A solitary voyager embarked on an infinite journey would require an infinity of transit lounges
J. G. Ballard, Report on an Unidentified Space Station
We should really update the red line on the world map to show our actual path. The original plan was to spend a couple of weeks in southern Africa, but South Africa itself has one of these annoying policies where they won't let people apply for a visa more than three months in advance or from a country where you're not legally resident, which means that Susan couldn't get in to the country. We toyed with the idea of keeping our flights in and out of JNB, and flying straight to Mozambique instead, but that ended up on the wrong side of the balance between having an easy, fun time versus spending ages looking for reasonably-priced flights and accommodation, so we decided that it would be best just to fly directly to Chile instead. Well, as directly as could be done. Our magnificent travel agents at airtreks.com (who I would wholeheartedly recommend, despite how this might sound) did their best with the limited options available and came up with the strangest routing I've ever seen: keeping our originally-booked flights to Jo'burg, then to São Paolo via Luanda on TAAG (the national airline of Angola: what do you mean you've never heard of it?) and then on to Santiago. We both packed extra clothes in our carry-on in case the rest of the luggage didn't make it.
But I'm getting ahead of myself: before getting in to modern travel, I want to talk about light for a bit. We all take for granted the ability to hit a switch and get illumination, but the last few weeks have made me very thankful for technology.
In 1996, William D. Nordhaus (one of this year's Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences laureates) wrote a paper calculating the efficiency of different lighting technologies over time. It has an interesting appendix: he built a wood fire and bought a Roman oil-lamp then sat beside them with a light meter to come up with the numbers for the oldest sources of light: firewood costs around 58 hours of labour per 1,000 lumen-hours, and Babylonian lamps fuelled with sesame oil around 42. By 1992, a first-generation compact fluorescent bulb produced about 68.3 lumens per watt: less than half a second's labour.
A bit of Wikipedia-ing suggests that modern LED bulbs are about twice as efficient as this, and that solar panels have also become a lot better in recent years. Our tent in the Maasai Mara had a solar panel that charged a small car battery (in a wooden box by the toilet) that powered small LED lights. This was enormously helpful: when you live in a city it's hard to remember just how dark it gets on a moonless night, and what a difference there is between enough of a glimmer to find the insect repellent and nothing at all.
Kenya often made me think how much we take for granted: not just cheap light and clean drinking water in our homes, but street lighting and reliable power. Hot water in the Mara came from wood fires and boilers made out of oil drums, and even in Nairobi there was always the smell of wood smoke in the evenings.
So, back to travel. Whenever I fly to or through Frankfurt, I'm always reminded of J.G. Ballard's short story Report on an Unidentified Space Station, where the crew of a failing spacecraft explore, then give themselves up to worshipping, a space station seemingly containing an infinite undifferentiated terrain of passenger concourses, lounges, and restaurant terraces. This journey, while barely seeming finite at times, had clearly-differentiated lounges and stations, all taking different currencies and serving different things.
Nairobi airport is friendly, but, well, a bit faded. The poor ground staff had clearly never heard of somebody flying such a crazy route, and had at least three goes at checking us in before sending us to sit and wait while they phoned a friend. They came back after quarter of an hour or so, though, with our first six boarding passes, and instructions to check in again in Brazil. Airside, there's a small restaurant where you can get a vegetable samosa and a Tusker before takeoff.
The transit hotel in Johannesburg airport is on to a good thing: we were happy to give them silly amounts of money for a room for the night before flying to Luanda, and they came through with a king-sized bed and an actual bathtub. Checking in was an experience: everybody seemed to have a disaster story to tell, from the Spanish-speaking man who had been booked into the hotel with the same name on the other side of immigration to the Zimbabwean that had been kicked out of Kenya for not having a yellow fever vaccination certificate, and didn't want to chance South African immigration having come from Kenya without a YF certificate. The hotel staff were remarkably upbeat through all of this. Sadly, there's no food in the hotel, so you have to bring your passport and boarding pass and go through security to eat pizza surrounded by tourists going home. The catering is all a bit weird, actually: the Mugg & Bean staff wear badges saying they're "waitrons", and Piece-a-Pizza doesn't have an alcohol license, so they send you to the duty free shop to buy tepid beer that gets sealed into one of those special plastic bags at the till. Of course, you then rip the bag open a minute later back at your table, but it's completely impossible to skip this step.
