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India – part two

To continue with a rather long post this time.  But first, the Indian take on an old classic for us.  “Where are you from?“, “Australia”, “ohh Ricky Ponting!“ A whole country defined by one man, amazing.  A lot of “Australia used to be good, now India is number one” attitude around, admittedly reflected somewhat in the rankings, but still.  Cricket is popular here, as you may have guessed.  Two dedicated cricket pay tv channels, front page (and almost the entirety of the sports section) coverage in the newspapers, I love it, Kate’s not convinced.

Anyway, from Bikaner, we went to Jaisalmer, another desert town, another impressive fort.  We took the bus for a change this time, not nearly as bad as we thought it could be.  Like most bus trips in developing countries, the stops were numerous and often seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the only real hardship was the volume and frequency of the horn on the bus.  Most of the trucks and buses have magical seeming horns that play a variety of tunes randomly, at ear splitting levels, and boy do the drivers see this as an essential part of driving.  We were dubious about the necessity. Anyway, Jaisalmer. The fort, like Carcassone so long ago in France, was a huge one with people still living in the walls but not a particularly traditional lifestyle – 99% of the buildings were hotels, restaurants, money changers, travel agents and souvenir sellers. But you get that in India. Inside the fort there was a palace museum and a series of about 6 Jain temples that were particularly great. Another big thing was all the traditional merchants mansions (called Havelis) that are outside the fort, seemingly everyone was a wealthy merchant back then as there was house after house of fantastically carved facades (the interiors weren’t always that exciting, it being all about appearances to the outside world).

Onwards to Jodhpur, the blue city and also home to jodhpurs but we didn’t see any polo matches in progress.  The fort here was particularly impressive set on top of a hill/mountain in the middle of town.  Once we eventually got to the top of the fort, the view over the blue painted houses (a sign of nobility once upon a time, now it is thought to repel mosquitoes) was great.  The fort (and audio tour) was what we had come to expect – beautiful buildings and tales of war and death.  But the rest of the town was a little underwhelming.

From Jodhpur we rented a car (with a driver – there is no way we were driving anywhere) to take us to Udaipur with a stop at Ranakpur. Ranakpur has another complex of Jain temples, but in the middle of nowhere but much bigger and better than in Jaisalmer.  Fantastic and well worth the effort of the detour.

Udaipur was always intended as a bit of a relax spot, but also a bit of an indulgence too.  We were there for 5 nights and stayed at 3 different hotels, first off was a cheapie until we secured our room in a nice 5 star job called Udai Kothi for two nights of luxury, and then back to a cheapie for our last night before we flew out.  There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Udaipur, it has a lake, but it’s reputation is more as a place to relax and do not much in fantastic restaurants and hotels, king amongst them the Lake Palace Hotel right in the centre of the lake (where, as just about every budget hotel proclaimed by showing it nightly, some of Octopussy was filmed).  There was of course a palace to look around, a temple, some shops and in one of the many luxury hotels there was an “English afternoon tea” which we had set our sights on some time ago.  I can’t say it was a strictly traditional high tea (toasted sandwiches and chips featured?) but it was very nice and in a great location looking over the lake and lake palace.

We then flew out to Goa for a (bit more of a) relax.  We did the obligatory stop in the capital Panaji (where there was a very uninspiring carnival in progress – tacky floats and bad music everywhere) and Old Goa where the Portuguese influence is everywhere and all the sights are.  Very nice, very church filled and then headed off to the beach to do nothing for four days, along with throngs of other tourists.  Goa is strange, the capital is, as I say, Portuguese influenced but still Indian, but by the beaches any hint of India disappears and you could be anywhere in SE Asia sitting on the beach drinking cocktails, eating western food, buying the standards of beach fashion and reading on hammocks and sun-lounges.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just unexpected.  After getting “nicely” burnt, we moved on.  Or at least tried to…

Trains continued to be a pain.  We had been on a waitlist the whole time in Goa and while usually this isn’t a problem as there is a lot of movement in the tickets so you move up the queue (very complicated system as I say) this time no such luck so it got to 11pm on the night of our train and we had no tickets and couldn’t get any for the next night either.  So we stayed on in Goa in a much crappier room and booked ourselves on an overnight bus out of there.  Unfortunately the buses are a far slower and less comfortable ride.  We could only make half the distance in a night and reached Mangalore where we had booked an onward train the next afternoon.

After killing time we got to the train station only to discover that we had gone to the wrong train station (Mangalore Junction instead of Mangalore Central, or possibly vice versa, hard to remember).  There being not enough time to make the journey to the correct train station we had to buy tickets on the next train. Which involved a huge (and very hot and sweaty) queue for unreserved tickets to be upgraded when the train arrived.  Of course the train arrived and it was full, the only seats in a general seating carriage straining to bursting – when we had 5 hours of it in extremely hot and humid weather we thought better of it and opted for one more overnight bus.

Eventually we arrived in Kochi (or Eranakalum or Cohcin or Cochi depending on who you ask) a day or two behind schedule.  A very nice town spread over several islands and the mainland.  We had a wander around the fishing district and so called “Fort” Cochin, including the fantastically named area Jew Town (even funnier for John Saffran fans).  We finished the day with a performance of the traditional dance style “Kathakahli”.  We didn’t realise it at the time but it involves a fancy costume and make up and then just wriggling your eyebrows and shaking your hands around, not very exciting at all.  The next day we booked on a boat trip through the, again, amusingly named Backwaters.  A network of rivers and creeks and the like that spans a huge area.  Our tour was on a big houseboat first, visiting a factory that makes lime out of mussel shells (supposedly, it looked abandoned when we were there), tasted a coconut based drink (toddy) and just generally ambled on the rivers. In the afternoon we switched to smaller canoes for the narrower creeks and visited more stuff.  A very relaxed day.

