The Wild West: Sierra Leone

"Nature is by and large to be found out of doors, a location where, it cannot be argued, there are never enough comfortable chairs." -Fran Lebowitz

As the plane hovered over the endless forests and spiderweb of rivers of the West African landscape, all I could feel was anticipation welling up inside of me. I mentally begged the pilot to turn around, "Take me back to Kenya where life is comfortable and I at least know what I'm doing! (or at least I think I do)" Of course the pilot did no such thing and before I knew it we were touching down in Monrovia, Liberia, the last stop on this VERY long journey from Nairobi to Freetown. Monrovia's main international airport is little more than an airstrip surrounded by a few sheds and a lot of UN equipment and tents. Welcome to the wild west of Africa. As we took off again the anticipation bubble burst, and was replaced with solid resignation. "Here goes nothing." Finally touching down in Freetown all the disembarking passengers eyed eachother up like hawks. The look was the same between everybody and we filed off the plane, "What are YOU doing here?" I got a few extra glances because I was the only young, foreign woman getting off. In total there was: a military/ex-military from somewhere in Eastern Europe, a couple of American diplomats who were clearly more practical than most (probably a return visit), a young Western European (possibly Italian) or American guy who I'd pick for a journalist or some kind of writer, and finally an older woman who was likely doing missionary work in the country. Flights and waiting around in airports gets pretty boring after the third layover in a day, so people-watching to the rescue! I assure you I wasn't staring.

Outside the airport my volunteer coordinator, Collins, was waiting with a couple other guys who are part of the organization I was working for. First impressions of Sierra Leone, were favourable, not too drastically different from Kenya, people generally wore less clothing, looked less healthy, and the public transportation was... less than roadworthy, but the mini-buss drivers still ignored all road rules, people stopped to look at the whiteperson, and the land around me wash lush. We took a ferry across to the main city of Freetown, before heading out to the suburb of Wellington where I would be staying. The most obvious difference between East and West Africa, though, was the climate; what I considered unbearably hot in Kenya, would have been pleasant here. The heat and humidity were immediately overwhelming, and when I arrived it was already dusk. Canadians were not made for this kind of heat.

The next morning I found out just how hot it actually was. Temperatures generally sat at or above 35C with a humidity of 60-80% on top of that, making it feel more like 40-something. Imagine living your life in a sauna. The air is hot and sticky, simply moving elicits a downpour of sweat from my forehead. The sun just made all of this even worse. Why didn't anybody warn me about this?! Oh well, I'll survive and just drink a lot of water.

I lived in a compound that encompassed several smaller houses built around a courtyard/common area. I was introduced to everyone in the compound and started working on remembering names and faces. Everyone was very kind and so pleased to have a foreign volunteer there with them. The women generally did all the cooking, the men were either working, or socializing during the day. In the evenings as washing was being done, people would often sit outside on wooden benches and listen to the sound of a crackling radio report the latest BBC news on regional and international issues. Everyone was very concerned about the Libyan conflict, especially because Libya has been a large contributor to that country's development. I imagined it would be similar in some ways to going back in time 100 years in Canada.

Here's a little background about Sierra Leone to give everyone a better idea of the country's past and put the present into context. The Republic of Sierra Leone was declared an independent state in 1961 after decades of British colonial rule. This year will be the 50th anniversary of independence and there is evidence of this everywhere in Freetown. The small country (about the size of New Brunswick, or Ireland), boasts resource exports including palm products and the infamously troubled diamond industry. Its climate is one of the hottest and wettest in West Africa with a rainy season that stretches from May until September-October. It's situated 8 degrees north of the equator, on par with Venezuela and Colombia in South America. The population is religiously divided, about 60% of Leoneans are Muslim, 30% are Christian, and the remaining 10% follow traditional religious practices, although secret societies (cults) remain very popular regardless of religious beliefs. Surprisingly (to me) all the religions get along with very little tension between them. Children are even taught that regardless of the religion that they were raised with, they can chose whichever religion suits them best. There are many tribes within the country, all get along amicably, and most have their own languages, but English and Krio (a variation of English brought over by freed slaves from the Americas in the 19th century) are national languages. In the 1990's to early 2000's the country was thrown into a violent civil war that destroyed much of the infrastructure that had been built since independence. The conflict that had spilled over from neighbouring Liberia, pitted the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) against the government, both claiming to represent the best interests of the people, but resorting to violence to prove their point. If you want to see Hollywood's take on the civil war, "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio will fill in the gory details. Today, the country is still feeling the effects, struggling to rebuild infrastructure and push forward with development.

The capital city of Freetown was a true dose of crazy, that made everything I had seen in the Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and even East Africa pale in comparison. The streets wind up and down through neighbourhoods that look like villages within the city. Downtown, there aren't many distinguishable landmarks for a confused foreigner like me to orient myself with, luckily I was always with someone from the volunteer organization who had no trouble navigating. Everything was very crowded, and there was barely enough room to walk between the man-powered carts, motorbikes, mini-buses, cars, massive trucks, and of course locals weaving their way through it all carrying baskets, or other items (like 2 x 4's), on their heads. Ducking and dodging my way through the city I was faced with another problem: the sidewalks. The sidewalks were almost scarier than the streets; built over a concrete drainage gutter, the cement slabs I was walking on would occasionally bounce, wobble, or simply not exist, with exposed metal rods in their place. YIKES! Amid all the craziness I did catch glimpses of the traditional colourful fabrics, and a variety of street vendors selling everything from designer knockoffs to chickens out of a cooler. This is a whole different dimension of crazy.

The school I visited in Wellington occupies an older house that has now been converted into a two-floor school for about 135 children between the ages of 3 and 12. The kids learn all their basic subjects and while I was there, were also preparing for a school-wide sports day. The teachers don't have access to many resources: copies of the curriculum, textbooks, and other simple materials are in short supply. This is the case for most of the schools across the country. In government run schools, the situation is even worse, with teachers often going years without receiving a salary, which is to be paid by the government. Regardless of what they have, or do not have, these teachers genuinely care about their students.

