A Travellerspoint blog

Part 3: Mozambique

Now this is poverty


View Africa on tway's travel map.

I wasn't expecting Mozambique to look like that.

I mean, I'd seen pictures of Africa, with its poor villages and crowds of people and the struggle for every and anything. And we'd just been through parts of South Africa where tin villages sat on dry sand and people made their living doing whatever was at hand. It was haphazard and poor and terribly simple, but it felt grounded in some culture that wasn't for us to understand, some way of life that was different and fundamentally good.

But Mozambique was chaos.

It started at the border. Three of us had our visas already, but everyone else--wisely--had waited till the border to get theirs (so much for my $80 in Puralator fees!). So we picked up a "helper" just outside the border, who was supposed to speed up the process and ensure we dotted all our I's and made quick time.

Well.

The border was a mess. There were people everywhere--standing around, trying to trade Mozambique Metacals for South African Rand, pushing and shoving and sweating and eyeing our big, red bus as Jimmy locked and left it at the gate. And in we went, to the vilest, most pathetic excuse for a customs point I'd ever seen. Lining up meant shoving to keep your place, and Neal's "Is that your hand on my butt?" was proof enough for me that we'd been right to keep our wallets on the bus (my passport and the 17 Rand needed to get in was tucked safely, if uncomfortably, in my left 36C).

The three via holders made it out, only to find the others--perplexed--standing without passports and looking a little worried. The "helper" had gone off with their papers. All of them. And he was nowhere in sight. Then his helper came, and everyone went back off to fill more papers, and we waited ages and fret with them until everyone had everything in order. Then money exchanged hands here, slipped into a pocket there, and the bus was--thankfully--off. Seems the helpers either get on and get paid or they inform the authorities that your bus needs a thorough search. Welcome to Mozambique.

The toll road was much the same. A bill exchanged hands and a request for change was met with a laugh. Cursing from the front of the bus, but who could you complain to? Everyone seemed to be on the take or in your pocket--part corruption, part Communism, part survival. But it was all rather disgusting.

And then we saw the city.

Crumbling apartment blocks. With satellite TV.
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The road into Maputo was surreal. There were people everywhere, lying along the road, under trees, in garbage. Just lying there, at times with an outstretched hand, a wave, and always a look. We turned every head we went by--and we went by a whole lot. And the road-side stands were like nothing in South Africa. Here, people were selling the same things, over and over, in dirty stalls, under torn umbrellas, hawking muddy bits of scrap and stuff picked from trees. The city was somehow worse, covered in mud and deep puddles, advertising--everywhere, everywhere--two rival cell-phone companies. These people living in filth, not noticing they were living in filth, carrying cell phones and chatting on the rediculously packed busses, under tree after tree, in the middle of fields. Wherever they'd plopped themselves. Chatting and begging.

I hate to say it--it's so terrible to say it--but I thought: No amount of money from the rest of the world--no relief teams, no fundraiser, no good will or ambassador, no nothing--is going to fix this. Because this has become a way of life. And you can't fix a way of life. These small children, just learning to walk, who already know to outstretch their hands at a passing bus. This is learned poverty. This is helplessness. How could I have come to Africa and seen for myself and changed my mind?

So it was with a little self-loathing and shame that I watched our progress to Bilene, way up the coast. Who was I, 6 days into Africa, to judge what was what?

I still don't have an answer.

Nonetheless, the bus drove on and on up to Bilene and Laugna camp--our stop for the next two days. We pulled in when it was long dark, and hoisted our bags to a small hut. Being the honeymoon couple has its perks, and we enjoyed--once again--the biggest place for just the two of us. It was clean and cozy and, after a quick shower to wash off the long day, we sat down to our first real supper altogether. Priscilla cooked and we set and cleaned up, and shared stories amongst ourselves: Philip and Harry, from the north of England, now living in northern France with a place in southern Spain. Connie and Erin, mother and daughter, from California and Lake Tahoe. Steve, from London and with an accent that was near incomprehensible. Bill, from Michigan, the most well-travelled of all. Sasha, from Toronto. Jo, from Finland. Alan, from Montreal like us. Eleven people who became like family for three weeks.

Our chalet at Inhambane, where our bug spray mysteriously disappeared...
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The next day it was cloudy, so we wandered off quietly to the lagoon--sitting around and playing in the sand, Neal and Steve tossing a football around. We headed back for lunch, and Neal and I went to find a new can of bug spray, since we'd unthinkingly left ours out on the porch--apparently an invitation to take and enjoy. Then someone thought to book a boat trip out beyond the lagoon, and so began the highlights that came with every day of our trip.

Watch out, Neal!
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One of the boats along the lagoon.
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The boat was a little wonky--sputtering across the lagoon just a few hours before sunset. We wanted to swim something a little deeper than the shallow waters around our camp, and setting down on the beach and disembarking I could suddenly hear them, up and over the other side of the sand dune: the waves. So we ran--a challenge in the sand--over to the other side, only to spot the bigest waves I'd ever seen and my very first view of the Indian Ocean.

Waves in the Indian Ocean.
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I'm going down!
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The waves and the rip were incredible. I couldn't get more than a few feet in before being knocked over. Neal and Alan swam out beyond the swells, but the rest of us tempted the crashing waves and ran in and out and got sand in every possible place sand could get to. It was fabulous, out on the beach in the almost-setting sun, running up and over the dunes and rinsing off in the lagoon to catch our breath. With the sun going down, it was time to head back--and although the boat started with promise, it took us half-way back before sputtering and cranking and slowing to a snail's pace in the middle of the lagoon. The driver started and restarted the engine, and the sun kept going down, while we shivered in the small section below deck until the driver produced a cell phone and, in bits of Portuguese, called for help to pick us up onshore. So the boat sputtered to the edge of the water where it crashed into the boat hoist, sending us plowing into one another. We then declined a lift from the truck driver and walked the 10 minutes to camp in the quick-fading light, passed by the truck on the way (who offered us another refused lift) and arriving in time for a quick shower and a beautifully set table with supper--a piece of meat so bit it must have been sliced clean from the middle of a bull and saran-wrapped--on the BBQ. Delicious.

Priscilla's artistic table touch!
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The next day we left for Inhambane--a little further up the coast with the promise of an ocean beach. We arrived to a waiting Jeep and an open truck--our transport to the camp. Our Avis bus would have to be locked away for the next few days, as the roads were too sandy to take us in. So we unloaded our endless supplies, hopped on the back of the truck, and held on for dear life as we drove through sand pits and dunes to our new home: an open-walled chalet lined with tents.

