Friday, December 21, 2012

The Last Hurrah

With the Swiss Alps dwindling in our rear-view mirrors - well, in Ed's anyway; I could only see my shoulders in mine due to both the excessive amount of clothing I was wearing and the poor positioning of the mirrors themselves - we headed north to Nancy. This would have us spending the night close to Verdun, which we could visit the next day on our way to Arras, and from their it would be a short run to Calais on the Saturday morning.

Lake Genva is under the low cloud. Honestly.

JB escorted us to the petrol station, ostensibly to put us on the right road, but possibly he was just keen to make sure we got clear of his area of responsibility without a speeding incident or slip on the frosty road. We parted company with promises of meeting up for a road trip in the summer, and with JB's cautions about the road conditions ringing in our ears, we got under way. Once again, we opted for the smaller, scenic roads, and Ed was soon several cars ahead of me, overtaking confidently on his hi-tech beast, using the sat-nav to alert him to safe passing areas approaching round the corners, clearly champing at the bit to cover some distance. Not having the same advance warning of the road layout and having very inferior brakes, I was happy to just mosey along. We stopped for a photo at small town, and once again Ed suggested
I should try and overtake when he did, otherwise we would be limited to normal traffic speed rather than the faster bike speeds which was, after all, largely the point of using motorbikes. I explained again about my restrictions and, as we were in a quiet part of the country and had a big car park handy to practice in before hitting the road, I suggested that maybe this was the time to switch bikes for a bit so he would have a better understanding of what I was up against.

After a 10 minute tutorial on what all the buttons on his bike did (heated this-and-that switches with multiple settings, sat-nav, several indicator switches, lights, and whatnot), I jumped on Ed's bike, barely able to reach the ground with both feet, and nervous about leaning the bike too far and dropping it. I wobbled off round the car park for a couple of laps, realising quickly how rider-friendly the bike was. It was very well balanced and, once I got the hang of where the buttons were, not too confusing after all.

Ed was all geared up for a similarly complex tutorial on my bike, and seemed both disappointed and surprised when I quickly showed him the the on/off buttons for engine, lights and grip heaters, and the indicator switch. "What about everything else?" he asked. "That's it," I replied. He took a turn round the car park as well, and then we ventured out in to the traffic. Ed now had nothing more to do than follow me for a change (and concentrate on keeping the bike running - it had developed a tendency to stall on stopping - and slowing down safely), while I now had to watch both the road and  sat-nav, and remember where all the buttons were. It was actually a very easy bike to ride, and I appreciated the comfortable seat and riding position, not to mention the vast windscreen sheltering me from the cold wind. I wondered how Ed was faring.

After half an hour or so I figured Ed would probably have had enough, so I pulled over and we switched back. He seemed far more impressed at my coming to meet him now, as in only a short time he noticed the uncomfortable riding position, the extra exposure to wind and, yes, the dodgy brakes. With new found appreciation for what his big brother was going through just to join him at the end of his trip, we pushed on towards Nancy via the autoroute.

About 20 miles outside the city, we stopped to refuel both the bikes and ourselves at a motorway services. Just as we were finishing our hot chocolates, a guy pulled in on a big fancy touring BMW. He parked along side us and seemed keen to talk but, as we were tired, we tried to dress fast and get going. My good manners got the better of me though, and I struggled to reply to his questions in my school boy French while trying to discourage further conversation by giving the impression that we were ready to go. As we mounted the bikes and fired up the engines, he flicked away his cigarette and rushed to join us. Not really what we wanted, but the choice wasn't ours. As we pushed on up the motorway to Nancy in the deepening gloom, he pulled along side Ed and seemed to be trying to communicate with him. Ed wasn't too impressed and, as the bloke cut across the lanes to take the slip road to a parking area, we just kept going, thinking we'd shaken him. Not so fast though, and he was soon back along side Ed, making the 'pull over' gestures again. This time, we followed him off the motorway, and when we'd all stopped, he asked where we were heading and whether we'd like to come and stay at his house in Toul, a city nearby, instead.

Its a funny thing, but we were both suspicious of his motives. We were both tired and not sure if we could be bothered with a night of being sociable, but also it seemed a slightly odd offer. In other parts of the world, in countries far poorer than France, we had both previously accepted offers of hospitality from total strangers and had excellent experiences because of this. But here, in France, we thought there must be some ulterior motive at play. After a brief chat among ourselves, and despite not being entirely up for it, we figured that there were 2 of us and only 1 of him, and it would be the last chance on his trip for Ed to have a little side adventure. We took the guy (we still hadn't introduced ourselves to each other) up on his offer and followed him to his home in Toul.

He pulled up outside a very unprepossessing, slightly tatty mid-terrace house, opened a garage door and we all drove in. As he pulled down the door behind us, we climbed off the bikes, removed our helmets and made formal introductions. Fabrice, for t'was he, ducked in to the house to return moments later with indoor flip-flops for us both. He didn't speak English, so it was going to be a night of dodgy French, and as we followed him into the house, I muttered to Ed that I hoped we weren't about to embark on a Pulp Fiction-esque cellar kidnapping experience.

On the inside, the house was remarkably large, and very smart. Out the back door was an enclosed patio, with the far wall being a barn/workshop where Fabrice made furniture as a hobby, and through this was a long narrow garden. Very flash. He assured us his wife would be back soon, and in the meantime he left us to get cleaned up. We met him again downstairs where he furnished us with beers and set about explaining that he was ex-military, ex-French police, and currently worked for the family business which seemed to involve using his bike as company vehicle to act as a sales rep for internal and external furnishings. Being a keen biker, his offer of hospitality was merely part of the biker's code that seems to exist out there, and in much the same way that either Ed or myself might have made a similar offer to a wandering traveler, on this occasion it was Fabrice who was in the position to improve his karma.

Far from being a hassle, the evening turned into a very enjoyable time, as we should have known it would. Fabrice's wife, Severine, came home and joined the fun, seemingly unfazed that her husband had picked up a couple of strangers, and I got a tour of Fabrice's other hobbies: large guns and knives. Being ex-miltary and -police, he had a number of both hand guns and working, replica WW2 rifles, an ammunition making table, and a large number of hunting knives. This display made me a little nervous, and it may have been either boyish enthusiasm or a veiled warning to leave his pretty wife alone that prompted him to share it. It wasn't dwelt on though, and we were soon back downstairs enjoying some wine and local moonshine - a bottle of which he gifted us!  

On hearing our plans to visit cemeteries the next day, he kindly offered to guide us via small roads to Verdun and to some of  the memorials there. It made for very fast riding the next day, and no doubt saved us some time looking for places to visit. I think that day deserves an entry of its own so I'll stop here for now, and get you up to date soon. In the meantime, all that is left to be said about Fabrice and Severine's hospitality is that I was glad to be shown that this kind of generosity exists all over place (yes, even France!), you just have to be open enough to notice it when it is in front of you, and take the opportunities as they arise. We may never meet those two again, although we have a standing invite to stay next time either of us are passing through France, and have extended the same to them, should they come to the UK. It was a great reminder to us both that you don't necessarily have to travel to the farthest corners of the world to find good-hearted people.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Go West, Young Man

Sunday was to be spent mostly at the Milan Motorbike Show, with perhaps a side helping of Milan city centre if time permitted.

We retraced our tracks of the evening before, and this time arrived at the exhibition centre when it was actually open. Being on our bikes meant we could use the designated bikers parking area that not only allowed us to by-pass the long traffic queues, but also drive pretty much up to the doors. The car park proved to be almost more interesting than the exhibition, as the variety of bikes there was astounding, and the crowds were smaller, but we went in anyway, patiently joining a long ticket queue for about 20 minutes, only to reach the front to be told it was a membership line for something or other we weren't interested in, and the ticket office was over yonder. I have to say, I was finding it very frustrating not being sufficiently au fait with the Italian lingo. In Florence I'd been defaulting into Spanish again, which only helped a little, but I was frustrated at my ignorance. If I ever go back, I will have to call on the services of Michel Thomas once again...

Inside the arena, the flash and sparkle of machinery was distracting. The venue was ridiculously huge, the map of the stall printed on several pages of a handbook. Ed's sat-nav would have been useful in here too. we wandered around looking for bike brands that interested us, paying homage to the BMW stand, before taking a look at the latest Yamaha Tenere (my bike of choice - just the normal, 660cc one, the 1200cc Super Tenere was bigger even than Ed's behemoth!) and the KTM 450, which was what was tempting Ed as an option for buzzing round London village when he has to get back to the real world once more.

To be fair, my knowledge of bikes is so limited I had had my fill pretty soon, and when Ed realised the clothing brand he was looking for didn't have a stall, he lost interest too. We had a bite to eat and then jumped on the metro and headed into Milan proper to have a wee look see.

Pigeon chasing: More popular than medieval architecture
The Metro tipped us out in the main piazza, and once again the scene was dominated by a massive cathedral. Once again it was a truly impressive building with some stunning carvings and bronze moulded doors, but built at whose expense and under what threats all those years ago?

We went for a bit of a wander up some streets, realising that once again we didn't have enough time to do justice to the places we were visiting. I'm not sure Milan is actually that special in itself (being a city, it kind of has that "just another city" vibe about it), but I know I would dearly love to go back to Italy some time and take more time looking about.

