Monday, June 30, 2014

Maputo/More Travel – Monday, June 9, 2014

We took an overnight bus from Joburg to Maputo. And I now have something new to add to my list of “Tried it. Did it. Not sure if I’ll ever do it again.”

We spent the day in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique in order to confirm my prejudice that most African cities are hot, loud, dirty places without too much going on for tourists. Unfortunately, Marvin (remember him? From all the Rwanda blog postings?) moved out of Maputo 6 months ago so he wasn’t around to show us around.

We checked in at our hostel, where we were fancy and got a private room (with a shared bathroom, because like…we’re not THAT fancy) and – because internet at the hostel didn’t start until 7pm – headed out to start wandering.

I will take the opportunity of this forum to quickly rant about our hostel, Fatima’s Backpackers. When we asked for restaurant recommendations, the receptionist quickly pulled out a map and circled two restaurants. Too tired to do our own exploring, we blindly followed her recommendation and ended up at what most be the most expensive restaurant in Maputo. It also probably had the highest concentration of foreigners in Maputo. This isn’t exactly what hostels are supposed to do…they’re supposed to help you find the local, cheap places!! [And then…the next day, when we asked how to get to the airport, they cited that it would be a 400 meticais (~$12) cab ride. This sounded reasonable, until we got in the cab and realized that the airport was maybe all of 4km away. I’m not sure it would have cost that much in NYC!]

Anyways, we wandered. We went to all the touristy places we had heard of [1 – the train station which turns into a club on weekends…but we weren’t there on a weekend] and took our pictures outside a few others and avoided the “no go” areas on the maps provided by our “trusty” hostel. We had that bit of time when we got quite lost trying to find our way back to our hostel but tried to pretend it was all part of the adventure even though really both of us just wanted to be back at our hostel. I had an “I love/miss Africa” moment when, approximately 30 minutes after ordering spaghetti bolognaise (already quite the African dish…not being sarcastic), our waitress informed us that they cannot make spaghetti bolognaise. I did not learn if it was because they did not have the spaghetti or the bolognaise.

And then, we headed to bed to thankfully continue our journey, away from an overcrowded and dirty African city.

Per most African cities...there was a fort to explore in Maputo.
At one point, we stumbled across what seemed to be a modern African art museum full of pieces that made use of recycled was actually pretty cool!
More of the cool art pieces.
Even more of the cool art pieces.
One of the few things our hostel was good for was providing us with entertainment with this sign...I've never been requested to leave a toilet seat UP!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Getting Around – Sunday, June 8, 2014

“Do you know how to drive stick?”

Sometimes, I love that my answer to this question is “yes”. Sometimes, I hate it.

Times I love it: when I’m in a bar and can use it to impress a guy, but don’t actually have to prove it.

Times I hate it: whenever it then requires me to prove it.

After a fun game of finding Cory at the Johannesburg Airport,* we were walking to the Avis Rental Car counter, and Cory was psyched that I knew how to drive stick: “Great! Then we’ll put you down as the driver!”

“Wait…what?? Why don’t we just get automatic?”

“It’s probably more expensive.”

Since we were renting a car to save money in the first place, it obviously only made sense to rent the cheapest car possible. So we asked, and it was true…an automatic would be more expensive. So I begrudgingly handed my Driver’s License over to the associate and stated that I would be the sole driver. And then we went through a lot of forms. To be honest, I didn’t read all of them in that much detail. I did note a few lines: “Initial here if your parents are going to hate you forever for this” and “Sign here if, despite the above, you’re going to use your Amex because it doesn’t have foreign transaction fees even though it basically guarantees that your parents will discover you rented a car in a third world country.”

So, with my life and liberty signed away, and keys in my hand, we walked out to check out our sweet new ride.

“I hope you’re ready to drive on the left [wrong] side of the road,” smirked Cory, who, in my mind at this point was a fucking useless male travel companion considering he was making me drive because he can’t drive fucking stick shift. I mean…I’m all for equal pay and whatnot…but I’d be lying if I claimed to be anything other than the epitome of the stereotypical female driver. (I acknowledge that I’ve lied about this before.) So yes, less than an hour into our trip, I was silently cursing Cory in my head.

