Friday, January 1, 2010

An Incredible Journey-New Year's in Mumbai

People have warned us that we'll need a vacation from our vacation once we've finished in India. But I've been dying to travel this diverse land for years, so I'm not sure if that will be the case. I'm so eager to explore and anxious to experience the culture and the people and most definitely the food!

We arrived in Mumbai after more than 72 hours of travel at 7 a.m. on New Year's Eve. We had no place to stay and no idea where we were going. (The usual MO for PCVs, I guess.) I was totally exhausted, and while Rachel was managing to keep it together in our quest for accommodation, I felt like I could shatter at any moment.

We had originally planned to Couch Surf in Mumbai. Couch Surfing is essentially exactly what it sounds like. People create profiles for themselves online and offer up a room, a bed, a couch or the floor, free of charge to weary travelers. We'd talked to so many people who'd had really incredible experiences that we were excited to give it a try, but at the last minute, our host fell through and we were stuck scrambling to find a place to stay in one of the world's largest cities on one of the biggest nights of the year.

Streets of Mumbai

A woman at the airport helped us book a room at a place that was definitely more expensive than we'd hoped ($24/night, which in India, and on our budget, is unheard of). But we were desperate for sleep and ready to actually lay down. The woman got us into our rickshaw, too. It sounds like no serious feat, but when you're essentially walking like the dead and going from a country of two million people to a city with more than 20 million, it can be a recipe for disaster! Leaving the airport was entirely too overwhelming. There were hundreds of people crowded outside of the exit waiting for friends and family. We were the only white faces around and people were yelling and screaming and snapping photos and trying to get our attention. I felt like I was Michael Jackson in the 1980s.

Streets of Mumbai

Our rickshaw driver was nice, and while we had our guard up after hearing so many stories about travelers getting cheated, he dropped us directly where we needed to be and we paid exactly what we'd agreed upon. It was the easiest transaction yet, and exactly what we needed after so many hours in the air. Our hotel was nicer than expected, with a private bathroom. It smelled like serious cleaning products (which is better than what it could have been, I guess), but we were mostly just happy to have beds to rest in. I immediately showered (well, bucket bathed), and by the time I got out, Rachel was fast asleep. We must have slept for five or six hours, because around 5 o'clock, we woke up and headed out for a bite to eat.

We'd already agreed to tag this leg of our journey "Palak and Roll!" after the famous Indian dish, Palak Paneer. So it was easy to agree upon our first meal in the country and our final meal of 2009. We ended up at Leopold's. A famous stop for backpackers and the site of a 2008 terrorist attack in the city. It was on our list of places to seek out, only because we'd read so much about it in Shantaram. The food was good, but we were unable to rally for any sort of New Year's wonder. We were back in bed by 8 o'clock!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

An Incredible Journey-24 Hours in Egypt

Getting to Egypt was a bit of an adventure. After Katie and Dan dropped us at the East London airport in South Africa, we got a lift to our hostel in what we thought was a taxi (but actually turned out to be some random guy who offered us a lift). After the impossible task of locating Buffalo Backpackers (quite possibly THE WORST backpackers on earth), we headed to Spar to grab some dinner. We bunkered down, read some and relaxed after a jam-packed week and a half with my friends from home.

Around 4 p.m. we pulled out our bus tickets--the ones that would take us from East London to Joburg, where we'd catch our flight to Egypt (and then on to India). It was only then that we realized our bus left that night! Somehow we'd read the tickets wrong and assumed we left the following day. We ran to the bus station only to learn that a) it was closed and b) buses to Joburg leave just once each day. Missing our flight out of the country wasn't an option. And since it departed the following day, taking the 22-hour journey by bus wasn't an option either.

So we scrambled.

No one at Buffalo's would let us use the phone and not a single person could tell us where a pay phone we could use was located. So we raced around the streets of East London trying to find a way to contact the local airport. With 30 hours to liftoff, it seemed our only option. After several desperate minutes on the phone, we'd been assured there was space enough on a morning flight from East London to Joburg. And while it would leave us 16 hours to wait at the airport, we were mostly just happy to be on our way and out of the black hole of East London. We were, however, less than pleased about the $120 price tag (especially since we'd already purchased a bus ticket on top of it).