Next stop was another beach stop a completely incident free train trip away, Varkala.  A very nice beach (and for the first time in a long time, slightly rough seas) was protected from all the restaurants and hotels and souvenir shops by a large, convenient cliff.  A great spot to finish our relaxing finish to India.

A short train trip later we were in Trivandrum (renamed Thiruvananthapuram post-Independence but that’s not a name that I ever used) to finish off with a bit of administration and wait for our flights out of here.  Printing e-tickets, organising money and other things for Kate’s volunteer leg and that sort of thing. All very ho-hum.  We left just enough time to see the main attraction in town, the zoo.  The good old Lonely Planet talked it up a bit so we were looking forward to it, sadly it wasn’t quite that good.  Some enclosures were good (and in these the animals were nowhere to be seen) but most were either cramped or just a rock garden full of forlorn animals. And the locals had a bad habit of hissing and yelling at the animals to get them to move.  Oh well, at least it was cheap.  All in all, Trivandrum was not that fantastic, no great sights, no good restaurants, a whole lot of mosquitoes and a whole lot of noise – we arrived in time for another celebration of sorts, something to do  with the temple and of course involving incredibly loud music all through the night and day..

And with that, India is over.  In Kuala Lumpur waiting for our flights – mine to Melbourne and Kate’s to Sumatra.  India has left a strange impression on us both.  It is certainly a fantastic country, plenty to see and do, some truly amazing experiences, but on so many instances one or both of us was so completely fed up with the place that we would have jumped on a plane back to Australia that second if the option was offered to us.  There are just so many things positive and  negative all happening at once that can be an overwhelming experience.  One that we both enjoyed, taken as a whole of course.  After the last few days though, I am happy to be leaving.  But at the same time, wanting to return in the future.  Who knows when, but I think we will be back. So much more to see. And so many more people to stare at us.  But for now, sweet relief.  And some photos to share.


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India – part one

We’ve been in India over two weeks now and now that the seemingly compulsory train problems, sickness problems and getting ripped off (very minor compared to some – only a couple of dollars on the often dodgy airport pickup) have all been and gone, we are having a marvellous time.

It all started in Delhi and things were far from rosy.  While I enjoyed the sights (Red Fort, Old Delhi, Connaught Place,     Bahai Temple, Qutb Minar, Jantar Mantar) none, with the possible exception of the beautiful Bahai temple, really blew us away at all.  Even after all our middle eastern and African travel there was still a bit of an adjustment to make (as I said last time, perhaps 4 weeks in England contributed to that) and the smog, millions of people, cars, stray dogs, cows, pigeons, rubbish everywhere, etc just set us on edge and we didn’t  really enjoy the place that much.  Just when an exit was in sight (an overnight train to Varanasi) Kate got very sick.  She dragged herself to the train station only for us to discover that the train had been cancelled due to fog (a big problem on winter nights, though it is difficult not to call it smog) and we were trapped.  Probably for the best as Kate had a shocking night and wouldn’t have enjoyed the toilets on the trains as we later discovered.  We gave up on Varanasi (time constrained) and made for Agra the next day when Kate was up for it, knowing we were going to see the Taj Mahal helped.

Things were not so rosy at the train station however, after negotiating the huge crowds (what else would you expect, though luckily we never had to travel near peak hours) we found out our train was delayed several hours, we went off for dinner and came back to find a further delay so we waited some more (a funny incident happened about this time, I got into a small – and what would become frequent – conversation with a guy on the platform asking the usual stuff about us and our trip. As the conversation wound down he asked me “Mac (Matt is very hard for them to understand) are we friends now?”, I was a little bemused (we had spoken for maybe 2-3 minutes) but answered “yeah, sure, why not.”  “Well, can I have your mobile number?”  And so we exchanged numbers and maintained a very strange dialogue for a few days via texts – up until I lost our phone.  The highlight being him imploring Kate to send a message to a girl he met on the train who he fell in love with, Kate was to tell her what a fine person he was and to convince her he was a great guy.  Interesting.)  Anyway, the train arrived, we jumped on and found our seats/beds.  It was now midnight but we knew that the train should arrive at Agra at 3am so we decided to stay awake until then, which we did, but no sign of a train station… And then we both drifted off in our separate bunk beds where we couldn’t see out the window.  We woke up regularly but no sign of any train station at all and by this time (about 7am) we had assumed we slept through our stop and would have to backtrack and just jump off.  The train pulls up at a station and we are set to jump off when the name  sounds familiar – it’s on the way to Agra.  Happy (sort of) we stay on the train until it pulls in at Agra at 10.30am – a mere 10 or so hours to go 200km, but the fog was to blame again.  This left us a little unsure about our travel plans and seeing so much if this was the way the trains ran – a tour loomed as a real possibility, but we thought we would try the trains again before making that “drastic” decision.

