Christmas on the Serengeti

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I alluded to it earlier, but I’m now on an organized group tour with a company called Dragoman. There are 20 people in the group along with our leaders Sarah and Dave, and Charles the all-important cook. Our home is an enormous diesel truck (apparently a converted cement truck) called “Christie”. The truck carries all our personal crap, tents, sleeping mats, food, kitchen gear, folding chairs, beer, maps, books, and 23 increasingly grubby people.

Pic of Christie

The day after the village walk with the banana beer pitstop we abandoned the truck, pared down our gear, and split up into 5 small jeeps to carry us into Serengeti National Park for two days of game driving. (And here I’ll admit that I really didn’t have a clear idea of what “game driving” is, but it turns out it’s exactly what it sounds like – driving around all day, looking at game.) The jeeps are equipped with pop-off roofs, so you can stand up and have a 360 degree view.

A pair of Maasai who were herding their goats alongside the road as we passed. We stopped to take their picture, for which we were charged 1,000 Tanzanian shillings each (about 80 cents). They really know how to work the tourists, the Maasai, though you can’t really blame them. They can be found wherever tourists gather, pushing necklaces and blankets and spears and even pairs of the odd sandals they wear which are made out of chunks of old tires with inner tube straps.

Our jeep driver (hose name was, I’m not kidding, Honest) was really good at spotting the game. We’d be bumping along the corrugated roads and he’d stop and say, “See the hyena!” and we’d all peer vainly and break out the binoculars, and sure enough, there would be a hyena poking its head out. It was like the guy had laser vision or something.

Honest, with the laser eyes, sporting a traditional Maasai blanket

But on to the game – we saw: baboons, antelope, lions, leopard, warthogs, giraffes, elephants, zebras, wildebeest, gazelles, monkeys, hippos, buffalo and rhinos. Some were breathtakingly close (a giraffe walked across the road between two of our jeeps) and some were binocluars-only. I took loads of photos, though in many cases there was little point because the animals were too far away to appear as anything other than an indistinct smudge to my tiny pocket camera. Luckily there are some serious photographers in our group with serious cameras and mega-zoom lenses and talk of f-stops and ISO settings and opto-graf filtration and things, and I’m sure they’ll be sharing once they get a chance.) Until then, check out these pics:

Zebras and warthogs – one of the coolest things about being out in the natural habitat is that you see the animals all mixed up together. Sometimes you could do a full turn and see zebras, giraffes, elephants, gazelles, wildebeest and warthogs all just hanging out.

A giraffe munching on a thorny tree. I don’t know how they do it – those trees are completely covered in thorns two inches long. They look just vicious. (The trees, not the giraffes, who look quite lovely, as you’ve already seen.)

Thompson gazelles, there are zillions of these. So many (and so many zebras and wildebeest) that our jeep quickly instituted a “We don’t stop for ungulates” policy.

Hippos. We also saw one on land, though very far off. They are improbably fat and it’s hard to believe they can move as quickly as they do. But really, they looks exactly like they are supposed to.

In fact, everything looked exactly like it was supposed to. It sounds stupid, but I kept thinking. “It all looks like ‘The Lion King’!” Take the warthogs – they really do trot along exactly like that, and when they’re alarmed their tails stick straight up in the air and trot a little faster. And hyenas really do have that hunchbacked sneaky look, and hippos really do open their mouth that wide.

Baby warthogs, who were part of a family living, unwisely, under the entrance porch at the Serengeti Visitor’s Centre. There used to be four babies, but one got eaten by a lion a few days earlier.

There are approximately 3,876,320 different safari companies, all with the pop-top jeeps to cart tourists around, and the drivers all seem to be pretty friendly with one another. When we encountered another jeep, we’d almost always stop so the drivers could have a little conflab. I imagine they were letting each other in on where the good viewing was, because most people want to see the “Big Five” – lions, buffalo, elephants, leopard and rhinos. Word travels pretty quickly when there’s a good sighting, and there can literally be traffic jams when eight or ten or more jeeps all cram into a short section of road. It’s a bit weird.

Traffic jam at a leopard sighting. No pics of the leopard because it and its baby were up in a tree and almost impossible to see, even with binoculars (or “nokkies” as the Australians in the group sometimes call them, because Aussies generally seem to be incapable of pronouncing all the syllables of most words)

We had about two and a half days of game driving, some at Serengeti National Park (where we also camped for two nights), and some at the Ngororgoro crater, which is not really a crater at all, apparently, but in fact a “caldera”, whatever that is. Either way, it’s a pretty stunning view.

Me with the crater in the background. And no, I have not had a haircut. I decided to try growing it out, though I think that making that decision immediately before embarking on a 23-day camping trip might not have been smart. It would be much more practical to just shave my head. No promises on how long I’ll be able to hold out, because it already feels unbearably long, but I’ll give it a shot.

And other than the first night in Nairobi, we’ve been camping the whole way. We all pitch in setting up tents, hauling water, and helping to cook and clean, which is one of the reasons the Dragoman tours are so reasonably priced compared to more “full service” overland touring companies. I don’t have a problem with camping, and the Dragoman system seems to work reasonably well. For me, though, the whole thing breaks down when it starts raining, which it did very early on Christmas morning when we were camped in Serengeti National Park.

It really wasn’t the best Christmas morning. I slept fitfully and every time I woke, I could hear rain. Some people like the sound of rain on the roof of a tent when they are snug and dry inside. For me, it’s just a harbinger of what’s to come – a wet, muddy mess. Sure enough, I woke up at 5:30 am on the 25th and it was just miserable. Laurie tried to cheer me up by giving me a small present to open, which was sweet. Perhaps if it hadn’t been dark, AND raining, AND Christmas Day it might not have been so soul-destroying. As it was, we had a quick, damp, muddy breakfast, and struck our soggy tents and loaded up for the trip to Ngorogoro crater. We got away late, and then ended up later still because the previous night’s rains had overtopped a small bridge that was the only way in and out of the park. There was a big lineup of jeeps on either side, and lots of people milling around, checking things out.

The lineup. Christmas Day, on the road in and out of the Serengeti.

Really, though, all you could do was wait for the water to recede enough to pass. Because there was a lot of it.

There’s a concrete bridge under there.

Luckily, we didn’t really have to wait long, though we heard that the first trucks in line waited for a couple of hours. In a way, it was quintessentially Africa – you really just have to go with the flow.