TAAG treated us remarkably well, and may be a secret hack for getting the cheapest business class flight from Africa to South America. All the horror stories we'd read on the Internet turned out not to be true: there is a new lounge in Luanda, and they don't make you sneak through immigration to check your bag back in. We did have boarding passes for the connecting flight, though, and had our bags checked through, which can't have hurt. Do note, though: all flights seem to depart from gate 4, which means there's an insane ruck of people waiting for several flights at once. We waited until the lounge told us to go, which seemed to be the last sensible moment to join the queue. We got pulled out quickly and (after a small interlude where Susan got questioned about her ability to go to Brazil without a visa, and we had to produce our yellow fever certificates) put on a bus to the plane.
Eight-ish hours later we got to São Paolo, went through immigration, and waited for our bags. After everybody else had picked theirs off the carousel, we went to the Special Desk and showed them our receipts, which confused the man greatly for a moment before he divined that our luggage had been checked through to Santiago. We went off to check in again (greatly confused by the Brazilian system for queueing) and got boarding passes and a verbal confirmation that our bags were going there too. Oh, and the GOL lounge has free pão de queijo.
The flight from São Paolo to Santiago is absurdly scenic: if you ever fly across the Andes, do get a window seat. I think we tracked along the Uruguay river for a while, then across north-central Argentina for an hour or two before the mountains started. The flight attendants made us all put our seatbelts, and I looked out of the window and seemingly up, not down, at the peaks in front of us. I'm fairly sure that we went through a pass rather than straight over the top: the plane made a sharp left turn as soon as it was over the highest peaks, and then came straight down to land. The actual landing isn't as exciting as the old Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong, but there's something of the same feeling of being far closer to the ground than is normal when crossing the mountains.
I'm absurdly thankful for the system that lets you give a couple of bags to a (rather confused) person in Nairobi on a Saturday afternoon and then, around 56 hours later, pick them up again in Chile. The weather here is crisp and dry and remarkably sunny, and there's good Chilean plonk and Argentinian beef in the shops for next to nothing.
I started making these micro short videos from clips taken in our Safari. I started calling the series "15 Seconds Reminders" even though not all are 15 seconds long, they're all between 14 and 36 seconds, and the idea is just how easily we forget what's important. I particularly like this one.You can see some more here and here. Enjoy!
The Maasai Mara National Reserve isn't too far from Nairobi as the crow flies, but the road gets progressively worse as you get closer. There's a big road being built with World Bank funding, but most of it isn't finished yet, meaning that you drive along a dirt track next to what will be the road, once they put tarmac on top of it. The final few miles to the camp are particularly bad, but this is apparently deliberate, as it goes through a number of local villages, and having cars speed along would mean traffic accidents. I couldn't help but wonder how much benefit all of the tourism and investment brings the locals, though.
The wildlife was most impressive: we saw The Big Five in a single day, which is apparently very unusual. I'm not sure, though, how the tourism is affecting things. Besides the obvious damage, like roads expanding and eroding, I wonder what the impact on the animals is of having these strange wheeled beasts all queueing up to look at them. The black rhino, above, was running at quite a pace through the grass (seemingly from nowhere to nowhere) until half a dozen Land Cruisers cut it off in a flanking movement orchestrated by radio. Everything then stopped for a good ten minutes: the animal didn't know where to go, and we all just sat there for a while before slowly driving away. I assume that a dozen more vehicles arrived shortly afterwards, but by then we were gone for lunch (and for me to nurse my bruises after being thrown around the back of the van).
The close-up pictures of lions aren't from a big long lens, either: there was a pack of around 25 vehicles on the road looking at them from a distance, when a school bus arrived and drove straight in, off the track, for a closer look. The buses have an official park ranger with them, so if they break the rules first, everybody else can as well without getting in to trouble, apparently. Maybe that's even a better thing: to have a few minutes of bothering the wildlife rather than an hour of everybody jockeying for the best legal position on, or at least close to, the road.
Still: we saw exciting lizards and moodily-lit gnu. And a million buffalo.
What we tend to do when self-catering in an apartment, serviced apartment or a house with a kitchen is basically buy ingredients for tasty dishes we want to cook and eat, and consider the least waste we can produce once we leave. Yes ok, that's kind of obvious, isn't it? So what are these tasty dishes, and what are the basic groceries so far?
Like a proper hipster, I have an avocado obsession and so far, avocados in Morocco are the best, they're large and always in exact ripeness. Kenyan avocados were bitter and under-ripe even when they look ripe, which is odd. The Chileans live off their Palta (Avocado in Chilean Spanish, instead of Aguacate in Castellano Spanish) and they're mini sized and delicious. They're also super cheap. My eyes always watered a little when I bought avocados in Singapore.
