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Entries about observations

Interim Normalcy

Rachel - Addis and Mekele

One of my favourite things about traveling abroad, beyond the tourist headlines, are the little experiences of the everyday – post offices, banks, supermarkets – those times when you find out how life really works in this country. Not quite so everyday the visa office I suppose but it is an official department and taking an interest in the machine is probably what got me through the days. A dozen different queues, interviews by paranoid superiors after seeing Iran and Syria stamps, computer system failures, the various helpful and some unhelpful human beings all made for some bonding and shared looks of usually amused bafflement amongst the Ethiopians and multi cultural foreigners alike. We had to change our internal flights because of delays but in the end we managed to squeeze in some museum and gallery visits (including a really nice artists community in the hills at the edge of the city) as a result so all in all not too painful. Malawi however who managed to extend our visas in half an hour though so I don’t *really* see what the fuss was all about.

The following day I spent another amusedly puzzled day being sent to 4 different police stations trying to get a report of the hotel room theft from New Year. They lost the original report, sent me to another station across town, found the original report back in the original station so I had to return, retook my statement for some unknown reason, sent me to another station across town who wrote out their own version of the report and sent me to yet another station who wrote out a version on slightly better paper for my own copy. Always in duplicate. Everyone was lovely throughout though so I’m not complaining. In other countries where they also do things like issuing you handwritten ticket recipts for museum entry or bus tickets, in carbon copy duplicate, I’ve assumed that it was a colonial hangover from Britain’s more bureaucratic days and apologized internally for the lasting effects, But Ethiopia has never been colonized. Perhaps practices like this were introduced during the Italian occupation which might explain why it seems even more convoluted here ;)

Because of visa delays it meant we couldn’t fly to Axum as planned (and therefore will have to abandon this historical city on this visit) we decided to fly to a fairly nearby town called Mekele instead. Well timed actually because after we grudgingly rearranged our plans the tour company called to ask if we could bring forward the Danakil trip which leaves from Mekele.

Mekele is instantly pleasant and with an inspiring political history which I’ll explain later. We sat on the roof of our hotel and were fascinated by the main roundabout for over an hour watching families, traders, animals, crazy people, greeting friends and a host of interesting sorts passing back and forth or stopping in the road to talk. Another slice of the everyday I suppose.

Here we met the gang who we’d be joining for our trip to the Danakil Depression and Erta Ale volcano. In hindsight an interim period of everyday normalcy before 4 days of the most mind bending abnormal sights I’ve ever seen.

Posted by rachndave 02:37 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged observations Comments (1)

Redress the balance


This experience is absolutely the best and biggest thing I’ve ever done but it would been unfair representation if I didn’t admit that it has its more wearing side. I certainly couldn’t do this forever. I’m not keen to get back just yet but I know when I do I’ll be happy to be home.

People suggest in emails from home that they are reluctant to tell me their news because it somehow wouldn’t be interesting in comparison. Let me assure you that the more you’re away from home the more you appreciate the deeper relationships you have at home – and part of that depth is knowing the details of your loved one’s lives. They were interesting before, why wouldn’t they be interesting now?

In some ways I miss the small details of my own life – I feel like I’m living in headlines statements at the moment and while that’s what I signed up for and am thoroughly enjoying it’s a strange thing at the same time.

So I thought I’d share with you some of the tiring things about travelling to balance the scales a little

  • Having the same conversations over and over again
  • Never having time to get to know people properly, or too much forced time with people you don’t really have anything in common with
  • Squeaky doors in dorms :)
  • Rarely having any privacy
  • Being a constant focus of attention immediately you step out the door
  • Constant communication misunderstandings and sometimes inexplicable struggles to understand and be understood
  • Battling for fair treatment in any kind of service or trade situation
  • Remembering to handwash every few days and finding some way to do that
  • Rarely having more than one nights in the same bed and having to stay packed
  • Rarely being able to eat what you fancy when you fancy
  • An awful lot all conversations with resident people end in, or indirectly contain, some kind of request or sales pitch which makes it difficult to know how far to enter into any kind of conversation and cheapens earlier getting-to-know-you chit chat
  • Never remembering where the lightswitch is
  • Always knowing you’ll have to get dressed and hike to the shared bathroom in the middle of the night if you wake up

