The Last Word

Time to wrap up this blog; this is the last post.  I’ve been home almost 3 weeks now and am I’m still trying to settle in.  I’ve done some visiting with friends and family, it’s great to see them!

There have been some frequently asked questions about my trip:

1.  How many countries have I visited?

I just did the math:  61.  I’m not convinced this number fully captures what I have experienced over those 2 years, 5 months, and 26 days, but there you are, my numerically-inclined friends.

2.  What am I going to do now?

Good one.  The truth is, I have no idea.  Tonight, I’m going to watch some playoff hockey on TV.  That’s as far as I’ve gotten.  I will figure the rest out later.

3.  If the life of a traveller is as good as I’m always saying it is, why did I stop?

Honestly, I’m completely and utterly broke :)  I wandered around the planet without a budget for two and a half years.  Even before that, I was a bum in Whistler for a year, just skiing, biking and partying.  So, my bank account has been under seige now for 3.5 years and is now waving the white flag.  Actually, it goes deeper:  not only have I spent every penny in every bank account, but I’ve also sold every stock, exercised every option, cashed out every mutual fund, got rid of my car, even liquidated all my retirement savings (on both sides of the border).

I think the poker term for betting everything you have is being “all in”.  I am not a proud man, but this is something I am happy about.  As cheesy as it sounds, when it came to chasing down my dreams, I was all in.

When you get home from a trip like this, you take stock of your life, and not just finances.  Not only do I not have any money, but I don’t have a job either.  (Nor have I had one in years, which could make finding one interesting).  I don’t have anywhere to live, but luckily the room I grew up in at my parents’ house has not yet been turned into an office.  As I mentioned, I don’t have a car.  I still have my motorcycle, but I can’t afford the gas, haha.  So, I mostly get around by bicycle; although I don’t even own one of those — I borrow my Dad’s.

I think a summary is in order:  I am 32 years old, broke, unemployed, have no plans or prospects, get around on a bicycle, and am living with my parents.  (I know what you single ladies out there are thinking: “What a catch!” You are probably dying to get my number.  I would leave it… but I don’t have a phone either.  Email me.)

These circumstances might look dire to some, but I think it is pretty amusing.  Anyway, I’m pretty sure my situation will work out just fine, one way or another.  (Although I will use it as good comedic material for a long time to come, hehe.)  Besides, as I like to think about it, this is the price one pays for living the life of a 1,000 men ;-)  And I would do it all over again in a second.

I was going to say something motivational/inspirational about travelling, but it sounded too corny, so I deleted it.  I will just say this:  I don’t want to tell you what to do with your life, but if you want to travel and see the world, then that’s what you should go do.  It will require some time, money, and courage.  You think the first two are the most important, but actually, if you have the third, the other two will work themselves out.  You will never regret it.  Oh, and you don’t have to end up broke, unemployed, and homeless, that is optional :)

Nor do you have to wander the planet for years to experience the joys of travel and the excitement of discovering a new place.  It doesn’t matter if your destinations are 1st world, the length of your vacation short, or the buses you ride air-conditioned; if you are visiting places you have never been, talking to people you have never met, looking at views you have never seen, trying foods you have never eaten, having experiences you have never known, then you, too, my friend, are a traveller.

Many thanks for reading and for your emails/messages/comments, it made a guy on the road feel not so far from home.  If you are a friend from my previous, “pre-traveller life”, I look forward to catching up soon.  If I met you on somewhere out there on the road, thanks for making my trip so awesome. I hope to see you again someday, somewhere around this planet.

I will leave with a Rainier Maria Rilke quote I like about getting out of your comfort zone and exploring, which is what travellers do best:

Whoever you are:  some evening take a step out of your house, which you know so well.  Enormous space is near.

See you around,

(Poznan, Poland.  Pic from Agata Schreyner)

Posted in General | 16 Comments

Summary and Best Of: Europe, the Middle East, and Africa

If you’ve ever had a peak at my Summary/Best-Of posts for my travels through Asia, Australia and NZ or South America and Antarctica, you know what’s coming.

This is a summary of Part 3 of my world tour:  314 days (a little over 10 months) of travel through Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.  I love writing these summaries, it gives me an excuse to go through all my pictures and reminisce.