Unpacking the bus.
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Taken through the Jeep while holding on for dear life.
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Our tent-chalet. Dont be fooled!
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And even though the trip itinerary said camping, and we'd brought sleeping bags, there's just something about sleeping in a tent. On the ground. In 30 degree heat with no air. It would turn out to be the worst nights' sleep for everybody, with moans and groans and attempts to switch to the chalets (just an extra $12 a person--surely GAP could have given us the option?). It was like trying to sleep on sand in a sauna, and it was mutually awful.

But the beach! Oh, the beach. So blue and vast with white sand and an endless, endless coastline. We went to swim, then stopped for a drink at the bar (where a soccer-playing dog kept us company), then came back for supper, then went back in the dark--or, rather, the moonlight. So bright you could read by it. It lit up the beach and looked so beautiful it was almost unreal. Alan took a honeymoon picture of Neal and I, with the moon shining behind us and the water lit up by the sky. And we walked back, reluctantly, so happy to be there and so thankful to be seeing all of it, all of it.

The beach! Who could ask for more?
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Kool and the Gang.
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Neal and I woke up before 6, broken by the night's heat, and headed for a long walk on the beach, meeting Bill and Alan and a few others on the way--all too overtired and overheated to sleep. A quick breakfast and a break in the clouds, and we were off to the beach again to catch a boat ride, this time to snorkel. The ride was bumpy in a Miami-vice way--making us girls scream in glee which made the driver's head turn in panic every time. Then we stopped, and flopped off the side (I thought they only did that in movies!) into a bay where the coral reef held so much to see. Starfish and see urchins and colourful fish and coral, all kinds of things hidden in nooks and crannies. I love that scary-fascinating feeling, being so close to things that are beautiful and somehow frightening. I tugged on Neal's arms over and over to show him what new thing I'd found.

Then it was back on the boat (with a great tug from the driver) to a waiting lollipop--just what I needed after drinking a ton of salt water. Then bumpy ride back to shore, followed by lunch, swimming, a little boogie-boarding, and finally supper--this time at the beach restaurant: shrimp and baracuda with wine and bread and a slide show from the visiting scuba-dive TV crew and it was back to the tents, to another semi-sleepless night. But after a near-perfect day, it was hard to complain.

Just before Steve and Neal threw the soccer ball and chaos ensued.
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Leaving Inhambane.
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The next day was a transit day--a long haul to Maputo, where we stopped in what must have once been a grand hotel but was now a crumbling, yet charming, place in need of a lot of TLC. Another supper of shrimp and fish (it's just so good), a huge lightening storm, then off to bed again.

A romantic pic of a once-romantic hotel.
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Coo-coo! The mysterious bathroom window.
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Then we saw Maputo. Up close. Off the bus. Walking around. With holes yay-many feet deep in the sidewalks, buildings crumbling to ruin, broken everything--a city that's been neglected for years. We stood out like sore thumbs, walking in groups of three and more, wary of everyone. I can't say I felt anything but aversion. Not even fascination. I remembered Havana, so poor and yet so charming and inviting. But this was a city after an apocalypse. Maputo may as well have been abandoned, but for the people who still lived in its ruins. And that was just it: Mozambique, so filled with people, is falling apart around them, and no one lifts a finger to fix a thing. Not one thing. Imagine having a home for 40 years and never painting, never filling a hole, never mending a fence or changing a carpet. And there you have the whole country: stopped in time for 40 some odd years since independence, with life crawling around in and around it.

I wish I could say I understood. I wish someone could change my mind.

Meet you at the corner of Lenin and 24th. Right down the street from Marx!
Ah__communism_.jpg

Posted by tway 29.11.2008 15:01 Archived in Mozambique Comments (3)

Part 2: Kruger Park

And how a porcupine almost turned us into dinner


View Africa on tway's travel map.

Day 4 started out early. As in sometime just barely after day 3. Priscilla wanted us up before the birds to spot the Big 5 in Kruger Park, still a good few hours’ drive away. And so one of the lodge guides came round at the ungodly hour of 4 to wake us up. I’m an early bird, but anything before a 6 a.m. wakeup leaves my stomach in small waves of nausea and my eyes rather unflatteringly puffy.

But we managed to shower, and pack the last little bit (packing and unpacking was a long hassle, as I tied everything tight on Priscilla’s warning that snakes make their way into ANYTHING) before heading down the dreaded bug path one last time to a waiting Jimmy—up and refreshed and in his Avis gear—ready to pack the bus. David had made us all packed lunches, but mine sat unopened till I finally threw it out 2 days later—a sandwich and boiled egg with no chance of making it in one piece into my churning stomach.

The whole getting up thing was just a blip in our nights’ sleep, though, as we all nodded off for the ride. (Near the end of the trip, Alan—a fellow Montrealer and Jimmy’s co-pilot after the almost-didn’t-make-it-asthma incident—speculated that Jimmy amused himself by warbling the steering wheel and watching our sleeping heads fly about in the mirror). A few hours later and we were in Kruger, bright and early, walking around the gate to stretch our legs and snap a few pics (including a croc some 100 feet away) before heading on our Avis bus tour of the park.

Paul Kruger Gate entrance to Kruger Park
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We probably spotted a Kudu first—a deer-like thing with white stripes across its back. So impressive and swift, and everywhere. But soon we were spotting more and more: buffalo, hippos (the most dangerous animal in Africa, believe it or not), white rhinos, two impressive giraffes, zebras, klipspringers, chimps (including one atop a tree doing what young men with dirty magazines usually do in the bathroom), warthogs, two lionesses hunting for prey, and—finally—elephants. Sasha spotted them first, earning her Priscilla’s elephant-spotting trophy: a bottle of Amarula.

Kudu in the bush
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Klipspringer on a rock
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Lion on the lookout
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Fish eagle drying its wings
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Croc!
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As we congratulated her on impressive spotting skills, however, Alan started to yell—between mighty asthma coughs and inhales on his puffer—that we’d better move the bus. Because just a few metres away, in a fit of adolescent bravado and a honk of his horn, one elephant was getting ready to charge. The bus. And so Jimmy got us moving and Priscilla gave us a play-by-play, including a moment of relief when she said the elephant finally realized what big, red monster it was up against and decided to back down. Still, our Avis queen would have looked impressive with a battle scar or two.

