Monday, July 29, 2013

Nile blues and mountain highs

The source of the Blue Nile
It was a bitch getting out of Addis Ababa. Because it was the week of [Coptic] Easter all the buses were booked in literally every direction.

"Want to take a bus to Bahir Dar? Not til next Thursday."
"How about Harar?"
"Sorry, booked til Friday."
"Do you have buses that go anywhere in the country for tomorrow?"
"No." [smile]

Travel infrastructure in Ethiopia is... limited. In a country of 80 million people, there are literally only TWO private bus companies. In spite of the high demand for private transportation, these companies refuse to buy more buses, hence our problems finding a way out of the city.

Anyway, we opted to take a cheap domestic flight on Ethiopian Airlines (the only domestic airline in the nation) to ensure we actually got to our destination. We were on a mission to explore the northern highlands.

We started out in Bahir Dar, perched on the banks of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Bahir Dar was a laid back beach town and we really enjoyed the one night we stayed there. We took a boat out onto the lake and into the mouth of the Blue Nile, wondering at the prolific number of wetland bird species and water buffalo. We visited one of the ancient Coptic Christian churches that sit on the many islands scattered around the lake and we even had a dance battle, which we obviously lost, at a local wedding.

Blue Nile Falls
As we plied the waters out onto the lake we heard a scream from a passing boat. Our captain turned the boat around and we pulled up alongside. Turns out it was a happy scream! One of the passengers on the boat was a an absolutely wonderful woman we had met at a fruit juice place in Addis Ababa. She was in Bahir Dar for the weekend with her boyfriend and they insisted we join them that night for a traditional Ethiopian meal.

It turns out that the couple was actually staying in our very same guest house! They took us out to a local Ethiopian night club, beating back the tuk-tuk drivers who are always on the lookout to cheat foreigners on fares. The night club was a huge open space the size of a small warehouse. We arrived around seven and were a bit worried because it was nearly empty. We ordered food and waited. Before long, hundreds of people started to trickle in until the entire building was standing room only. As the food arrived, a troupe of music performers came up on stage and started belting out some traditional Ethiopian folk music. They were soon joined by a team of professional dancers. Ethiopian dancing is as unique as it is impressive. They move their shoulders in the way that salsa dancers move their hips. It's a sight to be seen and you can check it out here on Youtube.
The Simien Mountains

The next day we explored the Blue Nile Falls outside of Bahir Dar. It's a beautiful place and the water was impressive even in dry season. Then we piled onto a local minibus (a police officer was transporting a shackled prisoner on it too!) and made our way to Gondar, site of an ancient Ethiopian castle and jumping off point for our four-day trek in the Simien Mountains.

The mountains were absolutely fantastic. They were 110% different than the Himalayas. The Simiens are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and they look like a raised plateau that towers thousands of meters above the surrounding foothills. The sides of the plateau are sheer cliffs but the top is undulating hills. Our trek took us along the edge of the cliffs, circumnavigating the plateau. It felt like another world. We were always on the edge of a multi-thousand-meter drop and the views were mind-blowing. We spotted rare endemic species like Ethiopian wolves, ibexes, cliffspringers and tons of baboons.

Ibex vs. Baboon
The only downside of the Simiens are that they're quite expensive to visit and we feel that we got ripped off big time. You're required to hire a guide and a scout through a local operator in addition to all the camping equipment etc. The upshot is that they are well protected and that we got a truly luxury camping experience. Our tents were already set up for us when we arrived at the campsite and there was hot coffee/tea waiting for us. Not a bad way to experience the outdoors. We summited the third highest peak in Ethiopia and then moved on to our next trekking destination: Lalibela.

Lalibela is one of the most touristy places in Ethiopia. It's famous for its surfeit of ancient churches carved from solid rock. These feats of engineering rival Petra and are a big draw in a country with little tourism. The only problem is that the local priesthood who manages the churches charges criminally high entrance fees and pockets the cash, none of it goes to the community and there's a lot of local tension because of it (what would Jesus do, right?).