Little Brother is watching you...
Wandering back to the Metro and our bikes, we talked a bit about how Ed was feeling with regards the impending end of his trip. He pointed out that this stage of his trip, from Turkey to the end, was the first time he had needed to go in a westwards direction. Up until now, it had always been eastwards, and it was little things like this that brought home to him that things were drawing to a close. Between Milan and Kent, there was really only a stop in Switzerland, at the house of one of his friends from the first part of his trip along the Silk Road (a fitting reunion for the final leg), and a pausing at one of the cemeteries in France that commemorate the World Wars. Having had a (comparatively) small trip of my own a few years ago, I had some idea of how overwhelming it was to be coming to the end of an epic, life-changing trip like this. The end of my own trip, in 2009, had left me very contemplative, prone to navel-gazing, trying to take stock of all that I'd seen and done, and would have to do on my return, and my trip had been only half the time of Ed's. I could only guess at the maelstrom going on in Ed's head as he drew ever closer to the UK and the real world. All I could do was be a wall to bounce thoughts off if he needed it, and I was happy with that.

On the Monday morning, we were up early and excited to be aiming for the Alps and the Monte Blanc tunnel. We had a choice of roads to the tunnel: the autoroute and the back roads. You can guess which we chose, and we were treated to some more picturesque mountain villages on the way. The tunnel itself was like the Frejus tunnel I'd gone through a few days before, although this time I didn't need to hold on to the mirror on the way through. Out on the French side (the customs was tough - the bloke just glanced at our number plates and let us straight through when he saw they were British. As it should be.) we dropped down in to Chamonix, before striking out to Lake Geneva and Switzerland. We had a short stop for a  cup of tea with one of Ed's  lawyer friends from his early days in the biz, before making the last dash to a town whose name escapes me for the moment, and the house of JB and Arlette. JB had been with Ed on the London - Beijing stage of his trip, and he was so keen to catch up that he'd been tracking Ed on his Spotify locator all day, and had sent a text message when he noticed us go off route for our cup of tea! He was infectiously enthusiastic about bike trips in general, Ed's trip in particular, and motorbikes full stop.

JB and Ed
For the next 3 days he and Arlette opened their homes and their hearts to us, making us feel extremely welcome, showing us about Lausanne, and taking us on a 4 hour hike up his favourite local mountain - of which there were no shortages in the area! We were treated to a genuine Swiss fondue, luxury Swiss booze-filled chocolates and a real sense of 'being home'. Yet another "must come back to", not least because of JB's suggestion that the Dolomites in Summer were fantastic riding. I think I'd need a newer bike for that one...

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to JB and Arlette, and begin the last push. Appropriate choice of words, as this last part of the ride would take us past some of the most famous (should that be 'infamous'?) battlefields of WW1 and 2. I know that Ed had been planning on visiting some of these sites and I very much wanted to as well. To this end, we set off for Nancy with a view to visiting Verdun the next day.  Little did we know that even this close to the end, our road still held one or two surprises up its sleeve...

Retrobike Retrospective

Ah. Ummmmm....oops. Bit of an epic fail there I'm afraid. I had fully intended to put in at least 3 or 4 entries for this trip, but it turns out there are fewer internet access points for the traveler travelling without their own personal computer than there are in South America. This being the case, and Ed being a bit tight with the offers to use his own machine (well who can blame him? He was a slave to it every night, trying to keep his own fancy blog + movies up to date. Did you know that each movie worked out to about an hours worth of editing for every minute of movie? I'm amazed he found time to see anything on his trip at all...), I was unable to find a means to up-date on the road and, once I got back, have been kind of distracted with stuff and things, making this the first chance I've had to try and tell my side of the story (some of you may have already read Ed's version at Riding in the Tracks of Giants. Click the link on this page if not...). Also, having read his version, I've had to give myself time to forget what he wrote so I don't end up being unduly influenced by his content!

So, back to Florence! Ed arrived and shepherded his bike into the 'free' (ahem. More about that later) garage parking, where I went to meet him and introduce him to the Bavarian Grandmother I was riding (oh please. Stop with the Benny Hill humour). He was a little startled - I think he had imagined that I'd bought a second hand XT or somesuch - but I think he appreciated the style. I was looking forward to starting it up in a day or two and letting him hear the power...

We quickly dumped his gear in the room and went for a wander in the town. We would be staying for a couple of nights, giving us a full day to explore the historic nooks and crannies, so this first evening gave us a chance to stroll through the narrow streets and see the main plaza with its impressively huge cathedral lit up and displayed in a totally different way than it can be seen by day. It is a truly huge building, and seemed even bigger the next day when we went back in daylight to climb the stairs to the viewing platform on the roof of its large dome. I can appreciate the architectural achievement of such an intricate edifice, but once again struggle to equate the church's message of 'blessed are the meek' and what not, with the vast expense and extravagance of such a temple. It seems to me that 'the people' are told to live on a shoestring while the church collects their dosh and spends it on gold candlesticks and elaborately painted ceilings. A case in point was the inside of the dome, which was extraordinary in its complexity, and slightly shocking in what it depicted. The centre of the dome was a wonderous vision of angels and all things super, smashing and great, graduating down the dome to the scene around the lowest section which was real, old-school fire and brimstone Hell, with Satan and all his little minions shoving (and I kid you not!) red hot pokers up the backsides of the naughty people cast down, and tearing them in half. Again, my understanding is lacking here....I am puzzled that an organisation should need to use such threats and fear as a means of encouraging people to toe the line. Being 'good' out of fear of damnation is surely coercion, versus people who are just nice to each other because its the right thing to do. Perhaps I'm just a little naive, or should educate myself more...
Well, you can't say you weren't warned...

Regardless of who paid what to whom in order to build the cathedral, the view from the top of the dome was  fantastic, made more so by the crystal clear day. Terracotta tiled roofs spread out in all directions from the square below, the river sparkled in the distance, and the maze of streets left both Ed and I keen to descend the long, long flights of stairs back to ground level so we could explore a little more.                                            

The Duomo casts its shadow over the city of Florence

We followed the directions kindly scribbled on our tourist map by the hotel receptionist this morning, which took us to some of the top spots in town. Piazzas (town squares, not the food) containing both replica and genuine statues from roman times, a replica of David in all his large-handed glory (the hands are deliberately too large so the perspectives look right when viewed from the ground. True story.), long queues in the street waiting to pay through the nose to see the real thing (didn't seem worth it to us. We'd not have been able to tell them apart anyway), street markets selling leather goods for which Florence is renowned, the bridge over the river...all beautiful and worth the look. Ed had already confessed in his own blog that he was becoming a bit jaded and worn out from all the remarkable things he'd seen on his trip, but we were taking things at a relaxed pace and perhaps having some company made it more tolerable.

The next morning we were continuing on our way, beginning the return leg of my journey and the final push of Ed's. It was Saturday, and we were planning on taking a partially scenic route to Milan, where we would take a day on Sunday to visit the huge and famous Milan Motorbike Show - a big sales exhibition of all the latest and greatest bikes and riding gear from the major manufacturers. I think all either of us really wanted to see was what they had in the way of adventure bikes, but I think Ed had hopes of picking up a last-day-of-the-show clothing bargain of some kind.

After an interesting episode in which Ed and the hotel manager/owner disagreed about the "free parking" which Ed had carefully confirmed was available in his booking emails (apparently it wasn't free at all, despite the email, but Ed was more immovable on the matter than the hotel rep, and a lawyer, and was standing in the reception area near the breakfast room full of other guests and, apparently, more than happy to make a bit of a scene - which he didn't do, he remained very calm!), he then appeared slightly anxious when my trusty steed seemed reluctant to struggle back to life but, after the couple of days it took to get down to Florence, I wasn't too phased. A bit of gentle coaxing soon had her fired up, and I left her clearing her pipes while I got dressed in my riding gear, and by the time we set off she was quite literally firing on all cylinders. After my arrival into town a couple of days earlier, when I had been forced to precariously wedge my new and expensive smart phone between the top of the speedometer and the windscreen so I could use the sat-nav to guide me to the hotel, dreading every bump in the road in case the device was dislodged at speed only to be dashed to pieces as I crashed while desperately grabbing for it as it fell to the ground while I rode along (and the cobbles really didn't help, let me tell you!), it was very relaxing to be able to rely on following Ed, who was being guided by his proper on-board flight system. Unfortunately, he hadn't fully realised the restrictions I faced as I battled with my bike through the busy Florencian traffic. My ancient bike had some good pick up, so keeping up with him as he shot off from traffic lights etc was no problem at all. Its newly acquired desire to stall while idling didn't help though, and the slowing down suddenly to change lanes/stop began to cause me problems. I kept up though, and figured all would be well, and if not, I'd make sure Ed got a go on my bike so that he'd better understand the situation, It was a few days before that would happen though, so in the meantime, he rode on oblivious to the effort it took me to keep up!

We spent the morning following smaller b-roads that took us up and over some hills and valleys, feeling spoiled again by the cracking good weather. I was cautious in the hairpin turns - more so than even I would normally be - as the braking on the aged BMW was proving to be a bit more dodgy than I'd been led to believe from the dead straight autoroute dash of the first 3 days. This had not revealed the full extent of the short-comings in the old brake discs and pads, and it was with some alarm that I came to learn that there was a definite tendency for the brakes to behave as though fitted with a very slow reacting ABS system, i.e. in a repetitive, snatching action that pogo-ed me to a halt. Coupled with the narrow tyres furnished with what looked like an old-fashioned tread pattern and the threat of damp leaves or frost in the corners, I was understandably reluctant to try and keep up with Ed, on his finely tuned, computerised invalid car. I mean motorbike.

