A Travellerspoint blog

Insert Toilet Joke Here

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

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Ahh, one of the good toilets in Shegar, Tibet: clean ceramic, proper flush, electric light, garbage can, locking door.

One of the things my loved ones back home ask me about in our regular chats is the toilet situation in the countries I am visiting. Usually, I reassure them with an unreassuring, “It’s FINE.” But my toilet tales from China were worthy of an individual email, and the tales continued in the territory of Tibet.

Our first hotel was in Nyalam. Once our group was settled in our dormitory-style room, I checked out the shared bathroom. It had one stall for men and one stall for women. There was another small toilet in the hall, but with the never-ending leaking tap, and my lack of water-proof shoes, I didn’t try it. Inside the women’s stall I approached the ceramic squatter-style toilet with gusto; it required a large step onto a platform. Pants down and ready to go, I realized that there was a window to my right, one that looked out to a corridor by the guests’ rooms. When someone walked by I again realized that the lack of window dressing meant that my business was on display to all who cared to look up at the window. At night, with the light on in the bathroom, I created a lovely illuminated scene, surely to the entertainment of all!

Next in Tingri, our hotel consisted of rooms surrounding a dusty courtyard. In a break in the wall a small hallway took us to the toilet. There were two stalls, one with a half door and one without, each boasting a small rectangular hole in the cement floor. Squatting over this hole I was privy to the previous business of the past guests, as it was all on display on the ground below me. At night, with my headlamp on, I nervously flashed it against the walls of my stall, for the light attached to my head was only competing with star light. Critters of the night had unobstructed access to my late-night toilet party.

Also in Tingri, our group was anxious for a shower. We were directed to a small shed-like structure in the back of the hotel, given a single metal bowl, and shown where a kettle of water was being heated by the sun’s rays focused using a concave mirror. This boiling water was mixed with cold water, and one by one we entered the shed to spread the warm water over ourselves in a shower. Believe it or not, this was my first proper Bucket Shower, as when other opportunities had arisen in the past, I simply chose to stay dirty! :)

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Our Tingri hotel, with toilet hallway in the back

On day three, at Everest Base Camp, our group was eagerly preparing to walk up to the viewpoint. First, I needed to use the toilet. I was directed to a small structure which reminded me of a school portable. There were two sides, each with two rectangular holes in the floor. However, at one hole, the previous business on the ground below had accumulated to the point where it was actually protruding above the level of the floor. I chose another hole and ran back to tell my travel-mates. The affectionately known Poo Pyramid remains one of the eight wonders of my toilet world.

At one of our many viewpoints, I walked to the brick structure labelled Toilet. Once through the door-less doorway, I recognized my least favourite Chinese style of toilet. The Trough is a channel in the floor which runs from the men’s side to the women’s in one flow of water. Half walls separate the sections and provide a tiny bit of privacy. With neither doors on the stalls, nor a door for the room, I was left to do my business with the cold mountain air rushing through the room around me.

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No doors or window panes, but it DOES tell you the elevation!

While driving one day, I had to use Nature’s toilet. I asked our driver to pull over to the side of the road, and dragged Toby along as my location scout. The landscape was mostly flat, with only a few scraggly shrubs. I chose to walk downhill a bit, behind the Jeep. With Toby on guard to alert me of any onlookers (he could surely see them coming from miles away), a large transport truck drove by. “Do you think he could see?” I asked.
“No,” Toby lied.

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Where does a girl find a loo out here?

