Blog

Trip Tip: Bring Beer and Patience for Your Sri Lanka Train Adventure

I know I talked a little bit about the traffic and road conditions in Sri Lanka, but there actually is another more peaceful, maybe even more scenic way to see the country.

Sri Lanka Railway
Meet the red menace.

Sri Lanka Railway.

A little background: the Sri Lanka Railway was originally known as the Ceylon Government Railways when it opened in 1858, and was built to “transport coffee from the Hill Country to the coastal port of Colombo, then when the coffee crop was wiped out by disease, the embryonic crops of tea that Sri Lanka is now famed for were transported to the coast for exportation.”

Mad rush at the train station
Trains: Once used to transport tea and now, motorcycles.

There are three main rail lines in Sri Lanka, according to Lonely Planet, and they are used by both government and privately-run rail services (I believe there are like, 2 private companies).

We took the government-run red train from Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya) to Ella, through some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful hills and valleys. It’s a trip that, while it’s only 60 kilometers, will take you about 3-4 hours (plus an hour delay on arrival, in our case.)

Nanu Oya station in Sri Lanka
Fly like a bird on a Sri Lanka train? Nope.

 

The whole train ticket process was kind of confusing….we had to order then ahead of time but the SLR website was a bit of a mess. So we thought we should be able to easily order them through our tour guide company. But then, picking them up turned into a bit of a hassle and we spent the first 4-5 days of our vacation unsure of whether we even had train tickets. Finally, we got them at the last minute—while we were standing on the platform—from someone who physically brought them on the train where Tilly was able to grab them in person. No idea why this was the preferred process, but again, a bit of a hassle.

Train timetable in Sri Lanka
Train timetable in Sri Lanka

We booked “first-class,” observation car tickets for the mid-day trip, which set us back around 1,000 rupees each or $8. Totally a bargain and a great way to see the country. It is particularly important to purchase seats in the observation car, since the seats are assigned. On the day of our trip, when the train finally pulled into the Nanu Oya station over an hour late, there was a mad rush of Asian tourists who crushed onto the train and plopped themselves into the 24 observation car seats. But Tilly and another tour guide got on and explained the arranged seating situation to them and soon we were in our assigned seats.

Boarding the train in Sri Lanka

I did say the train was peaceful, but let me stress that these are not exactly high-tech, modern bullet trains, as you can tell from the photos. So, if you don’t necessarily equate peaceful with safety or modernity or being on time, then by all means, you’ll love train travel in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka train
“More peaceful” = “but also pretty sketchy on the safety front.”

 

But, having said that, it really can be very peaceful. You can get downright drowsy in the warm, oppressive air that’s a combination of lots of passengers, velvet seats and curtains, and a lack of air conditioning.

Fan on the Sri Lanka train
Oh look, a fan! But it’s not working.

The clack of the railcars on the ancient rail lines is slightly hypnotizing. The ever-so-gentle sway of the railcar back and forth is likely to lull you into a nap.

Observation car on Sri Lanka train
A few of our 24 new best friends.

Our seats (19 & 20) weren’t great from a view perspective (we were actually between two windows, rather than next to one), but that was fine because we just took turns going out to the area between the cars where the doors are wide open.

Spaces in between on Sri Lanka train

It’s pretty exciting to be back there, clinging to the open doorframe while the train plunges into a pitch black tunnel and the sound roars in your ears. Then, just when you get used to the deafening, all-encompassing noise and lack of any sense of sight, the train comes out of the tunnel and there’s a steep cliff drop that has sprung up right below your feet.

Sri Lanka countryside

A guy came by selling some lovely warm salted peanuts out of a paper cone for 100 rupees, and of course we bought some, which made us wish we’d had the foresight to bring some cans of beer with us.

peanuts on the train

The train makes frequent stops at stations along the way and you get a glimpse of Sri Lankan life and the major role the train plays in helping connect people. At one station, a bunch of military guys were coming in from some exercise or patrol mission, all sweaty and tired, dumping their heavy backpacks on the platform before checking in at a table with an officer and a clipboard. Another group was just heading out, walking along the train tracks for a bit before veering off to scale up the sides of the tall hills and then disappearing entirely.

Military in Sri Lanka

At another station stop, a couple of tuk tuks were waiting to pick up arriving passengers, the tuk tuk drivers reclined back in their seats and by all appearances, napping in the mid-day sun. One of them, however, was blaring some Indian techno music, which made XFE start bobbing his head, much to the consternation of the loudly grumbling older British man seated behind us. All of which, had me giggling.

Railroad crossing in Sri Lanka
Tuk tuks at a railroad crossing in Sri Lanka

I’ll admit, the train trip was not my idea (it was XFE’s), and I was a bit hesitant about it, truth be told. But after several days on Sri Lankan roads, it turned out to be the perfect antidote and a great way to get from Nuwara Eliya to Ella.

IMG_5786

 

Ode to Del Ray

delray

Every day I swear I’m going to sit down and write a blog post. And every day, I get sucked into the crazy news cycle coming out of Washington. Comey. Russia. Obamacare. EB-5 visas. Executive Orders. Emoluments. Sessions. I end up going down a news wormhole, spending waaaaay too much time scouring Google News and Twitter for the latest updates and news tidbits.

Every damn day.