For those who love country (and pseudo-country) names, I visited 30:  Spain, France, Andorra, Portugal, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Wales, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Poland, Sweden, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, The West Bank, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Burkina Faso, and Mali.

What did I do in these countries?  What did I experience?  Here is just a taste…

I cycled 1000km through France with some good friends of mine, eating cheese and drinking wine as we went.  I had such a blast touring around on a bicycle, I continued solo through the Spanish Pyrenees, sleeping in fields along the way.  During this time I stumbled into Andorra the one night of the year they light the place on fire! In a moment of craziness, I tried to outrun some bulls in Spain (oh shit!).  I hiked through the Scottish Highlands, played lawn games while drinking Pimm’s in the English countryside, and had my fair share of Guinness in Ireland.  I tasted Belgium’s finest beer and saw red lights in Amsterdam.  In Germany, I walked along the wall in Berlin and hit the beer gardens; in Switzerland I hiked in the stunning Swiss Alps.  I’ve partied in Poznan and trekked the Tatras in Poland, and then got destroyed by the hinderbana in Stockholm.  Europe was all about visiting friends I had met around the world.  I love familiar faces in foreign places.  I felt like a million bucks after a Turkish bath in Instanbul.  I paraglided over the Mediterranean Coast at my first Air Party.  I ate a lot of kebabs and fruit juices in Iraq (that’s right, Iraq).  I saw bullet-hole-ridden buildings in Lebanon and finally got into Syria after been rejected the first time.  I’ve floated in the Dead Sea.  I’ve wandered through the Old City in Jerusalem and trekked below sea level in the Negev Desert.  In Egypt, I’ve seen The Great Pyramids.  I spent New Year’s Eve on the banks of the Nile in The Sudan.  I travelled through one of the world’s strangest collection of landscapes:  The Danakil Depression.  I drank too much tej.  Some random guy asked me if I was a spy in Somaliland.  I understood the meaning of “13 months of sunshine” in Ethiopia.  I learned how to pronounce Ouagadougou, and finally, travelled 5 days down the Niger River in a pinasse, all the way to Timbuktu.

Once again, I will attempt the impossible:  I will pick a few of my favourite places and experiences.  This is all very unscientific, as how a place strikes you is always a function of a bunch of random factors, such as, but not limited to:  the existence (or lack) of a little sunshine, the company I am rolling with, my particular state of mind at that moment, the hand that fate has dealt me that day.  Besides all this, I need to have paper and pen nearby to make it note of it before I forget :)  Despite all these difficulties, it is great fun to make these lists anyway.  In no particular order:


1.  Hiking the Swiss Alps
2.  A multi-day trek through the Tatra Mountains, Poland
3.  Walking along the escarpment and sleeping on roofs in animist villages in Dogon Country, Mali
4.  Trekking the Simiens Mountains amongst endemic baboons, Ethiopia
5.  Attending a Turkish bath (some might think this wouldn’t qualify as an adventure; I assure you it does)
6.  Diving the infamous Blue Hole, Egypt
7.  Paragliding over the Mediterreanan Coast in Turkey

Memorable Journeys

1.  Cycling 1700km through France, Spain, and Andorra
2.  5-day 4WD trip through the bizarre Danakil Depression
3.  The overnight ferry from Egypt to Sudan, sleeping on the deck under the stars
4.  5-day trip down the Niger River in a pinasse, all the way to Timbuktu


I ate a lot good food in Europe and the Middle East, so this list is really long.  What can I say, these guys are good at it.

1.  Everything in France.  The bread, the cheese, the wine, escargot, crepes, etc.  Even when some of it was not to my taste, I could feel/sense/taste the quality/goodness of it all.
2.  Tapas in San Sebastian.  They are tasty, you can eat all kinds of interesting stuff (octopus?), and it is really fun to just sample a few snacks (no commitment of ordering a whole meal), then just move on to the next place!
3.  Anything Steve cooked for us during our France cycling trip.  What this man can do with a backcountry stove is incredible and would blow your mind.
4.  Asado in Germany, if you can believe it.  My friend Manja invited me to one hosted by some Argentinians living in Germany.
5.  Thuringia sausages, Germany
6.  Zapiekanka, Poland.  A toasted bread snack served with your choice of sauces, cheese, vegetables, and a slew of other options.  Best eaten on your way from the bar.
7.  The Full English
8.  Shawarma, served all over the Middle East.  Honestly, I have an addiction.  I want to start a group for others with this addiction.  I’m going to call it Shawarma Anonymous.  The location of the best shwarma in the world is a hot topic of debate in traveller circles.  Having tasted them in every country in the Middle East, you can trust me when I say the answer is Syria (although it’s a tough call; I imagine it would be like trying to choose your favourite child).

