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    Happy New Year!

    December 30th, 2006 by steve

    We just finished the Kenya half of our safari tour through Kenya and Tanzania. There’s a couple stories to tell about being buried in mud and dragged through a raging river. But for tonight, I’m happy just to get some pictures of Uganda and the Kenyan national parks posted.
    Too early tomorrow morning, we set off for Tanzania’s Lake Manyara, Serengeti and Ngorongoro national parks.

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    New photos just in time for XMAS!

    December 18th, 2006 by steve

    We finally got some time on SLOW internet to upload some blogs and pictures for you. Pictures of our quick run through Kenya, Uganda and into Rwanda to play with the gorillas are up. Sudan and Ethiopia pix are still to come. But they’re not as cool as the gorillas…

    Just in case we don’t get another chance to blog in time, Merry XMas and Happy New Year!
    Steve and Mary (Kenya)

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    Gorillas in our Midst

    December 18th, 2006 by steve

    There’s something like 400 mountain gorillas left in the world and they all live in the mountains at the intersection of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. The family of 36 gorillas we visited live in Rwanda’s Parc National du Volcans. To our surprise, the trailhead for our hike started in a maize field with our guide and a couple AK47-toting soldiers (two days later, we heard about a couple who went tracking on the Congo side of the mountains and were robbed by a band of guerillas.) Fifty feet into the maize field, we passed a stone wall and found ourselves suddenly in a thick bamboo jungle that wasn’t even visible five minutes prior. We hiked through the jungle for an hour or so until we caught up with the trackers who had caught up to the gorillas. Our next steps were into a clearing with four foot tall grass and stinging nettle. But no gorillas. Then suddenly we saw a path of grass in the distance being cut down in our direction. Before we knew it, the head of a big gorilla was visible above the brush and heading right at us. He came within 10 feet of us before stopping for photos and then continuing on through us. At one point, only the width of our tracker separated me from this giant silverback. As if to express his disinterest in us, the silverback raised his right hand and gently pushed the tracker out of the way so he could continue on to the good bamboo behind us – just like you’d put your hand on someone’s shoulder as you move through a crowded shopping mall. Imagine a 400 pound beast “gently” moving you out of the way.

    The range of human behavior they displayed was absolutely amazing. We met the #2 silverback in the troop, who sat calmly and watched us suspiciously. The two year old twins snarled at each other and tumbled around awkwardly like children. We passed a mother holding her four month old infant that could have passed for any human mother and child. Most fun were a pair of male youths who chased each other and wrestled the entire time. It was just like watching any adolescent brothers you’ve ever met (Nelson, Filipe.) Finally we came across the dominant silverback in the group. And it was just what you’d expect. He sat in his grassy lounge chair and didn’t do a thing but eat and scratch himself. He could have passed for Al Bundy sitting in front of a TV.For me, there were two aspects of the visit that really caught me off guard. The first was their humanity and the consciousness you could see in their eyes. The second was the gentleness they exhibited. Any one of these creatures could have easily crushed us at whim, yet I don’t think any of us felt threatened or even afraid at any point during the visit.

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    Not for the squeamish…….eeeeeewwwww!!

    December 18th, 2006 by mary

    While everyone was sorting over visa fees and entry forms at the Kenya-Uganda border I noticed an odd spot on my left index toe. It was a white spot with a dark center. I don’t remember having a scab there. So I brought it in for a closer inspection. I poked at it with my fingers, squeezed it like a zit, and felt absolutely nothing. It seemed highly peculiar to me so I brought my toe right up to my eyes and noticed a faint dark line pulsating within the white bubble. It instantly felt somehow wrong so while everyone was bustling about the truck I asked Steve for the pocket knife. Yes, I need it now even if it’s buried in our stuff. Using the makeshift scalpel pricked at the spot in the middle but it was futile so I got brave, or desperate depending on how you look at it, and took the blade to my toe. As soon as I sliced it open white fluffy fleshy stuff bursted out of my skin. My first reaction was oops, I’m spilling out. But I figured I wouldn’t be able to shove my stuffing back if that’s what it was, and I didn’t remember having white filling last time I cut myself so I yanked and peeled at it until it ripped away from my insides. I kept thinking I was going to pull a nerve out and was expecting my body to send a pang of pain to convince me to stop. That never happened so I proceeded.
    With the white fluff gone I could see a black dot in the midst of some blood red pulp. A little digging and a small amount of dark blood spilled out so I immediately started yanking what turned out to be a small sack. Well, that’s pretty gross I thought. My fingers were smeared the fleshy bits I had ripped out so I figured I might as well finish the job. By then someone saw me digging at my toe with a knife and asked me what in blazes I was doing. I started explaining my epic to them and as I was digging out a chunk of tough meat from my incision I told the crowd that had gathered what I had refused to admit to myself, that it probably wasn’t a scab or blister. Infact, it probably wasn’t me at all. That’s when Steve inspects the latest bit I pulled out of my toe and said it looked like the carcass, or the sack of remains of whatever was living off my toe. I poke a little more at the pink spot left under my skin and finally feel a stabbing pain so I decided that was a good sign I finally reached where I started and whatever else ended.
    Kat yells out jealousy, ‘You got the first parasite of the truck!’ Lying to myself that it was a scab helped me through my extraction but it was time to face the fact that there was a parasite living in my toe, growing off my flesh, and that I ripped it to pieces with my bare fingers and the unsanitized pocket knife that we had used to cut salami just two days before. Gary’s Africa health book revealed that I had a jigger flea stowaway for who knows how long. If I hadn’t accidentally caught it the jigger would have reached maturity in my toe, laid eggs and multiplied into what would look like a big blood blister that would itch madly and have to be removed by a doctor. I still get the heebie jeebies when I think of the bursting white flesh and foreign pulse flood my mind. Now I can check that off ‘parasite’ and ‘self mutilation’ off my African experiences list. Done and done.

