Onwards and Upwards

Our third day in Peru was a laid back one. We had an amazing time on Sunday exploring ruins just outside of Cusco, made all the more fascinating by the very serendipitous meeting we had with a freelance guide, who ended up touring us around the site and adding valuable insights and context for what we were seeing. I had hoped to be able to post a blog about the ruins before leaving on our hike, but sacrificing sleep just before trekking for four days at altitude does not seem like the brightest idea, so that writeup will have to wait until we’re back online next weekend.

Monday’s agenda was decidedly more low key than the day before. Jan had booked in for a massage at our hotel, so while she did that I went off in search of a bank and a shoestore that we had briefly visited on Saturday, which had the most gorgeous boots I’d ever seen. Unfortunately, since I wasn’t paying attention to HOW we got to the store the first time, it took me ages to find it again. After trying on pretty much every style of size eight shoe they had, I ended up going with a pair with brightly coloured woven detailing up the front (I’ll try to post a picture when I can upload my photos to my phone…)

UPDATE: The boots I bought:

Boots

Almost enough to make me okay with the possibility that I may still need to be wearing boots when I head back home. Though the fact that I’m writing that sentence while currently sporting a sunburn from yesterday’s walk in 20+ degree temperatures (that perfectly illustrates all the spots I missed applying suncreen) may have warped my memory a bit, as far as the joys of Saskatchewan’s interminable winter go…

After picking up some lunch from a bakery on the way back to the hotel and eating it together on the terrace, Jan and I took a taxi to a different hotel, where we met up with the G Adventures folks. We had our pre-trip meeting just before dinner, where we were introduced to our guide and the other people on our (very full!) tour, and heard about all the things that await us in the coming days. The guide’s account of the trip focused on the wonderful sights and sounds we’ll be seeing and hearing, though fellow travellers we’ve spoken to who have already completed the trail universally reported that it was utterly exhausting, their legs felt like jello–and it was the best thing they’d ever done. Seems like an apt description to me!

Our bags are packed, weighed (they must be under 6kg) and ready to go. We depart at 7:30am tomorrow for a day trip to the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the town of Ollantaytambo. We’ll stay at a hotel in the area tomorrow night, and then the following day we begin the hike in earnest. Five days from now, after a plethora of stairs and elevation changes, and a 3:30am wake-up call on the last day to make it to the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu for sunrise, we’ll be able to say we hiked the Inca Trail to one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

Will look forward to telling you all about it! In the meantime, for those that are interested in reading the details of what our hike entails, the tour itinerary can be found here: http://www.gadventures.com/trips/the-inca-trail/SPIT/2013/itinerary/ And for a preview of Machu Picchu, this blog has beautiful shots of the area: http://crazybeautifulnature.wordpress.com/2013/02/02/machu-picchu-peru/

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Success!

Arrived in Cusco!! And it’s glorious. Pictures to follow. Our accommodations have so far proven to be an excellent choice, helped in part by the wifi in all the rooms, and desktop computers in the lobby for guests to use. (Though those amenities are far superseded by the fact that the hotel is in a gorgeous old part of the city, has an extremely personable and helpful staff, and an unlimited supply of coco tea to boot!

We arrived in Cusco a little later than anticipated, on account of having to wait around to claim our luggage at the airport in Lima before clearing customs and boarding our connecting flight. For some reason our travel agent booked us on flights little more than an hour apart, and when you add in the fact that we were 20 or so minutes late arriving, the odds were not on our side…

What WAS helpful was that we chose the right flight to miss, as there was another plane leaving for Cusco just over an hour after we were initially scheduled to depart. We took a quick, highly entertaining taxi ride to our hotel, wherein we got to witness firsthand how masterful our driver’s spatial awareness was as he zipped past vehicles all over the road, some of whom wisely folded in their side mirrors to avoid losing them as we whizzed past.

After getting a rundown of the best local cuisine in the area from the hotel manager, we took advantage of the lack of snow here and decidedly un-Prairie-like temperatures to drink coco tea (apparently helpful for dealing with the altitude) on the Casa’s terrace while our room was being readied.