In Wellington, I started learning a few practical "Salone" (Sierre Leone) things, like eating rice one-handed. I didn't pay attention when one of the women in the compound invited me to eat with her, and I immediately starting making a ball of rice tossing it from one hand to the other. Ooops, I forgot that the lady I was eating with was Muslim, so I should only use my right hand out of etiquette. In case anyone feels the urge to try this, it's not as easy as you may think! There is a specific method, but despite having someone to show me how to eat properly, I still ended up with rice and sauce all over my face and hand. The other people living in the compound thought it was hilarious, but I was very proud of myself regardless. I also went to fetch water, and was strictly warned not to carry the full 20L jerrycan on my head like everyone else was doing. Winding my way through the hills and houses for the short 5min trip, I dutifully carried the plastic container on my hip, inciting laughter and lots of pointing and staring at the silly Upoto who didn't know how to carry water. It would have not been as bad if I was a man, not knowing how to carry things on your head would have been somewhat more excusable. I made it back without spilling and was greeting with applause.

After a week in Wellington I headed out to the village of Kambia-Makema
(Kam-bee-ya/Ma-kay-ma). Small might be an understatement, but it was still one of the largest villages in the chiefdom and home to the Paramount Chief (who represents the chiefdom for matters in Freetown). Village life is best described to someone from the Western world, as basic. Each morning families get up before dawn and start preparing for the day's meals, pounding rice and maize flour or making a trip to the grinding mill. Water must be fetched for cooking, and plants set out for drying. Then children will go off to school from 8am until 2pm, before coming home to help prepare the evening meal and do household chores. At night people often sit around the remains of the coking fire as the children are put to bed. Electricity may have been spotty in the capital, but out here it was non-existent. The closest electricity access was a local market about 15km away. I was so thankful my cell phone had a long battery life!

Visiting the schools was an interesting experience. Corporal punishment is alive and well here in Sierra Leone, and is a part of daily life for children. I was once told, "How can we teach a child to listen if there is not punishment?" The parents and teachers know that development organizations and mission groups working in the country don't approve of their methods, but to the locals it's just another outsider trying to tell them what to do. This subject gets especially sensitive when it has anything to do with the family. Female enrollment in schools also shows evidence of a two-tiered approach to education in the home. After grade four the number of girls attending school significantly drops to the point where in a class of 60 grade nine students , eight of them were girls. Girls are still expected to help around the home and parents don't see the reasoning behind sending them away to school where they won't learn the practical tools they need to raise a family or look after a household. A lot of girls also drop out because of early pregnancies and poor access to any form of birth control. This issue also affects elementary grades (usually 4-6) because many girls don't start school at the same age as their male peers, and may be delayed several years. It wasn't uncommon for me to find girls my own age in 5th of 6th grade. Like in Wellington, access to school materials was difficult but they made the most of what they did have. One of the schools in the village was even top ranked on the national primary exams for the entire district, proving that a lack of materials, and class sizes often exceeding 60 are no barriers to education.

The food that was prepared for me in the village was delicious, but I'm positive the diet would have caused me to have a heart attack before I was 30. In the morning it was greasy french fries with home made plantain chips (basically deep fried banana slices), with deep fried scrambled eggs and onions. This was topped off with an extra large mug of steaming hot full fat cream (made from powder). Lunch, if I wasn't convincing enough that I didn't need it, was usually a whole pineapple and whatever else they could try to fit on my plate. Then came dinner with enough rice to feed a family of four and a bean/fish/chicken sauce cooked in palm oil with a 1/2 inch think layer of oil still sitting on top. I was also brought a large, doughy baguette almost daily that I was expected to eat before it went stale. I certainly didn't go hungry! After a few days of this I was determined to make some changes, but no matter how hard I tried nothing was about to change how much these stubborn women thought I should be eating in a day. It didn't help that I was polishing off 3L of water a day because of the heat and humidity. With all that water in my stomach I barely had room for half the food they were trying to feed me! To not eat was very offensive and immediately everyone in the village would come knocking on the door to my room, demanding to know if I was sick.If nothing else the villagers certainly cared about me.

I was welcomed to the village by a throng of screaming children who stampeded towards me just trying to grab a hold of the Upoto. It was very strange when children would reach out and just try to touch my skin, it was so different to them they didn't know what to expect. I quickly got used to kids practically petting my arms and fingers just to learn what my skin felt like. Some of the local women started singing and dancing in a welcome dance tat I happily joined in, much to everyone's amusement. I discovered that the typical custom was that any time I passed someone I needed to go over and properly greet them with long hand shakes and a series of greetings in the local language of Temne. This meant that a walk that should take 5min often took 15 because of all the stops along the way. No one is ever in a rush here.

The day after my arrival I was formally greeted with a welcome ceremony where all the chiefs and elders were invited and sat on either side of me in throne-like chairs on a raised platform. Greetings were exchanged (with the help of a translator), which included several interruptions as the women burst into song and dance, and women from another village arrive beating drums and singing as well. The men seemed to take the hint, and when the women stood up, the men immediately cleared away all the benches and retreated to the back of the enclosure. This was an amazing cultural experience that not many foreigners would ever get to take part in.

