Five (or Six) Countries in 21 Days

FIVE (or SIX) COUNTRIES IN 21 DAYS

Belgium – Luxembourgh – Rwanda –  Uganda – Turkey (Asia) –  Turkey (Europe)

December 26, 2019 to January 15 2020

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This story was written as a regular report-in to friends and family to share our journey and let them know we are safe.  Jeff & Carmen.

Dec 26.  Let’s start with the journey.  Four hours to Montreal, and another six hours to Brussels – overnight.  Sounds like a sweet flight – right?  But not when the fellow beside you is more than 250 lbs and over 6’ tall.  I had access to less than 2/3 of my seat and had him pressed against me the whole flight (most people know I have personal space issues ☹).  This was not his fault and he was as uncomfortable as I was.  Air Canada needs to find a way to deal with non-frequent passengers that don’t know they won’t fit into the under-sized economy class seats – he just needed to be on the aisle.  On top of being too confined to sleep at all…..my entertainment unit didn’t work and I could not even turn the screen off and get away from the blinding-bright screen saver.  Air Canada is getting a letter – I want compensation for the seat and services I paid for and did not receive….AND I want to voice concerns about genuinely accommodating/including all people’s needs while ensuring that everyone gets the travel  experience they deserve (Mike….I’m thinking of you my friend).

First day in Brussels…is just about recovering from jetlag.  We used our first day to figure out how we would get to Luxembourg, visited the central area, walked a lot, ate a bit and Jeff enjoyed his first two Belgium beers. I am normally the navigator…but after 36 hours I wasn’t even attempting to figure out what way to hold the map.  Luckily, the Wild Geese Pub was a 5 min walk from our hotel and was a great local experience for our first night in Belgium.   We were able to keep ourselves vertical until 9:00 pm and adjusted our rhythm to the time zone change.  A great first night sleep and we are on our way to Luxembourg!

Welcome to Luxembourg.  We lucked out with our hotel being right across from the train station and within walking distance of everything.  Luxembourg’s main attraction is Ville Haute (aka High City).  In less than ten minutes from our hotel we were in the midst of a medieval city with remnants of military fortifications and a warren of paths, cobble stone streets and alleys that allowed you to walk above and around the entire old city.  As we circled the old city every vantage point offered a unique view of the original wall, the village, churches and monuments.   A river/canal system with three switch-backs was disorienting to navigation as the tendency to keep the river to one side just didn’t work.  Luxembourg is a tax haven, with the second highest per capita income in the world and more workers than residents….this provides for a surprisingly robust new-world shopping district right in the middle of the old city  – where in any other old city in the world we would have seen boutique stores, local crafts and artisans.  Somewhat by accident, we wandered into the Grund (low-city).  This is a valley village that rests in the heart of the old city surrounded by canals.  Grund is known for its lively night life, pubs and restaurants – however our daytime visit did not disappoint as we meandered through the quiet quaint village.   Lunch in Place des Armes, beer….of course, and a break from continental food at Restaurant Italia including a full bottle of awesome wine.  Return to Brussels tomorrow……

One day in Brugge…A small village that has existed since the Roman occupation, about one hour by train from Brussels, was like taking a walk back in time.  You can tour the village by boat through the canals, on a horse drawn carriage or just walk.  The walk is spectacular and every turn offers another stunning example of medieval architecture.  One of the squares had four iron sculptures of figures on horses that reminded me of the Nightwalkers in Game of Thrones….as we looked for the artist information we discovered the name of the figures as the Four Horseman of the ‘Apocalypse’.  Its quite possible George R Martin has been to Brugge.

