Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Do you know the way to Zimbabwe?

After a brief stay in Johannesburg, South Africa (where we flew into from Madagascar, and about which we'll blog in the future), we made our move to escape crazy World Cup prices and boarded the overnight bus to Zimbabwe.

We weren't sure what to expect from Zimbabwe. Obviously, it doesn't have the best reputation politically in the international press, and their currency has tanked so badly that it's now officially defunct, and you pay for everything with SA rand or US dollars. But everyone we've spoken to who has actually been there said it was one of their favorite countries in Africa, so we didn't want to skip it. In the end, we only spent five days and covered a small part of the country, but we saw some terrific wildlife and gorgeous scenery and felt very welcomed by the people. And in terms of crime/street harassment, it also felt like one of the safest places we've been in quite some time. So if you're in the area, check it out!

The adventures began at the border post, which we reached in the middle of the night. On the SA side, the bathrooms featured signs asking you not to use Zim dollars for toilet paper, as they clog up the toilet (ha!). Then on the Zimbabwe side, our bus driver tried to take up a collection of 10 rand (about $1.20) per passenger to "bribe" the border guards not to search the bus's luggage. Andy and I did not contribute, saying that we don't pay bribes, but pretty much all of the other 60-odd passengers did. Surprise, surprise, the border guards still made us sit outside the bus with our luggage for two hours until they'd completed their search! (And no, not because Andy and I didn't kick in.) We're pretty sure the driver just pocketed the money--some passengers were pretty pissed off. A friend of ours took the same bus the day before and the same thing happened...

But then we arrived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. It's a very calm, orderly place. Not much to see (apparently, we took no pictures), but we managed to arrange a couple of tours to nearby wildlife parks...our first safaris in southern Africa!

Our first tour was a day trip to Matopos National Park and the nearby Whovi Game Reserve. Our guide/driver was eagle-eyed and spotted these giraffes off in the brush. I thought we were SO close to them...but we would actually get much closer in future parks.

Quoth Andy: "Giraffes, schmiraffes--I only like lizards."
In addition to hosting cool animals, Matopos also has these amazing giant rock piles, formed by volcanic eruption millions of years ago and ensuing erosion.

The highlight of Matopos was seeing one of their troupes of white rhinos very close up. Our guide let us get out of the car and track these guys into the brush...until a couple of them turned around and started heading toward us, instead. Then he said, with a mild note of panic in his voice, "OK, let's go, let's go!" You should have seen us hightailing it back to the jeep. Rhinos are HUGE and move a lot faster than you'd think.
PS, "white" rhino is a misnomer, as it's not white, and the black rhino is not black. These were originally called "wyte" rhinos in Afrikaans because that means "square-lipped." These types of rhinos live in groups and have square lips for grazing on grass. The much rarer "black" rhino has a curved lip for eating leaves off bushes and such, and is solitary. They are much harder to find.
Here is a yellow-billed hornbill, quite common in Zimbabwe. One of our guides called them "banana beaks"...which I think Scar calls the bird in The Lion King, no?
Cute little vervet monkeys were also common in the park.
After viewing wildlife all morning, we climbed up to the "View of the World," a mountaintop with incredible views of the surrounding countryside.
That also happens to be where Cecil John Rhodes, crazy British conqueror of "Rhodesia" (modern-day Zimbabwe) is buried.
View of the World + View of Andy and Tara = Pretty Darn Good Viewing, no?
Also in this part of the park were some pretty darn impressive cave paintings. This one featured the leopard in many different positions and looked like it was silk-screened on there last week, rather than thousands of years ago by the San people...
I think that our Australian buddy Ben--whom we met in Zimbabwe and ended up traveling with through most of Botswana and Namibia--spotted this mantis on the streets of Bulawayo. He had a really good eye for urban wildlife!
Our next destination was Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe's largest and most wildlife-packed. We spent a night inside the park in a little hut, and in the morning found elephant poop all through the parking lot just meters away! We didn't actually see many elephants on our game drives there, but we did see...
More giraffes, much closer up!
And zebras! Who apparently often hang out with the giraffes. The giraffes can see far away for predators, and the zebras can...smell them, maybe? We're not exactly sure what the zebras are contributing to this mutual-warning system.
Hwange hosted an amazing array of birds, too. These starlings probably aren't the most exotic, but they were so blue and shiny close up, we loved them.
Hello there, Mr. Giraffe. Do you know Geoffrey?