My favourite toilet story happened in the capital city of Lhasa. One of our travel-mates had insider information that we had to experience a Nangma; a night-time performance of dancing and singing by the best local Tibetan artists. We sat at our table, ordered beer in groups of five, and watched the show. Little did we know what a great experience this would be, as we tisked at the teenagers drinking and smoking at the table in front of us and gawked at the amazing dance moves and hair-styles of the audience members who eventually took over the stage. At the end of the night my body reminded me that I had had two beers, and it needed to relieve itself. Slightly tipsy I found the ladies washroom. It had three stalls, two with half doors and the middle stall without. I chose one at the end and sighed in old, familiar, post–alcohol consumption relief. Suddenly my stall door opened, as it was without a lock, and I announced, “Occupied!” I heard some giggling, and looked up to see a few pairs of eyes peeking over the stall at me. I was, after all, one of four foreigners at the Nangma. Unfazed, I finished my job and walked to the sink. Behind me I heard a cheery, “Hello!” I turned around to see who had greeted me, and saw a young woman in the middle stall, pants down, in the middle of her business, staring at me, grinning ear to ear. After responding in kind I left the washroom, also grinning. The friendliness of Tibetans truly knows no bounds.

Posted by Lis.L 07:42 Archived in China Tagged hotel everest toilet shower tibet lhasa Comments (1)

Surviving in the Serengeti

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

In the wilderness of Africa, it is ‘kill or be killed’. But as we learned in Serengeti National Park, sometimes it is also a case of ‘kill, and eat your kill quickly, or someone else will’. The great cats of Africa – the cheetah and the leopard, at least – were not having much success during our visit.

Our Jeep bumped along the dusty path, creating a cloud behind us that landed on our skin when we stopped suddenly. Fourteen eyes were trained on the landscape surrounding us, ready for any movement, as it indicated life on the plains. Standing up through the open top of our Jeep, we were most likely chatting quietly when Wendy broke in with, “Kill!” This was the moment we had been waiting for. Our eyes darted to where she was looking. A cheetah was in pursuit. I foolishly raised the SLR to my eye and tried to find the cheetah through the viewfinder. Nothing. Lowering it, I saw a cloud of dust – had she really moved that fast? And with that, we lost her. Seconds later, the cheetah returned with a Thomson’s gazelle hanging limp from her mouth. She dragged her prize across our dusty path and we were finally able to photograph the achievement. Excited, eager and quite intrusive, we spooked the cheetah and she dropped the kill to flee into the grass.

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The next day we drove past a busy scene. Vultures caught our eyes first, but we soon realized that a cheetah and her two cubs were attempting to eat a Thompson’s gazelle. Next on the scene was a lone hyena. Cheetahs, being the fastest land animals on Earth, are built for speed, but are wimps when it comes to confrontation. While the hyena was approximately the same height and weight as the mother cheetah, it dominated by boldly claiming the carcass as its own. The trio of cheetah sulked away, defeated and hungry.

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Later, our driver got a call and responded by driving us toward a rocky outcrop. “What’s there?” we wanted to know, but he had to see it for himself first. We slowly circled around the rocks, and then idled where other Jeeps had parked. They pointed, and we looked, but it was not clear what we were looking for. Then, slight movement indicated it was a leopard, hiding from something. We saw what that something was as we kept driving. A lone tree was the interest of three hyenas. Up in the tree dangled a Thompson’s gazelle. Clearly the hyenas couldn’t climb the tree, so it was just a matter of time. The leopard would emerge, try to consume her meal, and perhaps drop it for the scavengers below. We had to leave in order to let nature take its course.

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I suppose the moral of the story is, even on an unlucky day, be thankful you’re not the Thompson’s gazelle!
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Posted by Lis.L 23:06 Archived in Tanzania Tagged animals tour Comments (0)

Traditional Africa

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Perhaps it was true, before I was born, that Africa was still wild. Tribes of nomadic aboriginal people spent their lives living off the land, in simple ways with simple tools. That certainly is the image projected about Africa and African people.

Today, we live in the world of the mobile phone, the iPod, the jumbo jet and the internet. Is it possible, or desirable, to live a simple life, even in Africa?

Often touted as the only authentic tribe remaining in Eastern Africa, the Masai people have been encouraged by their government to maintain their tribal traditions. They are given exemptions to rules that have developed out of a modern 21st century, like the need for passports to cross country borders, the need to own land for one’s animals to graze upon, and the need to protect endangered species from hunters.