And, today was no different. I’m finishing a couple of large projects, finalizing some paperwork and payment stuff, and finding and following up on new leads. I’ve had a fairly productive last couple of days, so today was going to be the day I could just sit down and focus on blogging.

I was having my coffee and watching CNN this morning (I know, I know. Tempting fate there.) when I saw a breaking news story about a shooting in Alexandria, Virginia. I live in Alexandria, Virginia. So, of course, I had to hop on the internet to find out what was going on, and that’s when I heard about the GOP baseball practice shooting that took place in the lovely Del Ray neighborhood.

Del Ray holds a special place in my heart….it’s where I lived when I first moved to D.C. 15 years ago. I was in a rush to start my new job and so I rented an apartment in that I found on Craig’s List, sight unseen.  A friend in the know assured me that Del Ray was a good neighborhood with an easy commute and cheaper than downtown D.C. She was right, although “cheaper than D.C.” is still a hell of a lot of money for someone just starting out in the area. But still, it is a charming, quirky little neighborhood and I loved living in the thick of it.

Del Ray is also very close to our current house in Old Town. In fact, the practice field where the shooting took place is just a mile from my front door. I walk/run past it quite often. I walk/run in that neighborhood when my own neighborhood – the historic and touristy Old Town with its grid streets, boutique shops and restaurants, and heavier traffic (ie: stop sign runners) — seems too chaotic or crowded.

In comparison, Del Ray and the adjacent Rosemont neighborhoods are very still with little to no traffic during the day. I go that direction when I want to avoid stop sign runners and mindlessly meander through quiet, tree-shaded streets lined with Craftsman-style bungalows with strollers parked up on their porches.

Besides, my favorite coffee place is right across from that very same baseball practice field and I like to stop there for a well-deserved (or not) iced coffee on my way home.

But this week has been really hot, even in the shade, so I haven’t gone for run (or even a walk) in Del Ray this week. And I still haven’t sat down and written a blog post.

Let’s try this again tomorrow.

The Most Dangerous Job in Sri Lanka

Hey. Let’s talk about driving. Specifically, driving in Sri Lanka. Or as it should more accurately be called, defying death every single breath.

Sri Lanka road safety

I live just a short metro ride away from downtown D.C. in a very lovely, historic neighborhood with all the restaurants and shopping my little heart desires located just blocks from my doorstep. Literally, there I live two blocks from both a Trader Joe’s and a larger, conventional grocery store. I work from home, but when I did work in an office every day, I took the metro, which is an 8-minute walk from my house.

These days, when I have an appointment or something that necessitates I go into D.C., I usually metro or take Uber. Which is all just to point out that 1) I’m used to putting my life in the hands of transportation strangers, and 2) my driving skills have certainly not been tested in quite a while and are probably not honed into a fine laser beam of awesomeness, so I’m not judging any Sri Lankan drivers skills or finesse.

But, I will point out, we’ve been to lots of countries where there are few (if any) traffic signals and whole families zip around piled up on mopeds, slipping in and out of traffic like they’re being carried along a fast-moving river current. And while these road encounters were sometimes heart stopping, nothing prepared me for the calamity and chaos of Sri Lanka’s roads.

Sri Lanka buses

First of all, “roads” is a pretty generous term. Sri Lanka does not have the best road system. It’s pretty limited and seems to rely mostly on old cart tracks, some of which have been paved, a bit. Sri Lanka’s first major highway, the 80-mile E01, opened in 2011. For comparison, Smithsonian.com notes, the U.S. interstate system is 46,876 miles long.

But mostly, while in Sri Lanka, drivers like ours (Thilani, aka Tilly from SL Driver Tours) must navigate narrow, two-lane highways crowded with cars, trucks, buses, “collective” buses (private for-profit buses that compete with the city buses), “gypsy” buses (vans with people hanging on to the sides, the tops, the back), tuk tuks, mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles.

Tuk tuk artwork in Sri Lanka
Tuk tuk artwork in Sri Lanka

There are no traffic lights or signals (except in very big cities like Colombo or Kandy) and there appear to be no traffic rules whatsoever. People are honking and passing and overtaking nonstop.

By the way, these roads have no shoulders to pull over to or use for passing, so people use the middle of the road to pass, resulting in a head-on game of chicken as vehicles bear down from the opposite direction.

The sides of the road, meanwhile, are packed with stray dogs, food stalls with open fires, makeshift vegetable and fruit stands, and people walking (there are no sidewalks), including children walking to school as early as 4:30 a.m., when it’s still dark out. Overhead lights are few and dim, making for especially dangerous driving conditions at night. The first note in my trip notebook is “Driving is pretty intense.”

Sri Lanka delivery truck
Do you want to share a narrow windy road with this delivery truck?

Sure, we’ve been on worse roads (the 50 km rutted and congested road from the airport in Arusha, Tanzania comes to mind, as does the road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in Cambodia). But I’ve never been somewhere where none of the cars were blaring music or talk radio. It’s completely silent except for the sounds of honking and some yelling. It has got to be the most dangerous job in Sri Lanka. Maybe the world.

Tilly told us that four people die every day from road accidents in Sri Lanka, but actually, the number might be higher than that. In 2015, more than 2,700 people were killed in road-related incidents. Luckily, we didn’t see any accidents during our 10-day stay, but that’s probably due only to the skill of our excellent driver, Tilly.