Andy and I aren't sure how we managed this, but for both of our wildlife drives at Hwange, we had the safari truck to ourselves. Zimbabwe just doesn't get the number of tourists that its neighbors do, I guess. Anyway, being out on an open safari truck for two hours in the late afternoon or early morning in winter in southern Africa is COLD. Thank goodness they give you blankets!
Yeah, you probably can't tell from most of these pictures, but it is full-on winter in the southern hemisphere. That doesn't mean snow, but it has been quite chilly for the past few weeks, like in the 40s or 50s Fahrenheit at night, and I often find myself wearning most of my layers.
Beautiful sunrises and sunsets are the norm at Hwange. I think this one is sunset on our first day, but don't quote me.
First ostrich of Africa! Andy and I had actually both forgotten to even be psyched that we might see some ostriches. A cool bonus on our first Hwange safari.
Why did the zebra cross the road? To get his picture on this blog, of course!
I'll give you one guess at who took this lizard picture.
OK, our final destination in Zimbabwe was the famed Victoria Falls. We hoped to catch a bus from Hwange to Vic Falls, but actually ended up hitching a ride with a lovely Belgian family instead. They have been living in Johannesburg and took a big camper van into Zimbabwe for a family holiday--the parents actually lived in Zimbabwe 20 years back and wanted to show their kids all their old haunts. Luckily, Andy and I got adopted for the day and got to visit a few spots we otherwise wouldn't have seen en route to the falls.

We also ended up staying in the same "rest camp" as that family once we got to Vic our first tent of Africa! Definitely not our last, but maybe the poshest one we'll ever reside in--two beds with boxspring mattresses, a nighttable, and an electric light! Seriously, most of the beds in hotel rooms in west Africa didn't even have boxsprings. We thought this was a pretty fun deal for about $25 a night.
(Speaking of lodging prices, we thought Zimbabwe was expensive til we got to Botswana, and we thought that Botswana was REALLY expensive til we got to Namibia. Oh, Namibia, you ridiculously expensive country! But I am getting ahead of myself. Bottom line--Zimbabwe wasn't all that expensive in the end, I guess.)
Andy with an elephant skull at the entrance to Victoria Falls National Park. Elephants are frickin' enormous.
Monkey! I think this is another vervet, eating a wild guava, near Vic Falls Park. I almost beat it up and stole its guava. I love guavas.
OK, here are your obligatory pictures from Victoria Falls. I have to admit, Andy and I were slightly underwhelmed. Maybe it was the foggy skies the morning we went, and the drenching mist that overwhelmed all of our "waterproof" wear. Maybe it was the ridiculous $30 pp price tag to get in. Or maybe after Iguacu and Angel Falls in South America, our standards are just too high. Anyway, here's the small section that I think is called the "Devil's Cataract."
Here's a larger, more impressive swath of the falls. And some chick with a plastic bag that she stupidly thought would keep all her stuff dry.
The best part of the falls was probably the very end, where you can see lovely rainbows by the bridge to Zambia. Also, the sun had come out by the time we got down there, which helped.
I am technically in Zambia in this picture, and I didn't even pay for a visa. Sweet!
OK, maybe even better than Victoria Falls itself is the game reserve in town that you can walk around in for free! We happened upon this huge elephant JUST next to the road and had to wait for a car to come by to shield us from it before we passed. Yup, just didn't feel like dying that day...
There was no car to shield us from this herd of buffalo, though, which was also not far at all from the road. When a whole bunch of them looked up from their grazing and seemed to start taking a few steps toward us, I nearly wet my pants. (Seriously, why do they let people just wander around in this area on foot?)
We'll leave you with a shot of one of Zimbabwe's most impressive creatures, the fuzzy caterpillar.Victoria Falls is a town that's pretty much all set up for tourists, so it has a different feel from the other places we visited in Zimbabwe. Accomodation prices there are lower (since there's more competition, I guess), and that's the only place in the country where we could find a working ATM. But it's also the only place where people bothered us on the street a lot to try to sell us souvenirs...or barter for them!
This may be a throwback to the days when Zim dollars were fast plummeting toward worthlessness, but only in Vic Falls, people will come up to you and say "I like your hat. I'll trade you for this carving!" etc. My dirty shoes, dinged-up Sigg bottle, and not-so-waterproof-after-all jacket were also much-coveted, apparently. If we had wanted some souvenirs and knew where we could replace our old gear, we might have seriously considered trading some stuff.
So, Zimbabwe. Not scary. Beautiful landscapes. Great birds and wildlife-viewing. And better infrastructure than you might think. Our Belgian friends who used to live there lamented that thanks to the useless government, almost no development had happened in 20 years. Apparently, things have been "kept clean," but very little new building or renovation has taken place in that time. Well, we have to say that what we saw of apparently frozen-in-time Zimbabwe is still so much more developed than, say, the whole of West Africa. There are paved highways, a pretty good electricity supply, plenty of supermarkets with food on all the shelves, and buses to help you get around if you don't have a car. No complaints here.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