We’re off to explore around the city this afternoon (another traveller told us there’s a festival in the main square this weekend that we may check out), followed by a light dinner somewhere.

Will plan to post pictures soon, but in the meantime, here’s the link to the place where we’re staying for our first couple of nights in Cusco before we meet up with the G Adventures folks:
http://www.casasanblas.com/

The photo gallery for the hotel specifically is: http://www.casasanblas.com/casa-san-blas.htm, though their main photo gallery has some wonderful shots of the country in general: www.casasanblas.com/photo-gallery.htm

We’re planning on heading to bed at a ridiculously early hour tonight, given our lack of rest the past few days, but tomorrow it’ll be off for more explorations in and around Cusco. Adios for now!

P.S. I wrote this post yesterday (Saturday), so am working on the blog and pictures to go along with our tour and activities today (Sunday), and will hopefully have something up soon.

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Peru

This is just a quick update letting people know (in case the email alerts that were set up during my time in Uganda are still in effect), that I’m on vacation in Peru right now with my aunt, and am planning on writing some blog posts about our adventures. Keep an eye on your email for updates and pictures in the coming days, or, if you’d signed up for email alerts specifically to hear about Uganda and don’t want to be notified about subsequent posts, I’d imagine there’s an unsubscribe option somewhere in the email notification… Adios!

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Parasailing

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Me, shortly after Omari started letting out the rope attached to my parachute.

While walking back to my guest house earlier this week, I passed the office for Zanzibar Parasailing, and decided to pick up a brochure. It turned out it wasn’t all that expensive ($70), and since I’ve been able to do so much on the island for very little money, I figured one last splurge before I spend the next couple of days on the ferry and in airports would be well worth the money. I arranged to go on their sunset tour, so on Saturday afternoon one of the drivers for the company met me at their offices in Stone Town, and drove me to the beach in Nungwi, about an hour up the coast. Like all the beaches I’ve seen here, Nungwi was beautiful. I boarded a little dingy that took us out to the motorboat they use for the parasailing, and as soon as we’d stepped aboard, the boat captain, Bacchu, and his assistant, Omari, started unpacking the parachute that I would be using on my tour. Once everything had been checked, and I’d been fitted with a lifejacket and harness, Omari attached me to the parachute and started letting out the line. That’s literally exactly how it happened – no discussion of what to do (or not do) while up in the air, and I had just enough time to shout down that I wanted to do the “freefall” effect they mentioned in the brochure before I was up in the air, floating above the Indian Ocean.

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Coming back towards the boat after my tour.

For all its marketing as “thrill-inducing”, parasailing was actually the most relaxing and laid-back of the big-ticket activities that I’ve done. The wind picked up the material of the parachute as soon as it was unpacked, so I was just naturally lifted off the floor of the boat once I’d been strapped in, and as the line was let out, I gradually moved further and further upwards. Being so high up afforded me some great views of Zanzibar and the surrounding ocean, and it was beautiful seeing the sunset from such a unique position. Sadly, Omari apparently didn’t catch my last-minute request about freefalling, so I can’t report on what that involved. Still, it was great to be able to try an activity that I’ve been wanting to do ever since I saw people coming in to land at Regina Beach, after parasailing on Last Mountain Lake, when we still lived in Saskatchewan.

As I write this, I’m just a few hours away from boarding the ferry. It’ll cross back to Dar es Salaam tonight, arriving at around 6am tomorrow morning. From there, I’ll catch a taxi to the airport and hang out while I wait for my flight to leave tomorrow night. Then a few (like 30) hours later, I’ll be meeting up with Kelly in Los Angeles, and Mom and Dad after that, when we arrive in Maui. Not long now!

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Prison Island Tour

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The boat we took across to Prison Island.