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It is a challenge for a tourist to have a real experience with a Masai, one that has not been touched by tourism. The government of Kenya realized that visitors were drawn to the foreign aspect of these tribes, and created economic opportunities for them to interact. Driving through Kenya, one sees artificial Masai villages, often with a big welcome sign for busloads of tourists. The Masai men sell souvenirs in touristy areas of Kenya, making additional money when the tourist inevitably wants to have their photo taken with the red-robed men. So when our company, Intrepid, put a visit to a Masai village on our itinerary, I was both delighted and skeptical.

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Our experience was not the first time this village in Loita Hills had interacted with foreigners. In fact, an educated, Anglophone leader was pre-appointed as our guide. We were told that Intrepid limits visits to this particular village to a few a month. We pitched our tents in an area used for grazing cattle, and side-stepped their “deposits”. While we were the only group in the area, a concrete drop toilet and a cooking structure had been permanently erected. An elder in the village was appointed to be our guard for the night, and he took his post by a newly-made fire.

During our stay in Loita Hills we were shown around the village. Our visit opened with a welcome dance by the ladies, followed by a chat in the cattle enclosure, complete with hundreds of buzzing flies, a gender-segregated Q and A in the guide’s mud hut, and another talk around the campfire after dinner. We awoke for the optional (read: pay extra) Masai warrior dance and jumping competition, and concluded with an opportunity to buy products that the Masai women had made or bought.

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I am not disappointed that the interaction was obviously an economic decision that gave the Masai village some income and gave us that “tribal” experience we were after. And I had no illusions that the Masai people haven’t changed after all these years. Our guide had a mobile phone and a truck. His daughter attends college in the closest city. His admission that they occasionally supplement their traditional diet of milk, blood and beef with beans and corn came as no surprise either. I suppose that what I felt was awkward, that the groups of Western tourists desire that the Masai keep their rudimentary existence so badly that they feel they have to fake it to make it. The fact is that cell phones, new diets, and shoes that are not made from tires are viewed as a failure, in a way, and development, education and re-thinking values are detrimental to the Masai way of life. An adamant adherence to a traditional way of life is one thing, but being pressured by government and the tourism machine to avoid change is another. I’m not sure on which side of the line the Masai currently tread.

Posted by Lis.L 07:01 Archived in Kenya Tagged tour Comments (0)

Overland in Eastern Africa

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

For the Eastern African part of our world tour, we decided to do something different. While we met travellers who successfully traveled across Africa independently, we heard that it took a lot of time and patience to use the haphazard local transportation system and to negotiate safaris. Tempted by the allure of a pre-organized, package tour that would take us to all of the hot spots in Eastern Africa, we signed up for an Overland tour with Intrepid. This meant our group of around 22 would travel in an overland truck ("It's not a bus!"), camp in tents for most of the nights, and participate with cooking for the group. We had a driver, a leader, and a cook to help us accomplish these tasks.

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We flew to Nairobi in time to meet with our first overland group, who were a nice mix of Americans, Canadians, Brits and Aussies. The great group dynamic made everyday living much easier, as we were expected to participate in the work around the camp. An average day would be spent waking at 6, taking down our campsite and packing the truck until 6:45, breakfast, flapping our dishes, then off to an activity or on the road by 7:30. Our day would end around 16:00 when we would set up camp, shower if there were showers, prep for dinner, eat, then wash up. The strange thing was that on most nights the day ended at the bar - yes, even campsites without hot showers would have a bar - and at $1.50 a beer we were happy to spend the night chatting there.

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Adjusting to camping was pretty easy, (if I can't have a shower, neither can the rest of the group!). While we did have a lot of rain, our tents were of very good quality and we wouldn't get wet. It became our routine to put our headlamps on at around 18:00 in preparation for dark evenings. The animals in our campsite (buffalo, warthogs, baboons and hippos) were just there to munch and didn't want anything to do with us (except the story to come...). Our overland truck was really comfortable and sturdy and only once did we have to jump ship through a particularly muddy road - tipping over was on our mind but our driver remained calm. The local villagers came out to watch the scene and ask for candy, which of course we refused. Our team leaders had really strong opinions on the kind of mark we should leave on the landscape; they provided purified water so that we didn't buy bottled water, encouraged giving through proper channels to discourage begging (and teeth rot - no dentists in the rural areas) and punished plastic bag users with the job of washing pots.