In the village, I set up an endless schedule of meetings to try to understand how everything worked and what the villagers wanted out of the solar-powered study centre I was trying to set up. I think everyone was a little surprised by all the questions I asked, but they didn't seem to mind. I got my hair braided in traditional Salone fashion, and practised carrying buckets of water on my head. I also went to church one Sunday morning, that was an experience-and-a-half! I walked in to a small group of young men singing and dancing like they were possessed. I turned to my friend that had brought me with wide-eyes and said, "This is NOT like church in Canada!" I felt very out of place as the only woman, and of course the only white person. I was a little scared of what would happen next, and wanted nothing more than to turn around and walk right back out the door. Then one of the boys turned around and I recognized him, he was the Paramount Chief's 12-year-old grandson and was always around the house where I was staying. Abdulai gave me a wink and a smile, that gave me the confidence to walk up and sit down as soon as the song ended. The service was more of an attempt at conversion, than preaching to the faithful, with lots of loud interjections and plenty of occasions where everyone shouted: "A-men!" The preacher even compared me to Jesus coming down from the heavens (the developed world) to save Hell (Sierra Leone) to save the people. For anyone who hasn't had the opportunity, being compared to Jesus is not a particularly comfortable experience. After the service I decided to chalk it all up to experience and move on, quickly.

After about a week in the village I received a message from home that things had come up, and I needed to return home as soon as possible. It came as a bit of a surprise but also a relief in some ways, because I had been struggling to adjust to some of the intricacies of Salone culture. Within days I was sitting in the airport awaiting my flight. I was leaving Sierra Leone filled with just as much anticipation as when I arrived.

The ending may have been abrupt, but it was just another adventure to add to my collection that I've accumulated over the past six months. My head was spinning and it wasn't until a couple weeks after I'd gotten home that I truly took stock of everything I had lived on my travels. That will have to be another post.


Just like the last post, I have already put photos up on Facebook, so in case you haven't seen them here's the public link:




Africa: The Continent of Many Colours

"Motion is created by the destruction of balance." —Leonardo da Vinci

Each time I write a post I'm sharing a distinct section of my travels (even if this section is a little delayed...). Each has a beginning and an end that I can mark and usually find a title to go with it. The places are very different and each shift is like going back to square one, relearning how to adapt to the new set of logistical challenges of this new place. After five months this transition has gotten easier, and before I knew it I had seamlessly slipped into East African culture. The culture here is so radically different though, that I found myself missing the familiarity of home more than usual. Each time this happened I was quick to remind myself of all the snow and winter weather awaiting me back home in Canada. Nah, I'll take Africa thanks!

Landing in Nairobi, my body was still running on adrenaline from the last few days' adventures in Cairo. My first glimpse of the city left me wide-eyed in amazement; the sun was rising, turning the sky pink and illuminating a landscape of savanna-esque grasslands and gnarled, leafless trees, leading into the towering skyscrapers of the city. Hello Kenya! Nairobi, fondly known by locals as "Nai-robbery," is made up of many different neighbourhoods like most large cities. Each has its own reputation and "ethnic flavour," such as the rougher are of Eastleigh, where many ex-Somalis have settled, and many private enterprises are (allegedly) financed by piracy money. This area has great shopping for designer knockoffs among other things if anyone's interested. While I was in the Kenyan capital I had a bit of Canadian nostalgia as I visited Amanda, who has become a friend as well as my boss. It also meant that I got to see much more of the city through local contacts and friends, that I would have otherwise missed out on. There was the added bonus of getting to fuss over little Malaika (Amanda's 3 month old daughter), who is absolutely adorable, even when she decides to let everyone know she's having a bad day.

From Nairobi, it was off to the "outback of Kenya," in Western province. I visited Amanda's development project that she manages between being a new mom and running her own business that stretches across two continents. This was my first taste of village life in Africa, and I loved it! I stayed with two other volunteers for a week, and got to know the school, community and observe the lifestyle in this not-so-travelled area of the country. Here a village really means a collection of houses that share a common road, and maybe market area. Everything is spread out because it's still very agricultural and each house is on a separate plot of land. This part of Kenya is also at the heart of its sugar production, with large plantations employing many villagers to work in the fields. Western province also taught me a lot about the typical Kenyan was of life, which is best described in the Swahili phrase "Pole pole," (Po-lay, po-lay) meaning literally, "slowly, slowly." Everything runs on African time (much slower than its cousins, "Greek time," and "Arabic time"), which means that arriving 2.5h late to a meeting is perfectly acceptable. In development projects, this is where the volunteers come in. The introductions of the words "follow-up," "accountability," and "schedule," into daily vocabulary help set plans in motion that may have been in the works for months. The concept of saving-up towards a long-term goal is also a scarce commodity, so one of the challenges volunteers may face is to ensure that existing projects are profitable over time and money isn't squandered away in the short-term.

At the school, known as Tumaini, there are 135 students who range in age from 3 to 9-10 yrs. and are split between six classes. Everyone's favourite subject is phys. ed. where they can run around and burn off some of their very infectious energy. The second Stacey, Rachel (the other volunteers), and I arrived at the school we were mobbed by the most adorable children I've ever seen. They were all dressed in their blue school uniforms, shouting , "Mzungu! Hello!" (Mzungu = White-person). It only got worse whenever someone pulled out a camera, then of course they all wanted to see their picture... School life is basic compared to the many luxuries we've come to expect here in Canada, but every child truly values their ability to attend school and as a result puts extra effort into their studies. The classes sit together on wooden benches as the teacher instructs from the blackboard. The teacher's position doesn't come equipped with the wide range of materials and resources that Canadian teachers have access to, or even teachers in urban areas of Kenya, so these teachers have learned to become much more creative in their lessons so the children still learn the curriculum. By the end of the day I had enjoyed my fill of adorable, shouting kids, and I could see that the other volunteers loved it just as much as I did.