9.  A curry house my friends Andy & Lydia brought me to in London.  I can’t remember the name, but I remember the curry and the lamb
10.  Thanksgiving at the Horesh household in Israel:  turkey, pies, and Dalia’s irresistible date cookies
11.  Hummus with Israeli salad
12.  Nubian Tagen, a kind of hot, delicious stew in Upper Egypt
13.  Nile perch, available in many countries in Africa, I had it in Burkina Faso
14.  Kedjenou, a chicken/veggie stew I had in Burkina Faso
15.  Grilled goat, Somaliland
16.  Turkish pizza
17.  Bedouin food in the desert of Wadi Musa, Jordan
18.  Kushari, Egypt.  A simple dish of pasta, rice, lentils and tomato sauce
19.  Oysters and white wine with my fellow cyclists in Cap Ferret, France


1.  Leffe 9:  A Belgium beer I first tried in some rural town in France.
2.  Vol Damm, Doble Malta, Barcelona
3.  Superbock Stout, Portugal
4.  Actually, I love all the Belgium beers, especially Kwak and Tripel Karmeliet

5.  Old Speckled Hen, England
6.  The local bitter I had a party in Farnham, Dorset
7.  Guinness, Ireland.  Especially while enjoying the 360 degree view of Dubland from the top of the brewery
8.  Efes dark, Turkey  (“Thirsting for life”)
9.  Golden Star, Israel
10.  Dashen, Ethiopia
11.  Lech, Poland, because I had so many good times drinking it in Poznan :)

Other drinks

1.  Pomegranate juice, Turkey
2.  Milk Banana shake, Damascus, Syria
3.  Bedouin tea, Jordan
4.  Zubrowka vodka and apple juice, Poland
5.  Fruit juice stands, Iraq
6.  Drinking cognac in Cognac, France.  OK, I don’t really like cognac, but I felt pretty cool drinking it there.
6.  Tej, Ethiopia.  A local honey wine.

Scariest Moments

1.  Hearing the sound of hooves of the oncoming bulls on the road in Spain and realizing that I have nowhere to hide…
2.  Looking over the edge of the cliff above the Turkish Mediterranean Coast just before I walk off it to go paragliding
3.  On my bicycle, looking up at the never-ending switchbacks of a road that climbs over a 1700m pass in the Spanish Pyrenees.  Shit.
4.  A large Turkish man with a hairy chest, wearing only a small cloth, speaks no English, indicates that I should lay down on a marble slab.  Oh god, what is going to happen to me…
5.  Standing on a crack on the edge the Erta’ Ale volcano and peaking in at the bubbling lava
6.  Being caught in a sandstorm, in the Danakil, one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, with no visibility, realizing we are lost.
7.  I’m minding my own business in Andorra when I hear drumming approaching and then, out of nowhere, hooded pyromaniacs push through the people slinging blazing fires at the end of chains, holy shit!

Places to party

Answer:  with good friends all over Europe.  I had a great time.  A few off the top of my head

1.  Dancing on tables in Brussels, Belgium
2.  San Sebastien, Spain, after the local football team won a big game

(pic from BK)

3.  Poznan, Poland, which a friend of mine calls “The paradise”, and rightly so
4.  Andorra, the one night the year when they light the whole place on fire
5.  With the cool, fun expats in Erbil, Iraq.  I shit you not, this was a great party
6.  In the English countryside, playing lawn games (croquet!) and drinking Pimm’s
7.  San Fermin Festival (aka, The Running of the Bulls), Spain.  People partying like it’s their last, sangria flying everywhere