Anyway, we were in Agra after all that, more than a little tired.  After a nap it becomes clear that now I’m not feeling so great either so we take it very slowly in Agra.  We  of course saw the Taj, which was as fantastic as we had hoped – such a beautiful building, and so, so many tourists, foreign and domestic alike.  In fact, perhaps not surprising considering the population, domestic tourists always outnumbered the foreigners – usually by about 10 to 1 wherever we went. I like that.  We also saw the “Baby Taj”, a smaller, earlier tomb, Agra Fort and took a taxi ride to nearby Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned city, complete with obligatory palaces, beautiful.

We then took a train (and tempted fate by it arriving at 3am again, but not a problem this time) to Sawai Madhopur to see Ranthambhore National Park, the only place in Rajasthan that still has tigers.  Touring around Rajasthan seeing all the palaces and the like, it quickly becomes clear why there are so few tigers left – the maharajas absolutely loved their tiger (and other large animals) hunting and there are photos, heads or whole skins everywhere you go.  But we wanted to see some in the flesh so booked in for two “safaris” around the park. But even with the backup trip we still had no luck, they are pretty scarce and it is a large park. It was still a lovely park and a great way to see deer, monkeys, boar, peacocks, and all sorts of other birds as well as some nice flora too, and to listen to fellow passengers’ tales of the tigers they had seen that morning…

From here we took the train to Jaipur, a cattle class ticket this time, we couldn’t find a seat but a nice young fellow found us some seats (that belonged to other people, they didn‘t mind too much) and it was quite fun watching them play childish games to pass the time and the like.  About half way there everyone started running around, hiding valuables and pretending to be asleep, we were told to hide our ipods.  What we were told is that a group of “bisexuals” roam the train and offer to bless you, for a fee, if you don’t want to be blessed they “show you something you don’t want to see” or take something of value until you pay them.  As curious as this made us, we decided feigning sleep was the best course of action and so they passed us by and everyone “woke up” again.  We shall never know.

Jaipur was great, very big, but great.  The big drawcards were the old, pink city with shops everywhere selling all sorts of amazing stuff; Jantar Mantar, one of 5 observatories built years and years ago around India (Jaipuir is the best preserved) that are truly awe-inspiring creations; the City Palace, typically sumptuous and luxurious; a fantastic old cinema, with a great interior, where we saw half a bollywood flick; and Amber Fort, the best fort we have seen so far (out of a large field).  Oh and some western eating options (pizza hut and McDonalds both got a look in) appealed as we were both still struggling with food, not so anymore. Food is a major highlight of this trip, it just takes some adjustment.

From Jaipur there was another train, another drama.  We were at our hotel printing our tickets, time running out, jumped in a rickshaw and headed  to the train station.  We got there and I realised that the mobile we had bought was back at the hotel, as we got to the platform though, that thought disappeared as our train was there and moving. So, in true India style, we ran along and jumped on the moving train.  Wrong carriage of course (the trains are huge), but we chatted with people in the carriage before changing at the next station (another run and jump affair) and we were away, minus the mobile.  The train was headed to Bikaner, one of two desert towns on our travels.  The main attraction for us was a fort in the centre of town, which was pretty great, a lot of people also go to do desert safaris by camel, but we had decided a while ago that we had ridden our last camel for a while…  We also had lunch at a rather luxurious hotel (Rajasthan is famous for it’s old heritage hotels) that Kate’s parents had stayed in a few years ago – very nice.

Almost forgot!  We took a side trip from Bikaner to the small town of Deshnok to the Karni Mata Temple.  A long story involving reincarnation but basically they believe that the rats in the temple are holy descendants of a god and so are given free run of the temple.  We had a (quick) wander around in amazement before we had to give up.  A truly strange sight, but a touch on the uneasy side.  Being rats the temple isn’t the cleanest either, their favoured corner is a hideously messy section but they are all over.  You could also buy rat food at the front of the temple but we didn’t see any need to encourage them further.

I could write another blog this size about the strangeness of India, but I might leave that for another time.  Needless to say the constant noise (traffic honking, music from temples, loud conversations, loud everything), spitting everywhere, men urinating everywhere, cows all over the place, stray dogs roaming all around (some supposedly carrying Rabies), and always people, people, people takes some getting used to.  But once you are used to it, India is fantastic.  A shame we have “only” 3 weeks left.

Here are a lot of photos.

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England.. again

After all the travel, the main point of coming to the UK at Christmas time was to relax and relax we did. Most of our time was spent in Winchester with Kate’s brother and sister-in-law (Nigel and Janet) eating, drinking, wandering in the town and country and just generally doing not much. We did have visas to sort out, and though that was a hassle, most of that was waiting time. To fill in the waiting time we made a few trips to London where we caught a show (actually a great children’s puppet show that Kate’s brother was in), saw all the Christmas crowds and decorations and I saw the Tower of London with my friend Tanya. We also visited Kate’s cousin and aunt in South London which was fun and, again, very relaxing.

But the main excitement was actually the weather. I had been looking forward to seeing the snow and Kate was full of stories about England winters being all drizzle, grey cloud, and early nights and no snow. But in the end there was snow everywhere for almost our entire stay. The first fall happened on our very first day and I was more than a little excited, it being a little over 20 years since I had last seen it. But a few weeks later it bucketed down (admittedly causing massive transport problems for those that had to work) again so we headed out and built snowmen and threw it around and just generally enjoyed it. Great fun and a great way to bring out the inner child in anyone.

Speaking of inner child, another enjoyable part of our time in England was joining Nigel and a very pregnant Janet on shopping trips to purchase all kinds of baby related things. It seemed like a possibility that the baby would come while we were there, but despite a particularly close call it wasn’t to be.

