went, you may not even believe it. 

When Matt and I booked this 21 day camping safari, I have to admit that I was apprehensive about how it would go.  Amazingly enough, I was exceedingly happy with the way everything went, so we decided to continue on with the same tour company for another 20 days through East Africa.  Keep in mind that when we decided to continue it was despite the fact that there were 18 girls and not a single guy booked.  With the addition of the second segment, our grand total came to 41 days of African camping, something I couldn’t have possibly even imagined myself ever doing, seeing that my idea of camping up until 6 weeks ago was setting up a tent in my neighbors’ backyard when I was 10.   

All in all, Africa was in some ways exactly what I expected, and in other ways I was completely wrong.   There are many African clicking languages, which are still very much used by many different tribes; however a lot of them also learn English.  Women (men almost never do) really do carry packages on their heads, which if you have good balance (I don’t) is very practical.  Southern Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia) really surprised me with the decent and pretty much western infrastructure and facilities (bathrooms, internet, etc.) available.  East Africa (Malawi and Tanzania) on the other hand, not so much…  If you were brave enough to endure the stench surrounding the rooms they called bathrooms, you were rarely surprised to find a western toilet and not simply a hole in the ground.  Better put, stopping on the side of the highway to find and hide in a bush was preferable to stopping at an actual bathroom, and before this trip I would have let my bladder burst before even thinking about doing that.  On the first part of the tour, I religiously showered everyday and almost always in a moderately comfortable shower.  On the East African leg of the tour, you were hardly ever lucky enough to find a warm shower. I could blame an elephant for dipping his trunk in the above ground water tank and drinking most of the water so that I didn’t shower that night (making a record three day stretch), but quite honestly I wasn’t even planning on attempting an icy shower anyway – baby wipes work almost as well. 

Being without creature comforts for a decent amount of time makes you really appreciate the western “technology” of hot showers, proper bathrooms and internet.  I wish I could say that I’ve learned to live without them, but I can’t – I simply appreciate their availability now.  Once we got to London, we were so deprived of internet time that we spent five hours at Heathrow airport sitting on the floor (by power plugs) trying to catch up on hostel reservations, train schedules, and email. 

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London

As soon as we left Nairobi and landed in London at 5:30 am we were officially homeless.  We didn’t have hostels booked because of a lack of internet and unconfirmed flights, which was not a good situation to be in when Wimbledon is in full swing and Hyde Park is hosting Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday party.  Every single hostel we could possibly find was fully booked through the weekend and the cheapest hotel the travel desk at the airport could find us was outside the realms of the underground and was still $150 a night.  Then Matt came up with a brilliant idea: use his Marriott points and stay for free!   We certainly didn’t need a Marriot though, in comparison to east African camping, pretty much any hostel with a bed and a shower would have seemed so luxurious.  So we wandered into the Marriot lobby, in our complete refugee-looking status, for our two night stay in opulence.  After two nights his points were used up and it was back to life in the backpacker style of cheap hostels. 

Our indulgences didn’t stop at the Marriot though.  We were told about this great store in London called Primark, it was everything they described and so much more.  We really “splurged” buying new white socks (something I hadn’t seen since Cape Town six weeks ago) and unstained new t-shirts that weren’t stretched horribly out of shape from the African women hand-washing them in river water.

Being in East Africa, where the Lion King takes place, references to the movie were quite abundant. Everything from Hakuna Matata t-shirts, to finding “Pride Rock” in the Serengeti, to the sing-a-longs to the soundtrack on the truck brought up the Disney movie.  Everyone on the tour said that the theater version is so good, so when it was playing in London, we couldn’t resist.  It was really good, even with the British accents we weren’t accustomed to. 

We went on a day tour out to see Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and the city of Oxford.  Windsor Castle was impressive, but really what else would you expect from the Royal Family?  Stonehenge was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as in seeing it once is more than enough.  The stones are impressive when put into perspective on how they got there, but a lot of the mystery and intrigue is lost in the presentation.  Wandering around the circular site surrounded by chain link fences with an audio guide doesn’t seem to do it justice.  The city of Oxford was cool to wander around in and quite picturesque with all of the university buildings.  The tour guide was extremely good, pointing out interesting tidbits along the way; such as the city where the original British version of The Office took place (Slough).  He also explained why the British drive on the left side of the road: all knights held their swords in their right hands, thus driving on the left allowed them to defend against would-be attackers.  The US drives on the right side of the road for no other reason than defiance of Britain.