Jaw-dropping Landscapes and Views

The things these eyes have seen, oh my

1.  Rolling green hills in France
2.  Erta’ Ale Volcano and Dallol Sulfur Springs in the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia
3.  The Tatra mountains, Poland, especially from one of those well-placed alpine huts, beer in hand, in the late afternoon sun
4.  Cappadocia, fairy chimneys in Turkey
6.  Mediterreanan Coast in Turkey from 2000m up while paragliding
7.  The old squares in Poland.  Especially at night.  Gorgeous.
8.  The green hills of the Scottish Highlands
9.  Petra, Jordan.  It is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, and for good reason
10.  Pyramids of Egypt.  The last survivng Ancient Wonder of the World is everything you thought it might be when you were growing up.
10.  The Negev Desert, Israel, at sunset
11.  Great Sand Sea, Egypt
12.  The Swiss Alps are everything you’ve heard them to be:  postcard perfect villages in green valleys below glacier-topped peaks

There you have it.  That’s the kind of trip it was through Europe, Middle East, and Africa.

It’s possible these fingers have one last post in them:  some famous last words, if you will.

Posted in General | 3 Comments

This is the end of my World Tour (Day 907)

Today, my 907th as a World Traveller, is my last.  As they say, all good things must come to an end.  After almost 2 and a half years of wandering around the planet, my time has come.  Timbuktu was my last stop.  (That’s going out with a bang, I say!)  I am typing this from my parent’s house in Canada.

With my last trick up my sleeve, I surprised my parents by showing up unannounced!  Oh my, you should have seen the look on their faces.  Damn, that was good fun!  I recommend this move to any traveller. 

It’s really quite impressive how dirty I and all my stuff were when I got here.  Not just regular dirty, but Africa dirty.  That’s next level.  I just had a shower at my parents house:  a clean bathroom, with hot water (!), water pressure, a clean towel.  It was priceless.  It’s really hard to explain the joy this brought me. 

I was going  to wash the clothes I have been wearing around the world for 2.5 years, but now I am thinking I should probably just burn them.  They are a science project of their own.

It’s good to be back in the Motherland.  I will be back soon with a “Best Of – Part 3” (I love doing these) and some last words to wrap up this blog.  Stay tuned.

Posted in General | 14 Comments

All the way to Timbuktu (Day 906)

It has been a long journey, but I’ve finally done it:  I’ve travelled all the way to Timbuktu.  Ah, Timbuktu, that mythical name of a legendary city in a far off place, in back of beyond.  A name I had heard as a kid but never knew it actually existed.  It does.  Here in Mali.  On the edge of the Sahara Desert.

About a year and a half ago I was in the Galapagos Islands and I had an idea (dream?)  that my travels should take me all the way to Timbuktu.  I really wanted to get there, just for the hell of it.  And now I have.  This is what travel is all about.

The proof.  It’s in French.  “Welcome to Timbuktu.”

As it turns out, my story about Timbuktu is about getting there, which, now that I think about it, is the way it should be.  I booked passage on a pinasse (an overgrown canoe with a roof and motor) from the city of Mopti all the way down the Niger River to fabled Timbuktu.  When buying the ticket, I was told the journey would take 3 days…  As you will see, we were a tad late.

The pinasse was dangerously overloaded, sitting VERY low in the water.  It was stacked to the brim with construction materials, sacks of food and cement, and everything else under the sun.  Further, the pinasse had taken on too many passengers, so there was a mass of people like me who were crammed into the boat as well.  Overloaded, overcrowed, and slow — this is classic African transportation.

My transport.  This is where I ate, slept, and lived for 5 days on the Niger, all the way to Timbuktu.

The pinasse comes with a cook, who doubles as the guy responsible for bailing the boat (a bailer?), as water leaks in at an alarming rate.  Actually, it seems to me he does more bailing than cooking, so I should say we have a bailer that doubles as a cook.

On the pinasse there is absolutely nothing to do but sit around on the sacks of rice, swat flies (the speed of our boat is not enough to shake them), and hope it doesn’t sink (which apparently happens from time to time).

At one point I ask our bailer/cook how long it will take to get to Timbuktu.  He gives me an honest look and a classic reply:  “I don’t want to lie to you.  I have no idea.”  On the bright side, no matter how long it takes, we won’t starve, as we have a mountain of rice on board (which, btw, is threatening to sink us).