And then…I saw the car. And the realization hit me: along with driving on the wrong side of the road, comes sitting on the WRONG SIDE OF THE CAR, which comes with shifting with your…LEFT HAND.

“Cory…not a fucking chance.” [Please ignore the swearing, and just understand where I was, mentally/emotionally, at this point in my life.]

He started to balk that it wouldn’t be all that different, but I didn’t hear him. I was already halfway back to the rental counter, asking for that upgrade to an automatic.

Turned out, the automatic price that the lady had previously quoted us was entirely hypothetical, because they didn’t have any low-end automatic cars available. The only automatic cars they had were a Jaguar and a BMW. I may make more money than med student Cory, but these were out of my price range.

Off to the next rental counter we went…and to the next…and the next…until we finally ended up at Dollar, where they had a reasonably priced automatic car: “Have you ever rented with Dollar before?”

“Umm…” I stalled as I was trying to think of what car rental companies I’ve used on my trips to Colorado.

“…in South Africa?”

“Oh, geeze, no…you couldn’t clarified that a little sooner.”

We went through the same life-signing process, including a copy of the passport. The good news is that I was told that I wouldn’t have to go through the same process again next time I rented from Dollar in South Africa. Thank God.

To wrap this up…I just have to say for a first experience renting a car in a foreign country – where they drive on the left [wrong] side of the road – to drive ~100km from (and then back to) a major city – with a major highway system – in a completely new area – where you’re relying on the limitations of pre-downloaded Google maps but no data/cell service – and, by the end of the day, no cell phone battery – we did QUITE WELL for ourselves!

We made it to two awesome tourist attractions [Lion Park and Cradle of Humankind]. For a quarter the cost of using a tour service. We found Nelson Mandela Square [Sandton] back in Joburg for a nice dinner relying solely on following road signs. We only stopped twice to ask for directions. We returned the car with a full tank and only 4km over the 200km limit (I’ll blame that on those two times we had to ask for directions…), and 30 minutes early. And, most importantly, we are now able to add something new to the list of “Tried it. Did it. Not sure if I’ll ever do it again.”
We got to take selfies with the lion cubs at the Lion Park!
Not gonna lie...we got a little lost trying to find the Cradle of Humankind...but this seemed fair when we realized that it was disguised as a mound of dirt.
We weren't quite prepared for a boat tour at the Cradle of Humankind.
There were caves where we could go spelunking!
To capture how far we drove from Joburg...
Smokers in Safrica are discouraged from smoking, even in their safe Smoking Area.

*Despite providing my mother with my Gmail password the day before so that she could email the hostel at which Cory was staying to tell them the time my flight got in, the hostel was waiting for Cory to tell them what time I would arrive. Honestly, the only reason they figured out I was already there was because I made a big enough deal over the price that one taxi driver quoted me that all the taxi drivers overheard and one decided to call his friend who works at the hostel…but he then got very sad when he learned I would be leaving Safrica that evening. The only risk with providing my mother with my gmail password is that she forgot her own when she tried to log back into her account. Actually…in retrospect…I’m really impressed she figured that out…

Saturday, June 28, 2014

New Friends – Saturday, June 7, 2014

My metro adventures successfully landed me at the steps of the Grand Bazaar! It is a pretty impressive place, with so much energy and history wrapped into it. Luckily, though, when I arrived I was on my obligatory phone call with my mother so I was able to just walk past many of the vendors with no problem. When I got off the phone and realized that I was suddenly lost in the middle of the bazaar, they DESCENDED. Given that I was still three days from my final destination, I just didn’t have time to be told that I need a new rug or to be offered the “friend price”. So I put my bitch face on and got out of there as quick as I could.

After a few rushed minutes, I found myself on the steps of a university. It also looked beautiful (I would soon learn that EVERYTHING in Istanbul looks awesome) and more importantly…it looked QUIET. So I let myself through the gates (the guard didn’t seem to care) and started aimlessly wandering the campus.

At some point, an older man came up behind me and asked if I was a student. I was really on edge about being Taken (too), especially because my dad is awesome but he’s no Liam Neeson – so I quickly assessed the situation and figured it was best to at least reply than to come off as too bitchy and risk being Taken out of revenge. I replied that I was just visiting. The charade of “from where” “Ahh..America! Obama!” followed, and he even added that his brother lives in Louisiana. Siblings/friends in America never live where you’d expect them to (i.e., desirable places).

