We spent a couple of days in Swakopmund before heading north again along the Skeleton Coast (so called because of the many shipwrecks which used to pepper its shore). Swakopmund is a modern little town wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and the sprawling Namib desert. Quad biking on those big ole' sand dunes was a whole lot of fun. From there we continued north and camped in the desert mountains near Spitzekope before continuing northeast to the lands of the Himba. Spitzekope is exquisite - the stars at night are gorgeous, the views are most pleasing to the eye, and cute rock dassies abound (for a video of the dassies, click HERE)! The Himba are a semi-nomadic people who have managed to prosper while maintaining their traditional way of life. The women never shower, but cover their bodies and hair in a fragrant ochre paste as an ornamental/cosmetic, as a sunscreen and to stay clean. Their villages are organized in a circle, with the cow pen (cows are very important in Himba culture) and sacred firepit in the center. We visited a Himba village in the sweltering heat. The men were all out with the herds. It felt a bit forced as we had to go with a guide, and the energy of the whole experience was kind of weird. I'm not sure how the Himba feel about visitors, especially a bunch of tourists snapping pictures of them like paparazzi on a human safari. This was followed by an exit-through-the-gift-shop tchatchke sale. Still I suppose if it helps them preserve a semblance of their traditional life, it is probably a good thing.
Last night a moon like I have never seen before rose from the desert horizon, a huge radiant blood-orange African moon which had all our camp in awe. All of except our driver, Shadi, who said "you do not have these moons? Here they happen all the time!". Photographs could not capture the beautiful essence of this moon. Later on we awoke to the eerie wails of jackals in the distance.
We woke up in darkness and drove out to Dune 45, which we climbed to watch the sun rise in a similar glorious fashion. I was halfway up the enormous dune when the first shining sliver of sun peeked over the horizon. The same moon as last night, pallid now, hung on the other side of the desert sky. There I was between moonshine and sunlight, and I shot this video (click HERE). A bunch of us hung out at the top for a while, then ran down down down the long steep sandy slope
From there we try took a 4X4 to Dead Vlei (Dead Valley) - trees which died hundreds of years ago but which were preserved by the dry desert climate rise from the hard packed desert floor, surrounded by massive orange sand dunes. The largest of these, called Big Daddy, is 400 meters (1200 feel) tall.
Tonight I watched the same sun set which I saw rise this morning, and the same red moon rose as well. We are camped close to a watering hole, and I was just woken up by the thumbing sort-of-neighing kicking galloping herd of zebra who come here to drink in the night. I can see them from here, about a 100 meters away. Good night.
From Cape Town we jumped on an overland truck heading north into Namibia. The population density here is delightfully low (only 2.54 inhabitants per square kilometers!). So, you rarely see anyone else as you drive on the rough dirt roads cutting through a massive desert peppered with satin-barked quiver trees, ostriches and eagles, baboons and scorpions and snakes and many horned beasts such as kudu and oryx. We have been camping for the past few days, sleeping in rugged thick canvas tents made for Africa. One day it is swelteringly hot, the next quite cold - our driver said that the weather has been unpredictable lately, adding that "this is the year of surprises!". The landscapes are epic and stunning. Yesterday we visited Fish River Canyon, which rivals the Grand Canyon in size and surpasses it in age. From a cost as well as a safety and convenience perspective, going overland in a group made more sense than renting a 4X4 and heading out on our own like we did in the U.S. The other travellers are mostly younger Germans, some Dutch and Australian. It's a pleasant group, and everyone pitches in to keep the camp working smoothly.
We spent a couple of days in Cape Town, a hip and happening city which feels decidedly "modern". The areas we visited were prosperous and clean, though it also felt like there was a lot of darkness lurking in the shadows cast by all that shininess. A stark contrast between opulence and poverty. The waterfront is pleasant and interesting though somewhat touristy. The highlight of our visit was clearly hiking Table Mountain. We took a couple of busses and a fun gondola ($25 a person) to ascend, then hiked for several hours on what felt like the top of the world. The views - of the city, the ocean, even regular and lenticular clouds down below - were spectacular. It was wonderful being up there, listening to the silence (except for the cool croaks of the frogs of the marsh) and taking in the views and fresh air as we hiked. We were exhausted by the time we got back, but satisfied and happy.
