Hop Scotch: Hopping the West Coast of Scotland

May 31, 2016

“D’ya speak English?”, one of the two bikers in line behind me at the ferry asks in a heavy Irish brogue. 

“Not your English, but yes”, I reply, wondering why he asked after seeing the Texas license plate. Then I realize he probably saw the “Montando en todo el mundo” (“I’m riding around the world”) written in Spanish on the back of my spare gas can.

“We’ve got a bit of a problem, and we were hoping you might be willing to help us out” he says. “See, there’s only room for two bikes on the next ferry, and there’s three of us here.” 

“What time’s the next ferry?” I ask.

“Twenty past six.”

“No problem”, I say. “I don’t mind waiting. I’m only going about twelve miles to my campsite after I get off the ferry, and it doesn’t get dark here til almost eleven o’clock.”

“Are ya sure? I’ll pay for your ferry ticket.”

“Nah. No need. Go ahead.”

They board the ferry, while I wait. It’s a nice day, and I’m in no hurry at all. 

Near the end of boarding, the ferry worker directing traffic walks up and tells me there is room for me after all. I ride on, they strap my bike down, and I walk upstairs to find the other two guys. 

I tap one of them on the shoulder and he turns around, surprised to see me. “I should’ve taken your money” I say, grinning. They buy me a coffee and we talk until the ferry docks and it’s time to ride off.

I had left Ian & Tricia’s mid-morning and headed west, with several nights planned camping along the west coast of Scotland. 

First stop: Falkirk, just west of Edinburgh. I had two reasons to stop here. First up, the Kelpies.

The Kelpies.

This 100-foot tall metal sculpture of two horses is a monument to horse-powered heritage across Scotland.

Second stop in Falkirk: The Falkirk Wheel. This might be the wildest thing I’ve ever seen, yet it’s a simple concept and very functional.

The Falkirk Wheel in its’ “at-rest” position. This is a replacement for the traditional system of locks to raise and lower boats to different water levels. Note the canal extension that juts out to the wheel at the top.

 

The wheel in action: there is a boat in each of those two containers and it is rotating counter-clockwise, lowering the boat on the left while raising the boat on the right.

 

Getting closer. The whole thing takes very little time at all, and I’m sure is much more efficient than pumping water in and out of locks.

 

After Falkirk I continued west to Oban, where I bought a standby ferry ticket to Craignure. 

Ian’s recommendation for a place to wild camp on Mull was fantastic. There was a long stretch of one-lane road (turns out this is the norm here), following the coastline. Between the road and the water was beautiful green grass, and lots of sheep. I passed a number of other people camping before I found a spot, but the opportunities were plentiful and stretched out for several miles.

I pitched my tent near the water, pulled out my chair and watched the sunset. At 10:45pm. It finally got dark about midnight.

And the sun came up at 4:30am. Brightly. By 6am the tent was dry and ready to pack, but it was so quiet and calm that I enjoyed a lazy morning.

Sheep, sheep everywhere and nary a wool blanket to be found. It was cold at night, but when the sun came up it warmed up quickly.

Eventually I rode further north on Mull to Tobermory, where I found an old church that was now a coffee and pastry shop. I had a bacon roll and a coffee at a sidewalk table in the sun, then walked next door to the grocery store and stocked up on food for several nights of camping in the wild. 

Tobermory

 

This old church in Tobermory had been turned into a local version of Starbucks (but with better food).

 

No scaffolding? No problem. Just get a bunch of extension ladders and tie them together.

I hopped the ferry from Tobermory to Kilchoane and continued north through beautiful scenery until I finally arrived at Applecross Pass. Not since Huascaran National Park in Peru have I seen such a stunning road through dramatic landscape.

I got off the ferry at Kilchoan and saw this sign. I figured since I already had the “Furthest point south in South America” and “Furthest point south in Africa”, I might as well take a photo.

 

This was going to be my next camp spot, but the gate was locked.

 

 

 

Heading to Applecross. I’ve seen sidewalks in the States wider than the roads here, and these are two-way.

 

 

 

Looking east from the top of the pass.

 

 

Looking north from the top of the pass at the clouds pouring over the mountain.

The pass eventually drops down into the small village of Applecross. There was a campground here, and it was full of motorcycles and a gathering of VW combi vans. I decided to spend the night at the campground even though there were several opportunities to wild camp, in order to chat with the other motorcyclists. There were several motorcyclists from England and Scotland. The group camped next to me were from Ireland; another couple I met were from Germany. Several invited me to visit them if or when I came through their towns. 