First elephants spotted!
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Disco elephant
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Bad elephants! Blocking our exit from Kruger Park. Detour took an hour.
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We spent the afternoon touring the park, stopping for lunch and a few purchases at the gift shop (isn’t there always a gift shop?), including a bandana for me. Because for all my intentions to rough it and pack as lightly as possible and not turn into some girly-girl, I was cursing myself for leaving the hairdryer at home. The big, wet lump of hair down my back felt like having a rain-soaked cat stuck to my neck, day in and day out. Nothing dries in humid weather—it just warms up and sticks and smells and drives one completely mad. So—following Erin from Tahoe’s example—I got a bandana and stuck my hair up out of my face and off my neck, for good.

We finally pulled into Pretoriuskop camp at about 5—just in time for us to run over to the waiting open-jeep for our night drive through Kruger. No time to get my coat, just a fleece and my camera and Neal and I squeezed to the middle at the front. (What’s with couples taking a window seat EACH, anyway? The nasty Russian guy next to me took up ¾ of the seat with his legs and his camera tripod and elbowed me whenever he needed a shot on my side—all while his girlfriend had her own comfortable window seat in back of him. So I elbowed him one for good measure.)

Our guide spotted Kudus and chimps climbing across a rock face—plus a klipspringer way up high and a family of rhinos and another of elephants that we got to see close up. Then dusk settled in, and out came the spotlights—2 in front and 2 in back—attracting bugs that occasionally whipped at our heads (with one so big it hit me from under my nose to my chin—and I covered my mouth after that). We spotted a few glowing eyes in the spotlights, the guide carefully trying not to shine the light at any prey, who’d be helpless to outwit their predators if blinded. Somehow the guide spotted a chameleon in the trees, in the dark—a green thing with great, big eyes amongst the leaves.

Then we traveled a little while longer, down the bumpy dirt road—scaring wild rabbits and blue-tailed birds, one of which somehow flew through the open windshield and into the back of the jeep before sailing out the other side.

And that’s when the guide spotted the porcupine.

Fat and round and prickly and running like mad to get out of the light. And just as it we started to chase us, the Jeep stopped. Stuck.

In the mud.

In the middle of Kruger park.

After dark.

And so he tried to drive backwards. The forwards. Then he got out and stuck a piece of wood under the wheel. And then he said it, the words we didn’t want to hear: We’ll have to get out and push. As in get out in the park, after dark, when THE LIONS ARE HUNTING. For meat! And here we were, a walking smorgasboard of Canadian, French, Russian, American, and who-knows-what-else kinda delicacies, all wrapped up piggy-in-a-blanket-like in coats and marinating in bug spray and perfume and other such yumminess.

So we got out. And pushed. And we stuck close together, me looking around to see what I can spot—which ended up being some dim-wit woman from France who decided to take a good 20 steps back to capture the whole thing on film. And, forgive me, I thought—oh good. The lions can get that idiot first and give us ample warning to hop back on the Jeep and drive like mad.

Hurry! Push!!
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But the lions must have been looking elsewhere, and we all drove on in search of a lion and cheetah but found nothing more, pulling back into camp 3 hours after setting off, a little tired, a little cold, and covered in bugs (Sasha, holding the lamp in the back, with bugs up both arms). But dinner was ready, and our room was lovely—a clean and simple chalet with high ceilings, a sink, and warm clean blankets and not a bug in sight. We ate a barbeque and opened—ironically—our bottle of Porcupine Ridge and finished the night sharing Sasha’s bottle of Amarula on ice Jimmy found somewhere, and I felt the welcome, welcome relief of being pleasantly tired.

Neal wanted to stay up, but I knew it was my window. After 2 nights of tossing and turning in fear of the unknown, I was ready for a night of oblivious sleep. So I headed back, and fell asleep almost instantly—leaving Neal to finish up the wine with Steve from London (tall and kind and funny with an accent confused us all). Neal knocked on the door 20 minutes later, but I must have opened it in my sleep.

Our restful chalet in Pretoriuskup
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I’ve never slept so well in my life.

Posted by tway 28.11.2008 13:36 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

Part 1: Out of Africa (and wishing I was back)

Setting off on the big, red Avis bus


View Africa on tway's travel map.

Why Africa?

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked us that--sometimes with horror and disgust written all over their face--I'd have paid the trip and had enough left over to pick up part of next month's rent. But, no matter! It was actually secretly pleasing, knowing so many people thought we were partly odd and slightly crazy. I pictured them lounging on some Cuban beach for their honeymoon, red as beets and on their 4th mojito before 10 in the morning. And here we were off to Africa, someplace unknown, not quite sure what to expect. It was exciting.

But my goodness was I scared.

I'm not even sure why. I just sat on the front porch—waiting for the taxi to the airport—and realized we were off to the most dangerous city in the world followed by 3 weeks with 13 strangers on a bus through god-knows-where. That's when—after 3 years of breaking the habit—I started to bite my nails.

And so we were off: Montreal to Paris, wait an hour and a half, then a long flight down to Johannesburg where we arrived, tired and travel-smelly, to a 2-hour line-up at customs, where 2 agents (one on the phone to her boyfriend the entire time) processed 2 full planes' worth of passengers. Welcome to Africa—and Africa time!

We had 2 days' of pre-tour time off, so we booked an organized trip through Jo'burg and the Apartheid museum, accompanied by Sasha (from Toronto) and Bill (63 and on his gazillionth trip)—both on our upcoming GAP tour. It's hard to say if Jo'burg was what I expected—dirty, crumbling, a miss-loved relic. Not somewhere I'd feel safe on my own. Yet in the middle, erected amongst in the ruins of an old prison, was the new court—designed to be fair and representative. A true reflection of South Africa and its people. It's hard to wrap your mind around South Africa, a constant tug of war between dirt and hope and poverty and reconciliation. It pulls you in so many ways.

Entrance to the Apartheid Museum
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That night we met our group: 11 people from all over the world, plus Priscilla our guide, and Jimmy the bus driver. Jimmy elicited fear and respect in all of us from the get go (although we would eventually discover the pussy cat hidden beneath) and Priscilla gave us a taste of what was to come: 3 weeks of travel in some of the most beautiful scenery to meet some of the world's most wonderful people. She had a knowledge of everything botany and a spirit of utter kindness and goodwill (which never wavered once the whole trip).

We also met the grand dame of our trip: the big, red Avis bus we would be travelling on. The rolling cash machine, as we came to call it. Jimmy's pride and joy. Never in my life have I seen such a clean, well-kept, ship-shape shiny bus. No matter where we were, Jimmy would find a second to polish her here, wipe her down there. If Avis ever wants a spokesman for their company, they've got a prime candidate in Jimmy, sporting his Avis cap at all times and keeping us safe and secure.