So the following morning we loaded up our bags and headed to the airport, where we barely made it on the departing flight. Once we reached Joburg, we were unable to pass through airport security (we had 16 hours til our flight, after all), so we settled in at a cafe, people watched and read Shantaram. The book, which is a fictionalized autobiography of a guy living in Mumbai, is probably bigger than the Bible, so we were happy to offload it before boarding our plane to Egypt. (Turns out 16 hours is long enough to finish reading an 850 page book and to walk around the entire international terminal a few dozen times.)

Egypt wasn't a big part of our six-month travel plan, but when Rachel looked at tickets and found the cheapest way to Mumbai was through Cairo, we were pretty excited about the prospect of a visit--even if it was for just 17 hours. I'd always dreamed of seeing the pyramids and had heard from others that the city was a great destination.

Getting off the plane was like entering another world--one where females didn't exist. There were no women anywhere--none in the terminal and certainly none working. It was something I'd continue to notice when we left the airport and ventured into the city. Men were present and moving about everywhere you looked, but women were nearly impossible to find in this very traditional society.

We payed for our visa and hired a car for the day--one that would take us to the pyramids, the Sphinx, over the Nile and to a historic mosque, but also around the city limits, too.

Aside from the men, who stared endlessly as we walked out of the airport, the first thing I noticed about Cairo was that it was freezing! After two years in a place where the average temperature is over 100 degrees, arriving to sub 60 degree temps proved a major shock to the system. One we definitely were not prepared for.

Our driver took us to a hole in the wall for breakfast, where we feasted on the best falafel I've ever had. From there, it was through the city and to the pyramids. I was shocked by how run down Cairo looked. I'd imagined it to be a city of wealth, not just because of the tourists who arrive from around the world, but because of the pictures I'd seen prior to visiting. But as I looked out the window, my eyes were met with smog, pollution and decay. Rooftops were literally covered in garbage and it looked like buildings were breaking down before my eyes.

The Nile (Thats not a reflection off the water. It's smog.)

These cars are not parked. The traffic was INSANE.

I expected the pyramids to be somewhere more isolated--smack dab in the middle of a desert or well off the beaten path. So I was incredibly surprised to find that where the city ended, they began. You can literally walk from the door of a Dominos Pizza to the Sphinx.

Just like Mount Rushmore, both the Pyramids and the Sphinx were smaller than I expected, but both were still interesting to see. There were men offering camel rides everywhere we turned and plenty of people eager to take our picture for a price (neither of which we were interested in).

The Sphinx

Rachel and I looked like gypsies with all our brightly colored sitenges wrapped around us. It was mostly to keep warm, but also to avoid the leering eyes of men.

After the pyramids we headed to a famous mosque within the city limits before returning to the airport for our flight to Mumbai.

A traditional Fez Maker

Seventeen hours later, we finally boarded our plane to India. We were unsure where we'd stay once we arrived (we hadn't booked anything in advance--not the best plan, considering we would arrive on New Year's Eve), but we were still incredibly excited (and a little bit sad) to finally leave the continent of Africa after 27 months there.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

An Incredible Journey-Christmas and the Wild Coast!

I've spent Christmas in some pretty incredible places. Malawi last year, and before that, with my Namibian host family who welcomed as one of their own. (But I'd still have to say, Christmas at home with my own fam is probably the most incredible place of all.)

This year's holiday was no exception. And it was particularly special because Katie and Dan were with us.

A view of the countryside from the seat of our car

We left Cape Town a couple of days ago and headed east along the Garden Route to the Wild Coast, where we made a stopover in Knysna to celebrate Christmas. We stayed in what will likely be the fanciest place we'll see on this trip--complete with adjoining rooms, a pool, a quiet area for reading and relaxing, a beautiful garden, delicious breakfast and a braai pit and kitchen we put to good use preparing our holiday meal.