By the time we finally finished with the Ngoogoro crater and made it back to our campsite to be reunited with the truck, I was done with game driving. In fact, I was kind of just done in general. It was Christmas, and I was tired and dirty and I’d just finished setting up a soggy tent. I’d discovered that the text message Twitter updates I’d been sending hadn’t gone through, and I couldn’t get my cell phone to receive calls from Canada. And I was standing in a not-at-all-hot shower being cold and wet and listening to the rain outside and wondering why I was standing in the shower getting cold and wet when I was about to go outside and do the very same thing. And it was CHRISTMAS. The campground we were at actually had a lodge as well, and, like many of our stops, we were told we could upgrade to a room in the lodge when they were available. This upgrade would have cost $60 USD, and as I was standing in that shower I thought that sounded very very cheap indeed.

But then I dried off and we discovered that there was a space inside where we could have our Christmas dinner, and Laurie poured me a generous vodka and orange squosh and things seemed vaguely better. This is especially lucky, because it turns out there were no rooms available anyways. And really, it’s a good group of people, and there are enough of us that even if a few people are having a bad time of it, there are always other who are happy and cheerful and able to pull the others along until things get better.

So we had a nice evening, enjoying having a roof and walls while eating our Christmas dinner. And Dave and Sarah even gave us each a little Christmas package with some small treats and a Christmas cracker. And I played carols from the computer, and we drank and talked and laughed. I had a few minutes of credit on my phone to talk with people at home, and then Laurie and I retired to the tent and opened some little stocking stuffers my mom sent with her all the way from home. And it all seemed not so bad after all.

So that was Christmas on the Serengeti. I hope everyone had a nice holiday, and thanks for all the best wishes in comments and emails. I don’t have a lot of time to reply, because I’m trying to use my time online as efficiently as I can. So just know that your messages are getting through, and they are appreciated, and I’m doing fine and am among friends.

Steve's Weird Food for Tanzania: Banana Beer!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

This one fell right into my lap. I'm with my big Dragoman tour now - 21 of us bouncing across Africa in a giant orange truck named "Christie". I'll have to write more about the overland experience another time, but for now, on to the beer!

The group had a "cultural visit" to the town of Mto Wa Mbu in Tanzania on Tuesday afternoon, where we saw rice fields, and banana plantations and had a nice local lunch. We also had a very very very long and bakingly hot trudge around the area that started to feel a bit like the Bataan Death March after about half an hour. However, one very pleasant stop was at the home of a local family who brew traditional banana beer.

Here's the woman of the house - she made the beer!

What they do is, approximately, is this: mash up bananas with water and let it sit and ferment for 4 - 10 days, depending on the prevailing temperature. Then they add a mash of sprouted millet that's been ground and dried. And I think they let it sit some more. The end product is exceedingly rustic. A sort of pale pink sludge with the ground up millet stuff floating on the top. Some of that gets skimmed off befreo drinking, but the end product is still decidedly chewy.

Banana Beer

Naturally, I had a taste, as did everyone in the group. It was actually reasonable - a sort of tangy concoction that had a bit of bite nd a bit of fizz. If it were diligently filtered and chilled, it would be quite nice. As it is, the best I could do was to chug the remains of the container, after our guide asked for volunteers to finish it off.
Well how could I hold my head up at the next hash if I couldn't even chug a half a container of banana beer?
And there you have it. More weird beverages, and yet more weirdness to come. Who knows what Christmas dinner will be like at a campsite in Tanzania?

Nairobi: scams, giraffes and a very long run

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I thought I was a pretty savvy traveler, but one day in Nairobi put paid to that idea. Luckily I’m now accompanied by my friend Laurie from home, who turns out to be much less trusting than I am. Here’s what happened:

We were walking in downtown Nairobi, on a bit of a mission. Somehow I managed to abandon some key pieces of gear in my Kampala hotel room as I was packing for the flight out. Among the missing: four blank 2GB memory cards for my camera (thank God they weren’t the full ones), the mobile broadband thingy from England (it was locked to a UK carrier anyways) and – the real show-stopper - the charger for my camera batteries. I have no idea how I managed to leave this stuff behind. I tend to be diligent to the point of OCD when packing, so it’s a mystery how this stuff managed to escape. The only thing I can think might have happened is that while I was rearranging things in one of my small gadget cases I took the stuff out and neglected to put it back in. Regardless, I really couldn’t carry on without being able to charge my camera, so we were off to find a replacement charger. I was also trying to get some service for my cell phone, which spontaneously stopped doing email and internet just before I left Uganda. I should have know it was too good to be true.

Anyways, we were strolling along the street in the city centre, and got sort of accosted by a drunk guy. He wasn’t hugely threatening or anything, just sort of annoying, and he was quickly warned off in Swahili by a friendly local man passing by. We struck up a conversation with the friendly man – a tall and skinny guy with a nice face named Hubert. He was a teacher, and interested in us, and we walked with him for a ways and enjoyed his company. And then he asked if we’d like to sit for a minute and talk a bit – he was a teacher after all, and interested in learning more about us, and Canada. And as we crossed the street to the café Laurie leaned over to me and muttered, “Are we being scammed?”. I figured not – the guy just seemed so pleasant and genuine and quite knowledgeable. (Yeah, yeah, I know. But you weren’t there, so shut up.)

Once we were in the café, we sat and had glasses of mango juice, and chatted some more. Then Hubert pulled out a piece of paper that purported to be some kind of Tanzanian immigration application document. He was fleeing his native Zimbabwe as a refugee from political violence. His family had been the subject of terrible violence at the hands of government forces – some killed, some survived, all fled. The remaining family members were being taken care of by a local church, but the church was failing them, and they needed food. He didn’t want money, just food. Some rice, something. I was weakening. It’s not like he was asking for money, so how could it be a scam? Then the pitch changed. We have so much, even just a dollar from each of us… Laurie and I exchanged a glance. And Laurie was firm. “”No, sorry, we can’t do that. We’ll pay for the juice, but we can’t help you.” She turned to me, “Are you ready to go?”. And we got out of there quickly, though I still really didn’t get it until Laurie said, “That was a scam. He and the drunk guy were working together.” “Really?” I said. “Oh yes.” So there you go. The anatomy of a scam, and thank you Laurie.

Me, standing in front of a "No guns" sign. Really, how comfortable can you be in a city where it's necessary to put up signs like this?

I was not a big fan of Nairobi. On top of Mr. Hubert Scammy Scammerson, the streets were packs with touts pushing different safari tours. After a while I felt like I needed a t-shirt that said “NO THANK YOU, I’M ALREADY BOOKED ON A SAFARI.” Add to this the fact that we were chasing around trying to find the stupid battery charger (successfully, eventually), and trying to get my cell phone fixed (unsuccessfully, frustratingly), and it was a bit of a wearing day. We did manage to find zippers to fix my pants (again…), which felt like a major achievement.