We perhaps relaxed and soaked up the western way of life too much as when it came to don the backpacks in India again we found it particularly hard going. Starting in Delhi probably didn’t help, but the transition was tough, but one we have thankfully overcome – and onwards and upwards we go. Our plan from here is to spend a few weeks in Rajasthan after seeing Delhi and Agra (Taj Mahal was amazing) and then head south via Goa to the state of Kerala before flying out. The destination is up in the air but more than likely Kate will be volunteering in Sumatra from March 1 helping orangutans and I will be heading to Melbourne early (the volunteer dates clash with the all important concert in Melbourne). If Kate doesn’t get accepted (application in progress) then I think a beach somewhere warm for a few weeks will be the backup plan. Then comes a whirlwind tour of Australia – it’s amazing how little of our own country we have seen, so what better time to rectify that.

Photos of our snow playing below. India updates will follow in a week or so, if we get wifi that is.



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Mali – part two

Continued from part one: As the boat pulled up all the white folks (not being racist of course, but skin colour is rather noticeable in Africa – we were constantly called whitey or the French or local language version thereof. A little strange at times.) decided to go to the one hotel. This suited us as some of the group spoke excellent French (and had mobile phones to organise a pickup from the dock too) and were more than happy to translate for the amateur French speaking half of the group. The place we stayed in was run by a Canadian woman who had married a chief of one of the local villages. It was very nice with a local specialty for dinner and a nice campfire all night (it was actually cold at night). The first day we wandered around the town looking at the sights – mainly mosques, ornate doors and windows, and the houses where early European explorers stayed (and often died) after reaching Timbuktu back when doing so was a difficult feat. The locals (Tuareg nomads, an interesting people with a history of revolts and isolation and who also do the salt mining camel trips into the heart of the desert that take about a month all up – you could join them if you wanted too…) tended to follow us around the whole time trying to sell us jewellery and other things before their caravan left “the next day”.

The second day we had organised for a camel trip a little way into the desert through the chief. We haphazardly set a price and set off. Kate and I immediately realised the error of our ways after promising not to get back on camels again after the pain of Morocco, but too late! We both had sore backsides for the next few days. After a couple of hours of bouncing out towards the desert we pulled up at our destination, a hut in a Tuareg village. The plan from there was basically to sit on a mat under a tree for 4 hours. They did feed us lunch but the key ingredient in the dish was definitely sand (crunch, crunch, crunch was all you could hear) and tasted rather terrible. A little on the dull side though they did find the time to try and sell some more jewellery. During our long trek back, the Dutch couple who came along too thought that perhaps the trip was overpriced for what was delivered and would take the chief up on his “pay half now and then pay the rest when you return, unless you aren’t completely happy with the trip” offer. So they did, with the help of a translator. Wow. Neither of us really expected it to go well, but I for one didn’t expect an all yelling, all gesturing, some translated wall of fury. It was quite a sight to see the chief getting all worked up over, to him, a matter of honour, pride and “our word”. Needless to say we all just handed over the cash and went somewhere else for dinner.

We made our escape the next day, but unluckily for half of us we had already signed on for a private car with the chief himself (the only feasible way out of Timbuktu for us was by 4WD [at 4am!!!] and they need to be reserved). All went well, with all of us just ignoring him. But of course, there was more. When we were 10kms short of Mopti (after many, many bumpy hours on a graded road) the chief stops the car and says we have to transfer to a taxi for the rest. Kate and I just shrugged but the Spaniard with us had had enough (and was also not one of the camel trekkers who had the run in) and said it was ridiculous, only to be met with a second ridiculously over the top rant from the chief. We jumped in the taxi and headed off, glad to be rid of him. Eventually. The taxi he had chosen for us was a typical Malian rust bucket, and like so many cars around didn’t just simply start at the turn of a key but required coaxing – pushing, touching of wires together, tinkering under the bonnet – before moving, at no matter what speed. Slow in our case, so the 10kms took half an hour after a petrol stop and several police checks that are the norm everywhere in Mali. But we arrived and promptly collapsed in a heap.

Our next destination was the Dogon Country, home to another group of people (the Dogon of course) who, like the Tuareg, seem to be not entirely part of the rest of Mali. First we had to choose a guide – and just about everyone in Mali we met started out by offering to guide us in Dogon Country, it is quite the thing to do in Mali. Having chosen a guide, we set off from Mopti to Bandiagarra, the nearest town to Dogon. This involved taking a bush taxi, running on the general principle of “I’ll leave when I’m full, even if it takes 2 days to fill.” “Luckily” for us, this particular bush taxi only took three and a half hours to fill, so it wasn’t too bad. The next morning we met our guide and we were off. As soon as we appeared in the first village we were swarmed with kids, all wanting to hold our hands – what a thrill! So within a minute we had 2 or 3 kids each, holding on for dear life and defending their positions, often quite brutally, when any other kids tried to get in on the act.