Mussles, fries and ribs……that’s what is easiest to find in Brugge (or anywhere in Belguim).  We settled for a ribs lunch in a hole-in-the-wall back-alley restaurant that should have seated about 20 people max.  There were 30 squeezed in.  People had to leave their seats to allow people from another tables to come or go. Fire codes be-damned…and accessibility – HA!  Eating when we travel is often more about the experience than the food.  If we had gone around the corner we could have had a 16” Bavarian Sausage smothered in sauerkraut.  We also had our first waffle in Brugge along with the best real mocha I have ever had.  People rave about Belguim waffles and every shop claims to have the best Belgium fries.  I think the decadence of both of these local favorites were lost on me….I can get McCain fries at home 😊

Autoworld was a lucky find! It was an amazing exhibit of collector cars, motor bikes, trucks and more from the time the wheel was invented to modern day formula one and super cars.  Jeff kept saying Cliff would love this….Frederick has to see this…this would be right up Mike’s alley.  This was easily a guys attraction but I really enjoyed it too.  The Art History Museum was good but surprisingly of the five different languages represented at each exhibit, none of them were English.  There were some great collections and on occasion we could sort of figure it out.  There was a temporary exhibit called Crossroads – Travelling through the Middle Ages.  It was a great collection of artifacts and a depiction of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, influence of surrounding – warring civilizations and a catalogue of progress that was lost from that era.   Did you know the Smurf’s originated in Belguim….you would if you visited Brussels.   There are many fantastic cathedrals, monuments, Grand Place, amazing parks and historic buildings that are all walkable from Central Brussels (Grand Place/Grote Market).  A loud  – bright music and light show in a square included the Brussels Town Hall and City Museum  drew people from every direction to watch, listen and record – it was 10x better than Bellagio fountain in Vegas.  Carol recommended A La Mort Subite pub – a hundred year old multi generational family owned pub –  and it was great.  We think our server might have been a part of the original ownership (he was at least 100) Based on travel recommendations, we walked through Delirium Village and even walked through Delirium Café and Pub – it was definitely something, but there were better places for us mature travelers to park for a local brew.

Brussels was our hub for 5 days –One of the things we always hope to find is a local pub that feels like the place we can’t get enough of.  Rooster’s was the place in Brussels.  It had a perfect vibe – a bit of a sports bar where we watched a rowdy premier league (soccer) game between Liverpool and Hamptons, it was full of travelers closer to our age than kids and had great beer options.  Roooster’s is where I discovered I like Monk’s beer – Trapiste (Tripel)….who knew it would take a trip to Belgium for me to figure out beer is ok – it could be because the beer is 12% alcohol content.  The Tripel was great – kinda like a prosecco, and the Belle Vue Kriek was like a cherry sangria – yum 😊.  Brandon is on a mission to find me these at home.  We couldn’t always count on there being English on the menu, the maps, or the street signs – but the music was all English.  It was also not unusual to find staff that spoke three or more languages.  They are also on an anti-plastic campaign way ahead of Canada – even single serving yogurt is in glass bottles (like old fashioned milk bottles).  Might be something to learn here.   We loved Brussels!

New Years in Brussels….you will have to ask someone who was able to stay awake until midnight.  We did however enjoy our last beer at Rooster’s, had an Italian dinner in another hole-in-the-wall, and then had a nightcap in our hotel…before saying good night and goodbye to 2019.  Africa here we come….

Part II Rwanda Jan 1-3:  What were you doing Aon pril 7, 1994?  

We went to Rwanda for one primary reason and that was to better understand the Rwanda Genocide, and the recovery that has taken place as of the 25th anniversary of this horrific event in (recent) history.  The Rwanda Genocide Memorial did not disappoint. It walked us through life before, during and after the conflict. Of course, there is a strong Canadian connection here in that General Romeo Dallaire was leading the initial UN response and he provided clear, urgent advanced warning of what was about to happen, along with a solution to potentially diffuse the situation.  As we know this warning went unheeded, and on April 7, 1994 the horror began. It put real faces on neighbors and families that turned on each other because of race – Women and children, including wive,s were more vulnerable because of rewards for turning them in or risk of punishment for fraternizing with a Tsusi.   There were many accounts of rape by men that were known to be carrying AIDS, Mothers forced to watch their children bludgeoned to death, and schools where Tutsi children were asked to stand apart from their fellow students – led away and killed.  After three violence filled months, close to 1 million people had been murdered and even more had escaped as refugees to bordering countries. The scars, psychological and otherwise, are still visible everywhere, yet somehow this tiny country has managed to forgive.   The memorial also provided perspectives on world genocide events that preceded Rwanda that we could have ….should have learned from.  The irony that the UN was started on the heels of the Holocaust to prevent attacks on humanity, and that as an institution it so utterly failed to prevent this one, is sobering.