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Sweden

After being in New Zealand, Australia, Africa, and England for a total of more than four months, which all drive on the left side of the road, looking right before crossing the street finally became instinctual.  Enter Stockholm and right hand driving.  When we first entered New Zealand it was simple, I look one way and immediately remember that it’s wrong and look the other way.   I was now so lost on which side to look.  I had been trained my entire life to look one way, spent the previous four months the other way – I couldn’t tell which was which anymore.  A few honks later, I was back on track. 

Using the pound in London, I thought we had already experienced the pinnacle of expensive exchange rates – how wrong we were.  Enter the Swedish krona.  Using the ever reliable Big Mac index, the Swedish near socialist government has accomplished an $12 Big Mac meal.  It is really depressing when you can’t even afford to eat at McDonalds. 

Apparently our sense of style isn’t nearly developed enough for Stockholm night life.  Trying to meet up with a colleague of Matt’s at an outdoor bar, even our “best” clothes (we only get a choice of about 6 shirts, if they’re all clean) got rejected by the bouncer.  In our defense though, basically every local person wandering around Stockholm probably just came from a photo shoot for a J Crew catalogue.   

Other than the expense of the city, it was fabulous!  The landscape along the water was postcard perfect.  The pure number of daylight hours was also amazing.  Being so far north, the sun finally started to set around 10:30pm (this picture was taken around 11pm), even though it never got completely dark.  It was completely different than the camping schedule I was on before that; it got dark around 6pm and I was in bed around 8:30, 9:30 if it was a “late” night. 

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Sense of Adventure in Perfect Isolation – Ngorongoro Crater

After leaving THE Serengeti National Park, we backtracked to the Ngorongoro Crater.  For those of you who don’t know, it’s an onomatopoeia for the sound a cow bell makes (or at least that is what we were told, because I can’t see it).  Anyway, we camped at the top of the crater, and gee-whiz, it was cold.  We’re talking 5 degrees south of the equator; mind you Florida is about 27 degrees north.  It was probably the altitude, but still, we weren’t that high up, and anyway in the morning we descending into the crater and it was still an icebox. 

Our truck broke down in the morning before we left. Somehow we made it back without a problem, but then in the morning the clutch suddenly didn’t work.  Jill blames it on the driver’s late night rendezvous/joy ride. Anyway, this was half the fun.  We had 3 trucks for 20 people, 2 trucks with 6 people, and 1 truck with 8 people.  We had the truck that fit 8 people.  So because we didn’t want to waste any of our time in the crater, we packed ourselves into the other 2 trucks.  That means 10 people in a 6 person truck plus the driver.  At least we kept each other warm, sort of.

So this place just seems out of this world.  You descend about 200 meters into the caldera of about 100 square miles.  Visibility, even with an overcast sky (unfortunately), was immaculate.  You could see the rim of the crater in all directions.  In the middle of the crater is a fairly large size lake with thousands upon thousands of pink flamingos.  Since we came in winter time, the water levels were near their lowest, so they were pretty far, even with the “altered camera lens”.  It didn’t matter though, it was just a sea of pink (by the way, a flamingo’s call is pretty annoying, especially when there are thousands of them), a great view.  You have plains, hills, ponds, a forest, and mountain sides all in this tiny little area that is secluded basically from the rest of the world.

Somehow, tons of animals got down here and they don’t want to leave.  There is so much water from the high elevation, as it was so green, especially compared with the rest of Tanzania, which was basically brown all over this time of year. 

The pictures we have really don’t do this place justice due to the fog/overcast.  It was still a great experience; the cold weather, the open safari vehicle, the landscape, the animals.  Good stuff. 