The trip started bright and early with breakfast and a run through the rain to pack the bus. Then we found our seats for the trip (a weird habit, that—coming back to the same seat again and again) and we were off. Around Pretoria, through the downtown, with bits of history on this building and that street, seeing dilapidated shops and pristine squares, then off to stock up on missing supplies, food for Mozambique, and the all-important liquor run (where I spent $20—$20!!!—on 4 bottles of wine that would have easily set me back over $100 here).

Then we were off—through the incredible countryside, the bus whizzing through Mpumalanga province, our big, red road machine turning heads wherever we went. A quick nod to the small city of Belfast—shacks out there to the left, with dirt floors and tin roofs—had Neal running for the camera. It all looked so peaceful and green, interspersed with more of those little ghetto-like towns, where, Priscilla told us, people use their homes for sleeping and little else. No need for a mansion here. The land is their home.

Then came my internal tug of war again. A huge sign, with flashing lights, warning drivers not to stop. In fact, warning them to not stop under any circumstance, as wherever we were was apparently notorious for highjackings. As in, shoot-now-ask later highjackings. And the bus went silent, and the signs passed, followed by more green, more mountains, more shanty towns, more people waving, people staring, women carrying impossible loads on their heads, children with big smiles.

Hours and hours and many bathroom breaks later, we were in the Drakensberg escarpment, rolling through the mountains and turning such steep angles along the fenceless roadway that I closed my eyes and held my breath. A quick stop at God’s Window, with a view of the whole world, was more than worth it—along with a quick hike to the edge of Blyde River Canyon, a 250-million year-old canyon carved by the slim river below. We spotted out first dung beetle—a hard-working thing with his days’ work rolling along in front of him—an endangered and protected insect bigger than I’d care to meet in a dark alley.

God's Window
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Neal and I at Blyde River Canyon
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Sunset at Blyde River Canyon
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Then off again, though the last bit of sunset and into the dark, heads lolling on the bus, now into our 12th hour or so of travel, half delirious and half asleep. At some point, the Afrikaans-mixed-with-English whispers at the front of the bus let us know we were lost, out here in the dark. And on go the lights inside, down some dark dirt road, and suddenly we were exposed in front of so many dark figures walking alongside the bus. Thirteen whiter-than-whites, faces half-frozen in the windows. Thirteen potential paydays on a big, red rolling cash machine.

But it was our fear, our imagination. Because a quick call to the lodge and a bus back-up in the middle of nowhere, with hands outside the window waving us cheerfully on, and we made the right turn, hours and hours late, into Shalati Bush Lodge—somewhere in Limpopo province on the edge of Kruger park.

So we unpacked, dragging our packs and weary selves though the dimly lit front gate, in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. The electricity was virtually shut off, the owner told us. A product of being in the middle of nowhere. Still, the bit of light showed the bar, the outside restaurant, the fire pit keeping supper warm, and the pool.

And the scorpion in the pool.

“Um...” I asked the owner. “Is that, a…um... scorpion?”

“Yes,” replied the Dutch Crocodile Dundee.

“Don’t they, um… bite?”

“If you step on one, yes.”

And that’s when fear bordering on delirium set in. Not helped one bit by a giant, hairy tarantula-like spider stalking a tiny frog on the edge of the pool. Something in the back of my head went into panic mode and stayed there.

Neal braving the dreaded pool of scorpions!
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We were guided to our hut by one of the local guides, holding a kerosene lantern to light the way. I was busy studying the ground, watching for everything—spotting 10-inch centipedes, giant snails, flying bugs the size of mice. My brain in overdrive. Opening the front door, the guide lit another lamp and left us, me searching frantically in every nook and corner for things that could sting, bite, badger, or scare us to death in the middle of the night. The geckos on the wall even scared me, although not as much as turning back around and finding them gone.

Supper was delicious, the walk back anxious, and the entire night sleepless—at least for me. Neal snored on like always, while I tucked and retucked the mosquito net, with visions of malaria dancing though my head. I had to keep pulling Neal’s hand away from the edge, where he’d flop it against the net in his blissful sleep (no use—he got bit anyway). Then, at dawn, I heard it. A rustle. A loud one. Over our heads. Running across the inside of our thatched roof. And without light or contacts, I could only imagine it. A snake. A flying rat. World’s largest malaria-infected mosquito. Torture. Torture. And still no sleep.

We were up ridiculously early, quickly showered and looking for people—anyone, just people. A quick breakfast, and David—from the local Mnisi village—took us all to see his home. A long, hot walk up a dusty road to a tin-roof village, and the local school where the children rushed inside at the sight of us, sitting in polite rows and ready to show what they know.

“This is my head!” they said at the top of their lungs, clutching their heads.

“These are my eyes!” they yelled loud and clear, pointing.

“This is my stomach!”

So loud and confident, in a language not their own. And so polite, and smiling. I asked if I could take a picture, since it seemed almost cruel to capture them like a souvenir. But David said yes, please do—and I realized they were proud to be so good and smart, to impress. Proud to have people walk up the dusty road to see what they’d learned to do.

Children at the local school
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On the way to the village
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Back down we went, though the cattle and the meager shade and the waving people.

And back into another Tina nightmare. Outside Priscilla’s guide’s hut, there was a squiggle in the sand.

“A puff adder!” the she said, which meant nothing to me.

“No,” said David. “The line would be straight, not curved.”

And then I started to catch on.

“I think,” said David. But I didn’t want to hear it.

“I think it was a spitting cobra.”

And so I slipped a little further into delirium. How could I possibly take 3 weeks of this? My mind was a mess, I couldn’t sleep, and every step was terrifying. Potential death. Terrible pain. Around every corner. Priscilla brought out books on insects and I read though them all, seeing my imminent death on every page.

10-inch centipede!
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That’s when we saw them—the Dutch. The big, white coach full of travelling Dutch. They pulled up like we did the night before, spilling bags and people (and one very done-up guide in heels and mile-high hair) all over the entrance.

And it was the Dutch that saved me. Because if Granny Klumpen can think nothing of hairy spiders and spitting snakes and god-knows-what-else lurking in the corners… If this bunch of suitcase-toting, hairdryer-packing visitors from the homeland can step out here without a flinch or a squeal, well… who was I to worry over scorpion in the pool?

Plus the lights finally came back on.

Our hut of sleepless nights.
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And that’s when I started to love Africa. And I mean really love Africa.

Posted by tway 27.11.2008 14:16 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

Road trip to the Saguenay

And how to miss a whale completely

23 °C
View Saguenay on tway's travel map.