The next day, though, was really excellent. We splurged and hired a taxi for half the day so we could run a few errands, but mostly so we could go to the Giraffe Centre, run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife. It was most perfectly excellent. Started in 1979 by the Kenyan grandson of a Scottish Earl, the Giraffe Centre rescues giraffes and breeds them. Apparently in the east of the country where the habitat is shrinking, farmers will often kill giraffes because they can end up eating crops. The Giraffe Centre steps in when they can to rescue these animals.

Hee hee!

It turns out that giraffes look exactly like they are supposed to, and are beautiful and totally improbable at the same time. There are currently nine giraffes at the centre, and the best part about it is that they have a tall gazebo-like viewing stand set up and they encourage the giraffes to come right over and poke their heads in. You end up eyeball to eyeball with them, mostly because they also give out handfuls of Giraffe Chow, hence they like to hang around very very much.

Laura the giraffe, approaching the platform.

I took approximately 9,528 photos of giraffes, because they really are fantastic. You should go over the Flickr and check out the set labeled “Nairobi” because it’s mostly giraffes. You can even get the giraffes to “kiss” you by holding a large bit of giraffe chow between your lips. The giraffes then use their extremely long and agile tongues to pluck the bit of food from your mouth. When I did this it was quite a tidy operation, but whenever Laurie tried it she ended up with a big slobbery kiss.

Laurie gets a big wet one from Daisy the giraffe.

We spent a lot of time a the Giraffe centre (but I still managed to leave without taking a video, which is really too bad. I’ll try to be more on the ball in future.) I even bought a souvenir at the gift shop – a small carved wooden spoon with a giraffe on the end. Laurie is a bad influence in these matters because she’s Christmas shopping, and she’s going home in a couple of weeks with a nice big bag. I’ve been pretty restrained on the trip so far, but I think that once I get to Zambia I’ll be sending a large parcel home. My camping gear will have to go somewhere, and I think I can pare down the clothing. And if a seven foot tall carved wooden giraffe makes it into the shipment, well, what’s the harm in that?

Too bad Laura will not fit in a parcel home.

So the giraffes were really excellent, and the day wasn’t over yet. We had a bit more shopping to do, and a nice lunch, and I managed to squeeze in a run with the Sunday Afternoon Nairobi Hash House Harriers (SANH3). This meant that I had to miss most of the group meeting for my big overland trip, but it was the only chance I had to chalk up another international hash (#15!), so Laurie agreed to take notes, and I got a cab to the start point, despite the disapproval of Group Leader Dave (who actually turns out to be quite

nice and easygoing).

The SANH3 is a small hash – split off from the big Monday evening run that I’d have to miss because I’d be on the bumpy road to Arusha. It was the first time I’ve run with a group that was made up entirely of locals – normally there’s a healthy portion of ex-pats , usually British and American. So I was the only pale face on the hash that day*. I met Wilson, the hare, and got my first taste of running with Kenyans when he told me that the “short” run that day would be about 7kms. The long run was supposed to be about 14kms. Clearly, these are people who are serious about their running. Right away I figured I should do the short trail, but somehow I found myself latched on to Wilson on the long trail. And it’s not like I could risk being left behind, because the run went through one or two areas that were, shall we say, off the tourist trail. It was a long slog – hot, hilly and dusty. It was also the only has

h I’ve ever run with no checks or holds or stops of any kind. Just 14km of struggling to keep up and trying to see the infrequent trail marks (Wilson claimed there were lots of marks, but I think they must have been some kind of secret ones visible only to Kenyans. Which then made me speculate that this may be why the Kenyans do so well in long distance running – it’s not that they’re so much faster than others, it’s just that they’re the only ones who actually know where the race

route is. The other runners in a marathon probably end up doing 45 or 50kms just trying to find their way…)

There was a short circle after the run, and then I had a bit of an adventure trying to get back to the hotel to catch the end of the group meeting. I thought I had matters well sorted, since I had the number for the taxi we’d used earlier in the day, and failing that there were a lot of hashers who would be driving. Then my cabbie jammed out (“I am very far. Very far. No.” Well thanks, buddy.) And the hashers were settling in for a long-ish night, and there was a lot of confusion about the location of the hotel. (In my defense, I would normally have noted the address of the hotel, but this hotel apparently doesn’t have an address. I’m not kidding.) However, the hashers came through in the end and summoned me another cab who

could be trusted because Nairobi is not the kind of town where you want to get into just any cab, especially after dark. So off I went in this supposedly safe cab, and had a short but nerve-racking ride back to the hotel, which was interrupted for a short gas stop that I had to pay for. I admit I was feeling a bit nervous about the whole business, but I did end up getting back safely.

However, when we finally pulled out the next morning I can safely say that I shed no tears seeing Nairobi fade into the distance.

* I’ve never really been a visible minority before, but boy, in Africa I stick out all the time. I couldn’t help but snort when I read this bit in the LP under the “Dangers and Annoyances” section: “Daypacks instantly mark you as a tourist.” Yup, that’s the first thing people notice about me for sure. “Hey, there’s something different about that woman… what is it? I can’t quite put my finger on it… Wait a minute! She’s got a DAY PACK!”

Pick of Pics: Uganda

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

This little guy was one of the ones hanging around at the end of the rafting trip. He LOVED the camera.

Whitewater rafting the Nile

Sunday, December 20, 2009

It really seemed like the kind of thing that I couldn’t NOT do. Like hot air ballooning over Cappadocia, the chance to go whitewater rafting at the source of the Nile was simply too cool to pass up. It also didn’t hurt that it was substantially cheaper than the ballooning and included lunch and a light dinner. As usual though, it wasn’t the rafting itself that made the day so great (though that was really really fun), it was the people I met doing it that put things over the top.

It was a long day. I had to trudge to the Adrift offices and be there by 7:00am, which was no fun carrying everything I owned. (I was moving to a hotel in Kampala that night in order to give Rob and Gülden a chance to pack and mentally prepare for their marathon journey back to Canada for the holidays with 8-month old Ozan in tow.) And of course I managed to turn the wrong way on the walk to the office so I got to haul everything for an extra 10 minutes or so, uphill. And there seems to be a lot more “everything” than ever before. Some of this is the addition of the afore-mentioned and much-appreciated new shirts, socks and undies, and some of this is the fact that I’m in a really warm climate so my fleece jacket and heavy shoes have to be packed for the first time in months. Whatever the cause, the poor Aeronaut is under some serious strain these days, and I will have to make some hard choices at the end of the Africa leg and send a big box home. I mean really, who needs seven t-shirts anyways? Bloody extravagant.