The scenery was beautifully autumnal though, the skiing villages quiet and patient, waiting just a few more weeks for the annual influx of snow-bunnies, and eventually we had to admit that time had beaten us and we'd have to hit the autoroute to make up some time and get to Milan before dark. We were temporarily held up as we encountered a weekend bikers rendez-vous parked up in a local country pub. A large number of fancy sports bikes were parked up and, even though we'd only just begun our high-tailing, it would have been rude not to stop and say hi, or at least for Ed to allow his bike to be admired. It certainly stood out from the others, as it was the only road-weary adventure bike there, and it got its share of appropriately admiring glances for sure. Somewhat surprisingly, though, so did my bike, as it was the oldest by far of the gathering. Once we'd taken our bows, we tried again and, once again, Ed's on-board computer guided us without fail. The failure had been in letting Ed program the destination, and it was a surprise to both of us when we arrived exactly at where we wanted to be the next day - at the Motorbike show! I still marvel at the fact he made it round the world pretty much by himself. A brief adjustment later and we were weaving through the heavy traffic to go the short distance to the campsite we'd be using. They had cabins with electric heating, and even en suite showers, so we took one of them and bunked down. Which is what I will do now, before attempting another installment much sooner than this one appeared!

Friday, November 16, 2012

It's All Coming Back to Me Now...

D'you know, I had almost forgotten what it was like to be on a motorbike road trip. After all, it's been over 3 yeras since I got back from South America, and I haven't been anywhere further than 4 hours away on a bike since then.

But it's also funny how fast it all comes back: the wrapping up warm in so many layers you can hardly move; the instant sweating due to this, only cured by getting on the bike and getting some cold wind moving; something always cropping up to hold you up to stop this happening, just long enough to get REALLY hot; the sheer terror of heavy traffic in an unfamiliar city centre when you don't know where you are going. Ah yes, it floods back!

The hold up on this occasion was just as I was setting off from my sister's place to my folk's, where I was to have my "last supper" before the off. Togged up to the max for the cold 20 minutes over there, fuel taps on, choke out, engine...oh no, hang on, there seems to be petrol dripping profusely from somewhere.... Ah, yes, that'd be right. The 'T' valve linking up all the fuel lines seems to be leaking. From all 3 junctions. Out come the trusty pull ties, and job done. Probably. I'll check it agan at the other end.

Over to Mum and Dad's, a few errands, a successful operation to graft on a set of wrap-around heated grips to the handle bars, and...oh right. Another fuel leak. On the other side this time. Same problem, same fix. The bike is now bristling with pull ties, like an angry porcupine. Nothing like a bunch of fuel leaks to settle the nerves just before the off. Everything else was going swimmingly. Packing? Done, and minimal. Route for next 3 days? Organised and noted, even loaded into my smart phone. Everything ready to go? Yup. 2330 hours and time to hit the hay before an early start at 6am. And then..."Steve?"..."Yes, Dad?"... "Have you got any travel insurance organised?".......

I was all for doing it en route, as it as rather late, but I knew Dad would fret all night (come on, you would have...probably did anyway!) so I gamefully pretended to search on line, stopping when I had a number to call in the morning. Job done, back to sleep at last.

The morning was dry but pretty misty...almost foggy in fact, so I had to stop en route to the Eurotunnel and throw the waterproofs on. This proved a good idea, because, although it didn't rain all day, it was bloody cold in the wind, and the extra layer made the difference.

Tunnel navigated no worries (arrived 5 minutes after check in closed, but you can't have everything); Calais exited easily enough, and then it was just on to the toll roads for a fast blast south. I had considered taking more scenic roads, but without good maps or proper satnav, and what with this being a fast dash to get to Ed, I just got on the autoroutes and opened the old girl up.

You have to hand it to the French: they may charge you to go on the motorways, but boy are they in good nick. I wondered if they were kept that way to make for faster running away if they get invaded again, but couldn't find anyone to ask...

The fog had hung about on both sides of the channel, and it wasn't until about 1pm that it lifted, the sun taking its place, and the leafy, autumnal French countryside became a picturesque blur as I roared along. Roared would be just the right word. No namby-pamby 'purring like a kitten' that Ed's bike does. My old girl shouts her presence and dares you to get in her way!

I guess as Ed has just texted me to say he is an hour or so away and therefore won't be able to read this before he gets to see first hand what I'm ridng, it's probably OK to let the cat out of the bag on what form my bike for this trip has taken.

I have Dad's cousin (my first cousin once removed? Second cousin? Pass), David, to thank. As I was filling him in on the trip and the problems being faced with finding a bike, he casually suggested I take his bike from the barn. I'd not even known he rode, let alone had a bike, let ALONE would have agreed to loan it to me. It turned out to be a (fanfare!!!) 1978 BMW R80/7 - very probably the ancestor of what Ed is riding! Talk about destiny! How perfect to go to meet Ed on his 2010 GS1200, on the bike that pretty much began it all. And it even had original panniers too! It took a fortnight or so for me to get organised, take David up on his offer, and for him to get it serviced and MOT'd. Then I had to get over and collect it (you know all that) and that brings us back up to me roaring - and she REALLY roars - down through France.

I made it to Troyes on the first day, about where I'd hoped to get, and after a chat to the bloke on the hostel desk, altered my second day's target to Torino istead of Milan. Shorter, more realistic, quieter road, nicer drive, by all accounts. The old girl was a bit sluggish in the cold morning, but then aren't we all? She soon found her wind though, and whisked me down past Dijon, Lyon and over to the Tunel de Fréjus in the mountains. At around 18km long and with strictly controlled speeds and distances between vehicles, it was not the place to be distracted by bits trying to fall off the bike. Which is why that's exactly what happened. It was only the right rear-view mirror, but that is the important one when you drive on the right, so I had to clear the tunnel holding the mirror in place with my clutch hand (just as well it wasn't the other side come to think of it), until I got out and could pull over and tighten it back up.

Torino to Florence today was a master class in not getting lost. I thought I had a few times, and even the satnav on my phone suggested I was, but I some how navigated a crazy maze of tunnels and bridges amd on/off ramps through the mountains around Genoa and ended up on the right road to Florence. The roads were somewhat nerve-wracking, as they are very narrow-laned, with either tunnel walls or sheer drops pressing in on both sides, and each time you emerge into daylight, its impossible to tell if you are somewher new or exactly where you went in! The scenery was almost identical, and with big trucks jostling for positioin on the road, I didn't have the chance to look too closely at the subtleties. It was a total rabbit warren of tunnels, and no doubt built as somewhere to hide next time Italy is invaded. Again,  couldn't find anyone to ask about that, but the track record is in favour of the theory...

And so, at last (well done if you're still reading! I will try and be briefer and include some photos in the next one) I am here, in a hotel lounge waiting for Ed to arrive in about 20 minutes. Geriatric brother on a geriatric bike, meeting the younger, stronger models? Or older, tougher, wiser pairing meeting the young pretenders? Old school meets new age, perhaps. This game could go on a while. Best you go and have a cuppa. I'll still be here when you get back....Old and simple (me AND the bike) vs young and pointlessly frilly. I'll put money on Ed's bike not still being on the road when its 34 years old! Ha! Sleep tight.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Brothers McMullen...Ride!

As I frantically dash about my sister's house, searching for all the warm clothes I thought I had but seem to have lost, then realising they are at my parent's house still sealed up in various suitcases, I am starting to wonder if I have been a tad optimistic about setting my departure time as tomorrow morning on the 0820 Eurotunnel crossing. After all, I only got my hands on what will be my trusty steed for the journey yesterday, (so can hardly even claim to be familiar with its quirks yet, having ridden it only about 120 miles so far), and haven't even worked out the best way to load it up yet!

Back in, oh I don't know, June maybe, when my younger brother Ed looked like he was going to be winding up his epic round the world trip via Morocco, Spain and France, I tentatively suggested he might like some company for the last part, a bit of a mobile cheering squad to fanfare his progress back to where he started from in late April 2011. Warm sunshine in an exotic location sounded pretty good to me, if I could swing it. He had been thinking the same thing (probably just wondering how he could organise a fanfare, I expect), and wheels were put in motion.

Shortly after, his flexible routing system required a significant change of direction and his final stage moved from warm, exotic Morocco to chilly, wintry Italy, Switzerland and France. Still, I was committed, but suddenly not so sure how excited I was to get inevitably very cold and probably very wet! For this reason, i have been working hard at putting on a blasé front and being (apparently rather too) relaxed about everything.

I almost pulled out altogether a fortnight or so ago as finding a  bike was proving tricky, until a coincidental conversation with a mystery benefactor bore very surprising and rather poetic fruit. I am holding off revealing to the world in what shape that fruit came, as I want to surprise Ed, but all will be revealed in due course.

Which brings me up to today, where I am taking a brief break mid-dash to procrastinate a little more and get the blog underway once more. This will be but a short blast, I think, probably all over by the end of November, but hopefully it will provide enough material for mini-adventure and a few photos. If you're lucky.

My tentative route plan at present will take me to Calais tomorrow morning, Troyes tomorrow night, then Milan the next day and finally Pescara on Italy's east coast by Thursday, where I should meet Ed and we can begin a more sedate return run with a bit of roses-smelling on the way. Watch this space, and check out Ed's version of events at his Riding in the Tracks of Giants blogspot. I wonder how they might interpret events differently....