Western province also introduced me to the adventure of African public transport. I added a few new words to my vocabulary through many fun and fearful rides throughout the countryside. Here's a page from my travel dictionary:

Matatu: (ma-ta-too) A 14-passenger mini-bus that often gets crammed with up to 24 people and if you're lucky a few farm animals to make the ride interesting. Wooden planks are put between the seats to make more space, but people still hang out the door for short distances, or just pile on top of one another if it's a longer journey. Roofs are piled with any baggage that doesn't fit inside the vehicle (in a cartoon-like heap tied down with ropes), and the ceilings are usually padded to avoid possible concussions from the massive potholes and surprise off-road experiences. Matatus are apparently not subject to the rules of the road, and drive wherever they please to avoid the potholes (large enough to swallow a small car), oncoming traffic, and weaving motorbikes, this often means not on the road at all.

Piki Piki: (pee-kee pee-kee) Motorbike taxis that will go anywhere that matatus won't. They navigate mini-ravines and forest trails to deliver passengers to their destinations. Generally the drivers take pity on foreigners and go a little slower than usual, but once in a while I got a crazy driver to sped along at about 50kph, over bumps that sent me airborne off the seat many times. This is when the "holy shit handle" comes in handy for white knuckle rides. Drivers usually don't wear helmets, or provide them for their passengers (except in Rwanda). In Uganda they are called boda bodas and in Rwanda motos.

Kenyan cuisine was also something I got to try in Western. At the volunteer house we ate more traditional things, like ugali (oo-gal-ee), the local staple made of maize flour cooked with water into a mashed-potato type paste. We also had maize and kidney beans (so heavy!), matoke (ma-toe-kee) and green grumbs, which is boiled, mashed, green bananas and lentil sauce, which was all punctuated by copious amounts of "tea," the code-word for any hot beverage, and fresh mangoes. Yummm!

I knew I had to leave Western if I wanted to see other parts of East Africa, so it was off to Kampala, the Ugandan capital. Kampala is a big, crowded, and polluted city in the heart of southern Uganda, not far from the shores of Lake Victoria. The traffic has a reputation for clogging the cities roads for hours at a time and winding its way up and down the city's seven hills. I arrived at night and got a bit of a shock: the streets were dark and eerily lit by occasional ditch fires and roadside shops, because there were no streetlights. A harrowing piki piki ride later I was relaxing in a little slice of paradise surrounded by tropical gardens and great company at the hostel Amanda had recommended. First impressions of Kampala: it's HOT! Situated less than 100km north of the equator, even a leisurely stroll in the city was strenuous. I had never been this hot in my life!

The highlight of my time in Uganda wasn't actually in the capital, but a smaller city closer to the Kenyan border where I went bungee jumping over the Nile river. It was a spontaneous day-trip, and together with a friend from the hostel, we took the plunge, jumping from a 44m high platform above the river. There were many moments where I wondered what I had gotten myself into this time, but I had paid my money so I wasn't about to let it go to waste. The scenarios of: "3-2-1-Bung-" "No! Wait!" happened a few times, then I finally just closed my eyes and bye-bye platform, I was flying through the air with the river rushing towards my head. After my first bounce I realized that my arms were wet and the only conclusion was that I had not only touched the water, but gone elbow-deep in it! Several bounces later, and a lot of screaming, I was being safely lowered into a waiting raft, and all I could think was, "I want to do that again!"

Heading into Rwanda the next day was an adventure of another kind. At the border crossing I was politely informed that I didn't have the necessary visa, as the requirements for Canadians had changed last November. Oh. Now I needed to pre-arrange a visa for my stay, which would mean going back to Kampala and waiting for my application to be processed. A lot of pleading and reasoning later the border guard decided to take pity on me, and let me buy my visa at the border. (Travel rule: always carry cash when crossing borders, because you never know what could happen...) Once in Kigali, the capital, I encountered more challenges. I had changed about $5 worth on the border, and I couldn't get Rwandese Francs in Uganda, so I was expecting to just take some cash out of an ATM to avoid a bad exchange rate. Surprise! not a single bank in the country will accept Mastercard or Maestro cards, only international Visa cards are accepted. Oh. The only way I could get cash was to take an advance on my credit card, which could only be done during business hours at a single bank, and it was already closed for the night. Not the best situation, but not impossible, just another travel lesson learned, and re-learned: do your homework!

After these initial mishaps. Rwanda got a lot better, with good food, clean streets, and European-style organization. This was a big shock for me to find in the heart of Africa. It was the beginning of the rainy season in Rwanda, so I grew accustomed to daily downpours and sporadic electricity. I paid a visit to the genocide memorial centre in the capital and learned a lot about a part of this country's history that I'm just a little too young to remember. The centre is beautifully designed and made a fitting memorial to those who were buried in the centre's gardens.

The prospect of travelling across the width of Tanzania to get back to Kenya had lost its appeal to me, so I opted for an impromptu 25h bus ride back into central Kenya. Two border crossings later I was in Kenya and headed for Lake Naivasha to do some, "safari stuff." There, I went to bed every night listening to the hippos grunting from my lakeside cabin. I cycled through Hell's Gate National Park on my kind of safari, where I saw zebras, antelope, gazelles, baboons, warthogs and even a couple of giraffes. I didn't see any elephants, lions or cheetahs, but maybe that was for better, since there was nothing between the wild and me. By the end of the day I was thoroughly exhausted, but happy and my camera was full of great pictures.

Next it was out to the Kenyan coast, and after another overnight bus I found myself sitting on the beach, looking out over the Indian Ocean. I enjoyed some time relaxing by the ocean with a group of British volunteers who were working with street kids in the nearby city of Mombassa. The seafood was delicious and my favourite were the whole fish seasoned and thrown on the grill. Seaside nightlife was a blast as we went for a night out, Kenyan style! If I could describe the atmosphere of the bar in one word it would be "raunchy," but as the only mzungus in sight we stuck together to laugh at the comedy act going on around us, and help eachother up and down the stairs made of sticks.

