“Africa’s Not for Sissies”: Travel Zambia Overland

“Africa’s Not for Sissies”: Travel Zambia Overland

“This is NOT a luxury tour”, our tour guide Nika roared his welcome to the trip, his glassy eye adding to the intimidation factor. “Meet Bertha, our home for the next three weeks. She is NOT a bus, and doesn’t come with air conditioning, curtains or mechanical shocks for specific purposes. She’s a truck, equipped to carry 945 kg of supplies, absorb the shocks of East African roads and protect us from the wildlife. On this journey, we will have to deal with many challenges: corruption, dangerous insects, less than ideal accommodation and sometimes, harsh conditions”. He paused for emphasis and sternly added, “Africa is not for sissies, especially this region. This trip is designed so you can see the real Africa, but it won’t always be comfortable. Are there any questions?” The driver TK silently reinforced what Nikka was saying, standing like a bouncer at an inner city club, glowering at us over his bulging biceps. The eight of us shake our heads solemnly. There’s an retired Australian couple who are “expert overlanders” continuing their journey that started in Cape Town, five Europeans of holiday (a blonde Belgian couple in their early 30s, two tattooed Germans with a classy choice of hats, one Middle-Aged Austrian man who polishes off an average of 4 cans of beer before lunch) and me. The truck is pretty roomy because it’s designed to accommodate eighteen but we all scramble to find our seat belts as the truck starts lumbering out of the driveway. Life On the Road The subsequent three days could be the definition of living hell for some people. Three days in a hot van with picnic lunches on the side of the road. One day the bugs were so bad that it seemed they ate more of us, than we ate of our lunches. For the first two days of our tour, the main attraction for the first two days was a traffic jam in Lusaka (the capital of Zambia… we didn’t even get out to explore the city) and an evening activity of spider killing (mostly for the people in hotel rooms) and devising creative ways to take showers without water (our second rest camp shut off all water). The roads delivered an extra-strength “African massage” so by day 2, the Belgian girl and I donned our sports bras, to minimize unnecessary bouncing as we levitated off our seats and crashed into the metal sidewalls. The African sun shone brightly on our laps, and dust flew into the windows. We learned to shut our windows at every stop so monkeys won’t climb into the truck and steal/”shit” on our stuff. We learned to always close our tents to keep the monkeys, spiders and other insects out. We learned how to check for elephants, hippos and lions before leaving our tents for a midnight bathroom run (they actually recommended we hold it). We learned how to disassemble our tents to prevent rolling scorpions into our hand, which someone on the last trip figured out the hard way. We learned about the supremacy of the bush toilet. South Luangwa National Park “Everything in Africa bites but the safari bug is worst of all” -Brian Jackson Our main stop in Zambia was South Luangwa National Park: Zambia’s pride and joy. The park is known for its hippos and leopards, and they estimate there’s one leopard for each square kilometer of the 90,000 km^2 park. Our camp was right along the South Luangwa River, where we could see elephants crossing in the distance. Often these wildlife encounters weren’t so distant: a hippo walked straight through camp when we were eating dinner, elephants feasted a few yards from the bar, a sivet (African cat) made an appearance when the boys were drinking a beer and the whole camp was a play place for the yellow baboon. We did an morning guided walk through the park where a camouflaged guy named Jimmy guarded us with a rifle as Herman (a white native Zambian and lover of the bush) explained how to identify various tracks, feces, plants, insects, birds and more. These walking safaris are more about learning and seeing the small details that connect various elements of the bush ecosystem, instead of getting close to the big game (for safety reasons). However, we still spotted plenty of zebra, giraffes, elephants, impalas, warthogs, hippos, crocodile and dozens of species of bird. After a relaxing afternoon, we set off on a sunset game drive that provided an opportunity to get closer to these animals and see a variety of others. Before the sun set, we were lucky to see a leopard...