So, naturally, we always seem to stock up on these upon arriving somewhere new:
1. Eggs, milk, bread, tea, pasta, cans of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and cheese.
(note: fresh milk does not seem to exist in Chile, so people here buy the processed milk in boxes.)
2. Beer and wine (unless you're in Morocco)
3. Basic survival dry goods for when we can't go out, jet lagged, too late to go out are Indomie/Mie Goreng, which seems to also double as an minor antidote to non-asian food, believe it or not.
4. Bottled water, mostly only when the tap water is unhealthy, undrinkable or tastes terribly metallic even after boiling it.
5. Spices, including salt and pepper, we have a million variety of situations with this, but 5 months into our travel, we have a healthy travelling pantry which consists of salt, black pepper, dried oregano, dried bay leaves, chilli flakes, curry powder, and the now dead Sriracha bottle as I've recorded in this little drawing posted on Olij Studio Instagram. Sadly, during the flight from London to Nairobi the bottle lid exploded and we lost most of what was left. So we said bye to our Irish supermarket bought Sriracha in Kenya. It's been real with #Srirachaoneverthing. Time for a replacement!
The travelling pantry also included these precious little packets of HP sauce and Heinz ketchup. Appreciating little things has never been more real.
Finally, I burst into a little laugh when I saw the brand name of one of these bottled water in Kenya. In colloquial Indonesian, Keringet literally means "sweat", while in fact Keringet is actually a place in Kenya, near Nairobi, in a region of West Pokot. Indonesian can appreciate this, just like the cleaning agent Cillit Bang, and that cookware brand Silit. I just cannot stop a smirk and then an LOL because the word in colloquial Javanese means "asshole " in the most inappropriately rude expression.
From Amboseli, we drove back to Nairobi then down into the Rift Valley, stopping for a quick break at a viewpoint where Susan bought a soapstone elephant and we negotiated one of the strangest FX deals I've ever done: the souvenir-seller produced a two-Singapore-dollar note and asked whether we'd buy it off him. I offered 150 Kenyan shillings, which was actually a few bob more than it's worth, but nobody was getting rich off that deal, anyway. It's strange to be in a country where saying "a few bob" isn't just archaic: KFC had billboards advertising some kind of special deal for "500 bob" in Nairobi.
Nakuru Lake has lots of buffalo, a few white rhinos, and is famous for flamingoes. Strangely, we had been closer to more flamingoes in Amboseli, but there's a bit of the park, just by the lake, where rangers are stationed, so that you can walk to the shore rather than being in a vehicle for the entire time. Walking back to the bus, one of the rangers called me "uncle", which I really wasn't sure how to react to. Susan thought it was hilarious.
Of course, there was a guy with an enormous lens taking pictures of birds; I decided to channel my inner Andy Goldsworthy and take pictures of footprints beside the lake with my very small lens.
And, just before dusk, my camera's battery went flat and we saw moodily-lit buffaloes and some young hyaenas.
We booked a 6-day safari trip from Nairobi by the time-honoured method of Googling for options then choosing the second-cheapest option. (Actually, that's very unfair: there were only three options we liked, and one of them was outrageously expensive.) The people at Gracepatt Ecotours (especially Stephen, who drove us for the entire week over frequently-dodgy or sometimes nonexistent roads while also spotting animals) did us proud. Apologies in advance for the image quality: it's not easy taking pictures of distant wildlife with a 50mm equivalent prime lens, but I wasn't going to bring several kilos of camera with me for a year for the sake of a few days' safari.
We stayed at the lovely Kibo Safari Camp, just outside Amboseli National Park, for the first two nights. The park is famous for elephants and the views of Mount Kilimanjaro. It also has a lot of rather exciting birds.
We did see lions, but sadly, for every small group in the middle distance, like this:
...there were always several of these beasts hovering by.
Vultures, vultures everywhere!
Ahem. I meant this kind:
(there's also a bonus marabou stork for all you Irvine Welsh fans)
A couple of days before we left Morocco, an alert popped up on both of our phones saying that there was new timezone information to download. I've been a bit jumpy about changing things on my phone without making a backup, so I didn't do anything. And then, early on October 28, we went from summer time (UTC+1) back to UTC, or, rather, our phones and the UK did. Morocco didn't (*), as they had made a last-minute decision to stop changing their clocks back and forth. This made for quite an exciting time at the airport, as our boarding passes were printed with the old time of departure, even though all of the clocks were now on the "right" time. Thankfully, everything happened at the same time UTC as originally planned, so we made the flight. I pity the people who had to sort out everything afterwards, and salute the Apple people (**) who managed to get a timezone database update pushed out at such short notice.