Map? Check. Suitcase? Check. Food? Check. Now, what's that nagging feeling, hmm...

Turns out it was me forgetting sunscreen and cream of any sort, but no matter. I wouldn't find that out till we were 5 hours and 500 km away, in remote l'Anse-Saint-Jean, tucked into a small chalet/condo at the end of a busy pier. Debby and I'd planned this road trip for weeks - me with my usual itching-to-go and Debby with her "do it! do it!" turned into a trip to kayak up the Saguenay fjords and catch a glimpse (or, hopefully, an eyeful) of one of the species of whales that live the length of the Saguenay river. I'd printed the itinerary, bought a Quebec road map, packed the food, double-checked directions. And still, still, we were in for surprises.

On the way to the Saguenay:
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We started out late morning of Friday, dropping Cléo the basset hound off and heading to Tim Horton's for the obligatory Road Trip Cappuccino and muffin. Debby dubbed this the 3W weekend - Wayland, Whales and Wetsuits. So after Christening her Webby we were off to Quebec City, the first leg of the trip, choosing the long way around just cause and getting lost in some boonie part of the suburbs and finally winding our way back to the riverside. It's always so beautiful, the river, where it begins to widen out. The dirty St. Lawrence around Montreal stretches into this vast, clear-blue field - cut in two by Ile d'Orléans near Quebec, then growing wider and bluer and catching your eye, always, as you round each bend. From Quebec City it was a long ride to St. Siméon, then up the remote highway into l'Anse-Saint-Jean - St. John's Harbour - where we arrived near supper time. We unloaded the car into our conpact condo, then headed out to see the boats on the pier, the mountains, the beginnings of the fjord, the water, the clear-cut land across the harbour. All of it familiar, in that rural-Quebec kind of way, yet different. The cut of the mountains, carved by glaciers, unlike any we'd ever seen. We looked, took pictures, then headed back to make supper, catch a quick swim in the heated pool, brave the what-if-they-peed-in-it jacuzzi, then off to bed.

l'Anse-Saint-Jean:
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The next morning, ever the early bird, I got up and tip-toed out to see the place in the sunshine. The water had that diamond-sparkle look, quiet and peaceful. I popped by the kayak place to see what we should wear that afternoon, then peeked out at the boats waking up, and finally headed into town on foot. There were tourists everywhere, easily spotted by their English, their Montreal French, their quiet speech. The locals, friendly and accommodating, spoke with flat, broad accents at the top of their lungs - "des bleu-ah" for "bleuets" and "saaah-lu!" for the simple "salut". It was odd, and endearing, and Debby and I spoke together in broken, horrific Italian because everyone seemed to be fluent in English, everywhere.

I headed back to find Debby ready to go, and so we headed out to a few local artisan shops, bought a few things for our homes, then crossed the river over the covered bridge to the other side of the harbour. The 30+ year old pottery shop had closed for good the day before, so we settled on a few pictures and went back to change for our kayak trip.

Crafts!
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The covered bridge:
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We'd started the planning as a 3-day trip by kayak up the fjords, but expense and inexperience got the better of us, and we opted for a three-hour beginner course around the area. Our guide Louis (dubbed Luigi in our attempts at Italian) dressed us up in neoprene pants, jacket and booties (Debby nicely matched, me looking like a fashion catastrophe) and stuck an oar in our hands, pointing down to the tandem red kayak stuck in the sand. Twenty minutes and 5 more people later, we were ready to be instructed - here are the pedals, here's how you paddle, here's how to tie and pull off the skirt, here's where to lift, carry, put the kayak down in the water, and finally, finally we were off. The wind was strog and relentless, tricky. Louis promised us a reprieve at every turn, but still the wind was there, and we fought against it, shoulders burning and stitching up until Louis told me to paddle in smaller movements. Very unDraonboat-like. Much easier.

First we crossed the harbour, then we hugged the side, and then we went out into the open water, the fjord walls rising straight and high and the waves crashing over the sides of the kayak. It was on the edge of scary, yet exhilerating. We looked for white seals, and Louis told us stories of sharks caught in ice-fishing season, glacier waters flowing hundreds of metred down, just-pregnant first colonists waiting impatiently for the priest to show up when the ice broke in spring. The couple from France who were on a tedem next to us commented on the scenery, how beautiful it was - how unlike anything they'd seen. And it was true - this extension of home, this 5-hour trek from Montreal, more beautiful and inspiring than things I'd seen far, far from home.

Wetsuits drying on the line:
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The weary paddlers return!
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The next day we were up and out early, car packed and ready to drive the hour and a bit to Baie-Sainte-Catherine to board the cruise ship to see the whales. And so down the windi groad we went to the lonely highway, and I pointed right, Est, east - the logical way, in my head, to head back down to the St. Lawrence. But a half hour in there was something wrong, nothing familiar, and a too-late check of the map told us we'd gone the wrong way. And although we tried, and hurried, and made up for lost time, it wasn't to be. We'd missed the boat by 10 minutes, despite the rare buffer we'd given ourselves.

Still, there it was. The St. Lawrence. Blue and wide and dotted wth rocks at low tide, the sun shining off the waves, the houses srtung with washing lines, running up the coast. Home, depite being hours away. All we have to do is come back.

The only whale we saw on this trip:
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Posted by tway 03.09.2007 19:13 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Part 2 - Switzerland

Can we just live here, please?

overcast 13 °C
View Bits of Europe on tway's travel map.

The little Swiss climber on the Price is Right just doesn't do it justice. On the train ride in, 7 hours from Luxembourg, Neal and I marvelled and turned our heads at the mountains - one after the other, each one taller and greener and metting in valleys filled with little towns and typical Swiss chalets. So strange to see them, like up north in Quebec - except here they are everywhere, bulging with flowers, impeccibly clean and kept. Getting off the train at Interlaken West, we were stopped by the colour of the rivers, running between the lakes that border the city. They were the clearest blue, yet running cloudy, filled with glacier minerals and looking clean enough to tip into and drink. I never quite got over the colour, no matter how many times we stopped just to touch and see.

