Surf’s Up and Singing for Food

Today, for the first time ever, I went surfing.  We are staying in a hostel that has loads of activities, some free, some reasonably priced. It turned out that the hostel hired a new surfing instructor and they were offering a free lesson with a wetsuit.  I figured what the heck.  When will I have another opportunity to go surfing for free.  I didn’t know how long I’d last, so I certainly didn’t want to pay a lot (or anything) to find out that surfing wasn’t for me.

I had so much fun!  The instructor was great — patient, good with beginners and safety conscious.  There were four of us out there, and I was the oldest and shortest (I mention my stature because I found it harder to get on the board than the taller people).  At first, the instructor advised me to get on the board and then told me, “start paddling NOW!”  And sure enough, off I went with the wave.  Granted, I didn’t stand up, but I did get to ride the wave, and I was thrilled.  

The sea was a bit rough so when I went back out to catch another wave, the water would splash in my face, turn the board around and knock me half way down.  I’d spit out the water, hang on to the board, and keep on pushing forward.  I was way out of my comfort zone, but I stuck with it.  Ryan (the instructor) gave me a few more pointers, and before I knew it, I was on my own.  I didn’t go as far out to catch the bigger waves, but I had so much fun.  It was all very exciting!  

I stayed out for about 2 hours, which was plenty of time to figure out that I probably won’t do it again.  My arms are sore, my legs are bruised, and my body battered.  But nonetheless, I was glad I tried it.

After returning to the hostel, I grabbed a quick bite to eat and ventured to a local school (Bulugha Farm School in Chintsa, SA) where the children where literally singing and dancing for food.  They were hoping/looking for donations so they could enjoy a hot breakfast and lunch since they didn’t get much to eat at home.  It was an honor for them to be at the school to begin with since not everyone could afford the tuition.  Their uniforms looked ragged and some had no shoes.  But their eyes shone brightly and they sang with such enthusiasm that I think it was a good thing I only went with a small amount of money; otherwise I would have given them all I had in my pocket (which I ultimately did).  

The day we were there, the school was accepting delivery of new desks from the government which they had ordered in 2010. Every child helped remove the old, broken chairs and tabletops from their classroom to bring in the new desks. They were so excited. I noticed that even though the old tables/desks were nicked and dented, there was no graffiti on any of them. Not like in the good old USA!

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Chillaxin’ in Zanzibar

Chillaxin’ in Zanzibar

We had planned on heading east to hike in the Usambara mountains but after reading that it was recommended to bring an armed hiking guide, we got a couple of plane tickets to Zanzibar, spent one more night in Arusha and off we flew. We’ve been using the Lonely Planet guide books and found them to be about 75-80% accurate, but when you’re talking armed guards for hiking, well, it just didn’t seem worth it.

Our timing has been impeccable. We left Egypt as the first petitions to oust Morsi were being handed out, we got to Istanbul a few days before the start of a hiatus in the protests, even visiting Taksim square. Then, we left Istanbul a day before the protesters and police clashed again. To top it all off, while sitting in a travel agent’s office in Arusha getting ourplane tickets to Zanzibar, we read about a grenade that had been tossed a month earlier somewhere in Arusha killing 4 people; the FBI were investigating, too, because (Obama had visited Tanzania and) the police are suspects.

So, after very good fortune, several days road-riding, lots of one-nighters, and touring the heck out of Turkey and safari’s in Tanzania, we’re taking some beach time in Zanzibar just off the coast of mainland Tanzania! Zanzibar is a possible future breakaway from Tanzania. Tanzania was formed in 1964 as a union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar Island but there is unrest as more than a few Zanzibarans would prefer to form their own government. Things move slowly in Africa, so if there’s a revolution I’m sure it will wait….at least until just after we leave.

Chillaxin' at it's finest

Chillaxin’ at it’s finest

We’re staying at the Baby Bush Lodge (thanks for the recommendation, Bruce!) which is a small, funky hotel/restaurant a few meters right off of a fine white sand beach that has regular basic hotel rooms and two dormitories that can house a total of 48 backpackers.

We quickly added some new Swahili words to our vocabulary:
Jambo- Hello!
Asante – Thank you.
Hacuna Matata – No problem. (Made famous from the animated movie, “The Lion King”)
……and the all essential tout-busting,
Hapana Seetaki- No. I don’t want it.