But back to the rafting. Eventually we got out of Kampala, after stops at a few places to pick up other people (I am still baffled as to why all the other people got picked up where they were staying, but I had to find my own way to the place… baffled, and understandably miffed, or perhaps even peeved.) The ride to Jinja seemed long, but we finally made it to the Adrift Base Camp (or whatever they called it) and milled about a bit. That was the first surprise of the day – I actually knew someone there! Laurence, a guy I’d run with at the Kampala Hash on the previous Monday, was there with his Mum and Dad and cousin, and they were coming on the same trip! This was really fantastic, as I’d had a really nice time running and chatting with Laurence on the hash, and was even a bit disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to talk a bit more.

A view of the river from the rafting base camp.

There was a fairly casual briefing by the (Australian) (of course) group leader, and we got fitted up with lifejackets and helmets and picked our way down to the launch site. Then there was, as Laurence put it, some seriously “Olympic-level faffing about” that went on for what seemed like ages: discussion of who would go in what boat, last-minute swapping of who would lead on the raft and who would man the safety boat, and general indecision that went on long enough to make one wonder if this was really a company one wanted to be negotiating Class Five rapids in the care of. Finally the seven of us were off in a big puffy blue raft with Geoffrey, for a bit of flat-water fundamentals practice.

We seven were: me, Laurence and his cousin Nyla, David and Claire, Adam, and Will. I’m pretty sure all but me were from the British Isles, though Adam might bristle at that description, being Irish. And it turns out we were all very cool, fun, interesting and funny people. (If we do say so ourselves). We even commented on it at one point – how nice it was that we were all getting along and enjoying each other’s company while also enjoying the experience itself. Then we figured that simply being the type of person to seek out a whitewater rafting trip in Uganda meant we were a fairly select sub-set to begin with. Whatever the reason, it was great fun.

And let’s not forget the rafting itself. We started of with doing some basic exercises, most of which were about how not to get thrown out of the boat, and then about what to do after you were, inevitably, thrown out of the boat. We got wet, we jumped in the water, we hauled ourselves and each other back into the boat, we swam through a tame Class One set of rapids, and then we were off in earnest.

(And a word of warning. There will be no pictures of me rafting. Not for a long long time. Not surprisingly, they recommended we not bring cameras or cell phones or other expensive non-dunkable items. Adrift had a photographer stationed at the most dramatic places on the river to catch all the action. However, the photos from that CD won’t be available to me for quite a while, so what you see here are pics taken from the Adrift website, and you can just imagine my face in there somewhere. I hope Adrift do not mind me using these photos, since I have credited them, and am quite happy to recommend them to anyone who might have a spare day in Uganda.)

Here’s a nice aerial shot of the river.

Shooting the rapids was exhilarating and wet, and Geoffrey our guide told us the name of each set of rapids, and the class, before we went through. (Some favourite names: “Donald Duck”, “Dead Dutchman”, “The Washing Machine”). Of course we ended up tipping over at least once before lunch, which is actually a lot more fun than it sounds. We’d approach the rapids and Geoffrey would bark out orders: “Paddle forward. Stop. Back paddle. Back paddle hard! Stop! GET DOWN!” which would be our cue to hunker down in the middle of the raft and hang on tight. Then we’d hit some enormous wall of water and the boat would end up perpendicular and then it would just be chaos – paddles and limbs and helmets everywhere. And then you’d be deep in the water, and waiting to find out which way was up, and waiting, and waiting, and thinking, “Ok, that’s enough now. Heh heh. I could come up for air any time. No, really. Heh…” with an increasingly panicky feeling rising inside. And then you’d surface and suck in 14 gallons of Nile river water and 1 cubic centimeter of air, and eventually things calmed down and you were bobbing happily beside the raft, clinging on and looking around to see who else had managed to find the boat, and who was still bobbing along through the rapids, and who was clinging to a safety kayak. And I promise you, it was FUN.

See what I mean? Not exactly graceful.

There were several rapids before lunch, and then we stopped at a nice little island where there was a shelter and a lovely spread laid out and the chance to have a much-appreciated cup of hot tea. After lunch we had more rapids, and more chaos, including one particularly vertical drop down a waterfall that ended with a bump on the face for one of our number. As she was being tended to we got to watch four other boats from another company go down the same falls, and they all seemed to have no difficulty, sliding gracefully over the edge and popping up in no time, with all crew members beaming and cheering and pumping fists. We, on the other hand, seemed to come through each set of rapids with bodies flying, finally coming up like bedraggled wet rats, gasping for air and counting the bodies. No matter, we had fun.

I suspect this is just what we looked like – clinging on desperately.

There were also long stretches of flat water where we paddled slowly (or more likely where we allowed Geoffrey to paddle for us while we lazed and chatted). A few times we got to jump in for a swim, and the water was warm and pleasingly free of crocodiles. In the afternoon the sun blazed, and despite the frequent application of sunscreen I managed to positively bar-be-que the tops of my legs, tops of my feet, arms, and face. And there were one or two moments, particularly when I was bobbing in the calm water supported by a super-buoyant life jacket, chatting away with new friends and I’d think, “How, exactly, did I come to be floating in the Nile when this time last year I was working a 16-hour day in a dark theatre in a frozen city?” And once again I was struck with what an incredibly good idea this whole thing is.

At the end of the afternoon we pulled out of the water and hiked up to where the trucks were waiting. There was a bar-be-que with really nice beef and pineapple skewers and chapatis, and – even better - there was a cooler full of cold beer. We stood around and chatted more and exchanged email addresses. There were a bunch of kids hanging around at the landing site, some helped carry gear up, and some just joked around, and most really liked having their picture taken and then looking at the picture on the camera screen.

Well, most of them liked having their picture taken. Clearly Mr. Upper Left Hand Corner was less-than impressed.

Finally, we divided up into two buses – some for the short trip back to Jinja (lucky bastards) and me, Adam and Will for the long long long ride back to Kampala. But even though the trip was long, it was still nice because by that time it was a ride with friends, so there was plenty to talk about, and the cooler still had some beer in it. I was late by the time the beleaguered bus driver weaved his way through Kampala to drop me off. He originally told me that I’d have to walk the last bit to the hotel, but I think he recognized the genuine anxiety on my face at the thought of trying to navigate with my big bag through the dark, unmarked, heaving streets of Kampala, because he managed to get his bus through the insane traffic to deliver me right to the doorstep. I tipped him handsomely.