From Tofo we made the long trek back to Maputo, then caught a flight to Johannesburg where we boarded a 28-hour sleeper train to Capetown. The train is old but comfortable - we had our own berth compartment with pull-down beds and ate in the dining car. The ride was quite enjoyable and afforded us a varied sample of South African landscapes as we chooga-chooga-choo-chooed through the country. The best part, however, was being serenaded for hours on end by a group of African singers (click HERE for a sound sample) who were traveling in the car behind us. Joyful, soulful music punctuated by laughter and applause at the end of each song. That served as a great counterbalance to the fascinating book "King Leopold's Ghost" I read in its entirety on the train tide. It is an excellent work on the brutal history of European colonization in Africa, in particular the egregious exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium near the end of the 19th century. Kinda heavy, but highly interesting and informative as well.
We have made some great friends in Tofo and leaving is assuredly bittersweet. On one hand we are off on new adventures in Africa and the world, on the other we are both genuinely going to miss this place and the many wonderful people we met here! We went dancing and to parties and concerts several times, soaked up the relaxed vibe on the beach and in town; but by far the most meaningful experiences here have been the long conversations we've had with people, often around a shared meal. For my birthday James and Jerry cooked up a culinary tempest and we had a great dinner with them and Carlotta and Sabrina. Carr spent a couple of days working on a fantastic drawing for James' house, and we all named it. Carr and I brought an utterly delicious lemon cheescake made by Jenny for my birthday cake and it was a fun and special night. I feel very grateful for being able to connect with (now former) strangers from other parts of the world, people who are refreshingly intelligent, alive, open and cool.
Today we SWAM WITH A WHALE SHARK, literally the biggest fish in the sea. It was huge and beautiful, sharky and spotted and mystical. We also saw loads of humpback whales, some of them jumping further off, some cresting quite up close, also massive and majestic. Many dolphins as well and one sea turtle! We went out on a hard-bottomed zodiac with about 10 other people. We eventually located a whale shark and dove in... it was both wonderful and slightly unnerving to be in the open water with such a giant. The ocean is gorgeous and massive and powerful - you are clearly not in charge out there in its expanse! Unfortunately due to human behaviours it is also in trouble - we've heard several times here that whale shark sightings (of multiple animals sometimes) were practically guaranteed 15-20 years ago, whereas now one is fortunate to see one (as we fortunately did).
We have been in Tofo one week and I like it more and more every day. There is so much life here - the people are alive, the ocean, the music, the sky, the stars... It feels good to be here, though in a soft and subtle way. We've met a bunch of really cool local people with whom we've shared meals and interesting, fun, intelligent conversations. We've gone to some great parties and luxuriated on the beach. It all seems like one awesome blur right now. It is definitely a party town, but there is a refreshing absence of bros or drunken grossness. And in the daytime the vibe is very relaxed. Lots of music, check these out:
We arrived in Maputo, Mozambique in the evening, immediately realized we didn't speak nearly enough Portugese, and after some confusing haggling took a taxi to our guest house near the ocean. It was in a nice neighbourhood with an unsettling amount of security - defensive walls, electric fences, guard dogs and security guards, reinforced steel doors. Next door, two peacocks cavorted and squaked around the pool.