Today there is no corruption and no ethnic references allowed anywhere, but there is a constant feeling of mistrust, hyper security and uncertainty that lingers.  The current President is well known to rule by ‘an iron fist’ – this reference was made at the memorial, by a taxi driver and by our Ugandan tour guide, but interestingly was intended as a positive reference. There is a highly visible police force moving constantly throughout the city of Kigali and our Safari guide said with this President and these police  ‘you follow all the rules or else’.     We had our own experience with this as we were walking past the President’s Residence and were harassed by heavily armed guards believing we had taken a picture. It was a bit unsettling to have to hand over our camera and argue with two 18- 20 year-olds with machine guns that ‘no he could not have seen us take a picture’.   Not our first time, so we kept our cool and everything worked out fine.

And a few other experiences: We hiked Mount Kigali (actually a hill), but it was fun as the whole way up we were greeted by kids on Christmas vacation that couldn’t wait to say hello to oddball white people.  We truly were a curiosity.  People would blatantly follow us, look us up and down, and stop what they were doing to catch a glimpse.  We were asked for money a couple of times but not as begging (there really was no begging in Kigali) so much as being an easy mark for cash  – these were 2 well-dressed eight year-olds, and next 2 average – also well dressed – teenagers,  looking for a quick buck.    We of course had to go to Hotel Rwanda (from the movie)– the real name is Hotel des Mille Collines.  Other than the memorial, Hotel Rwanda was the only other place where we saw fellow Caucasian travelers. Although the hotel probably caters to a lot of English-speaking guests, language was a problem.  Jeff did everything he could to get me a rum and coke and in the end it was a whiskey and I drank it anyway – On a hot day even I will drink whiskey.  The most referenced place to visit according to google, besides the memorial and Hotel Rwanda, is the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre.  It was very overstated but the concept is commendable.  There are a lot of examples of Women’s programs emerging, helping them to earn an income and independence.   The city is very clean, the infrastructure is building rapidly, diversity and economic growth are clear priorities, but this is still a poor country.   Rwanda is early to the whole tourist game and has a ways to go– we are glad that we  are among the early adopters trickling in.  It would be interesting to visit Rwanda again in 10 years.

Part III –  Uganda

Before we can find the gorillas we need to do a land crossing at the border between Rwanda and Uganda.  Land crossings in the developing world are a riot. After having been subjected to 3 different armed check points to let us leave the country, Rwanda immigration turned out to have a fair amount of order and predictable passport and visa control.  Then we made our way through no-mans land.  This is our 3rd land crossing and no-mans land is just how it sounds – This space belongs to no country, is total chaos, and you are at the mercy of throngs of people hanging around hoping to make-a buck or meet foreigners …just for fun.  Then we entered Uganda – it was mayhem.  People arguing with border staff, manual checks of luggage, missing information, etc.  We had everything in order once we got to the wicket but we didn’t breathe easy until the final stamp and return of our passports….and then 2 more armed checkpoints,  We are now officially in Uganda.

We love Uganda!  8 Days, three National Parks, 500 KMs, animals, plants and scenery that has to be seen to be believed.  Our safari journey in brief:

  • Jan 3: Lake Bunyonyi: Guided Canoe tour of 29 Islands including Punishment Island
  • Jan 4: Bwindi, Gorilla Trekking
  • Jan 5: Queen Elizabeth Park safari drive
  • Jan 6: Keseny Plains safari drive and Kazinga Channel safari cruise
  • Jan 7: Kibale Forest. Guided walk of crater lakes and Aranbere caves and water falls
  • Jan 8: Chimpanzee Trekking, Bigodi Community swamp walk
  • Jan 9: Travel day to Kimpala (Uganda Capital), rural drive through plantations and small towns
  • Jan 10: Kampala. Boda Boda City Tour- Uganda’s Rollercoaster.  Kampala on motorbikes

