Week 13: Cape Town, Garden Route & Joburg

LEFTOVERS

Because I write these blogs haphazardly I sometimes forget to mention things. One of the most exciting parts of Mauritius was using a washing machine for the first time since January. It was really, really, really exciting. My clothes have been mostly washed by hand, by me, in a sink the last few months, so it was nice to have a machine do the work for me.

The other excitement of Mauritius was driving on the opposite side of the road. The night I arrived, it was raining and dark and the passenger side mirror didn’t work. It was an hour long drive of breathing meditations and reassurances. Fortunately, once the sun came out the next day it was better and after five days, driving on the other side doesn’t feel too strange.

I’ve also entered the part of my travel which doesn’t require my brain to think in another language anymore. I learned French in high school and it’s the last language I think in when I’m trying to find words. (I go through Spanish and Arabic first.) After a month in Francophone countries, I can bumble through okay. The point of language is to communicate, so it doesn’t matter how perfect my grammar is if I can get my point across. Nonetheless, I could feel my brain stretching to fire neurons that haven’t been used in a long time, reactivating neural networks that have atrophied from underuse. It was a constant stress and I am enjoying the ease that has come from switching back to the well-used English neural superhighways.

I am also, officially, off malaria meds. They don’t bother me that much, but I appreciate not damaging my liver in the long run.

CAPE TOWN

I love Cape Town. I first went there when I was 21, just recently evacuated from Peace Corps Zimbabwe. I loved it then. I love it now. When I’m done with San Francisco, that is where I am moving. I owe the school district a couple of years, but I might end up there when I’m done with my time. 🙂

Cape Town is a nature lover’s city. There are mountains to climbs, beaches to swim, and food to enjoy. It’s a Mediterranean climate (similar to San Francisco), although it gets a big hotter. People are extraordinarily friendly and laidback. I just love it.

I had one really important piece of unfinished business from the last time I was here. I never actually climbed Table Mountain, the beautiful landmark that dominates the landscape. I tried to hike three hills in one day and by the time I got to the mountain it was windy and starting to rain and I was exhausted, so I turned around. I went up in the cable car the next day, but for all these years, I still wanted to hike up it. So I did. While hiking, one of the other folks on the trail managed to spot some Himalayan tahrs, basically mountain goats that Rhodes brought here years ago. The park service has been trying to get rid of them for years since they are not native, but apparently they are way too spry and they just jump out of their reach every time they try.

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top: view from Platteklip Gorge Trail, agama lizard, view from top
bottom: rock dassie, view from cable car up to the top, Himalayan tahr

The haze was covering the town that day, so I didn’t have the best views, but looking out at all the green and blue just brings serenity to the soul.

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View over the city: the big peak to the left is Lion’s Head and the small one is Signal Hill. These are the other two hills I climbed before I turned back the last time I was on Table Mountain.

I also toured two museums that spoke directly to the apartheid regime that was only overthrown in 1994 (25 years ago, when I was still in middle school). This was also the same year that the genocide was occurring in Rwanda. District Six is the name of an area that was full of lots of different groups of people. However, in 1966, the white government determined that it was to be a whites-only area and over 60,000 people were forcibly moved out, splintering a community forever. One way the museum has chosen to remember this neighborhood is through inviting former community members to return and write down their thoughts, and then permanently capturing their remembrances by sewing over their words and drawings.

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beloved recipes from the community, Europeans only bench, former community members’ thoughts

Touring the museum, it’s impossible to not see the similarities to the white supremacy in the United States in the 1960’s. That legacy continues to impact communities today, just as it does in South Africa. Besides the obvious segregation in the South, a huge part of my neighborhood where I live in San Francisco was forced to move out in the 1960’s as well. After many Japanese-Americans in the neighborhood were forced into internment camps during World War II, the Fillmore became a predominantly Black community. City officials used eminent domain to bulldoze a huge swath of buildings to build what is now Geary Boulevard and the Japantown Mall. The black community was divided and forced into different areas of the city, or out of the city completely. This kind of community breakage continues. Just a few years ago, the low-income housing in Potrero Hill was supposed to be demolished and renovated, but people who had lived in that community their whole lives were being assigned to live in housing as far away as San Jose and were not given return rights when the project was completed. The testimony in District Six is a reminder to be vigilant and protect communities, while continuing to work to provide additional support and work to reduce violence within neighborhoods.

Side note: the movie District 9 was thematically based on what happened in District Six (only with aliens).

Bo Kapp was a similar area, only this one was full of Cape Malays, which eventually became a term that basically means Muslim immigrants from many places. The area has become very popular with tourists because of its very colorful painted houses. Residents speak of feeling like they were being watched like they were in a zoo – providing local color for tourist photos and how dehumanizing it felt. This is actually something I wrestle with as a traveler and it’s one of the reason there are very few photos of humans in my accounts of my travels. Unless I know someone personally, I don’t feel comfortable sharing their image with a wider audience (even the tiny audience of this blog). Everyone has a different comfort level, but this is where mine rests.