Right from the first day, I see why the length of the journey is so uncertain.  It is the dry season in Mali, so the water level of the Niger is low.  This, coupled with the fact that our pinasse is so overloaded, causes us to run aground on sand bars again and again…  and again.  Each time we get stuck pretty good and the guys who work the boat get out and try to push and pry us off the sand bars with sticks.

Here is a log of this epic journey:

Day 1

– I become all too familiar with the sensation of our pinasse grinding to a halt as it runs aground.

– The boat tries to continue through the night, but we keep getting stuck and give up on trying to find a route through the shallows in the dark.  We anchor.  I sleep on the sacks of rice, lulled to sleep by the bailer/cook emptying water out of the bottom of the boat.

Day 2

– We  continue, passing village after village of mud-constructed buildings.  The locals kids swim and the women wash clothes in the river.  They wave.  I wave back.  It’s pleasant.

– At midday we pull over and anchor.  What’s going on?  My money says the pre-historic motor has died.  Actually, the captain has received word that far behind us, upstream, it is raining, so the water levels should soon rise, easing our passage.  He doesn’t say how long we will wait.  I don’t ask.  I go for a nap on the roof.

– Afternoon:  we have continued, but I can’t say the rain has helped.  After searching for hours for a route through the shallows, the call comes from the captain:  everybody out!  The boat is sitting too low in the water.  We passengers and a lot of the cargo are crammed into another tiny canoe, thus halving the load of our boat .

– In the falling darkness, we get separated from our original boat.  Uh oh.  We struggle for hours.  Around 11pm we eventually give up and go ashore.  At this point I realize that the original boat has the food, water, and all our luggage, and we have no idea where it is.  We sleep on the bank of the river.  The plot thickens…

Day 3

– About 10am, just as I am convinced I will never see my luggage again, our pinasse shows up.  We plow on.

– After a few more episodes of getting stuck, I realize that if I want to get to Timbuktu this year, I better get out and help.  I push and pry that damn pinasse.  That’s when I had one of those moments of pure joy I get sometimes when I travel:

I am waist-deep in the Niger with a bunch of Africans trying to muscle our boat off a sand bar so we can get to Timbuktu.  Right then, it occurs to me:  I LOVE THIS SHIT.  When we get it unstuck, we cheer our success then climb onto the roof to dry off in the African sun.  There is no where else I would rather be.

– Btw, today is the day we are supposed to arrive in Timbuktu.  I have no idea where we are, but I’m petty sure it is nowhere near Timbuktu.

Fishermen on the Niger

Day 4

– We stop at a village and stupidly take on more cargo.  We can’t get down the river.  The passengers are forced to get out and walk 3km down the riverbank in the hot afternoon sun so the boat can get through.  The locals are pissed.  I think it is hilarious.  In fact, I’m happy, at least I’m moving; besides, walking seems way faster than that shitbox of a boat.  At this point, if I had enough food, I would consider just walking to Timbuktu, it would probably faster.

– Later that day, while we are stuck again, I go for a swim with the local kids.  The people laugh at they white guy in the Niger.   I start swimming away and yell back that I’m going to swim to Timbuktu, it will be faster.  They laugh some more.  That’s me, Mr. Funny Guy.

Quick look inside our pinasse.  It was more crowded than it looks here, trust me.

– Late at night, we pull into a village.  The captain says he will take this boat no further, the water is too low (no shit).  I’m transferred to another (smaller) canoe.

Day 5

– 4pm, I finally arrive in the promised land, 2 days late.  Timbuktu!  Will miracles never cease.

What is on the menu on a pinasse down the Niger?  For breakfast, rice.  For lunch?  Rice.  And for dinner… wait for it… *rice*.  Rice, 3 meals per day, five days in a row.  No cutlery here.  Dig in.

All in all, the journey to Timbuktu was an awesome experience and I’m very happy I did it.  It was memorably uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  (That is why they pay me the big bucks… wait a minute… I *paid* for this… ugh).

You might be wondering, what exactly is in Timbuktu?  Answer:  Not a hell of a lot.  It is a sandy town of mud-brick houses.  But, just beyond Timbuktu lies the greatest desert on the planet:  The Sahara.  The Sahara Desert rocks.