Shepherd kids hard at work
Anyway, we weren't interested in the churches, we were interested in the mountains. Lalibela lies in a deep valley and is surrounded by a semicircular mountain range. We had arranged to trek these mountains with a unique organization called Tesfa Tours. Tesfa means 'hope' in Amharic and the organization works with remote local villages in the mountains to host trekkers who want to traverse the terrain. It's a fantastic system that generates local employment, promotes positive interaction and provides an amazing experience at the same time.

We stayed in local-style cliff top huts, munched injera and sipped fresh roasted coffee at the end of every day of trekking. There was no running water and no electricity -- we were definitely in the middle of nowhere. The mountains are gorgeous, alternating between village farmland, rocky wilderness and wide open views of the entire Lalibela valley.

The Lalibela range
The experience was amazing but, after nine days of it, Eliot was sick and we were both completely exhausted (although Drea took an awesome local cooking class in town). We realized we had been burning the midnight oil a bit too fast in Ethiopia. We had planned back-to-back excursions across the Northern Highlands with no room for rest in between. And this was in a country with the worst transportation infrastructure we had encountered.

We had plans to visit the south and explore the Bale Mountains as well but we realized we needed to switch it up before we burnt out. Beware of the over-crowded itinerary in any long-term travel plans you may have. This was our mistake and we were determined to fix it. So we made a game-time decision to escape to Zanzibar for ten days...

Time to go exploring
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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

You say you like Ethiopian food? Wait 'til you read THIS!

Ahhh... Ethiopian food: injera topped with spicy, unique stews and dips served with a nice honey wine and topped off with a sweet, sweet, delicious bunna (coffee) at the end. For us foreigners, this is what we know as Ethiopian food. It's tasty. It's delicious. People love it.

Although "Ethio-pizza" does not qualify as one of the three hidden gems below, it was  still fun to eat!

But there is a whole 'nother side to Ethiopian food that I did not know existed until I visited Ethiopia. Ethiopian food has three "hidden gems," to which I had no previous exposure. The first time I encountered them... it was like love at first sight.

Behold, I unveil to you the three hidden food gems of Ethiopia!


Layered Goodness!!
Sprice (sounds more like "spreece") means "mixed" in Amharic, the national language in Ethiopia. Ethiopians make this delicious layered smoothie with fresh, ripe fruit and serve it with lime on the side. You can drink it using a straw or spoon it all up to make the pleasure last longer. A good Sprice is thick and full of flavor, never watered down.

The layers usually consist of: creamy avocado smoothie in the bottom, followed by a middle layer of thick guava juice, topped by naturally sweet and thick mango juice plus a final thinner layer of papaya or banana smoothie.

This flavor rainbow is brought out in a huge mug and sometimes topped with vinto, a super sweet sugary sauce that we always opted out of.

The best part of Sprice? It's a great way to start the day plus you get at least 3 servings of fruit.

We usually found Sprice in most fruit shops, especially in bigger cities like Addis Ababa, Gondar, Lallibella and Bahir Dar. Unbeknownst to us, most fruit shops have a small 'restaurant' inside where the secret Sprice as well as gem #2 are served...


The strangest, best salad ever: Atakelt
Oh yes, we found legit salad in Ethiopia! After having Sprice for the first time, we indulged in an enormous plate of fresh and amazing Atakelt, a unique and incredibly filling salad.

I would have never, in a thousand years, thought to put all the ingredients in an Atakelt together and serve it as a salad. Good thing someone else did because this thing is amazing!

Atakelt salad consists of a bed of lettuce topped with an entire, sliced avocado, an entire sliced up, boiled, peeled potato, chunks of ripe, sweet tomato, sprinkles of red onion, carrot and green hot peppers PLUS sliced bananas! Atakelt is dressed with vinegar (OMG had not had vinegar in months!!!), a bit of salt and, if you want, a dangerously spicy and tasty powder that tasted like a mix of ground pepper and chili.

I know it may not sound good but this strange concoction is one of the best salads I've ever had! We often had a giant Sprice followed by a giant Atakelt (it's so large we had to share one!) for lunch and were incredibly satisfied and full of healthy energy. I'm definitely adding Sprice and Atakelt to my diet back in California! Can't wait to make it, especially during Hass Avo season.