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Our tour started in Nairobi, but we pretty much left right away to our first safari in Lake Nakuru National Park. On the way we stopped at an orphanage which is one of the sponsorship projects of Intrepid, the company we were travelling with. Friendly, toothless kids grabbed our hands to show us around their humble living quarters and school, while the older kids played football (soccer) outside. I caught the eye of an older girl, the oldest at 16. She shyly took me aside and showed me her desk, school work, and kitchen area. She spoke confidently, but it was evident right away that she was hard of hearing. She has dreams of becoming a pilot, but has been told to set her sights lower. After an hour spent with her I couldn't tear myself away.

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At Lake Nakuru NP we went on the best game drive - we saw buffalo, zebra, flamingos, hyenas, lions (even a lion eating a zebra), antelope, gazelles, rhinos, baboons, giraffes, warthogs and more. We also spotted a leopard, but he dashed into the bush before anyone got a picture. As we sat staring into the bush he warned us not to get too close - with the most spine-chilling growl. That was a highlight for us!

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While we were on the game drive, the cheeky monkeys got into one tent and took their toiletries bags and a sleeping bag. We returned to a ripped tent with foot powder sprinkled on top. What do they want with a sleeping bag, anyway??

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After a few long travel days we were in Uganda, where the highlight was trekking to see chimpanzees in Kibale NP. We had to walk for an hour and a half to find them in the bush. They were amazing up close, and at one point I was in the path of one who walked right by me ("Don't move, don't show your teeth!") and I got it on video. They were much bigger than I thought they would be. Also in Uganda we did a boat safari in Queen Elizabeth NP where we saw hippos, crocodiles, eagles and more buffalo, and in a DIFFERENT lake (Lake Bunyonyi) we could swim for a bit.

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We only spent three days in Rwanda, where we visited the Genocide Museum in Kigali and did our biggest trek to see the wild gorillas in Ruhengeri. I can't even begin to express the highs and lows of Rwanda. First, it's a beautiful country, with lush, green hills. They have strict rules against plastic bags and littering, so that makes it one of the cleanest countries we've been to. But the scars of history run deep, and the welcome from the local people was mixed. We were stared at, or ignored, given begging hands, and occasionally waved away rudely. I tried my best to understand why this reaction would be so cold, or hesitant. First, it was only 17 years ago when their country was torn apart by the genocide while the outside world did nothing about it. Then, to ease our own guilt, aid poured in at abnormally high rates. So perhaps the Western people are only seen in that light. Also, we all tend to drive through in our big trucks, so the interaction with the local people is minimal. The men we worked with to see the gorillas were awesome. The Volcanoes National Park hires ex-poachers to track the beasts, changing their relationship with them. It is evident how much they are respected now, and there hasn't been an incident of poaching since 2002.

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So the way it works is this: there are 11 families of gorillas living in the park, so 11 groups of 8 people can see them a day. They trek to wherever the family has moved to, so it can be hours away. Our family was deeper into the bush, so we hiked for one hour in farmer's fields, 1.5 hours uphill in ankle-deep mud paths through the jungle, then half an hour in the bush, which had to be cleared by machete. When we were close we left our bags and walking sticks, and could photograph the family for one hour. What a rush. First, they were much closer than I thought they'd be. The silverback was enormous, and we were all instantly aware that he could crush us with one finger. But he was calm! I suppose he knew that he was the boss, while the females held on to their babies or warned us not to get too close by the classic charging and beating of her chest. We saw three babies, and I fell in love. What amazing creatures. It was like looking into a mirror.

