Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Thanksgiving was not a good day for me.
I crossed the border from The Gambia into Senegal. And I just had one of those days when somehow I was doing everything wrong. I have been traveling nonstop for nearly three-and-half years, besides many other solo trips taken before that. I have been to some of the most difficult or remote corners of the world. But on this day, I behaved like a rube. A sucker. An amateur. A college sophomore on his first trip abroad, flustered because he can’t find a Burger King within two miles.
I have crossed numerous borders, both in Africa and elsewhere, even in unsavory or dangerous places. I knew all about corrupt border officials. They’re a dime a dozen in Africa. On this day, as I tried to exit the Gambia, the border official demanded a bribe from me, dressing it up as a “departure fee.” What I should have done, what any seasoned traveler worth his salt should have done, was to stand my ground and tell him no, and nein, and nyet, and fuhgeddaboudit. But somehow, on this day, maybe because I’d gotten up at five, maybe because I had a headache, after a few minutes of resistance, I sighed and handed over the money.
By the time the sun set, again, over the dusty western horizon, I was beginning to question my decision to try to come here in the first place.
Tsingy de Bemaraha is one of Madagascar’s most famous national parks. In the northwestern part of the country, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its remarkable karst formations. The word “tsingy” in the local language Malagasy means “where one cannot walk barefoot.” Lonely Planet describes it as the thing to see in western Madagascar if you see only one thing.
Unfortunately, Madagascar’s roads are also some of the worst I have ever traveled on anywhere in the world. To reach the gateway to Tsingy, the seaside town of Morondava, I rode a bus from the capital Antananarivo for fifteen hours. And by now that the sun was setting, I had been riding in a four-wheel-drive truck with five other foreign travelers for another eleven spine-scattering hours. I was pleased now that I didn’t decide to head to Tsingy right away after getting to Morondava but went first to the nearby Kirindy forest to see the fossa, the big cat species that is Madagascar’s apex predator.
Divana, my guide, picked up a branch with a generous grove of green leaves on it and began waving it. Halfway up the tree, the indri lemur in his furry black and white suit like a climbing panda looked down skeptically, weighing the human’s proposition.
A minute later, he appeared to make up his mind and began climbing down. In short order he was only a meter in front of me, still on the tree but only at eye-level, and staring at us with those round yellow gemstone eyes of perpetual surprise. Divana handed him some of the leaves; he took them with neither apology nor urgency and began to chew them.
I had worked my way to Madagascar from Mauritius and the French island of La Reunion. After a brief stay in the capital city, Antananarivo, I had come east to Andasibe, the site of perhaps the country’s most accessible national park. Or rather, parks. Right off the road east to the port city of Toamasina, Andasibe has on its right the national forest reserve of Analamazaotra, and on its left the state park that is in fact the same eco-system, arbitrarily divided from it by a road. Another 15 kilometers north by four-wheel-drive and you would find the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park with its alluring primary forest but difficult trails.
Was I planning to come to Mauritius? I was not. I thought I’d go to Mauritania. And no, I didn’t simply confuse the two countries and buy the wrong ticket. But I had seen lovely photos that my friend Haley posted on Facebook a few weeks earlier. And then I realized that it’s “winter” in Mauritius right now, which means that it’s not high season and yet each day is perfect with a high of 25 degrees celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), dry, and sunny day. Coming from a muggy summer in Southeast Asia, that sounded to me like heaven.
Except I didn’t realize that each perfect day often starts with an early morning downpour. And so the other morning when I went outside at 6am to meet the driver, the heavy rain surprised me and convinced me that the tour was surely canceled. He looked at me funny when I asked: of course it wasn’t. He had a dozen French people in the van all going to the same place. He knew, I didn’t, that in an hour’s time there would not be a cloud in the sky.
To the uninitiated, Namibia sounds impossibly distant. Where is it anyway? The President of the United States recently called it “Nambia.” And I doubt everyone realized right away that he’d made a gaff.
But actually, as Lonely Planet puts it, Namibia is “Africa for beginners.” A German colony until it was taken over by British South Africa in 1915, and not actually independent from South Africa until 1990, Namibia often feels like a misplaced corner of Germany with its Lutheran churches and streets with names like Bahnhofstrasse and Luderitzstrasse, and especially in its relative orderliness.
