The Blue Nile

My daydream of a nice, relaxing holiday where I got to sleep in and have leisurely mornings with fresh fruit drinks and coffee was not to be.

As it turns out, the buses in Ethiopia leave early. Ridiculously early. To catch our bus to Bahir Dar, we had to get up at 3:30 am to make it to the bus station for 4:30 am, to wait around for another hour for the bus to get going. And by ‘bus station’ I mean parking lot in Meskel Square, next to the Red Terror Museum. The road to the Meskel Square was dark and empty; the parking lot where all the outgoing buses were parked was a traffic jam of honking taxis and people wearing white cotton floating around in the dark like ghosts. We didn’t have time for coffee, which proved to be a good thing since bathroom breaks were to be few and far between. As far as buses go, this one wasn’t terrible. The seats were decent, we had snacks, we got a lunch break and they played music and movies. It would be, by far, the best bus we took in Ethiopia.

We left Addis and drove into rolling hills and farmland just as the sun lifted off the horizon; fingers of pink and orange stretched in all directions. Acacia trees like giant leafy umbrellas stood amongst the fields of teff. Teff is the tiny grain that is used to make injera, the spongy, slightly sour bread that serves as plates and cutlery for Ethiopian food. It was harvest season, and people were out in the fields, crouching down in the billowy golden teff with a scythe, cutting it down bit by bit. Piles of cut grass were heaped up in rows and then combined into bales. I saw a few women carrying giant bales of teff on their heads; it looked as though the bales had sprouted legs and were walking themselves to market. As the morning unspooled, farmlands morphed into busy villages of clay, cow dung and straw houses with thatched roofs. Children walked to school, books in hand, in their powder blue and parrot green uniforms. Women hauled plastic containers of water on their backs. Villages gave way to a steep decline into the Nile river valley. We crossed the river and climbed the other side. There were donkeys everywhere. The bus frequently had to stop and wait for a donkey or three to amble out of the way. Or to navigate a pothole. Hours passed this way. The Ethiopian countryside looked just like I imagined, only it felt surreal to actually be there; it might’ve all been a dream.

We arrived in Bahir Dar at around 4:30 pm. A swarm of touts, guides and bajaj (Ethiopian tuk-tuks) drivers surrounded us when we disembarked. We had arranged a pick up from the bus station with the hotel, so when a smiling guy greeted us and said he was from the hotel, we followed. He took us to the right hotel, but we found out later he did not work there. He was trying to get us to book a tour with him. Perhaps he would have been the better one to go with.

Bahir Dar is full of waving palm trees and mosquitoes. Blue and white bajajs zipped around palm-lined streets and Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile river, glittered in the sun. We went up to a lookout point to watch the sunset over the lake and the river that winds from it like a great blue snake. The blue of the sky meets the blue of the water and the landscape was a meditation on the color blue.

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. […] This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.”

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Blue Nile river and Lake Tana in the distance
A study in blue: a view of the Blue Nile and Lake Tana in the distance

 

The next day we went on a full day tour of Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls, arranged through our hotel. In the morning, we were ushered onto a long wooden boat with a shade covering and puttered out onto the lake. Lake Tana is vast, edged with papyrus reeds, coffee plants and lush forest, its soft blue water ripples like silk. We visited two monasteries on richly wooded islands in the middle of the lake. Birds twittered from the trees and incense hung heavy in the air. The monasteries, round buildings with layers like Russian nesting dolls, perched in amongst the trees. Inside the first layer, vibrant religious paintings covered the circular walls from floor to ceiling. Men dressed all in white sat outside the building in a group; low, rhythmic chanting drifted up and mingled with birdsong. A guide was explaining the finer details of the paintings to a group of hushed tourists when a fracas broke out in the treetops just outside. The group abandoned the lesson to watch a troupe of monkeys fight with a flock of birds. I thought I saw the guide rolling his eyes. The pathway to one of the monasteries was lined with vendors selling crosses, small paintings and coffee. They called, “Look! Look! Looking is free!” as we passed. When we returned to the edge of the lake, we sat at one of the coffee vendors and had a little teacup of freshly brewed coffee and looked out over the lake, studying the rocks in case they were actually hippos.

 

On the way back, we stopped in a reedy part of the lake and waited for the hippos. A purple-brown, bulbous head popped up out of the water with a splash and dove under again and again. A baby hippo poked his head out of the water, waggled its little ears and disappeared. We left too soon; I could have watched the hippos playing peekaboo for ages.

As we stepped off the boat, the tour organizer and a minivan were waiting for us. The tour organizer impatiently ushered us into the van with a group of other tourists and sent us on our way. He’d said it was a quick, one hour drive to the Blue Nile Falls and we’d have more than enough time to get there, see the falls and return before it got dark. And that might have worked out, however, along the way, one of the tires burst. The driver swapped it for a spare and we were on our way again. Briefly. Until the same tire burst again. And this time, there was no spare. We were stranded. A group of children ran out and thronged us, all smiles and giggles and requests for money. We loitered by the side of the road for a while until it became apparent that if we wanted to get to the falls that day, we were going to have to do it ourselves.

Mini van with popped tire by the side of the road
Stranded

 

 

A passing bus was flagged down and half of the group squeezed their way in. The rest of us waited for the next one, hoping there’d be more room. There was not, but we stuffed ourselves inside anyway, pressed into the crush like play-doh into a plastic mould. I should have gone to the bathroom before we left.