Peru Travel Tricks and Tips: Part 2 (Puno, Ica & Lima)

Peru Travel Tricks and Tips: Part 2 (Puno, Ica & Lima)

If you’re thinking about Peru travel, start here with Part 1 to learn general tips or a suggested itinerary for things to do near Cusco.  Here’s a continuation of our itinerary, through Puno, Ica and Lima. Day 8. Lake Titicaca and Puno. Ideally, we wanted to do a 2-day Lake Titicaca tour which included a homestay on Amanti Island which was a better deal (two-day tour, three meals and accommodation for 75 sol… we paid 40 sol just for the day tour/ transportation and had to purchase lunch separately) but it wouldn’t get us back in time to make the bus to Ica. Instead, we booked the one-day, two-island tour through our Qoni Wasi hostel. We first went to Uros, the small man-made floating bamboo islands. When we first pulled up to an island smaller than my house, we weren’t sure how we would spend an hour there… it only had three huts and maybe five people living there. But the time passed quickly, as we learned how about how they built the island, how they find food and how the educational system works. What a fascinating way to live… and I guess family squabbles are pretty easy to resolve… they cut the island in two and anchor their half somewhere else! The next stop on our boat tour was the natural island of Taquile, to see a completely different lifestyle and, fortunately for us, completely different weather (sunny skies!).  Here, the island was large to support brick and concrete buildings, farms, animals and all things needed for a fairly modern life.  Although life looked a lot more “typical” on Taquile, they still had unique governance and dress that made it interesting to visit.  Unmarried men wore plain white hats whereas married men wore flashy rainbow colored ones… before they could get married, they had to knit this hat themselves.  Having a “pre-marriage challenge” like this one, probably gives you some idea of what a peaceful people they are… they also have a town council where they manage village decision-making safety and such without a police force. After our tour of the islands, we headed back to Puno, where the skies had turned stormy again.  As one of the poorest cities we visited so far, there wasn’t too much we wanted to do in the city itself but we did check out the Plaza del Armas and the shops and restaurants around the adjoining Jiron Lima street (the main pedestrian path in town).  Puno’s proximity to the highlands and Alpacas make this one of the best places in the country to find cheap, homemade textiles.  I rarely buy anything when I travel but I couldn’t resist thick knitted gloves (10 sol), wooly leg warmers (10 sol) and a warm, knitted poncho with llamas marching around the perimeter (30 sol). We also had an incredible three course meal (including beverages) for 18 sol at Lago de Flores restaurant- taquitos with homemade guacamole, Jimmy tried alpaca and indulgent chocolate cake for dessert.  It seemed to have won the locals over too because we basically shared the restaurant with a dozen Puno security officers who were happily stuffing their faces. Day 9.  Epic Bus Ride from Puno to Ica.  Our 9th day involved an epic bus journey from Puno to Ica, which you could potentially avoid with a flight.  It was easier to find nice, direct, comfortable night buses to Arequipa (we were pleased with Peru Bus) but options to Ica were more limited.  After arriving at the Arequipa terminal, bleary-eyed at 4 AM, Jimmy picked out Flores bus (the option the locals use) to get to Ica.  In general, we had been advised to splurge on reputable buses since some buses can get held up by thieves who want to hold the bus hostage steal things.  In order to board the Flores bus, we had to get fingerprinted and videotaped and we squeezed into seats as far away from the smelly toilet as possible.  The bus made stops along the way and random townspeople would board and walk down the aisle selling pears, meat pies, popcorn, jello, fruit popsicles and small sandwiches.  They’d join us for a stop or two, until the driver dropped them off in the middle of nowhere.  In addition to the excitement of seeing who was going to hop on the bus, the scenery also helped entertain us for the 12-hour ride.  Most of the route followed the coast, so we loved to peer out the window at abandoned beaches and wild, untamed coast.  We also knew Ica was famous for its desert but we didn’t expect our whole route to be sandy hills and dusty roads. Day...