Car from SL Driver Tours
My view for most of the trip. Tilly definitely provided premium service, without injuring or killing anyone.

The guys over at World Nomads also have a pretty good description of the driving conditions in Sri Lanka.

An Overview of Sri Lanka, Privileged Tourism and Getting in My Own Head

On paper, Sri Lanka was a no brainer for us—our logical next vacation destination. It has a lot of the things we gravitate towards as travelers—we like South/Southeast Asia (admittedly, one of us a bit more than the other). We love the spicy food in this area of the world, with the focus on fresh fish and vegetables. We like learning about a new country’s history, architecture, and culture. Sri Lanka presented us with plenty to see and do, the weather was warm (which always means there’s a good excuse to spend the afternoon by a pool with a cold local beer). And it’s very, very affordable.

Sri Lankan curry
The curry in Sri Lanka was out of this world.

 

Sri Lanka is very much trying to put its recent violent past behind it, but devoting so many resources to fighting a civil war has definitely left the country a bit behind the eight ball as far as development goes. It is very, very poor and people are struggling. They’re relying on tourism to help economically and, from a marketing standpoint at least, it appears to be working.

All during our year of planning, we kept hearing about other people who were going or had just been to Sri Lanka. I don’t know if it was because it was finally on our radar or if it had just reached the popularity tipping point, but all of a sudden, it seemed like Sri Lanka was more sought after than a hot cheerleader at prom (or, a Harvard acceptance letter. Shoutout to ya, Priscilla Samey). Bloomberg added Sri Lanka to its list of 20 places to go in 2017, Huffington Post said it was the one country you should go to in 2017, and even that travel authority Vogue declared it a “destination that stimulates all the senses.”

Sri Lanka sunset
Postcard material, courtesy of Sri Lanka. I took this picture. With a point and shoot camera. No filter.  Sunsets really did look like this.

The Lay of the Land

Sri Lanka is certainly diverse in terms of geography. This former Portuguese/Dutch/British colony—aka Ceylon—has beautiful beaches to the south (packed with foreigners, we noticed). The cooler, hilly mid-part of the country is much cooler and is incredibly lush, green and misty, and packed with tea fields/plantations (full of visiting tourists and smacking of British colonialism still). The northern, historic Golden Triangle area has caves and crumbling temple cities and all the accompanying tourists turning bright pink under the scorching sun.

Polonnaruwa temple
Sweating it out at Polonnaruwa temple

Sri Lanka is also quite the hikers’ paradise and everywhere we went—from the mountaintop cave temples at Sigiriya Rock Fortress and Dambulla to Adam’s Peak and Horton Plains Park near Ella, there were opportunities to slip and slide over some dangerous trails—if you could stand the heat and oppressive humidity (we could not).

Dambulla caves
At least it was cool (if a bit crowded) at the fabulous Dambulla Cave Temple in northern Sri Lanka.

Instead, we drove. Or, more accurately, we rode in the backseat while our driver Tillie ferried us around the country for 10 days. During that time, we saw wild elephants lumbering along the side of the road (there are over 2,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka). We drank from king coconuts, including one we purchased for 400 rupees from a man on the side of the road with his teeth stained red from chewing betel leaves, mixed with tobacco, and areca nut. We rode a very old train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. We spent a confusing and sweaty morning wandering around the old Dutch fort town of Galle–confusing because nothing, even churches, appeared to be open that day, and yet we almost got swept up in some sort of parade of some sorts. We talked to giggling school children who wanted to practice their English at the otherwise disappointing Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy. And we ate. And ate. And ate.

Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy
An offering station at the very crowded and rather underwhelming Temple of the Tooth Relic.

As Vogue noted, Sri Lanka does stimulate all the senses. But the biggest “sense” it stimulated in me was a sense of déjà vu and maybe, even, just the slightest bit of a letdown, which, I know, sounds maybe a bit harsh.

What’s the Problem, Poe?

As we’ve previously encountered in other countries in Southeast Asia (I’m looking at you, Bali. And Thailand), there’s this major confusion over what tourists want, with a heavy reliance on tourist traps, whether it’s “turtle hatcheries” that house a collection of sad, little cement enclosures too small for the turtles living in them, or the “tsunami photo museums” which had neither photos (they were faded color print-outs from the Internet) nor were organized in anything resembling a museum.

Vendor in Galle
Vendor in Galle selling cool “joos.” NOT a tourist trap. 

Then there were all the tourist traps we just said, “no” to: wooden mask carvers, the multiple spice farms, the elephant sanctuaries, the moonstone mines, the stilt fishermen—all of which are (generally) staged, and less focused on education/more focused on accepting donations/taking photos in exchange for donations.

This reliance on tourist traps in a depressed economy is completely understandable. It is a very, very poor country. The people are struggling and are trying to find ways to get by—and increasingly, that seems to be relying on tourism. The saddest bit is the clustering and proliferation of one particular type of tourist trap. Instead of one spice farm or turtle hatchery, there would be like, 20 of them, all identical and all lined up right next to each other.

Railroad crossing in Sri Lanka
Tuk tuks at a railroad crossing in Sri Lanka

In the end, it all just comes off as feeling very exploitative – on both sides. I hate saying, “no thank you,” repeatedly. I feel defensive and like I have to keep pushing people away who really need the money and why don’t I just go to the damn moonstone mine and buy some damn moonstones even if I don’t want or need them?

