Trip to East Africa 2012/2013

Am finished ‘collecting’ the Western Hemisphere land mass countries (although many Caribbean islands still left to go). Finished w/ Europe. Finished w/ Asia. Am at 126 countries as of the end of this trip to Africa. Running out of easy countries now. Have a lot of Africa left still, and the “stan” countries, that Herman Cain thought were funny to say. Need the war zone countries, they’re not easy. Arab Spring countries now are not easy. Overall my travel is getting interesting (from the Medieval curse, “May you live in interesting times”).

So here I go, leaving while it’s snowing at Dulles Airport, to arrive in a desert country Djibouti, as a friend called it years ago, “the anus of the world.” I’m an aisle-sitting guy on flights, so I can hit the bathroom whenever I want, but got a window seat to fly the one-hour connection from the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, over the Great Rift Valley, where humanity developed and walked out of Africa. Had read about Lake Assail, the lowest point in Africa, so was ready when I saw it below me, to take a picture. I hate seeing pic’s folks have taken out their plane window, seems pathetic somehow to take photos out of a plane, so novice-like; am sorry to do this, but here’s Africa’s version of our Death Valley [update: no picture available, will explain shortly].

Months back, an industry associate’s significant other, whose company provides security for U.S. personnel, when she heard I was going to Djibouti, asked, “What is Bill going to do for security?” Huh? Wha? I didn’t really get it. A month later, the Washington Post, had a front-page story, running to two full pages inside, describing the U.S.’s largest drone base in the world, outside of Afghanistan. On the other side of the tarmac where we were going to land, is Camp Lemonier, originally a French Legionnaire base, now leased from Djibouti by the U.S. after 9/11, as our only base in Africa, an interesting story about the birds roosting, and goats living there when the U.S. first came in, our assets still on a ship off-shore, till we could clean everything up. Whenever you hear about a drone strike in Yemen, this is the base from where it took off.

So I’ve been hoping to see our drones, but the plane lands the wrong direction for my window view, darn, but whoopee, it’s turning around, and there they are, two drones right outside my window, got a picture, a bit grainy when I crop it closer [update: no picture available, will explain shortly].

A month ago was flying from Paraguay to Uruguay, and my luggage never showed up, was cold as hell, only wearing shorts in Montevideo, all jeans cost $200 there, and they don’t sell relaxed fit, only normal and skinny fit. I’m forced to buy a pair. My butt has not looked so good in pants since high school, but not comfortable. I make it back to VA, days before my bag finally shows up there, I never do receive it in Uruguay. So I just recently had this bad lost luggage incident. I arrive now in Djibouti, and ask myself why was I even thinking my bag would show up. Our flight connection through Ethiopia is a bit late due to the snow in VA. There’s a girl there, waiting for her bag too, I say hello, and ask if she speaks French, she says yes, with an American accent. She has much more faith than me that her bag, our bags, are going to show up. I’m shortly filling out paperwork for a missing bag.

The Sheraton has told me they have a shuttle that will be waiting. I walk around the airport for ten minutes, looking for a shuttle or someone holding a sign with my name. I’m giving up, I’ll need to get a cab. I’m standing feeling frustrated, and weirdly, I notice the door right next to me says Sheraton. Huh? Wha? I knock, and sure enough, there’s someone inside expecting me. (Back in U.S., I email the woman at the Sheraton, telling her she should be more specific, and tell customers to look for the office.) I go to the Sheraton. I’ve read about it on Trip Advisor, very funny the descriptions, none good, the most polite saying, “a Sheraton by name only.” My luggage arrives that night thankfully on another flight. I have the hotel go pick it up for me.

I’m at the bar. A beer costs $10. Ouch. I tease the girl bartender at the Sheraton, as she has a hickey on her neck, very embarrassed that I pointed it out, tried to blame it on her boyfriend, “Ya right,” I think; it takes two to tango. Beyond the hickey, I see two small black tattoo dots where her uni-brow would be. I ask her about them, and she says, maybe defensively, I’m not sure, that they’re not religious, just that her mother had them, so she got them at a young age too. I see other women on my trip, with a similar prison-tattoo-looking Christian-cross on their forehead. They are Coptic (or Coptie I think for plural). Beyond the forehead, I see one with small dot and bubble tattoos all along the jaw line; Mike Tyson please take note. I’ve seen these Coptic Christian tattoos in Egypt, and interestingly, on the wrist of the girl that checked me in at Dulles airport to start my trip. But I’ve never seen the upgrade, with the jawline dot and bubble tattoos.

