A Travellerspoint blog

September 2012

Welcome to Africa!

Getting back into the backpacking mode


View World Trip 2012 - Actual on dariusz's travel map.

This article has to begin with where we were before we got to Africa. We spent a nice comfortable month (June) in Poland with my mom taking care of us in her own apartment. We got to drop our backpacks and live out of a closet for the first time in months. With Poland being a relatively safe country we finally got to dress in something other than backpacker gear and carry around our jewelry, wallets and cell phones without worry. My mom took pleasure in preparing wonderful home cooked Polish meals for us and we took an even greater pleasure in eating them. After spending the previous 6 months on the road, often in places with less than stellar safety records, and fending for ourselves, this was just what the doctor ordered.

Throughout the month though we started getting fat and lazy. The idea of strapping on our backpacks and going into yet another country where we don't know the culture or the language was not as appealing as it had been at the start of the trip. The thought of having to deal with touts, rip-off artists, third world traffic congestion and safety issues was making us cringe. In other words we have become soft and were now considering spending the last month of our trip taking trains around Poland. We had to snap out of it! Thankfully the signs all started pointing in the right direction when we found a great deal on a return flight to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. This combined with the idea of going back home from our "World" trip without visiting Africa was enough to push us over the edge. We decided to leave our comfortable little enclave and get back out there.

We started of by looking for accommodations in Dar Es Salaam on the regular hostel web sites but quickly realized this would be futile. The places that were listed were mostly hotels and they were extremely overpriced. It seemed this was going to be a bit like India and Nepal where booking ahead was usually a bad idea. However, given that we were flying in over night and would likely be too exhausted to look for accommodations we decided to book one place called Uplands Centre that seemed to be alright for a decent price. It was near the university so how bad could it possibly be? More on that later.

We landed at the airport in Dar early in the morning and right away we had our first cultural experience. We needed to get on-arrival visas which were not exactly cheap at 50 USD each. We filled out the forms and there were windows with government officials where we assumed we should line up to get those visas like we would anywhere else in the world. The surprising thing was that even though there were 7 or 8 windows only one of them appeared staffed despite the fact that there were at least 20 people behind the glass. We approached the window but the lady there quickly pointed to a guy on the other side of the room holding a stack of applications, passports and.... stacks of cash. Apparently we were supposed to give our passports, $100 in CASH and the applications to this guy.

We had no choice and we saw other people doing the same thing so we somewhat reluctantly followed the directions. Once the guy had collected what seemed to him to be the appropriate sized passport/cash/application stack he approached the window we tried approaching earlier and gave the entire stack to the girl behind it. There was no way as far as we could tell to determine which dollar notes belonged to which passports or which application so we obviously started worrying about what would happen if the count was off. The process behind the windows was very difficult to follow as it appeared only 3 of the people were actually doing anything, while the rest of the 20 were just looking over their shoulders. We stood there waiting and stressed out since we didn't have another $100 with us, and if our money got "accidentally" misplaced, we wouldn't have enough money to enter the country. There were no ATM machines around. The good news is soon enough both our names got called. We approached the window one by one, got our visas and passports and even a hand written receipt for our $100, and proceeded to enter Tanzania.

We used the usual negotiating tactics to get a slightly lower price on our drive into town to our accommodations. I hate having to get taxi's at the airport since you are more or less a captive consumer. The only chance you have is to get the taxi drivers to start bidding against each other but even that can only go so far when they size you up as a foreigner.

As we were passing through the city we were relieved to see that even though it was definitely the third world it was relatively maintained and clean. However as we entered the University grounds we quickly noticed it wasn't exactly what we thought. There was no campus in the western sense to be seen but rather sporadically spread out classroom buildings. We saw absolutely no foot traffic and nothing that looked like living quarters. We started getting even more uneasy as the driver kept on going and exited the University grounds on the other side entering what appeared to be a run down village. Then we saw the rusted over sign that Uplands Centre was just to the right, down this dirt road with giant pot holes that clearly wasn't meant for Taxi traffic.

We arrived at Uplands and quickly two things became apparent. The center/hostel/hotel was not finished and it has been in this half-finished state for at least a decade. Sure there was a couple of guys at the top banging their screw drivers against the bare metal beams and pretending to work but it was clear it was a show created on our account. The rooms were thankfully in the finished section of the building, which I think was once meant to be a conference center of some sort, but they were already falling apart. The door frames were badly bent and even cracked making the whole place look like it was sinking. There were TV's, sinks, western toilets and showers in the rooms but there was one minor problem with all this. There was absolutely no electricity and no running water.