We continued chatting for a bit until I decided that, since I found a seemingly nice person who speaks English well enough to talk with me, maybe I could have him help me get a Turkish SIM card. I figured a Turkish SIM would be helpful when I returned to spend 4 days in a city with no local contacts. This started an adventure…he quickly grabbed some guys that were hawking stolen phones on the sidewalk and asked them about SIM cards. It seemed that the only route to do it would be the legal route, which required going back down through the Grand Bazaar to the Turkcell store. I figured he’d leave me here, but instead he showed me all the way there and then translated the whole interaction with the agent. A copy of my passport and $25 later, I was activating a Turkish SIM on my African Nokia. Success!

As we walked out of the Turkcell store, he told me he was hungry and motioned that he was going to order from a street vendor, asking if I wanted any. My answer was ABSOLUTELY. The food in the area all smelled SO GOOD, but I had no idea how to go about ordering anything, so I was psyched that he offered to help me out with this as well.

Then it got awkward…because I offered to pay. I figured I’d try to avoid the imminent request for money for all his help by buying his sandwich. He kind of accepted my offer, but then insisted on buying me tea in exchange. This sounded like a good idea to me…I mean…it was 7pm…the touristy sites were shutting down…I had nothing else to do before going back to the airport in 2 hours…and Turkish tea sounded like a thing to do. I also figured that this guy was pretty harmless…I had met him on a university campus, he HELPED ME GET A SIM CARD (I mean…if his plan was to Take me, he wouldn’t want me to have a SIM card) and he spoke better English than anybody I had yet interacted with in Turkey, airport attendants included.

Off we went to get tea…
A nice vista en route to the tea place. Which was REALLY was this seemingly hole in a wall that opened up into a large garden, FULL of people drinking tea and smoking hookah. Apparently on Saturday nights, they project a movie on the side of one of the walls. So a lot of people were there waiting for sundown for the movie to begin.
 And I wasn’t Taken…so there’s that!

Proper Layover - Saturday, June 7, 2014

I guess we can call today my first day in Turkey. My flight from Boston landed at 4:25pm and my flight to Johannesburg took off at 12:55am. I consider that 8 hours and 30 mins in a new place! Give or take a few hours for getting a visa, dealing with immigration (twice) and figuring out how to get from the airport to the city (and vice versa).

Turkish Airlines actually has this really cool program where if your layover in Istanbul is longer than 6 hours, they’ll take you on a tour of the city…FOR FREE. Unfortunately, they’re super sneaky about this and basically “offer” it, but ensure that nobody can take it. The tour leaves once a day, at 9am. My flight got in at 4:25pm…so that didn’t do much good for me. Except give me the idea that if I had 8 hours, I could see the city! No matter that it was a Saturday evening.

I went to the Turkish Airlines “Hotel Desk” where I had read this tour leaves from (one of the few things I had Googled in advance) and asked the representative for suggestions of what I should do for 8 hours. He gave me directions to a great restaurant…in the airport. After a little bit of miming and reverting back to my “Africa English” in which I don’t use articles or conjugate verbs, we got to…

“Ah…you want to go to the Grand Bazaar? The Blue Mosque?”

These sounded like places. At this point, I had no idea where the airport was relative to the city (North? South? Close? Far?) and how one got to the city from the airport. He started explaining how to take the metro to get to these touristy sites. I thought I understood, but there were transfers involved and Turkish words really don’t translate too well into my ears, so I pulled out my trusty travel journal and I got:

Airport à Zeytinburnu à Beyazid Sultanajamet [Yeah…I wasn’t going to remember those words…]

I’ve lived in NYC long enough to know that these directions mean nothing. I need TRAIN LINES! I need COLORS! I need DIRECTIONS! So I followed the signs to the metro, found a map and embellished my directions a little bit. I wrote down the name of the airport (could be helpful for getting back..), the names/colors of the lines and the last stop for each line.

Helpful directions! Note parts in blue were provided to me by the representative. I figured it might also be helpful to know the parts in black. 
At this point, I figured it would also be helpful to have the map in its entirety, so I stepped back and snapped a picture. Always on my phone for reference. This started a bit of a fad amongst all the tourists who were furiously copying down “drawings” of the different lines, and I became popular. This is why I love travelling…I make friends so much more easily than I do at home.