My last stop in Kenya was further up the coast to a small city called Malindi. I thought Kampala was hot, but Malindi was hotter! It was very humid here, making the heat more intense. I bought a chocolate bar (that the store kept in a refrigerator) and it had melted after an hour. Wandering around I practised my bargaining skills in the markets and wandered along the beach. The beach wasn't the typical pristine white sands with palm trees blowing in the wind. It had all of these things, but with a twist: the sand was covered in pieces of old driftwood and torn fishing nets from the many boats lining the coastline. It had a more rustic than tropical feel, it was a nice change from typical tourist spots. While I was there I took a day trip a few kilometers out of the city to the site of some old Islamic ruins. The Gede ruins are of an abandoned town, complete with many houses, mosques, and even a royal palace. What's left are a collection of half-walls and columns in the middle of the forest, and surrounded by massive trees. It was cool to be walking on an around all of these ruins, with no one fences or barriers, far more relaxed than anything you'd find in Canada or Europe.

Finally it was back to Nairobi. It was a bttersweet return, while it was great to be someplace familiar (yes, I would consider Nairobi familiar after a few visits), I knew that I was coming back to leave for something totally different in Sierra Leone. Travelling, backpacking, and staying in hostels has become so easy. This had been my life for the last, almost six months. Getting to a new city, figuring out how to get to the hostel/hotel and just taking it from there. I never knew who I would meet, or how each day would turn out, it was always a surprise. Navigating guidebook-sized maps and finding new ways to see the touristy things have now become regular occurrences. So has laughing over language barriers, sometimes even in English! Meeting new friends all the time who are doing the same thing, or something even more outlandish than I had planned for myself, was such a high point. I could never consider this work, at least not in the mundane, obligatory sense. It wasn't always easy, and more often than not, exhausting, but I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it, even the hard parts. It was so strange to think that this East African part of my adventures was also marking the end of travelling as I knew it up to this point. A lot of things were about to change, whether I was ready or not.


I have posted photos for this entry, but I put them up a while ago, so chances are if you're following my adventures you've already seen them. Here's the link just in case you missed them:



Expect the Unexpected

"Do for yourself, or do without." - Gaylord Perry

Travelling alone has taught me many things. The most important skill has certainly been self-reliance. When I'm faced with a problem no one else will be there to tell me how to deal with the situations, I need to figure it out myself. Knowing that, I always need to trust me own jugement, self-doubt simply isn't an option. The second part of my time in the Middle East re-taught me this lesson many times over.

Hello Lebanon! I was safely deposited back in Beirut by my 20min flight from Larnaca, Cyprus, and all too quickly brought back into the backpacking world. "You've got a girl!" announced the hostel worker jokingly as he showed me into my dorm room. The room was full of about 5 guys all perched on the bunk beds chatting about the days travel adventures. I was back on the road again. Lebanon was a shock to my senses. I was better equipped to handle the glitz and glamour of Beirut after 2 weeks in Cyprus, but outside the capital things were very different. Tripoli in the north was an industrial mess of a city. Development was patchy with some areas looking like they would fit in better 200 years ago. The souq in particular turned my stomach; rancid odours, animals running wild and blood all over the cobblestones from the dead livestock hanging on meat hooks. This got a little overwhelming in the dark claustrophobic maze of the souq. After that I began to get nervous about my upcoming travels to Africa. If I couldn't handle this, what was I going to do in a developing country?

From Beirut the road led to Amman, Jordan, via Damascus, thankfully without any further border hassles. Amman exemplified the Middle East for me. There were well-off areas, but the heart of the city was poorer and much more interesting. Winding streets, blaring car horns and a healthy dose of pollution. I discovered 2 great local spots to eat close to my ho0stel, and both served things local style. They only served one dish each, you just sat down and they brought food over to you. Amman has a bustling market street instead of a traditional souq, but it was always packed with people selling everything under the sun including a section for livestock and birds (conveniently located next to the camel tack shop). All I could see in both directions was a sea of people, more specifically and sea of men. The sheer numbers of people surrounding me was intimidating. On the upside, everyone was so preoccupied with their own business that they didn't even bother to notice me. What a treat!

I made a trip up to the very conservative/rural north of the country to visit a friend I had met in Istanbul, then travelled with through Turkey and into Syria. Chris is working on an archaeological dig in Pella, an ancient site only a few kilometers from the Syrian and Israeli borders. It was amazing to see first hand the unique mix of ancient history and modern social/political tensions in the region. At the dig site I was like a kid in a candy shop, having for many years dreamed of growing up to become an archaeologist. I couldn't ask enough questions, and the more I asked, the more I realized that, minus some of the glamour, archeology WAS everything I had imagined. The best part of the day was getting to see a familiar face ... even if I took the "scenic route" to get there.

Next stop on the well travelled tourist path was Petra in the south of Jordan. It's an ancient Bedouin-turned-Roman trading complex cut into massive rock faces in the desert. The 2 days I spent hiking were punctuated by frequent water/photo breaks. I was amazed at how these old, hobbling Bedouin women selling jewelry could make it up the staircases faster than me, and with much more grace! Petra was more of a spectacular national park with ridges and canyons, the ruins were just bonus. By the time I was ready to leave my hamstrings and shins felt like they had been well-exercised.

Moving on from Petra I went directly to Aqaba, then caught the ferry to Nuweiba, Egypt so I could avoid the land crossing that would take me through Israel. Thank you political tensions for making me take the long route. Dahab was my first stop in Egypt, although I'm not sure if it really counts. On the Sinai peninsula, the beach town was very relaxed, and I spent my days laying on rooftop terraces or strolling along the beach. As an added bonus I got to scrub off the layer of dirt and grime that had been building up since Petra and my trip to the, disgustingly salty, Dead Sea.

From Sinai I headed west to the port of Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. And so began a series of very exhausting night transports(this particular one was a 14h bus ride). Alexandria was fairly laid back for "continental Egypt." The architecture was amazing with a mixture of British colonial influences and Mediterranean flavour. This was a quick and uneventful stop before heading into the heart of it all, Cairo, for another 2 day layover on the way south.