We thought we're only staying for one night and after all the chances of the building collapsing exactly today are pretty slim. We don't really need electricity or TV so we decided to ask about the water. The girl that checked us in said "Oh, no water in your room? OK, she will bring water." pointing at what appeared to be the housekeeping girl. The housekeeping girl grabbed a broken plastic bucket and headed for the village well. We felt horrible and offered to help but she refused and put the water on top of her head walking it to our room.

We needed to pick up our tickets for our ferry ride the next morning so we asked how much a taxi ride to the port area would be. It turned out we were so far our of town that it would cost $20 and take over an hour each way. This was the last straw. We figured we could probably find something in the port area for $30 per night (we were supposed to be paying Uplands $35) and save money overall but also be closer to our departure point tomorrow. We asked for the check-in girl to call us a taxi to the port area without telling her why. We then appeared with all our bags and she knew what it was all about. She made a half-hearted attempt at getting us to stay or at least to pay the $35 for the night but to her credit she was very friendly throughout and did not push this.

Thankfully we had our trusty Tanzania guide book with us and we quickly found some recommended hostels in the port area that were all nearby each other. It was important to find an area with a number of them so that we could easily go from one to the other if they were full or asking unreasonable rates. We asked the taxi driver to take us to Jumbo Inn and he started talking about how it's a good place and he recommends it. Having been to other countries where taxi drivers take commissions we already knew what was coming so we were not surprised when he got out of the car with us. We told him that we didn't need any help and that if we didn't like Jumbo Inn we would just walk somewhere else but he persisted in acting as if he recommended it and brought us to the hostel. In the end we were too tired to play games and Jumbo Inn looked great so we just booked. I am not sure whether he got a commission or not but I did see him in a heated argument with the front desk lady a bit later. I think she read our expressions and knew very well this guy did not get her the customers.

All-in all everything worked out well and we got a good place to stay and picked up our tickets for the ferry to Zanzibar the next morning. There is nothing like a little adventure to get you back to backpacking mode. Welcome back to the third world Derek and Kristine!

Posted by dariusz 13:15 Archived in Tanzania Comments (0)

Celebrating Our First Year of Marriage in Gdansk, Poland

Derek and I decided to celebrate our 1st year wedding anniversary in Gdansk, Poland. Why Gdansk and not Krakow? After seeing pictures of Gdansk and learning that it was a relatively small, quiet, and charming city, we quickly decided that Gdansk would be the perfect place to spend a romantic weekend together! It’s a quaint and picturesque city situated in a bay on the edge of the Baltic Sea. Historically, Poland and Germany have fought over possession of Gdansk. And interestingly, Gdansk was considered a “free city” in two points in time. For me, this was exciting because I was reading the “Game of Thrones” books and little tidbits such as this was very “Game of Thrones” –like!
After 7 months of backpacking, we decided that staying in a nice hotel was essential. This is the view from our room:

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We celebrated with dinner at a delicious seafood restaurant.
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After 7 months of backpacking during our first year marriage, I can still say that Derek makes me feel like the luckiest girl in the world! Cliché but I don’t care – we’ve been in each other’s faces 24/7 for almost 8 months at this point and I am still not sick of this guy!
We lost track of time as we roamed through streets lined with colourful buildings, hopped from cukiernia (bakery) to cukiernia sampling delicious desserts, and enjoyed Gdansk’s watery edge. For us, it really was the perfect getaway.

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We took one day to visit the Europe’s largest Gothic fortress: the Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork, a short train ride away from Gdansk. The castle was built in 13th century Prussia by the Teutonic Knights. Historically, the Polish and German kingdoms continuously fought over the possession of this castle. Since its destruction during World War II in 1945 it is slowly being rebuilt, restored, and open tourists. I felt like I was walking around scenes from “Game of Thrones”!

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Gdansk is most notable as the birthplace of the Solidarity movement against the communist regime in Poland in the 1980s. Led by Lech Walesa, the shipyard workers risked and sacrificed their lives to claim worker’s rights and social change. Eventually, this movement helped bring down the communist regime from power and ultimately Poland eventually rid itself of communism. The example of civil resistance with non-violent methods used by the shipyard workers against the oppressing communist regime is inspiring. Poland is the beautiful, successful, and bourgeoning country it is today because of these historical events in time.