The next night I need a good meal. A French guy, and folks working the bar, recommend a restaurant, a short walk away. I steel myself, and head out into the Djibouti night, a bit apprehensive. I go down to the roundabout, take a right, find the restaurant, and it’s closed. Hmm. I have to decide whether to find another restaurant on my own, further towards the center of town, or walk back to the Sheraton. I decide to head back. The bartender explains that a restaurant would be closed on a Friday night, not like on a Monday here in the U.S., as Friday is the Muslim day of prayer. I understand, agree, and chime in, that Jews have their Sabbath on Saturday, and Christians’ day of rest and prayer is Sunday. Later I think about what it would be like if all three religions of Abraham, had the same day of rest and prayer. The French guy recommends another restaurant. I take a cab. I order the mixed fish, three kinds, with shrimp, and squid. I take a picture [update: no picture available, will explain shortly].

A girl walks in while I’m eating, comes right up to me, is talking to me, I wonder what she wants from me, she’s very bold, then she says something about luggage, and I realize it’s the very same girl from the airport. Turns out, her brother is my waiter. Turns out, she met a U.S. serviceman, and lives with him in Atlanta. My waiter is going to visit them in Georgia next month. Small world.

It’s the next day, morning, and time to fly to Ethiopia. I hire a driver in the morning, and we start off on the 45-minute drive to the border with Somalia. It’s not even really the border with Somalia, it’s the northern part of Somalia, that has broken off, has no government, and is called Somaliland. I have no visa. My goal is to somehow talk my way across the border, just to get one foot over. I’ve done this elsewhere. As warned the day before when hiring my driver, the road is hell, dirt with giant potholes everywhere. I need to make it back to catch my flight, so I’m wishing that my driver would go a bit faster, at least as fast as the giant trucks that are occasionally passing us, blowing dust everywhere. Way up ahead, too quickly to take a picture, I’m amazed to see a troop of baboons cross the road, about a dozen of them. We make it to the border. We go talk to the sole border guard, sitting by the gate, in his blue shirt. He’s saying I cannot cross. But my driver is still talking to him, smiling, begging for me. We’re making progress. Then a car pulls up, and out steps the border guard’s boss, in a white shirt. Now the blue shirt guard is stiffening up. I’m not going to be able to make it across. We go back to the car about 50 feet away. I’m sinking, but I see the border guard walk off to the office. I high-step it to the gate, and before anyone can stop me, put my foot under the gate’s bar, and touch Somaliland. Success. I walk away, then turn back to take a video of the crossing point. The blue shirt guard walks out while I’m filming and starts yelling at me and waiving his arms. I jump in the car [update: no video  available, will explain shortly].

We’re late now, I’m worrying about making my flight. We turn around, and shortly about 20 camels are crossing the road, holding us up. I film it  [update: no video  available, will explain shortly].

We’re driving through the dust, and my driver starts looking out his window in a weird way, and then stops the car. A flat tire. What? No way. Interestingly, we were driving just as slow with four good tires, as we were with only three. Okay fine, we’re out of the car now, the trunk is open, he pulls a spare tire out, pulls out the tire wrench, then moves things around in the trunk, looks me in the eye, and says, “I’m sorry, I left the jack at home, I meant to put it back in the car yesterday.” I’m thinking, why would someone take their jack out of their car? We’re stuck on a desert road, flat tire, no jack, and 30 minutes from the airport. I’m trying to keep myself calm. A giant truck zooms by 5 minutes later. Dust in our face. Five minutes more, and we can see a car way off in the distance. The car finally approaches. Hope. My driver flags him down, but he does not stop. We go back to standing in the silence of the desert. Five minutes later, another car, bingo, they stop, and as the driver helps us, I slip cash into his hand. He’s happy. My driver is happy. I’m happy. I have one of the other guy’s passengers take my picture with the tire repair happening behind me [update: no picture available, will explain shortly].