Some other highlights included the Zeitz Contemporary Museum of African Art:

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The Nightmare by Zimbabwean artist Charles Bhebe, Ghanaian El Anatsui’s largest installation ever, local artist’s reimagining of a Grow Box

And the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens:

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top: Mandela’s Gold strelitzia, protea, sage fynbos
bottom: pelargonium, king protea, iris

GARDEN ROUTE

This was another leftover goal from my 2001 visit. In order to do this properly, one to two weeks would probably be enough time. I drove the whole route in three days, squeezing a few must-do things into the little time I had.

I had sworn that I was done with safaris after spending so much money in Uganda. However, while web surfing things to do I came across a special meerkat safari on offer at a fancy game lodge in Oudtshoorn. I signed up as soon as I could.

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top: meerkat colony, meerkat pups, meerkat scout
bottom: meerkat, playing meerkats, golden mongoose

It took forever for them to come out. They have one scout that stays outside and reports back to the group whether it is safe and sunny enough for them to come out. It would stay out for a bit and then disappear inside and then come back out again. Finally it stayed out and another meerkat joined it, and then another. Soon, the whole colony was out playing on top of their burrows. In addition to all the meerkats, there is also a golden mongoose that lives in one of the holes. It gains some protection and good from living with the meerkats, and in exchange it kills snakes that threaten to eat the meerkats.

Oudtshoorn is also known for its ostrich farms. Back in the day, people would actually ride ostriches, but most of the big farms has stopped this practice. The farm I went to took us on a tractor ride around the farm – they have Zimbabwean, South African, and Kenyan ostriches.

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ostriches are big, close-up ostrich, ostrich eggs are strong

Ostriches are really, really tall, taller than me by a good foot or more. They also lay incredibly durable eggs, as can be seen in the photo. One ostrich egg is like 24 chicken eggs, weighs about a pound and can hold someone who weighs over 200 lbs. Totally incredible.

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Ostriches. I just love this photo. 🙂

I also stopped to see the Cango Caves. Like many cave attractions, there has been a lot of concrete poured on the floor to make it more accessible to the public, but there are also still many beautiful stalagmites and stalactites.

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stalactites and columns

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panorama of one of the rooms

I was planning on doing some nice hiking the last day, but the weather had a different plan. It just rained and rained and rained all day long. I did manage to visit Birds of Eden, the largest free-flying bird aviary in the world.

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Knysna turaco (my favorite), crowned crane, rainbow lorikeet
golden pheasant, mandarin duck, Von Der Decken’s hornbill

JOHANNESBURG

I’d always wanted to visit here even after people have talked about the high rates of crime. To be honest, the city still feels really gritty, especially the downtown area where I stayed. There’s a hustle-bustle feeling during the day, but the streets empty out at night. The suburbs of Jozi are quite different. I visited a mall in Rosebank and it felt like a busy, busy mall in the United States.

The one major attraction I visited was Constitution Hill. This is the current residence of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Perhaps more notoriously, it was formerly a prison that at one time held Mahatma Gandhi and then later Nelson Mandela. Gandhi was protesting against the passes that the apartheid government made everyone carry that prohibited people’s movements between different areas. Asians (both Chinese and Indians), blacks, and coloreds (in a South African context this means someone with black and white parents) all had different restrictions placed on them. Mandela was jailed there in 1962 after the CIA tipped off apartheid officials to his whereabouts. He was charged with inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country without permission.

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two of the world’s most quotable men: Mahatma & Madiba

 

Week 12: Reúnion & Mauritius

REÚNION

My stop here was exceptionally brief because I’d booked a less-that-24-hours stopover on my way to Mauritius. Reúnion is an “overseas department of France” which means they use euros and all the citizens have French passports. It feels distinctly different from the other places in Africa I visited. It was pretty much an empty island when the French arrived and they brought over slaves from Madagascar and later indentured workers from India and China.

Because I only had a morning, I decided to visit a factory where vanilla was made. Madagascar actually makes more vanilla than any other country in the world, but most of their production was in the north, in the area that I didn’t visit.

Vanilla was a plant of the New World, primarily in Mexico. When it was imported to Reúnion, the plants wouldn’t produce the well-known aroma without pollination. Even though the climate was great for growing vanilla, there were no natural pollinators for the plants. The original pollinator in Mexico was the tiny melipona bee. A 12 year-old slave named Edmond Albius discovered a way to hand-pollinate vanilla quickly using a blade of grass to transfer pollen to the stigma of the plant. That method is still used today on vanilla plantations outside of Mexico. The work intensive nature of growing vanilla is one of the reasons that it is such an expensive commodity. Currently, the price per pound is over $250. Random fact: the vanilla grown on Reúnion is known as bourbon vanilla because Bourbon was the original name of the island.