Jurassic Park Jungle Rides, Shipwreck Snorkeling, Ghost Stories and Island Camping on San Blas Islands, Panama

Jurassic Park Jungle Rides, Shipwreck Snorkeling, Ghost Stories and Island Camping on San Blas Islands, Panama

From Panama, hopping over the border to Costa Rica is pretty easy but it’s pretty hard to get anywhere else, making this the final stop on most people’s tour of Central America. However, sailing on a charter from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia is an increasingly popular option for those willing to brave over 40 hours at sea on drug trafficking routes. I learned about it from a Brit in Bocas, who was looking forward to the pit stop in San Blas Islands, just as much as the opportunity to continue her journey into South America. She heard that the indigenous inhibitors of the island only used coconuts for currency up until the 1990s and that they orchestrated the males’ first sexual encounter to be with another man. “Whoa!”, I exclaimed, officially intrigued as evidenced by my widening eyes, “I need to go!”. In addition to her comments, I had heard Dustin and others rave about the beauty of San Blas, a collection of 365 islands (one for every day of the year!) with less than 40 inhabited. Until this trip, I thought a beach was a beach so I preferred a convenient, mediocre one than “waste time” journeying far to find one. But prior to Panama, the beaches I’ve experienced were crowded with sun-burnt tourists toting seam-bursting bags, unhappy babies and squealing seagulls ready to attack for a snack. Never have I experienced the complete tranquility of San Blas’s unoccupied white sand beaches with woven hammocks blowing lazily in the breeze, suspended by palm trees that generously dropped rejuvenating coconuts. As one might expect, getting to paradise wasn’t easy. The previous evening, I stayed in Hostel Panamerica in Casco Viejo, Panama City to surprise Jen from Bocas (who I knew would be staying there). Sure enough, she walked down the stairs as I checked in, her jaw dropping in surprise to see me there. I wore nearly the same expression when I saw her flanked by two tall men with handlebar mustaches, red parachute pants and suspenders. Apparently, the Urban Circus decided to have a spontaneous series of free performances in the courtyard outside of Panamericana. This also explained why the power was out in half the building so the front façade could be dramatically illuminated when they sent acrobats out of the top windows, wound up in sheets, to descend dramatically to ground level. Sharing a hostel with circus performers doesn’t guarantee the quietest night’s sleep and so getting myself organized to wait, bleary-eyed on the curb by 5 AM was pretty brutal. Jeep Ride Through the Jungle & Entering Kuna Territory A Jurassic Park Jeep picked me up and I joined two Dutch, two Brits (well, one was Russian but has lived in London the past 15 years) and two American girls for yet another topsy, turvy 2.5-hour ride through the jungle. Thank God, we had a 4×4 because these roads made the rollercoaster ride to David look tame. The (mostly) paved roads folded in on themselves like a matchbox car mat, crumpled and discarded in the corner of a child’s closet, and every so often we’d hit a dirt patch of car-eating potholes. Usually, I can read, write, sleep, Sudoku… do almost anything in the car, but if you get car sick, you may not survive this part! Eventually, we reached Kuna Territory, where we had to pass through a guarded checkpoint, get our passport examined and pay a $10 entrance fee before being allowed to enter the protected park. Several decades ago, the Kuna won their independence and maintain autonomous territory with their own laws, enforcement and chief-run government. I’ll dedicate a post to the Kuna’s fascinating lifestyle and traditions because co-existing besides them made living on the island unforgettable. The Kuna are a reserved and curious people who, just like myself, take awhile to warm up to people. The captain, with his larger-than-life size (from perpetual beer drinking) and personality was a notable exception. Immediately upon arrival, he wanted to know where we were all from, chatting with us Americans about his college education in Wisconsin and bubbling over with excitement when he heard there was a Russian on the trip, “Let me call my Kuna friend! He studied abroad in Russia. You’ll meet him later but he’ll want to talk to you now!”. Since the Russian speaking Kuna didn’t pick up, we fortified ourselves with a traditional Kuna breakfast of a fried egg and corn cakes then boarded a boat to our Hook Island home for the next three days. Arrival on Hook Island As soon as the hull hit sand, we heard the bellow of a blown conch...