Some fellow travellers and I hired camels and did an overnight trip into the desert.  Riding camels and sleeping under the stars in the Sahara, what a life!

Abner (USA) atop his “ship of the desert”

Anyway, there you have it.  Timbuktu.  True story.

Before my Timbuktu adventures I did a 3-day escarpment trek in a part of Mali called “Dogon Country.”  It was a good one, but that story will have to wait for another time.  But, just because I liked it so much, here is a quick pic from that adventure:

Cliffs and baobab trees, this is Dogon country

My Dogon guide asked me to put lots of pictures of Mali on the internet so that people would know how beautiful it was.  I told him I would.  I’m a man of my word.

Until next time, this is your favourite World Traveller signing off from Mali.

Posted in Africa | 5 Comments

Burkina Faso: The Country of Honest Men (Day 890)

That’s what “Burkina Faso” means in one of the local languages.  Cool, eh?

If you like that name, you will love the name of the capital city:  Ouagadougou! (Did somebody buy too many vowels?).  To pronouce this one, think “Wagadugu” with a long ‘a’ sound, as in “father”, and a long ‘u’ sound, as in “due.”  You should try saying it with me one time, it’s super fun.  Maybe you are in the office and people will hear you and think you’re nuts, but don’t worry about it.  Ready?  One, two, three… Ouagadougou.  Ahh.  Didn’t that just bring a smile to your face?  It does for me, every time.

The coolest name for a capital city ever.  (Nevermind that the sign is falling apart, this is Africa.)
Although people here generally speak their local language in the streets, the official language is French.  So, most people in the cities speak it as a second language.  And so do I.  I am once again reminded how being able to speak one the local languages really makes travelling better.  I was recently in the Middle East and Horn of Africa where I spoke none of the languages, and of course I got along just fine, but this is better.  I can read the signs, read the menu, talk to anybody and everybody on the street (huge), get directions, etc.

For example, I saw a guy walking around with 9 or 10 dead rats on a string (what the hell??).  Because this guy and I have a language in common, I could ask him what in the world was going on.  What I hadn’t noticed was that in his other hand he was carrying many packages of rat poison for sale.  The dead rats were a demonstration of the effectiveness of his product.  “My stuff is so good, look how many rats I have killed already!”  That’s genius marketing if you ask me.  Anyway, if this guy and I didn’t share a language, I would never have had the privilege of this conversation :)

Burkina Faso marks the happy return of street food back in my life.  For some reason, there isn’t any in Ethiopia.  But, here there is an abundance.  Few things bring a smile to my face like the sight of unrecognizable meat being grilled in the street!  yumm…

Here is something that’s not street food.  This simmered stew with chicken and vegetables is called “kedjenou”.  Or, as I like to call it, “goodness.”

What else can I tell you about this country?  Live music is big here.  I watch a live concert every night and I love it.  You should see these West African guys drumming, it’s crazy!

Dancing is also big.  For a few reasons, I stick out like a sore thumb on the dance floor here.  One is that I’m a terrible dancer.  I have been cutting a rug all over the planet, and I have yet to find a place where my moves are in.  (Although this never stops me.)  I don’t move my hips enough in Latin America, don’t shake my shoulders fast enough in Ethiopia, and now I have no rythm in West Africa.  I can’t win.

Btw, it’s hot here.  Damn hot.  It’s 42 degrees (108 for my farenheit-inclined friends) and I’m slowly melting.  To combat this, I am hitting the ice cream — hard.  Several times per day.  I don’t know the owner of the local ice cream shop, but I’m pretty sure I am putting his kids through college.

The mosque in Bobo-Dioulasso is made of mud.  Pretty impressive.  (Power lines photoshop’d out by MH, much better)

In the foreground an African woman is walking with who-knows-what-all on her head, as is common here.  The women balance impossible loads on their heads… and can still look both ways before crossing the street.

That’s all from Burkina Faso.  I’m going West.

Posted in Africa | 4 Comments

Ethiopia: 13 months of sunshine (Day 883)

I’m a blogging machine today.