A couple of days ago I found a highly relevant article about how computer programmers make all kinds of stupid assumptions about time: feel free to nerd out here (and even here and here) if you're into that kind of thing.
Tetouan is a town in Northern Morocco, 60 km from Tangier. Nicknamed the White Dove, with a sculpture of a white dove in a square, the city’s walls are predominantly white.
After about five days living in Tetouan, in the middle of the ancient medina, I got a sense that space is a lot different here than what I am used to. To get to our flat, we enter through Bab Al Okla, one of their seven gates. Bab al Okla is a beautiful gate, with cascading steps, high arches and palm trees. It is especially beautiful at dawn. Our little flat is 3 minutes walk into the medina from this entrance, and it's as one would expect, very busy with people selling fruits, breads, socks, shoes, vegetables, and more. Our little street is filled with rows of little shops selling olives, cheese, eggs, and chicken. On top of that there are the pop up/drop in sellers who just plop down with whatever their goods are anywhere there's space for a while, before moving on to another location. It was fascinating to see the egg sellers who sit amongst their pecking chickens brought in every morning from the farm. Talk about inspirational marketing. The eggs couldn’t have been more fresh! Their local cheese tasted more like a mix of cottage cheese and yogurt, crumbly but also slightly sour. The assortment of olives go from super sour, super strong to spicy in a cadence of colours of greens and black.
Yousef sells his olives left of our door, the vegetable man is across the door, the cheese man on our right and the chicken butchers, dry goods, pasta and milk further along. Apart from the occasional staring, nobody bothered us most of the time. The bustling sounds of the Medina are quite consistent from around 9 am until just past midnight when finally the cheese shop closes and we intermittently hear garbage bins on wheels being dragged through the streets. Once a while you'll hear someone talking really loudly or sounding angry and aggressively yelling into the street. I wish I knew what they're saying. There seem to be a lot of passionate communicating here.
Ro’s little flat is within a bigger house she has yet to renovate fully. It’s cute with steep stairs, which are common in Moroccon medinas, and uneven floors with unexpected wall bumps and crevices in the ceiling. The first few days we got here, both Tom and I were constantly stubbing our toes or banging our heads or body parts on something. While this isn’t something that we could have planned to avoid, it was still in the scale of 7 out of 10 for Annoying. Thankfully, we got used to it eventually. The kitchenette is adequate for making light meals, but not to make a full blown dinner because there’s only one electric cooker. We knew that going in so that’s ok. There is a strong cedar wood smell to the new wood furniture in the flat, and it’s so strong it transfers a natural cedar perfume on my clothes. Another interesting observation is the mosques' prayers which are very different from the ones in Indonesian mosques. There’s a more monotonous drone in their prayers, almost like a siren, while in Indonesia, there is a more singing kind of praying. To my relief, here the prayers are a lot shorter: 5 times a day for a maximum of one minute each time, versus 3-5 minutes in Indonesia (specifically what I heard in Yogyakarta) and sometimes longer.
A week into living in Tetouan, I am feeling less in a funk, less in a rut from lacking female friendly cafes I can hang out in on my own, and feeling less confronted by the very masculine public space, where it is mostly for men, and women go in twos or in a bigger group. We have made friends with our neighbour the olive man Yousef, and I finally decided to have ‘fluent’ French conversation with our host Said, who only speaks French and Spanish, over WhatsApp (with the help of google translate of course). This French ‘fluency’ after a few days made little sense since I have enrolled in a Spanish language course online and have committed to continue to learn Spanish. I have since switched to WhatsApp ‘fluency’ in Espanol so that it adds to my daily dose of Spanish. Vale!
Here’s a small list of groceries we have bought on our street and how much they cost. For reference, 10 dirhams is roughly 1 euro or SGD $1.60. You’ll notice that almost everything is roughly about 5D.