We arranged for someone to drive us to the bus station known as the Junta early the next morning so we could secure a ride to Inhambane. We woke up in the darkness at 4:45 am, piled in the car, and paused at many red lights on the way - she explained she did not want to stop because there were many "bandidosh en la noite" (bandits at night). The bus station was impressively chaotic. All sorts of vehicles everywhere, few intelligible signs, and a huge crowd of Africans with their packages and/or merchandise. Immediately we were accosted by men trying to sell us tickets on their busses or minivans. After some haggling in broken Portugese and English we climbed on a bus and grabbed some seats. Quickly the bus was crammed full of chaos - passengers, vendors selling everything from bread and fruit to toilet paper and electronics, and a bus company officer literally pushing and slapping and yelling at the vendors to get them off the bus while a male/female evangelist duo preached/screamed the virtues of JESUS in Portugese... hilarious, beautiful disorder!
An hour later, we were on the road. The scenery in Mozambique was noticeably greener and less depressing/decimated compared to Madagascar - large tracts of palm tree forests with houses and towns peppering the landscape. The internal temperature of the crowded bus kept climbing as the day went on (an internal thermometer showed it went from 24 to 34 degrees in a few hours), but for some reason no one opened a window... perhaps they were afraid of drafts?
After 8 hours on the road we finally arrived at the town of Mixexi, put on our backpacks and walked a few blocks to the port. For 100 metecals (about $2) we and our bags climbed on the the ferry, an old powerboat crammed with Mozambicans, and chugged across a large bay shrouded in diesel fumes and sea-spray. We arrived in the town of Inhambane and again walked across town to the chapa station (a chapa is like a colectivo - a minivan taxi stuffed with locals) and haggled for a price to Tofo.
I don't think I have ever been in a more hilariously crowded vehicle, which fortunately moved slowly. We fortunately found two (very hard) seats, but many of the passengers were standing and hunched over and nearly falling on each other. Seconds after leaving the station we were pulled over by two cops on a dirt bike who immediately took count of the 21 people on board and noted our driver did not have a licence! The driver walked off with then and came back a few seconds later, smiling and having obviously bribed the cops to let us pass. Just when we thought it could not get more insane, further down the dirt road we stuffed 2 more people into our Mozambican clown car! At this point a loud and colorful argument brokenout between some passengers and the driver, who had evidently gone too far even by Mozambican standards. "You need to show your passengers respect!", the passengers accused. "How do I not show respect?!", the driver retorted. And so it went on until we arrived in Tofo and unpacked the sardine can.
Arriving at Tofo was a huge relief, a literal breath of fresh air. Stepping off the chapa I immediately smelled the sea air and felt the soothing breeze... aaaahhhhh. We found the house where we were renting a room and met James, our very easygoing and cool, dreadlocked host who took us on a little tour around town. Tofo has a really nice vibe, chill and happy. Palm trees and clean sand, gorgeous surf and all kinds of laid-back establishments. We had a great and inexpensive dinner at one of the local holes-in-the-wall... mouth-watering barracuda and piri-piri chicken with drinks.
The next day we explored town and took in the beautiful scenery and oceanside vibe. Except for the occasional child-salesmen who insistently try to sell you stuff, the town is very relaxed. The ocean feels good for your soul. That evening we had a quiet dinner with more drinks and had another of our awesome conversations... I like talking with Carr, about anything. There was not much apparently going on in town so we started walking home, whereupon we passed by a restaurant which although closed was bumpin' with some pretty groovy live music. There were some kids outside dancing so I took Carr by the arm and we started dancing together in the street. Before long a voice boomed out in English "hey you know what it's a private party but you're invited, come in!". Cool people, mostly Mozambicans and other Africans but also an American woman and a couple of kids. The owner got us some drinks, the music went on playing, and soon food arrived and it was insisted we eat with them. Later on we all went back to the owner's house a few blocks away and the party grew. It was fun, lots of laughter and interesting conversations.
Yesterday we chilled at home for much of the day, the weather having suddenly gone cool and cloudy. We were invited to have lunch with James and Jerry, who apparently also lives here. We talked for several hours about all kinds of subjects. It was cool. Really chill, intelligent, alive people who feel like they are engaged with life. It's been fun and relaxing and we're both enjoying being here. Last night it rained and the weather is again cloudy and cool... we're again going to take it easy and look into what we want to do if we head to India after Africa.
