February 12, 2009

Kenyan Critters

:: L'Elephants ! ::

After a hectic week in Ireland we departed for Nairobi and landed straight into culture shock. The first obvious difference to the Western world is that everything happens at a slow pace and if you let it annoy you you'll spend your time in Africa going insane. Passengers from our plane queued with completed forms in Nairobi airport waiting to be relieved of the $50 US dollar visa fee and have their passports stamped. Families skipped the queue and filled up complicated forms at the desk, multiple wheelchairs jostled into pole position and then in the middle of it all, the immigration staff upped and changed shift.The huffing, puffing, frustration and eventual audible cursing clearly showed people were off to a very bad start.

We took the slow public bus from the airport into the downtown area and wandered around looking for a hotel. After a nap we had a quick scout to get our bearings and located some places to eat. If you like chicken and chips then this is the dream destination for you. In fact it's hard to find a place that's not a chipper. Fortunately or unfortunately we chose a hotel whose beds were far too comfortable so it was hard to get motivated to go out and sight see in the heat. When we did emerge it was to the news that a supermarket around the corner from us had gone up in flames trapping some people inside. Throngs watched on the streets as flames licked the building and a old helicopter circled from above.

Walking around Nairobi is like stepping back in time, all the buildings feel old fashioned and out of date. Even the Hilton Hotel is a retro tower, in the 60's probably the height of progressive architecture today it looks tired and over the hill. Thousands of people go about their business, mini buses and taxis clog the roads but in contrast to other populated places in the world everyone is laid back. So relaxed, in fact, that nobody bothers to shout or sit on their horn.

We spent a couple of days in Nairobi checking out safari companies and getting used to standing out from the local population before heading off to Masai Mara Game Park. Our safari was booked through a budget backpackers guest house, usually the van holds seven tourists. The morning of our departure we turned up to find that the rest of our group had mysteriously disappeared so we ended up on the safari by ourselves. This later became amusing when out on game drives bumping into expensive luxury safaris with seven people crammed into a van.

:: Cheetah Kill ::

Our safari spanned four days in which we did an evening, dawn and two full days of game driving. Most tourists come to see the "Big Five" elephants, buffalo, lions, leopards and rhinos. We got four ticks, the endangered rhino proved elusive right up until the end. Approaching the Masai Mara with the Big Five in mind is not ideal as there are so many animals not on the list that deserve more attention. It's spectacular to see all the animals in a truly wild setting. Our highlights included lions up close and personal, hippos, giraffes, baby elephants, cheetah and a leopard. We also got to see some kills - good to see the gory part that you definitely don't see in the zoo. Our guide Joseph was excellent with impressive eyesight spotting small animals at great distances. Supplemented by info over the radio from other guides as they search the park for animals. One of the most remarkable elements of the safari was just how close you can get to the animals. And probably more remarkable how close animals like lions allow you to get to them. The lions we saw were in very close proximity, ignoring the vans and super arrogant.

Game drives consist of driving around the park randomly hoping to spot wildlife. Some animals like giraffes and elephants are easy but you still have to find where the groups are. Wildebeest hadn't arrived yet from Tanzania so the park was not overrun with them. Eyes get tired scanning the terrain for something out of the ordinary or peering up into trees trying to spot a leopard. You wonder how anyone spots some of the shyer animals. Everyone has their favourites, ours were the elephants, family of warthogs.... our least favourite the evil looking hyenas.

:: Some Lanky Friends ::

Probably one of the most pleasant surprises of the safari were the accommodations. Expecting simple tents and long hole drop toilets we arrived to huge canvas tents complete with concrete en suite (hot water, flushing toilet, soap and towels). No such thing as camp beds, instead we had two proper beds with mattresses, sheets blankets and bedspread. A complimentary umbrella to allow guests to move dryly between the dining room and tent was the cherry on the cake. In fact we wondered how much more people could possibly be getting that were paying more for their safari.

After a great safari we headed back to Nairobi and hopped on a 12 hour bus to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

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:: Sunset on Zipolite ::

A river boat crossing took us out of Guatemala and into southern Mexico. With border formalities complete we headed for the city of San Cristobal de la Casa; high altitude made this stop a chilly place at night. We were there in the run up to Christmas and the square and buildings were beautifully decorated with festive lights. San Cristobal is a very popular tourist destination and it's easy to see why, it has lots to offer including a colourful market full of amazing looking produce. We were lucky enough to be there for a big Christmas parade which were a mixture of people acting out of the stations of the cross very reverently followed by a huge crowd in drag and a Santa Claus throwing sweets from a float.