The next morning I took the coastal route — another unbelievable ride — north towards Durness. I hadn’t intended to venture this far north, but the scenery begged me to keep going, and who was I to refuse? 

I stopped for a break and was sitting on this bench when soon after these guys from France pulled up. They spoke very little English, but my bike caused them to try. They were touring Scotland before heading to the Isle of Man.

 

 

These yellow flowers are everywhere and are extremely fragrant. Incredible smells mixed with incredible scenery.

I’m camped again tonight on the coast overlooking the beach in Durness.  Tomorrow it’s off to John o’Groats, the northern-most point on the Mainland UK. 

London Calling

May 28, 2016

I arrived in London a day before the bike. I flew through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia while the bike went via Istanbul, Turkey.

I spent Thursday working on clearing the bike through Customs. I ended up having to hire a Customs broker to process the paperwork. Finally, around 7pm Thursday evening I received a call saying I could pick the bike up. I caught a taxi (about $30 for the 4 mile ride; I had walked there in the morning).

When the crate came out of the warehouse on the forklift, I was shocked: it didn’t look anything like it did when I delivered it to the shipper. They had wrapped the parts that protruded beyond the crate in foam sheeting, then placed cardboard over the entire crate, and finally shrink-wrapped the whole thing. As a result, nothing was damaged. It took me about an hour and a half to uncrate and reassemble everything, and I was back at the hotel by around 11pm.

The crate arrived in better condition than when I last saw it.

The next morning I loaded up and set out for the Lake District in the North. I had been to London before, so sightseeing wasn’t a priority, but getting out of London was. I can’t afford to spend $40 a day for food and $100 a night for a hotel for long. Before heading north, though, I went south briefly, stopping at Yamaha UK for a quick visit. The guys there were incredibly nice, even offering to change my oil before I left.

Richard, Bill (shown here) and the other guys at Yamaha UK were very welcoming, giving me the tour of their offices and even helping me out with an oil change before leaving London. Compared to the US offices, it’s a small place (they are a subsidiary of Yamaha Europe) but they definitely run a smooth operation.

The traffic leaving London was horrendous. I spent about 50 miles between London and Birmingham splitting lanes, and again for another 20 miles or so after Birmingham. I later found out that it was the beginning of a 3-day weekend, so a lot of the traffic was likely people headed out of town for the holiday.

I made it to the Lake District early evening, and found a camp just outside of Windermere. This area reminded me somewhat of the movie “The Way” and the Camino de Santiago de Compostelo, the long trail that people use to make a pilgrimage from France into Spain. There are many trails through the Lake District, and people were here to hike between towns, staying in hostels or hotels.

Camp for the evening, overlooking the lake just outside of Windermere.

 

The road to Penrith.

 

A wee village on the way to Penrith.

 

Different wildlife here than in Africa…

 

Along the way I passed this old church and cemetery in Patterdale.

 

This seemed a bit creepy at first….what kind of music comes from a cemetery?

 

But this explained it…”Battle of the Organs”. I wonder if they’re “donor” organs…

 

The next morning I rode from Windermere to Penrith on a beautiful small road along a lake, and then back onto the M6 and in to Scotland before exiting at Moffat to take another great small road through the countryside, eventually arriving in West Linton, and the home of Ian and Tricia. 

Tricia, Jasmine, and Ian.

The last time I saw Ian, we just happened to randomly pass each other at a border crossing between Argentina and Chile; he was headed north to Buenos Aires to ship home, and I was headed south to Ushuaia. 

It was great to seem him again, and to finally meet Tricia. They have a gorgeous home in an absolutely beautiful and peaceful place.

The weather is a bit different than Africa; it’s chilly and damp, and a bit foggy this morning, but it looks like I’ve picked a good time to be here weather-wise. Ian gave me a list of gps coordinates for places to camp along the western coast of Scotland, and I plan to spend the next week visiting as many of them as possible.

“TIA”, and Africa Time

May 25, 2016

Having lived in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, very near the border with Mexico, in the mid-1970s, I learned the meaning of “mañana” early. Not the literal translation meaning “morning” or “tomorrow”, but the more general meaning of that “laissez-faire”, easy-going, things-will-get-done-when-they-get-done attitude that invariably teaches patience.

I hadn’t experienced a lot of the “mañana” mentality in a while, having spent more than a dozen years in hectic Southern California, and then another decade in the laid back but trendy Austin. Nor did my job allow for that lifestyle.