We trekked for four days all up, and each day was much the same. Get up early (well, around 7.30) for breakfast before packing up and exploring the village for a while, hike to the next village for an hour, explore that village, lounge around a wait for lunch in the restaurant (every village had at least one restaurant/“hotel”) because food took even longer in the Dogon, closer to an hour and a half. Lunch and dinner were a sauce over our choice of rice, pasta or couscous. After lunch was snooze time for our guide (he insisted he couldn’t possibly eat a big lunch and then go off and start walking straight away, or even an hour after eating, he needed a long rest – “just like you would in an office“….) then we would walk for another hour or so to the village we would sleep in and set ourselves up for the night. Most of the “hotels” were just lots of small rooms with no windows (or sometimes even a door that closed properly), a basic bed or two and some very rustic toilet and shower facilities a short walk away. And of course, no electricity. Not exactly luxurious, but we managed for four days.

But of course, the main reason for the trek was the scenery and the people. A fascinating way of life, very much unchanged by the passing of time. The area is noticeable for the cliff that runs all through the Dogon Country, with some villages at the top, some at the bottom, and where it’s less steep, some villages kind of in the cliff. Back in the day, there was a different people there – the Tellem, and their houses are all in the cliff face about 50 metres off the ground. The theory is that there was once more water and hence vegetation around and so they climbed vines to get home – I still think it doesn’t really explain why they would choose such a strange place to build a house. We went up and down the cliff at various (carefully chosen) places and had a bit of an explore of some of the abandoned Dogon villages that were at the lowest part of the cliff, fascinating stuff. They are famous for their masks and their ceremonies, but we didn’t get to experience that this time.

After our trek there was really only Bamako to explore and we had a week left before our flight, and after Ouagadougou we didn’t think a capital would really hold our interest. But we had no choice so we took off anyway. Luckily for us (as there really wasn’t much to see) our airline changed our tickets for free! Amazing. We did catch the national museum, the grande marche, and a few other sights, but it was all a little underwhelming and with the knowledge we would soon be in England, it was a bit strange.

Bamako is famous for it’s live music and everywhere we had gone we had seen posters advertising a show around the corner from our (fantastic) hotel on our last night in town, and given we had a late night flight, we thought it was a perfect farewell to Africa. How right we were… After enquiring at our hotel about the venue we felt safe that we didn’t need to buy tickets in advance as it was huge. So we showed up at 9 right when it was supposed to start, and were greeted by an overwhelming number of people, most of whom were attempting to get in through the still locked doors. The scene: several thousand people on either side of a road filled with cars, those on the other side of the road from the venue (like ourselves) were wisely waiting and watching to see what would happen, from the doors there snaked two huge lines of people, culminating in a heaving, climbing, pushing mass of people on the stairs leading up to two tiny, house-sized doors. Insanity. This situation continued for half an hour or so, with us by this time deciding that perhaps we wouldn’t go in after all, and the doors remaining firmly closed. Suddenly it all changed, from the entrance there came a van full of police in riot gear, driven by an absolute madman at at least 70 km/h on the road mostly, but towards the end veering into the crowd. The van screeches to a stop, all the riot police jump off and proceed to beat (literally of course) a path for the doorway and to take control of the steps (all this we observed from a very safe distance away as we had, along with most of the people on our side of the road, run off at the approach of the crazy van). This continued for about 15 minutes, with relative calm descending. The police then spread back and seemed to have created an orderly corridor for the crowd to enter the now open door through. About 20 people made it in before the crowd went absolutely nuts and surged towards the entrance and the police – the doors promptly closed and the batons came back out and more beatings occurred. The crowd then calmed down a bit for a while, before surging again, being beaten back again, etc, etc. About 40 or so minutes afterwards (we weren‘t going in, but we were staying (a safe enough distance away) to see what happened), for seemingly no reason another police van drove up, in exactly the same fashion and another squad of police stormed out and beat their way through the crowd. Finally, between the two lots they formed a huge triangle out the front of the building and law and order was seemingly restored. So we waited.. And waited. For the next hour or so we waited and watched, while absolutely nothing at all happened. Very strange. We eventually went back to our hotel as we had a flight to catch and we will never know if the show got under way, but it is extremely doubtful. We were left utterly bemused that such a scene could result simply from a large group of people wanting to attend a music concert. So that was our strange end of our African adventure. To be followed by a horrendous travel saga that was far less interesting but far more arduous that took us to England and to, relative, sanity again.

Phew. Time for some photos.

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Mali – part one

Still playing catchup with the blog – it’s hard not to be lazy and lethargic after the last 6 months or so of running around the world in the sun and now being able to relax for a while… in the freezing cold. But we are getting there and should be leaving for India just as soon as we get our visas, which is a whole other story.

On to Mali. It’s a bit difficult to know where to start with Mali, Mali was difficult, confusing, exhausting, and on and on, but also completely amazing and fascinating and on and on. Perhaps I shall stick to a nice, normal linear description first. After starting to write, the sheer volume of words has prompted me to split it into two posts.

Our first stop in Mali was Segou (mentioned last time, long bus ride, etc, etc). A nice, relaxed river-side town. There really wasn’t much to see there, more of a place to break a journey up. There were some lovely, crumbling, old buildings – relics of France’s colonial past – to walk around, aside from that the only other thing to see was a village an hour away by boat that made (and fired) pottery. We found out about this on the night we arrived from a would-be-guide who appeared from out of the shadows as we were waiting for our dinner at a restaurant (this is an occupation that took up much of our time, it seems that food is not able to be prepared in less than 30 minutes in Mali, an hour (we always took books with us) is much more reasonable). He spoke for a while to us from behind a wall in the dark before I gestured for him to actually come in and sit near us.