The next day I was off on a flight to Nairobi, but that’s another country, and another story.

Easing into Africa

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I’ve had a very gentle start to my time in Africa, and it’s been much appreciated. Mind you, I could have done without the overnight flight from Tel Aviv and the extra-long layover in Addis Ababa, which was scheduled at four hours but ended up including a bonus two hours of waiting in the washroom-less departure lounge. (And I use the word “lounge” exceedingly loosely.) When I arrived at Entebbe airport, I breezed through passport control and customs and found my way out to the throng of taxi drivers to find my man – Achilles – who had been arranged ahead of time with my friend Rob. (Not Rob H. of the prolific blog comments. Rob R. of the interesting overseas career.)

The drive from Entebbe to Kampala was great – Achilles was like a local tour guide, though I suspect he must have thought I was slightly bonkers, because of conversational exchanges like this:

  • Me: Is that a banana tree?
  • Achilles: Yes
  • Me: Seriously? A BANANA TREE? Wow. What’s that?
  • Achilles: A Jackfruit tree.
  • Me: Jackfruit? What’s that? etc…

Besides crazy fruit trees, the road from Entebbe to Kampala was also lined with tiny shops – those ones with corrugated tin roofs that look like the slightest puff of wind will knock them over. They offered all kinds of services, but almost every other place was painted bright yellow and had a sign outside offering pay-as-you-go cell phone time. I’ve just got a new SIM card for my phone for Africa, so this was a welcome sight. (Apologies to anymore with my UK cell phone number, but one quick voice call I made in Jerusalem cost about £7.00, and every text message I send is 49p, so get over it.) It seems that in Africa you can’t stumble 10’ down the road without finding someone hawking cell phone time. There are even guys wandering amidst the traffic at intersections selling it. (These guys also sell lottery tickets, sunglasses, cell phone car charges, bagged chunks of sugar cane…. you get the idea. It’s like a drive-through that comes to you.) And the shops are painted other bright colours too, and there were people everywhere, and motorcycles, and red dirt roads, and freakin’ mango trees. It was great – exactly what I’d expected from Africa, and a pick-up after the same-ness of all the European-like places I’ve been so far. I am really not in Kansas anymore.

This is actually quite a sturdy and shiny looking shop, as compared to those on the road from Entebbe, which I was not able to photograph from the moving car.

Achilles dropped me at the home of my old friend Rob who lives with his wife and new baby in a fantastic, sprawling bungalow with a lovely big garden behind very high stone walls and a gate tended by a full time guard. While life in Uganda is very very very much calmer and more civilized than in the days of Idi Amin and his ilk, it’s still normal for people to employ guard services 24 hours a day. (And when I say “people” I guess I really mean relatively affluent white ex-pats.) Rob assures me it’s more a case that you don’t want to be the only ones in the neighbourhood without guards, because this could make you a target. And it’s nice to have the guards there to open and close the gates when you come and go, but I’m sure it would be nicest not to need them at all.

The ‘hood

Spending time with Rob and Gülden and baby Ozan is like spending time with most new parents. Understandably, the baby takes a lot of time and effort, and I’m happy to slide along with whatever the current need or activity is. On Saturday, that was a kid’s Christmas party at the home of some of Rob’s friends who live nearby. It was a really nice get-together, and properly Christmassy with mulled wine and mince tarts and a visit from Santa, who brought presents for the kids. But it was also about 23 degrees and the sun was out and the garden was blooming and I was wearing sandals.

The strangest backdrop to a visit from Santa that I’ve ever seen.

(And I also met a Kiwi guy at the party who runs a whitewater rafting and bungee-jumping company in Jinja, where the Nile flow out of Lake Victoria. So stay tuned for my adventures shooting the rapids at the source of the Nile!)

Rob and I had a few runs along the streets of the neighbourhood, called Kololo. It was a tough go for me – it had been about 26 days since my last run, on the Greek island of Poros, and the altitude of Kampala is enough to make a difference. The first day was rough, but the second day was much much better, so either I’ve acclimatized a bit already, or I haven't lost as much fitness as it feels like. Either way, I was grateful to have the chance to run again, and to stain my shoes with the red dirt of Uganda.

It’s really, really red! So red that when it rains, the puddles are orange. See? (Another in the series of photos of Pam’s toes.)

Oh, and Rob and I went to a very cool hardware store, on a mission to get the bits and pieces need to hang a baby swing for Ozan out on the spacious and airy porch of Rob’s house. It was a great place. It was the kind of cavernous, old-fashioned hardware store you don’t see in North America often anymore, now that every eye bolt and finishing nail must have a SKU and a barcode. This place had everything from plumbing cut-off valves to 500 watt generators to bins of bolts to coils of rusty inch-thick wire rope on enormous spools that looked approximately the right size for repairing suspension bridges. Happily, they also had masonry bits and expanding concrete anchors suitable for hanging baby swings.

The hardware store.

I’ve also had some traditional Ugandan food – most of it at a lunch buffet where they were offering six, count 'em SIX different starchy options: rice, potatoes, chapati, casava, matoke and millet. The most local of these are matoke, which is cooked plantain mash, casava (the boiled root) and millet, which came in glutinous brown chunks. Of these my favourite was the matoke, though they are all quite plain. The casava was boring in the extreme – totally flavourless, dry and hard to get down. The millet was quite gluey. I also had a chance to sample posho at another dinner - it's a mixture of maize flour and water and tastes just like... flour and water. Sort of more like wallpaper paste than food. I think I shall declare odd starches Steve's Weird Food for Uganda, especially since I tried four different ones.

Matoke (and the local speciality Stoney - a nice ginger ale kind of thing)

And of course, I hashed in Kampala – the 14th hash I’ve run with (not including the three I merely drank with) and the 3rd continent I’ve hashed on. In fact, the Kampala Hash House Harriers claim to be the biggest hash in the world and I can believe it. I suspect there were about a hundred attendees at the run I was at, and it was simply a regular Monday night run – not a special event. I even arrived at the hash on a boda-boda – a local motorcycle taxi. They’re everywhere, and pretty much insane, but luckily the traffic is bad enough that they don’t get up much speed. My boda to the hash cost 2,500 UGX, or about $1.40. My hosts suggested I try using a particular boda driver that they’ve used before, one who can be convinced to slow down and trusted (somewhat) to get you where you’re going in one piece. Ironically when I asked for his number I was told he’s temporarily out of business because his motorcycle is in the shop. He was in an accident…

Bodas (It’s a bit scary how far one’s standards of personal hygeine and personal safety slip on a trip like this. Then again, when you see women in pencil skirts riding sidesaddle on a boda while simultaneously texting it’s hard to get too worked up about it. Then again again, the LP says that one newspaper reports there are five deaths daily on boda-bodas.)