There actually isn’t much done to the vanilla after it is picked. They boil the green pods for 3 minutes at 150°F. Afterwards they wrap them in big blankets in a chest to continue to cook them until they cool down. Once they are done cooling, they put the pods in racks to let them dry out completely. When all the moisture is gone, the vanilla is ready to sell. They sort them by length and different sizes go for correspondingly different prices.

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photo of Edmond Albius, green vanilla pods, vanilla pods after drying

My trip to the vanilla plantation took almost all day because I had to take a bus to and from the other side of the island. I had about an hour leftover to walk the town of St. Denis and enjoy a nice lunch and some palm trees.

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view from waterfront trail, graffiti, State Gardens in St. Denis

MAURITIUS

I knew relatively nothing about this country before I arrived. It was founded by the  Dutch, then taken over by the French, who eventually gave it to the English. Like Reúnion, there were no indigenous people living here, although the colonists did manage to completely kill off the dodo, the giant bird that was a bigger version of an ostrich.

One of Mauritius’ main exports was sugar and there were many factories that made both sugar and rum on the island. After the English took over and eventually abolished slavery in 1835, the factory owners were looking for new workers to exploit. They settled on an indentured servitude scheme in which Indian workers were recruited and imported to the island on multi-year contracts. Many could make more money in Mauritius than in their home country and technically had some levels of freedoms, but exploitation was frequent. (This is so eerily similar to employment in many Arab countries today.)

Huge numbers of Indians immigrated and about 70% of today’s population have Indian ancestors. Most people are at least trilingual (speaking Mauritian Creole, French, and English) and many speak an Indian language as well. All indentured servants passed through Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis, basically the Ellis Island of Mauritius, in order to be medically cleared and have their paperwork processed before being taken to their assigned sugar plantation.

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Aapravasi Ghat stairs that all immigrants passed through, walls separating baths, Caudal Waterfront mall

PAMPLEMOUSSES

All of these workers were coming because of sugar. Some toiled in the fields, planting, weeding and cutting sugarcane. Others worked in the factories themselves. The process is highly industrialized now, but back in the day much of this work was done by hand and with some help from animals.

The first step to make sugar is to crush the sugarcanes to extract all the juice. The leftover fibers are called bagasse and are burned to supply power to the factory. The sugarcane juice is clarified using lime and which forms a precipitate with the impurities that sinks to the bottom of the container. Next, the juice is brought to a boil inside a vacuum and 80% of its volume is evaporated. That syrup is then seeded with sugar crystals with starts the crystallization process. Eventually everything is placed in a centrifuge and the crystals stay inside and molasses comes out through the holes.

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top: crushing sugar cane, leftover bagasse, clarifying with lime
bottom: evaporators, inside the vacuum boilers, blender for crystallization stage

Near to this old sugar factory is one of the most beautiful places in Mauritius, the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden, named after the first prime minister of Mauritius. It is famous for a huge pool filled with giant water lilies, but there are so many other gorgeous plants. The gardens are a wonderland of incredible textures and colors.

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top: close up lotus flower, ficus roots, talipot palm (with 4 m long leaves)
middle: frog, giant water lilies, lizard
bottom: flower, close up of palm tree trunk, lotus flower seed pod

LE MORNE BRABANT

I spent a whole morning climbing up this mountain at the southern tip of the island. At one time, the mountain was a refuge for runaway slaves. When the British outlawed slavery, police walked up the mountain to tell them they were free. Many of the former slaves thought the police were coming for them and jumped to their deaths instead of being enslaved again. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a tough hike to get to the top. The first part is really easy, but the second half involves hands and feet and climbing up some rocks to get to the top.

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view to the east, scramble up to the top, view to the west

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view from Le Morne Brabant

TROU AUX BICHES

I stayed in a little town in the north (translated it means the doe’s watering hole) because the snorkeling was supposed to be so incredible. All I had to do was walk in from the beach. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any snorkeling gear. Fortunately, I did have goggles and my trusty waterproof camera. 🙂

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top: Humu picasso triggerfish, sea cucumber, Moorish Idol
bottom: blue fish and coral, Honeycomb grouper, humbug damselfish

BOIS CHERI TEA FACTORY

Mauritius is home to a pretty large tea plantation and factory. From my visit, I learned that green tea and black tea are made from the exact same tea leaves. The only difference is that black tea has been left to ferment by exposing it to the air. White tea is made from the baby tea leaves at the top of the plants. The production line for the tea is pretty straightforward. After picking the leaves, they are crushed in a giant roller. The tiny bits then come up a conveyor belt and, for black tea, the bits are oxidized. Then they make their way through an oven to be dried. They are then sent to another room where the fibers are removed and the tea is sorted into different sizes. (Tea for tea bags is a different size than loose leaf tea.) Different flavors are then added and the tea is packaged and sent off to be sold in stores. This place is famous for its vanilla tea, but I thought the coconut tea and the caramel tea were way better (especially with milk).