When I left last July and headed into Mexico, I was reminded of “mañana” and readily adjusted to it, since I was on no particular time schedule and had been preparing myself mentally for the inevitable breakdown or delay that might leave me temporarily stranded somewhere for days or even weeks at a time.

Over the seven months spent heading south through Latin America to the end of the world at Ushuaia, I had a few mañana encounters, but never anything that caused me more than a day or two delay. I easily laughed them off, especially when I observed other foreign travelers stressing out over things not going exactly as they had planned. (Note: if you can’t handle the idea of a waiter taking an extra 10 or 15 minutes totake your order or bring you the check without exploding in a tirade, it would be best if you stayed in Los Angeles or Chicago or New York.)

Then came Africa. A continent that has embraced “mañana” and taken it to extreme new heights. Nothing happens here quickly. Or even slowly, by most standards. The concept is evident nearly everywhere, in the physical surroundings as well as the daily interactions.

In most of the countries I passed through after Namibia, the road conditions were unpredictable, at best. In many cases, the road would go from deteriorated asphalt with large potholes, to no asphalt and simply dirt, mud, or sand with large potholes, to beautiful new pavement. I later learned that the Chinese have taken over road construction in much of Africa, and this explains the new pavement. Yet the construction times are still extremely long due to the use of mostly local labor and the lack of mechanical equipment to build the roads. Much of the construction process is still done by hand, even on the major highways.

It’s also evident in the buildings. Even in Nairobi, as I walked into a shopping center, the sidewalk was unfinished, and the tile-work on the stairs was unfinished, even though the building had clearly been open and operating for a couple of years. No one was working on these unfinished areas; they were simply unfinished, and walked away from. Parts of the parking lot near the building were still unpaved or crumbling. People walked through the mud puddles and across the unfinished entrance as if everything was normal. Which it is in Africa.

In many (but not all) of the places I stayed in Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, there was a common theme of frustration by business owners. They complained that they would hire people, train them, then have to re-train them again almost daily, as they seemed to forget the most simple of tasks overnight. I think much of this may be due to a “mañana”-type approach instilled over a lifetime.

People in Africa seem to begrudgingly accept this way of life, and it is often referred to as “Africa Time”. Things get done here in Africa Time. Nino, the Swiss cyclist I met at Jungle Junction, used the term “TIA”, for “This Is Africa”, any time a story was told about something taking a long time or multiple attempts to accomplish.

That’s not to say that everyone in Africa adheres to this regimen. Many of the employees I met along the way at various camps seemed to have a dedication to their work, and were able to perform their required jobs daily without supervision. They arrived on time, worked hard, and accomplished what they were asked. But the longer I traveled through East Africa, the more I realized that these people are the exception.

Things eventually do get done. Just don’t expect them to get done when promised, or on a schedule that you initially think may be reasonable.

I’ll use the shipping of my motorcycle as an example here. It took approximately three and a half days to put my motorcycle in a steel crate that already existed as a motorcycle shipping crate. Granted, in order to save a bit on shipping, the crate needed to be reduced in size, since the airline bases the price on volume. After two days, the crate’s length had been shortened. It was now actually about ten inches shorter than the bike, and the rear fender and taillight stuck out of the back of the crate. Oops. Well, TIA. Time to take a break (for a day) and reconsider the options. The next day, the solution was to try to pull the motorcycle forward in the crate using tie-down straps. This achieved the result of the front fender of the motorcycle sticking out of the crate, while the rear was still sticking out. Also, the crate was too narrow, so the panniers had to be removed from the bike. Unfortunately this left no place for the panniers to fit in the crate without either sticking out themselves, or rubbing against other parts of the motorcycle.

Oh well. TIA. A few zip ties and another tie-down strap, and the panniers were pulled tight against the engine of the bike.

Next was to reduce the height of the crate. Fifteen minutes later, the uprights were shortened. Now the handlebars were taller than the crate. Another day was taken off to consider the options again.

The next day, the handlebars were rotated back slightly, and the front of the bike was pulled down tighter using the tie-downs. Also, the right handguard was removed, as it was still taller than the crate.

At this point I had both accepted Africa Time, and given up on my bike actually arriving in London undamaged. This was the worst crating I had ever seen, especially since the starting point was a perfectly usable BMW motorcycle crate.