We passed through the famous Avenue of the Baobabs on our return trip to Morondava. It consists of at least a dozen gigantic and truly majestic Baobab trees (called Ranalas by the locals, who hold them sacred in a land where nature is unfortunately not generally revered) along a dirt road, flanked my dozens more Baobabs of varying sizes and shapes. I like Baobabs. I like their weird otherworldly shapes, their funky energy and their strange leafing and flowering habits. I like that they were here long before humans came to fetishize them and cut down the surrounding forests, leaving them to tower over the landscapes. And to see so many clustered together like a tall and bulbous family in one place was very cool. The dirt avenue is a road for wandering locals, Malagasy sightseers, and poor kids wanting you to pay money to take a picture of them and/or their chamaleon prisoners. Nearby is the famous "Baobab Amoureux", a couple of trees intertwined like cosmic arboreal lovers.
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, having broken off from the mainland about 90 million years ago. This allowed for a special evolutionary niche to appear - apparently, 80-90% of its flora and fauna are endemic and appear nowhere else on earth! The Tsingy, as it is called, is an amazing and unique place in the world. It was worth the unforgettably crazy drive to get here!
Check out a video HERE of Carr crossing one if the chasms.
Fascinating and ultra-cool looking limestone rock formations (jagged pinnacles, deadly sharp spires, caves), fossils, rope bridges over dizzying drops and relatively protected wildlife (we saw several species of lemur jumping happily and grunting in groups) are among its many wild wonders. A number of trails are possible, but you must hire a guide due to the dangerousness of the trail (for example, some sections require climbing with a harness and many of the caves and cliffs require you to be relatively limber and fit) and to locate and protect the wildlife. We enjoyed it thoroughly and it was definitely the highlight of Madagascar for us. We spent a couple of nights at an overpriced and forgettable lodge named L'Olympe, and then hit the road back to Morondava.
Arranging travel in Madagascar is not unlike juggling 6 drunken lemurs while tightrope-walking over a vortex of chaos. After much haggling, calling, comparing and semi-successful attempts at communicating we were able to arrange for a 4X4 to take us to Tsingy National Park north of Morondava. What a ride! It took 8 hours to get there, over some of the craziest, roughest roads I've ever been on and a couple of most entertaining river crossings. We met many locals along the way, most of whom were very friendly and fun to interact with. Still, it was somewhat depressing to see the impact of great poverty and illiteracy/ignorance on both the people and their environment. Large portions of the land have been decimated by people whose situation makes their only concern immediate day-to-day survival rather than foresight and environmental sustainability. Many scientists have forecast that at the current rate of destruction most of the country's ecosystems and many endemic species (for example the awesome lemurs) will be gone in 20-30 years. It is a microcosm of what is happening in the world at large. We humans have the potential to be so beautiful and good, yet more often than not overall we are a plague on the earth.
We had heard the winding 700km road from Tana to Morondava could take anywhere from 11-24 hours to drive due to a number of factors- and it ended up being quite an adventure! To summarize... we hired a driver who spoke very rough French and left in his van on Friday morning. The road got progressively worse the further away we got from the capital. At some point near sunset we stopped at yet another army checkpoint at yet another village. There we were told it was considered too dangerous to continue on our own as there had been several violent bandit attacks in the next region recently! The guard told us we could however wait until 3 am when a caravan of taxi-brousse was leaving under army escort. We first made sure there was no cost and it was legit (not a scam), then had a meal of pommes-frites with our driver in a local restaurant before heading back to the van to sleep for a few hours (most uncomfortably)! Mind over matter. At 3 am we got up and began the furious and harrowing drive at breakneck speeds... We had an army guard with an AK-47 sitting right behind us. The road was really rough and at some point one of the other vans broke down, so we all stopped to help with the repairs. It was a tense 15 minutes, but people defused that by joking around as the guards looked about. We drove for hours til dawn broke and we reached another checkpoint at a crossroads, then left the caravan and continued to Morondava!