I had been warned about Cairo, and it certainly surpassed all expectations! A chaotic jumble of desert air, pollution, and 18 million people, most of whom are living on less than $3 a day. But Cairo could never be categorized by only one label and it's broken up into various different sections each with its own characteristics. The island in the centre of the city, Zamalek, boasts its fancy apartments inhabited by wealthy ex-pats, European style cafes, and park-lined streets. Downtown is chaotic and the main university hub where hole-in-the-wall Kosharias (local mainstay: rice, pasta, fried onions, lentils, tomato sauce and whatever else was left over from last night's dinner), sit next to McDonald's and Pizza Hut. Surrounding the Islamic quarter it's a maze of crumbling mud-brick houses and tin roofs that can been seen for miles. Because of the international tourism industry all the touts and con-men became more aggressive than anything I had seen up to this point. The imported stereotypes of Western and European women have serious consequences for unsuspecting tourists. Many women on tours simply aren't warned that Egypt is a Muslim country and that they should dress more conservatively than they would at home. The media, tourists "letting it all hang out," and the growing sex-tourism industry all help to perpetuate the image that Western women (especially solo women) should be objectified. I had a few minor problems with this.

Cairo was just a stop-over so I could buy my (tourist-priced) ticket on the overnight train down to Aswan in the south. There I visited my first ancient site at Abu Simbel. Despite my sleep-lacking state (we all had to wake up at 2am to catch a convoy that would take us the 4h south to the temple), I was dwarfed by the statues sitting at the temple entrance. It had been moved piece by piece from its original location which is now under water thanks to the Aswan Dam. Aswan was only a primer though for Luxor, the site of the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes, the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. First I spent a day wandering the ruins of the temple complex at Karnak (Thebes). One part is a veritable forest of columns decorated with hieroglyphics and carvings. The next day I got into efficiency mode in order to visit the Valley of the Kings, Queens, and Hatchepsut's temple ( a massive building cut into the face of a ridge) all in one day. The few tombs that I saw in the valleys had beautiful, life-sized paintings of ancient life and mythology still accented in vibrant original colours. This was a sharp contrast from the barren valley outside. I really liked all the tombs and temples, but I left feeling a little disappointed because for once I felt that TV had done these sites justice. Everything that I was seeing was like watching the program on repeat. Regardless I was glad I went to see these marvels with my own eyes.

After Luxor it was back to Cairo. I was not thrilled about this since I hadn't really liked the city the first time around, but then things got interesting. I arrived Monday morning and by Tuesday night all the images that I'm sure you're seen on TV began. There were peaceful demonstrations in the streets, with most of the action concentrated in the main square (Tahrir sq.) right outside my hostel. I went out into the very center of the demonstrations Tues. night when the kicked off in the so-called "Day of Rage." There were people chanting, and shouting slogans jumping around and climbing all over anything they could find to give themselves some extra height. It was thrilling and crazy, but let me assure you, when I walked into that thing, I had no idea it was an anti-government protest of the most dangerous kind. I had asked several people during the day what was going on, and why there was a massive riot police convoy parked on my hostel doorstep, and here is the answer I got: It's a festival today on a holiday called Police Day, that's why the shops are closed. Many people were expected to gather on the streets to celebrate, so the riot police were out to make sure nothing got out of hand. The reason I was so misled was because people on the streets were too afraid to tell me the truth for fear that one of the president's secret police could be listening, I was an informant for the government, or worse, a journalist. The people of Cairo, and all of Egypt, have been living with this kind of fear and oppression in their daily lives for the last 30 years since the current leader, Hosni Mubarak, rose to power. He has always been "re-elected" with 99% of the vote, fixed perhaps? He started growing a personality cult with massive posters of himself everywhere, giving the impression that Mubarak was always watching. He enforced his brutal rule with an army of secret police causing many people openly opposing the government to "disappear." Now, after the spark of Tunisia, the people of Egypt are taking a stand against Mubarak and his regime. The poverty-inducing wages, poor education system, and fearful oppression have driven Egyptians to desperation where they dare to oppose the weakening regime.

That first night of demonstrations things remain peaceful; for the majority of the time, but by midnight things were getting more tense as police dispersed the crowd with water canons, rubber bullets, and tear gas. This created a chaotic mob that stampeded through downtown Cairo to escape the baton bearing officers. 3 people died that night, including 1 officer. The strangest thing that someone pointed out afterwards was that through this historic demonstration, there were no media crews camped out in the square. Not a single one was anywhere to be seen; this is just one small example of the heavy-handed oppression that has gripped this country for the last 3 decades.

The next night was eerily quiet at the sites where the demonstrations had been the night before. Few cars even dared to take to the streets and the absence of blaring horns was unnerving. The protests were taking place in another location, closer to the high courts. While all looked quiet, locals urged all tourists to stay off the streets, even though we were likely the safest identifiable group, because tourists are not targets. The following daqy, Thursday, added new sparks to the rumour mill as Facebook, access to blogs, Twitter, Youtube, and even Google was blocked by the government on most browsers. The mobile phone network was also temporarily interrupted. That is the kind of power the government wields freely here, with nothing to keep it in check. People began to speculate as to what would happen the next day, Friday (the Muslim holy day), and by Thursday evening the mobile network and entire internet had been cut off for Cairo and other various cities around Egypt.