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Our B&B was just down the street from the station. I was a bit wary of train-pratical accommodation, like the scary little two-bit place Debby and I stayed at in Rome. But this one, B&B Rugenpark, was exceptional. The owner greeted us by name, with two big glasses of iced tea. She picked out Neal's accent and told us of her time in Galway, introduced us to the resident pup (was it Buddy? Or Manny? He sneakily stole someone's cake while we were there, but he was too affectionate and beautiful to scold), and took us up to our room. It was wonderful - white linen, bright windows, and a huge balcony all our own. "You can't quite see the Jungfrau," she said. "It's still cloudy." So we looked and saw the greenest, highest mountains and wondered what the largest of all could possibly look like. So with map and restaurant guide in hand we headed out - across the rivers, where we stopped and stared, then into the typical Swiss town. At some point I turned around, curious to see Jungfrau, and there it was. Like a picture. It looked impossible. It wasn't among the other mountains, but high above them. Covered in snow. Far back behind them. I pulled Neal's sleeve and we stared and stared and wondered if we weren't mistaking it for clouds. But no, there it was, unmoving. It was almost unreal.

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Neal and I went to a small restaurant that the B&B owner recommended, and spent a small fortune on cheese fondue, sausage, rösti, and white Swiss wine. It was all delicious, especally the wine, which the Swiss aparently keep to themselves. Then it was back out to stare at the rivers, point at the mountains, and spot the skydivers here and there in the sky. Everyone seemed to glow with a kind of outdoors healthiness - like they'd just returned from yet another long hike and a hearty meal. So we nodded and smiled and made our way back to the hotel, ready to get a good night's sleep and set out hiking ourselves.

Breakfast was a feast - toast and Nutella (which we get at home - but it's still wonderful!), with cold cuts, cheese, preserves, fruit, and wonderful, wonderful coffee. After a quick stop for a bottle of water and some snacks (more chocolate, of course), plus a run-though of our hiking itinerary, we made our way to the train station - first to Interlaken Ost, then around the mountainside, then up the Grindelwald gondola to the first bit of hiking trail. The views were amazing - mountains and snow and valleys and houses, one after the other, unable to fall it in the camera lens. We got off and started to walk, at our reular fast pace, and were out of breath in no time - first Neal, then me, lagging behind. "It's the air," I said Neal. And so we slowed, took deeper breaths, making up for the thinner oxygen. But we were passed time and again by people way older than us, clad in backpacks and looking the picture of typical health. The people, like the place, were clean and cleansed and hearty. And so we trotted along, happy to be passed, knowing age is mind over matter and wishing for the same.

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Just down the path we could hear clanging - not a rhythm, but a chorus. Cuh-clank, cuh-clonk. Cuh-clink. And then there it was, a field of dairy cows, each with its own cow bell, nodding into the grass or walking about. They were making what should have been an awful ruckus, but instead was a kind of Alpen symphony. So out came the camera, and the jiggling of buttons, until I finally figured out how to hit record. Only when I got home did I realize my camera doesn't have sound, but here is the old-time movie version with cue cards:

Neal: Here we have a field of Swiss cows.
Cows: Moo. Clink-clank.
Neal: That one over there is Joe. He's the leader.
Cows: Moo. Moo.
Neal: Do I have to keep talking?
Me: Yes! Say something about the mountains.
Neal: The mountains are nice.
Me: Grr.
Cows: Clank, clank, moo.
Me: Up there is Jung-Frau-Jock. We'll be headed there tomorrow.
Neal: It's "Young-frow-yock".
Me: Grr.

And so we continued through the mountains, going through village after village, wondering how in the world people got all the way up here and passing a few weary souls (mostly backpackers) who'd been climbing for hours to bring groceries up to their hostel. Still, there were frighteningly steep roads carrying cars up and down, and we followed the signs till we were barely able to walk, finally flagging a man to have Neal ask him, in English-German, how to get back down. And that's how we ended up walking down a dirt staircase for almost an hour, with my pitiful knee (the one I mucked up years ago before heading to Spain - the one that's never hurt me since) protesting at every step while getting quickly out of the way of the occasional group of dare-devil downhill BMXers. At the bottom, finally, we found ourselves in a valley - miles and miles away from where we started. So we walked, and took in the view - the bottom-to-top version of what we'd seen along our hike. Then we found a bus back to the train, and headed for a bite - the first in 5 hours since we started walking without a break. It was wonderful, if a bit too ambitious, at least for me. But where else could you see anything like it?

I even stopped for a pic just for Gelli, as Neal explained where it was from:

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And this wasn't originally for Gelli, but what the who:

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Plus a sign warning of cartoon cows:

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And the Canadian flag, according to the Swiss:

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The next day we headed up Jungfrau to the Jungfraujock - the lookout point on the glacier. The price was enormous; without rail passes, we were both paying full tickets up. But it couldn't be missed, and we reasoned were were here, and perhaps we wouldn't be back, and that's what credit cards are for. So we set out early, back to the train, then another, then another - 2 and a half hours' worth till we reached the top. Along the way we went from trees to tundra, and still there they were, the elderly hikers, walking up steep hills and across narrow paths, not even out of breath. And so we stared and pointed and wondered until the train went underground and, for an hour, all we did was wait as it chugged up the cog-railway to the peak - with a stop or two for a lookout. The crowd in the train was enormous - and it was worse at the top. But, like magic, we were up where we'd been pointing for days - a little spot of a lookout, surrounded by glacier and snow, blusteringly cold on the open-face side and warm enough to go sleeveless on the ground.

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From the top we saw the cities, the Swiss countryside, and out past the mountains into France. But it was on the glacier itself that we stayed longest. They had a rappel line, dog sledding, a small ski hill with a t-bar lift, sliding, hiking, even a giant inexplicable snowball in the middle of it all. In the sun it was warm and comfortable, but when the clouds went by the temperature dipped and I was glad for my wool sweater. It was incredibly bright, an Neal asked at one point if the sled dogs were green, and so we shared my sunglasse and took turns squinting and going just a tad sunblind.

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I'm not cold! Honest!
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Then we braved the crowds again (including the large Indian family who'd never seen snow, or revolving doors, apparently) to catch the ice castle (just a hole in the ice, really) before deciding we were hungry and not prepared to pay $6 for a cookie. So down we went, back on the train, stopping halfway for raclette and beer and watching the rain come rolling back in, this time to stay. So we headed back to the B&B, went for a quick swim at a nearby lake (well, a swim for Neal and watching the swans for me), then napped awhile, dressed, and headed back out in the pouring rain for supper.

The next day we walked in the rain, along the shore, finding ourselves at the dead-end of a rocky dock in a small gale, having to brave the swan couple hidden in the grass (those things can be nasty!), then crossing back to the lake again, wet and damp yet elated still at the rivers and the colours and the scenery.