Paddleboard yoga in the mangroves with the Jesus Christ lizards

Paddleboard yoga in the mangroves with the Jesus Christ lizards

Introducing the Elusive Soy So Soy didn’t show up at 3 and I spent the afternoon cruising the beach, pausing to watch dudes in dreads juggle and two couples facing off in beach bocce, where they got creative with a self-constructed set of mismatched coconuts and rocks. I returned at the tent late afternoon for a second shower in bug spray and stopped to chat with my roommate, a Swiss girl who just finished her masters in biomedical engineering (all these female engineers). A bellowing voice interrupted our conversation, “Katieeee! Katieee”. I peeked out the tent and quickly ducked back in. “There’s no way that curly-haired creature with a double-nose piercing, tearing down the jungle path is looking for me”. But she promptly bounced into the tent, greeted me with a faceful of kisses and apologized that the afternoon disappeared from her during an epic nap. So that’s Soy, a playful puppy of a person, trailed by her surfer boyfriend Phil who warily watched from several meters behind. “Hey, girl! You have arrived but it’s probably a good thing. I hope you just chilled. And absorbed. Isn’t this place great?”, she rambled in a voice, slightly raspy with the illness that caused her epic nap. I abandoned my pack re-organizing project (later I realized, with my stuff splayed all over the floor… fortunately, leaving things out was safe this time despite perpetually open tents) and we re-buzzed around the facilities in a flurry of introductions. We sat down to plan the week (which is actually one-on-one playtime with Soyela), which involved a lot of talking and options and not much of a plan. But it sounds like there’s some acro (partner) yoga, slackboard yoga and hula-hoop yoga in my future (and possibly a day of helping Soy give the locals hula hoop lessons at the nearby “give-and-surf” school). With paddleboard yoga scheduled for 9 AM (which came with a warning about running on island time… so it may be 10 or 11), she disappeared as quickly as she came, but not without another dozen kisses and exclaiming, “I love that you’re here, girl!”. Waking Up to Open-air, Ocean-front Yoga The evening exploded in violent thunderstorms that postponed our 9 AM session but she suggested I catch 8:30 yoga with Rei, a teensy, twig of a girl that I’ve seen around with a book in her hand, exuding a Buddha-like enlightenment vibes. Six of us practiced in an open-air studio, with rain pinging off the roof, cultivating an oujaii breath that matched the crashing ocean waves. Even with a crusty-sand covering and with ants crawling up my warrior legs, I echoed the sentiment of one of the PR people who pitched his yoga retreat to me. “Practicing yoga in an open-air platform with the ocean waves roaring around you is like sex on ecstasy. Yoga in a typical studio will never be the same”. I can’t testify to his exact comparison but it’s pretty amazing to absorb the energy of the jungle and let the chirp of the insects/birds provide the rhythm to your movements.   Paddleboarding By 10:30 AM, the waves had calmed down enough to head out on my first Paddleboard adventure with a couple Bostonians. We marched in pairs in a paddleboard-sandwich down that same jungle path (whose mud has truly reached slip-n-slide levels) to the dock. With some basic pointers, we set sail amongst the mangroves, which created calm waters from the wind and the wake. We paddled on our knees past “Jesus Christ” lizards, aptly named by the way they trotted across the water until we escaped the jellyfish zone. Eventually we practiced paddling while standing and seeing our success, we found a secluded area to try yoga. Yoga on a paddleboard exaggerates any out-of-center alignment so even lunges required intense concentration but the sun was starting to come out so falling out of a pose felt more like a blessing than a curse. I played around with lunges, modified warrior IIs, downward dogs, three-legged dogs and headstand preparation. Bobbi, the Bostonian working on her dissertation in educational leadership, also teaches hot yoga so she was hopping into headstands (no big deal). And her boyfriend Joe was just chilling on paddleduty. Soy later commented, “Bobbi- you were killing it! And Joe- you ARRIVED! You were like in sirvasana the whole time. Rock on!”. After a couple hours on the water, we mud-skated back to drop off the paddleboards and Soy left me to “just chill! Chill and absorb” before some potential afternoon activity. And here I am- bobbing to reggae, seeking some shade at the bar during the sunniest part...

