Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Overland Across Africa -South Africa and Lesotho

So lately I've been fielding a lot of questions about my Africa trip. After finishing Peace Corps Madagascar I flew into Johannesburg, South Africa and ended up flying out of Entebbe, Uganda. In the next couple of posts I'll update you guys on exactly how I did that and what I'd recommend for those of you who want to do the same sort of trip.

South Africa

For Joburg-I completely avoided Joburg and got on the Gautrain (pronounced how-train) to Hatfield which is an area in Pretoria that is safer than most. I stayed at the Khayalethu Guest House (0824404325) which is a couple easy blocks from the Gautrain stop. Its sort of a Peace Corps haven, if you mention that you are a PCV its 100ZAR/night instead of 300-400. It also comes with this AMAZING breakfast with bacon and everything.

Depending on where you are going, I may be able to give you contacts along the way but I'm not going to post them on here. If you go to Cape Town, there are many hostel options (known there as "backpackers"). Cape Town Backpackers (+27-214260200) is just off the main road and quieter but still bustling and has a great staff. If you want it to be right on the main drag, Long Street Backpackers is another decent place to stay. All of Cape Town is in the shadow of Table Mountain and Lion's Head. They are both decent hikes and for those who don't like hiking, Table Mountain has a cable way up to the top. If you are going to hike, I highly recommend going up Lion's Head on a full moon and taking up a 6-pack of beers. It does get cold though so dress appropriately. South Africa in general is chilly compared to Madagascar and I was wearing layers a lot of the time, even though it was December. If you have a few days in Cape Town, I also suggest walking down to the waterfront as they have a little microbrewery on the water and some gorgeous boats. On the way to the waterfront there is a neighborhood known as Bo-Kaap which has very brightly painted houses. Its beautiful and should be seen, but don't take valuables when you go to these neighborhoods, go during the day, and don't go alone.

Also around Cape Town is the Cape (duh) and there are lots of tours that will take you there. Renting a car is easy and cheap so if you want to make a day of it with your friends it is probably worth getting a car for a couple days of it. I would do a wine tour out in Stellenbosch or Franchoek, maybe head across to where you can ride an ostrich in a race, go down to the cape, see the penguins in Simon's Town, and park at the base of the mountains for one of the hikes. Its as cheap as like $20/day for a small car and through companies such as Budget or Avis.

From there I went to Lesotho. It is a lovely mountainous terrain and if you are a hiker then you might want to go to the Drakensburg. I wasn't equipped for that kind of hiking, nor was I very motivated. Lesotho is famous for its hiking and pony treks. I went through Maseru and stayed at a hostel that I wouldn't recommend. I then went with a few friends to Malealea for the pony trekking. The van taxi system was pretty simple and we arrived in Malealea in the morning. Ponies in Lesotho are depressing and severely underfed so they won't let very heavy people ride them. However, they are one of the few ways to access certain parts of the countryside and commonly used by wealthier Basotho (people who identify as being from Lesotho and its descendants).

There are a couple of bus lines that will take you from major city to major city across Southern Africa. In South Africa I went on Translux which was one of the cheaper ones. It was decent. Intercape has much nicer buses but they force religious materials down your throat until you can barely breathe. They prayed before we left and then turned on one Christian movie that they then repeated for the next 10 hours. Fair warning: if you travel with them, you need to bring headphones. Intercape will actually go the right direction if you are heading into Lesotho. For any of the buses, go to the station or book online a few days in advance. The day before you will be lucky to get a seat, especially if you are traveling with friends. Hopper flights from Joburg to other areas are cheap (maybe about double the cost of a bus but can save you a day or more in travel) and a decent option for most places so I would look into them. Otherwise I usually went in coach buses, if you really want to be American you can go by Greyhound (they have everything in South Africa!!).

Friday, February 17, 2012

I'm Home!

28 months later and I'm back! I traveled up from South Africa through Lesotho (and back into South Africa since Lesotho is landlocked inside of it), Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda. 26 hours of flights later, I landed in LAX and now I'm home!

Send me a message if you want specific details about anything.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Voltaic Systems is awesome!

So in the last two years I've been using a Voltaic Systems "Generator" which is essentially a laptop bag that also is a solar panel and can power a laptop. It got me through Niger and then 2 full years living without electricity in Madagascar. Anyways, 2 cyclone seasons later and now its coming with me to mainland Africa. The company has had continuously great customer service so I want to give them a shout out and my thanks.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Shake it, shake it

Tence Mena Concert
As one of the last major events that I will attend in Madagascar, I went to a concert for the artist known as Tence Mena. She has been referred to by many a PCV as the Malagasy version of Rhianna. She even emulates her hair styles. My friend Ryan and I went to the concert which was to start at 2:30pm. Knowing that everything starts late, we arrived at 3:30pm and then waited in the longest line I’ve ever seen in Madagascar. It went a couple blocks down the street. We eventually made it into the concert, after several Malagasy cut in line in front of us. The concert was interesting, Tence Mena and the dancers all changed costumes after each song. This meant that they had a backup singer working the crowd every few minutes so she could change. Too fill some of the time, they had a booty shaking competition in which a child won a lot of money. All of this while my friend and I keep glancing down at the dirty diaper on the ground in our vicinity, trying to maintain eye contact so that it didn’t manage to migrate underfoot.