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They may be cute - but they have ulterior motives!
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Yet we'd made up our minds - Zermatt was not to be. It was booked and on the list, but the rain was relentless and we'd been barely keeping ahead of it since Paris. We weren't equipped to hike the muddy paths in the rain, yet we weren't prepared to leave Switzerland so soon. But Marseille promised us the sun and they had a room free for an extra few days. And so we left early, not quite convinced we should go, but needeing to get out of our damp sweaters and admitting that Switzerland was harder on the wallet than wed expected. Still, it was the highlight, the most beautiful place I've ever been, and as the mountains receded in the train and the fields of sunflowers came into view, I knew we could come back to hike 50 years later and still fit right in.

Posted by tway 12.08.2007 18:52 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Part 1 - Paris, Luxembourg and Germany

And how I finally managed to pronounce Gerwerstraminer

overcast 15 °C
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Ah, Premium Class. I splurged when I bought my plane ticket (I'd clicked OK and got a giddy, guilty feeling, but...), and I had visions of glassware, stemware, white linen napkins, a menu... all those classy things I used to see when the curtain opened to reveal those stuffy uptights in First Class, while I gnawed at my knees for hours on end. So it was heaven to skip the Economy line, and my stomach fluttered to be called to board among the first, and oh, but those 6 extra inches of legroom were bliss - bliss! But who am I kidding? I didn't mortgage the house for a ticket - I paid a low-fare airline supplement. And so, along with endless glasses from the box (yes, box) of wine the flight attendant passed around, those were the perks. Still, they were lovely - and I could cross my legs without putting my shoe up my nose. Could I really ask for more?

Neal met me early in Paris. He'd arrived the day before from Luxembourg and checked in to the hotel I'd stayed at 4 years ago. Going through the Métro was like déjà vu - everything seemed so familiar, like each stop was on the tip of my tongue. "Wait till we get out," Neal said to me, and he was right. The street outside Convention was bustling and noisy and we fit right in. Does Paris every really change? Here at home, buildings are torn down, new ones go up, and within a few years the old familiar is barely recognizable. But Paris? Change a store here, a name there, a colour or two - I'd reconize it anywhere.

We spent the first day, half exhausted, just walking. Around the Pompidou Centre, along the Seine, through the Latin Quarter, up the steps across the river from the Eiffel tower. I have a picture of my mother, from 1968, leaning against the lookout, the tower in the background. I never got the angle quite right the last trip, but Neal found just how to mimic it. My mother and I - almost 40 years apart. One for the livingroom wall.

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The next day we headed to Père Lachaise. It's where Neal and I met, in September of 2003 - he going one way, and I the other. So without a map (how could we forget the spot!), we headed to the back, on the left - searching for Oscar Wilde. The pathways are mazes - running in circles, like Paris streets. Neal and I tugged each other up and down the wrong paths for an hour, until I finally spotted a small crowd and we went looking that way. Oscar Wilde's grave is covered in a greasy tribute of lipstick kisses, but we opted not to add our own. We simply read the epitaph, held back from repeating our how-we-met story to the unsuspecting German couple next to us, and went on to search (in vain) for Jim Morrission's grave. It was nice to come back.

By then it was well past lunch, and we had yet to even have breakfast. In a fit of nostalgia (and hunger), I bought a banana-Nutella crêpe from a road stand, only to have a rogue chocolate-covered slice fall right into the 1-inch opening in my purse I'd forgotten to zip shut. Messy stuff. We then headed for Sacre Coeur (I won the should-we-walk-or-take-the-funiculaire argument, only to discover the lift was closed for repairs). Then we went back to eating, this time at some far-off place where we had Tartiflette (yum) which was served to us by a stinky waiter (ick). {I saw a TV ad in France for a deoderant that claimed to keep one fresh and dry for 48 hours. Which sounded nice, until you realize...wait...did he just say... 2 days???} Still, with the food and the wine, you hardly notice.

And so back to the hotel, and up early, and then it was off to Luxembourg. Neal has been living there since September, so it was nice to be headed somewhere where I could sit back and follow. The TGV was fast, although - rediculous, I realize now - I thought the scenery would go by in a perfect blurr. From the train station, it was a short bus ride to Neal's - a big, bright, bachelor-messy place on a street that reminded me of Florida. Each house was painted in different bright colours, and there were trees everywhere. Luxembourg is like a strange mix of city and woods. We then headed through the forest to the old town - a rambling, Hansel-and-Gretel-looking place that was right out of a fairy tale. Between the rock face, the abundance of trees, the river, the old buildings, the aqueduct, and the stone wall, it was breathtaking. I even marvelled in revoltion at the huge slugs that crossed our path, and vowed never to eat a snail again. (I don't care if they shrink and taste yummy with garlic - they're hideous!) We stopped at a pretty bar and sat along the river, soon joined by Neal's roommate and 2 of his co-workers. It was nice, and familiar, and welcoming. And the beer was lovely.

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The next day, the rain started. And settled in. It never got much warmer that 11 C, and the two sweaters I'd brought with me didn't come off once for the next 4 days. Nevertheless, we toured the old city, outside the palace (with a few pics of the poor guard on duty, who looked all of 12), down around the river (where we spotted people wrapped in plastic wrap, painted white, lying around in garbage bags, and even one poor soul crawling across the river wall in his tighty-whities - turns out they were making a short film...some movie!). We spent hours at the grocery store (wine is cheap! cheese is cheap!) and I shopped for my birthday gift (and bought another sweater). It felt like fall, except for the lush trees - but for that I remember it just like a fairy tale, with the wind and the bundling up and the mystery of it all.

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Neal decided he wanted to take me to the border, so I could cross into Germany. So we took the bus to Remich, along the Moselle - which divides the two countries. It was raining and blustery, but we crossed the bridge and spotted the "welcome to Germany" sign and I added another country to my "been-there" list - only... there was just a gas station. And tents. Not even a restaurant or a landmark or place to sit. Just... "You took me here to see a campground?" I asked Neal, to which he replied "But you're in Germany". To which I repsonded "I'm in a campground in Germany", but he wasn't to be fazed and nodded to the "welcome to Germany sign" again and we walked back, him elated, me in a bit of a huff.

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Still, we checked the local map back in Remich and discovered a vineyard up the road so we walked and walked and missed closing time for the tour but sat outside the restaurant and ordered a Riesling for Neal, and a Gerwerstraminer for me. Only I pronounced it "gerswish-swish" or something ungodly and the waiter nodded and Neal smirked and I huffed again. "It won't stick in my brain," I said. "The German." So he pronounced it impeccably and I tried again but the consonants kept getting in the way, and by now the waiter had come back with two small pitchers and glasses and we each took a sip. Lovely. "Gerwisterstister?" But he shook his head again. "Ger-verts-tra-meaner - like that." But it was no use, really.