Delicious italian appetizers @ Castellis in Piazza, Addis Ababa
A long, long time ago (2004), I lived in Italy for a little while. One of the saddest things about leaving was knowing that unless I went back to Italy, I would never, ever again have the opportunity to indulge in one of the world's best cuisines. Italian food elsewhere is not the real deal. In order to have the good stuff, one must go to Italy.

Or Ethiopia.

Several decades ago, Italy decided to try to invade Ethiopia and failed. Twice. Ethiopia's army kicked Italian butt and protected Ethiopia from becoming yet another European colony. Ethiopians are very proud of this part of their history and although the Italians were swiftly kicked out, they left a bit of culinary legacy behind. Many of the macchiatos and espressos found throughout the country's cafes are, of course, made in Italian espresso machines. Many Ethiopians even adapted spaghetti as part of their diet.

But one of the best parts of this culinary legacy is a restaurant in the heart of Addis Ababa called Castellis.

Italian food: oh how I've missed the REAL you!
One random night in Addis, we saw a sign for an "Italian" restaurant. There's only so much injera we could eat so we decided to give it a shot and boy am I glad we did! Apparently we lucked out because we needed a reservation but managed to sneak in the second they opened their doors at 7pm. Dining at Castellis was like being zapped back to Italy. Eliot had never ever had real authentic Italian food and was completely enamored by it. I couldn't believe the authenticity of the food here- even our Ethiopian waiter spoke Italian. A fellow Italian diner commented on my "good pronunciation" (wohoo!) when I ordered the fettuccine al nero di seppia con calamari and he vouched for Castellis by saying it was indeed like a little part of Italy and that the food here was absolutely excellent.

That night we indulged in the insalata di casa plus some home made cheese, sun dried tomatoes and grilled veggies as appetizers. Sadly, they were out of the fettuccine so we ordered the lasagna and some porcini mushroom raviolini as our primi piatti - to top it all off, all of the pasta was home made and they use real e.v.o.o (extravirginoliveoil)!  

Raviolini with porcini mushrooms: yes please, I'll have one of those!

Well, there they are! I have to admit when we decided to go to Ethiopia for the "food", I never thought I'd find these three gems there. Thank you, Ethiopia for a healthy and unexpected dose of FRUIT, SALAD and ITALIAN FOOD!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Living out of a backpack, minimalist style

How to pack for long-term travel: the ultralight version 

2 people, 6 months
Hopefully by now you've read our post on how to leave everything behind, hop on a plane and go have the experience of your life (If you haven't, it might be a good place to start!).

Now- congratulations! You've booked your tickets and now you have to do a myriad of things, one of which, of course is deciding what to bring and how to bring it. Our advice? Leave as much behind as possible. You'll be surprised at how little you will actually need once you're on the road.

The minimalist approach
Traveling with less is the way to go. It will make your life so much easier and you'll thank yourself later for not packing your blankie or your favorite pillow.

Everything we have for our 7 month travel fits in a 40 liter bag and each bag weighs approximately 12 kilos (26 pounds). Even that seems a bit much now that we're more than half-way through our trip. It's awesome because it fits in the overhead bins on most planes so we never risk losing our luggage. Plus, we can walk around relatively comfortably in any kind of terrain -- we're talking desert, snow, mountains, beaches, cities, you name it...

We spent a significant amount of time doing research in order to find the most ultralight, minimalist solutions to our packing needs. On top of that, we wanted to make sure that everything we brought with us was practical and had a use -- for example, we did not pack any cotton t-shirts.

What and how to pack
The following is a list of the essential and practical ultralight items that will make your globe trot a breeze. The stuff in brackets are things we should have packed and the strikethroughs are things we wish we hadn't packed. We are also including recommendations and some links to where in the U.S. you can find most of this stuff.

*Disclaimer: we've added some useful links for Amazon so you can just click and check out some of the essentials if you'd like. We get a few cents if you click the links below -- our intention is not to make money but to try to make your life easier. We spent a long time researching these things, 90% of it is the exact style/brand we use!  