Our Room

The Breakfast Room

Me and Rachel

Dan Manning the Braai

Cheffing It Up


Our last stop before leaving South Africa was Cintsa, a tiny village in the heart of the Wild Coast. While the region gets its name from the wilderness it's surrounded by, we thought it could have easily gotten it from the crazy travelers staying at our hostel, Buckaneers. Despite feeling a little out of place, we ended up having a good time and enjoying the beach--even if it was a little cold!

A Tiny Inlet

A Beautiful View

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Incredible Journey-Cape Town

Rachel and I had already been to Cape Town, but that didn't make our second visit any less fantastic. That's because this cosmopolitan town had plenty to keep us busy and loads of delicious food for us to eat. (I had nachos twice in one day!) There were plenty of other RPCVs around, too, which made celebrating my final African birthday a real occasion. Especially since Katie and Dan, two of my favorite friends from America, were there to join us.

The Streets of Cape Town

My Birthday Dinner

The Birthday Dinner Crew

Early World Cup Prep

Rachel and I had already done a lot of the more touristy things in Cape Town, like Table Mountain and the Cape Point tour. But I'd tried and failed to visit Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was held captive for 27 years. I'd read his book, Long Walk to Freedom before visiting South Africa the first time, and was determined not to leave the continent before seeing where most of his story took place. Luckily Katie and Dan had booked tickets well in advance, so we were able tour the island during their visit. While most of the experience took place in a bus, where a former prisoner explained daily life at Robben Island, we were able to get out and walk around the cells where Mandela and several other well-known political prisoners stayed.

The best view of Table Mountain is from Robben Island

Mandela's Prison Cell

The Yard, where prisoners spent one hour each day

The Garden where Mandela hid his Long Walk to Freedom manuscripts

As part of the birthday festivities, Katie and Dan also planned a tour to some local vineyards. Rachel and I had done something similar on our first visit to Cape Town, but both Katie and Dan are real winos and the couple not only rented a private car, but picked a selection of tiny mom and pop vineyards (as well as a couple of big ones) for us to visit. It was the perfect way to spend an absolutely beautiful day!

The Vines

The Casks at De Toren

Outside Simonsberg. They even make their own Champagne!

The Cheese Tasting at Fairview--Almost as Good as the Wine

Tomorrow we say goodbye to Cape Town and head out along the Garden Route, bound for the Wild Coast. (Katie and Dan rented a car, so no more hitchhiking and public transport for us!) We'll be hitting up a couple of spots we missed the first time around, and celebrating our last Christmas on the continent, too.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Incredible Journey-And We're Off!

Today marked the start of two incredible journeys. The first, our lives as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). The second, a five-month journey through South Africa, Egypt, India and Southeast Asia with Rachel, my CATJAR friend.

We woke early and said our goodbyes to the few volunteers that still remained before hopping into a cab and heading out to the B1 for the last time. It was only about 6 a.m., but we had high hopes of making it as far as Cape Town before nightfall. And we were planning to hitchhike the entire way. (We are, after all, ladies on a budget, and without much Nam cash left to spare!)

Our drop spot just beyond Windhoek city limits was a pretty poor one, and we waited nearly two hours for our first pick up: A guy who was only going as far as Rehoboth, about an hour south of Windhoek. Originally we'd agreed to ride only with people who were traveling as far as Keetmanshoop, but after hours on the roadside, we were just happy to be on our way.

Luckily, the man dropped us off at a petrol station, where a guy with a bakki was happy to take us the rest of the way to Keets. Rachel rode in the back while I made four hours worth of small talk up front. The sun was blazing and needless to say, Rach wasn't wearing sunscreen (she never does). We made a quick stop at a Wimpy's for milk shakes and then our ride delivered us to the outskirts of town, where we waited for a ride that would hopefully take us to Cape Town.

At first our prospects seemed weak. A mac truck offered us a lift for R100 each, but it was after 4 and he didn't have working headlights, which meant in a couple of hours we'd be forced to pull off to the side of the road and wait until morning. So we decided to roll the dice and wait a while longer. Which worked out in our favor. A brand new air-conditioned Mercedes with a nice South African driver who bought us cool drinks and snacks, pulled up and offered us a lift all the way to Cape Town. A six-hour journey directly to our hostel door. The perfect Nam send off!