Our journey through Mexico was a race against the clock from start to finish. With a flight booked back to Ireland from San Diego in early January and we had a little under three weeks to land travel the whole way through Mexico. This isn’t too big a deal until you take out an atlas and look at just how big Mexico actually is. With this in mind we decided that there was no way we could see very much of the country and that we’d be better off to stop and take a holiday rather than kill ourselves travelling over the Christmas season – when lots of Mexican businesses were on the go-slow. And so we headed for a small place called Zipolite on the Pacific Coast and sat our weary bones on a sandy beach for ten days over Christmas and New Year soaking up the sunshine, dodging the rip currents and generally recharging the batteries.

One excursion was taken during that time and that was to the nearest town to visit the ATM machine. Despite it being the height of the busy season in Zipolite and all the accommodation being booked solid we still don’t know where everyone disappeared to at night. By midnight the streets and beach were deserted and either everyone was tucked up for the night or out at some big party we didn’t know about. Our routine in Zipolite became very predictable, a barbecue cooking whole butterflied chickens became our lunch stop and dinner was eaten nightly at Siren’s restaurant. Aside from great food the attraction of Sirens was watching the mother son duo muddle their way through the service every night. The son was a real Basil Fawlty tutting and generally moody, when he felt like closing the restaurant he closed. Stuck out the in back kitchen the mama slaved away nightly always dressed in a “carry-on” movie outfit, her chest spilling out over the top of her tight top. Tables were served in the strict order they were seated regardless of what was ordered. Basil would seat a table and tell them there were three tables before them waiting to be served, if they didn’t like it they could simply leave.

:: Tacos, and more Tacos ::
Probably one of the highlights of this new country was getting stuck into the Mexican street food. It was all that it was hyped up to be.... meat and fish tacos, moles, enchiladas, barbecued chicken, ceviche... the list goes on and on. Mexican really know how to eat, all their food is zesty and flavoursome and very different to the Tex Mex take. Tacos are available around the clock in most places, and they can be very hard to pass in the street. In the restaurants the more serious dishes like rich moles, fish and huge hunks of meat come in to play. One of the most exciting foodie cities was Oaxaca where one whole section of the market was dedicated to butcher stalls with their own barbecues. You went to the veg section got yourself a basket full of spring onions and peppers and picked out a kilo or more of meat and a short time later a disgustingly large basket of food landed on the table.

:: Oaxaca - grilling it up ::

Our last few days in Mexico were spent busting a gut to make it up to Tijuana and over the border into San Diego. We took a bus from Oaxaca and broke the journey in the city of Mazatalan. We checked into a quirky hotel where a cute old couple running the place spent their days re-rolling toilet paper into smaller rolls to reduce potential waste and feeding pillowcases through an iron roller in the reception. We thought we had the place to ourselves until early evening when all of a sudden lots of long stay American and Canadian retirees emerged from the other rooms for their usual nightly banter on politics, conspiracy theories and meaning of life. Everyone had been there long enough to discuss Mazatalans differing seasons.

The last leg of our journey was an arduous thirty hour bus journey up to Tijuana. We arrived to the border and struggled to find out where we should go to get stamped out of Mexico and hand over a receipt that proved we had paid our tourist tax. As it happens no such border post exists in Tijuana. Anyone is free to waltz into Mexico through the U.S. Border no checks, no stamps, no red tape. The trick is getting back out and past the U.S immigration post whose immense presence makes up for Mexico’s lack of one.

Crossing over the border and swiping a credit card for tickets on the trolley to San Diego was the first sign that even though we were metres from Mexico we were worlds apart. After a few day in San Diego we had adapted to life in the fast lane although we were missing the wonderful tacos.

From there we spent a busy week in Dublin catching up with family and friends and frantically running around organising our big day in May

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February 11, 2009

Roasting Marshmallows in Guatemala

:: Marshmallows vs the Volcano ::

One surprising element of this capital was sheer North American-ness of Guatemala city. Huge malls, car dealerships, 10,000 square foot fast food chains and secure gated accommodation. One thing is for sure, someone has a lot of money. We were dumped out at the terminus and pointed in the direction of a city bus connecting to the Antigua city service. A short while later we were boarding the Antigua bound bus. This was a new level in school bus comfort; this bus had annoyingly altered the seats to accommodate three people each side of the aisle rather than the usual two one side three the other. The result was an aisle about a foot wide and a nightmare to negotiate with backpacks. Hilariously as the bus filled up it got worse. People squeezed in and someone sat over the gap in the aisle.