Or, when we do cave in and visit one of these places, I end up feeling like it wasn’t a great experience and like I didn’t really learn anything. I feel self-conscious, looking at these sad, little makeshift tourist traps and expecting more. I feel like I missed the disclaimer that screams “all this place is supposed to do is elicit enough sympathy to make you reach into your pockets and throw some money at your guilt.”

Sri Lanka wedding
A Hindu wedding in Sri Lanka (NOT a tourist display….at least as far as I know).

So that was my struggle with Sri Lanka. And with travel and tourism in general. I know there are countries out there that need it, that are counting on it, and that want us to come and visit and spend our money. So go. Go see places, even if they might make you uncomfortable, even if they might make you sad or confused. Go and see if you can spot a wild elephant, slowly weaving its way in and out of the trees along the side of the road on a cool morning in the middle of Sri Lanka.

Wild elephant in Sri Lanka

 

How to Have an Amazing Birthday

My 45th birthday was a couple of months ago, so I’ve had some time to really think about this.

  1.  Be born. Done, easy, check.
  2. (OK, this one is going to take a while.) Find a life partner as fabulous as XFE. Took me about, ummmm, 34 years and a couple of failed attempts.
  3. Agree to let this fabulous, XFE-like life partner plan your birthday trip every single year.
  4. Show up and go along.
  5. Drink champagne (thoughtfully purchased by said life partner) in a plunge pool at your private beachside villa in Sri Lanka while watching the sea turtles ride the waves (*stuff that actually happened).

birthday champagn

So we went to Sri Lanka in March. And the Maldives. Yes. The Maldives. Yeah. It was awesome. It’s the MALDIVES. Of course it was awesome.

But first, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very interesting place. It wasn’t really on my radar. I knew that it was close to India (geographically) and I’ve never really had much desire to go to India, so yeah. Sri Lanka wasn’t on my bucket list.

The only people I know of from Sri Lanka are M.I.A. (“Paper Planes,” y’all. That song is my jam.) and Pettifleur on “Real Housewives of Melbourne.” And as far as I can tell, both of those ladies are crazy hotheads who bring all the drama.

I also knew—vaguely—that there had been a recent civil war there and I knew that one of the warring factions were known as the Tamil Tigers. But that’s it. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is covered on the news very much. If I hadn’t read an article about that “Paper Planes” song back in the day, I wouldn’t have even known the name Tamil Tigers, let alone details about the civil war.

So, I did what any good history nerd would do. I read a book–“Elephant Complex” by John Gimlette. A very good book which I can’t recommend highly enough, even if you aren’t planning to go to Sri Lanka. It’s just good, good stories.

Here’s the deal (in a very simplistic nutshell): The Tamil Tigers were (are?) a group of separatists who wanted to (still do?) carve out part of Sri Lanka as a separate, independent state–a homeland for ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, to protect them from discrimination in the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, which is mainly Buddhist. The war started in 1983 and (technically) ended in 2009. It was, as modern, ethnic wars go, horrible. A conservative estimate is that around 100,000 people died.

Make no mistake, the Tamil Tigers were/are basically terrorists. They used suicide bombers and targeted internationals for maximum impact/headlines. But the discrimination and hate perpetuated upon the Tamils that brought them to that state was also really, really bad. And, of course, we have the British to blame (Kidding. Sort of. The seeds of the war were tied to colonialism and favoritism of one caste over the other.) As usual, nobody’s a saint and there are no winners when it comes to civil war.

So that’s some recent, not-so-cheerful history for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming from the headline, amiright? Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about the country’s current conditions, why you should go, and how we decided to go there.

Sri Lanka temple
Nope, I do not think it’s possible to have too many unflattering pictures of yourself goofing off outside a temple in Sri Lanka.

Reality TV Time: Why Live PD is the Wreck I Can’t Help But Watch

Don’t mind me. I’m not even here. I mean, I’m here, but I’m not supposed to be. I’ve got a couple of major projects gobbling up my time, a bunch of looming deadlines, and I’m waiting to jump on the phone with a potential new client, but I had to just stop by and ask a very, very important question……

Is anyone else obsessed with Live PD?

Live PD

Of course you are. According to Deadline Hollywood: “Since its premiere in October, Live PD has averaged 1.1 million total viewers a week in Live+7 and has outperformed A&E’s regular primetime average by 29% among total viewers.”

So, it’s doing pretty well.

This latest reality TV offering from the fine folks at the esteemed Arts & Entertainment network (that’s A&E, for those not in the know) is on for three hours (!) Friday and Saturday nights and, gentle reader, it is amazing. One of us (the one not named Poe) even DVRs it and watches it sporadically over the course of the weekend, in case a three hour commitment is just not in the cards.

(Also, yes, I know exactly what this implies about Friday and Saturday nights here at the Poe household and yes, those implications do indeed hold up. We’re pretty lame.)

The thing is: there’s nothing really new here. It’s basically like “Cops.” It plays on the idea that 1) criminals are crazy; 2) cops are not stupid; 3) we—the audience—like to think we’re smarter than both.

Hug Life
Well, I know I’m smarter than this probable pedophile/drug dealer who was wearing this shirt on a recent episode.

A&E describes the show as “a live look at police across the country as they work the night shift in real-time.”