The area around Morondava is much more beautiful and undisturbed than the farmland further east. We found a place to stay, some cabins called Chez Maggie with a nice view of the ocean. We are going to chill out a few days and arrange to go visit Tsingy Forest as well as the Avenue des Baobabs, which are a few hours' drive from here.
After a brief stop in Paris for a nice visit with Carr's family, we took a 12 hour flight to Antananarivo (aka Tana), capital city of Madagascar. Overall I found Tana to be a pretty gross, depressing and stifling place. The overcrowded streets exude a sense of moribund poverty and pollution. Everything feels grimy, it stinks, and the choking smell of exhaust/diesel fumes is ubiquitous. Those people who were not begging or trying to sell us something were however generally pleasant. We knew ahead of time that we would not want to stay long, but unfortunately travel in Madagascar (like many other third world countries) can be difficult to arrange and we ended up staying two rather long days before finally escaping. One of those days we took a few taxi-brousse ("bush taxi", like a colectivo - a big cheap van completely stuffed full of locals and occasionally a chicken or two!) to visit a lemur sanctuary in the countryside. We also strongly suspect the rather oily hotel agent was lying to us about all the problems he was encountering with arranging our exodus, in an attempt to sell us more expensive travel options. What a slimy jerk. It was quite a ride when we did leave (see next blog entry)!
So many interesting sights in Barcelona. For example all the impressive and whimsical architecture by Antoni Gaudi is a treat for the eyes - including the famous Sagrada Familia Cathedral (ever under construction and packed with tourists), Parc Guell (even more tourists) and various buildings all over town. The beach is also nice and helped us to cool down. Our favourite so far though has been the "hidden gem" of the Parc del Laberinto d'Horta, which as the name suggests is home to a bona fide hedge maze! It is a lot of fun to get lost in... if you can discover the center, you will find none other than Eros (in statue form) to congratulate your perseverance! The rest of the grounds sport cooling woods and refreshing pools filled with koi fish - which was nice because it was once again very hot during the day. For much of our visit there were also very few people around - though somehow after we found the center of the maze a number of visitors started pouring in. Spain's been fun and interesting in many ways, and at the same time challenging in others... the ubiquitous and intense heat leaves us pretty drained by the evening, and at this point cities with their crowded hustle and bustle are not so appealing to me. Hoping to connect with more nature/natural energies in a few days when we arrive in Africa.
From Cordoba we took a 3 hour bus ride south to picturesque Granada in southern Spain. We rented a small apartment in the Albaycin neighborhood, which has a fantastic view of the Alhambra (a sprawling fortress/palace built by the Moors and later the Spanish) and much of the picturesque city, which you can see by clicking HERE. It has been insanely hot since we arrived, at least 34-35 degrees in the shade if not more, so we have tended to venture out in the mornings and evenings only. There's a distinctive flavour of Arab and Berber culture here which is reminiscent of our trip to Morocco last year - and that is awesome. The Alhambra itself was packed with tourists and steaming, but it was still worth a visit. It is a sprawling epic palace which is interesting to explore. All in all it's been fun, but between the heat and the ongoing jetlag we both feel pretty tired.
As soon as we were in the air, heading to Madrid, I began to feel more aligned, better. From Madrid we took a bus down to Cordoba, Spain... a small city which had a very relaxed feel at least partly due to the fact that the streets were almost deserted. It was explained to me that many people are on vacation, and that others were staying indoors during the day (especially at the multi-hour siesta time) due to the intense heat. The torridity was a bit much - at least 40 degrees celcius starting around noon and not cooling down appreciably overnight. We found that we only had so much energy every day due to the heat. There was a cool little bar around the corner (Bar Yuste!) from our apartment where we had drinks and some meals. With a few pleasant exceptions, we found most of the people noticeably...brusque and grumpy. The old town of Cordoba is quite pretty, but the highlight of our visit was really the Mezquita de Cordoba (see pics above of its myriad arches) and the lively Roman Bridge nearby.