:: Volcano looming large over Antigua ::

Just before night fell we pulled in Antigua, city of Spanish students and tourists. It's a far cry from what you expect a Guatemalan city to be like, in fact many of the guidebooks describe it as a theme park. McDonalds is super flash, possibly one of the best in the world complete with McCafe, McInternet, terrace and fountain. Add an equally tasteful Burger King up the street, bagel shops, coffee houses and sushi restaurants and you can imagine the swishness of it all. Pretty streets with lots of guesthouses are overshadowed by a volcano, it really is a picture postcard place. Antigua is a huge spanish school machine and all the services cater to the homesick student, you can't really be homesick when you can get good coffee and bagels can you? Thankfully some real Guatemala is still to be found in the market comedors (restaurants) and street food. Although on saying that we found a lady who whipped up some great tosdadas, we went back to look for her on successive days but she'd disappeared. Nothing more disappointing.

:: Pacaya Volcano - very much active ::

No trip to Antigua is complete without taking a trip to the active Pacaya volcano. This was a real highlight of Central America, the thrill factor of climbing a volcano with river of lava running down it's side is not to be underestimated. We set off with strong shoes to withstand high rock temperatures underfoot and a big bag of marshmallows. Minibus tours run to the entrance where we met with a guide. After an hour and a half walk we turned a corner and saw the volcano and the red and orange river of molten lava pouring down it. There are two tours each day, we chose to do the evening tour to see the lava in the night. As it is to be expected in developing countries that haven't had too much regulation imposed on the tourist industry the guides lead us on and up and we soon found ourselves scrambling across sharp, loose rocks towards the molten lava. We finally got within marshmallow roasting distance i.e. a few feet although the heat was the only things stopping anyone getting any closer. Everything going splendidly until a rock broke loose of the stream a hundred feet above us and a frantic crowd hysterically scrambled across the volcano to get out of its path causing a mini landslide. Altogether not the safest of situations, there's probably not that many places in the world that bus tourist straight up into the unpredictable, insecure banks of a lava river. Anyhow a thrilling sight and unforgettable experience. As darkness fell and the clouds lifted it was spectacular as we hiked back down in the moonlight to the bus.

Our second stop in in Guatemala was at Lake Lago de Altitulan, while we were trying to decide which town to stay in on the lake, a bus came up the road with "San Pedro de Lago" written on it and made the decision for us. We climbed in over the cargo which was about 400 steel rods the length of the bus stacked in the aisle. No problems getting down the narrow aisle this time, the steel rods added plenty of assistance giving good clearance over the seats. A bumpy three and a half hour journey took us to San Pedro where we chilled out on the lake for a couple of days.

We were halfway to the next city, Xela, when we realised it was a massive detour out of our way and we really didn't have a good enough reason to be heading there. It was too late to do anything about it and in fairness it wasn't the worst of stops. We took advantage of high speed, low cost internet and got to sample some good street food. Arriving on a sleepy Sunday to closed windows and shutters once again luckily we managed to find a busy restaurant serving up huge bowls of seafood soup.

After ticking Xela we made the arduous journey north towards Coban. Poor roads and long distances forced us to do the journey over two days. In the final stint of the journey we were packed into a tiny minibus for four hours only to reach a huge landslide. People were frantically crossing over the debris which stretched a hundred feet shouting "rapido rapido". It was unclear how dangerous it was but it was crystal clear that nothing was been done to rectify the situation nor would be done in the coming hours or even days. We followed the crowd and scrambled to safety and the gawking crowd at the other side. We later learnt the landslide was two days old so we made the right decision to cross, otherwise we could have been stuck there for days.

:: Tikal ::

Our final stop in Guatemala was St. Elena, it's probably better known as Flores and jumping off point to explore Tikal. Flores is a claustrophobic tourist trap reached by a bridge from St. Elena, if you have a choice opt for St Elena. The following day we set off in the rain for Tikal ruins. A three hundred percent increase in entrance fees since last year ruined all calculations to have just enough Quetzals left to get us out of the country. Tikal was impressive the sheer size of the structures sets it apart from Copan Ruinas. The start of our day was marred by heavy rain. Some of the structures can be climbed via rickety stairs that take you hundreds of feet up high above the jungle. The Grand Plaza is also an impressive sight, and a great spot for people watching.

Setting off from Flores, we made a run for the Mexican border, seeking some sun....and some real Mexican food.

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