This Germanic orderliness, I learned on a trip to Sossusvlei, extends to Namibia’s wilderness areas.
My coworker Teresa was the first person to draw my attention to Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls, the infamous swimming hole on the edge of the waterfall that some call the world’s “ultimate infinity pool.” It was four or five years ago, and we were having one of those water-cooler conversations. As soon as I got back to my office I googled for images of the Devil’s Pool. And as soon as I saw it I decided that one day I would go there.
And finally I have.
From Nairobi I flew into Lusaka, Zambia’s nondescript capital. From the airport, at 2:45am, I shared a taxi with a Nigerian man to Lusaka’s Inter-City Bus Terminal. At 6:30 the bus left for the dusty eight-hour ride to Livingstone, the town on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls named after the famed missionary-explorer.
In the early-15th century, the Chinese government sent the so-called Eunuch Admiral, Zheng He, on a voyage of exploration that reached East Africa and perhaps beyond. A muslim of Mongol-Uzbek extraction, he was often known by his honorific name “Sanbao,” and he may have been the inspiration for Sinbad in the Arabian Nights.
Six hundred years later he is the poster child of contemporary China’s foreign policy. Called “One Belt One Road,” the policy calls for China to reconstitute the ancient Silk Road across Eurasia as well as to build supposedly mutually beneficial relationships with many of the countries that Zheng visited. And the building of relationships mostly involves the construction of factories and bridges and roads and other capital projects for these countries. Zheng left a stele in Sri Lanka commemorating his visit, so now China has built an international airport and a deepwater seaport for Sri Lanka.
I’ve been seeing and marveling at many indications of China’s “OBOR” policy around the world for some time. There was the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, for example. And there were the children in Ethiopia crying “China, China” upon seeing me, which annoyed me until I learned that, with so much Chinese investment in that country, the children thought that all foreign-looking people were Chinese, even if they had blonde hair and blue eyes.
And most recently I have been in Kenya.
Nicholas laughed at my jokes a lot. And he had a way of half-covering his face with his hands when he did so. He had closely cropped hair like that of Obama, whose official portrait was everywhere in Nairobi as stock image for shops offering passport photo service. And when he turned his head to show his profile, I thought the shape of his skull rather resembled Barack’s as well. He had his own travel agency, of which he constituted its entirety.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
We were talking about Masai Mara, the nature reserve in southwestern Kenya that formed the Kenyan portion of the Serengeti, arguably Kenya’s top attraction.
Continuing the previous post’s theme of Indiana Jones and tales I should have told when I visited the relevant scenes, here is the story of how the Ark of the Covenant — yes, the one with the Ten Commandments inside — may or may not really be in northern Ethiopia.
According to Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses built the Ark with wood with gold covering. The Israelites then carried it with them during their 40 years in the desert before Joshua led them, with the Ark at the head of the column, across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.
For now, while they were cloistered in this hotel, the newbies’ summer camp attitude seemed oddly more appropriate. Indeed the volunteers were hopelessly bored and trying to entertain themselves as best as they could. Card games went on in the lounge. As a group, the volunteers went out to Bole, the hip neighborhood near the airport, for salsa dancing. Parties were thrown, and on more than one night they migrated to one of the so-called “villas” outside of the hotel’s main building. Weed got passed around. “Never Have I Ever” was played, revolving around the themes of sex and drugs. “Never have I ever dropped acid.” “Never have I ever had a threesome.” “Never have I ever done meth.” “Never have I ever slept with my professor.”
Beer pong featured prominently, although with water in the cups instead of beer. “Don’t drink the water!” Someone admonished. “It’s sink water,” which in Ethiopia could make you very sick indeed. The volunteers had tried to get a keg in here, but the logistics proved too complicated. Indeed, for a party, there was a shortage of alcohol, and everyone nursed her drink as a precious commodity. They could’ve bought six packs, but the way things worked in Ethiopia they would’ve had to put down twice the money for bottle deposits. So these were relatively tame gatherings. At another hotel where the Peace Corps sometimes put up its volunteers, after one night of debauchery, the hotel had to replace the wall papers.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."