During the crating process, I contacted the shipping agency to arrange the shipping from Nairobi airport to London Heathrow. This also took several days of back-and-forth emails and phone calls. Each day, I would receive an email saying that they would email or call me again later in the afternoon with more information, but of course since we are on Africa Time, that email or call either came late that night, or the next day, and only after several follow-up calls and emails from me. Eventually I was told by the owner at Jungle Junction that nothing happens here unless you call every couple of hours.

Ultimately I informed the shipper that I would deliver the crate to them on Thursday afternoon at 3pm, not waiting for them or giving them the chance to drag it out further.

The bike was delivered, and I continued to wait for shipping details. Initially I was given an Airway Bill on Friday with information that the bike would go to London on a SwissAir flight via Zurich, but no specific date on when it might leave Nairobi. I continued to watch both the SwissAir tracking system online, and my GPS tracker (which I left in the crate so I could see where the bike was). Not surprisingly, there was no movement over the weekend. I kept reminding myself, “TIA”.

On Sunday evening I was advised via email that the crate would not fit on the connecting SwissAir flight from Zurich to London, and the shipping would have to be rescheduled. Later that night, I received a new Airway Bill with information that the bike would now be on a Turkish Airlines flight via Istanbul, but again no specific date on when it would leave. I continued to monitor both the Turkish Airlines tracking system online (which at this point didn’t even acknowledge that the Airway Bill number existed), and my GPS tracker. In anticipation that the bike might actually get on a plane in the next few days, I booked a flight to London and a hotel room near Heathrow. This was probably not wise, for several reasons. First, once I left Nairobi I would be unable to handle any additional shipping snafus in person if and when this failed, and secondly, the cost of a night’s stay in Nairobi was $11, versus over $100 a night for the London hotel room.

As of this morning, the bike has left Istanbul and is on its’ way to London. Hopefully by tomorrow I will know the condition of it and whether or not all of my gear that was also packed into the crate is still there.

For now at least, in hindsight, as long as you can accept TIA and Africa Time, things eventually do get done, and I would definitely use the same shipper again, though I would either crate the bike myself or use a different company to crate it.

More updates in a day or two. Barring any major damage, I hope to be on the road Thursday or Friday and headed for Scotland.

Nairobi, Jungle Junction, Shipping and Onward

May 22, 2016

I’ve been at Jungle Junction in Nairobi for a week now. I spent the first three nights in my tent. After the third night (two of which it rained quite a bit, but I sleep well in the tent in the rain), I had to pack up the tent between rainstorms so it could go into the crate with the bike. So I moved into a dorm room, which raised my nightly lodging from $5.95 to $11. I was the only one in the dorm, so it was like having a private room with a bunch of extra beds.

I had a lot more mosquitoes in the room than I did in the tent. I’ve learned how to enter my tent without letting the mozzies and flies in, but the room has open windows and no screens, so the mosquito netting on the beds is essential. The first night in the dorm I didn’t use the netting and slept terribly due to the constant buzzing in my ears.

Once the bike went into the crate (early in the week), I had no transportation, but Craig and Jen from Australia were nice enough to let me ride one of their CRF250s to the bank (through flooded Nairobi). I had to take out a cash advance on my credit card in order to pay for the bike shipping. That took a couple of hours, and a bunch of forms, and the bank had a limit of 100,000 Kenyan Shillings per day (about USD$995), which wasn’t enough to cover the shipping cost. A few more trips to the ATM over a couple of days eventually got me enough cash to pay shipping, lodging, meals, etc. By the time I got enough cash to pay for the shipping, I felt like I had applied for a mortgage at the bank. The amount of paperwork for a cash advance on a credit card, not to mention the time involved was suffocating! Similar to banks that I experienced in Argentina, you take a number when you enter the door, then sit in a large waiting room and wait for your number to be called. There were two teller windows open, and regardless of the transaction, each involved a lot of paperwork, a lot of conversation, and a lot of running back-and-forth by the teller.

I eventually got the bike onto a truck and delivered to the shipper’s office near the airport, along with my carnet, where it sat for another day before they finally took it to the cargo terminal and cleared it through customs (More on all of this in the next post). After five days, it was now officially stamped out of Kenya, and one step closer to leaving on a plane. Closer being the key word. Not done. Just closer.

Unfortunately, without transportation, I was unable to visit several places I had hoped to see in Nairobi. Particularly, the Karen Blixen house and museum, which were only about three miles from where I was staying. I had considered taking a taxi, but due to the ongoing shipping issues, and the weather, I was stuck at the camp most of the time.