As the sun set on the concert and the heat of the day faded, the emotions of the crowd gradually changed. A mosh pit formed and the dancing intensified. Eventually everyone was being shoved around and the men started picking up and throwing sand. We headed for the gates. All of the wary Malagasy, especially those with children were trying to leave with us. Unfortunately, since many people refused to pay the $1.50 to enter the concert, they were instead trying to rush the police and force their way in. Since the venue was chosen for its limited number of entryways (Catholic school), our only options were to shove our way out and risk being caught in a fight between police and a crowd, or stay in a crowd that was already disintegrating into madness. I squeezed out while trying to protect a mother and infant also working her way toward safety. My friend had his sunglasses broken in his attempt to escape.

After all the stress of trying to leave the concert, dinner was in order. We went into a nice little restaurant, Salon de le Maharajah. Upon ordering, a fight broke out on the street in front of the restaurant. Our server rushed out and closed the security doors to the restaurant and with near perfect timing, the power went out. We sat in darkness listening to the brawl on the street. The power eventually clicked back on and the street quieted. We had a lovely meal and I made sure that the server got a nice tip for looking out for our safety.

On the walk back, a motorcyclist went down right before our eyes for no apparent reason. Since there were hundreds of people walking back he was embarrassed but apparently unharmed. All in all it was the craziest concert experience I’ve ever had.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mistaken Identity and more

You people all look the same
While walking alone to the taxi station in Fianarantsoa, a Malagasy man yelled, “MIKE!” at me repeatedly. Since Mike is not my name and I’m not a tall blond guy, I didn’t respond. The guy then called me rude names and stuck up for not responding. Now I’m aware that sometimes it is difficult to identify people with similar features from a foreign facial type. That still doesn’t make it okay to yell at me for not responding to a name that isn’t mine and is of a person who looks absolutely nothing like me.

Pills, pills, pills
Something has to be said for Malagasy doctors and pharmacies. Beyond the fact that very few doctors in this country are approved to treat PCVs, its amazing that the vast majority of doctors in the countryside are highly uneducated. A lot of what nurses and doctors practice here is the equivalent to what would be taken care of at home in the US. Most high school students in the states have a better understanding of health and the human body than some of the doctors here. The most common solutions is prescribing tetracycline as a cure all. If a Malagasy person walks into a pharmacy with the name of a medicine, it is presumed that it was prescribed because the names of medicines are not something accessible to laypeople. There aren’t drug seekers other than foreigners.

While doctors visits remain free, the cost of any medicines is left for families to bear. Even with simple and cheap solutions available for many wounds and illnesses, its frustrating to see many issues go on for years. I recently heard of an ear infection that went on until a little girl became deaf. Instead of getting a few drops or pills to fix the issue, they waited until it abscessed. This is the same idea as the family next to me who let their child become so malnourished at age seven, the boy could no longer walk. He needed deworming and nutrition information for his mother. Instead, they waited years and he was near dead. Having learned the very basics of health and first aid, most Americans know when to go to the doctor. This is one of many reasons why health volunteers here have a lot to do.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Video Killed the Radio Star

The last few weeks I've been working on editing some videos during the time that I have at internet. The editing program liked to freeze up on me every 20 minutes or so and the whole process got really annoying. Anyways, I've finished 2 videos and put them up on Youtube for you all to enjoy.

This one is of our HIV/AIDS bike trip last year:

This is from the Ranomafana Visitor's center painting project in May:

Hope you enjoy!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dem bones dem bones

Went to a famadihana, also known as a turning of the bones ceremony. The usual is that a family opens their tomb every several years to celebrate the loved ones in their family who died in the past years. The body is removed from the tomb and another layer of cloth is added as an extra shroud. The family places the body on a woven mat and dances while each carrying part of the weight. The local alcohol is consumed and a portion is used to bless the tomb and celebration.

Usually the body is returned to the same tomb which is shared with many families. In my case, the famadihana was a bit different. The family that was having the celebration had finished construction on a new tomb and so instead of honoring one person and returning them to their place, many bodies were removed and carried to the new tomb down the road. This meant that many people participated and the bodies had groups of people carrying them all down the road in a very happy procession. Dancing with a body means that there is a drummer and a few other musicians making up songs and the corpse is carried forward several feet, and then back as the mob tries to figure out which way they are moving at the moment.

Older bodies are lighter and require less people to carry them. Some of the shrouds appear to have a lump. If a child and mother die, the child is wrapped on the chest of the mother, whether or not they die at the same time. If a persons spouse dies, the wife is laid on the husband’s chest and they are also wrapped together. In this way, they can be together for eternity.

The whole thing has a bit of a weird smell. Being around that many corpses of varied levels of decay isn’t exactly pleasant. The tombs are kept closed for the majority of the year and if it isn’t famadihana season (July and August), tombs are not allowed to be opened unless the owners gain special permission. If a person dies outside of these months, they may be buried until the tomb can be reopened and they are then moved to their place in the tomb.

While the entire process is very strange, it also is a very happy time. This can be the biggest celebration a family has in a decade and they get to celebrate the lives of those who were closest to them. A woman we were with was happy to be able to visit her deceased mother. Instead of a feeling of loss and suffering, the entire family remembers the value of life and honors their dead.