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A lesson in "Shaking your Tail Feather"

I took a taxi back to Stone Town on Friday morning so I would arrive early enough to meet Afton from the ferry. She was one of the Dar posse I'd been hanging out with the previous week, and my highly accomplished tour guide of Dar to boot, and was to be the first of that group to arrive for the Sauti za Busara music festival that was on this weekend. The festival is a celebration of African music, with artists and dance groups coming from several different countries around Africa, as well as from Tanzania. I had no idea what to expect from it, but the people I'd spoken to who had been before all said it was amazing, so I was looking forward to it.

After dropping our bags at Safari Lodge Hotel - a far smarter looking place than the one I'd been in earlier in the week - we set off to wander the streets while we waited for the next group to arrive. There were to be 8 of us staying at the hotel, but due to work commitments they were coming in at different times, some not arriving until the Saturday morning.

It was fun walking about with someone else, taking photos and trying to be artistic. Afton takes great photos and, because it had been so long since she'd last been to Stone Town, and because I was only just finding my way around, we managed to help each other to not get too lost. I'd learned, however, that even when you have no idea where you are in Stone Town (and that happens quite a lot), you are never far from where you want to be and there is always someone willing able to point you in the right direction.

I should say more about Stone Town at this point, I think. Before I arrived at the start of the week, I was slightly apprehensive, having read about it and been told what a maze of streets it was, and being advised to "just get lost" in the narrow lanes. Now, I often feel at my least comfortable when I have no idea where I am, so was not altogether sure I'd like this strategy, but by the time I left to go to Kendwa earlier in the week, I'd totally come to love Stone Town and the confusion that goes with it, so was looking forward to getting back to it for the festival.

A lot of my apprehension would have been based around the fear that there were thieves and robbers lurking round corners, waiting to pounce and relieve me of anything they could get. Very quickly I realised that, by thinking this, I was doing a massive injustice to the people of Stone Town. Maybe in the big cities on the mainland (Dar and Arusha, for example) this is a more likely scenario - although I have to be fair and say I never once got threatened or robbed in these places either, and quickly learned to relax there too - but in Stone Town it is just plain wrong to think like this. I'm not saying it never happens, I'm just saying every single person I met in my week on Zanzibar and the 5 days in Stone Town was friendly, welcoming and helpful and I had nothing but good experiences there.

However, when one first arrives and begins to walk the streets, it is understandable why some people might be nervous (including myself for a few hours right at the start!). The town is a labyrinth of narrow streets hemmed in by high buildings, making it almost impossible to spot a landmark to aid navigation. You may lean towards the strategy of taking a left then a right, believing this would eventually lead you roughly in a straight line, but you very quickly realise this never happens. Occasionally you pass a poster or graffiti slogan or shop or hotel that you remember passing before, then you pass it again, try a different street and pass it again! Other times, you miraculously find yourself directly where you wanted to go, only to find you have no idea how you did it or how to get back!

There are many locals with small shops, selling food or crafts, and even more folk just sitting in the shade, but all are happy to try and direct you, and some of the youngsters will even take you and show the way. Often they don't even want any money for this, which is a nice change. Up and down these crazy narrow streets ride people on bicycles and scooters, beeping horns and ringing their bells to clear a path and scatter children (or, more usually, clueless tourists). No-one ever seems to get cross or hurt, apart from in the busy market areas where tempers fray amongst the crush of people. Others push barrows loaded with all manner of goods through the streets, making a kissing noise that carries surprisingly well, to alert people in front to move to the side. This sound gets used a lot in Tanzania, not only to move people out of the way, but also to hustle for fares on the bajajh taxis. It is a more friendly sound than a horn, although they get used too!

This may now paint a slightly clearer picture of Stone Town, but still will not have done it justice at all. I was so pleased to find that I liked it though - despite my brave words back in Dar, boldly proclaiming that I'd be fine, I was not absolutely certain I would be, but it has to have been one of my favourite places of the trip.

Anyhow, come midday and Afton and I met the next ferry with its 3 extra members of our group. One more ferry to meet around 6pm and we'd be pretty much all here. By the time we'd got this round of people settled in to the hotel and found some lunch, it was about time to head to the Old Fort, the venue of the festival. However, just as we got settled and the first act was gearing up, I headed off to meet the last ferry of the day. I got to the ferry and found I had about half an hour to wait, so I decided to work out the best route to the hotel. I knew it was very close, and could find it if I followed the ring road the taxis used and then cut in, but guessed there must be an easier way. I went to the taxi drivers waiting by the big Banyan tree and asked. One of them offered to walk me there, and pointed out all the landmarks I could hope to find on the buildings we passed and, sure enough, in two minutes we were there. I'd never have found it on my own, but now I was the group expert on getting back to our digs, fast. It was to be just about the only place I could guarantee to find, and then only if I started at a particular place, but I was happy.

Back at the concert, and myself and the late comers had missed one of the feature acts - a 107 year old woman who sang. Apparently she was superb, and hopefully Afton got some video footage so I may get a taster, but nonetheless, the next acts were good too.

Bright, colourful costumes, lots of percussion and big groups of performers, singing, chanting, stamping, dancing, clearly having the best time. The energy was amazing, the smiles on their faces infectious, and the performances captivating. Its times like these I realise just how inadequate my writing style is to convey the amazing scenes in front of us. I'm not normally big on music gigs unless I know the artist or the songs really well, but I have to say I was never bored for a moment. The fact that any singing done was in Swahili and there for totally incomprehensible to me, made no difference. The rhythms and melodies wrought just by the performers' voices was enough to take me along for the ride, and I wasn't the only one. By the end of the evening, even I was having a bit of a dance to myself - high praise indeed, I think you'll agree!

Eventually we called it a night, and went back to catch some sleep, ready for my last day in Zanzibar, Kara's birthday and another evening of crazy music.

I was up early the next day, finding the heat hard to sleep in, and enjoyed a bit of quiet time on the hotel roof. Other folk gradually emerged, including, eventually, the Birthday Girl. It actually turned out she'd been up nearly as early as me but had gone out to track down some extra accommodation for a couple of extra people who had decided to come over as well. We went out to breakfast at a small cafe, enjoying some fantastic coconut bread and spiced avocado and tomato on toast, before Kara went off to meet the noon ferry and the final members of our increasingly large team.

The group split then, some off to Prison Island to see the large tortoises (technically they're Giant Tortoises, but having seen the Larger Galapagos ones, I feel I have to differentiate. Call it travelers snobbery if you will. That's probably exactly what it is!), others for a shower and a snooze before the evenings revelry, and some for further wanderings in the maze and a bit of shopping. Needless to say, eventually all roads led to the bar, and we reconvened and confirmed evening plans over a well earned cold beer.

The first plan was to see an early act at the festival. They were an incredible group of artists, each with a different physical handicap, but when they played and sang, you would never have guessed. One of the guys who came to dance at the front of the stage had no use of his legs, but was pulling off break-dancing moves and using his hands to chuck his useless limbs around in the same way Fred Astaire might have used a cane, or a Morris Dancer his bells on a stick. It had to be seen to be fully appreciated, but again, the energy and enthusiasm was infectious.

From there, we went to The House of Spices restaurant for a birthday feast of pizza and pasta and wine and beer and vodka shots, before returning to the festival in time to catch probably the act of the weekend, a Nigerian singer called Nneka (you tube her), likened by some to Lauren Hill. Amazing voice, mostly sang in English, powerful messages, very passionate about what she does. Superb performance.

Beers were sought after this, at which point excess alkyhol lead to a more permanent fracturing of the group. Afton and I went in search of some of her other Danish mates, and at some point the rest of the group slipped out to the night club, leaving us behind, half expecting to get a text when/if they left. No text, we figured, must mean they were still here. We went along to the club eventually, but with a door fee to pay and no idea if they were in there or not, we didn't go in, so sadly out evening came to an early end at about 1.30am. As I had to get up at about 7am to pack and get to the ferry by half 8, I wasn't too upset, but it would have been nice to have continued the party a bit longer. No matter, it was a stormer of a night anyway.

As I waited for my ferry in the morning, Kara came out to see me off. Despite what must have been one of the all time great hangovers, she found her way to the port with enough time for us to chat for a bit before I left, talk over the the finer points of the trip, and say cheerio. Whatever other activities I may have engaged in, however much I enjoyed them and however worthwhile they helped make the trip, I can't pretend this holiday was really about anything else for me than getting a chance to hang out with Kara and build the friendship we started back in Canada last August, and we got to do that. Maybe not in exactly the way I might have liked, but I'm glad we got the time we did, and I'm sure we'll catch up again some time. Until then, I had a 49 hour transit time from Zanzibar to NZ ahead of me, and at least 4 months of work before I could get away again. Who knows where to next time? Not I. There are options, as ever: maybe the UK/Sweden to see my new niece/nephew and go to a wedding; or to Brasil to meet my brother as he prepares to leave South America for the next leg of his epic road trip around the world; or some other as yet unspecified location. Money will be the deciding factor, so it's nose to the grindstone once again, driven by the desire to be elsewhere. I hope that whenever and wherever I go, you'll join me in the next version of my blog. I may yet bring forth a final, reflective entry. Until then, check out the photos I've uploaded onto flickr by using the link on this page. I've thoughtfully re-arranged the 3 trips into collections, so you can nose about in whatever takes your fancy. Thanks once again for your company and your feedback. Always nice when I get an e-pat on the back :-)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Just Another Day in Paradise

At last! After 3 weeks of the mundane and ordinary (climbing Kili, going on Safari (both wildlife and inner city), trawling the weird and wonderful in Dar es Salaam), I was finally off to do something interesting: scuba diving! I had 2 days booked up at Kendwa, in the northwest of Zanzibar, and one of the main resorty areas of the island. I had been under the impression that Kendwa was the less resorty one of the two main villages up there, but was told on arrival that my guide book was out of date, and Kendwa was now more expensive if slightly less crowded.