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The next day we headed to Germany - this time for real. We took the train to Trier and spent the day walking around the old square, stopping for more wine ("YOU order it!"), marvelling at how everyone obeys traffic sigals (even the pedestrians!), and buying Neal running shoes (he finally acknowledged that jogging in shoes you get at the grocery store isn't great for his knees). We met another of his colleagues for a drink (Riesling this time), and then a fellow Irish colleague for supper, where I was the only one who didn't speak at least some German and managed to muddle up "water," of all words. Still, lovely, lovely food, and wine, and company. The next day we were on to Switzerland - the main part of our trip, the place we wanted to see most.

And Gerwerstraminer? I finally got it right - in Marseille. But that's for later.

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Posted by tway 15.07.2007 13:52 Archived in Luxembourg Comments (3)

Bits and pieces of Europe

An itinerary and a countdown

overcast 22 °C
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Less than 3 weeks to go and I've just remembered that I forgot to buy a new backpack. As it stands now, I have the choice between the awkward lug of a pack that already weighs too much when it's empty - or the threadbare thing my parents bought me when Leanne and I headed to Springfield, Mass back in 1995. At least I have a lovely new compact 360-degree-spin suitcase that will face the ultimate will-I-kick-you-up-and-down-the-train-aisle test. Results remain to be seen!

This will be the most adventurous trip yet - from Paris to Luxembourg, Interlaken, Zermatt, Marseille and back to Paris again in 18 days. Neal - who will meet me in Paris - insists we can fit a bit of Germany in there as well. I gave him the wait-and-see speech, but it would be nice.

It's also the first trip where we won't be scraping pennies the whole time. Neal no longer has to skim off a slim student's salary, and we've managed some good deals - a Premium-Class flight for me (same price as Economy on Air Canada - yay Zoom!), plus First-Class TGV tickets back to Paris (cheaper than Economy, however that works). Switzerland will eat into the budget, but great deals everywhere else mean we can splurge a little. All I really want is to see the Alps and eat an indecent amount of Raclette. Neal, of course, will be deliriously happy no matter what we do.

First, though, the backpack...

Posted by tway 03.06.2007 06:24 Archived in Canada Tagged preparation Comments (0)

The two faces of Cuba

A futile attempt to make up my mind.

sunny 34 °C

Neal and I picked Cuba because: it's cheap, it's cheap and it's cheap. We were looking for some nice, ocean-side place that wouldn't break the bank, and Cuba is packed with all-inclusive resorts that let you overdo it on everything. Aparently its possible to get bored with too much free booze (sort of).

Our resort was in a small city called Jibacoba, in the province of Havana. The place was barely half full, since August is so warm here at home and people tend keep Cuba for the winter. Still, more than half the guests were from Toronto, which might as well have been the other side of the world. There are two faces to Canada, too.

We arrived on a muggy night, sometime after supper, and I had to convince Neal that bringing our luggage to the room before going to the beach was a good idea. We made it to the water just in time to catch the biggest, reddest sunset I've ever seen - the sun just sitting on the water, twice its size, and sinking by the second. Neal went in, I marveled at how white sand is so much nicer than rocky brown pebbles, then we headed out to eat. The buffet was huge and varied, although as the week progresses you realize you eat the same thing every day, just with a different sauce. Still, it was good.

The next day we tried snorkling - one of those things you have to build yourself up for. First, get over the fear of touching sea grass. Then, get over the fear of curious fish. Then get over the fear of swimming over the deep chasm of coral reef, where the sea bed suddely, unexpectedly drops some 15 feet and you feel like you're falling. But, that conquered, it was breathtaking. So many fish, in so many colours - and coral of every shape and texture. Neal and I developed a system of tugging and frantic pointing to catch the other's attention at something that swam by. There was even the odd eel and flatfish, and the infamous school of jellyfish on our last day that called an abrupt end to my snorkling adventure (those things hurt, little buggers).

The rest of our days were spent much like spoilt, beached walruses. Eat, lounge, nap, drink, drink, pool, drink, eat, HBO, drink, shower, dress for supper, repeat. There's something blissfully mind-numbing about doing sweet-diddly-nothing all day long, day after day. It was like a routine of non-routine, setting everything back to 0. After a week of it you start to feel the twinges of boredom and monotony, but I can see why people go back to Cuba again and again, year after year...

Then there's the other side of Cuba - the one you only ever get a glipse of. Ramshakle houses, the kind that look long abandoned, are everywhere. People are sun-burnt dark, roaming the roads, talking to one another, calling you over, asking for a peso or a caramello, looking almost destitute yet purely, simply happy. And so began the debate with no answer: what do the Cuban people think of Cuba? They have complete health-care coverage, complete dental coverage, their food and housing is heavily subsidized by the government, and their education - to whatever degree they choose to achieve - is absolutely free. Even their funerals are paid for by the state.

Yet they lack so many of the basics. Our guide to Havana explained that the Cubans have two currencies: the non-convertible peso, and the convertible peso. The former is what every Cuban gets paid, which they can use at subsidized markets to pay for food and other necessities. Yet anything on the open market is only available for purchase with convertible pesos - which only those in the travel industry make through tips. And 60% of their necessities are purchasable only with convertible pesos. And there's the paradox. They have money, but they can't spend it on many of the things they need. The guide told us that here are as many opinions as there are Cubans, and that we'd have to make up our own minds on the matter.

Havana was beautiful - and incredibly poor. Crumbling houses, peeling paint, bicycle taxis, camels, and people everywhere, in places that would be condemned here at home. Yet there were magnificent cars - leftovers from the 50s - and music, markets, restaurants, odd characters, stray dogs, the occassional refurbished building. The Christopher Columbus cemetery was huge and gleaming with white tombstones, and revolutionary square was covered in cracked pavement and lacking the pomp I was expecting for such a sacred place. There isn't any advertising in Cuba, just revolutionary billboards - remembering heors, criticizing Bush, praising Cuba's policies against child labour.

It's a city unto itself - unique in the world. I realized how the endless, relentless construction of Wal-Marts and McDonalds and the like are making the world a predictable, monotonous place. That's what was so disappointing about New Orleans - its jazz history turned into a gimmick to sell the same old stuff you find anywhere else you go in North America. What must the world have been like before franchises made every place feel exactly the same? I expect it felt as genuine as Havana - as untouched as Cuba.

Whether or not Cubans are happy with it all is another story, though.

Posted by tway 08:31 Archived in Cuba Comments (1)

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