The hash run itself felt quite long, though it may have been the 3 H’s that killed me: Hills, Humidity and Heat (also, I’d like to continue using altitude as an excuse indefinitely, please.) In any case I was completely drained and drenched by the end, but had a good evening overall, and met several friendly hashers and made a contact that I think will help me get in touch with the Nairobi hash.

Off-road hashing in Kampala, though much of the trail was on busy streets.

However, I don’t want you to get the idea that life in Kampala is all Christmas parties and ginger ale. I’ve had to run a few errands and take care of some RTW travel kind of things in Kampala, and now that I’ve ventured beyond the walled compound and dipped my toe into something more like the real Africa, I can see that it’s a challenging place. Getting an African SIM card for my cell phone was actually reasonably easy, and the rates aren’t bad either – 550 UGX per minute for international calling (31 cents) and 220 UGX for international text messages (13 cents), and I can even send and receive email for pretty reasonable rates. But tracking my Christmas Fedex package from home was another matter. First I had to cough up an outrageous 180,400 UGX ($102.00!!) to cover some kind customs or duty or taxes. (That’s about 2/3 of the value of the shipment…) And the fee could not be paid by credit card, or to the courier upon delivery. It had to be paid in advance before the package would be released from Entebbe. And it had to be paid in cash, in person, at an tiny office on an unmarked street in Kampala’s industrial district. Luckily, my hosts are also providing occasional chauffeur services.

Then I expected to take delivery on Monday (the usurious fees were paid on Friday). On Monday no package arrived, and 4 phonecalls later I found out that a fire at Entebbe airport delayed the release of many packages, so I was told to expect delivery on Tuesday. On Tuesday I was told that the package was released from the airport to the office in Entebbe, but not soon enough to go with the courier to Kampala. I'm now told to expect it at 8:30am on Wednesday*. Barring another fire, I suppose. Or the discovery of a new and as-yet-unpaid fee that will require me to travel by boda-boda to a tiny shack in the outskirts of Jinja and hand over an inch-thick wad of bills through a grate in darkened window.

Similarly, booking a flight from Entebbe to Nairobi has been a bizarrely difficult process that involved three attempts to purchase online, and two phonecalls and a trip to the physical offices of Kenya Airways because they, like Fedex, will not accept credit card payments over the phone. It seems that accomplishing anything takes many more steps and much more effort than it does in the First World. However, allowances must be made. This is a part of the world that still has big issues to deal with, though they are making progress. Just recently the Ugandan government passed a law banning female genital mutilation, but is also considering a distressingly popular move to make homosexuality punishable by the death penalty. About 75% of the population lives below the international poverty line of $2.00 USD per day, and Uganda has the highest birth rate in the world, with an average of 6.8 children born to each woman. Clearly, they still have a long way to go.

For now though, I am enjoying my time in Uganda, sleeping under a mosquito net, wearing shorts and sandals, and trying to bob above the sea of annoyance and petty bureaucracy that comes with Africa. I’ve enjoyed my time visiting with Rob and Gülden and Ozan, and I’m looking forward to hitting the waves on Thursday and getting out on safari next week.

Master of the House, Ozan (how cute is he?). And to Rob and Gülden – Thanks for the warm welcome, bed & board, laundry, internet, chauffeur and tour guide services!

WARNING: Internet access will become increasingly spotty from now on. I’m investigating using my cell phone and posting via email, or possibly getting a cellular modem, but be prepared for long blackouts and minimal photos. That’s just Africa.

* Newsflash - after much badgering I finally received my package around 7pm on Tuesday night. It looked like it had been run over by a truck, but contained new shirts! And new socks! And best of all... NEW UNDERWEAR!!!

Random reflections on Israel

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I know I talked about having more to say about Turkey, but that seems like a lifetime ago. Instead, let’s have a go at some thoughts on Israel, while I warm myself in Africa and get ready to tell you about that.


Language has been a bit of a struggle for me since I left France, but never more so than in Israel. Spanish and Italian were different but manageable. Russian and Greek came with the added bonus of a slightly quirky alphabet, but they were puzzles I could crack. Turkish was largely meaningless, but at least had letters I could recognize and sound out. In Israel official signs are in Hebrew and Arabic and both of them are completely impenetrable. Not only do the letters look more like art than language, they’re both read from right to left. It’s really really good that the other language most signs are in is English, and almost everybody speaks it too.

At least I knew what this said.


Steve’s Weird Food for Israel: This one was a bit tricky. Since I really embraced the SWF project, I’ve taken to asking friendly locals what kind of weird thing they’d suggest I try, and in Israel nothing really popped up. The Jewish kosher and Muslim halal dietary laws means that a lot of the usual suspects - innards and such – just aren’t very common in Israel. So what did I find? Only the second sweet offering of the trip, and the first beverage: shlab (pronounced sort of like sah-huh-lab).

Here’s the guy making up my cup.

I don’t have a good picture of my shlab, because I grabbed it from a street vendor while I was on the move with that first walking tour on the day I was struck down by the plague. But that doesn’t really matter because it’s not much to look at anyways – just a thick white concoction with sprinkles on top. It’s a winter drink, served warm, and tastes basically like runny rice pudding without the rice. Milky and sweet and vanilla, and thick enough that it comes with a spoon. The main thing that makes shlab different, and qualifies it as a weird food, is that one of its ingredients is flour made from grinding dried orchid tubers. Other ingredients include milk, gum arabic, starch and vanilla. It came in a standard-issue styrofoam cup, poured out of a big samovar-like container. After dispensing it into the cup, the shlab man dropped in a spoonful of sultanas and topped it with shredded coconut, ground almonds and sugar (At least I think that’s what it was. Whatever it was, though, was tasty.) All in all, it was a nice break from the innards.


Naturally, you see a lot of men wearing yarmulkes in Israel, but here they’re called kippot (that’s the plural, the singular is kippa.) And where do they buy them? Possibly from a shop called “Kippa Man” that I saw. Here’s just a sample of what the Kippa Man had on offer.

