Category Archives: Cities and Sites

A few notes from Ghana

Ghana was the first African state to declare independence from European colonization. There have been peaceful hand-offs of power from one legitimately-elected head of state to another since 2000, making Ghana among the most stable states in Africa. The last three US Presidents have visited the country. President Obama and his family visited in 2009. Here are some notes about our time here so far:

1. The power was out all day on Tuesday in Cape Coast, because it was Tuesday. (Cape Coast is the former British capital and home of the infamous Cape Coast Castle through which millions of slaves were loaded onto slave ships bound for the Americas through the Door of No Return. We visited the castle on Tuesday. President Obama unveiled a plaque at the castle in 2009.) There was no power or water in our hotel room Tuesday night, because, TIFA.  It’s not the first time we’ve run into power outages on the trip, and it likely won’t be the last. And when I lived in Honduras, this kind of thing happened all the time. But, still. Next time you walk into your bathroom, flip on your light switch, and wash your hands in the sink, just think about all of the things that have to go right for that to happen — the power and water have to be available, the government has to not fail at getting them to your house, and then the wiring and plumbing in your house have to enable it to reach you.

2. There is a name for the weather pattern that is happening right now in Ghana, when hot wind blows the sand in from the Sahara, coating everything in a fine layer of dust — harmattan. December in Ghana is hot. So, without power, even if you sit completely still, new beads of sweat still form. On the plus side, our laundry dried in a day.

3. In Ghana, as in Honduras, you can buy drinking water in bags. This is brilliant. Think of all the times you have an empty bottle and you just need to refill it. Or all the times you are hot and thirsty and you just want to slam some water and not be burdened with carrying around the bottle looking for somewhere even slightly environment my friendly to put it. Also, we can buy 15 liters of drinking water for the equivalent of slightly leas than 1 USD. I think this is partly because it is a commodity that so few tourist buy in bulk (why?) that locals are thrown off their game when we ask for it, and just charge us the standard local price. (Note: this happens with nothing else.)

4. The beaches are really quite pretty, especially from a distance. They’d be much nicer if they were cleaner and were not required to include public bath and toilet among their various uses.

5. My vertigo has become more intense as I have aged. Which meant that there were times when I was legitimately freaking out during the rain-forest canopy walk at Kakum National Park.

6. Though we were unimpressed with the reggae at world-famous Big Milly’s in Kokrobrite, their cultural drumming and dancing night was incredible, all the more so because the show was not put on for us, at least not entirely — the entire village was in attendance.

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7. The adorable baby goats running around all of the towns have convinced Dan to become a goat farmer. Anyway, when you visit us and hear the baa-ing, at least you will know what that is all about.

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8. Our “VIP” air-conditioned bus from Accra to Cape Coast began with 20 minutes of preaching and group hymns
followed by 20 minutes of biblical trivia. Unfortunately, both were conducted in Twi, which, in addition to being a language we do not know, is a tonal language we do not know, so we were unable to join in. On one hand, it is nice to have a group of people praying with you as you think, “Please, God, do not let anybody steal my bag from under this bus, and please do not let this bus topple over as it swerves to avoid the potholes.” On the other hand, particularly as the preaching entered it’s second half hour, Dan was longing for a greater separation of church and state, and I have to admit that it is a bit disconcerting that across Africa (we ran into a similar group prayer/song to Allah on the ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar) — the safety of your journey is entirely in the hands of God or one of his sons.

9. One night in Cape Coast, Dan and I bought a round at a neighborhood bar, for everyone in the bar. For $1.75, including tip. The whisky did come in bags.

10. In Ghana, people eat their delicious ground nut soup with their fingers (there are hand-washing stations at the tables). It still grosses Dan out, something about the dirt under your finger nails slipping into the soup. It is best with what is sometimes called banku, but goes by other names as well — fermented maize dough.

mmmm. Ground nut soup.
mmmm. Ground nut soup.

11. Many of the kids we see in the villages are happy. Some are reasonably well off, though most are not. Some are malnourished, but the vast majority are not. Most wear shoes, but some do not.