So he took us off the next day and showed us around, we saw the local women making pottery without any fancy machines – all they needed was a stand and a thong (flip flop for the UK residents) and voila, fantastic pots. The firing was done with fire (of course) but we were eventually told that it was done the next day, not the day we went (despite being told otherwise). Still, interesting.

By this time the Djenne Monday market (a big event) was looming so we headed off. From anywhere in Mali, the only way to get to Djenne (if you are a tourist that is) is to take a bus that goes along the highway between Segou and Mopti and get out at the carrefour (it’s French for yoghurt, I mean intersection or crossroads) for Djenne and “steel yourself for a long wait” in the words of our trusty Lonely Planet. As it turned out, they were right, though not in the way we thought. Luckily for us, another couple got off there as well with their Malian guide also going to Djenne. As soon as we all got off we were met by a driver of a “bache” (a ute with seats in the tray bit and a little roof) who quoted us a price, which we thought was fairly reasonable and loaded our bags on the roof for us. We all jump in, excited and relieved that it has gone so smoothly and start chatting away. The driver goes away, comes back 5 minutes later and says “oh I’m actually waiting for 10 more passengers before we go… or you could just pay that straight up and we can go.” Of course 10 more tickets between us made the great deal rather terrible so we said no, but waiting looked a little ridiculous when we stopped to assess where we were – which wasn’t on the highway at all but in fact a little off it and looking a lot like the middle of nowhere. A lot of arguing later, a driver from the hotel that the other couples guide had booked shows and the arguments continue and continue. Eventually, they sort it out, we pay the equivalent of maybe 5 more seats (a bargain!) and drive off, 6 to a car. As we are leaving, we notice another bus show up and drop 2 more tourists off who walk over to the same bache driver…

Anyway, after all that we made it to Djenne and stayed at an absolute hovel of a hotel on the Sunday night (but they had an awesome Knight Rider sheet on the bed!) and looked around where the market was supposed to be – not much chop and almost nobody around was the verdict. The next morning we went out to see what had become of the market and were rather surprised to see the area covered (amazingly densely covered) with people, food, clothes and random products of every possible description. Though when I say every possible description that should really be every possible description except for things that a western tourist would ever in their right minds buy. Buckets, pans, cheap and second hand tools, clocks, hideous underwear and inedible food (mounds a metre high of dried, stinking fish were by far the most inedible of all) were everywhere and commerce seemed to be brisk but it was difficult to tell as the market operates on it’s own special language that we knew not a word of and it was never entirely clear if people were buying things, haggling incessantly or simply just talking to each other. A fantastic sight but we, of course, bought not a thing. Another major highlight of Djenne is it’s fantastic mosque. Mosques throughout the region are all mud brick buildings with wood sticking out everywhere. Apparently every year after the rainy season the buildings all need maintenance so the wood is both decorative and scaffolding.
We decided to take advantage of the high volume of traffic to leave Segou for Mopti. We had no problems securing a seat in a bache but it ended up proving to us that you can in fact fit 15 people in one of them. A very uncomfortable trip, I got the lucky spot of on top of the spare tyre at everyone’s feet. Mopti was a real crossroads in our trip, from there we could take the boat to Timbuktu or organise treks through the Dogon Country. The problem was the boat to Timbuktu has a reputation for an incredibly loose schedule and supposedly takes 3 days to get to Timbuktu. The trick was going to be balancing when the boat left (which we wouldn’t find out until we got to Mopti), a trip to Dogon Country and getting back to Bamako with enough time to catch our plane. That was the worry anyway. We showed up in Mopti at 5pm and went to the boat office only to be told that the boat leaves at 7pm that night. After a mad panic to change euros and buy toilet paper, food (meals are provided but have a reputation for being small or running out) and water before leaving, we jumped on the boat and took off.

The first thing we realised was that despite the promises that dinner was included on the first night, it in fact was not (lucky we had bought extra food). The boat itself was quite interesting, bottom deck was mainly taken up with cargo – huge piles of fruit and vegetables, a motorbike, a goat, a horse, and all sorts of random things; the second deck was taken up with the cabins, our “first class” cabin was there along with 8 other tourists; the top deck was half wide open space where Africans travelled – sleeping, cooking and everything else in the open – and the other half was the restaurant area. Every time the boat stopped at a village (there were about 8 or so stops between Mopti and Timbuktu) every woman on board (some guys too, but not many) trooped off the boat loaded with their goods loaded on their heads and set up a little mini-market on the riverbank. The locals of course know this and are waiting in huge numbers at every stop (in fact, even in the villages where the boat doesn’t stop the people all gather to watch the boat passing) to buy their wares, this didn’t change even at the night stops, everyone just brings along a torch. But all good things must come to an end, and after only 2 nights we were told to pack up and get off. A shame as with the unexpectedly quick departure of the boat we found ourselves with a little too much time left plus we liked life on the boat – the food was decent, the temperature moderate and the other tourists friendly. Oh well, we consoled ourselves with the fact that we were in Timbuktu!

Photos and junk below, part two coming soon.

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Burkina Faso

We are in England now, staying in Winchester while we wait for Indian visas to arrive. Have had a very English Christmas, freezing cold and even some snow. Getting here was a long drawn out travel saga, but we made it. Kate throwing up on the tube, baggage lost for 4 days and things. The blog has sort of been forgotten about but I will get it up to date in the next week or so.