We saw gorillas, baboons, leopards, chimpanzees, crocodiles, lions, monitor (lizard), hippo,  5 types of antelopes, buffalo, 9 types of monkeys, elephants, wart hogs, and more birds than you can name (and safari ants large and micro).  Leopards are a rare sighting but our (former park ranger) safari guide spotted him in a Euphobia tree almost a kilometer away.  Even right in front of us we had trouble seeing her because she was so well camouflaged. There were actually two leopards in the tree  – a female and her kitten.   We went through every kind of terrain you could imagine….swamps, wide open savannah, forests, jungles and mountains. We learned about Punishment Island – the place where daughters were sent to die when they got pregnant before marriage. We were stuck in mud in Queen Elizabeth park….when I say stuck I mean the jeep was stuck in mud over its axles at 45 degrees and half-way to rolling over.  Our guide calmly says  “Get out please”.  Just 5 minutes earlier Jeff wanted a bio break and the guide said ‘no it is not good to be out of the jeep’.  We dutifully got out of the ‘safety’ of the jeep, kept our eyes open for man-eating lions and leopards, and waited with bated breath as Stephen worked to free the jeep.  It was a very long 10 minutes – but we were soon back in the jeep – covered in mud – but safe once again.

For many years we have pursued seeing the great mammals of the earth in their natural habitat. We came to Uganda to see Gorillas and Chimpanzees and wow, we did not leave disappointed. It took 1.5 hours of real jungle trekking straight up the side of a mountain to get to the spot where our gorilla family was gathered. It is a surreal experience to be within 5’ of a dominant male Silverback.  We came upon the Silverback first, eating and then soon after resting with his very young male offspring.  Like all babies– he tried to get his Father’s attention and was happy to perform for the guests with some chest pounding and somersaulting.  There was a female with a weeks-old baby, two young females and a few more that lazed about in the area.  We were able to stay with the gorillas for just over an hour – but could have easily stayed longer.  Chimpanzee trekking was a bit easier terrain, but unlike Gorillas – you have to follow them.  We were really up close with the chimps – at one point a large male crossed behind us with less than 2’ between him and us. We stood on a trail with a large male coming towards us and the guide saying don’t move – the chimp went around us when he was within arms distance.    There was a chimp in the trees throwing leaves and branches down on us.  We wandered the forest for over an hour with the chimps…it was truly amazing that people have access to experiences like this.  Both the gorillas and the chimpanzees were very much wild, but have been habituated to humans allowing for safe, close access in their natural habitat.

Every national park has military trained park rangers.  They all had guns, but we noticed one young guy (20 ish) that had a fully mounted 50 caliber machine gun.   We asked him why he had such a powerful weapon.  He said  ‘We are really secure”  “Poachers have guns…rangers need guns.  There is a common saying….save an elephant – kill a poacher.  It seems that there is no penalty for killing a poacher, but your whole village will be punished if someone from your group has a gun or poaches.  Villages in and surrounding the national parks benefit greatly from the animals and tourism.  Every transaction has a portion allocated to the local community, the guides are local, and a portion of the park licensing fees go directly back to the communities within the park.

Our safari route took us through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Queen Elizabeth National Park, and Kibale Forest.  On our way to the Kibale Forest we looked across the valley and saw volcanoes from Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo (DRC) all at the same time.

Everything grows in Uganda!  Agriculture is the country’s industry and primary job market.  Agriculture is still done largely by hand employing many people in field work and movement of produce to market (imagine 6 huge banana bunches on a bike each weighing 50 KG).  The main products are tea, coffee and bananas (of many varieties).  There is a little bit of manufacturing, mining and a fast-growing tourism industry that is supporting the economy.  Investment from China is very visible and is supporting road construction and major infrastructure– though in most cases China is bringing in its own workers – likely prisoners according to locals.