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After Rwanda we went back through Uganda and returned to Kenya. We celebrated Toby's birthday in Jinja with cake, streamers and a card from the group. He had to wear a party hat all day, though since we were driving for most of the day, he didn't mind!

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We said goodbye to our group after two weeks and went on our own to the coast of Kenya. First stop was Mombasa, where we walked through the old town with two other travellers and took local transport and ate local food. People were very friendly here, but unfortunately there is a two-tiered price system and it is difficult, but not impossible, to get local prices. This wasn't a big deal in terms of costs, but more on principal. "It's racism," one traveller thought, and after a few days it did feel that way. We took a long, bumpy, dusty road to Lamu, one of our favourite places because of the Arab influence on the island. They use donkeys instead of cars and it is a place with a slow pace and beautiful scenery. We used some local guides to show us around different areas (one for the old town, one for a museum, one on a boat journey, one for dinner at his home) and felt like we could just chill here for a long time.

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Once we returned to Nairobi, we prepared for our second tour, which would take us to some of the top parks in Eastern Africa: Masai Mara NP and Serengeti in Tanzania. To be continued!

Posted by Lis.L 23:54 Archived in Rwanda Tagged tour Comments (0)

Not an Israel Blog Entry

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

(The following conversation may or may not have happened.)

L: I don’t want to write a blog entry about Israel.

T: What? Why not?

L: How can I write about sightseeing without commenting on the conflict?

T: Write about all the religious sites we saw.

L: Yeah, but ignore the biggest religious conflict of our time? The Elephant in the Room, as they say?

T: So talk about it. Talk about our trip to the West Bank, the security fence, the settlements and the army presence.

L: But I’m not an expert. People dedicate time to study the conflict and form opinions. I’m just a tourist who heard some things and saw some things.

T: But you did that first-hand. That means something. It’s different than just watching the news.

L: I wouldn’t know where to start. I could describe our days in detail, but no one wants to read that.

T: Write about the people we talked to, like the American who volunteered in Hebron and was tormented by settlers for helping “murderers”. Or the Palestinian taxi driver who has no hope left for peace. Talk about the hostel manager in Jerusalem who keeps his Jewish traditions but says he is no longer religious because of the damage religion is doing in the world. Describe the Arab on the Israeli side of the fence who was brought to tears when we asked him about how the wall has affected his community. Mention our Israeli friends, who fear that the world’s perception of Israelis is based on set-up incidents and bias.

L: There are lots of biases going around –on both sides. But some things just can’t be explained – like, why those ID cards issued from the census separate Arabs in Israel and Arabs in the West Bank. Or why so many soldiers are sent to patrol the West Bank to keep a handful of settlers safe? Or why the security fence doesn’t follow the Green Line.

T: You’re making it sound as if our entire trip to Israel was focused on the conflict.

L: It was and it wasn’t. I mean, I really enjoyed our trip to Nazareth and the day trip to the Sea of Galilee. The old town of Akko had some cool buildings, and the Bahai gardens in Haifa were outstanding. But remember the hassle I got at the Haifa train station?

T: Yeah. It seemed you couldn’t do anything without some kind of scrutiny. That soldier really gave you a hard time for visiting Malaysia. At least it wasn’t like the three hour wait at the border.

L: I’m just not used to having to show my passport at a train station, or going through luggage scanners for every public building.

T: But remember when we were at the Holocaust Museum? We said then that we could understand the need for a Jewish state, and the need to protect that state.

L: I do remember saying that. I guess I just think that there’s a way to have a Jewish state live beside an Islamic state without needing a fence, constant check-points, ongoing land disputes, etc.

T: You’re such an optimist. Things don’t always work out the way they should.

L: I am an optimist. Remember the protest? We watched thousands of Israelis march together, peacefully, asking for affordable housing for all. In that moment, I was optimistic. And when we were guided by those three Israelis who boycotted army service and are now activists working side-by-side with Palestinians, I felt optimistic.

T: So, are you going to write the blog entry?

L: ...

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Posted by Lis.L 07:20 Archived in Israel Comments (2)

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