There are, at least, a couple of debatable facts in that statement. For one thing, it’s mostly “live.” The producers also rely heavily on pre-taped call segments, but I’m not mad about it.

Listen, sometimes live police work isn’t very interesting. There’s a lot of driving around while the units wait for a call. Sometimes that call isn’t very interesting. And, of course, law enforcement institutions are incredibly bureaucratic, so it’s not unusual to have to wait around to get another officer to come and conduct a field sobriety test (although, at this point, after several weeks of viewing, I’m pretty sure I could administer a field sobriety test at this point.) Or bring a K-9 unit to sniff the car. Or any number of things that slow down the action.

The terms “real-time” and “night shift” are also a bit debatable. There have been numerous times where our good friend and host Dan Abrams insists a chase or call is taking place at this exact moment of 9 p.m. but it appears to be in full daylight. Even for calls in Calvert County, Maryland, which is maybe 50 miles from where I live.

abrams and moore

But putting all that aside for a second, the thing that’s truly addicting about Live PD is that you never know what people are going to do.

After a few weeks of watching, the “show” had started to get a bit formulaic to me:

  1. Car has a busted license plate light. Police officer pulls car over.
  2. When the driver rolls the window down, police officer exclaims he smells a strong detection of weed. Driver denies it, perhaps even gets offended.
  3. Police officer asks driver to get out of car. They discuss the driver’s lack of valid license/ID/ and/or other outstanding warrants.
  4. Police officer then has enough probable cause to search the driver (but not before asking if the driver has anything in his/her pockets that’s going to hurt the officer, a question which sometimes elicits some pretty comical responses), search the car, gets a K-9 to scratch up the exterior—all while the officer is pleading to the driver to just tell the truth and come clean, and the driver is insisting that he had done nothing wrong and didn’t even deserve to be pulled over in the first place.
  5.  Inevitably, no matter how sincere and impassioned the driver’s reasoning and entreaties sound to the audience at home (I have more than one time proclaimed that a driver was being harassed and really seems like he’s worked his way back to the straight path and shucks, can’t we just forget the stupid license plate light?) lo and behold, marijuana or other more hardcore drug paraphernalia is discovered and the perp is hauled off in handcuffs.

All over some stupid minor infraction like a busted license plate light.

My faith in humanity gets put through the wringer every damn time. I consider myself pretty street smart. I grew up surrounded by some questionable, if not downright shady, adult figures. I’ve been present during some instances of recreational drug use.

But I keep coming back to Live PD because they keep surprising me. For one thing, I am amazed at 1) how many people are out there doing drugs (apparently, everyone operating a motor vehicle – and sometimes bicycle. Yes, we’ve seen people pulled over on their bicycles on Live PD) 2) how much some people just flat out lie, even when evidence to the contrary is sitting right there on their car hood, and 3) how good some of them are at lying. And, also, how laughably bad some of them are at it.

Obama store
The now-famous Obama Convenience Store, where a lot of drug activity apparently takes place.

There are a few other questionable aspects to Live PD other than time jumping and sloppy continuity issues—for example, it’s interesting to see the efforts at privacy used in cases where the driver is wealthier and whiter (especially huffy white women who’ve had “just one glass of rose” or “an Irish coffee after dinner.” Those broads get away with some serious level smack talking). In those cases, faces and licenses plates will be blurred (although the memory of bad mom outfits will always be burned in my mind), and the camera guys will film from behind the driver.

fieldtest

Whereas, in the case of non-white drivers, license plates will be shown, faces will be shown, even in instances where they say they don’t want to be filmed (my favorite cop rejoinder when a driver asks about the cameras: “Those guys are here for me, not you.” I assure you, dear law enforcement person, viewers are definitely not here just for you.

Shows like this serve many, many important functions: deterring criminal activity, making cops seem more humane and approachable while highlighting the danger of their jobs, and, the most important, entertaining us. Live PD does all that.

And, if you are watching Live PD, may I suggest printing out some of these bingo cards?

Where to Safari? Tanzania or South Africa

It’s the question that everyone asks when they hear about our recent African safari.

tracy-flick

No, not I packed for essentially three weeks of travel (although, that would be my first question and the answer is: not that much). It’s not even whether we ever got bored of seeing many of the same animals day after day (answer: nope, not at all).

The question is: which African safari destination did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?

img_4952

The answer is a bit complicated. Actually, it’s not that complicated for me. It’s just that it’s a different answer than my travel-companion-for-life, XFE, and it always feels a tiny bit awkward when we don’t necessarily agree. Especially as he is the one who does most of the travel planning. It makes me feel like I’m being slightly ungrateful of all his hard work or something.

Anyway, XFE liked the Serengeti (Tanzania) slightly better. I preferred Sabi Sands (South Africa). Which is just fine. I don’t think either destination is going to pack up their tents and call it a day based on our meager little preferences. And guess what? Neither of them suck. Like, at all. So don’t worry. No bad decisions here.

img_4230
Safari in Tanzania or South Africa? They both beat a handful of poop.