No, we didn't eat any lemurs

The food of Madagascar is set apart from the rest of Africa along with its geography. Heavily influenced by Asia and by what can be grown locally since it is isolated, the food is a nice fusion. In addition, it is probably the cheapest food of any country we have visited. The standard price for street food is 5 cents per item, and the selection is often large. We also had some very good and cheap Chinese food, which is normally expensive in the rest of Africa. Let's see what we ate.

One food picture left from Gabon. Here is the family with whom we stayed eating the tasty chili that we made for them. Some Germans that were staying had spent a ton of time and money tried to make a German dish the night before and everyone hated it. We did much better and everyone really liked it (or at least everyone had seconds and thirds when the night before they took one bite and then went and found other food).
Jumping right in, the single best food in Madagascar, and possibly my favorite street food in the world so far, are deep fried bananas. Batter a banana, throw it in the deep fryer, and it comes out with the banana warm and soft in a crisp shell. Amazing. And at 5 cents each, I ate no less than five of these each day. I don't understand why these aren't sold on every street corner in the world. I think you could sell them for $2 each in the US.
We also found these fried manioc sticks. Sort of like a fried piece of bread. They would have been much better with sugar, but Tara really liked them. Oh, and they were sometimes on sale: two for five cents. I like this picture because Tara apparently has part of one in her mouth while posing with a second...
Samosas are very common in Madagascar. A bit more like the ones we have had in Ethiopian restaurants than Indian restaurants, they are often filled with green onion, meat, potato, and other vegetables and spices. Always served with a spicy sauce. Five cents each. In the US, you couldn't even buy the amount of oil in each of these for five cents.
This might be the weirdest, and one of the more costly, street foods of Madagascar. They take a mix of peanuts and rice, sometimes adding a bit of banana or sugar, and smoke it inside a banana leaf. It sounds amazing, but it turns out to be a bit bland. Very popular as a special treat, since this slice cost almost 50 cents. It really needs about ten times more sugar to be good.
We found little churros in the market! Tara is a churro fanatic, and though this wouldn't make the list of top 50 best churros found in our travels, she was very happy to find one. Cost: five cents each.
The other thing that made Tara really happy is that you can find fresh yogurt on nearly every street corner. It is expensive, at 10 to 20 cents per cup, but she splurged for it... Apparently, it was really good. Sometimes it comes in colorful cups, which is more exciting than this regular one.
I think we mentioned before that many people still quote things in the old currency. When asking about the price of these strawberries (a big bag of them), we understood the price to be $3. This seemed way too high, but the woman quickly understood and told us that was the old currency, so we bought a pint of strawberries that were very good for $0.50. We ate them so fast that we forgot to take a picture until they were almost gone.
Fresh fruit juices on the street are common in Antananarivo and some of the bigger cities. Five cents a glass and you essentially get whatever flavor or two they have that day, though all of them advertise that they have dozens of flavors. Sort of a mix of fruit juice and Kool-Aid, which is just how I like my fruit juice.
Ice cream was surprisingly cheap there, if not the tastiest. They do have a lot of cows, which makes dairy cheaper than many African countries. We bought these to celebrate the airline finding my lost bag.
For breakfast at one of our hotels, Tara had this fruit jam that she loved. Some kind of berries that started with a p. Pockberries come to mind, but I don't actually think they could be called that. So, Tara will have to correct this later and add the name of the berries. They were okay, but not as good as she claims.
These fruits are really good. I asked a few people that spoke English if they had an English name, and the consensus was that they only exist in Madagascar and don't really have an English name that anyone knew. They have big seeds inside, but the flesh taste like a mix of a plum and an apricot. Very sweet. We bought a few big bags of them. Extra fun because they come still attached to the branch.
This is a manioc cake with a stripe of peanut butter in it. Peanut butter (called pistache for unknown reasons in Madagascar) is not uncommon, but costly by Madagascar standards. So, for a five cent cake, you don't get enough peanut butter in the peanut butter to manioc ratio.