Yesterday I headed off on the last of my organized tours. (Feels like that word is going to be in heavy rotation in the coming days – last tour, last day on the island, last day in Africa…) This one involved taking a boat (not unlike the hugely crowded motorboats we saw while on Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda, only these ones had roofs and far fewer people) across to Changuu, also known as Prison Island. The island is about 5km northwest of Zanzibar, and was originally used to detain ‘recalcitrant’ slaves, and later as a quarantine station. It’s now privately owned, but still permits visitors, who come to see the giant tortoises at the sanctuary there, and to snorkel at the nearby coral reefs.

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Feeding one of the giant tortoises at the sanctuary on Prison Island.

The tortoises were a total trip. They’re huge, and, like the Colobus monkeys at Jozani, extremely used to having frequent visitors. It was fascinating to watch them lumber about – it definitely gave me a new appreciation for the feats of that tortoise from ‘Tortoise and the Hare’. We were each given some shoots to feed them, which was fun since it meant they made their way over to us, and would literally be eating out of the palm of our hands. There was a married couple on my tour from Boston, who could not have more aptly personified every cliche about well-to-do tourists in Africa. I took a video of one rebel tortoise who had left the main sanctuary area and was walking along the concrete pathway nearby, and on the video you can hear the husband asking “Can we keep one?” They were completely delighted by everything we saw, so it was difficult to feel much antipathy towards them – particularly when they were so entertaining to have around.

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I was too chicken to test out whether my camera was truly waterproof, but this shot actually looks like what I saw while snokelling.

We stayed on the island a while longer, looking at the remains of the detention centre there, and then again boarded our boat, this time to head to the coral reefs offshore for snorkelling. After putting on our borrowed flippers and snorkel masks (which we’d shelled out a whopping $2 for), we jumped into the water. It was amazing the first time you put your head under – one second you’re looking out at turquoise water and the white sand beach in the distance, and the next you’ve entered a whole other world of reefs and schools of fish that swim within inches of you. We spent about an hour in the water, just floating with the current and watching all the activity taking place below us. Despite having put on sunscreen that morning, it didn’t even cross my mind that floating with my back and legs exposed would necessitate another application. Although I’m kicking myself for the resulting sunburn, the snorkelling was by far the coolest thing I’ve done on this trip.

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Kids play in the water at sunset, in front of the beachfront patio at Mercury's restaurant.

Once we’d made it back to shore, and I’d been over to my guest house to change and grab more water, I headed to Mercury’s restaurant for dinner. It’s named in honour of Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, who was born on Zanzibar in 1946. He only lived on the island until he was eight years old, and there’s still dispute as to which house(s) he and his family actually occupied, but Mercury’s doesn’t let that deter them from capitalizing on his name. Regardless, I ate some delicious fajitas on their beachside patio, and watched local kids try to outdo one another with ever more daring flips and back handsprings into the water below where I was sitting. Not a bad way to spend the evening.

Just two more days left on the island, and then I’ll catch another ferry across to Dar, and head to the airport in time for my afternoon flight on Monday.

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Jozani Forest

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Red Colobus monkeys at Jozani Forest.

Another day, and so I headed off on another tour. I’ve found that the easiest way to get to interesting places outside of Stone Town is just to sign up for a tour that goes there. With that in mind, yesterday I decided to go to Jozani Forest, a national park about 25km from where I’m staying, whose big claim to fame is its population of Red Colobus monkeys, a species that is only found on Zanzibar. Before heading to the area of the park where the monkeys are found, our guide first took us along a nature trail through the park’s forest reserve, which was a veritable pharmacy of plants and roots that had medicinal uses for everything from childbirth to prostate health.

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A mother and baby at Jozani Forest.

Once we’d finished our circuit through the forest, we walked out to the main road, where there was a huge mahogany tree filled with monkeys. The park has both Red and Blue Colobus monkeys, but the Red ones are the more social of the two, and so most of the photos I was able to get are of that variety. They were incredibly accommodating to us photo-taking tourists, climbing down the tree to the low branches to give us better views, and playing and jumping together from branch to branch for quite a while. That’s not to say that some of the other people there didn’t try to still push their luck, attempting to touch (!) some of the baby monkeys, despite the mothers being right there. Not the smartest of moves… Even though I was able to see monkeys at various spots in Kampala and Jinja, it was still completely cool to see them so close. These ones looked quite different from whatever species it was I saw in Uganda.