Chocolate hills, tiny tarsiers and karaoke in Bohol, Philippines

Chocolate hills, tiny tarsiers and karaoke in Bohol, Philippines

My last weekend in Asia came and went, spent in the Philippines, the 9th country I visited this summer.  Alissa had heard amazing things about the country, especially the chocolate hills and the 5-6″ tall big-eyed monkeys called tarsiers so it was off to Bohol we went. Dawn, Alissa and I and a tiny tarsier! We flew into Cebu then took a ferry almost immediately to Bohol, excited about relaxing at our beachfront resort.  When we landed at the ferry terminal, we figured we should take advantage of arriving in the largest city on the island to do some exploring and grab a much overdue lunch.  Honestly, we were quite shocked- poverty isn’t a foreign concept after spending a summer in Southeast Asia but it hit us in the face here.  Immediately after leaving the boat, we were surrounded by a swarm of dirty, young kids looking for money, food, water or even empty water bottles. I had gotten a restaurant suggestion from the official tourism board and it turned out to be a dingy seaside shack with food sitting out on the table in assorted Tupperware containers.  No thanks!  And we weren’t going to try the street food, where a woman was fanning flies of sticks of meat.  Dodging drivers who wanted us to enlist their ricks has services, we finally arrived at what we thought was a semi-acceptable place.  We enjoyed our meal but Dawn got food poisoning from her pork and rice.  After eating, we were all ready to get out of there and we hired a driver henry to take us to our hotel and he became our driver for the weekend since he was so adorable and eager to please.  It was a pretty drive through tidal beaches, fishing villages and lush rain forests.  When we arrived at our resort, we were “lei-Ed” with shell necklaces and a warm welcome by the American owner, John (after our experience in the city, this was a relief!).  Then we enjoyed a leisurely evening of a delicious dinner, swinging in the hammocks on the beach to the sound of the ocean, swimming in the pool then a feisty game of spades where the blondes (Alissa and I) decidedly dominated the brunettes (Ken and Dawn).  We went to bed relatively early to prepare for an early saturday morning start. On Saturday, our driver picked us up nice and early to beat the crowds at the chocolate hills.  Legend has it that these 1200 hills were created by giants in a mud fight.  Now people know the hills are made of coral and the chocolate hills turn green in the rainy season (which is when we visited), but they were still pretty cute.  Originally, we hoped we could hike the hills but it turns out that visitors can only visit several outlooks because an abundance of snakes and pythons in the area.  We decided to do an atv tour to get a little closer which was a good choice.  We drove through the heart of a small village, where we passed families of four on mopeds, smiling children sandwiched between their poncho-wearing children.  Dawn was going to skip the tour since she didn’t feel week, but the guide invited her on the back of his motorcycle and both of them were grinning the whole way. Tree pose in front of a tree and a chocolate hill (not so chocolate during the rainy season) ATV/dune buggy team! The next major stop was the tarsier conservation center.  Alissa loves monkeys- she’s the one who wanted to do orangutans in Kuching, let a monkey climb her on the monkey forest in Bali so this was on her bucket list, because tarsiers can only be found on this island.  The monkeys are nocturnal (but several woke up to peer at us through their big round eyes) and teensy tiny.  They hung out throughout the center, curled up on tree branches underneath palm tree umbrellas and they were pretty adorable. Alissa and I being tarsiers at the Tarsier conservation center With the morning rain, we decided to skip the river cruise, hanging bridge and butterfly garden and head back to our resort.  After lunch, it cleared up enough for Alissa and I to o snorkeling off the hotel beach.  The boat man hooked us up with snorkels and flippers and even paddled us out to the conservation sanctuary that was supposed to be the best spot.  Unfortunately, with all the rain, the water wasn’t clear and couldn’t see much even though we knew we were above extensive reef.  However the water was lovely, we had a good swim and most importantly,...