As in mainland Tanzania, there are touts, or as they are called locally, “beach boys”. As we walk down the beach we can count on being approached by them with a big fat, “Jambo”, trying to strike up a conversation with “Where are you from?” or “Where are you staying?”, etc… trying to sell artwork, a tour or to get us to visit their store, “free to look”. We even met Coco Chanel who has a store 200 yards from where we’re staying! Armani and Gucci are also very close by.

These touts, or “ticks” as they’re referred to in the Lonely Planet guide, are plentiful but have nothing on their counter parts in Egypt. They’re plentiful but relatively easy to shake. Still, it would be nice to walk down the beach without the hassle.

View from our balcony at Baby Bush

View from our balcony at Baby Bush

Surprisingly, there are Maasai on Zanzibar. Generally tall, lanky and lithe, they are natives of the mainland but made their way here and dress traditionally in robes with stick/spear and a long knife/sword.

Maasai in da 'hood

Maasai in da ‘hood

Arriving in Tanzania

We arrived at Mt. Kiliminjaro Airport at 3:30 a.m. and after getting a Visa, going through customs,finding our driver, and getting to our lodge, it was nearly 5:00 a.m. and still pitch black outside.

When making the reservation at the hostel, I didn’t know I was going to have to climb a mountain to get to it. The driver/guide had a flashlight and was leading the way to the lodge.  Bill was close behind him but, as usual, I was a few yards behind.  It was difficult seeing where I was going. I knew I was walking on dirt, that it was a narrow, steep path and kept losing my footing while stumbling over rocks.  We kept climbing.  

Finally, we get to our room.  It was hardly bigger than the bed!  The bathroom door didn’t have a handle so you had to kind of punch it open and coax it close.  The toilet wasn’t working.  The blanket didn’t cover the entire bed.  The room was cold.  I put on extra layers and passed out thinking, this is too much!  I’m too old for this. (Side note: You never know exactly what you’re getting into when you stay at a hostel. We’ve stayed in some great ones and some that I wanted to leave as soon as I walked in.) We had reserved our room for two nights and I kept thinking there’s no way I’m staying the second night.  I was willing to lose our money, if necessary.  I’m not sure Bill was feeling the same way.  

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After only a few hours sleep, we wake up so we could start planning a safari.  After searching the complex for someone, we finally find Justin, the owner of the lodge, in one of the outbuildings.  He greets us with a big hello and invites us into his apartment for breakfast. He opens the shades and we are treated to a nice view of mountains.  

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Luckily, everything worked out fine. in addition to being the “CEO” of Arusha Lodge Hostel and Adventure (he is the only one running the place), he organized and arranged safaris.  Bill had already done some shopping around,so we knew what to expect.  Justin was able to offer us what we wanted at a reasonable price. 

The icing on the cake, though, was what happened the rest of the day. Justin had his driver pick us up, carry my bags back down the mountain, take us to a bank, stop at a grocery store for personal supplies, get us a SIM card for our phone (going to two stalls when he thought the first one was too expensive), and went to not one, but two hotels until we were happy.  He suggested a restaurant that we should try for our evening meal, but unfortunately, we didn’t listen and had an inferior meal.  I think we will have another opportunity to try Justin’s suggestion, though, because we will be back in Arusha after our safari. 

The next day, off we go to Tarangire National Park.

Tootles to Turkey

We can’t figure out why more Americans don’t visit Turkey.  While we have seen some Americans in Istanbul, we only saw a handful in all the other places we’ve been to — and that counts the one that just finished his stint in the Peace Corps.

Inside the Grand Bazaar

Inside the Grand Bazaar

The Turkish people are kind, honest, warm, friendly, and hospitable.  They have a sense of humor (like the time we were walking down the street and a shop owner said, “tell me, how can I get your money,” or when a restaurant owner was trying to get us to eat at his place and said with a smile and a wink, “the food is really terrible.”) We met people who treated us to a 4 star dinner (see Bill’s Istanbul post).

This was more the norm than the exception. From the hotels/hostels to the ticket taker at the Metro, they went out of their way to help us. If they didn’t speak English, they would find someone who did. 

The transportation system, including buses, dolmus’, trams and ferries all ran like clockwork.  The seating was comfortable and the service exceptional.

Istanbul from the Bosphorus-Galata tower in the background

Istanbul from the Bosphorus. The Galata tower is in the background.