For those reading along that may be considering a similar trip into Nairobi, this is the place to stay. If you have trouble finding the entrance, note that the sign outside the gate doesn’t say “Jungle Junction”, but simply “JJ’s”.

 

The area of Nairobi where I stayed is near Karen, which I thought was an odd name for a suburb in Kenya, until I realized it was named after Karen Blixen, the Danish author whose autobiography under the pen-name Isak Dinesen was later made into the movie Out of Africa. The farmhouse where she lived here in Nairobi was also used for the movie, and is now a museum. Much of her once 6,000 acre plantation is now suburban neighborhood.

Across the street from the Blixen museum is Marula Studios, the home of Ocean Sole, a “flipflop recycling company”. According to their website, each year thousands of flipflops are washed up onto East African beaches. These are collected by volunteers and at Ocean Sole they are turned into sculptures. Pretty cool recycling, actually.

Yep Used to be flipflops.

Near Jungle Junction is the Giraffe Center. On my last day in Kenya, I walked to the Giraffe Center, and fed the giraffes.

The giraffes know where the food is at the Giraffe Center.

 

Put a pellet in your mouth and get a kiss from a giraffe.

 

There’s an elevated deck where you can interact with the giraffes at their level.

 

This is my buddy Eddie. He actually knows his name, and will come when you call him. Either that, or he thinks “Eddie” means “Food”.

 

Eddie was my buddy as long as I had food. Once the food ran out, he quickly became somebody else’s buddy.

 

Also near here is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Elephant Orphanage, which focuses on raising orphaned baby elephants for return to the wild. This facility also allows public interaction with the baby elephants for one hour a day.

Craig & Jen saw a break in the weather and packed up their Hondas and headed out Friday afternoon towards Lake Turkana and Ethiopia.

Craig & Jen, off for Ethiopia.

I was jealous and wished I was going with them, but with a U.S. passport, I would only get so far heading north through Sudan and Egypt. I still want to do that route, and I will, but it may be a few years. Hopefully by then the political climate will be better.

Arusha to Nairobi

May 15, 2016

I had applied online for my “E-Visa” to Kenya, and received it about a month ago. On the application, they asked the date I planned to enter Kenya, and after some guess-timation, I put May 15th. I was actually slightly ahead of schedule, but a couple of rest days along the route in Tanzania, along with the trip to Ngorongoro Crater filled my time and I ended up right back on schedule.

I spent one last night at Meserani Oasis Lodge in my nice comfortable $11 room, and then said goodbye to Mama before heading north.

Mama and me. What a nice lady. She bought this six acre bare piece of land over 20 years ago, planted all the trees herself, then built the restaurant, bar, and lodge. It’s a beautiful, relaxing place. I hope to see her again when she comes to Texas to visit her daughter and son-in-law who live near where I lived.

 

Chips Mayai: basically an omelet with french fries cooked in it. Good stuff. I had this for dinner two nights at Meserani.

 

Heading north out of Arusha toward the Kenya border. Mt. Meru in my rear view mirrors.

 

And very hard to see, but Kilimanjaro off to my right in the distance (between the tank bag and rear bags).

The border crossing was a bit confusing due to construction of a new checkpoint facility. The road looped around the new construction, and it was quite easy to miss both the exit from Tanzania and the entrance to Kenya. Eventually I was able to get both done, and on my way toward Nairobi.

These flowers were thick along the way in southern Kenya, as were the Maasai men herding goats and cattle.

On the way through Nairobi to my camp I stopped at an ATM to get some Kenyan Shillings, and the woman security guard at the ATM was helpful in guiding me to the ATM that would accept my card (there were four different machines in the same room on the side of a gas station/convenience store). I decided to walk around to the front of the building and buy some bread and water in the store. When I returned, the female security guard was leaning on my bike, watching it for me, and studying the route I had written out in the top map pocket of my tank bag. She pointed to the coordinates for “Jungle Junction”, the overlander camp I was headed to, and said, “You must take me there some day”. I couldn’t help but smile. I’m sure she wanted to see the jungle, and wasn’t aware that Jungle Junction was in the middle of Nairobi.

While we were talking, more security guards showed up, along with two guys that worked in the pizza place next door. They were very curious about the bike, the GPS, and as usual, struggling to accept that I had ridden this same bike from the United States to South America and then through Africa.

My first encounter with Kenyans. A very happy bunch.