Spot the Rolling Stones, Maple Leafs, South Park and Pringles kippot!


The security at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv was… well I was going to say it was unbelievable, but in fact is was entirely believable and understandable. It was actually a lot like I wish airport security would be, though it means you have to arrive three hours before your scheduled departure time. It started before I even entered the airport – I was stopped just outside the doors and pulled over to a screening station with a metal detector and a security officer who had many questions. (I’m not sure why I got picked, but the same thing happened on my way in to the country. Right after landing, almost at the end of the jetway, I got pulled aside by a woman doing security and asked a lot of questions about where I was going and where I’d been and how long I was staying and what my next destination was. Once I got past her, passport control was a breeze.)

After I was allowed into the building, there was another long lineup where all baggage – checked and carry-on – was x-rayed, and I got quizzed again. After that all baggage was inspected by hand – and I don’t just mean all my baggage. I mean all baggage. It was opened up so the inspector could compare the contents to the previously recorded x-ray image of each bag she had on her big flatscreen monitor. Many many things were swabbed with the little explosives-detecting wand. And lots and lots of repacking was being done all around me.

Then it was on to the check-in desk, which took a bizarrely long amount of time. When I finally got through with that I still had to go through the regular security that’s like every other airport in the world. Except here again my entire carry-on bag was swabbed – inside every pocket and compartment, the covers of books, my computer, my camera, and my cell phone. They get a lot of mileage out of one of those little square bits of gauze in Israel, let me tell you. Finally I was allowed to proceed to the land of duty free, but the three hour wait I’d been expecting had turned into about 30 minutes to wolf down a food court salad and head straight to the gate. It was time-consuming and a bit frustrating, but at the same time I’ve never felt so safe getting on a flight in my life. (And no pictures, because I didn’t feel like missing my connection in Addis Ababa due to the fact that a guard with a machine gun was standing on my neck.)


The clash of cultures in Jerusalem is everywhere, especially in the old city. It’s probably exacerbated there because it’s such a small area – a mere square kilometer that’s home to about 35,000 people. This was brought home to me on my last afternoon when I did a tour of the tunnels along the Western Wall, which was quite neat. The tunnels run at the original level of the street from the time of the Second Temple, underneath 14th century vaults. It was cool to get up close to the original stones that were laid by Herod in 19 B.C.. Well, actually I don’t think Herod laid any of them himself, but that’s just nit-picking. The tour ran along the entire length of the Western Wall and ended up letting out at the far northern end. So just as I was emerging from being deeply immersed (heh… literally deeply immersed) in Jewish history for over an hour, I came up into daylight right across the street from the first two stations of the cross. And then I turned down the Via Dolorosa and straight into the Muslim souk marketplace. It all happened in about two minutes and two blocks. It’s no wonder they get on each other’s nerves, they’re right on top of each other.

An uncharacteristically wide and uncrowded section of the souk


I told you a bit about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and though I intended to go back I never did. One thing I liked though, is the story about the keys to the church. As I mentioned, it’s a contested site – argued over by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians, and even the Coptics and Ethiopians. (Is it any wonder Jerusalem has such issues when Christians can’t even agree among themselves about things, let alone with Jews and Muslims?) In fact, the arguments go back so far that long ago Caliph Omar decided to give the keys to the church to a Muslim family for safekeeping. Since that time, more than 900 years ago, the same family has unlocked the church doors every morning and locked them every evening, passing the tradition down from father to son for almost a millennium. (This is another one of those mandatory tour guide stories, like the ladder on the window ledge.)

Greek Orthodox priests in the square outside the church.


Saran-wrapped luggage. I first encountered it in Russia, so it’s not just an Israel thing. And it took me a long time to figure it out. There are stations in a lot of airports where you can, for a fee, have your luggage completely swaddled in that stretchy plastic stuff. At first I thought it might be because the luggage in question was so dodgey that the owner wanted to make sure that it didn’t explode its contents all over the arrivals area. Then I realized that it must be a low-cost security measure. Either that, or lots of people are traveling with very, very large sandwiches.

King-sized ham ‘n’ cheese arriving in Tel Aviv.


You can buy actual, genuine antiquities in the souk in the old city of Jerusalem. There’s a short stretch along the Via Dolorosa where they’re congregated, and my tour guide said that they’re licensed by the government for this kind of thing. I guess the whole country is so completely crammed with archeological sites that the museums really can’t use another 750 small, chipped oil lamps or cracked jugs. Naturally there were no prices marked on anything in the display windows, and I was too chicken to go in and start asking. But imagine – you can just walk in with a wad of shekels and walk out with some genuine Biblical-age bit of antiquity.

Need a nice bowl for some chips ‘n’ dip?


And in closing, another non-Israel-related note: On my last night in the country I slept well, and I dreamt. When I woke up in the morning I didn’t remember much of the dream, but I remember this: prominent in one scene was a large dresser, filled with all my normal clothes from home, and finding it gave me with great joy. Later that night, mere minutes before the shuttle arrived to take me to the airport, the zipper on one of my two pairs of pants self-destructed and I had just enough time to pull out the other pair, which were sadly in need of a wash but at least functional. Sometimes I really miss having a normal wardrobe, and obviously my subconscious does too.

Pick of Pics - Jerusalem

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Two-for-one today. I couldn't decided which of these two I liked better. You are, of course, welcome to render your opinion.

Sunny spot in Jerusalem, the long shot.

Old man in a sunny spot in Jerusalem, the close-up

The Dead Sea. It's weird.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Jerusalem is a blockbuster destination, make no mistake. But I wanted to see some more of the country, and I really couldn’t leave without floating in the Dead Sea. On Saturday I managed to get myself to Tel Aviv, which turned out to be reasonably simple despite the fact that the buses don’t run on Shabbat. What does run is a system of “shared taxis” called sherut, and it wasn’t hard to find one of them. That took me to the Tel Aviv central bus station, and then I managed to blunder around long enough to locate the right local sherut to get downtown to my hostel.

I went to Tel Aviv to hash, and it was the first time I’ve been an easy 3-minute walk from the start of a run, which was luxurious. The Holy Land Hash House Harriers were a friendly bunch, mostly Americans, and they welcomed me as I’ve come to expect. Lots of them had done an overnight race 30km run through the desert the night before, so there was a larger walking contingent that usual and the run was mercifully short. This was good because I was still generally plague-ridden and could really feel it when running. And not only was the run short, and conveniently located, it included a beer stop half way through at a bar that served the largest beers I’ve ever seen!