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Ghana Must Go is a good book, particularly in its descriptions of Ghana, and it includes references to Kokrobite and Big Milly’s. You should read it. This is one of my favorite parts:

“The child was smiling brightly, possessed of that brand of indomitable cheerfulness Kweku had only seen in children living in poverty near the equator: an instinct to laugh at the world as they found it, to find things to laugh at, to know where to look. Excitement at nothing and at everything, inextinguishable. Inexplicable under the circumstances. Amusement with the circumstances.”

And a bit later:

“Later in America he’d see [those kind of eyes] again, in the emergency room mostly, where eleven-year-olds die: the calm eyes of a child who has lived and died destitute and knows it, both accepting and defying the fact. with precisely the same heedlessness the world had shown her, and him, all dirt-poor children. The same disregard.”

Discovery Channel Live

There are far too many thoughts, to really ever sum up our safari in one post. I am sure we will make a couple posts over time about specific parts of the trip, or reviewing G adventures whom we did the trip with. In the end though, there is an overwhelming amount of feelings and thoughts that you have over a 24-day overland Africa trip. I won’t begin to try to cover it here, but I did want to write out a few thoughts before they fade from memory. (From Erin — the long and short of it is that it is awesome and you can totally hang. [Even we totally hung, and if you ask around, you will find that I am not low maintenance.] If you are thinking of doing a 24-day overland African safari…just do it…it will be amazing. Sure, sometimes you will be uncomfortable, but mostly, it will be just fine. We had a good time on our G Adventures tour — one awesome guide and one fine guide. We are guessing that other operators do it just fine too. Find an operator with a sale going on, and just book it.)

1. A safari is like a really long unedited version of Discovery channel.

Seriously, all the things you see on animal planet are real, and common — not even that hard to find. You can find a sleeping lion next to it’s kill with baboons taunting it for fun, while a jackal tries to creep in and steal some loose meat from the kill.

2. You will appreciate zoos a bit more

I am not talking about sad zoos that mistreat animals. I am talking about ones with breeding programs for endangered animals. Ones that are helping study animal behavior in responsible ways. Even things like Disney’s animal kingdom, which is massive, and really simulates open wild game parks. There are tons of animals in the wild having their habitats split up and destroyed in ways that will decimate the animal populations. Without study and intervention, some species will die because we don’t understand their migration patterns and we destroyed a part of it.

Some of the breeding programs are the best bets to help some animals survive. Also, when an environment is built really well it can help study animal behavior in less invasive and destructive ways than completely invading the space of the few remaining wild groups of animals.

Finally, having seen some animals in a zoo and as a child, I thought the animals just laid around boring like that because they are in captivity — so not true. Free and wild lions will sleep 20 hours a day, and really don’t give a crap about tourists or most other animals if they aren’t hungry at the moment. So, what you see in a good zoo is a pretty accurate sample of their lifestyle. If you are at a humane zoo, you can see real animals behavior without hours in a hot truck. I am not saying that zoos are the same as safaris, or that we don’t need protected parks if we have zoos, I am just saying that good zoos can be part of the overall solution to protect and fund habitats for the planet’s animal population.

3. Everything is 50/50 in Africa.

  • Is it going to rain? 50/50
  • Will we reach camp before sunset? 50/50
  • Does the campsite have hot water? 50/50
  • Will we be chased by hyenas when we try to make it to the bathroom in the middle of the night? 50/50

4. After the Safari I have come to appreciate some things much more than I used to, a few examples below:

  • hooks (particularly in bathroom showers)
  • hot showers
  • showers that don’t electrocute you (we ran into slightly electrocuting water faucets at two different campsites)
  • flush-able toilets (although I will still take the “long drop” over a flush-able squat toilet)
  • traffic laws
  • a back-lit kindle
  • good headlamps or lanterns
  • a real bed
  • non-instant coffee (thanks Joel, for the coffee pot filter trick)
  • really cold beer (this one is for Mauricio)