For him...
Clothing (per person) -- most items are on the expensive side but oh so worth it!
  • 3 short sleeve quick dry shirts. Why quick dry? Keeps you cool or warm and is very easy to hand wash. Patagonia has great options ($30-$50); here are slightly cheaper but still great ones for men and women.
  • 2 long sleeve quick dry and/or merino wool shirts. REIPatagonia and Costco may carry them depending on season/location; otherwise try this for women  and this for men.
  • 2 pairs of quick dry convertible pants. REI and North Face.
  • 4 pairs of quick dry active underwear. Patagonia has pretty good stuff.
  • 4 pairs of merino wool socks (if you're planning on hiking a lot, which we did). Smartwool and REI socks worked great-- if you suffer from blisters, consider buying additional liner socks.
  • One nice fleece. Patagonia's R1 is AWESOME.
  • One windbreaker and rain jacket. Again Patagonia's super cell rocks for this.
  • One wool hat for the cold.
  • Windproof gloves. Eliot bought woolen ones in Nepal and they weren't as useful.
  • One pair of board shorts.
  • One bathing suit (Eliot's board shorts double as a bathing suit).
  • Sunglasses -- the Peppers ones have worked really well so far. In addition to their more traditional applications, these are great to hide behind on crowded public buses.
  • For Drea: One bra, three quick dry, seamless sports bras since our trip is so active... 
  • [Sun hat, especially for, er, paler people like Eliot.]
  • [Sarong - we have almost 3 months of islands and nothing to lay on. Oh well, at least its cheap if you forget.]

For her...
  • laptop computers . We preferred this over an iPad since we knew we'd be writing quite a bit and I have to say, having a laptop has been great!
  • Laptop sleeve for each computer. Note, make sure you get a sturdy and protective case too, Drea's computer literally got crushed in the backpack during the Nepal trek...
  • 2 universal adaptors, make sure you get just the adaptor, converters aren't really necessary plus they weigh a lot: this one is really cheap and ultra light. 
  • One camera and its battery charger. We just have a cheap-o Canon point/shoot one, the risk of having something nicer stolen (happened 3 times to Drea in Philippines, Spain and Colombia) scared us away from something nicer like an SLR.
  • [Extra camera battery charger. Ours broke, resulting in a full week of no pictures.]
  • [Extra camera battery for those times when there's no electricity for weeks on end...]
  • Kindles. Paperwhite is really nice and the batteries last for weeks! This is significantly--no-- ridiculously better to packing bulky, heavy books. We have a library of over 11,000 books that weighs nothing. Get it at Amazon.
  • A waterproof case for each kindle. You can read while you float!
  • One iPod and a splitter so we can both listen to music at the same time. Amazon has pretty cheap ones.
  • A 32 GB memory card for the camera- one will do, 32 gigs is a ridiculous amount of space.
  • 2 ultralight Petzl LED headlamps. 
  • Replacement batteries for the headlamp. I don't think we'll run out of batteries any time soon...
  • 1 Freedom SteriPEN . This thing is awesome! You don't have to buy bottled water (contribute less to waste) and it purifies water right in your Nalgene in just under 2 minutes!!
  • Jailbroken, SIM-card-enabled, smart phone. This way you can buy a local SIM for calling/data in every country, it's a cheap lifesaver.

Shoes (just two pairs will do!)
  • A pair of flip flops (Reefs for her, Rainbows for him).
  • A solid pair of high-top hiking boots. For multi-day hikes, high-top boots are a must! Our ankles would've both been broken by now if we had opted for lighter shoes. Try Zimberlains or Solomons. These suckers have about 600 miles on them as of writing! 