Look, the Serengeti is beautiful. Vast grass plains that go on forever and ever. Little purple and white “tissue” flowers signaling the approaching of spring. Rocky outcroppings that allow animals to hide in plain sight. Completely empty savannas with just a single tree providing shade for a couple of leopard brothers. The viewing is plentiful and easy.

img_4581

And, as far as sheer numbers of animals, you cannot beat the Serengeti. You don’t just see one lion, you see a whole pride of them, scattered out in a dry river bank, nursing their babies and snoozing and washing themselves and just generally being cats. The Serengeti has the Great Migration, and herds and herds of wildebeest participating in a truly awe-inspiring, bucket-list experience. We saw plenty of everything, especially the Big 5. (But between the two destinations, we saw the Big 7 – that’s the Big 5 plus cheetah and African wild dog).

img_4603
A whole bunch of hippos in the Serengeti.

We also saw plenty of death, which bummed me out and contributed to my personal preference for Sabi Sands.

But actually, for me, it comes down to the focus on conservation, which varies greatly between the Serengeti (a vast, open public park) and Sabi Sands (a private reserve set in the midst of a public park).

img_4303
A couple of young Sabi Sands lions, approximately 18 mos old. They had been part of the Ottawa pride. They’re mother had been killed by a hyena (!), but they were adopted and raised by the rest of the pride. Our guide Stefan knew all of this.

In Sabi Sands, the drivers and guides know the animals—they know who their parents were, they’ve given them names, they have whole identity kits on each of them and they have spent years acclimating the animals to their human sounds. They approach new or unknown animals very cautiously and respectfully, so as not to scare them.

img_4285
Making friends with a new group of skittish rhinos in Sabi Sands.

The guides in Sabi Sands also coordinate over the radio so that there aren’t too many vehicles converging on an animal at once—a vehicle will drive up, spend a few minutes viewing the animal and then back out. And they only drive off the established trails when they’re chasing a Big 5 animal.

img_4662
Sleepy cheetah in the Serengeti

The Serengeti is a bit more casual, much more Wild West, if you will. And the guides there are a lot more focused on making sure you (the paying and tipping customer) get your NatGeo-worthy photo, rather than the comfort of the animals. For example, when we rolled up on some sleeping lions one day, our guide began clapping his hands to get the lion to wake up and look up, so we could get a better picture. We assured him that that was not at all necessary and to just let the lion be.

img_4914
Believe me: there was more than just the one other vehicle.

In addition, there are a lot more vehicles around in the Serengeti, including all sorts of private guides from outside the park. So there’s no coordination amongst them. The day we finally found black rhinos still makes me cringe, as about half a dozen (at least) trucks encircled the two rhinos. Even though most everyone kept their distance (to some extent), I still felt like we were pinning them in and they really had nowhere to go (they were trying to retreat back into the bush and trees along the river bank behind the trucks–including ours).

img_4822
Serengeti family. No names, but lots of babies.

The guides in the Serengeti also do not know the names or lineage of the animals, and in fact, when I asked about the name of our first lion sighting, I got a bit of a strange look. And they definitely drive off the trails quite a bit, in pursuit of any animal. And I do mean pursuit. A couple of times it felt (to my sensitive soul, at least) like we were chasing animals, which I did not like.

img_4979
Mom coming to the rescue of a couple of young cheetah brothers we went offroading to see in the Serengeti.

There are a few other things: I much preferred the guides in Sabi Sands. They were knowledgeable and excited every day. Both locations are a little difficult to get to, but Tanzania was definitely more difficult. I also liked the safari style of Sabi Sands–morning game drive, break in the afternoon, evening game drive. There were no nighttime game drives in Tanzania, so it was an all-day safari drive. Although, eating breakfast and lunch out in the wild in the Serengeti was amazing in its own right.

img_4426
Leopard climbing up the tree for the snack he’d saved (upper left, hanging). He had a name, I think it was Dayone? Definitely not Scotia. She was a female.

But for me, it ultimately comes down to the entirely different focus—animals first or clients first. Neither is wrong, but I definitely preferred one approach over the other.

Plus, Sabi Sands = honey badgers!

The Hottest Spot in the Serengeti

There are no plush velvet banquettes. No artisanal craft cocktails. No happy hour specials or hipster DJ pushing play on an iPod.

But the bathroom at the airstrip in Kogatende is hands down the most happening. most popular spot in the entire Serengeti.

airport-4

Now listen: I’m from Texas. Clearly I have no issue with peeing out in the bushes. Not at all. But I also understand that some people prefer even a modicum of plumbing and privacy. So it’s easy to see why this otherwise unassuming cinder block/tin roofed building was everyone’s favorite watering hole while we all were on our respective game drives.

And like the wild animals we observed navigating the ponds and watering holes across the Serengeti, there was a ritual to the gatherings.

Our particular gaggle of genus: homo touristus would swing by the Kogatende “watering hole” at least twice a day, and invariably, we’d see dozens of other safari jeeps and vehicles parked in rows on the hard-packed reddish dirt parking lot.

airport-2

Here’s how it generally went down (told in my best NatGeo Wild “Safari Live” voice):

A safari vehicle pulls up. Now, watch carefully as the white female inhabitants dash quickly out of the car and hotfoot their way up to the building! Notice they carry with them a supplemental item: why its….its…toilet paper! And a wise decision as well, since there’s a 99% probability that neither of these two stalls will not be outfitted with that particular nicety.