5. You will watch something amazingly beautiful and brutal at the same time

Probably the most interesting thing we watched on safari was a leopard that carried it’s Red Buck kill across the road and then up into a tree. It was pretty incredible to watch and  it seemed a bit odd to so casually watch the rawness of life.

celebrating its victory
celebrating its victory

“When you see a herd of animals with a predator nearby, you always cheer for the prey. ‘You can do it, run, run…stay together… ‘ but once it is obvious that the predator is going in for the kill, you begin to cheer for the predator, ‘kill, kill,’ because you realize that the lion is hungry… and you want to see it happen.” -Erin

Kenya and Uganda Overland, Days 1 – 6

Over the course of four days we rode across most of Kenya and Uganda in an overland truck (it’s a truck, not a f***ing bus), crossing the equator a couple of times, and camping along the way. We advanced from standard users to advanced users of squat toilets. I got safari ants up my pants all the way to my crotch, so that when they started biting, I had to actually drop trou in the middle of the trail and in front of our African guide and half of my truck crew, while Dan and I both worked to peel them off. (Travel tip: ALWAYS tuck your pants into your socks in the bush, plus, it’s a super cool look.) And all we got were these awesome pictures.

We tracked wild gorillas through the Ugandan mountains. There are only 600 mountain gorillas remaining in the wild, roughly split between Uganda and Rwanda. Of the roughly 300 gorillas in Uganda, approximately 100 are habituated to humans — that is, to fund conservation efforts, they tolerate humans taking pictures of them for about an hour each day. The trick, of course, is that the trackers just track gorillas, using GPS to find the approximate location of the habituated groups, but if the groups cross paths, they cannot be sure whether they are tracking the habituated groups or wild families. Our trackers found truly wild mountain gorillas, and then brought us along to track them, through the “deep bush” (i.e. you need a porter in front of you cutting away the forest, helping you find your footing, and grunting in order to stop the wild silverback from charging you) for three hours. Our total hike time was about 7 hours — so it took us about two hours each way to get to where we left the trail. But we did get to see truly wild mountain gorillas — the silverback protected the females and their babies (often giving our trackers and porters a bit of a scare and causing us to nearly need a change of underwear), and the females carried their babies on their backs, running away from us large, machete-wielding, picture-taking, fellow primates. After three hours in the bush, and getting a few, half-decent shots, we were — as several of our truckmates might say — completely knackered. So we went back to our bags for some much needed lunch and water (we had left all our provisions behind when we thought we were just five minutes away from an habituated group.) While sitting on the side of the trail, stuffing our faces, one of the guys in our group stood up, looks back on the trail and says, “There are three gorillas right there. I shit you not.” A mom and a three-year-old and a baby from the habituated group made a brief appearance right on our trail, due, likely, to the famous curiosity of said three-year-old, and the fact that the habituated group hadn’t had their daily visit.
More pictures from our gorilla tracking adventure:
In preparation for our gorilla trek, we spent a morning tracking chimpanzees through Kalinzu Forest Reserve. We found a wild group way up in the canopy that did not care one way or the other about us looking up at them from below. They cared so little, in fact, that one of the males took the opportunity to copulate with a female having her estrus for the third time. (You can tell a female is in heat by her swollen rear end. They go into heat frequently — often twice a month — until they get pregnant.) The reason that the non-dominant male was able to copulate with the female was that the females often don’t get pregnant until their fourth or so estrus, which is when the dominant male begins to be protective of their copulation.
A few more pictures from our African overland adventure so far:
Sunset in Nairobi.
Sunset in Nairobi.
Our truck.
Our truck.
Erin on the bus, I mean truck, after eight hours.
Erin on a bus, I mean truck, after eight hours.
Rift Valley.
Great Rift Valley
Buying fresh veg for dinner on the side of the road.
Buying fresh veg for dinner on the side of the road.
Equator.
The Equator.
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The Equator.
Campsite in Uganda.
Campsite in Uganda.
Campsite in Uganda
Campsite in Uganda.