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top: tea plantation, cutting up tea, oxidizing tea
bottom: tea after going through the oven, fibers being removed, final products

I was a bit mesmerized watching the machine that fills and makes the tea bags.

ISLAND FOOD

I stayed in an apartment in Mauritius so I didn’t eat out as much as I have in other places. Nevertheless, here’s a few photos of food and drinks.

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grapefruit soda (from Reúnion), fresh citronella, mango mousse, Indian thali

 

Week 11 : Madagascar Part 2

BACKGROUND

Madagascar lies about 250 miles from the African coast. In spite of being relatively close, there’s a clear difference between the people who live here and those that live on the continent itself. The prevailing understanding is that most Malagasies are descendants of a group of people that came over on the trade winds from Indonesia. Their language, looks, and customs all have much stronger similarities to other Indian Ocean dwellers than to the African continent. That being said, trade also occurred and continues to happen with the African coast, not to mention the French colonial influence. Most people here describe their country as a mix, a bunch of different groups of people who now share a national identity.

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click for full-size image at Wikipedia

AMBALAVAO

I wasn’t aware that silk was ever made from wild cocoons, but here in Madagascar there are a few workshops that do this. Although they also farm the cocoons, people still collect the cocoons from the forest that are left over after the silkworm metamorphizes into a moth. (This is different from farmed cocoons which are boiled with the silkworms still inside. This is so the cocoon is not disturbed and they can remove one long thread.) After the cocoons are collected, they are layered into balls and cooked in Malagasy soap which is made from zebu (beef) fat and ash. Then the cocoons are dried in the sun, spun into yarn, and then dyed using natural colorants (beet root, passion fruit leaves, etc.). The yarn is then woven into scarves and table runners and other products.

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farmed cocoons on left and wild cocoons on right, boiling cocoons with Malagasy soap, finished scarves

I also had a chance to visit a paper workshop, where the women must first mash up the fibers before spreading the thin pulp out on a screen to dry. The women in this cooperative add floral decorations to their creations which are all different and very creative.

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fiber before being smashed in small bits, decorating the paper, final products drying in the sun

Near to the town is the beautiful private Anja Nature Reserve. My guide Adrian had spent the last 20 years creating the reserve and working with local people to protect the ring-tailed lemurs that live there. Ring-tailed lemurs are very charismatic and King Julien in the animated movie Madagascar made them famous. As with all lemurs, the women run everything in the family. They live in large family groups, so it’s fun to look up at a tree with a bunch of striped tails hanging down. They also like to climb up on the rocks to sleep and sun themselves in the morning when they get up.

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ring-tailed lemurs in Anza Reserve

They definitely like to move it, move it!

Although the park is famous for its lemurs, we also managed to find some other cool species, including one of the biggest, Furcifur oustaleti,  and one of the smallest chameleons, Brookesia brunoi.

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tiny green frog, Oustalets’ chameleon, Brookesia brunoi

 The views from the reserve are also just amazing and absolutely spectacular.

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hills above Anja Reserve

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Anja Reserve. This might be my favorite panorama I’ve ever taken.

ISALO

Isalo National Park is one the most visited parks in Madagascar. The guidebooks all include photos of gray and red sandstone rocks, created by water long ago. They are nice to look at and make a nice hike in the morning, but the really beautiful parts of the park are the canyons nestled between those rocks.

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view of the sandstone rocks

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rocks and surrounding flat countryside

On the way, we did find some interesting life forms. Stare at the first photo and see how long it takes you to find the walking stick insect. The female is quite large and is actually mating in this photo with a much tinier male. The picture of the far right is of a plant called elephant foot. It looks kind of like a miniature baobab tree but isn’t actually related at all.

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walking stick, pink dragonfly, elephant foot plant

After walking down from the canyon plateau, we entered a wonderfully verdant canyon that has two waterfalls that enter into shimmering swimming holes. I spent quite a bit of time splashing around and swimming in the refreshingly cold waters.

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waterfall #1, me in waterfall #1, waterfall #2

On the way out of the park, there’s a campground where ring-tailed lemurs like to hang out. Since there’s a bunch of photos of them above, instead I’m adding a bunch of photos of the Verreaux’s sifaka. This one is actually a solitary lemur who was separated from her family during a fire a few years back. The rest of the family is deeper in the forest and she’s never found them, but instead hangs out near a family of ringtails. Verreaux’s sifaka is one of two lemurs that walks on two legs which has earned them the nickname the “dancing lemurs.”