Wait….our female is pausing….she’s shirked back and is wrinkling her nose now. Oh dear! Apparently, despite the best efforts of the erstwhile male bathroom attendant lurking about, our female homo touristus is a bit suspicious about this particular watering hole. It appears she is not a fan of the large dual septic tanks flanking the building and filling the air with one of the many aromas unique to the Serengeti. Whatever will she do?

airport

Meanwhile, back at the safari vehicle, the male homo touristus are loitering about, seemingly unsure of whether they need to partake of this particular watering hole, or just wait to hang out near some trees. They decide to pull a beer from the cooler while they make up their minds. As with all male species, these male homo touristus know they have other options and are quite lucky in that regard.

Ok, so right now we’re also getting a not-so-rare glimpse into Kogatende watering hole life as the homo safarium guiduses slowly abandon their vehicles and charges to gather in clusters with others of their species. Notice how they are laughing and chattering away. There’s no rush here at this robust watering hole. There’s plenty of time for everyone to partake in both the amenities and the social bonding rituals available.

airport-3

Now, back to our female homo touristus. After a bit of a dance, she has finally, tentatively made her way into the bathroom vestibule. She appears to be investigating her two stall options quite carefully….perhaps she’s comparing their flushability merits, or perhaps ascertaining the presence of a toilet seat. We can’t really be certain, but we can be sure that she will likely be disappointed on both counts.

Holding her nose and picking the lesser of two evils, she dives into a stall to heed the call of nature. Mere seconds later, our female bursts out of the stall, helps herself to several pumps of watermelon hand soap, and engages in an extended round of hand washing under the cold and weak tap. This is a rigorous grooming ritual, indeed!

Slapping her hands back and forth over her shorts, our triumphant female struts out of the Kogatende watering hole and makes her way back to the vehicle to share all the details of her latest bathroom escapade with the other, uninterested inhabitants of her vehicle.

watering-hole
Me, hanging out with a rhino at a different type of watering hole in South Africa.

 

Hotel Crashing, Bushtops Serengeti, Tanzania

Back when I was a nubile young woman–aka: my broke-as-hell-and-unable-to-afford-any-sort-of-vacation period–my friends and I would often retreat for into the verdant hills of Central Texas and go camping for a couple of days.

And believe me, I do mean camping. Not glamping. There wasn’t anything glamorous about it.

real-housewives-glamping
Not at all like a Real Housewives camping trip. Except the rusty fire barrel. That’s fairly universal.

We’d load up our respective cars and trucks with coolers brimming with cheap beer and wine, various meats and cheeses, and foil packs of veggies to throw on a grill or open fire. We’d scrounge up a few old tents of questionable structural integrity, a couple of sleeping bags (or comforters that could be adapted into sleeping bags), a bottle of Dr. Bonner’s All Purpose Soap, maybe some bug repellant, and off we’d go to the nearest wooded area, riverside or greenbelt we could find—preferably one with a swinging rope already in place for true feats of drunken courage.

It was definitely fun, but far from comfortable.

Bushtops Serengeti may technically have what they call “tents,” but it’s about as far from any traditional camping experience as you can get.

img_4866

And it was, hands down, the most romantic place I think we’ve ever stayed.

img_4898

There are a total of 15 tents spread out across the property, and a large dining/bar/library-type tent sort of in the middle, near the pool/deck area. And what a pool! It overlooked the Serengeti plains and was just gorgeous.

We were at the far, far end of the property in tent 14 (Oribi). All of the tents are around 120 meters, are made of traditional canvas and sit atop a large wooden deck with a private hot tub and built-in seating area overlooking the Serengeti plains. We definitely made good use of that built-in sofa for reading, taking naps or just soaking in the amazing landscape.

img_4887

There was no air conditioning but the tent opened pretty completely on all sides and we found we didn’t need the A.C. In fact, during turndown service, our butler Fahldi left these adorable hot water bottles to heat up the bed and we definitely needed them when we visited in early October (3 days, 2 nights).

img_4899

Oh, do you like how I oh-so-casually mentioned the butler? Yeah, I know. We had a butler. Faldhi, who brought us afternoon gin and tonics (on a mile-long walk from the bar to our tent without spilling any of it!), took care of our laundry, ran a hot bubble bath after our evening game drive, and arranged for us to have a super romantic, lantern-lit dinner our first night at the camp. He was so, so, so wonderful.

Bushtops Serengeti is also where I learned an unexpected lesson about myself: I had no idea how food-motivated I am. Apparently, I get very cranky about a place (no matter how nice it is) if the food isn’t good. Lemala Kuria Hills was very, very nice but the food was a bit of a letdown.

img_4984

The food at Bushtops, however, was phenomenal, especially the passion fruit soufflé we had for dessert at our tent that first night. I seriously don’t know how it made the journey all the way from the kitchen to our tent while still staying so light and fluffy and intact.

(The main tent with its cool, cowhide bar and outdoor fire area) 

The staff at Bushtops were wonderful. Everybody was so, so professional and accommodating. They really went above and beyond. Juma, our driver/guide and John, our tracker, made sure that we saw plenty of lions (including large pride with 3-4 day old babies and a pregnant female), cheetahs and even black rhino, an animal that had eluded us for most of our time in the Serengeti.

(Clockwise from top left: lions mating, black rhinos, female leopard stalking a Thompson gazelle, mama lion and a baby peeking out just by her foot). 