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The successful Mangrove Forest shot.

After the monkeys, our guide led us down another path to the Mangrove Boardwalk. They were in the process of raising the boardwalk, because at high tide, parts of it were being submerged. There is apparently quite a large demand for mangrove wood from locals, who use it for building and for fuel. Since mangroves are host to a number of endangered species, the forest in the park is protected. I did the walk with a couple from Sweden, only the wife of whom spoke English. Nevertheless, her husband was very enthusiastic about taking my picture by the mangroves, despite the fact it took him 3 or 4 tries before he was able to work my camera enough that I was actually in the frame…

My transport back to Stone Town arrived just as we were returning from the Mangrove walk, and they dropped me off right back at my hotel. Tomorrow I’ve signed up for one last tour, which will take me on a boat out to Prison Island to see giant tortoises at the sanctuary there, and to do some snorkelling around the nearby coral reefs. This is my life??

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Spice Tour

On my second full day in Stone Town, I decided to sign up for one of the many tours that were advertised at the reception desk of the guest house where I’m staying. The descriptions of each were definitely written by a person whose first language is something other than English, but I was able to decipher the jist of things, and thought the spice tour sounded like it’d be interesting. Specifically, the blurb told me that it:

“Comprise¬†some historical monuments drive to the countryside where you can see variety of plantations and herbs, tasting all the fruits and spices and have lunch where all spice you see on the way you on experience them. Heading to Persian bath, Mangapwani Slave Cave and spend hour on the beach.”

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The Persian bath we visited as part of the spice tour.

After paying my $12 to the guest house manager, I waited for one of the employees of the company that ran the tour to come pick me up. They arrived shortly after 9am, and escorted me and two other people who were also staying at the Flamingo to the minibus that would be transporting us up island. I ended up sitting beside a fellow Victorian, who had just finished a few months of teaching English in Arusha, and was spending two weeks on Zanzibar with her parents. Small world! Before doing the spice tour itself, we stopped to look at a Persian bath that a sultan had had built for his wife, in 1914. Inside, it contained literally the world’s smallest “swimming” pool. It was basically a space large enough for a very thin person to submerge themselves up to about their waist in water. From there, we headed over to the spice gardens, which were great – fascinating to see what the various spices look in their “natural” form. I’ve been struck a number of times over the past few months when I’ve come across fields or plants here that grow food we eat in Canada, but would be hard pressed to identify when it’s not sitting in a grocery store. Everyone else in my group wasn’t much better than I was at correctly guessing the names of the various spices that our guide, Naaor, would show us.

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A coffee plant.

Since looking at the photos of the spices is probably far more interesting than reading descriptions of all of them, I’ve posted a Flickr album with pictures of the various plants and trees we learned about. I’ve set it up so that you can test your own knowledge of which spice is which, if you’re so inclined. There’s also a few pictures of the Mangapwani slave cave that we visited after lunch, as well as the beach where we went swimming.

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The beach we swam at during the spice tour.

The slave cave has quite the interesting (and disturbing) backstory: it was originally built for storing slaves, and its construction has been attributed to a slave trader named Mohammed bin Nassor Al-Alwi. Boats from the mainland would unload their human cargo on the nearby beach, and the slaves would be kept in the cave before being taken to Zanzibar Town for resale, or to plantations on the island. In the late 1800s, after a treaty was signed that officially abolished slavery on Zanzibar, the cave was used as a place to hide slaves, since the slave trade continued illicitly on the island for many years.¬†In a somewhat jarring change of scenery, we headed from the cave to a nearby beach to go swimming. The beaches in Zanzibar are all insane – white sand, turquoise water, and no seaweed to be found (at least at any of the places I’ve been). I was, however, used to swimming in lakes and rivers in Uganda, and completely forgot that it would be saltwater I was diving into. Needless to say, the mouthful of water I accidentally swallowed cleared up that mistaken assumption in a hurry…

We arrived back in Stone Town by mid-afternoon, and I spent a leisurely evening reading, and eating dinner from one of the many street vendors near my guest house. Pretty great way to spend the day.