Two litres each

I should also add the the Holy Land HHH were the first hash I’ve visited that gave me a memento of my run with them – a patch to sew onto my running shirt. (Never mind that it was a patch for a different hash, the Thirsty Knights HHH. It’s made up of the same people, they just run on Thursday nights instead. Get it?) Oh, and I had a nice time Saturday night after the run hanging out with Susan and Tina having beers, even though they took me to that crazy bar that had been blown up 6 years before (“If we can’t sit here and eat nachos, then the terrorists have won.”) We also went to a bar right out on the beach and I tried smoking shisha which was a bit weird, and didn’t really taste like much, so I’m not sure I really see the point.

It’s all about trying new things, right?

Tel Aviv is a beautiful city full of beaches and waterfront walkways, and I desperately wanted to go for a nice long run. On Sunday morning I suited up, but after about 5 minutes my chest and throat were on fire and I had to stop. It was really disappointing because the place was full of runners who kept blowing past me on my dejected trudge back to the hostel.

He got to run!

I consoled myself with a big, leisurely Sunday breakfast of shakshuka, which is a traditional dish of stewed tomatoes and peppers baked in the oven, with an egg poached in the middle of it. Not bad, but a bit on the soupy side. I spent the rest of the day wandering through a bit of Tel Aviv and walking up to Jaffa where there was a big flea market, a weird art installation, a passion fruit slushy, and a pathetic visitor’s centre (where they should be ashamed to be charging 8 shekels admission, even though that’s only $2.25). It was a quiet day, but reasonably relaxing. I had an evening of blogging and turned in early because I planned early start the next day.

On Monday morning I was picked up from the hostel for my day trip to Masada and the Dead Sea. It was a smallish bus, whose first stop was at the Ahava Centre, a thinly disguised (actually completely blatant) attempt to get the tour participants to buy Ahava Dead Sea skin care products. We got herded off the bus to watch a 4 minute video on Ahava products that depicted happy men clad in pristine white overalls gingerly snipping twigs from therapeutic bushes or scooping small trowels of Dead Sea mud into gleaming glass cylinders. Very sensitive and sustainable, though I suspect the actual harvesting uses more backhoes than trowels. After the video we were funneled into the store. I hate this kind of captive consumerism, but even I found myself thinking, “I need shampoo anyways…” before I snapped out of it and realized I didn’t need $10.00 Dead Sea shampoo.

Once we shook off the shackles of commercialism it was on to Masada, which the LP describes as “a desert mesa rising high above the Dead Sea, which figures prominently in the Jewish psyche.” It’s best know as the spot where, in 66 AD, 960 Jews chose suicide rather than be captured by besieging Roman forces led by Peter O’Toole. It’s an impressive sight and a really long way up. People with more time and energy hike all the way to the top. We took a convenient cable car, and got some great views along the way.

On the way up

At the top were more of my favourite things – rocks and Roman ruins! There’s the remains of a whole settlement up there, including Herod’s palace (he really got around, that Herod). There was also a very clever water collection and storage system and yet another Roman bath. (I think I’ve seen too many of these by now, I can practically recite along with the guides: apodyterium, frigidarium, tepidarium, calderium…).

Not the baths. Instead, a picturesque bit of wall and a nice tree.

There’s one thing I liked about how the restoration was done at Masada, and I think it should be adopted in some form by all archeological restorers. All around the site along the walls there was a thick black line painted, snaking up and down at different levels. Our guide explained that this was the line of restoration – everything below it was original, everything above it was a recreation. I thought it was a brilliantly simple way to give visitors a good sense of what they were really seeing, and it made me wonder how much of every other archeological site I’ve seen in the last six months was original and how much was not.

See? Original frescos below, recreated wall above

What did I not like at Masada? I did not like that a small bottle of water cost 10 shekels, and I did not like that the associated Visitor’s Centre had a banner for the “Masada Muselogical Experience”. Honestly, must everything be a bloody experience? Can I not just go to a museum?

By this point you must be thinking, '”But what about the Dead Sea? This post is supposed to be about the Dead Sea!” Well after Masada it was time for the main event and the bus zipped us down to the sea. (And I do mean down – it’s the lowest point on earth, 1,385 feet below sea level). It was a strange sight. The Dead Sea is rapidly disappearing – apparently it dropped 1.5 metres last year alone. I find that astonishing. It must mean you can poke a stick in the beach at the water line and come back a day or two later and see a noticeable difference. It also means that the Ein Gedi spa built along the shore is now so far from the water they use a shuttle to take people back and forth. Most of this water loss is because water from the Jordan River – the only source flowing into the Dead Sea – is being diverted irrigation.

Of course I went in. There are change rooms and showers and lockers just like any well-appointed beach, but the actual area for swimming was very small – cordoned off with a line of buoys. And you all know the gag, right? The water of the Dead Sea is so salty (33% salt – more than 8 times that of normal seawater) that it’s impossible to sink.

Here’s the obligatory photo of me floating.

It’s fun, but the water is also incredibly harsh. I put just a dot of it on my tongue to see what it tasted like (don’t try and tell me you wouldn’t do the same thing) and it was awful. Not just salty, but really chemically too. They tell you not to put your head under water or get it in your eyes. You’re not even supposed to splash around. It actually kind of stung, especially any tiny cuts or scrapes I had.

I also went into the black mud and covered my self from head to toe but my appointed photographer did not have a very steady hand, so you get a photo of other people in the mud instead.

After rinsing the mud off in the sea, and gingerly wiping off my face, I gradually noticed that it felt like my skin was kind of burning, especially my face. So I got out to try the hot spring, which was nice and warm, but just as harsh. Pretty soon I had to get out and clean off with some fresh water. But that wasn’t the end of me and the Dead Sea. The water itself is… tenacious. It felt almost oily on the skin and was hard to wipe off. Later that night I realized how insidious it really is. When I was walking from the shore back up to the change rooms I put my bare, still wet feet right into my shoes. The water from my feet soaked into the inside of my shoes a bit, but I figured it would dry soon enough. Not so. There’s now an oily film all over the inside of my shoes, which naturally transfers to the outside of my socks, which naturally transfers to the shiny tile floor of my hotel room, making the whole place sort of skating-rink-ish. Also, the drips of water that landed on the outside of my shoes created big dark oily stains that didn’t really come off despite vigorous scrubbing. So I still have Dead Sea with me to this day.

And then it was time for the ride back to Jerusalem. A bit long, and sort of tiring, but at least the view was good.

The shores of the Dead Sea