We make it to the airport, it’s going to be close. I wait in line. I finally check in. The woman at the counter asks me where my ticket is. Huh? Wha? I tell her it’s electronic. She says it’s not. She tells me to go upstairs to their office, and work it out. Oh god. I walk off, leaving my suitcase. She calls me back, and tells me to take my suitcase. I lug it up the stairs, and barely find the office, which is marked with a hand scribbled piece of paper saying, “Office.” I hear yelling from back down the hall. A guard has chased me upstairs. I’m confused about what he’s saying. I finally understand that suitcases are not allowed upstairs. I lug my bag all the way back down, fight through the people in line, to set my suitcase back down where it was before. I glare at the check-in lady, and walk back upstairs. The ticket agent upstairs confirms my credit card info as he processes a paper ticket. I make my flight.

I need to see the Redskins play the Cowboys. The game is flexed to a Sunday night at 8:30pm, which is 4:30am in Ethiopia. I’ve bought a $200 product just to see this game, it’s called Slingbox, you plug it into your TV cablebox at home, and also into your router, and you can watch your own home TV, from anywhere in the world that has internet. But my hotel’s connection is out of service 95% of the time, and worse than a 28k AOL dial-up otherwise. (Sidenote: actor son Marley gets hired for a small role in a TV pilot, but I don’t receive and respond to the email in time, so the casting agent gives the role to another kid.) I sleep a few hours, get up at 3am, and taxi to a Hilton by 4am. The lobby is cold and barren. The reception desk attendant apologizes, that I can’t get internet without a room number, no free wifi. Damn. He recommends the Jupiter hotel. I taxi again. Success, this hotel has a nice bar, one that is open, and the internet is free and working. The connection is slow. When I launch Slingbox, and put the game on, the football players are blobs, worse than when video games were first invented, but at least I can follow the game. The bartender does not give up looking for the game on the TV, and for 10 minutes keeps slowly clicking through every channel they have, and my god, a miracle, there’s the game. Unbelievable. I run at him, and give him a big hug. He’s as shocked getting a hug, as I am that he found the game. We watch the game together, and I teach him the basic rules of the game (you get four downs, to get at least ten yards, to get four more downs, and scores are either 3 for a kick, or 7 for a touchdown, it’s that simple). He gets into watching the game so much, that when his shift is over, he stays anyway, to see the end of the game. Every time the Redskins score, I sing the team’s fight song at the top of my lungs (“Hail to the Redskins, hail victory, hail to the Redskins, fight for old DC”). Every time I sing, Ethiopians peek around the corner, and stare at me wondering what the heck is going on so loudly and so early in the morning. Watching the Redskins win, is the highlight of my trip to Africa up to that point. I take a picture of the bartender standing next to the TV [update: no picture available, will explain shortly].

I go back to the hotel after the game, go back to sleep for a bit, then go out for dinner. I ask the receptionist where to eat, she says there’s only one restaurant close enough to walk to, it’s called 2000 Habesha. I cross the street, and head up. I don’t see it. I keep going. I finally give up, get a taxi, and he takes me back to near the hotel, down a little dirt alley that I had walked by, and there’s the restaurant. I go in. The place is amazing. The have a giant full buffet, with a band playing. I know how to eat Ethiopian. I take the spongy pancake type bread, spread it all over my plate, then put big spoons of various types of food all over the bread. You eat by taking a bit of the bread, and pinching the food with it, no silverware used or needed. The food is wonderful. Afterwards they bring soap, a big silver bowl, and an ornate water jug, and pour water letting you wash your hands. The band is playing native Ethiopian music. The sound is wonderful. The variety of instruments are wooden things I’ve never seen, and make a magical sound. I make eye contact with the drummer, and we smile at each other all night, while I watch various dancers and singers coming out to perform. I go back the next night, the drummer smiles. I go back my third night too, as the food and music is so good. The drummer smiles at me each time all evening. I’m such a regular now, I get up on stage with the singer, and make some sounds. About 30 people applaud when I step off after about a minute. If the band had an electric guitar or two, and a singer like Mick Jagger, they would be world famous. I take a video of the band playing, with close-ups of each of the seven musicians and their instruments [update: no video available, will explain shortly].