Waterproof stuff sacks are key!
For him:
  • Shaving oil. It's tiny and it works! It's like 4 ounces of goodness and lasts for ever.
  • 4 razor blades and a razor.
  • 2 deodorants. Boys stink more than girls.
  • [Condoms]. The legit ones are very expensive abroad ($2/condom!). These are necessary when taking anti-malaria pills which can reduce the effectiveness of BCPs. 
For her:
  • Simply using soap for shaving works great.
  • 3 razor blades and a razor.
  • Birth control pills (BCPs) - make sure you get a long-term prescription from your doctor that can be filled in full at once!
  • Tampons and a moon cup. Tampons are extremely hard to find abroad, everyone seems to prefer pads.
  • Hair brush and ample hair ties (8) and sporty head bands (4).
  • Hair conditioner (travel size).
  • 1 deodorant.
  • Contact lens solution and contact cases. Bring a small bottle from the U.S. and then buy a big bottle of solution once you reach your first destination. Drea's the blind one in the relationship.
For both:
  • One small and one large pair of nail clippers.
  • 2 Sportsmen sticks of 30% DEET repellent. The liquid stuff spills way too easy and will ruin everything.
  • 3 sticks of 50 SPF sport sunscreen. Whatever toiletries you can get in a solid form, do it! It's easier for carry-ons. 
  • One travel-size 40 and one 50 SPF sunscreen cream. Again, good for the pale ones!
  • Razor Gator. This silly little thing actually lengthens the life of a razor blade by months
  • Two compact travel towels from Sea to Summit. 
  • One travel mirror. 
  • Two steripods (great little pods for your toothbrush!). Drea lost hers on a plane and misses it terribly. 
  • Super concentrated shampoo and body wash. You can easily buy this stuff locally, no need to bring it along.
  • Sea to summit soap strips. These are little strips of soap that have come in very handy.
  • [Hand sanitizer!] We stupidly did not pack any and it wasn't easy to find. 
  • Face wash. If you finish it you can easily buy more locally. 
  • Floss, keep away those cavities! Also works great to sew things back together- it's sturdier than thread!

Other Stuff
  • Travel Clothesline . We love this and have used it extensively!
  • One Nalgene wide mouth so you can SteriPEN your water and then transfer it to your Platypus. 
  • 2 Platypus water containers
  • 2 sets of personalized cards. Moo cards and Vistaprint worked wonderfully for us both. 
  • Cliff bars. 
  • One travel First Aid kit plus extra moleskin for blisters. They took away our medical scissors at Kathmandu airport :(.
  • 6-months worth of contact lenses. 
  • 147 days (or however long you'll travel) worth of doxycycline (anti-malarial) for each of us.
  • Cipro antibiotic for emergencies (nuclear bomb for anything bacterial).
  • Hard shell camera case with a small carabiner. 
  • 3 pens and one sharpie. This is a must!
  • [A box of cheap pens.] We really meant to bring this and totally forgot. A lot of local village kids really want pens/pencils for school. It's a great substitute to cash. 
  • 2 notebooks. Paper and pen are SO MUCH FUN when there is no electricity for weeks on end...
  • [Toilet paper and tissues.] It's bulky for sure but the quality of TP and tissues from home is just so damn superior and cheaper than anything we've found abroad. It's especially nice to have when you're out in the wilderness... We bought it all locally but it was often super overpriced and, let's just say, rough around the edges. 
  • Dark chocolate. Gone in a matter of days, one wounded soldier didn't survive the heat on our way to Karnali in Nepal. We should've brought more...
  • Jewelry -- don't bring ANY! Girls, if you wear earring just bring one pair of studs
  • [Peptobismol or tums or anything equivalent to make your tummy feel better. We've had unfortunate food poisoning one too many times]
Ready to rumble!
  • 40-Liter Boreas Buttermilks. These backpacks are awesome and come with a rain cover. Very simple and so easy to use. PLUS very hard to pickpocket as there is only one point of entry. We love 'em!
  • 3 ultralight waterproof sacks from Sea to Summit and one non-waterproof packing cube each (different sizes to match your needs). Although the ultralight model is very light, it's not as sturdy as the light ones and some of our sunscreens poked holes through. These are great for packing: we use one for electronics, a small one for toiletries and another for other stuff. We use the non-waterproof packing cube for clothes and that's it! It makes packing SO easy.
  • Sea to Summit's key chain bag. This backpack has been crucial and is super light and fits in a lot of stuff including both of our laptops and fleeces all at once. 
Believe it or not, all this stuff weighs less than 60 pounds combined!! And it all fits in a small, 40-liter backpack. Thinking about it now, there are only a few things we haven't used at all so the list above should help you get all set for your big trip. Have fun packing!

Other Resources

Other people with kick-ass advice on long-term travel packing:

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