The food was fresh, the fruit sweet.  We enjoyed our time in Turkey very much. We’ll be back someday.

Cappuccino. Mmmmmm.

Cappuccino. Mmmmmm.

Tourist season begins

Biking around Fethiye harbor

Biking around Fethiye harbor

The plan after the Blue Cruise was to stay in Fethiye for one night but as we were going to work our way to Istanbul via Canakkale/Gallipoli knowing we would be in a series of mostly one-nighters, we ended up staying three. Fethiye was bigger and had more to do than originally thought. The harbor was filled with gulets and tour boats and the town was filled with tourists

I rented a bike for the day exploring the coast around Fethiye. Riding on sidewalks is not unusual and is definitively safer that riding on the streets. Bike rental facilities do not provide helmets and although many drivers are deferential to cyclists, riding remains a somewhat sketchy endeavor. Heading north I followed the waterfront pedestrian/bike path until its end, about 5km outside of the center. They were still working on expanding the path; another example of the investment the Turkish government is putting into public works projects. Heading south from our pension, I rode along a large peninsula that jutted way into Fethye’s well protected harbor. This road was not flat at all with big rolling hills. I had no water bottle holder so had to stop for snow-cones along the way to cool down and quench my thirst.

Snow cones and lots more. Strategically positioned at the top of a hill.

Snow cones and lots more. Strategically positioned at the top of a hill.

All in a day …

Today we spent over an hour with a young woman at MNG Cargo trying to get the correct information so we can have our credit card shipped to Istanbul. She didn’t speak a word of English.  We used Google translator and passed my IPad back and forth.  Thank you Sukran and GT!  Then our taxi driver tried to rip us off.  I guess he thought we were rich Americans or he deserved a really big tip! After that, we didn’t have a prepaid card to take a bus, but the bus driver let us ride for free.  Last night we almost ate at a bar and cafe that was really a whore house. The police are still outside our hotel with their water cannons ready.

Hopefully things will get quiet again as we head to Bergama tomorrow.

The Blue Cruise

The Blue Cruise

To advance our way west by northwest along the Mediterranean coast we took a gulet –a traditional wooden sailing boat– named the Alaturka 2 from Olympos to Fethiye; a standard voyage also known locally as the Blue Cruise. Our mode of transportation went from land or air to ship at sea for 4 days and 3 nights. I didn’t think of it as being on a “cruise” but as soon as I stepped on board it occurred to me that I had, in fact, signed up for my first cruise. And despite some breaks in small walks or stops in small towns, I was bound to life on a boat with limited access to the variety of activities and things taken for granted being on land — I couldn’t just get up and go for a walk — and I would be with the same 16 people for the entire time.

Cindy takes a plunge!

Cindy takes a plunge!

The gulet was 25 meters long and our cabin turned out to be the best available; at the stern, it was a corner cabin and had 2 windows (3 including the one in our private bathroom) which were at right angles to each other giving cross ventilation. An awesome benefit given the usually stuffy nature of boat cabins. And as long as the boat wasn’t moving, the sound of the water lapping at the stern was a constant reminder of the beautiful turquoise Mediterranean sea that surrounded us. The crew consisted of Captain Suleiman, Mourak, the cook and number 2 in command, Only (his nickname, and a great one at that!), the all-round ‘do it all’ crew-member, and Osman, Only’s number 2 man and ship trainee.

Butterfly valley from our gulet, the Alaturka 2

Butterfly valley

There were 16 passengers consisting of 3 Americans, one person each from Argentina, the U.K. and New Zealand, and the remainder were all Aussies. It was a great group of folks and I really enjoyed getting to hear about Australia as it’s a country/continent) I’ve wanted to visit since picking up a National Geographic book about it while in grade school. It just looked so cool and I remember thinking, “I’ve got to go there!” And since we will be traveling there it was great to get some resident advise on what a visit of a few weeks might look like. The group demographics included a family with two young children, three siblings traveling together and one other married couple. The kicker was that we were by far the oldest passengers, probably by at least 10 years; the guesstimated median age was likely around 30 years old. We certainly didn’t feel uncomfortable in the least and we all got along famously, but it was quite unexpected and a bit sobering for Cindy and I to admit to each other we were way on the highest end of the age range.

In the evening, St Nicholas Island (yes, Santa Clause Island!) on the right.