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    Race to the Gorillas

    December 18th, 2006 by steve

    Only about 40 people a day are allowed to visit mountain gorillas, so getting permits ahead of time is a must. It turned out that ours were issued for earlier than we had anticipated, so we had been rushing since Aswan. Now we needed to race through Kenya, Uganda and into Rwanda to meet our date. Northern Kenya has historically had trouble with local and Somalian guerillas preying on vehicles crossing the vast empty expanse from Isiolo to the Ethiopian border. We took two armed soldiers onboard for a couple days as we made our journey to central Kenya. Along the way, we picked up a hitchiking Imbili tribesman to complete our collection of soldiers and warriors. Along this treacherous stretch of soft dirt ‘road’, our driver finally met his match. Within two seconds, we went from bumpy bumpy road to being pitched at 30 degrees from vertical and stuck in over a foot of mud. We spent an hour and a half digging out the wheels and laying in steel tracks to drive on. None of that was enough by itself, and we were saved only by a passing truck who was willing to give us an extra little tug for $80USD. That’s all good, except once we were pulled free, he slammed on his brakes and we crashed into him bending our stairway into the truck into a disfigured mess.
    The rest of Kenya was a blur. We raced through towns and national parks on our way to the Ugandan border. We did see a group of three giant giraffes right on the side of the road, a herd of zebras and several herds of impalas and various gazelle-like animals that we agreed to call ‘deer’ for simplicity’s sake. Uganda and Rwanda are strikingly lush and covered in farms. Rwanda, in particular is remarkably beautiful with hills and valleys covered in a patchwork of fields. We were quite surprised to find mile after mile of tea planted there, as well.The people in Uganda and Rwanda are great. The children wave and jump up and down yelling “mzungu mzungu mzungu!!!” (means ‘white people’ in Swahili) as we drive by. I hate to say it, but there isn’t much funnier than watching a pudgy little kid with a huge smile jumping around and waving so violently that they fall down. And that happened more than once. Maybe this isn’t so different from Kenya on the surface, but there was a sincerity in Uganda and Rwanda that I don’t feel in the more heavily touristed Kenya and impoverished Ethiopia.

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    Is that your hand in my pocket or am I just happy to see you?

    December 18th, 2006 by steve

    I’ve never been pickpocketed and never understood the stories from people who talk about having their wallet stolen in a crowd. I guess I spend a fair amount of concentration on whose hand is on my butt, so it never made sense to me that you wouldn’t notice an extra hand in your back pocket. Well, I finally got a chance to test my reflexes in the Addis Ababa market. The ‘mercato’ is claimed to be the largest market in all of Africa. Whether or not it is the biggest, it is certainly a monster that extends forever in all directions around you and is well known as a center for petty crime. Down by the live chickens, we were getting pressed through a narrow space between a few henhouses and a passing truck when I noticed something near my pocket that wasn’t me. I spun around to find some dude’s hand about to go into my pocket. After grabbing him and giving him a good talking to, I wasn’t sure what I should do next short of walking a couple kilometers looking for a cop, so I just let him go. I was surprised to turn around and see a crowd had gathered and was motioning that I should have pummelled him. I should’ve known that vigilante justice would be approved of here. In the end, I was amazed to find that although his hand wasn’t getting in my pocket without my noticing, he was able to unbutton my pocket. Lesson learned. Back at camp we learned that of the 5 groups that went out 4 had pickpocketing experiences, but only 1 was successful.

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    The busiest little whore house in Ethiopia

    December 14th, 2006 by mary

    On this overland trip we get to stay at a variety of budget sites literally oozing with character, which we can sometimes see when the lights work, so we prefer to arrive in the dark. Sometimes towns don’t have campsites and it’s not safe to bush camp so we end up pitching tents on the premises of hotels. (And I use that term instead of craphole just to maintain some civility). Perhaps the most memorable one was when we pulled into the Bel-Air Pension in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Everyone on the back of the truck was desperately hoping it was just another pee stop, but our guides assured us that when the company last went there 2yrs ago the place was ‘okay’. Our eyes couldn’t roll far enough to the back of our heads.
    The rooms had mirrors next to the beds, condoms on the night stand, and a pricelist above the headboard in Ethiopian. The best was the sticker on the toilet tank in the bathroom that had a cheerful condom in sunglasses pointing to the toilet. During the day pairs show up, the guy hands money to the reception who gives them supplies. Half an hour later the buzzer goes off in the room and the next couple goes in. This went on all day. Steve and I didn’t choose to “upgrade” to the rooms and instead opted for the haven of our tents. Many in our group were brave and desperate enough for the rooms and there were endless jokes about making sure your door was locked and knocking before you entered, etc. It was good entertainment but sadly, we can’t say that’s the worst place we’ve stayed at.