“13 months of sunshine” is the motto of the Ethiopian Tourism Department.  I like it.  The Ethiopians actually have their own calendar which has 13 months.  In Ethiopia, the year is currently 2003.  What’s more, they have their own clock as well:  one hour after sunrise, it’s 1 o’clock; 2 hours after sunrise, 2 o’clock.  Four hours after sunset:  4 o’clock at night.  Cool, eh?  But, it also adds to some confusion.  Any time an Ethiopian tells you a time, you need to ask if it is Ethiopian or faranji (“foreigner”) time.

A little while ago I did a 4-day trek in the Simien Mountains.  It was an escarpment trek and much of the trail was along the edge of cliffs, with the scenery falling away thousands of metres below.  The views were killer.  It was the first time I had done a multi-day trek with rental gear.  Which made me realize how good I have it (and how much of a wimp I am) with my fancy-pants gear that I usually use.

Compared with my gear, this Ethiopian rental gear was all twice the size, twice the weight, half the quality and really old.  I imagine this is what trekking in the 70s must have been like.  Holy shit, the mattresses and sleeping bags were bulky!  … and yet not very warm.  The stove and steel pots were big, heavy and couldn’t boil water.  (by comparison, my pot back home is made of titanium… titanium, for God’s sake!)

But, the point I want to make is, even with less than top-of-the-line gear, you can of course still do it.  Your pack might be heavier than usual, but you can carry it.  You might freeze your nuts off at night, but the dawn will eventually come, and the sun will warm you.  Maybe the shitty stove won’t boil water, but you can eat sludgy pasta, or survive one more day on that stale bread.  You can still have a great time.  And that’s what I did.

One of my trekking partners, Nathaniel (USA), provides a little human interest
An armed escort is standard for many tours in Ethiopia.  This is our scout in the Simien Mountains.  “Stoic” is the word one of my trekking partners used to describe him.  For 4 days he ate almost nothing, drank little water, slept without a sleeping bag, carried a Kalashnikov, and walked with his toes literally sticking out the front of his shitty shoes.  I called him Mr. Scout.
This barefoot girl is carrying a sack bigger than she is with a rope tied around her shoulders.  She makes me with my Gore-tex boots and $500, high-tech trekking pack look like a bit of a wimp… just a bit.

You should sit down for this one.  At a place called Lalibela there are churches that were carved out of rock solid rock 900 years ago.  But that’s not even the big deal.  They were not built from the ground up.  They were built from ground level… wait for it… *down* !!  They are monolithic, free-standing churches that were carved into the ground; not even into a cave.  Can you imagine how much work it would have been to build these 900 years ago, with hammer and chisel?!?  I would have quit my job for sure.  Those guys were nuts.

Bet Giyorgis Church, carved INTO THE ROCK GROUND!  The photo was taken from ground level.

From this picture I don’t think you are understanding how awesome this is.  Let me try another:

I fell through a foreign diplomatic crack the other day.  I wanted a visa for Djibouti, but their embassy in Addis Ababa told me that they had a new policy (as of Jan 1st, 2011) that requires a letter of invitation (LOI) from my embassy.  No problem.  I wander over to the Canadian Embassy to ask for one, but am told the Canadian Government’s policy, as of a year ago, is that they don’t issue LOIs.  So, to review, Djibouti has a policy of requiring LOIs of all countries, and Canada has a policy of not issuing LOIs to any country.   This silly situation I call “foreign diplomatic deadlock.”  After a couple more trips back and forth, I get them to talk on the phone to each other.  It turns out that Canada had no idea of Djibouti’s new policy, and apparently I am the first Canadian trying to get a Djibouti visa this year.  The Canadian Embassy Worker had to message Ottawa to figure out what will be Canada’s policy to this issue going forward.

Anyway, this whole situation, all because of some burocratic baloney, is a bit annoying.  But I find it amusing that, as I type this, there are a bunch of politicians in Ottawa trying to figure out what to do about this issue I brought up.  There you go, I’m forcing Canadian Foreign Policy meetings — just another day in the life of a World Traveller.  Folks, I think I’ve finally hit the big time.

Just because I love it so much, here’s a random pic of some friends and I riding the roof of a truck in Southern Ethiopia.  (It brings me back to my roof-riding days in the Terai of Nepa!)  Who do I talk to about making this legal in Canada??  Woo-hoo!!!