Khobz (Round Bread) 2D
Smaller Khobz 1D
Cheese (smallest round) 8D
Avocados (small) 4D
Large avocado 8D
100 g dates 5D
1.5L of mineral water 5D
6 eggs 5D
500 ml milk 3.5D
A fresh pile of cilantro off a lady with tooth decay was 3 dirhams but I think she short changed us that one time. Does this act of overcharging, on purpose or not, matter less when things are so inexpensive and done with a toothless smile? It sure does.
Everybody seems to call it Chaouen ("peaks"), which was its old name before the Spanish changed it to Xaouen, and then in 1975 it became Chefchaouen (شفشاون in Arabic; ⴰⵛⵛⴰⵡⵏ in Tamaziɣt - let's see who's got all the fonts installed!) Anyway, now it means "look at the peaks" - was that some early tourist marketing?
It's ridiculously beautiful, sitting at about 1500-2000 feet above sea level on the edge of a mountain, with a blue-painted medina that dates back to 1471. It's also full of cats, and so is probably one of the most Instagrammable places on earth. The people who live on the street with the flower pots have presumably decided that they want everybody to take pictures of their street (and there are a lot of postcards and crappy tourist art available in case you can't get through the throng to take your own), although I think I prefer the ultramarine street we found towards the top of the medina,. Not sure about their decision to use Comic Sans on the street signs, however...
A few quick words of advice for travellers: we took the regular bus there for 20 dirhams each and then were persuaded that a 30-dirham taxi ride to our hotel was sensible - see pictures below. Not walking uphill from the bus station was very sensible (Google says it's a half-hour walk, but that doesn't count the 500 feet or so you have to climb), although the actual fare is more like half that. We took the CTM bus back to Tetouan which was much cleaner and more spacious, for a mere 25 dirhams a head.
The Bar Oum-Rabiá appears to be the only place in town that you can get a beer. The Lonely Planet just says it's "a very masculine option" - that's the entire entry - but we had a pretty good meal there, as long as we could time our bites between the clouds of smoke from the table next to us. There seems to be a protocol demanding that they serve food with drinks, so every time I ordered another (tiny) beer another plate of food arrived. They started by bringing rice and salad, but after a few beers we got to the sardine tagine, which was surprisingly good. Oh, and don't believe the extensive drinks list: we had the choice of Flag Especial or Johnny Walker.
We flew from Brussels Charleroi to Tangier at sparrow's fart, taking the 4 am bus from Bruxelles Midi (booked through flibco.com: not sure who thought that was a particularly good name, but it seems they're sticking with it). We got there about 15 minutes early and were about two-thirds of a bus down the line. I'm not sure what happened to the people who arrived just before the bus left, but there were a lot of taxis hanging around, presumably to pick up people who couldn't wait until 4:30. Charleroi itself is not horrible for a budget airport, and has a small snack-bar past immigration control.
Never having been to Tangier before, and being a sucker for 10% off discounts on line, we booked a transfer with Morocco Chauffeur Services via mozio.com. Do not use these bastards: the guy dropped us off at the bottom of a million stairs by the side of the main road and pointed vaguely upwards before buggering off, leaving us to navigate our way with the assistance of several helpful locals. Mozio did give us a partial refund, for the record.
The Hotel Continental is a bit of a landmark (once you've got to it) - it must have been amazing back in the day, although it's a little faded now. Every other review on tripadvisor compares it to a set of a Wes Anderson movie, but apparently it was actually used for Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky. The concierge booked us a grand taxi to take us to Tétouan the next day for 300 dirhams (after we'd refused one for 500) - but it came to the door on time and the driver helped carry our bags. He also stopped ten minutes in to the trip and asked for a passport to take to the police station: apparently it's important for inter-city taxis to get a stamp to prove that they've been taking people places in case they get stopped on the way back. After a few tense minutes, our driver came back with the passport and his stamped booklet and apologised profusely for freaking us out.
We're living in the medina - that's our front door above, just next to the lovely Yousef's olive stall. Our landlady had a small dossier of information to help us get around but hadn't left it in the flat, so it was passed to him (le monsieur qui vend les olives) to look after until we picked it up: apparently this is typically how things are done here. The streets are narrow and mostly full of people selling things - thankfully we're not too close to the fish/chicken section just uphill - and Google Maps makes some interestingly arbitrary decisions as to which streets to show. It's small enough to not get worried about getting lost, and everybody seems pretty friendly. Walking demands even more concentration than Amsterdam: while there's no actual traffic (not counting the man with a pair of wheely-bins going past as I write this, or the very occasional motorbike with a trailer full of grapes nudging its way through) it's rarely possible to walk two abreast at more than a snail's pace.