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lots of pictures of one Verreaux’s sifaka

I only captured a short hop on film, but it’s easy to see the difference between them and the ring-tailed lemurs walking on all fours.

On the drive to Ifaty, the famous Malagasy baobab started to show up. These aren’t nearly as big as some of the baobabs I saw in Zimbabwe, but they are impressive. There are six different native species of baobabs on the island.

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baobab, une allée des baobabs, baobab

We also stopped at the Antosokay Arboretum near the town of Toliara. They had a remarkable array of plants from southwestern Madagascar, and I was absolutely struck by the number of them that had spines as a form of protection.

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lots of spiny plants

IFATY

My driver left me at the beach on the western coast of Madagascar. I spent a lovely two days of hanging out, enjoying the sun and even a bit of snorkeling. Although the reefs aren’t nearly as stunning as other ones I’ve seen, I did manage to get a few good shots of the coral. Parts of the reef look really healthy, while other parts look extremely dead.

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anemone and fish, a bunch of mushroom corals, Moorish Idol and corals
fan corals, corals close-up, reef life

BONUS PANORAMAS

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rice terraces and houses, en route to Ambalavao

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en route to Ambalavao

I just love the peacefulness of the photo below. It’s my current computer desktop background.

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before entering Isalo National Park, the landscape completely flattened out

Week 10: Madagascar Part 1

Welcome to the wonderful world of Madagascar, where nothing is poisonous and almost everything is different than anything you’ve ever seen before. I’m currently traveling in a way that I’ve never done before. Due to limited time and the rainy season, I hired a car and driver to take me around the island. I’m covering a lot of miles, but I am also getting to see a lot of beautiful creatures. It’s expensive and a little bit strange to not be stuck in the back of overcrowded mini vans, but I needed a change in my travel routine. As you might guess, this post is going to have way too many photos, because I did a terrible job trying to figure out what not to share.

PEYRIERAS REPTILE RESERVE

This place just has tons and tons of awesome reptiles. I’ve forgotten most of their names, but they’re awesome and these are just a few of the many, many, many creatures there.

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chameleon, me holding some chameleons, chameleon
chameleon, Parson’s chameleon, carpet chameleon

The coolest thing about chameleons are their tongues that can extend up to twice the length of their bodies.

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Madagascar leaf-nosed snake, me holding some kind of snake, Madagascar tree boa
leaf-tailed gecko, another type of gecko, tiny leaf-like chameleon

ANDASIBE

The same day, I walked through the rainforest in the night to see even more chameleons! They’re easier to spot at night because their eyes show up with a flashlight. I also managed to catch a shot of the elusive mouse lemur. This nocturnal animal is the smallest of all the lemurs and moves super quickly.

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dwarf chameleon, mouse lemur, Parson’s chameleon

There were more hikes the following day and a visit to a Lemur Island, where lemurs that were formerly kept as pets are currently living out the rest of their days.

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top: Eastern lesser bamboo lemur, eastern wooly lemurs (nocturnal, but we caught them in the day time), endangered indri lemurs (short tails!)
middle: African land snail, me with a brown lemur, gecko
bottom: diademed sifaka, red ruffed lemur, black and white ruffed lemur

The landscape in Madagascar is ever changing. When it’s not raining, there are so many different shades of green and the sky lights up with a blue we never see in San Francisco.

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beautiful views en route to Ranomafana

RANOMAFANA

Moving down National Road 7, I stopped in the middle of the rainforest. Most people come here to see lemurs and I definitely saw a few new species.

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lazy brown lemur, brown lemurs playing, black & white ruffed lemur

However, I was also absolutely entranced by all the other magnificent life we found in the forest. Because of their isolation, islands are factories for special animals and plants. After so many years away from their relatives, they turn into their own species with their own unique looks and behaviors. It is such an amazing feeling to take a casual walk and bump into things I’ve never seen before all the time.

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top: frog, female spider (the male is red-brown and only 1 cm long), another African land slug
middle: wasp, chameleon, butterfly with transparent wings
bottom: fruiting body of a stinkhorn fungi, crazy-shaped spider, green lizard

Ravenela is just a completely unique and crazy looking plant. It’s apparently related to banana trees but is called the traveler’s tree because it can provide anything a traveler needs. A traveler can make a house and everything they need to go inside it from the plant. Even water can be gotten from inside the stem. This is one of the national symbols of Madagascar!