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Posted by krisses 18:35 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Exploring Kiev without the Euro Fever


View World Trip 2012 - Actual on dariusz's travel map.

We woke up the next morning with a bit of a hang over and took a closer look at our hostel. The place was actually really nice and offered lots of information on great cultural things to do in Kiev, such as for example, this:

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You can drive a tank, shoot an AK47 and a Dragunov, all while enjoying free drinks! What a deal!

The hygiene and cleanliness was impeccable as well and the guests seemed to be really good at cleaning up after themselves.

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All joking aside we really liked our place but somehow Kristine manage to convince me that instead of the awesome soviet warfare tour we should see cathedrals and things.

Having just witnessed history being made the previous night, with Ukraine beating Sweden in their opening match, we were convinced Football was going to be on everyone's minds. However as we ventured out into the city we were quite surprised to discover that you could hardly even tell there was a Football tournament going on. The Swedes had left the city either late last night or early morning and we saw very few Ukrainians wearing the national colors or even Ukrainian flags. I mean sure, in the Fan Zone there were Football fans around, but outside of that area you would have never known this was a Euro 2012 host city. This was in stark contrast to the craziness in Warsaw where Poles were wearing their national colors, polish flags were everywhere and cars almost always had Polish flags or some other sign of support. I mean it was the Ukrainians that won their first game and the Poles that performed rather poorly. To be honest I am still not exactly sure how to explain this.

Regardless, we wanted to see more of Kiev before we had to go and we weren't going to stick around the Euro areas anyway. We were kind of glad everyone had left because it meant less crowds for us. We decided to take the extensive subway system to the bank of the Dnieper river where one can find the famous St. Sophia's Cathedral and the Kiev Pechersk Lavra or Cave Monastery. The caves were dug out by priests who lived there as hermits and were eventually mummified there when they died. The big draw being that for a symbolic fee you can go down to the caves and actually see the mummies.

When we emerged from the Arsenalna subway station we were very pleasantly surprised. Gone was the concrete jungle and ridiculously expensive boutique shops and in its place was a really pleasant street lined with trees. We followed the street to an even more pleasant green park on the bank of the river with some very interesting trees which appear to grow upside down.

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If anyone has any idea why these trees grow like this please let me know since I really have no clue.

Having noticed a giant religious looking tower/monument on the hill behind Kristine we decided to check it out up close. It turns out it's a beautiful and very moving memorial to the victims of the man-made Ukrainian famines in the 30's. The Holodomor or "genocide by hunger" killed up to 10 million ethnic Ukrainians and it's truly amazing that ethnic cleansing on this scale is given so little attention in history lessons in our schools. The famine was a pre-meditated way that Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union tried to both eliminate and subjugate the Ukrainian people. The chilling museum underneath the monument tells the story in vivid and equally disturbing pictures, paintings and written works. Unfortunately most of the exhibition is only in Ukrainian but it's not hard to figure out the story from the visual art and you can always read up on the rest later.

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We continued down the river bank and finally got to St. Sophia's which definitely did not disappoint. It's a gorgeous looking cathedral with impressive murals and pretty golden spires.

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Walking through the passage ways and court yards around St. Sophia we finally made it to our last destination, the Pechersk Lavra or Cave Monastery. I was really excited to see the mummified monks but Kristine was a little freaked out into descending into what is essentially a tomb. I have no idea why but for some reason I thought the monks facial features would be visible through the embalming. It turns out though that the monks are first put into casts and then mummified which means they all look exactly the same, a bit like large dolls without faces. I was disappointed and Kristine was relieved. The cool thing about Pechersk Lavra though are the grounds and the above ground monastery itself. The grounds are a park covered with beautiful flowers overlooking the river with pathways snaking around pretty buildings and ordinate walls. It's really a wonderful pleasure to just stroll around on a sunny afternoon and soak in the atmosphere.

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In the end we had a wonderful day and really enjoyed visiting this part of Kiev. The center of the city is definitely impressive and grand but the Dnieper river bank is more quaint, green and intimate offering a more relaxed atmosphere. If you have some time to spend in Kiev make sure you don't miss the Dnieper river bank.

Posted by dariusz 08:16 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

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