This became evident in the many half built hotels sitting atop the cliffs at the north end of the beach like so many uninspiring candles on the most incredible birthday cake. If only someone could blow them out (and off), the pristine nature of the beach would be preserved, but maybe that is just selfish of me...maybe the locals prefer the thought of income from tourists to the peace, quiet and paradise of where they live. It is an interesting problem. I dread to think how this place will have changed in the next 5 years or so.

For now, though, it is still relatively unharmed - just a half dozen or so hotels on the beach front, relatively discreet, and not too crowded for mid-week. I gather the weekends really kick off into party mode, and even more so on a full moon, but I'd missed the last one of those, and the tourist numbers were low enough for me. My hotel was the last one before the cliffs, so was slightly further away from the main hubbub, allowing me to choose if I wanted to join in or not.

When I got to the dive shop at around half nine, I was told the morning dive was cancelled due to rough seas, but the afternoon one would be going ahead. I killed some time settling into my room, finding a cold fruit juice and lounging in a hammock. Its a tough life. Having lost one of my Teva sandals at Bububu beach on my fist day in Zanzibar, I was going barefoot in Kendwa, but I figured that if the biggest problem I had every day was to pick the shortest route across the burning sand to the cooler shady surfaces, life couldn't be all bad.

The afternoon dive was just me and the guide, so it was a really casual (apart from the safety briefings) dive, allowing me to re-familiarise myself with my rusty skills of diving. Things came back fast, and once under the water, I was quickly back into my favourite game of hide and seek with the fish. They always seem to win - the stakes being somewhat higher for them if they lose, as a rule - but every now and then I caught one out and was rewarded with a fantastic lionfish or a liquorice-like nudibranch and, of course, I found Nemo. He's always there if you look in the right places. So was Dory today, as well as moorish idols and various other things too, making it a satisfying refresher dive.

I spent the evening at the Kendwa Rocks Hotel bar/restaurant and, not having met anyone to hang out with as yet, had a couple of beers and chatted to the local bar staff. I treated myself to Sex on Zanzibar - the cocktail, not the act - figuring correctly that it would likely be the closest I came to that, and I rather think, in retrospect, that I may have made a poor choice.

The next day, though not hungover at all, I was feeling a little congested in the sinuses and that, combined with the tiny amounts of residual alcohol in my blood and a rougher sea than I'm normally used to, left me feeling somewhat queasy after my morning dive. It had been a better site than the day before, although my dive buddy struggled with getting the right amount of weight in his belt, meaning he was floating about a good 3 or 4 meters higher in the water than me. This left me spending almost as much time searching for him to make sure he was close as I did looking for fish, which left me somewhat annoyed by the end of the dive.

Back on shore, the queasiness wouldn't quit, so I reluctantly pulled out of the second dive for the day. I can't fully blame the beer and, as I write this back in NZ, I am suffering from a continued bunged nose and slight cold, so maybe I was actually coming down with something, so I guess it was the right call.

The free afternoon allowed me to get a blog or two up and, later in the day, when a cute brunette I'd smiled at in the computer room called out to me as I walked past on my way to the bar, I thought my luck was changing. Her and her two companions had been volunteering at a hospital near Dodoma for a few weeks and were enjoying a week in Zanzibar before heading home - one to England and the brunette and the other to Denmark. We talked for a while and ended up going to dinner as a group, where reality bit and it turned out she hadn't recognised me at all, just thought I'd been arranging to go on the same snorkeling trip as them the next day, and was being friendly. Being somewhat younger than me and not having to get up early to go to Stone Town in the morning, they eventually went off to go party in Nungwi, the next village up the coast, but we made arrangements to try and meet up over the weekend when they got to the music festival in Stone Town.

Kendwa was nearly over for me, but it has to be one of the most beautiful places I've been, and I have to say I did wonder somewhat ruefully what I was doing there on my own, rather than with that someone special. I guess maybe I'll have to come back someday and do it right. I only hope it doesn't lose too much of its charm in the meantime.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Earning the "Crazy Roads" Stripes

OK, it has to be said that the main difference between the previous two trips you have so politely joined me on and this one, is that I was independently mobile for the first two, while I have had to rely on public transport in Tanzania. All that was about to change, as four other people and I haggled over the price of a hire car for the day. We got the price down from US$45 to US$35 using the tried and tested method of pretending we'd had a better offer elsewhere. This cunning ruse secured us the use of a Toyota Escudo (I think...), which was delivered sucking fumes from the empty gas tank. This is the renters cunning ruse: start empty, finish empty, knowing full well that any tourist will have no idea of distances to travel or fuel consumption, thus needlessly over-filling the tank and returning the car with what has now become free petrol for the renter. We obliged by throwing in about 20l of fuel, which was maybe 10l less than we were recommended for our proposed trip. We figured we could always top up en troute if needs be.

My companions for the day were Nanda and Diana again, and an English couple called Chris and Ally who were staying in the same accommodation as N and D. None of us had driven in Africa before, despite Diana, Chris and Ally having spent some considerable time living and working there, so I volunteered for the first stint, both because I'd driven insane traffic in South America and because I wanted to drive the insane traffic of Stone Town so I could legitimately count this holiday under the "Crazy Roads" banner. Insane it may have been - definitely was, in fact - but also not nearly as insane as in Dar, so I felt confident...just so long as all I had to concentrate on was dodging things (livestock/kids/bikes/adults/scooters/ potholes/taxis/the list is almost endless), and leave someone else to worry about where we were acually going.

It started well....ish. I failed to hit anyone/thing and we got on what General Concensus said was the right road. As is often the case, however, the General had no idea what was going on in the trenches, and we ended up at the airport. The turn around to escape was in the short-stay car park and, after a little confusion on the one-way exit route out (which invloved the smallest moment of locked wheels on the slidey gravel, a cheer and much laughter from the watching taxi drivers and a brandished machete from the driver of the 'other vehicle'- in fun, I think, although he was scowling now I com eto think about it), we were back on the road.

Diana - our capable Kiswahili speaker and a person more used to traveling solo and not that keen on group activities (her school report would almost certainly have read "does not always play well with others. Has difficulty sharing her toys" as well as, perhaps, "does not like spending money") was insistent that we should stop and ask directions, which we eventually did. She then chose not to talk, leaving us non-Kiswahili speakers to try and muddle through. Eventually she chipped in, but it was one of those strange situations where the rest of us all kind of looked at each other and wondered what her problem was, seeing as she'd asked for something, been given it and then not seemed to want to help. I wondered if the day was about to degenerate into tension and sulking, but as it turned out this was very nearly an isolated incident.

Finally, we got the right road and we were off. Once out of the densly populated areas, the traffic dried right up and the going was good. Nothing to dodge or swerve around, and only the occasional speed bumps to mark the way in and out of villages, but an observant man (take note, Dear Reader) like myself worked this out and and anticipated them, thus minimising their, quite literal, impact on the trip. We had one standard police check point, at which we were not fined, hassled or inconvenienced in any way at all, and then it was all on for the east coast beaches. To get there, though, we had to go past Jozani Forest, home to the world's only population of Red Colobus monkeys. Now, those that know me will guess that I'd have been up for a short stop to go take a peek, but it turned out that everyone else was running on a tighter budget than me, so the US$8 was too steep a price to pay. No matter, I'd seen monkeys before, and besides it was getting pretty hot and the beach beckoned.

Jambiani beach, like most of the east coast beaches, is vast at low tide. The water recedes a loooooong way, revealing expanses of seaweed that the locals go out to harvest, dry and eat. Unfortunately, it also means that there is no swimming to be had until the sea has made its loooooong way back in again. We arrived at low tide, needless to say, so were able to enjoy a stunning scene, made more interesting by the hive of activity being entered into by the locals, but were unable to enjoy a cooling dip. It was also a bit early for lunch, so a cold drink later at a slightly over-priced resort restaurant, and we were off again (this time with Chris behind the wheel) to take a look at Paje beach, about 5km north. Chris and Ally were to be staying there the following week and wanted to check out their digs and put down a deposit, and we all agreed now seemed a good time for that. It took some to-ing adn fro-ing to find their place, however, and by the time we did, a few tempers were fraying and it had become apparent that Chris was not quite so observant a driver as the previous pilot when it came to speed bumps. Now, perhaps I should have offered some advice, but I didn't want to back seat drive, and besides, I thought I'd give him a chance to work it out before patronising him. Bad (but comical) move.