First cab off the West African rank was Burkina Faso. A country we weren’t overly familiar with to be perfectly honest, but it was one of the few places that 1) we could fly to (overland was out as the looming mass of Sudan surrounds Egypt, not somewhere we wanted to go) and 2) would let us in without major hassles. As reported elsewhere, Australians seem to be lepers as far as African embassies are concerned. But never mind. So, off we flew with Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca (where we had a 10 hour wait) and then to Ouagadougou (pronounced Waga-doo-goo. Or just Waga for short. Awesome). We were dreading the flight as it arrived at 3am in a foreign country with us visaless. In Cairo, the first obstacle was checking in. After consulting his little computer (with all the visa requirements) the clerk told us we needed us to sign a waiver for “irregular travel” as they didn’t want to have to cover the return trip back to Casablanca. A bit unnerving, but fine, we’ll sign it. Arriving in Casablanca we learnt that we were eligible for a hotel (free of charge – we were moving up in the world, quite a change for us) while we waited instead of slumming it in the airport. Great, had a free lunch and an afternoon nap and then back on the road for the flight.

Arriving at Ouagadougou airport was fine (though we were delayed an hour, so it was 4am) and in the end the visa policewoman just looked at us (after asking in French if we had visas, “no, sorry”) and gave us forms to fill out. Stress over. We had also booked a hotel as we had read that we might need to show proof of such a thing. Luckily our trusty website hostel bookers had one listing for all of BF, in Ouaga. To make things easier I had sent them an email asking to be picked up (I wrote it in perfect English and quite imperfect French), and it worked! Free airport pickup was yet another luxury for us.

After a good nights sleep we had our first proper look of West Africa. First impressions were not impressive at all. Admittedly it was a capital city, even if it is a West African capital (with a great name), so it was a little lacking in things to do. So we waited around for our visas and organised visas for Mali and got out of there. But, it was a good taste of things to come though – young men (and kids) everywhere trailing along and babbling (fast!!) away in French that we couldn’t understand, obviously trying to sell us things or be our guide for the day. It was a little strange, and not quite the warm welcome we had hoped for (and Kate had promised after her Southern African wanderings).
Still, visas in hand we headed off to another fantastically named place, Bobo-Dilassou, or just Bobo. This was much more to our liking. It had a fairly interesting market, much less hassle, a good mosque, an old, interesting section of town and a very relaxed feel. Most of the roads were surrounded by huge trees, which was nice. On our visit to the old section of town we saw some guys dressed up like scarecrows with funny masks walking around. We had read about this, they have a “Fetes des Masques” about 6 months after somebody (important) dies that involves lots of dancing and the like. But not this time, they were just wandering around as there was one coming up. A shame.

We then took a side trip to Banfora for a few days. Banfora is the “green” part of BF, so we hired a guide for the day who took us around to see the waterfalls, some funny rock formations and a lake with Hippos in it, that can be elusive. We went around on scooters, which was fun, haven’t done that for a while. All very pleasant, especially the hippos. A local man paddled us in a little boat out to where the hippos sometimes hangout in the afternoon, and sure enough there were about 10 of the things there. Amazing. Puffing away and opening their gigantic mouths and things. We didn’t get too close though (Hippos are the number one killer in Africa…) A fun day and our guide was a real character, always singing and dancing and shouting “Africa!” randomly. He also spoke quite good English.

Back to Bobo for our onwards trip to Mali (a short stay in BF). We got back in the afternoon and were just going to relax and then head off early in the morning. But of course a guide at the hotel had other ideas. But what great ideas. The Fetes des Masques was actually happening that afternoon and we could watch. So of course we did and after a lot of waiting and uncertainty as to whether we were lied to, suddenly the scarecrow-men ran past and then it was on. A truly unforgettable experience. The whole village gathered, forming a huge circle, with drummers mixed in the crowd and maybe 10 guys (and some kids) dressed up in these outfits lounging around. The drumming would start, one of them would dance for a while before (for no apparent, to us, reason) people in the crowd would grab them and pull them into the crowd when someone else would take over the dancing. In some of these lulls locals would jump in there and run through doing somersaults and flips and all sorts of things, bizarre. It all seemed quite informal despite all of that, people would run through when they felt like it and others would just walk through on their way to the other side. Because of this informality and complete lack of structure (again, to us) we had no idea when it would finish and it was getting dark. But, I saw someone in the crowd making “it’s over” gestures and then suddenly, it stopped and everyone walked away. 2 minutes later there was no-one there any more. It had gone for about an hour and we have many, many photos and videos of it.

We then took a long, long bus to Segou in Mali. It was unfortunate as we had hoped to leave at 6.30, but had to take the 12.30 bus which meant arriving in the dark, never a good idea. Add to that the completely random stops in completely random locations for completely random amounts of time and it made for an awkward journey. Overall though, a thoroughly African experience.

After Egypt it was very strange to suddenly see so few tourists. On any given day we were lucky to see 5 other white people. And they were almost exclusively French and middle aged. It made our lack of French skills rather noticeable, and was an object of amusement and/or condescension for the locals. Probably learnt from the French when they were in charge.

Some photos and, hopefully they work, videos below. (Nope, no videos – which is a shame.)

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This is Kate – I thought it was time to let Matt have a break from writing the blog.  (Matt: The truth is that I outright forced her to write this section.) We are in Alexandria right now, we just went to see the catacombs which were like something straight out of an Indiana Jones set. Now we’re waiting for our train back to Cairo.  Today is the last day of our middle east adventure. Tomorrow we start our West Africa leg by flying to Ouagadougou (what a fantastic name), the capital of Burkina Faso.