People in Uganda work really hard!  The conditions and processes are like a throwback to Europe in the 1600’s.  Even basics like access to water is a huge effort.  Throughout rural Uganda people, including children, have to carry in water for several kilometers, often up the sides of mountains.  Our guide told us that as soon as children can walk – they learn to carry water, starting with 1 litre…and progressing to two 10 litre containers.    There were groups of children being overseen for field work (try not to judge – they were well fed, clothed and playing as they worked).  Rock quarries were full of people aged 10 – 60, hand pounding rocks to produce a full selection of gravel products.  Prisoners are used for road construction and minding crops owned by the government.  And for my family and friends in occupational health and safety….your heads would be spinning.  Tie off – yeah right!  Proper scaffolding – no way.  PPE – what is that?

Some of our younger local guides were obsessed with legends and beliefs involving sex and sexuality.

  • We learned about the African Tulip Tree ‘women’s Viagra – if women drink this brew their “husbands won’t cheat, won’t divorce you, will make you very happy”
  • The Lantana plant will help you grow hair anywhere ‘maybe you want more pubic hair…..no more bald’ Jeff offered this young guide a full partnership in the effort to end male pattern baldness. The kid couldn’t imagine why anyone would pay for such a thing when they could just rub their heads with the leaves from this tree.
  • Another plant when prepared as a tea and combined with prayer will make a man’s penis grow. He prays for a certain length and then when it grows that big he must go back and cut the tree down or his penis will keep growing forever.
  • “Women’s breasts get old – hangy” The seed pods from this same tree if pressed into nipples will make a mother’s breasts young again “they will stand up and be hard”.
  • Stalagmites in the Amere caves are believed to be secreting breast milk because of a fable about a king cutting off a daughters breast and the child she had that was protected by the village.
  • A fig tree is referred to as and Adam and Eve tree. When they remove the bark to create a form of fabric/paper a growth like a penis emerges.
  • And more…..

Kampala – Boda Boda City Tour (crazy!!!)  This was an amazing way to see the city of Kampala – I am not comfortable on a motorbike (terrified actually) but what a great experience this was – even when being squeezed between big trucks.  We were able to visit all of the city’s main sites including the Gahdhafi Mosque, Hindu Temple, Bahai Temple, and could see the 7 hills of Kampala from the Gahdafi Mosque tower.  We drove the Royal Mile (exactly one mile on the kings route), and did embassy row.  We saw the Kings Palace, and Idi Amin’s armory, built by the Israelis and later converted to an interrogation centre.  We learned more about Idi Amin’s reign and the loss of 25,000 Ugandan lives.  We got up close and personal to daily life in the business district and saw a bus/taxi terminal that will barely be explained by the pictures we took – they call it ‘organized chaos’.

A few more experiences and learning:

  • Protecting the Gorillas. Uganda has figured this out!  In 2002 the census revealed there were approximately 325 Gorilla in the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda jungle combined.  As of 2018/19 there are now 1600 in the jungle.  They have habituated a few Gorilla families to support their tourism, providing investment into surrounding communities, while allowing wild gorillas to flourish.
  • Pygmy communities: There was a presentation by the Ruhija Community prior to Gorilla trekking. The key spokesperson said ‘This forest is home to three great apes: Gorilla.  Chimpanzees and Pygmies’.  Uganda has traditionally seen Pygmies as animals – not people – ruining their forests.  They just recently (last 5 years) gave pygmy tribes territories near the jungle and allow them controlled foraging rights in the jungle.  This is a first step but until Pygmies have representation in parliament they are not formally recognized as members of society (people with disabilities have a parliamentary representative)
  • Disarmament: There was a time when everyone in the country had a gun.  Wildlife was being decimated and vigilantism was common-place.  Then the government made it illegal to own guns – they disarmed the whole country except for people with military training and a role that required use of fire arms.  This policy is strictly enforced right down to inventorying bullets in each household. Whole villages will be punished if a gunshot is heard.
  • Political Stability: In the aftermath of Idi Amin, Uganda has had the same President for 30 years….and he has decided not to leave power…..the biggest political question is what will come next.  Although the country is still rife with corruption, people feel they have freedom, and that they can earn money without being asked where it came from or having it taken from them.
  • Bride Price: Uganda still has ‘Bride Price’(I am pretty sure I am worth at least 12 cows).  Women are not forced to marry, arranged marriages are not the norm, and women expect that their future husband own a home and means to earn a living, before they say ‘yes’.  Once he wins her over he  must pay her parents a negotiated sum in a dowry (original amounts driven by # of cows). If these are not in place, there is no marriage.
  • Women in Uganda. There is some traditional thinking about the status of women such as when we were going to the Kings Palace I had to wear a sarong because “ In our culture, ladies don’t wear trousers. However, women are working alongside men in road construction, as park rangers and police, in banks and other well-paying jobs.  Any of the guides we had were very respectful of women and Stephen made it very clear that his wife was a partner in his business and farm management – she controls the money.
  • Disabilities, diversity and inclusion is a work in progress. Uganda parliament has a position specifically appointed to represent people with physical disabilities.  They have mostly eradicated polio but there are still a few cases each year.  We encountered a few people with mental health conditions and the engagement of our guide and locals was uncertain …just leave them alone – including when they were on foot in a national forest where they are likely to be attacked by lions.  The dawning of Pygmies as a member of society will take more time – though there were references to the potential that one day they could have representation in parliament.  Religion, of all denominations, provides the foundations for Uganda community.  We were regularly asked if we were Christian or what faith we practiced.  With this in mind, it is not a surprise that there are no rainbow flags in Uganda, at least not yet.

One white girl story:  There are not very many (white) tourists in Uganda and so everywhere we went we were a spectacle.    I met Narina, 4 years old, at Bunyonyi Lake Lodge.  All it took was a ‘hello’ to get this little girl chatting.  She was totally fascinated with the way I looked…she was fascinated by my skin – touching it, pulling it, and holding her arm up to mine.  I could not keep her from playing with my hair and then she said I had Elsa hair (from Frozen movie).  Then we were talking about the color of eyes.  She said hers were brown…I asked what color mine were – she didn’t know. I said are they blue…she said NO.  Are they green?  She said NO.  I asked if they were grey  YES she says….Grey like ice.

There is a difference between a vacation and adventure travel:  We go hard, move around a lot – worry less about food and lodging – and focus on experiences. We are keen to learn about the culture, politics and way-of-life from the perspectives of the locals, and we try to make sure we see rural living and big cities.  Uganda was amazing!  We are looking forward to sharing our experience with friends and family and encouraging them to visit this great country.

Part IV  – Istanbul.  Jan 12-15

Istanbul is a fantastic city, vibrant, diverse, multi-cultural, and very friendly.  Our hotel was within 5 min of Taksim Square which is a hub for shopping, food, pubs and people watching.  Over our four days we visited most of the major sites including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet Square, Basilica Cistern, Galata Tower, the Aqueduct, the Chora Church Museum, Topkapi Palace, and Beyerbeyi Palace, and walked miles through so many different neighborhoods. We spent some time at the Grand Bazaar and walked through the old city.  The dining experience on this holiday started in Istanbul.  We had several traditional Turkish breakfasts and dinners and had an awesome Anatolian feast.  We dubbed one corner on Taksim Square Donaire Corner (there were 8 Donaire vendors on the corner) – the donairs were delicious!  Street vendors kept us supplied with roasted chestnuts, Turkish bagels, and ice cream, and of course we ate our weight in Turkish delight.  We went to the oldest baklava bakery in Istanbul and chose 4 of about 30 different kinds.  We had Thai and Italian food that ranked in the best we’ve had in the past year. A Hamam (Turkish bath and massage) was a wonderful relaxing way to spend our final hours in Istanbul.

FIVE OR SIX COUNTRIES.  Last but not least – how can you collect 6 countries in 20 days. We visited 5 countries on this trip but because Istanbul, Turkey is divided between an Asia side and the European side, the Travelers Century Club recognizes it as two countries. Jeff has been very focused on collecting his 100 countries to make him eligible for the Century Club.  He is getting close and beginning to think about what country he wants to be his 100th.

 

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