Paje was very similar to Jambiani, and although the tide was coming in by now, it was still not swimmable. Another beer for me (not driving at this point, of course), and no food despite the now appropriate hour (we decided to look for something "cheap and local") and we were off again, Chris once again in control - well, he'd only done a few kms. It turned out that Chris was something of a speed freak, pushing the pain threshold of the local vehicle in unknown condition to its limits on the flat. This also made it hard for him to spot the speed bumps (and we're talking double the normal height bumps here, at least), especially as he apparently hadn't made the village = bumps connection yet, so the poor car was given the thrashing of its long and poorly treated life. Again, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but eventually felt it would not be too fussy to drop into conversation the suggestion that the bumps by the villages must be used instead of the absent speed limit signs, to ensure that people slow down as they go through. We all agreed, even Chris, who then continued to hoon over the bumps, power through the middle of the villages and then get thumped by the bumps at the other end as well! I gave up, figuring there is only so much help you can give some people, and resolved that if he broke the car I'd not be chipping in to fix it. In my book, damage caused to a joint rental car due to driver error is on the driver. If I were to break it on my shift, I would not ask for contributions, so I was not going to pay up on someone else's shift. I just hoped the situation would not arise when I would have to make my stand.

As luck would have it, part of our route to Pongwe beach (the only low-tide swimmable beach on the east coast) took us on a rough track. On our return run we found the tarmac road, but for now, off road it was. Bumpy and slow, perhaps, but the car appreciated the gentler bumps I'm sure.

Pongwe beach was amazing. One of the few good beaches on Zanzibar not yet surrounded by resorts, like hungry vultures around a fresh kill, it was a smallish bay rather than a long beach, which kept the water further in at low tide. The village was small and wobbly, like all the villages, and after rejecting the very exclusive Italian resort, we opted for the normal priced but equally pleasant Santa Maria for lunch and another beer - and a swim this time. Despite the now reasonable prices, Diana abstained from spending money once again, but everyone else ordered food and went for dip until it came.

The water in the bay was like a bath. It was so warm it was not even close to being refreshing, but that was of no importance, as the setting was once again idyllic, Zanzibar pulling out the stops all over again. Flocks of waders exploded from the sand, did a quick lap of the bay, flashing dark then light as they wheeled about in perfect, rippling, synchronisation, before settling back on the sand. One of my favourite sights in nature, and one that I see all too rarely, put on for me at a beautiful beach on a beautiful island. This place just seemed to know how to make a good impression.

As 4 o'clock rolled around, we decided to head back to the west coast for the sunset. I took over the driving once again, as much to protect the suspension of the car as to calm my rattled nerves, especially as we'd have to go back into Stone Town again, and I'd rather have been in control of the vehicle than suffer the fear of being a passenger. We made it across the island, in and out of Stone Town, and up the coast to Bububu beach, the site of Sunday's introduction. We found a gated resort to park in to protect the car, with a view over the bay set off by anchored dhows and swimming locals, and watched yet another Oscar worthy sunset. All that was left for us was running the gauntlet of the drive back into town, only this time it would be....IN THE DARK! I took the reins once again (I don't think Chris minded at all - he seemed nervous about town traffic for some reason...) and with some navigational advice, we got back to town in one piece. We had, at Chris's insistance while he was driving, put an extra 5l of fuel in the car part way through the day, so the renters ploy paid off handsomely, as we handed over a car with a fuel gauge showing 1/4 full. I tried to get the guy to repay us at least something, but he insisted there must only be a couple of litres left. I was tired and weary from the slightly stressful driving in town, and got a bit shirty with him. I told him if he didn't want to buy it that was fine, but he shouldn't try and bullshit me by saying it was nearly empty when we both knew it wasn't. Water of a ducks back for both of us, and quickly forgotten.

Once again, Zanzibar had provided the goods and come up trumps. All that was left for the day was to grab a cheap feed at the local market, pack for the trip to Kendwa up the north west coast on the morrow, and meet up later for a celebratory beer at Livingstone's. The only other event worth noting was the local guy Nanada met on her way to the bar, named Lawrence but self-nicknamed Mimi (Swahili for 'Me' because, in his own words "wherever I go, I am ME!"). I was convinced he was off his tree on something, so massively happy about everything was he, and talking so fast and incessantly it was almost impossibe to get a word in, but I met him a few days later too and, not only did he recognise me and remember my name, but he was just the same hyperactive person, and I was with someone who knew him of old and confirmed he was always like that. The guy was high on life it seemed, and was actually hilarious to talk to. Another local encounter that went to show that Zanzibar is a remarkable place indeed. Next on the list was some diving and quality beach-slothing. Time was running out, but the last fw days were set to be good ones. And now I shall leave it there. I have hogged the free Dubai airport internet for long enough, I fear. I may bet another one away from Bankok if time and facilities permit. Otherwise, it will be a round up from back in NZ. See you all later :-)

Friday, February 10, 2012

In Spice of Everything...

Did I make it plain how incredibly amazing Zanzibar is in my last post? I think I may have under-played it a bit. After an incredible first impression, things were about to get even better. I'd signed up for a spice tour combined with a beach visit in the afternoon, and got a slight discount as it was through some bloke Nanda had met before I arrived. I think we can all agree that all the very best deals can only ever be got through "some bloke".

Anyhow, we set off in a mini-van along with about 7 others and went out to visit a spice farm. So many of the spices you use in your kitchen are grown here, maybe even the very ones you are using. It's what the islands are famous for and what attracted the attention of the Arab traders many many years ago, and I was interested to see what nutmeg looks like before it is trapped and skinned and put in a jar. Now, while there are areas of more intensely grown spices, most of the spice tours take place in a smaller area specially planted with the various varieties so that the poor farmers (both poor as in unfortunate as well as fiscally challenged) don't have clumsy tourist stamping about on the green gold. As the plants from which the spices are harvested often like to grow in shady areas, being often small and shrub-like, this made for a pleasant walk through some trees.

We were taken around by our guide and shadowed by some helpful workers, presumably on a break, or maybe this was their role, who helped climb trees or dig roots as required, and who made frogs and neck ties out of palm fronds in an effort to earn bigger tips at the end. We found out that there are 3 types of coconut that are used in different was and for different things, we saw ginger in its (or should that be "her", Smitch? You're the expert...) natural form, took a nibble of a clove fresh off the tree (it has an almost instant numbing effect), licked the bark of a cinnamon tree - after it had been peeled off - and dyed out hands yellow with turmeric. We also found the fabled nutmeg, and learned that the outer casing of the fruit can be used for marmalade and that the hard nutmeg stone comes protected by the strangest red, almost plastic-textured, sort of net that you peel off. Truly a very strange thing. The red plasticky bit is called mace (not the pepper spray kind of mace, and not used to make it either) and can also be used in cooking and is worth more than the nutmeg itself.

I ate jack fruit, kindly picked from the highest part of the tallest tree (it has special powers when picked under these circumstances) by one of our shadows who shot up despite the apparent lack of anything to hold on to. It's a strange fruit, part way between a pineapple and a banana in both texture and flavour. Quite nice, in fact.

We went on to find a pepper tree, visit a guy who makes spice infused oils for both cookingand massage, and also passed by a spice stand to buy some should we so wish. It was really interesting, and we broke for a lunch of local spice-flavoured rice, spinach and a delicious coconut curry sauce, made using a fruit whose name I forget, but whose flavour is much sourer than lemon (which is the alternative ingredient if you can't find this anonymous fruit in your local supermarket). So good, and really filling, and just right for setting us up to visit the slave caves and Managapwani beach in the afternoon.

The slave caves were exactly that - a way of smuggling slaves on or off the beach through a natural tunnel and then holding them until they could be moved to wherever. This was after the British made slavery illegal but before the Arabs wanted to stop, back in the eighteen sixty somethings or there abouts. A spooky kind of place, and not at all a nice place to have been kept.

The beach itself was possible the most beautiful beach I've ever seen. Small, secluded, beautiful clear blue water and fringed along the shore with coconut palms. Absolutely idyllic. There was even a bloke with a chilly-bin selling cold beer for the same price as in town. Can't get a lot better than that! We hung bout for an hour or so until the tide started to come in and take back the small area of beach it had loaned us for the afternoon, so we packed up and headed back to the bus.

Back in Stone Town, after a quick freshen up, I wandered down to the beach to take some (more) sunset shots and try and capture some local colour. A Wee boy of about 3 or 4 came over to have his photo take (the kids love to see the picture on the screen afterwards), and then wanted to take some of his own. His hands were too small to reach all the buttons, but he wouldn't be helped, so I just held the strap while pressed everything at once. I narrowly escaped having the memory card wiped clean, and he also somehow managed to get the video mode to work - something I have been trying unsuccessfully to do since I got the camera (my own fault, I never looked at the instruction book). Even after I got it to stop filming, I had no idea how to make it start again. The boy must be some kind of savant with cameras or something. After a while he got bored and asked for sweets, which I didn't have, so he wandered off.

Sunset came and went, and a couple of beers later and it was about 11pm and I'd still not had dinner, so Nanda, Diana and I headed back to the local food market (via, I have to confess, the Foudhani one, where I got a local pizza to tide me over). I had another pizza at the other market (they're only small) which was actually tastier, and as it was late and the market much quieter, the vendors were very chatty and entertaining. Most of them had pretty good English it seemed, or at least were good at pretending they had pretty good English, and it was great experience to be just hanging out with them, chatting for an hour or so. As in South America, I found limited language does not necessarily equal limited communication, and almost certainly does equal a fair amount of hilarity. Day 2 had somehow managed to surpass Day 1, which had been, quite frankly, pretty bloody good. I wonder what day 3, with a spur of the moment plan to hire a car with 4 others I'd met at the bar, to go touring the island, would bring?