We have been back in Ottawa the past few weeks, to see friends and family and prepare for the next leg of our journey. While this "re-entry" has been good in many ways (more on this further down), it has also been a surprisingly challenging time. I'd had "re-entry sickness" before (e.g., after returning from Burning Man or longer trips abroad) but never to this extent. A few days after returning, I began to feel some unexpected waves of anxiety and inner tightness, which at first I had trouble understanding. I also grappled with some feelings of loss of direction, lack of meaning and even mild depression. These feelings were in such stark contrast to where I was at while we were traveling, and it took me some time to unhook from them enough to be able to process and understand where they came from.
It comes down, I think, to a few basic things. When we were traveling we slowed right down and opened to the world - feeling very in tune with with earth and her natural healing nurturing rhythms, getting out of our heads and feeling quite happy most of the time. One becomes more sensitive to the energies of the world, whereas in normal modern life one desensitizes and numbs out a fair bit. I had not anticipated the impact of suddenly being back around others who are living hectic lives in the city. So many people are living out an inherited script for their lives, a script which promises happiness but which really just leaves them stressed and unhappy, sped up and in their minds and judgements much of the time. And I found that being back in society brought up the same script and judgements in myself - for example, strong feelings of guilt and anxiety about not working/making money and doing something "selfish" and "frivolous". Even more than that, I found that being back in regular human society I was suddenly lacking an identity - if I am not Dr. Oliver or Luis Enrique the artist, who am I in this world!? - and it was difficult to relate to many people in other ways.
There is more to it, but that is the essence of it I think. It was all pretty confusing, and made all the more confusing by the fact that I thought I had seen these feelings coming already. For the first few days, the city seemed like a strange dream, and the other world I had just left felt like the reality. Very quickly though, the tables turned - back in the city I have trouble remembering our trip, particularly how it felt to be freer and more connected. The trip/nature now feels like the dream, and this the "reality" which I'm having trouble loving. It brings up questions about what a meaningful life is... I'm curious to see how it will be when we fly out in a few days.
It feels like people have forgotten something very important about how to live... and while I had found it for a time I feel like I have now forgotten it again. And yet I feel like I will remember it, hopefully soon.
Throughout all this, there were many things in the past few weeks which helped me remember what is good and essential, and to feel calm and sane. I have several very good and cool friends, for one. People who are tuned in to creative energies and who are alive and understand, and people with whom I feel loved and accepted and understood. Some good times spent with family were also nourishing (and meeting the new granddaughter!), as was doing some art (I played around with inks one afternoon, see the pic above). We spent some time out in the country at our friends' Glenn and Pam's cottage, some time hanging out with various friends at their homes making music or talking or just having fun and laughing. Some good conversations with people who "get it" - these were like beacons validating perceptions. Like the wise words of someone who said that once a creature sheds it's skin it cannot comfortably put it back on. Or believing that there is a right path, if you listen for it. And above all, there is the love between Carr and I - she is my beloved, my home.
We continued our drive east and camped at a brilliant place - the Badlands in South Dakota, which we previously knew nothing about. Spectacular landscapes - vast grasslands, rocky undulating badlands. A copious cornucopia of interesting animal life - herds of bison, bighorn sheep, badgers, prairie dogs, birds of all kinds. North of the Badlands is a gaudy but entertaining tourist trap called Wall Drug... worth a visit, just don't stay too long! Starting the drive to Ottawa tomorrow.
This place left a great impression on both of us. It feels like a sacred place, a place of power - being in its presence was awe-inspiring and evocative, primarily of a wordless remembering of something ancient, deeply connected and harmonious, natural and heartfelt. It felt expansive and uplifting. It has long been held as a holy place by many native peoples, who most commonly named it The Bear Lodge among other monikers. A European colonialist later decided to call it the Devils Tower (no apostrophe) for some unknown reason.