I do want to point out the last photo on the bottom right. That’s a leech. When I first heard about Madagascar years ago, people told me that the rainforest was beautiful but that there were leeches everywhere. It made me extremely nervous to visit, even though I’ve wanted to see lemurs for years. A while back I visited my sister when she was living in Thailand and after a day of whitewater rafting, I looked down to see one of my toes was bleeding. There were some clear marks on my toe where a leech had attached itself, but it didn’t hurt at all.  Leeches may look really strange, but they don’t hurt at all. From that experience, I decided that leeches are way less annoying than mosquitoes. Ranomafana was the only place I’ve seen them so far. Our group stopped quite a few times to remove them from our clothing and our shoes. However, I walked for six hours and not a single one actually got any blood.

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top: ravanela, blue dragonfly, tomato frog
bottom: closeup of ravanela stem, red dragonfly, leech hanging out in my shoe in Ranomafana

MALAGASY FOOD

Vegetarian food is a bit hard to come by since almost everything is zebu (beef) or pork based. There’s a lot of rice and Western dishes served in hotels, but vegetarian Malagasy food is rare. The one dish I have had is ravitoto which is ground up cassava leaves (it’s usually served with meat). I also drank ranuapangu, water boiled with the burnt rice at the bottom of the pan which tastes exactly as you’d expect it to. The special soda here in Madagascar is called Bonbon Anglais and it tastes really similar to Inka Cola in Peru.

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top: Bonbon anglais, soursop juice, ranuapangu
bottom: sambos (samosas), ravitoto, snack mix for the car

BONUS PANORAMAS

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en route to Andasibe

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en route to Antsirabe

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rice terraces

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hiking in Ranomafana

Week 9: Rwanda

I read We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch when I was still in college. I’m not exactly sure what brought me to the book (certainly not any of my classes), but I do remember reading it and the haunting stories it told. Gourevitch details the atrocities of the 1994 genocide, the lack of intervention from the international communities, and the disgraceful way the European powers did intervene, which ended up mainly helping the génocidaires.

For those of you who need a refresher: During the Belgian colonial era, the colonial administrators split the country into three ethnic groups: Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa. However, Rwanda traditionally didn’t have ethnic groups; they shared the same language, culture, and religion. This distinction was made entirely on a class basis, with people designated as Tutsi having more cattle and Hutus with less. (From my understanding, the Twa were designated as having in-between amounts of cattle, but also have a more distinct cultural identity as well. During the genocide, there were Twa on both sides.)

The Belgians put the Tutsis in power, serving as the in-between administrator role between the Europeans at the top and the Hutus at the bottom. Of course, this bred resentment and some Hutus attacked small populations of Tutsis. These ongoing divisions and attacks continued after independence and a group of people started advocating for “Hutu Power.” Many people in the group held positions high up in the military and were being trained by the French. Eventually in April 1994, the president’s plane was shot down and Hutus began slaughtering the Tutsis with guns and machetes. Over the course of 3 months, an estimated 100,000 people were killed.

Over the last twenty-five years, the country has turned around. When I first got here, I said the country reminded me of Singapore. There are sidewalks everywhere and even some bike lanes. The country is the cleanest I’ve ever been in. It’s completely safe. I can walk around at night alone with no issues. When I get on a moto-taxi, the driver gives me a mandatory helmet to put on. Plastic bags are banned. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s benevolent dictator since the genocide ended, has revolutionized how business is done. He has prioritized technology, infrastructure, and, perhaps most notably, transparency in government business. This transformation, however, lacks many democratic freedoms and allegations of Kagame’s roles in assassinations of political opponents are rife.

Kigali

I don’t have a lot of photos of Kigali. I suppose I could have attached photos of the clean and beautiful sidewalks. Many of the sights I visited were about the genocide, and for this reason, I didn’t take a lot of photos. I think the most moving part of the Kigali Genocide Memorial is the room that contains all the photos of people who were killed. Black and white photos with young folks sporting beautiful afros and bellbottoms, color photos with straighter hair and young babies, kids on their first bicycles. There are just so, so many people and it’s not even a fraction of the total number that were murdered.

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Kigali Genocide Memorial, plaque on memorial wall, actual Hotel Rwanda

At the Murambi Genocide Memorial in the south, they have exhumed mummified bodies on display. This may seem a bit gruesome, but the country is committed to making sure that people remember the genocide and that there will never be people saying that it didn’t happen.

Muhanga

I stopped in this town to have an experience making imigongo, traditional art made from cow dung. 🙂 This almost died out during the genocide, but some people continue to practice it. Mostly it is women, but my teacher learned from his grandmother and really enjoys making his paintings. The process is pretty straightforward. First make a design, then apply cow dung, paint, and smile when complete. I went with Azizi Life and really enjoyed the whole experience, which included hanging out with a women’s cooperative and ended with singing and dancing.