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On The Road Again

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Kristen and I on a boda, during one of our previous trips to Kampala.

After a tearful goodbye with Kristen, I carted all my things down the street from the hostel we were staying at in Kampala, to the bus depot where I would be departing for Dar es Salaam. Amazingly enough, the bus actually left on time, so by shortly after 3pm my bags were safely (I hoped) stowed underneath the bus and we were on our way. We were travelling to Tanzania via Nairobi, and the first 12 or so hours of the trip were glorious. Our bus was barely even half full, so I managed to finagle myself the entire back row of seats, and was able to spend most of the trip to Kenya stretched out quite comfortably. We crossed the border at around 8:30pm, and I had no troubles getting my transit visa. After a few more hours of driving along bumpy roads, we arrived in Nairobi shortly before 4am. Unfortunately, we had to switch buses there, and the bus we were boarding didn’t arrive until 6:30am, which meant sitting in a very crowded waiting room for a few hours. They had CNN turned up on the television set, so at least I was able to pass the time catching up on the news from Egypt.

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Your Tax Dollars At Work

Enjoying my dinner at the Lakes restaurant in the Kampala Serena Hotel.

Although I’m writing this from a windowless room in a hostel in downtown Kampala, it was mere hours ago that Kristen and I were lounging in the huge, ridiculously luxurious hotel room that she received as part of a conference she attended, put on by the Canadian Consulate. She was contacted last week and asked whether she would be willing to be a “warden” for Luweero, which basically entails forwarding on safety messages sent to her by the Consulate. Quite an easy job considering that most of the time the only other Canadians in the area are ones living in the volunteer house with her. Regardless, she happily signed on, and last night we checked in to her complimentary suite at the Serena Hotel in Kampala. The first thing we saw upon entering the lobby was a book on the reception desk called “Leading Hotels of the World”; certainly an indication of how far from our usual dorm room accommodations this was. After being led to our room, we spent quite a while just oohing and aahing over the furniture, guest services, and all the fancy touches. Eventually, we managed to sort ourselves out for dinner, and headed down to one of the many restaurants located in the hotel. Kristen received free buffets for all her meals, compliments of the Canadian government, so while she enjoyed the massive selection of food available to her, I ordered a delicious stir fry. Once we were sufficiently stuffed, we headed back to our room and took advantage of the abundant hot water and (for Kristen) first opportunity in many months to relax in a bathtub. We spent the rest of the evening catching up on news on one of the two flat screen televisions in our room, and eventually made our way to bed just before midnight.

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Last Weekend in Jinja

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Kristen snaps a photo of Yosam and I on the boda.

Hard to believe, but this past weekend was my last one in Uganda. To commemorate the occasion, Kristen and I took a trip to Jinja that we had been talking about doing for months. We’d been interested in taking a boda trip somewhere, and once we found out that there was a “shortcut” to Jinja that avoided going through Kampala and involved travelling along backroads, we were sold. Yosam, one of our regular boda drivers, was a natural choice for who to call – he’s been one of the highlights of my time in Africa – always friendly and entertaining, and we trust him. After working out the departure and payment details, Yosam and his brother, Patrick, arrived outside our house, ready for the 100km trip to Jinja on Friday morning. Apart from one flat tire shortly into our adventure, we made it without any problems, and treated Yosam and Patrick to lunch at the Nile River Explorers Camp. Kristyn, the other Shanti volunteer, opted to take matatus to Jinja instead of joining us on the bodas, and so met up with us shortly after we arrived. It was a beautiful way to get to a beautiful spot in Uganda, and certainly only added to my desire to get my motorcycle license when I return to Canada.

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