Until Friday I had been continuing my touristic duties despite the protests, and life basically went on as usual for most people in the city as well.I visited the Egyptian museum and marveled at the masses of artifacts hap-hazardly displayed throughout the beautiful building. I visited with friends who I had connected with at various spots in Egypt and enjoyed having company to share a laugh with about the circumstances of our crazy situation. I had saved my visit to the pyramids for my final day in Egypt... Friday. However this was not to be and Friday morning all semblance of normalcy disintegrated. When I left the hostel to visit friends (because I couldn't email or call them) I had difficulty getting back into the hostel because the doors were chained and bolted shut. My plans to visit the pyramids fell through because the hostel workers told me that if I left downtown, I might not get back in, since police were already starting to block off the roads, and the metro was closed. Their advice to me when I asked if I could get out later to head to the airport for my flight, was to get to the airport... NOW! I managed to drag 2 other guys from my hostel who either had flights in the next day or so, or wanted to book a flight, but I had other friends who decided to stay for fear that they might get stuck at the airport. As we hopped into the cab I wished well, and safety over the next few days, then we were gone, flying through the streets of Cairo (at very illegal speeds). We passed several thousand riot police massing in the main square with support on almost every block, armies of secret police advancing through the empty streets, and blockades of convoys and armoured vehicles across bridges and main roads. The strangest thing I saw though, were the people praying on street corners; this is something I have never seen. Every mosque was overflowing with the faithful waiting to hear what council the Imams (religious leaders) would give to the potential protesters. The city held its breath, and everyone knew that the moment when people, emerged from midday prayers could change the course of this country's history.

Safe at the airport, everyone was glued to the news as all hell broke loose in the city. We could see the situation deteriorating before our eyes.
-4 French journalists disappear and reports are broadcast from tear gas filled stairwells
-CNN camera ripped from camera man's hands and smashed in front of him
-Al-jezeera journalist (that I had been following all afternoon)arrested after the building he was hiding in was stormed by police
-1 million protesters on the streets
Police convoys are overrun by demonstrators and lit on fire
-5pm: The army has moved into the capital and there will be a curfew in place from 6pm until the next morning
-A state of emergency is declared and marshall law is now in place
-Government buildings are set ablaze
-Will this be a coup d'etat?
-Widespread looting on the streets
-Still no mobiles or internet
-7pm: No flights scheduled after 9pm will take off and the best hope is that there will be more news tomorrow.

At that point I was prepared to spend the night at the airport, something that I've never had to do before, but there's a first for everything! We all knew it was going to get worse, but the airport was blocked off, and probably the safest place in the city, it was the "Greenzone." The flights that had just landed depositing loads of unsuspecting tour groups into this mess. Everyone who arrived was also stuck at the airport because the doors were closed and no one could leave. There were many stories form people at the airport, but the most shocking was, "I called the tour company/hotel/tour leader yesterday and they said it was totally fine!" The speed at which things had deteriorated was admittedly a little shocking, but anyone could see that Egypt was not the ideal place for a 2 week holiday in the sun.

At 11 pm I got news: A handful of flights were leaving and I was on one of them! Nairobi Go! was my battle cry as I ran through the crowded airport to check-in and clear security. I wished my friends well and good luck with their own flights, By midnight I was sitting on an airplane listening to the safety demo. The chaos and riots seemed a distant memory or a figment of my imagination. I was only going to be delayed a couple of hours. The twinkling lights of Cairo far below gave no indication of the terror taking place on the streets. From the airplane window it even seemed peaceful.

When I started writing this blog post I had no idea what I would face when I returned to Cairo for the second time. Looking back now I realize that self-reliance was the perfect introduction to this post as Cairo became the biggest test yet. It's true, there was no room to doubt my judgments and I was forced to make decisions and know that they would be the right ones without any possibility of outside help. AT the Cairo Airport that self-reliance became confidence and I soon found myself thinking with unnerving clarity (probably the adrenaline) and doing everything I could to help others and keep people calm. There was no time to stop and question what I was doing, it just had to be done. For me that exemplifies independence, and I have no idea how differently I would have reacted before I left home.

Afterword: The situation hasn't settled down in Egypt, and I don't expect it to anytime soon. I was one of the lucky ones who got out that first night, but there are still many people stuck in the thick of it and depending on government evacuations. Stay safe and stay strong. I'm thinking of you.

As usual there is an accompanying Facebook album being published currently, so here is the link to see the photos, just copy and paste. I know this one is really long, but it covers a lot of ground, so koodos to everyone who sticks it out to the end and hasn't gone bug-eyed from staring at their computer screen. Thank you for all your support.



Cypriot Holidays

For Mom.

"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage." -Lao Tzu

Time for a holiday! Travel is full of amazing experiences, beautiful places, and unforgettable people- but don't let the superlatives fool you, travelling is no vacation. Constantly adapting to new everything and never knowing what's going to happen next, but being prepared for anything, can become emotionally and physically draining. Stability is a word that has almost been completely erased from my vocabulary. This is the reality of travel that doesn't always translate into my blog posts of photos, but never the less still exists and keeps me grounded. So after 3.5 months it was time for a true vacation and a taste of home.

But first, we interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin: Expect the unexpected (Thanks Dad). At some point during my time in Damascus I ate or drank something that my stomach strongly felt I shouldn't have. I made it to Larnaca (via Beirut), but then things went downhill fast. To complicate matters further, I realized after much "sightseeing" that the hotel we had booked into for the next 4 days was at least 10km out of the city in a tiny village, and there were no reliable bus routes. Great. I managed to get there with some and a taxi, but decided it wasn't going to be convenient, and only stayed one night. The next day I moved into the city to another hotel I had stumbled across the day before. This was not a prime time to be sick. The new hotel was perfect though, and the lady at the reception was so kind, going out of her way to help me in anyway she could. She even drove me to the airport to meet my mother.

Larnaca Airport is small and easy to navigate, but when I arrived it seemed big and complicated as I shuffled around from desk to desk trying to figure out what had happened in London to cancel all the flights arriving from Heathrow. The answer- snow. No one could predict when things would get moving again either. Of course it was Sunday, so none of the internet cafes were open to try an email Mom. This seemed like a catastrophe when I wasn't thinking clearly because I hadn't had food in my stomach for about a week at this point, with a side of dehydration thrown in for good measure. Thankfully there was 12euro an hour internet available at the airport so I could try to sort out what would happen. The news: Mom had been stopped in Toronto because of the cancellations and after a harrowing airport adventure, she had gotten the last seat on a connecting flight through Vienna, Austria. She would be arriving the next afternoon. "Ok. I can't wait 'till then," were my only thoughts, "I need to go to the hospital."