Thursday, February 9, 2012


It's been a while in coming, but I was finally off to experience the tropical paradise that is Zanzibar. The Spice Islands (there are two of them) lie just off the coast of Tanzania, a little north of Dar es Salaam. Becoming known as honeymoon hotspot, I was gong to be seeing what they had to offer on me tod. Perhaps the future Mrs McMullen will benefit from this scouting mission at some point, once I have met her obviously.

The ferry across set off with the dawn and only took 2 hours, so I arrived nice and early in the day and was able to take some time to get my bearings a bit. I found a map - possible the least useful map of any town anywhere - and sat in a cafe to try and make either head or tail of it. As I left the cafe, determined to go a-wandering, I was met by a local fella who first of all told me to "just relax, this is Zanzibar" before explaining he'd love to show me around, he didn't work for anyone and I could pay him what I wanted. Some of that was true anyway...

He was actually very interesting, clearly one of the opportunist tourist-botherers, but to be fair he didn't bother me at all. He was very friendly, very knowledgeable, and very relaxed. He showed me some parts of town a lot of tourists don't go to, and other parts they do, and it helped me get a little more familiar with the maze - quite literally - of streets that are Stone Town.

When I left him, I paid what I thought was fair, and asked if it was, and of course he asked for a little more, which I decided to give him because he seemed like a nice guy. He volunteered his services again, and I may take him up on it, in which case I won't pay so much. It'll balance out in the end.

I then met up with Nanda, who I'd originally met in Arusha, and her friend Diana, and we got in a dala-dala to go to the beach up the coast a bit. The dala-dalas are the local shuttle buses - they go often, from designated stands but stop anywhere pretty much and pick up far more people than can usually comfortably fit in them. It's a very similar system to the one in Cusco, so it was vaguely familiar at least. That didn't stop me inadvertently handing my bus fare to the wrong person, however, who then got off the bus and said it was his fee for holding some seats for us. A lesson learned, luckily very cheaply. Don't hand your money over until the 'conductor' asks for it!

The beach we went to had the rather pleasing name of Bububu, and was not a normal tourist place. There were very few beach side bars, and lots and lots of local families enjoying a Sunday of fun. We hung out on the sand enjoyed a swim, treated ourselves to just the one beer, and finally sat and watched a game of beach soccer, one of many that sprung up as the tide went out and the playing surface was revealed. This also coincided with the sunset, and gave the girls something to do while I retraced our steps looking for my lost sandal. I never found it, but no matter. On my walk I stopped and talked with a number of locals who seem only too happy and keen to chat. There is a definite Friendly with a capital F vibe about Zanzibar.

Back in Stone Town, we investigated the locals food market, deciding to avoid the more famous - and expensive, needless to say - tourist one. The food was more traditional and cost all of US75c, and was delicious. The atmosphere was once again very friendly with the locals seeming to be highly amused at the mzungus joining them at their rickety tables. The system seems to work like a big picnic, really, with the vendors bringing large containers of pre-cooked goodies which the dish out until they're used up. Simple, really. Some stalls were cooking as they went, others not. and all with a smile. It might have helped that Diana speaks pretty good Swahili, but my pitiful efforts at greetings seemed to be appreciated too. I had my first taste of Ugali, the local dietry staple of maize flour and water cooked into a thick dough state. You use your hands, take a golf ball sized piece of the bigger lump, shape it in your hand and use it as kind of scooper/blotter for the bean stew, fish curry and spinach that came with it. Very tasty, very filling.

After dinner we did go down to the Fourdhani Food Market to take a look, and I have to say it is quite a sight. Very picturesque, but a lot more mercenary, with so many vendors all trying to sell the same stuff. Lots of tourists and the more well off locals, though, being lured by skewers of fish, mini pizza-like things, fruit and sugar cane juice, freshly squeezed. I'd not had this since I was about 12 years old, on my first ever trip to NZ via Singapore. I seem to remember feeling pretty crook on the way out and having no appetite until we found this juice. I've seen it once or twice since but never had the time to buy any, and I nervously decided to get some. I had memories of it being amazing and was concerned I may have built it up in my mind to be better than it is. Happily, it was just as good, if not better, than I remembered - and flavoured with a bit of ginger too.

It was good first introduction to Zanzibar, and I was looking forward to going on a spice tour the next day. Until then, it was back to my hotel room and the large box-mosquito net around my double bed. I was going to have to enter a bout of UFC against the inevitable little buggers that sneak inside and then hide, waiting to attack when I am at my most vulnerable. Blood was about to be spilled, and I suspected it would be mine! (PS I will add photos when I have access to a better /cheaper internet source!)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On Yer bike!

Last full day in Dar? Wondering what to do with yourself? Why not go on an Afriroots bike tour with Meja (I spent the whole day thinking his name was "Major", but that's just how it sounded...)? It will truly allow you to see a side of Dar that you would not get to see otherwise. I went with 3 friends (Kara, Lisa and Afton), two of whom had spent considerable time in Dar, and both of whom wished they'd done the tour sooner to appreciate the place they'd be living all the more while they were/are there. Lisa, who is here for a while but only arrived the day after I did, is very glad she got to do it so soon and get an alternative view of the city she will be calilng home for the next 6 (?) months.

We started at 9am or there abouts, were given decent mountain bikes with suspension and brakes (never misunderestimate (sic) the value of good brakes), and headed straight across what is affectionately known as Suicide Road (but more correctly known as the New Bagamoyo road). We were taken through back streets and alley ways, through markets and people's back yards (or so it seemed), with numerous breaks to meet (in no particular order but as chronologically as I can remember): the street coffee sellers, roasting their beans in frying pans before grinding them with traditional wooden pestle and mortars (you know the kind, you've seen them on the Nat Geo channel being used by village women to crush grain). We even had a taste with some of the peanut caramel you have to eat along with the coffee to beat the bitterness. Every 6months or so, Meja changes which group of coffee boys he visits, thus spreading the fee he pays between the struggling entrepreneurs (the whole Afriroots tour company is all about supporting cultural tourism and local businesses).

We had breakfast cooked for us at the side of the road by local woman, after having been shown one of the oldest original houses in Dar, sadly being taken down as the area is being redeveloped. All very well, the government developing these areas, but apparently they didn't ask anyone who lived there if they minded, and all the current inhabitants will be unable to afford to live there once its finished, so they'll have to move on. Meja was not impressed, I think.

On through the streets, getting slightly suspicious looks by a few folks, friendly greetings from most others, and an on-going cheer-fest from the small kids along the way, who would stand at the side clapping and dancing and jumping up and down chanting "wa-zung-u, wa-zung-u" (that's the plural of Mzungu, which I mentioned last time) as we went past. It (and they) was hilarious. There had been a whole facebook thread amongst TZ ex-pats about whether they should or did find "Mzungu" insulting or derogatory. If they had seen these kids, they would have seen it for what is was, just a word, used for fun, not for nastiness. We paused at a bridge in one of the poorest parts of the city where all the waste and rubbish gets clogged, especially after the flooding that happened at the end of last year. the houses round here all have 2 foot high barriers cemented to their front doors, effectively the equivalent of permanent sandbags, as a preemptive precaution. They were about 3 feet too low during the last floods apparently. We also met a local herbalist here, a traditional healer growing and using the plants that have been used for generations to fix up the locals. Some people still rely on them heavily, either due to restricted financial capabilities or aversion to modern pills, others dip in and out as they see fit. The lady was sad that there were no youngsters keen to learn the old ways though.

On, on and we went through various markets, one virtually disused despite having been purpose built. it just never caught on with the locals, and its now slowly dying. Another was as crazy and chaotic as I've become used to seeing. There were some real characters on the stalls, some of whom were a bit surly and reluctant to have a bunch of 9 tourists take pictures, others played up to the camera were hilarious. I think they see these groups regularly and don't mind them a bit.

We had some wedges of pineapple carved off the fruit, some with the convenient leafy handle still attached, and stopped off for a soda (I had a grown-up's soda) just before finishing. It was an excellent day, and a good way for me to finally get rid of any residual nerves I may have had about wandering about in Tanzania. Common sense must still be taken into account, but I am not nearly so anxious as I was at the start. I am actually finding the place to be very enjoyable indeed now, which is how I'd hoped it would be.

I left for Zanzibar the next morning on the 7am ferry and, without wanting to give any spoilers, am having a great time here too. Stand by for more on that another time. Internet cafe time almost

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Da Da Daaaar!

So, I've spent this week in Dar es Salaam, relaxing a little more, hanging out with my friend Kara and her friends. There is quite the ex-pat community here in Dar, with lots of the foreigners hanging out together in regular friend-groups, and then bumping into an ever changing selection of non-regular friends at various social events. For example, on Tuesday when I got into town, I was taken to "Dining in Dar" which is a weekly event where "everyone" meets at a different restaurant each week, organised by one particularly efficient guy. In this way, folks get to meet new folks, catch up with folks they don't see that often and try out new places to eat in the city - and there are many places to eat in the city! I felt like a bit of a fraud, as the new folks, including myself, made their various introductions. While everyone else was able to explain their mostly worthy reasons for being in Dar (working for NGOs, volunteering, some other form of employment), I had to boldly state that I was just a tourist - although I spun this so that I was actually "supporting the local economy".

It was a great night, at a superb Indian restaurant, and I met some interesting people and reacquainted myself with some others that I'd met a couple of weeks early. There seems to be a constantly altering flow of people, which makes for interesting times.