The game drives in the Serengeti were long (generally 6:30 am to 3 pm then back out for an hour or two right before sunset) but Juma and John did everything to make the drives comfortable and pleasant, even stocking our favorite rose in the cooler and making sure we had hot water bottles and blankets for those morning game drives.

img_4942
My excellent photography skills at work again: That’s John cut off on the right and Juma cut off on the left. But look how well I captured the truck!

Some of my favorite Bushtop memories (besides that romantic dinner and the drives):

  • Snuggling up in blankets on our tent deck with a glass of wine and neglecting my book because I was too busy watching the clouds roll in.
  • Sundowners by the outdoor fire near the main tent.
  • Having a delicious lunch under a tree out on the plains with nothing but zebras and wildebeest off in the distance for company.
  • Falling asleep to the sound of some major rain on the tent top and our hot water bottles warming our sides.
  • Waking up that same night to the sound of buffalos, hyenas, and some other animal friends (we saw zebra hoof prints in the morning) scraping or licking the sides of our tent.
  • Lying in bed in the morning and listening to all the little bird feet running up and down the tent roof.
  • Our barman, Dennis, delivering coffee with Amarula (African Bailey’s) to our tent early on our last morning.
  • The outdoor shower. And that outdoor tub!
img_4947
Just waiting for a refill.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who was blown away by the tub. Bushtops Serengeti made it onto this list of “10 of the Best Bathtubs on Earth that are Totally Worth Traveling For.”

img_4896
Let’s have a better look at that tub.

Pricewise, Bushtops Serengeti was a far cry from my Texas Hill Country camping days. This is definitely not economy lodging–in fact, it was the most expensive of the three lodges we stayed at during this trip (2017 rates are here)—but it was definitely my favorite and well worth the splurge if you can swing it.

img_4877

Thanksgiving Dinner at Borago in Santiago, Chile

For Thanksgiving this year, we ate stone soup. Oh, and leaves. I guess I should mention the leaves, since there was a plethora of leaves.

Nope, I’m not even joking.

20161124_213712

I guess we did it because we’re totally authentic, old-school Pilgrims. And that’s what the Pilgrims probably ate that first Thanksgiving.

(Actually, that first Thanksgiving menu was a lot better than our meal at Borago in Santiago, Chile. And, at least we had wine. Sorry, original settlers. Sucked to be you—on so many levels.)

Not really. We did it because we jumped on a low-cost fare and went to Chile for Thanksgiving week. And, well, you gotta eat somewhere on Thanksgiving, right?

 

Borago is the no. 36 restaurant in the world. As the World’s 50 Best explains: “owner-chef Rodolfo Guzman’s interest lies as much in the pastures and woods as much as it does the markets and kitchen.”

Let me tell you, this Guzman dude has been spending a LOT of time in the pastures and woods. So get ready to masticate some dusty flowers and lick sticks—literal sticks, aka: “pre-spring flowers skewers”—because eating at Borago means you will be eating items picked from the nearest tree and foraged from the wild woods of Chile.

borago-diner
This girl before she realized she’d be paying a whole lot of money to eat foilage.

Especially leaves. So, so, so many leaves. A cornucopia, if you will.

borago-lamb-and-wild-aromatic-leaves

We had dry leaves next to a cube of grilled lamb.

borago-pickled-leaves

Pickled leaves sheltering some grilled octopus, aka: murder-y plate.

borago-pre-spring-plants

Slimy seaweed type leaves over a tiny piece of fish.

borago-leaf-sandwich

Leaf sandwiches with a couple of water crackers and a schmear of cream stuff in between.

Then, of course, there was the rock soup. Literal rocks—one of which is covered with a black bean paste and two are covered with some sort of gelatin—over which a rock broth is poured. You are then instructed to “scrape the rocks” and make your own bean soup.

borago-rok-soup

It was all….a bit much. We’re pretty adventurous eaters. Sidenote: My sister was asking me about this just recently, and said: “When did y’all start…..or why do you…. eat stuff that’s like…ummmm….not American?” Which legitimately made me chortle and snort. And then I said, “I don’t think you mean un-American, I think you mean, like, unconventional stuff.” Which—thankfully—she confirmed was what she meant, pointing out that I have willingly eaten rabbit, which she considers a no-go.

Oh, dear younger Poe. I’ve eaten so much weirder stuff than rabbit. Like, (below) raw kambucha fashioned as meat and a side of Pewan (aka, tree bark, I think!)

borago-kombucha-and-leaf

And we love a big tasting menu event. We trust chefs and want to go on a journey with them into what inspires them. We consider it all very much theater or art you can eat.

borago-dessert-with-twigs
It’s ummm, pretty, I guess.

But Borago definitely had us scratching our heads. We’re cool with being inspired by your country’s flora. But honestly? Almost nothing was very tasty. We just weren’t into the flavors. Or the flowers. I feel bad about it, but that was just the way it worked out this time.

borago-dried-flowers-and-artichoke-soup

That’s fine. When we got back home on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, my own personal-forager/chef-for-life XFE struck out into the wilds of our local Trader Joe’s and Harris Teeter stores and made me a fantastic, totally American Thanksgiving feast with nary a leaf or rabbit in sight. My Thanksgiving meal at Borago made me appreciate and love it all the more.

20161127_170003
Ah yes. More like it.

(XFE was also inspired to rake up all the leaves in our backyard that weekend, while I toyed with the idea of reaching out to Borago to see if they’d like to buy some.)