We also managed to see 2 lions with their 5 cubs cruising around.  One of the lion’s attempted to hunt, but was spotted by a wildebeest who alerted the herd.  Shucks. 

Unfortunately, we were only here for 4 hours.  But it was definitely a great conclusion to a 41 day overland trip from South Africa to Tanzania/Kenya

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Serengeti National Park

The granddaddy of them all, the highlight of the Africa, the crème de la crème, THE Serengeti National Park.  The climax of the 41 day trip to Africa was the Serengeti National Park.  Sure you could say our expectations were high, but it didn’t matter.  This place was fantastic.  Even if the millions of wildebeest and zebra already migrated north to Masai Mara in Kenya.

On our way to the park, we stopped on the way to buy souvenirs, and there was a fruit stand that was selling red bananas.  The only other time I have heard someone mention red bananas was Mitch Hedberg.  He was a comedian who had a bit about comparing bananas to a traffic light.  “On a traffic light yellow means yield, and green means go. On a banana, it’s just the opposite, yellow means go ahead, green means hold on, and red means, where the “bleep” did you get that banana at?”  Now we know, Africa.

Our trek through Serengeti started with basically a one hour drive though what you would picture as the African Savannah, grasslands spotted with the occasional acacia tree.  The game drive started in the afternoon.  After making our way around pride rock, we managed to see a few lionesses sleeping.  Picture a cat lying on its back with its legs curled and in the air.  Picture the same image here, but a lioness, a 300-400 pound cat, wild, untamed, and only 40 feet from our vehicle.

Next was the Hippo pool.  Mind you this pool was no larger than a public pool.  We counted over 50 hippos just “chillin” in this pool, literally.  You could barely see anything besides hippo backs and the occasional yawn.  They act just like bobbers on a fishing line.

Next, we saw 3 cheetahs eating a kill.  Unfortunately, the kill was hidden below the grass, but the cheetahs were eating it.

So Jill and I figured out a way to extend the zoom on our camera, which is alter the camera lens by placing binoculars right on top of the lens.  This helped to improve our pictures without carrying around the large cargo of a giant “bazooka” looking camera lens.

The term “altered camera lens” was originally coined by Markus, a german fellow who was the murderer in a game we played on this trip and used an “altered camera lens” to kill someone.  Basically the phrase was overused by everyone, so I have to follow suit.  It’s like the movie “Super Troopers”, trying to fit a random phrase in somewhere.

Apparently, there is no such thing as an elephant graveyard.

All in all, it was a pretty amazing experience, but we had no idea what would come next…

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Catching Up

So as you can probably see, we are a little behind in writing our posts.  So now that internet is a more readily available and Jill has been hounding me, we are going to get out of Africa soon enough and on to Europe.  It’s just so hard to not be lazy, because not everything we do is that interesting to put on here.

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China

No, we didn’t go to China on this trip, but…

We heard that China has banned our website in the People’s Republic.  Apparently, it is a little too racy for the millions of people that want to view our site from China.  Crazy business.

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Zanzibar

On the ferry ride from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar Matt showed his first sign of weakness on the trip: he managed to get seasick (I of course had to make my customary trip to the bathroom as is common practice on boats unfortunately).  He maintains it was food poisoning from the chili flavored banana chips that I bought, therefore his status as superhuman immunity is still intact.  Once we arrived in Stone Town it was immediately apparent I had underestimated the Arab influence on the island; it truly looked like this island belonged in the Middle East, not a three hour ferry ride from East Africa.  The women all wore traditional Muslim dress, many with their faces completely covered.  Prayers at several times throughout the day were announced through public loud speakers. The buildings were very much what I would picture to be Arabic architecture (I’ll let you know if I was correct when I get to Jordan). 

Zanzibar is known as the “spice island” for the spices grown, probably a self-coined term to rid itself from being known as the “slave island”.  We went on a spice tour where we saw both the slave trade and spice aspects of the island.  The slave markets were quite appalling; seeing the very tiny chamber that up to 75 slaves were cramped and essentially starved for two days before being “put to market”, so that only the strong slaves would survive and would fetch higher prices.  The pretty girls had it easier though, they were sold into prostitution.  The spice portion of the tour was much more appealing to see where all the random spices actually grow on trees, bushes, etc. 