Well, I’ve been in Ethiopia for about 2 months now and I’m due for a change of scenery.  I made an album of pics you can find here.  On this trip I’ve never had such a difficult time getting the album down to a reasonable size.  Actually, I think it’s still too big, but I don’t have the heart to cut any more pictures from it.  Enjoy.

Just recently I was walking around Addis Ababa and spotted a sign for the embassy of a country called “Burkina Faso.”  Wow, what a cool name for a country!  That’s a good enough reason for me to visit.  The next day I went in to the embassy, got the visa and bought a flight to this place.

Until a little over a week ago I had never even heard of the country… and tomorrow I’m going.  That’s how I roll… just like that.

See you in West Africa.

Posted in Africa | 9 Comments

“Are you a spy?” (Day 883)

Some random guy asked me this at the Somaliland-Ethiopia border while I was crammed into the back of an SUV with 3 other people (this is how transportation is done here) .  I was thinking I must have mis-heard him.  “Excuse me?”  With the most serious face he repeated, “Are you a spy for your country?”

You have no idea how much I wanted to reply, “As a matter of fact, yes, I’m Canada’s James Bond.  My Aston Martin just broke down around the corner, so I am crammed into this SUV with the rest of this mass of humanity.”  But, at this sketchy border crossings, I find it’s a good idea to be on your best behavior, so instead I replied, “No” with a chuckle and he walked off.

That was just one of the interesting conversations I had in Somaliland, which is a pseudo-country east of Ethiopia.  In 1991, it declared independence from Somalia and claimed itself a country, but nobody else in the world, the UN included, has recognized it as such.  The situation is a bit weird if you ask me.  

This raises a good question:  what makes a country a country?  What’s the process?  Who do you talk to?  I have no idea.  I can’t remember where I read it or who told me, but apparently Frank Zappa once said, “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.

Well, Somaliland doesn’t have a national airline.  I’m not sure about a football team, but I’m fairly certain they don’t have any nuclear weapons.  Being a Muslim country, I can tell you they definitely don’t have any beer.  So, according to the Zappa test, Somaliland is not a country.

The closest thing you can find to a beer in Somaliland is this malt apple flavoured drink.  It’s a bit strange.

In another good conversation in Somaliland, a guy asked me if I was Chinese.  I thought he was joking until, with a serious face, he gave me his second guess:  Filipino?  Hmm… well, they don’t see too many foreigners here.  The usual guesses from the locals regarding my nationality are American or some European country.  Btw, in these places, nobody guesses Canada.  Ever.  In fact, many people think Canada is part of the US.

What did I do in Somaliland?  Answer:  not a hell of a lot.  To be honest, there is not a lot going on here.   It’s another one of those places that is past the “No Attractions Past This Point” sign (to quote Mr.  Downie).  But, it’s cool to just hang around, be pretty much the only tourist (I saw one German guy while I was there), talk to locals and drink mango shakes.  

Maybe I didn’t give the place a fair shake.  It does have some beaches, which I tried to get to, but my transport fell through.  It also has some ancient rock paintings, but after seeing countless ancient paintings/sculptures/art all over the world, I don’t bother with such things too much these days.  Perhaps I was slacking in Somaliland.  I will tighten my game up!

The currency situation in Somaliland is hilarious.  Changing a mere $10 US gets you a stack of 500-shilling notes more than an inch thick.  If you change any more, you will probably want to bring a sack to carry the money in.  It makes me feel pretty bad-ass to be holding so much cash.  To give you an idea, $1 is about 5,000 shillings.  Any time you buy something, you are typically handing over 20 or more bills.  As a result, the locals are incredible bill counters, they can rifle through a stack and count it so fast it’s just a blur to me! 

I like the money changers here.   They sit in the streets with huge stacks of money.  This is nothing, right after this pic I saw a guy with so many stacks he could have built himself a small shelter of shillings.

Walking around Hargeisa you see most men have sticks in their mouths.  What are they doing?? Cleaning their teeth, as it turns out. Does this really work? I decided to find out. If nothing else, I really felt like one of the crowd when I was walking around with a stick in my mouth. This is how to clean your teeth, Somaliland-style.


I’ll be back soon to tell a few more tall Ethiopian tales.

PS:  No,  I didn’t see any pirates 

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