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    These shoes were made for the road

    December 14th, 2006 by mary

    This is one of the best recycling scenes I’ve ever seen. There was a mountain of shoes made from old tires at the market in Lalibela. Some had Goodyear and Michelin tread on the soles but Steve picked a more comfortable pair made from sidewalls off an Ethiopian brand. Even the locals were making fun of him when he was walking around in these farmer shoes. (Steve’s note: they were ADMIRING my new ‘farmer’ shoes)

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    Searching for the Ark of the Covenant

    December 14th, 2006 by mary

    Little known fact to us was that the Ark of the Covenent passed through Ethiopia and is said to rest in Axum. Before searching for it, we spent a couple days in Bahir Dar at the southern tip of Lake Tana, which makes Tahoe look like a puddle.
    On islands and surrounding pennisulas are a bunch of ~12th-14th century monasteries installed to protect the Christians of the day when Islam began to threaten their existance. We jumped into a tiny boat to brave the very rough seas and see a few of these monasteries that have now mostly been converted into churches. The first monastery was on a penninsula across the lake from us. On our way there we passed a slightly larger boat that was heading back into port. Since seas were rough, our guide negotiated a boat swap and we jumped into the big boat. No sooner than we did, the outboard motor on our original boat fell into the lake. We all watched in horror as the driver thrust his hand in after the live motor and pulled it out.
    The church was a 50′ diameter mud hut with thatched roof. The inside was covered in bright paintings of holy scenes and martyrs with an African perspective. (see Buddy Jesus photo)
    The second monastery we visited hides on a tiny island and is still active. That said, the girls were allowed on the island, but had to say at the boat. This monastery boasted a trophy room where a monk showed off their collection of ancient swords, crowns and crosses that kings from around Christianity brought them over the last 800 years. He even pulled a 600 year old bible out into the sun so we could get some nice photos without flash!

    Next we headed up to Lalibela known for its ‘rock hewn churches’. Back in the 12th century, someone thought it would be a fun idea to carve a few churches straight down into the volcanic rock. There are 11 churches that all follow the same basic architecture: a large rectangular moat carved straight down, as deep as 50 feet. The remaining cube of rock in the middle is carved inside and out as a church of solid rock.
    One of them holds an ornate wooden box with long handles and is said to have carried the Ark of the Covenent on it’s way through town.
    The next church had a carved ‘Pillar of Light’ at center that is carefully shrowded in cloth. A monk stands watch over it, constantly reciting from a prayer book as he monitors activities. Underneath the 800 year old cloth is the story of the beginning and end of the world. No-one is allowed to look underneath since that would spoil the surprise.

    All the churches (except St. Mary’s with the Pillar of Light) had one thing in common. Crosses. Each one had at least one super-holy cross that the supervising monk would bring out for a photo opportunity. But these are smart monks with a good health care provider. After all the serious talk, they’d put on a pair of slick sunglasses to protect their eyes, give us a big Stevie Wonder grin and hold up their cross for photos.

    Not to be outdone, other monks living here use tiny cubbyholes in the rock as hermitages. Some sleep in the holes, as well as hang out there all day.

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    Our new name is Money

    December 14th, 2006 by mary

    …and locals say hello to us all the time. Yes, we’ve entered Africa proper starting with Ethiopia. Everywhere we go we hear the same 3 phrases, ‘hello, money’, ‘you you you!!’, ‘gimme money’ shouted from kids racing towards us, pulling on our arms, grabbing at our legs. Sure adults do it too but they have an individual approach whereas the young ones have a hive tactic. We’re convinced those are the first words they learn. Whenever we stop crowds of dark wondering faces crowd us as they has no sense of personal space. I can’t say they’re completely harmless because our group has had stones thrown at us after refusing to give a kid something. And there’s been countless incidences where our group has been flat-out completely cheated of money for no obvious reason than lying for the sake of greed, but that’s the adults. One Ethiopian told us not to give the kids anything because then they grown up with the mentality of demanding money from foreigners in place of a work ethic. And we’re strictly not to give anything when we’re near or on the truck because then kids run after it and climb on the back, risking their lives. Our driver said two kids have already died that way. Unfortunately traveling around with a large group that is most of the people we end up encountering. There, of course, are very honest, understanding people and they tend to be the ones least connected with tourism so we have to go out of way to find them. That’s just how it goes and I’m still trying to find out if anyone here knows the words ‘please’ or ‘thank you’.

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