On the north side of the island was the beach section. It pretty much looked like a lot of Caribbean Island beaches.  Some local ladies on the beach set up a salon type thing under a bungalow right on the beach.  They offered manicures, pedicures, massages, etc.  Matt, most likely under the influence of being the only male on a truck with 18 other girls for a week and a half, decided he was going to get a pedicure.  He claims that I “made him” do it, however, it was most definitely under his own volition.  My only response when he told me he was going to get one was “let me get my camera first”. 

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Chobe National Park

Just outside of Chobe National Park, we stopped at a campsite that was appropriately named “Elephant Sands”.  Multiple elephants congregated around the watering hole to drink and bath probably about 100 feet from the bar where we were eating our typical lunch of cucumber, tomato and mystery meat sandwiches.  The highlight of the actual park was the sunset cruise, where we saw several elephants swim (or maybe just walk along the bottom using their trunks as snorkels).  The coolest sight was dozens of hippos eating their dinner which is strikingly similar to the game “Hungry Hungry Hippos” in the way their jaws open and close almost continuously munching plants in the water.  The video is funny, but I was on a boat when I took it, so the quality of footage is less than National Geographic worthy.

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Zambia

After paying the outrageous Zambian visa charge of $135 for Americans (not having a choice to go to the Zimbabwean side because of the absolute disaster that Mugabe has created), we saw the magnificent Victoria Falls.  They are the second largest behind Iguaçu Falls in South America, but still larger than Niagara.  The water level was the highest it has been in years, which meant not only no white-water rafting, but you get completely soaked attempting to see them, literally it was raining upwards immediately surrounding the falls. 

The only other thing of note was the anticorruption billboards along roads; “Just Say No to Corruption” or “Succeed the Right Way, Not the Corrupt Way” (which I unfortunately didn’t get a picture of), but a man in one of them looked strikingly similar to Kwame Kilpatrick…  The rest of Zambia (which I only saw through the windows of the truck), didn’t really have much of interest. 

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Malawi

Malawi was the next country in the trek to Tanzania. There isn’t a lot to see or do except the beaches along the famed Lake Malawi.  We stopped at one beach, Kande Beach, which was overly bombarded with locals trying to take advantage of tourists.  It was quite annoying leaving the camp property and being harassed by men calling themselves Mr. Smooth, 50 Cent, Jean-Claude Van Damme, etc. as soon as you took one step outside of the metal gates.  We went on a village walk to “see how the local people live”.  Learning about their belief in polygamy was interesting; it is seen as a status symbol to have multiple wives and the first wife is the boss of the next wife.  The trip to the school and hospital was basically insulting though.  The principal kept saying over and over again how they don’t want/need supplies, but how they want/need money (to line his pockets, not help the students who may actually benefit from it).  The entire community seems to depend on tourism (in a harassing sort of way) rather than trying to develop any other kind of actual independence, which is quite sad to witness.

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Survivor – The Game

Since we had 4 hours free time in the Okavango Delta when we arrived, our tour leader suggested we play a game to help pass the time.  The name of the game is Survivor, although others may know it as Assassins or a variation thereof.  The rules of the game are this:  you receive on paper a name, a weapon, and a location.  Kill or be killed. You must kill the person on your paper with the weapon in hand at the specified location.  When you kill, you receive the name, weapon, and location of the person you killed.  You become a survivor if the name you receive is your own. 

When the tour leader said, “Start!”, everyone became paranoid that where they were standing was the location their killer needed them to be.  My first task was to “kill” Dave with a toothbrush next to the fallen tree near the fire pit.  I waited there patiently until he passed by.  I told him I had an idea that would help him try to kill his victim, who unfortunately knew where she was to be killed and with what weapon due to his first failed attempt. So I killed Dave, but now my next victim, Louise, knew that I had to kill her with a chair by the mokoros. 