None of these (or even the entire combination thereof) are reason for you not to do this sort of thing yourself or myself again in the future cos I’m loving it. And some of these things I knew would be the case in advance but the reality is of course in emotional 3D. The thing I’ve come to realise is that the reason I have a *home* is that the inherent life-shortcuts I create by surrounding myself by the ultra-familiar is that I can concentrate instead on the more important/interesting details of my life and the lives of others…and not knock into tables looking for the lightswitch.

Posted by rachndave 12:39 Archived in Malawi Tagged observations Comments (0)

Wet wet wet wet wet FISH wet


Oh splashy wet cool water how we've missed you! We arrived in Aqaba in the far-too-early morning after a 6.30 bus from Wadi Rum and after a quick nap headed straight out into the sea, stopping only to pick up some flippers and a mask. The corals around Aqaba are relatively quiet and unspoiled although they're the book-end to the much more well known Eilat in Israel or similar sites in Egypt.

We spent the next three days in the sea or by the little pool in our bargainous sea-view hotel (which was brand new and willing to give us a big discount for the business. A little bit of unexpected luxury after a week in camps or on hotel roofs).

We saw more colourful fish than you can shake a snorkel tube at and an octopus, and a huuuuuuge stingray, some unflappable puffer fish and played sheepdog with a shoal of thousands and thousands of small silvery fish - at one point being both surrounded by them all in a doughnut shape. We swam above some divers who were diving down to a wreck we were bobbing above and played with their bubbles which were lit up like millions of underwater diamonds by the sunlight which will always be a special memory for me.

I think the 3D freedom of the divers gave Dave the envy because he signed up for a introductory dive the next day and was taken down to swim round a sunken military tank of all things. I think he's got the bug now. I'd already done a padi course during an early adventure (hi Katie!) so I know how he feels, it's like a ticket to a different world.

Because it's still the Middle East, and Jordan is even more conservative than some countries, the beaches are full of families with half the living room brought along with them and women in the water fully clothed. A sight I will treasure will be four women in full burqas and veils, a few hairy men topless in shorts, all playing keepy uppy with a football up to their waists in the water. (burqas/veils arent the norm here by any means by the way which is why it was such a sight).

Also because it's the middle east everyone stays out on the streets, including the very young children, till past midnight. So after having one of the nicest meals we've had while we've been in this part of the world - a spiced rice and fish dish with a tahini sauce that i'll try and find the recipe for when i get back (one for you Auntie Alison) - we walked past the public beach and sat with our feet in the water listening to some young drummers behind, talking to some people curious to see the pictures we were taking and watching families with their shisha and barbeques having nighttime picnics. I was watching a girl who must have been about nine or ten, grinning, splashing and dancing freely to the drums in the water - shoulders a shimmying - to be told off (I think at least) by the older female family members. I couldnt really tell if she was upset after that because she was be told to reign it in or because they had to leave, as they did soon after, but she was so pleading and mournful, crouched low in the water, after that as if she wanted to melt into it or hold onto the seabed somehow. My heart went out to her. I hope she's a bit of a rebel as she grows up, she had such a spirit about her.

Had a lovely chat one night with a german guy we've seen in nearly every city we've visited but never had a chance to talk to. He said it's been the same for him and had spent time with the same four german PhD students we met in Wadi Rum everywhere as well and was pleased to hear about their engagment which hadnt happened when he saw them last. We talked technology pretty much all night because we all had the same sort of jobs and interests. It was a lovely change actually from talking about travelling. He's a TED fan, so for all you who know we had some good chat. Wish we'd crossed paths sooner. Hope his girlfriend has recovered from tummy toubles.