I head to another bar I saw, when I missed the restaurant the first night. Inside there’s another band, with dancers, they’re great too. I’m having a super great night. I could not be any happier. I head back to the hotel, go around the corner, and head up the street to another bar. Four guys are walking down the street. There are two really big guys, a medium sized guy, and a little shorty guy. They’re in their early 20’s. I start to walk around them to one side, but they spread out, and I realize I need to walk straight through them, and they’ll open up to let me pass. As I get closer, they don’t open up. The little shorty guy is now on my left. As I stop, he stops, then swings a punch to my face. I turn my head along with the direction of the punch, so it hits with about 20% force. I’m swinging back at him, miss him, and we grapple down onto the street. I’ve seen enough American movies to know it’s easy to throw these bad guys off, and kick their butts. But that does not happen. I’m stuck now, under shorty guy, being choked, down on the street. I’m still confused about why they’re going to beat the crap out of me. I feel hands going through all of my pockets. I’m slightly relieved to think maybe it’s ‘just’ a robbery, they’re not just going to beat me up for the fun of it, which I probably deserve anyway for some cosmic reason. I’m immobile. I can’t move. I try and poke my thumb into shorty’s eye. He closes his eye, my thumb is doing nothing, except making him choke me harder. I’m panicking now, as I get that I-can’t-breath feeling. I realize I’m not going to kick these four guys’ butt. I wheeze out, “You’re killing me, you’re killing me,” and they’re finished. They skip away, laughing. I stand up, still confused, feeling my pockets. My iPhone is gone from my front pocket. I’m finally fully realizing that I’ve just been mugged. I yell at them. I want to yell, “F%$# YOU!!!!,” but I realize they can just as easily walk back, and beat me up, so I yell the worst thing that can be said about you by Bill McKay, “UNCOOL!!!…..UNCOOL!!!”  This explains why I have no pictures or video for this report.

In retrospect I realize that these guys were actually pretty nice. I did not really get hurt. It was a fairly polite robbery. And because I was being held down on the street on my butt, they missed getting my wallet, which would have been a real disaster, in Africa with no credit cards. Later I think I could have instead yelled, “Hey, let’s have a beer,” and maybe I could have bought my phone back.

I fly on to Kenya the next day. I’m a bit depressed from the night before. I want to go home 3 days early (also to see the Redskins play their playoff game). Ethiopian Airlines has no seats to get me home. I call Johnson, the travel agent guy I had spoken to at the tourist counter at the airport. We negotiate for me to get a driver, to take me to the border of Tanzania. Patrick the driver is way cool, fun to hang with, easy to talk to. We drive the two hours to the border. The countryside is beautiful, wide valleys with hills in the distance. The trees are those kind that look flat at the top. It’s just how I’ve pictured Africa. We’re going by folks from the famous Masai tribe. This is the tribe, with the men wrapped in red throws, down to their knees, carrying a stick. It’s like a movie, but this is real and normal. We see them every few miles walking along the road. It’s strange though; where are the huts or houses? I talk to a teenager later in the day, he plays rugby, and wants to play American football, he explains that the Masai don’t like to have their houses near the road. There are no buildings of any kind either. Patrick explains just a few people own all the land between Nairobi and Tanzania, but the Masai don’t care, because they are just herders, and the land owners allow them to walk their cattle everywhere.

I’m having a great day. I’m no longer depressed. I no longer want to go home early. All of a sudden, the automatic transmission car downshifts into a lower gear, all on its own. Huh? Wha? Patrick and I look at each other. We start talking about what could be wrong. We pull over. Patrick grabs my water bottle (I’m still a little insulted by this), and his water bottle, opens the hood, opens the radiator, be careful it’s hot, and pours the water in. It does not top-off. We walk down the little hill to a house. I smile to the family, as Patrick borrows a water jug, and fills it. We top-off the radiator. He returns the jug. The whole time, there’s an old Masai standing with us at the car. I finally ask if I can hold his stick. It’s a small highlight of the day. We get back in the car, drive off, and somehow the car is fine. Life is good. We make it to the border. I’m nervous about getting over the border with no visa, and excited to get my 126th country. We walk past trucks, and the Kenyan border guardhouse, and past an ugly (but beautiful to me) hand painted wooden sign that says, Welcome to Tanzania. Up ahead is another guardhouse. I’m standing just past the sign with a smile. Patrick asks if I want to walk farther, and I say, “No, this is fine.” I laugh, “This is all I wanted.” Patrick laughs too. We turn around. I’m ready for a beer, and tell Patrick such. He points to the gas station on the right, saying we can get beer there. But there are a line of shacks on the left, and one has the letters B A R painted at the top above the doorway. I point and direct us there. We sit. I order a beer. The electricity they tell me has been off. The beer is not cold, but it’s cool enough to enjoy. Patrick and I had agreed to eat at the border. He goes for a walk, while I sit and stare at the women just in front of me on the street side, selling mangoes and other fruit and vegetables. No one pays any attention to me. I like that. Only a little boy is coming up to me, and smiling and laughing. I have another beer. Patrick comes back, and says we can get grilled beef. I say good. He leaves again. In 30 minutes he goes to pick it up to bring back to the shack. I walk with him. We step over the uneven dirt terrain down to another shack. There are two large hunks of meat hanging unrefrigerated in the front. I step inside, and in the back, there’s a grill, with a softball shaped piece of beef on the grill. They take off the meat, and put it on a tray, along with some salsa, and a wonderful corn bread type side dish, which is hard to describe (sort of like if you poured white grits into a pan, let it harden, then cut it like slices of bread, was fantastic). We go back to our shack, with the grill guy following, who then cuts the beef into pieces. The meat is terribly tough and chewy, but has a great charcoal flavor. I like it. We end up sitting at this shack for many hours. It’s perhaps the highlight of my trip to Africa.