Meanwhile, Jill was tasked to kill Hanna with a rain fly while she was sitting in a chair.  Hanna was by far the most paranoid of any in the group.  About 30 minutes after the game started, she finally sat down.  Easy kill.  Her next task was to kill Carsten in his tent with a shoe.  Her patience would rule the day here.

Our tour leader offered for us to try our hand at powering a mokoro.  This prompted Louise to run down to the mokoros.  I immediately ran down there with a chair hoping for the kill.  She jumped in one of the mokoros, and I told her she was dead.  She thought she could get off on a technicality.  After she argued that “in a mokoro” is different than “by the mokoros”, I lifted her out of the mokoro and she met death.  Unfortunately, she already tried killing Heather in the kitchen with some grass reeds, but failed.  She was allied with the tour leader, and she was trying to kill me, unbeknownst to me at the time. 

During lunch, Heather would not go to the kitchen, because she was afraid that I’d eliminate her.  So she had other people grab lunch for her.  She was complaining that she needed some more snacks, but wasn’t able to go get them because I was on constant alert.

Later that day, after much of the initial killings had been done, I was playing a game of 500.  The tour leader said to the packing team, which included me, that we were to empty the water containers but not by the river, but behind the tents because we didn’t want to contaminate the river.  In any event, as I was walking behind the tents Heather came running up behind me with an empty wash basin trying to kill me behind the tents.  Fortunately for me, my ally, Cameron, held her back, which allowed me to get in front of the tent in order to survive. 

Nearing the end of the afternoon, it was time for swimming at the water hole.  Heather started walking towards the swimming area, which she needed to cross the kitchen to get to.  I sprinted over and hurdled a couple chairs then began “strangulation with grass reeds”.  I became a survivor.

Everybody went to the swimming hole.  Carsten raced back to his tent to change so he could get in the water.  Jill followed.  Carsten was killed in his own tent with Jill’s shoe.  Jill became a survivor, he never would have gotten her in a mokoro with a live insect anway.  The End.

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Okavango Delta

To get to the Okavango Delta, we took a mokoro (dugout wooden canoe) ride out to an uninhabited island.  It was basically like a Gondola right, but in the middle of Africa instead of Venice.  We arrived at our “embarking” station after a 2 hour bumpy ride and a “foot and mouth” check point.  As we arrived there were about 20 locals or so that started unloading the truck and grabbed our gear and put it in the mokoros.  The mokoro ride lasted about an hour and was as relaxing as can be, especially since we were woken 5:30 AM. 

As we landed on our island, the first thing we noticed was a buffalo skull in the firepit.  We immediately set up camp, and had about 4 hours to rest, eat, and play the game “Survivor”.  After that period, it was time for a game walk.  In theory this should have been awesome.  The Okavango Delta is one of the most densely populated areas of big game in Africa, if not the most.   During our one and a half hour game walk, guided by certified locals, we saw a pack of zebra (apparently the rest of the world pronounces it zeb-ruh, whereas Americans pronounce it zee-bruh, much like the letter z, zed versus zee).  Anyway, it was very disappointing, especially because this was the most expensive optional payment of our Safari trip.  At night, the locals performed sing and dance routines for us, which provided some entertainment.  As part of tradition, our group had to perform as well.  Needless to say, it was fun.

The next morning, we awoke very early for a morning game walk.  Again, we saw more zebra and not much else. Later that afternoon, after a mokoro ride back and a 2 hour bumpy ride and a “foot and mouth” checkpoint, 12 of us from our group went to the airport to fly over the Okavango Delta.  We sat in a 7 seater.  Before take-off, the pilot showed us on a map where we’d be flying, and it was so much further into the delta where we had been the previous night.  He said, “Where you were last night, really isn’t the delta, the delta doesn’t start until here”, as he pointed to a game reserve line about 20 kilometers north of where we had been.  The plane ride was pretty amazing.  We got to see herds of elephants and buffalo, a few giraffe, and just the vast size of the delta. Apparently, anything goes with aviation in Botswana, at one point in the flight, our altitude was at most 50 feet. We flew in tight formations with 2 other planes.  It was one of the highlights of the Safari trip. 

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