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top : design and pile of cow dung, applying the design, almost done
bottom: painting, painting, smiling

Lake Kivu

Kibuye is just one town on this beautiful lake. I stopped by since I was looking for a relaxing couple of nights. The lake, however, is prone to limnic eruptions because of the high quantity of carbon dioxide and methane found at the bottom of the lake. When an eruption happens, that gas is released and almost all of the living things in the area are killed. Scientists can see this has happened in the past in the archeological record, so although the lake is beautiful, it’s also quite deadly.

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view of Lake Kivu

Volcanoes National Park

The endangered golden monkeys only live in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mostly their habitat has been destroyed and the ongoing conflicts in the DRC haven’t helped their plight. There’s a few thousand of them left, but they still need to be protected.

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chameleon, one of the volcanoes, bamboo forest

They live in huge crowds and as we were walking through the bamboo forest, we had to be careful to watch out for the golden monkeys scampering around over our heads and potentially peeing on us. they are really cute and friendly and these habituated troops aren’t scared of humans at all. Unlike with gorillas, the women control everything in these troops.

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golden monkeys posing!

Rwandan Food

I did a terrible job of collecting photos of Rwandan food. Typical food in the village was boiled cassava, cooked bananas, beans, and huge slices of avocado for one big lunch meal a day.  I ate beans, rice, and tomato sauce more than once. Rwandans like their Akabanga, a hot chili oil they drizzle with an eyedropper on anything needing some extra spiciness. I drank a lot of African tea (chai!) while I was here, which I love. Fanta also comes in three flavors here: orange, lemon (citron) and fiesta (black current, which is purple colored and definitely my favorite).

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speculoos with tree tomato jam, soft-serve honey ice cream, mashed potatoes and peanut sauce

Week 8: Kampala, Jinja, & Lake Bunyoni

Kampala

The capital of Uganda is crazy, colorful chaos and I loved it. There are lots of people and terrible traffic everywhere, but the city has a vibrancy and energy that is difficult to describe. Who cares that they’ve had a dictator for 32 years? Many Ugandans reflected a similar sentiment to me: “This is something I cannot control, I have to live my life.”

I visited both the Baha’i Temple and the National Mosque. If you’ve never heard of the Baha’i faith, its basic tenets are that all of the teachings of the major world religions were revelations from one God. Their faith is based on cultivating a personal connection to God through self-understanding. As you might imagine for a faith who centers their work on meditation and contemplation, Their temple was beautiful and calm. The National Mosque is huge and although envisioned by Idi Amin, it wasn’t completed until years later with help from Muammar Gaddafi. It was fun to find out that many of the fixtures and writings on the wall were done by Moroccan craftsmen. I did have to wear a scarf and piece of fabric wrapped over my pants to enter, which in the Kampala heat was hot, hot, hot.  The minaret was worth the climb for the beautiful views of the city.

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Baha’i Temple, stained glass windows in the National Mosque, me appropriately covered to enter
dome and light fixture, decorated with Arabic script, view up to the top of the minaret

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view from minaret over Kampala city

Before Uganda fell under the influence of European colonial powers, a good portion of what is now Uganda belonged to the Bugandan empire (this is how Uganda got its name). The former palace of the Bugandan king has been updated, but the current king only keeps an office here and doesn’t stay here overnight. This is because when Idi Amin was in power, he used a concrete structure on the property to torture people. There were five rooms and the area that connected them below was filled with water and then electrified so that anyone who entered the water would be electrocuted.

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Bugandan king’s palace, shield on front gate, Idi Amin’s torture chambers

Jinja

Jinja is famous for claiming to be the source of the White Nile. (I went and saw the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana in Ethiopia). Sources are a tricky thing to claim. What is the ultimate source for the Mississippi River? Some tiny little stream in Montana? Wikipedia gives claiming rights to Rwanda and Burundi. Nevertheless, the Nile spews forth from Lake Victoria at this point so it’s one of the main reservoirs for the White Nile as it flows north.

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Nile River

The “Source of the Nile” spot wasn’t as interesting for me as the tiny Nile Reptile Park nearby. There weren’t that many animals inside, but they did have a gaboon viper, which is my favorite snake of all time. When I told the keeper this, he got a wire hook and took the snake out of its cage so I could see it up close. Gaboon vipers have the biggest fangs of any snake. They also have the most venom, although it is not the most poisonous. Their skin also has a tinge of purple to it in some locations. I first heard about them in Zimbabwe, but they’re not native to that area. The park also had some cobras, some monkeys that we fed bananas to, and some turtles. I can imagine that this is probably not all that exciting for most people, but it was one of my highlights of my trip to Jinja.

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supposed Source of the Nile, gaboon viper, lesser spot-nosed monkey

The other thing Jinja is known for is Class V whitewater rafting. The only other place I’ve been on rapids that big is on the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls. Due to the hydroelectric dam they recently built in the area, there aren’t as many rapids now (only 5 big ones), but we still had a lot of fun and we definitely got flipped over.