While walking through the very dry areas in the middle of the country, our guide showed us these edible berries on these thorny trees. He gave us some and they were very good. I then tried to pick my own, discovering that if you pick them before they are really ripe, they are not only disgusting, but leave a taste in your mouth that doesn't come out for about an hour.
For breakfast one morning while waiting on a bus in a small town, the options were very limited. I bought this cake thing that turned out to be rather terrible. Tasted like a plastic sponge. Tara pointed out that all one had to do is look at it to know that it would taste like that, but I still had to try.
Local restaurants in Madagascar have huge menus, which surprised us at first. Then we realized that they don't start to cook anything until you order, so it often takes well over an hour to get your food and you hear them making everything fresh in the back after you order. This was zebu beef, the local type of cow, which is very tasty.
For one of our nice meals, Tara was going to have lobster. However, they had something else on the menu called cigale, that they told us was a bit like lobster, but they had no idea what the English word was. Tara was adventurous and got it. It looked like a mutant lobster and we later learned that the word means cicada. We still have no idea what it is called in English, but Tara thought it wasn't quite as good as lobster. Let us know if you know what this thing is called.
We bought some fresh baobab honey from a woman on the street. It was in a recycled rum bottle. Hooray for recycling. The honey was very good, but we did get some intestinal critters in Madagascar that may have been from that. Or from the thousand other things that we ate and drank that they advised foreigners not to. Nothing a little cipro couldn't fix.
Noodles on the street and salad on the street are popular. Popular together. For about 15 cents, you could get a nice plate of curry noodles. A few places that we had them were amazing. Some were just mediocre. A great snack during the day, though.
Fried scallion pancakes were also popular. More fried than scallion, they would make for a popular drunk food in most places. However, since everywhere that serves food closes by about 7pm in Madagascar, that isn't the case there.
Here is a selection of five cent items in a rural village. Red bananas lightly fried, deep fried bananas, weird banana bread stuff in a leaf (made with manioc flour and no sugar, so not as good as it sounds).
Look at these mud crabs for sell at the market! Very nice, but I didn't ask how much. Probably five cents.
More five cent items. Some manioc chips (slices of fried manioc with salt), more red bananas, and fish. We never tried the five cent fish, but they are popular. We calculated that you could buy everything on this table for about $2.00.
These look like noodles at first, but are actually more like a curried sourkraut. Not bad, and filling, but not nearly as good as the noodles.
Here is some different banana bread, which is okay, but not really sugary and sometimes has sand in it, and huge chunks of manioc that has been boiled. You can guess the prices.
A plate of hot corn is good on a cold day. Especially for five cents. Actually, this was in a touristy town, so it might have been ten cents.
We went to this local French-owned smoothie place where we had disappointing smoothied (for a whopping dollar each), but had some tasty fries.
While walking around a local market, I bought a popsicle in a bag without knowing the flavor. I literally put my lips on it to rip off the corner and eat it, turned to Tara and told her that I was fairly sure it was beer flavored, which is gross. She then tried it and confirmed not just that it was beer flavored, but that it was actually frozen beer. Like I said, gross. Worst street food of Madagascar.
Tara then found pieces of cheese from a street vendor. She had thought about buying a huge wheel from other vendors, but this one sold her just a bite. She really like it.
Here are the duck fat fries that we got from the French-owned cafe. They were very good and very reasonably priced at 30 cents per bag.
Everywhere had this stuff called Bonbon Anglais Lemonade. For one of our final dinners, we got a bottle with dinner. It turned out to taste like bubble gum. Not good at all, and neither English nor lemonade. Boo to Coke for making such a bad product, though it seemed very popular there.
This is some weird local sausage dish that Tara had. Very good, plus it was at the entrance to a national park with lots of lemurs. They told us it was pork, not lemur, but who really knows. We saw lots of lemurs, but no pigs.
One of the several Chinese meals that we had. Fairly typical Chinese fare, but also typical for Madagascar.
Tara also had to try one of the drinkable yogurts from the store. Yao seemed to be the main brand. She gives it a thumbs down, especially since it was way more expensive than the yogurt for sale everywhere on the street.
Well, that looks like everything for foods of Madagascar. Overall, the food was really good just like the animals, and I tell Tara a month later how much I miss deep fried bananas about every other day.