Istanbul Metro hard can it be?
(Answer: Not nearly as hard as NYC...)
And then…of course…the ticket machine…I walked over to it, assessed the situation, and figured I’d might as well try. Two girls came running up to me as I walked up to one (guess even after all that googling, I still looked like a tourist…) and asked me if I knew how to use the machine.

“Well I just figured I’d put this 10 dollar note [note: I called Turkish currency “dollars” for this entire day because, although I had bought some at Logan, I did not know the actual name for it] in the machine and see what happens.”

I swear, I could not imagine travelling if I was so risk averse as to not try pressing buttons on a ticket machine at the airport metro. Anyways…one coin and 3 plastic tokens popped out.

I put one of the plastic tokens into the gate and it popped open, and I was on my way to explore Turkey!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Packing – Friday, June 6, 2014

It’s fitting that when I opened my personal computer for the first time since returning from my trip [to Mozambique, South Africa and Turkey], I am inundated with pictures of Turkish women. An appropriate throwback to my frantically last minute Google searches while avoiding packing trying to look up “how Turkish women dress” so that I wouldn’t look obnoxiously touristy or come off as completely rude when visiting the Islamic country. It would of course be misleading to allow you to believe that the Google search (and my roommate’s subsequent Facebook appeal for input) are (were) indicative of careful planning and packing on my part.

Oh no. I’m always ready with a passport…I actually keep it in my car so that I never have an excuse to say no to an adventure. But I didn’t meet with my doctor until three days before my trip (granted…mostly due to stoopid health insurance policies), and it was around that time that I realized I knew where I’d be Scuba diving in Mozambique, but not where I’d stay…or how to get from the airport to where I might be staying. And then, of course, the night before my flight (for which I did double check the day of the “00:55” departure time), when I had really anticipated actually packing, I got sidetracked and instead ended up at the casino with a few coworkers. It was past midnight and I was in no state to pack when I got home. Which resulted in me “missing” my ride to work the next day (the plan had been that he’d pick me and my bags up, and another coworker would drive me to Logan…but, of course, this plan relied on me being ready with bags at ~8am), claiming that “I’d just do it later.”

So I was left with those few Friday night hours after work before needing…like actually NEEDING this time… to get on a train to Boston so I would not miss my flight. But then, I was saved when a friend offered me a ride! And suddenly…the time limits didn’t seem so strict…and I felt there was time to maybe have a beer or two.

Which is why I ended up in the airport with a completely overly packed backpack – absolutely no time to assess which items probably weren’t necessary – and two carry-ons – because, like, that’s not going to be obnoxious in Africa, and on the phone with my friend, begging him to please return to the airport because I accidentally left my fleece – my only warm article of clothing – in his car.

And such began my two week vacation, heading back to Africa.

When I told most people I was headed to Turkey, I'm sure they thought of this image. And when they thought of this image, they probably had thoughts around fearing for my safety. Not mine, I had thoughts fearing about what to wear: although modern and casual, her dress is also covers her shoulders, her cleavage and (presumably) her knees...shit...I don't have any dresses like that! What am I supposed to pack?? 

**Maybe you know, maybe you don’t know, but I very much enjoy writing. The only reason I never took a creative writing class in college is because somebody discouraged me when they told me I’d have to read my classmates’ writings. The fragmented bullets that consume my days at work slowly eat away at my soul until I’m able to send some creatively worded happy hour email, which is usually followed by a mixture of compliments and looks of confusion (I’ll let you decide the balance of that mixture). Anyways, I was not exactly able to keep up a blog during my fast-paced 2 week vacation in Mozambique, South Africa and Turkey (despite many other unnecessary articles – read: coozies – my computer did not make it into the backpack, and even if it had the internet probably would not have allowed for updates to be too regular). I did, however, keep a pretty solid journal during the trip. So my goal now, is to update daily blogs, as if I were on the trip. Friday’s blog represents Friday’s events, 3 weeks ago, and so on. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay true to my feelings at the time, and hopefully you will in some way be able to Enjoy. Cheers J