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our crew headed into our first rapid, me trying to boogie board a wave on the river (not successful), last rapid of the day

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Watch the paddle!

I also jumped off this structure that was only a few meters tall and this, for me, was way scarier than flying out of raft. I used to jump off high dives when I was a kid, so I’m not sure when this became an issue for me. Nevertheless, after a bit of coaxing, I jumped in and was so proud of myself afterwards. It may have been a small fear, but conquering it felt grand!

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I bent my knees to get a little closer to the water.

Lake Bunyonyi

This lake is one of the deepest in the world and it is free of both crocodiles and bilharzia (unlike the Nile River). I came here to relax for a few days and that is exactly what I did. I swam every day, did some yoga, and read three books. I’m gradually learning the value of taking a vacation from my vacation. 🙂

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view from my room, geodesic dome ceiling, view from restaurant

Ugandan Food

For the foodies in the crowd, typical Ugandan food is matoke (pronounced ma-toe-kay), which is basically mashed green banana, served with some kind of meat stew. Ugandans are also very fond of their rolexes. No, not fancy watches. A rolex is an omelette wrapped up in a chapati and they’re sold everywhere as a snack. My favorite find in Uganda was masala chips, French fries doused in spicy curry. I found them at a bougie café / restaurant and they were so incredibly delicious. Some enterprising food truck in San Francisco needs to get on this trend because they would make a fortune.

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beans and collards with matoke, rolex, masala fries

Even though I’ve had it before, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about jackfruit. It’s sold already peeled (thankfully) on the side of the road and in supermarkets. African tea is quite popular, but it’s really just a variation on chai, harkening back to the Indian presence in Uganda. By far, my favorite beverage in Uganda is Stoney Tangawizi, Coca Cola’s version of ginger beer. Yum!

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jackfruit, African tea, my beloved Stoney

 

Week 7: Rwenzori Mountains & Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Rwenzori Mountains

I’d seen the “Mountains of the Moon” mentioned in the guidebook, but dismissed it because I don’t have that much gear with me. Then I stumbled on a National Geographic site listing some of the world’s best hikes and with that second mention in a few days, I found myself signing up for a 5-day trek to the top of Mt. Luigi di Savoia, also known as Weismann’s Peak. The Rwenzoris are home to Mt. Stanley, the fourth highest mountain in Africa, but the peak is technical and I’m still not a fan of climbing where it’s difficult to breathe. I did a different route up the mountains then mentioned on the website, and it was both beautiful and very tough. Weismann’s Peak is 15,157 ft (4,620 m) high and the hike involves hiking up over 10,000 ft of elevation in four days. I passed through tropical rainforests, bamboo forests, fields of lobelia and other afro-alpine plants, and the rocky, snowy summit. We had fantastic weather for the whole trip until the last hour walking into town, where the sky opened up and dumped gobs of rain.

Day 1: Kilembe Town to Sine Camp

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Day 2: Sine Camp to Mutinda Camp

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Day 3: Mutinda Camp to Bugata Camp

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Day 4: Bugata Camp to Kiharo Camp

Long day so double photos!

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Day 5: Kiharo Camp to Kilembe Town
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Bonus Panoramas
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slug 🙂

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view from Weismann’s Peak

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view of Nyamwamba Valley

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view of mountains

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lunch spot on the last day

 

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Everyone goes to Bwindi for one thing, to see the mountain gorillas! It’s not cheap (a permit alone costs $600), but this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation and it was amazing. The park is in the southwestern corner of Uganda and everywhere I looked, everything was green, green, green. The park rangers have actually planted a large amount of tea on the surrounding lands because gorillas don’t eat tea leaves. It provides a potential boredom deterrent so the gorilla don’t enter the nearby villages. The idea is that they’ll give up when they see only rows and rows of tea ahead of them and turn back to the forest for better tasting food.

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view of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

The rangers start tracking the gorillas from the place they left them the night before. They start at 7 am and they usually they find them by 10:30 am. They watch them all day until about 5 pm when they go home from work. We tracked the Nkuringo gorilla family and it only took us a couple hours of walking to get to them, most of which was just walking down to the forest itself from the headquarters.

The rangers actually hack down nearby vines so that tourists can get a good view of the gorillas. The silverback moved a few times, but eventually we were standing a few meters away. However, I have to say, this silverback spent almost the entire hour while we were there just eating tons and tons of leaves. They may look fat, but it is mostly muscle and larger intestines used to process all the cellulose in their vegetarian diet.

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top (l to r): various views of the silverback (which it acquires at 14 years old)
bottom (l to r): baby gorilla (awww!), silverback gorilla, mama gorilla

Just like pandas, gorillas spend almost their whole day just eating.

I’m definitely feeling incredibly blessed to have seen these gentle giants in person.