 

I pulled into Jungle Junction and set up camp for a while. Here I would wash and crate the bike, and sort the shipping for the next leg of the trip.

Home for a week or so in Karen, Nairobi.

 

Crating the bike.

 

A lot of overland travelers use Jungle Junction to store their vehicles for a while.

 

A LOT. Yes, even the two pink buses are overland travelers (from Sweden).

 

I also met Nino here. He’s from Switzerland, traveling by bicycle, for years (he couldn’t say how many kilometers or how many countries he’s ridden through). He jokingly called himself a “Luxury Traveler”. He has both a tent similar to mine, and this Exped Ergo hammock, as well as a laptop. Not the typical minimalist bicycle traveler I’ve met in the past. He’s been camped here at Jungle Junction for 8 weeks now. Just taking a short break before continuing south.

 

Aussies Jen (whom I met in Arusha a few days earlier) and her partner Craig were also here on their CRF250L Hondas. They are working on obtaining their visas to enter Ethiopia in the next few days. They were a wealth of information for future Africa travels, and I was able to help Craig with some service on his CRF as well as a quick troubleshoot on Jen’s.

 

 

Stay Tuned…

May 19, 2016

It’s been an interesting but relatively relaxing week. I’ve met a number of travelers and made some new friends this week. I hope to be moving again soon, and new posts will be up by the first part of next week if all goes well. Thanks for continuing to check in here.

Hakuna Matata!

Ngorongoro Crater

May 15, 2016

This is my third wildlife “safari” tour through a total of four parks in Africa, and they have all been a little different, as the terrain is different in Namibia, Botswana, and Tanzania. I have to say that while Etosha National Park in Namibia was impressive, the Ngorongoro Crater, while much smaller, is definitely the most impressive so far. 

The crater floor is around 100 square miles, and is 2,000 feet below the rim of the crater. There are 25,000 large animals in the crater, including Cape buffalo, black rhino, elephant, wildebeest, lion, waterbuck, gazelle, hippos, eland, and zebras. Because there are very few trees in the crater, the animals are easily viewed. 

I spent the night before near the entrance gate to the park, at a place called Panorama Camp. This place has these cool little igloos for rent.

Looks like a beehive from the inside.

The rim of the crater is nearly 8,000 ft (2,400m) above sea level, and climbing up to the rim to enter the crater felt like driving through Jurassic Park. The clouds were thick, and the jungle is dense. I kept waiting for the dinosaurs to step out of the jungle. Eventually the road crests the rim and descends into the crater.

There are few trees in the crater, so the wildlife is out in the open in constant view, allowing for close interaction and photos. 

Looking into the crater from the rim.

 

Hippos in the grass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, he really walked that close. Probably six feet from me.

 

 

Flamingos. Thousands of flamingos.

 

Here’s a reminder of why you always have to be alert in Africa. I was taking photos of these really cool yellow birds in this thorn tree….

 

 

 

Then I looked at the base of the tree and saw this…gotta look hard.

 

Better view from the other side of the tree…

 

This lake was full of hippos. If you stood and watched they would surface every few minutes then duck under again.

If I wanted to see a lot of wildlife and could only go to one place, I think the Ngorongoro Crater would be it. Due to the lack of trees in the crater, there are no giraffes here, but just about everything else you’d want to see is here and easily viewed. 

Tanzania and The CNN Effect

May 12, 2016

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I’m going to go through it again, because I keep having similar experiences and it bears repeating.

The United States media tends to focus on shock headlines. I guess that sells news, and ads for them. They run stories about how dangerous certain countries or places are, and the U.S. government issues Travel Advisories against travel to nearly every country in the world based on these dangers, real or perceived. 

The example most everyone in the U.S. is familiar with is Mexico. I would guess that the majority of people in the United States believe that Mexico is dangerous, and that if visiting Mexico, the chance of being killed by a cartel or drug gang is high. 

So, is Mexico dangerous? I tend to use this comparison: a month or so ago, over thirty people in Chicago were shot in one weekend. I didn’t read anything in the U.S. news that advised the rest of the world not to travel to the entire United States because of this. So why does the U.S. media paint an entire country as “dangerous” with a broad brush because of something that happens in one city, or one state, or province? Is it dangerous to travel to the southside of Chicago at night? Probably. Is it dangerous to travel to East Los Angeles at night? I wouldn’t do it. Does that mean I shouldn’t visit San Diego? It has no direct correlation, and you’ll never hear the U.S. media make such a ridiculous, over-broad statement about their own country. And Mexico should be the same. Yes, there are places that are less safe than others. A little common sense goes a long way. 