So at last we both have some sunburn :) We've been pretty covered up since we left because we've been out and about, and for decency's sake, or because the sun is just too strong to expose much to it. I have brown arms and face but that's it really. But now I also have red legs and so does Dave :)

Today we're back in Amman. After our last shisha, non-alcoholic beer and taste of arabic music (played by a man who reminded me of a portly Neil Diamond) last night we're turning our thoughts to phase 2: Africa. We fly to Lilongwe in Malawi this afternoon. Things might get a bit more patchy communication wise but the world is getting ever smaller so you never know. Will try and let you know we've arrived not-too-frazzled after our 16 hour, three plane journey at least.

Thinking of everyone at home all the time. Miss you. Speak to you from the next continent.

PS. It's not too late to buy Lake of Stars tickets you know...

Posted by rachndave 03:09 Archived in Jordan Tagged beaches lodging sae observations Comments (2)

Closing impressions of Iran


We arrived in Damascus last night and are having a bit of an admin day today. Dave is registering us for Glastonbury next to me, we've just booked flights to Malawi (woop), going to the post office next. Oh the excitement.

So here are my final impressions of Iran and a few miscellaneous observations i've jotted down

1. Travelling round the country has been a breeze. Mountains, deserts, lakes and cities all connected by a fantastic and cheap transport network.
2. An obsession with shoes. Shoe shops are *everywhere*. Shoe menders and cleaners are everywhere. Every hotel room provides you with an abundance of plastic sandals on a rack. Every home has shoes outside the door and inside sandals outside the bathroom. There are shoes in many toilets. Even in the airport as we were leaving there was a shelf of these sandals next to the metal detectors and I have no idea why.
3. Mystery switches. Every hotel room we have ever stayed in has at least one switch that does nothing. Every. single. one.
4. There are huge piles of watermelons everywhere
5. Squat toilets and water hoses really werent designed for women and require a unexpected amount of dexterity/timing
6. We have a favourite non alcoholic beer called Heyday, which is a very refreshing lemon-meets-malt flavour. There are other brands but this one is the best. I wonder if you can get it in London somewhere.
7. Standard hotel checkout at 2pm. This should be an international standard!
8. Shops here are very specialist. Shoe shops only sell shoes (not laces, nor odor eaters). Cosmetic shops only sell cosmetics (not hairbands). This makes it quite tricky to buy specific things when you dont know where your type of shop lives.
9. There are butterflies everywhere. You cant be outside anywhere without a beautiful butterfly in sight. I resolve to plant butterfly friendly plants in my garden when I get one.
10. Everything is covered in the manufacturers plastic. All office-like chairs for certain wherever you encounter them like ticket offices or internet cafes - but usually they are broken :) I have seen clocks on the wall and even remote controls wrapped in plastic.
11. The people and the government are not in any way in alignment either in outlook or demeanor. This makes people very self conscious about what we as visitors think, and how iranians are percieved back home. They are bothered. Of course we have only really spoken with people who are interested in tourists so perhaps that is a biased view but we havent encountered any attitude to the contrary.
12. It feels as if everything is about 30 years behind the UK. fashion, decor, attitudes, most equipment and services. This actually gives me hope.
13. It turns out I can't sit crossed legged for more than 15 minutes and it is surprisingly difficult to eat from the plastic table sheet on the floor when you sit sidesaddle. Also see point number 5 - i really need to go back to yoga classes when I get back.
14. Everywhere we go there is building work going on. In the countryside this is done by teams of men by hand. This gives every town a living feel to it.
15. Family is everything and they really get on with each other. Not only that but as a visitor you feel like one of the family too.
16. The country is a place where people *live*. It's hard to explain this point but it's connected to point 15. People in London *work* and *play* for example rather than live - the living stuff is what happens in between work and play i think. But here people here live for and with each other, and even the work people are doing feels like a way just to support their home lives where they can be with their families and in their communities. Perhaps that is because it is an old culture, perhaps it is the islamic cultural influence - that i'm not so sure of without experiencing other islamic cultures. Whatever the reason it makes the place feel unshakable and is a core atmosphere everywhere we pass through.

Anyway I'm sure more will occur to me as we continue but for now it's goodbye Iran, hello Syria.

Posted by rachndave 04:14 Archived in Iran Tagged final_thoughts observations Comments (3)

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