We’re in Africa

Nairobi, Kenya.

So far, our exorbitantly-priced “official” taxi ran out of gas in the rush-hour-packed streets of Nairobi on the way to the hotel from the airport. (So, we waited anxiously in a cab with all our belongings while being assured that God is Great and that all these people are Christians and that no one will touch us, but just to help God out, we were locked into the vehicle with all the windows rolled up while our taxi driver worked with a motorcyclist to get us some gas.) And a man on the streets (which are actually packed with incredibly friendly people who have offered us help and directions and even walked us all the way to the restaurant we were looking for) asked Dan if Dan would give me to him. (Dan’s first thought was, “she’s not mine to give,” and his second thought was that given my expensive tastes, Dan didn’t have enough cattle to actually make that trade.) And all we’ve gotten are these awesome pictures.

The elephants are from the Sheldrick Trust Orphans Project, which takes care of elephants orphaned due to poaching, starvation, or other “human-wildlife conflict.” The elephants are taken care of at the orphanage for about three years before beginning a 5-10 year process of being re-introduced to the wild through making friends with wild elephants. The folks at the orphanage told us that female graduates of the program often return to show off their wild-born babies to the folks working to reintroduce new elephants into the natural parks — elephants really do never forget. The giraffes are from the Giraffe Center, where 9 giraffes (2 males and 7 females) are part of a breeding program to increase the numbers of this endangered subspecies of giraffe. Before today, my favorite giraffe fact was that giraffe babies fall at least four feet to the ground when they are born. Today, that fact was enhanced by new knowledge that giraffes can actually sit down (though they generally must keep their head elevated to regulate their blood pressure), but they just don’t sit while they are giving birth, and that they have a 15-month gestation period.

Tomorrow is day one of our 24-day participatory camping safari, which will be spent in Nairobi, and then the “real” adventure begins, taking us through Uganda and Tanzania.

Diving in Koh Samui

We got some scuba diving in during our Thailand visit. We are diving on the island of Ko Samui, which has been lovely. We chose to dive with Discovery Dive Center. It included “free” photos with your diving… IE you get photos for free but they aren’t the cheapest dive operators on the island, not that I ever look for “cheapest” when diving 😉

The water was pretty dang warm, but visibility doesn’t match Caribbean / Mexico. The reef and fish are in much better shape though, which is nice. Hadn’t seen schools of fish this large for a long time.  Saw a school so large and dense that for about 30 seconds I thought a whale shark was coming into view, but it just turned out to be a massive school of fish coming in from the distance. Sadly, no whale sharks on our dives. Can’t complain we beat the bad weather (monsoon) to the best dive site on these small islands.

 

A quick taste of Malacca

Our last stop in Malaysia was Malacca, so we could see something outside of the big city. We had delicious food for next to nothing, and learned some history. The port at Malacca was so important to early trade that it was considered the capital of the world. It lead to some of the first maritime laws, harbor masters, and usages of multiple currencies. The strait of Malacca, now often called the strait of Malaysia, still sees 120,000 ships pass by. No ships really doc with Malacca anymore as Penang and Singapore have long since surpassed this old port town. Now the river leading to the ocean has tour boats and is surrounded by lovely restaurants for tourists, both local and foreign alike.

The Malacca church needs to be straightened out a bit (picture doesn’t show it too well, but it is like the leaning tower of Pisa).

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The once famous river that had the largest market in the world, now home of cute cafes, and good Indian food.

Erin tries a mystery egg and sausage stick, got to eat something odd at the night market. The melting honey pastries were the best.

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The most delicious food in Malacca, red pork noodles… The locals wait in lines for over an hour to eat these $1.50 noodles… apparently no one has thought to just raise the price 😉

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Food is very popular here both locals and tourists line up for hours at the favorite spots. Both the famous chicken rice balls and city satay had over hour long waits… Sadly neither of those was worth the wait, but the red pork noodles mentioned above was easily worth the wait. Duck noodles below had no wait at all and were pretty outstanding as well.