One of the new arrivals (another canadian who is based in Denmark of all places) lives just round the corner from Kara, and was not due to start work (other than occasional meetings for a few days), so we have been able to hang out this week - a double bonus for me as it not only gives me a buddy to hang with but also one who is also familiar with the area, as this is her 2nd time back here, so I got a bit of a free tour guide too. Not only have I once again been able to relax and enjoy my local neighbourhood, but I've also been out further afield to, for example, the Welder's World, where local people stricken with polio and other debilitating conditions make their living turning scrap metal into amazing works of art, often on the theme of African wildlife. Imagine a ten foot tall steel giraffe made from re-shaped and burnished steel drums and bicycle chains, or a 5 foot long crocodile with old door hinges making up the armour plating on its back. They are amazing things, and there are many smaller items too, but all sadly too bulky and heavy (and expensive) for me to bring back.

I also went to the Mwenge Craft Market today, which is a whole area of narrow but curiously deep shops full of carvings (wood and stone), bead work, paintings, you name it, if you imagined it might come from Africa, its probably here. It's a strange place to go - there's such competition for the customers that the store owners sit outside and bid any passing Mzungu (the term used by locals for all tourists, and carrying with it maybe a small amount of controversy about its adopted mis-translation of "white person". Its actual translation is more like "wandering person" or some such, but as people tend to do, it has become synonymous with tourists, who are more often than not white, and now some people are choosing to take offense from a word that is not usually used in a derogatory manner) welcome and come and have a look, looking is free. Some of them seem bored, some mercenary, others genuinely lovely, and its hard to resist stepping into the gloomy interiors that seem to stretch deeper and deeper, almost like going back in time, as you are confronted by an amazing array of intricately carved dooby-dads. Some of the work is breath-taking - more giraffes, 8 feet tall and carved out of one piece of wood; others made from palm trunks, hollowed out and then carved to create lamp stands; rhinos, elephants and big cats; Maasai warriors that seem to have had an almost Dali-esque makeover; the imagination is almost endless, but at the same time there is a feeling of mass production in a lot of the work. Don't get me wrong, it is all clearly hand made, but I could almost picture the individual crafts-folk knocking out the same statue over and over again, while their neighbour does the same with another design. Certainly a lot of the paintings give this impression too (pardon the pun). Regardless, it is amazing work and, lost in the moment the urge is there to buy so many different pieces, before the obvious budget issues sober you up, closely followed by the thought of how much more it would cost to freight back to wherever and the realisation that you probably wouldn't have anywhere big enough to display it anyway, and besides, these things always seem to look somewhat out of place once you get them home anyway....Just as well I have neither the funds to purchase nor the house to decorate, so my hands stayed pretty much in my pockets. Although I do have a goddaughter who always appreciates a good giraffe.... I'd have loved to take photos, but it seemed a bit rude to snap away and then not buy anything, so I only managed a couple of hurried shots in a mask shop while the owners back was turned!

Other evening activities this week have included a trip to an excellent Lebanese restaurant and a night hosted by some Canadian diplomats (I move in high circles, you know that), and tonight is bingo night, complete with more fantastic Indian food. Apparently the bingo caller is hilarious, so I'm looking forward to that! Tomorrow is a 5 hour guided bike ride through some of the less frequented areas of Dar, then its off to Zanzibar for my last week, bright and early on Sunday morning. I know, you all feel so sorry for me...

Monday, January 30, 2012

Are you Local?

So, I seem to be getting into the swing of Arusha now. I think, for me, I tend to feel a little nervous in these crazy places until I have been somewhere long enough to become more familiar with my immediate area, then I can move around and feel a little more relaxed. Having wandered into the markets and come out again unscathed, and having walked up to the bus station and back and gone and done some shopping etc, I am now definitely not so nervous about my surroundings, and starting to enjoy them. Shame I'm leaving tomorrow - I'll have to go through it all again at the next place! But it has been something of reminder to me that this is the process I have to go through. Some people don't need that - they just slot right in from the word go, but for me, it takes a few days before I feel comfortable. It has certainly helped making a few new friends who live locally and showed me around and took me out to a few bars etc. I think I am looking forward more than ever to getting to Zanzibar, where I will be staying for at least a week, which will be plenty of time to settle in once again. But that is jumping the gun a bit, as I haven't left Arusha yet!

Speaking of which, yesterday I went on a local cultural tour up to a village called Ilkiding'a. It was only about 7km out of town, heading up on to the foot hills of Mt Meru, but it really seemed like the city was left miles behind.

I'd been interested in going on one of the cultural village tours since before I arrived in TZ, and while I maybe had in mind something even more traditional (maybe staying in mud hut, going on a hike with a Maasai guide etc), what I got was very enjoyable and pretty interesting too - just not quite as traditional as I'd hoped.

My guide, Salim, was in fact a Maasai, but was one of the 'modern' Maasai, so wore western clothes. His village was pretty large -about 21,000 people - and was split into 6 smaller sub-villages, which they were trying to split further so they could encourage slightly smaller, more intimate communities within the larger village.

A very slow, bumpy drive took me up to the start point, the house of the man who had set up this particular cultural tour, Eliakimu. He explained a bit about traditional Maasai life (for example the men can marry as many wives as they can afford, but have to build each their own house and one for himself, so it gets a bit expensive. There is a man on the way to Lake Manyara, for example, with something like 30 wives, 84 children and 300 odd grandchildren!) and how it has changed (the adoption of Christianity and the understanding that lots of wives is too expensive, resulting in most modern Maasai only marrying once). One of the reason there are so many orphans over here is that if a man with many wives/kids dies, the kids are effectively orphaned, as the mother's struggle to support the family. Many of the locals still live in traditional mud bomas with roofs made of leaves although, as soon as they can afford it, they are building more modern brick houses with sheet metal roofs. If the money runs out, the building stops, so there are many partially finished houses about the place.

There is still the belief among some of the older people that photos steal part of your soul, so many locals don't like to be photographed, although this attitude is changing slowly as the number of visiting tourists increases, and as those who do allow photos seem to stay healthy! I was impressed that Eliakimu discouraged us from offering money for photos, as he said it taught the wrong attitude to both adults and children alike. All the money paid for the tours was handed to a treasurer and used to fund the primary and secondary schools that served the village.

Although I was once again on my own, another group was also doing the tour, so we combined forces and walked out through the fields between the crops. Maasai were originally nomadic cattle drivers, but the village of Ilkiding'a came into being about 200 years ago when a tribe was encouraged to build more permanent houses, clear some forest and start farming. Now they grow all sorts of things from rice, to potatoes, to maize, to coffee and much more. They keep what they need for themselves and the rest goes down the road to be sold in markets. There is also a women's group who make traditional Maasai necklaces and bracelets, carvings and other niknaks for the markets - not all of which is bought by tourists, as the Maasai do genuinely wear the items themselves.

We passed a huge fig tree, which was the traditional place of worship for the Maasi before Christianity introduced churches. When times are tough livestock would be sacrificed under the tree to encourage rain or good harvests. It was unclear if this still happened, but I got the feeling that it might well do.

As we walked the paths through the fields and crops, the local kids would come and watch, calling out greetings in English that they'd learned in shcool. They were pretty shy, but their curiosity often got the better of them, and they follow along at a safe distance for a while, before passing the baton on to the kids from the next boma. If we stopped, some might run away, giggling and screaming, others would cautiously come over and smile shyly. The rest of my group were French, and we'd try our rudimentary Swahili on the kids, and they their equally rudimentary English on us. This generally got shy smiles too (from the tourists this time!), but as soon as the cameras were brought up, they'd run away. Occasionally one would be brave enough to pose for a shot, and then the others would be falling over themselves to see the picture on the tiny screen on the back of the camera. I resorted to sneakily shooting from the hip, resulting in one of my favourite shots of the trip, but also a lot of blurry grass and headless children. The guide said a lot of their nervousness was because they didn't often see - and certainly not interact with - white people, but I guess with the increase of these tours, that will soon change.

Eventually we got to a boma where we were to stop and be invited inside, and where the family were used to tourists and cameras, allowing us to get lots of pictures of the cheeky, giggling children. The round bomas have a kind of square middle section separated off by make-shift walls. The middle section is where the cooking is done, and behind the walls is where the family would sleep or house the livestock, which lived in the same house as the family. Traditionally the women folk do just about everything, from gathering wood, fetching water, grazing cattle, preparing food, sewing and harvesting crops, getting kids ready for school, you name it, they probably did it. The man of the house apparently does very little, although in some of the more modern families - our guides, for example - they will either help with these chores or go out and earn money too. I was impressed that the mother scolded her kids for trying to beg snacks or gifts from us.

Eventually we got back to the starting place, where I was served a delicious lunch of typical local food - a chickpea and kidney bean mash, boiled spinach-like greens, rice and a kind of curried potato stew, all washed down with peppermint tea. It was very filling and very tasty.

So, not quite the back to basics traditional visit I'd imagined having, but a thoroughly interesting one nonetheless. I will be looking out for others as I go, I think.

The evening saw me being adopted by the ex-pat crew again, and being taken to a fantastic Indian restaurant called Big Bites, that specialised in Tandoori and Punjabi food. It was so good, and the company was entertaining too. I think, when I move on tomorrow, I will miss Arusha, and the friends I was beginning to make. Still, there is a good chance many of them will pass through NZ at some point in the future, so we may yet meet again, and I will be able to return the hospitality. For now, though, I will get on with some packing for tomorrow's 10 hour bus trip, followed by lounging in the bar enjoying cold beer. Life's good.