Egypt has been great! There is so much to see here and, despite having heard so many bad stories about being hassled etc, we have found the people very friendly and the travel pretty easy.

We started in Dahab (after taking the ferry from Jordan). Dahab was a good place to start. It’s a very relaxed town, not at all like the hussle and bussle of all other towns we visited. It also had great restaurants and I was pretty excited to find that they all sold banana and chocolate pancakes – yum!!

Dahab’s a great location for diving in the red sea.  So, I left Matt behind to have some R&R while I went on a few dives. The absolute highlight was seeing a huge giant moray eel – probably at least 2 metres long!I also went on my first night dive which was fun. It took a while to get used to being able to use a torch under water.

We then had a 10 hour bus trip to Cairo and spent a couple of days wandering around some of the major sites, including the pyramids of Giza. The pyramids really were as amazing as I had expected them to be and I fulfilled my dream of going inside a pyramid. It was quite expensive and there was nothing to see inside so Matt was not so excited about it, but I still thought it was great.

The Egyptian museum was wonderful, particularly the mummy room and the Tutenkarmon display. We had fun buying some souvenirs from the souks and smoking a sheesha in one of the cafes there. We had our first Sheesha (waterpipe, hookah, nargileh, it goes by many names) in Dahab, where I was absolutely terrible at it and kept coughing, but my Sheesha smoking has now improved (nothing to be proud of I’m sure).   

Our first night in Cairo happened to coincide with the soccer match between Egypt and Algeria (if Egypt won by 3 goals they would win a place in the world cup). I have never seen anything like it! The game started at 7.30 and the whole of Cairo seemed to be out on the  streets watching it on big screens set up specifically. So, of course we went along to watch it too.  They got 1 goal within the first couple of minutes of the game and when all seemed lost they scored a second goal in the very last minute. The whole city went crazy with good-natured celebrations. The streets were packed with people dancing & singing. Everyone was soo excited. People were really happy to see us in amongst the crowd and we got “welcome to Egypt”‘d and asked to pose for photos hundreds of times that night. (We assumed we were incorrect about the 3 goal thing, but we found out later that scoring 2 goals meant they were tied and it went to a rematch to decide it in a few days – such a celebration for a small result.)

We then took the sleeper train down to Aswan. We had a nice comfy cabin to ourselves. I was soo glad we weren’t in a seat as the 12 hour trip turned into a 16 hour trip. From Aswan we joined the 4am convoy (unfortunately it’s next to impossible to travel any other way) to Abu Simbel, which was definitely worth losing sleep for.

Thanks to Agatha Cristie’s ‘Death on the Nile’ I had ‘always’ wanted to take a steam boat down the Nile. I was pretty adamant that this is what we were going to do, but we had no idea if it would actually be affordable. It turned out to be an absolute bargain! Unfortunately the little steam boats have now turned in to huge cruisers and we ended up with the ugliest monster of them all – called the Aton. But the inside of the boat was lovely and so were the buffet meals. It was great to spend time sitting on the deck, watching the nile go by. We stopped at a couple of temples Kom Ombo and Edfu on the way to Luxor.

In Luxor we spent a day on the east bank visiting Luxor Temple and Karnak temple and then took a day tour of the west bank, visiting the valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, temple of Hatshetput and the Colossi of Memnon. The  inside of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Queens were beautiful as the carvings have retained their colours.  (Matt: for the record, the rematch of the soccer game happened while we were in Luxor – they lost, we got a good night’s sleep.)

We took the sleeper train back to Cairo and visited some more pyramids a little further out of town, Dahshur and Saqqara. Dahshur pyramid was great because we were the only tourists there. Unfortunately this also meant we got targeted by the tourist police, who are always best avoided because it usually ends up with them demanding baksheesh (a tip – and they aren’t the only ones of course) for some unwanted service, like pointing something out to you that is already extremely obvious. Anyway, we were able to  go inside the pyramid here, which was great fun and even better than Giza because you can go in quite a long way (with a torch) and we had the whole pyramid to ourselves.

The boring story of the visas…
The rest of our time in Cairo was taken up with trying to work out the nightmare of visas for west africa. Once in West Africa most visas can be obtained at the borders, which is what we were planning on doing. But the problem is getting there in the first place. Every embassy we approached wanted to see return airfares that fall within the period allowed by the tourist visa. As we were wanting to travel overland and had no idea of an end date we couldn’t satisfy these requirements. It also didn’t help that the Embassies are only open for visa applications on certain days for limited hours and that our time in Cairo happened to coincide with holidays for the ‘feast’ (that marks the end (or possibly beginning) of the pilgrimage to mecca). Also, some airlines wont let you fly if you don’t have a visa, even though you can buy a visa at the airport on arrival. Basically we were banging our heads against a brick wall every step of the way. In the end we decided to purchase a ticket in to Burkina Faso (as visas can theoretically be obtained at the airport) and out of Mali (as we can then get a visa at the embassy in Ougadougou or at the border). So that’s that. I think we’re both just glad that we can still go, despite having to cut our plans down significantly. Although, it’s not 100% we could still be denied by Royal Air Maroc (despite asking them) or not get a visa at the airport. Time will tell.

After this, not sure how reliable internet access is in Africa so the blog might re-appear around christmas (when we return to the UK) or it might continue on regardless.

Here are a lot of photos.

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