We start our drive back to Nairobi from Tanzania. Almost immediately the car downshifts all on its own again. Our speed drops from 60mph, to 30mph, and even at that slow speed, the gear is winding way too high. We’re both nervous we’re not going to make it back. Patrick had bought a jug, and filled it with water by our shack, and now is pulling over often, to pour more water into the radiator. The car is running hot. The car is burning through gas quickly with the high rev’ing of the gears and engine. We pull over every 15 minutes. The car for some reason is now belching fumes inside the car. We put up the windows, but that doesn’t help. We put the windows back down, but that doesn’t help either. I can’t take the fumes. Now I hear this loud banging in the trunk. I look at Patrick. He looks at me. We realize the car is backfiring. Now the fumes are getting even worse. My eyes are starting to burn. Occasionally I put my head out the window, and gulp down fresh air. Occasionally the fumes go back to just being bad, instead of terrible, and ironically I’m relieved to have them be just bad, when before, the bad level had seemed terrible. We drive along with the winding gears, and backfiring, for hours. Each hill we go up makes everything even worse. I see some buildings, and say, “Oh, we must be close to Nairobi now?,” and Patrick responds, “We’re halfway there.” I’m sad. We keep stopping for gas over and over. Why doesn’t Patrick put more gas in the car, instead of just a little at a time? We’re out of gas now. We’re on the side of the road trying to flag down cars. I’m remembering being stranded from the flat tire incident earlier in my trip. This is my second time to be stranded. Patrick is waving, and a car pulls over. Patrick leaves with the car. Someone from the car stays with me. I make small talk with this guy. A Masai herding his cows, comes over to stand as well. This is when the teenager comes and discusses American football. The four of us stand there on the side of the road for half an hour. Patrick finally arrives back, pours some gas, and we’re on our way with the fumes and backfiring once again. Our two hour drive from Tanzania turns into a five hour drive to get back, but we make it. I see Patrick a few times over the next few days, he eventually takes me to the airport, and I find out, the problem with the car was the clutch for the automatic transmission.

Back in Nairobi at night, I don’t want to get robbed again, so I’m taking taxis at night, even if I only need to go two blocks. While standing one evening getting change at the Hilton reception desk, another guest comes up, complaining that he was just accosted at the ATM across the street by men demanding money, but he ran away back to the hotel. He said there were people outside the bank, and even a security guard, that did nothing to help.

I go each night to a club I had read about. I have a great time. There’s a band. On my last night, coming out of the bathroom next to the stage, someone from the band hands me a jingly percussion bell instrument, but I’m having a hard time shaking it in unison with the band. So I hand it back smiling, and start to sing instead. The guy motions to an open mic on a stand, and once again, I’m on stage now, singing with the band, doing a bluesy howling American rock counterpoint, to the lilting high vocals of the other two singers. I’m singing any nonsense words that pop into my head, but it’s good I know, because I’m in tune, on key. I go back around the corner to the table. Patrick is there. I tell him I was just on stage singing. He starts laughing hysterically. He tells me that everyone over by our table, out of sight of the band, was asking, “Wow, what’s that, a new sound?”  He tells me I sounded good. I’m laughing hysterically now too. My trip to Africa is over.

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