A serene evening at St Nicholas Island (yes, Santa Clause Island!) on the right.

I had heard there would be an opportunity to paraglide along the cruise and I didn’t give it a second thought until Ulundeniz harbor came into view with several paragliders soaring thousands of feet overhead. At 6550 feet, Babadag Mountain makes this one of the world’s best places to paraglide. We continued sailing towards Ulundeniz and as I watched them appear in the sky one after another and land gently on the beach it didn’t take much convincing to break my budget and spend about $90 for the totally gonzo experience of jumping off a cliff for what looked like an easy and gentle ride down.

Paragliders at Ulundeniz Harbor

Paraglider at Ulundeniz Harbor

Eight of us, or fully half of the passengers decided to partake in this opportunity. We were met on the beach by a rep from the gliding company who said they’d completed over 140,000 sorties. We rode up the mountain together but since there were only 6 pilots (who control the glider from behind you on the ride down), the father and son team waited at the top until the rest of us made our way down and two more pilots could be sent back to the top to bring them down. My ears popped 2 or 3 times as we ascended the mountain in a van for what seemed like a long ride. When we got to the top or take off point we were assigned pilots and a take off order very rapidly, I assume to mitigate the chances of anyone chickening out. The flight deck was concrete and curved downward so you couldn’t really see where the edge of it was located.

Me 'n Ebo gettin' ready.

Me ‘n Ebo gettin’ ready.

Just after take off. Ulundeniz straight ahead.....and down.

Just after take off. Ulundeniz straight ahead…..and down.

The sails were un-bagged and as I helped unfold mine I watched the other sails with pilots and passengers in line before me instantly billow up with the cool adiabatic wind that rose from the sea below. Before I took off I saw Tom from our boat already in the sky hundreds of feet from the tarmac and perhaps 50 higher from where I was standing! I expected to have to take a running start but I bearly took a couple of steps and the next thing I knew I felt like I was floating thousands of feet over the mountains and sea. It was hard to get any points of reference as I was so high above the earth and we were moving through space so smoothly. The air rushed by my ears as I tried to keep track of Tom and his orange sail to have some point of reference. In time, the ground grew closer but quite slowly.

The Alaturka 2 waits for us below; second yacht from the right. The Blue Lagoon is at the top of the pic.

The Alaturka 2 waits for us below; second yacht from the right. The Blue Lagoon is at the top of the pic.

The flight lasted about 20 minutes and the landing was as seamless and smooth as the take off. The landing runway was a pedestrian pathway parallel to the beach or on either the grassy area next to it, or the sandy beach on the other side of it. My pilot, Ebo, instructed me to stand up as we landed and the next thing I knew I had gently landed on sand, again taking one or two steps once on the ground. Ebo had been taking photos of me with a camera attached to a telescoping wand which, of course, they tried to sell me once back at the office. But as I noticed my bald spot had gotten bigger it was one hard-sell as I didn’t need to know what I can’t see anyway!

The landing strip ahead is the pedestrian walkway that appears as a continuation of the street.

The landing strip ahead is the pedestrian walkway that appears as a continuation of the street.

This is the only activity I’ve done probably since childhood that did not require signing any indemnity waiver or document. And I found out later that the brochure says, “If you don’t land, you don’t pay”. I wondered if that included refunds if you pay ahead of gliding.

Landing is as easy as it looks.

Landing is as easy as it looks.

The boat was anchored right next to the Blue Lagoon –the same one which served as the locale for the movie starring Brooke Shields– and when we got back, we were witness to people jumping off a 25 foot cliff into the water. Only, our man-friday crew member, feigned fear as he ultimately dove off the cliff. I’d had enough adrenaline rush for the day so I was content to watch.

Cliff diving/jumping by the lagoon.

Cliff diving/jumping by the lagoon.

The only drag about the Blue Cruise — or our room, actually– was that it was situated next to the engine room which was pretty loud. Although the yachts are sailboats, they all motor. The first day, the captain started motoring at 6am and the second day he started up at 5am. After the 5am start, I took my blanket and pillow and stretched myself out on the long seat at the bow. It was windy there of course, so I pulled the blanket over my head and went back to sleep quite soundly as we plowed the Mediterranean, or as it became, the Aegean Sea.

We landed in Fethiye two days ago and tomorrow we leave for Pamukkale, meaning “Cotton Castle” in Turkish.