This applies to other countries as well, of course. Since I began my journey last year, I have noticed an ongoing and continuous routine: in each country I visit, I am told by the locals that the country I just came from is dangerous, and the country I am headed to is dangerous, but the country I am presently in is perfectly safe. Whether this is due to political propaganda, or previous border disputes, or other factors, I can’t say. But it is consistent. 

And it happened again here in Tanzania. In Malawi, I was warned that Tanzania was much poorer, more corrupt, and more dangerous. And maybe it is. But that’s not been my experience. Perhaps it’s my common sense approach of staying out of what might be bad areas, but overall I’ve met a good number of people in Tanzania, and have had nothing but friendly encounters and never felt threatened or that I might be a victim of theft. I’ve been told by Tanzanians that this is the safest country in East Africa. Yet its’ bordering residents would tell you otherwise, for some reason.

At Meserani Oasis Lodge and Camp near Arusha, the owner went out of her way to call around and find a tour to Ngorongoro Crater for me (one that I could afford; there are lots of Crater Tours, but they can be quite expensive. She was able to get me on a tour with a group, cutting the price by more than half). She verified the tour details, and even waited with me for the driver to arrive on the morning of the tour. She didn’t make a cent for the time she spent to help me.

The lodge doesn’t have wifi, but her son-in-law brought me his personal wifi dongle and allowed me to use it to check my email, going to the trouble of buying a new prepaid card for it to give me enough data to do what I needed to do, and helping me set it up on my laptop. 

All along the roads, people wave as I pass by, or wave back when I wave to them. Most of them are smiling big when they see me ride by.

Sure, there are hawkers at the tourist locations that line up to try to sell you everything from jewelry to artwork, and they can be pushy and insistent. But in general I found Tanzania to be a friendly and welcoming place, even with a bit of a language barrier. 

Not everyone in this picture is trying to sell things to tourists and locals. The two men on the right are Masai warriors, and just passing through.

I’m really curious to hear what Kenya has to say about Tanzania when I get there. 

A Very Brief Encounter with Kilimanjaro

May 11, 2016

It alternated between rain and drizzle for two days high up in the Usamara mountains. On the second morning, I decided to head down the mountain, as the first five or six miles were dirt, and were already muddy when I came up; by now I knew it was going to be slick and slow going. 

It wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected, and the ride back down the mountain to Mombo was actually quite enjoyable. I continued west on the main road towards Moshi, and as I entered this small town, the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro was just barely peeking through the clouds.

I had already decided that I was not going to attempt to climb Kilimanjaro on this trip, as my ankle still gives me trouble from my Bolivia “off” five months ago. So I will keep it on my “to do” list for the next lap.

I continued on towards Arusha, where I planned to stay for a few days while searching for a tour of the Ngorongoro Crater. I had a place in mind to camp in Arusha, but after three failed attempts at finding it, even with the GPS coordinates, I headed for an alternate place: Masai Camp. I could camp here or sleep in a dorm room for the same price ($10), and since I was the only person here, I chose the dorm room. About fifteen minutes later, a woman on a Honda CRF250 pulled up. 

Jennifer and her partner Craig started in Cape Town on two CRF250s and have been heading north, mostly on unpaved roads. Jennifer split off in Kenya and has been traveling alone for the past two months, but was now headed back to Kenya to meet up with Craig again. It sounds like I will likely see them again in Kenya. Jennifer introduced me to the game of Bao, which I still don’t fully understand since there appear to be different rules depending on where it’s played but it looked interesting enough that I intend to search out a Bao game to purchase and learn.

After one night at Masai Camp, I moved further west to Meserani Oasis Camp. Here I found a nice private room with a shared bath for $11 a night. After checking in, I met Justin, who is the son-in-law of the owner. Justin and his wife Sandra and their young daughter live here now, but used to live in Austin, Texas. I was shocked to learn that Sandra’s sister, a native of Tanzania, and her husband live within ten miles of where I was living in Texas before I began this trip. Amazingly small world.

Toto, Sisi Si Katika Kansas Tena…

May 8-10, 2016

Which is Swahili for “Toto, we are not in Kansas any more.”