I had never been to a foreign hospital before, so I was hoping that I would get seen, and sure enough I had no problems except the 2h wait because the hospital I had gone to was the only one operating in the city that day since it was Sunday. The crazy Greek lady screaming in the room next to me just added to the ambiance. Some blood tests and 2 IV drips later, I was diagnosed with "probably Salmonella," and given a perscription for some powders. The IV really did the most, giving me a much needed boost.

So it was back to the airport the next day, and finally Mom arrived. There were tears and big hugs. We were both so glad to see eachother that everything else seemed to stop mattering. At dinner we swapped stories and didn't stop smiling all night. I had my Mom there and that was the best gift anyone could have given me for the holidays.

The city of Larnaca is small and centred around a beachfront strip that came alive at night. Cyprus itself is part of the European Union and feels very Western European. There are also a lot of Brits there, some living, many on vacation. It's kind of like Florida to Canadians if that analogy helps at all. Our next stop was Pafos, or so we thought. Somehow the address had gotten mangled and we ended up in Polis (which is in the regioon of Pafos, rather than Pafos itself. In the end we were very happy about the mix up and loved our time in Polis over Christmas. The hotel was beautiful with a double leveled pool and tropical flowers everywhere. The best part though, was the owner who would bring us Christmas treats almost daily! He was kind and just so pleased that we would be spending Christmas there. Typical Cypriot hospitality. On day 2 in Polis it was back to the hospital for me as I still wasn't doing any better. Not ideal shape for a lovely vacation in the sun. This time I was told to take more over-the-counter meds and to eat strictly plain rice and water for 3 days. That might treat the symptoms, but is anything going to cure the Salmonella? Thanks to an email home, and 2 great Manitoulin doctors I was told to take another medication that I had luckily brought with me, as it was the best treatment for Salmonella. Within days I was feeling better and could eat normal foods- but my birthday dinner was pretty bland (Rice, apple juice, poached egg and lunch meat).

In Polis we walked around the small town and lay by the pool. We felt part Australian being able to spend Christmas day on the beach getting a suntan in the 25C weather. Anyone jealous? Christmas itself was a treat as Mom and I exchanged small gifts and I marvelled at her creativity at sticking monopoly money in my cards from anyone who sent me money for Christmas. The cards were as much of a treat as all the messages on Facebook and via email, always are. I got to unpack the various little Christmas ornaments that I had been hoarding since Belgium, that Mom had tasked me with collecting. We had a Christmas table rimmed with ornaments and even a Manitoulin Christmas tree on top (check out the Facebook photos if you're a little confused). It was a Canadian Christmas transplanted to Cyprus.

So feeling much better we moved on to the actual city of Pafos, changing our plans a bit. Pafos is like a mini version of the French Riveria, mixed with a budding Cancun-esque resort scene. Everything glittered as we walked along the seafront in the evenings. Spending 3 days there we got to visit an archeological site with ancient Greek ruins and mosaic masterpieces made out of tiny painted tiles that were thousands of years old. Bustling Pafos also provided us with plenty of opportunitis to shop for trinkets and other things here and there which inevitably got sent back with Mom.

Heading back to Larnaca was bittersweet, knowing that our time together in Cyprus was ending. We would have to say goodbye to the warm sunny, weather, fruit trees on every corner, but most painful of all, eachother. Mom was flying out 1 day before me (on New Year's Eve) and going to the airport was tough. But I think only after we said goodbye did we both truly realize how sad we were. My Mom is may friends as well as my mother, and after being taken care of for 10 days, I was going back to doing everything on my own again. I knew long ago that this goodbye would be hard, but I had never imagined that it would be that hard.

Despite missing my mother I was determined to celebrate New Year's Eve in Cyprus to the fullest, and I did! I found a bar that seemed pretty quiet at the time, but soon was commandeered by a couple of companies of young British soldiers stationed at a base just outside of the city. We got along so well that we decided to celebrate not 1, not 2, but 7 different New Year's Eves! Cyprus time was the first at midnight, followed by England at 2am, then I got the idea to wish all my friends and family a Happy New Year back in Canada at 7am... but wait Canada is so big that we have lots of time zones, and the end goal was to make it all the way to my future home of Vancouver at 10am. By that point we were eating breakfast and enjoying the hot sunshine. Who needs sleep? Happy New Year's!

So January 1st I packed, checked out and wrote postcards all day before my 10pm flight back to Beirut. I even (very seriously) considered staying in Cyprus to work at the bar for the next 3 weeks, but turned it down. It was a tough decision though, and required the phone-a-friend lifeline, and dragging them out of their own post New Year's Eve stupor for advice, for which I am very grateful. When I went to the airport I was upgraded to 1st class, sop I think something was trying to tell me that I had made the right decision.

Cyprus was a wonderful experience and holiday. It was a welcome break to out leisurely strolling, looking for adventures, rather than feeling like they're going to run you over on a daily basis. I couldn't have asked for a better Christmas, and in the end I found myself wanting to fly home with Mom. Talking to friends from home and abroad reminded me that I have a whole group of people that believe in what I'm doing, just as much as I do. That is some of the best inspiration I could ever hope for. So thank you to everyone who keeps reading this blog and following my adventures.

I wish everyone all the best that 2011 has to offer, and as always there are new photos on Facebook to go along with this post (the link isn't active so you'll have to copy and paste this one, sorry guys):


If they're not up when you read this, they will be within a few days, when I find a better internet connection :)