As I originally headed south into Mexico nearly ten months ago, my Spanish vocabulary increased initially by exposure to road signs. The easy ones like “Curvas Peligrosas” (Dangerous Curves) were first, followed by longer explanations. You see them enough, you start to understand them,

The same happens in Tanzania, where I’m learning some very basic Swahili, first from road signs, and a little more from interaction with the people. From the signs, I’ve learned “pole pole” (slow), “safari njema” (safe journey), “hatari” (danger), “kona kali” (sharp curve), and “karibu” (welcome). From the people I’ve learned “karibu sana” (warm welcome), “Jambo!” (hello!), “asante” (thank you) or “asante sana” (thank you very much), and lala salama (good night, or sleep well). As with other countries I’ve visited in the past, I find that just a few words in the local language can change impression and attitude of the locals towards me. There are 130 tribal languages in Tanzania though, so Swahili, the national language, will have to do. 

Oh, and of course, I already knew a couple of words of Swahili: Hakuna matata. And yes, you do occasionally hear that phrase, though often it’s from a tour guide to his group of tourists, or vice versa. It’s actually kind of funny how much influence the movie “The Lion King” has had here: warthogs are commonly referred to as “Pumbaa” now.

Sometimes the road signs aren’t what they seem. For example, twice I passed signs in rural areas that said “Zebra Crossing”. Although I suppose it’s possible that a striped horse could cross the road at this point, that’s not the meaning; it’s more simple and direct than that. “Zebra” simply means black and white stripes, as in the stripes painted on the road for a pedestrian crosswalk. 

In the southern part of Tanzania, I often passed homes and buildings with an “X” spray-painted on the side of them. I’ve seen this before in the States as an indication of the building having been checked and cleared after a flood or earthquake. I wasn’t sure what the meaning was here in Tanzania, so I finally asked. It turns out these are homes that were built too close to the road, and have been marked to be cleared. Ouch. I guess that’s what happens when you’re basically just squatting, but when you have no money to begin with, that’s a painful lesson.

As I traveled further north (and east) in Tanzania, I saw more Swahili and less English. There is also a larger Muslim culture here than in the south, and even some of the buildings begin to take on a more eastern look. The numbers of small roadside Jehovahs Witness, Seventh Day Adventist and Apostolic churches have disappeared, replaced by the occasional mosque or Islamic center. I saw more women in headscarves and some schoolgirls wearing headscarves with their school uniforms. However the Muslim and Christian ways of life seem to co-exist here. 

While riding through the Mikumi National Park, I was looking for wildlife. I didn’t see much, but I did see a large number of giraffe, and more monkeys and baboons. I caught both on the GoPro, but unfortunately because of the wide lens angle, the giraffe were so far away that I don’t think they’d show up unless on a very large screen.

A little further up the road I passed through the Valley of the Baobabs. These alien-looking trees are truly incredible, and had it not been for the possibility of large feline wildlife in the area (apparently there are lions and cheetahs here), I would have stopped and spent much more time studying them. These are some of the largest tree trunks I’ve ever seen, yet the trees themselves are quite short, with very thick short branches and odd surface textures.

The mountains  began to appear on the northern side of Mikumi park, slowly fading back to plains as I neared Dar Es Salam. With the lower elevation the temperatures increased and I stopped to open the vents on my riding gear. The ever-present people walking and bicycling on the road were very friendly as they passed, waving and greeting me in Swahili. I even had a couple of truck drivers honk and wave, giving me a thumbs-up.

Further north, large mountains came into view and I knew I was getting close to Mt. Kilimanjaro.

In the small village of Mombo, I turned onto a narrow road that climbs into the green Usamara mountains through Lushoto and on for 27 miles before arriving at my destination for a couple of nights. Muller’s Mountain Lodge is deep in the mountains, and is a 1934 English style farmhouse built during the German colonial days on beautifully manicured grounds, with camping on the hillside overlooking the valley. A very relaxing atmosphere.

The first night I camped there, two safari trucks full of Austrian tourists arrived as well, although as often happens, I was the only camper; they were staying in the lodge. The next morning I met Francis, who the lodge manager introduced as Grandfather. 

Francis is 81 years old, soft-spoken and fluent in English, Swahili, and I believe German, and a pleasure to speak with. He was there to lead the Austrian tourists on a six hour hike through the mountains, and invited me along. It was difficult for me to gracefully decline, not the least of which because I felt like I was not in good enough shape to keep up with this 81 year old. It rained most of the day, and I was glad I didn’t go along, as the ground here is very muddy and slick, and I was afraid of injuring my ankle again.