Worries over how we’d know where to get off were assuaged when the bus terminated at the back end of a little town and people helpfully pointed us to the ticket office for the falls. After paying the entrance fee and acquiring a guide and an armed guard, we walked through farmer’s fields towards the little boat that would take us across the river, stopping to sample little gold fruit from a kumquat tree. People were loading long stalks of sugar cane onto donkeys and the children were chewing on broken off pieces and jumping around, all hopped up on sugar. The sun dipped low in the sky; twilight approached.

Finally, we crested a hill and descended into the soggy, marshy green slope that faced the falls. It was dry season and most of the falls were diverted into the hydroelectric dam, so the falls were only at about 15% of the wet season volume. Still impressive, though; curtains of water rushing into a wide swath of lush, misty, muddy valley, awash in the soft golden light of the gloaming.

We made it back to the little town just as night fell, and met the idling replacement minibus that took us, without incident, back to Bahir Dar.

blue nile falls in lush valley
Blue Nile Falls

 

After The Accidental Nomad

This blog used to be called The Accidental Nomad and it was the second iteration of travel blogs that I kept during my wandering years. I stopped writing entries when I decided to compile my disjointed little stories into one long story, which eventually was just long enough to call a book. I spent about a million hours editing and rewriting and thinking to myself, “good grief, this is just rubbish, isn’t it?”

And then, this summer, my pet project was taken on by Garreteer Press and it’s going to be published next year. It’s going to be a real book! I still can’t believe it.

blur book stack books bookshelves
Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

So what have I been doing in the meantime? When my visa ran out in the United Kingdom, I left Oxford and went to New Zealand, stayed a few months, and then returned home to Canada in the cold, dark winter. Stellar timing on my part. I rented an apartment in Vancouver where I don’t have to share a kitchen and I can horde books and watch the seasons cycle from my balcony.

I didn’t stop travelling, though. In the spring of last year, I joined my sister in Panama and we travelled through Central America together for three weeks. And I’ve got a trip to Ethiopia coming up over the holidays. But things are different now. My trips are shorter. I’m spending more time with my family, whether they like it or not. Instead of abandoning my home like a hermit crab and scuttling in and out of a series of questionable hostels, I’m settled in Vancouver. More or less.

So I’m jumping back into blogging! I’ll be writing about travel, of course, and about what’s going on in the world: politics, news and the international development landscape.

The India Diaries: Mumbai

My idea of travel planning is reading fiction from whichever country I’m going to, and for no other place was I as well prepared as I was for India. For years I’ve devoured books about India. The whole reason I wanted to come to India in the first place is a book I read that was set in Delhi. And the real India is almost exactly like the India of my imagination. It’s a little surreal, almost like I’ve found myself in Alice’s wonderland.

Mumbai

The first thing I did in Mumbai was take a stroll from my hostel, and I was struck by how similar India is to South East Asia — narrow roads, little shops on the side walk so you have to walk on the road and jostle for space with rickshaws and scooters and cars. It’s loud and dirty and full of life. The men were all staring at me as if I were an alien, but they’re not as bad as the men in Turkey — they don’t follow you or sit down to eat dinner with you or try to marry you. The stares are disconcerting though; it’s like being stared at by a lot of cats. I had my “oh my god, I’m really in India” moment when I saw a large bull hanging around on the street, nonchalantly eating garbage.

In the hostel, I met an English lad who reminded me of the skinny buzzard with the floppy hair from the Jungle Book. He’d just finished a six week tour of India and was headed home. I could see in his eyes that meeting someone who was just starting out their India adventure made him wish he could turn back time and start all over again. He said that he loved this country and hated it with equal fervour; he was going to be so bored at home after India (I’d hear an iteration of this from nearly everyone I meet here). He also said Mumbai isn’t the ‘real India’ and I thought immediately of when Shantaram’s protagonist first gets to Mumbai, he meets some German backpackers and they say the same thing. It’s a strange thing how travellers decide that a certain place isn’t a “real” part of the country, when what they mean is that it’s not what they’re looking for.

Kids playing Kabaddi (an organized version of tag) on the beach
Kids playing Kabaddi (an organized version of tag) on the beach

Mumbai is a testament to the importance of urban planning: the city spills up the coast line, all higgedly piggedly, like a patchwork quilt stitched together by a meth addict with cataracts. Never again will I complain about traffic at home. The only way to get anywhere in less than three hours is to take the local train. And what an adventure that is!

The train looks like a mobile prison — drab metal, grates on the windows, industrial fans bolted to the ceiling. There are no doors; people bulge from the openings like stuffing from a torn sofa. There’s a separate car for women, which is beyond crowded but apparently nothing compared to the anarchy of the men’s compartments. Squished into the car with all the women in their saris, I was reminded me of picking wildflowers as a child with my grandma. I’d pick so many, I could barely contain them in both hands — picking just one more flower would’ve caused the bouquet to explode. Being on the train was like being inside that bouquet, only the flowers had elbows.

One day, when I hopped the train in the height of rush hour, a fist fight broke out in the women’s compartment and the whole car erupted into screaming and yelling. If the women’s car is the tamer one, then the men’s must really be intense. Everyone was incredibly nice to me though, they always asked what stop I was getting off at and helped me push through the crowd and alight at the right place. People start jumping off before the train even stops, and the people on the platform start pushing their way on. Getting off of my stop was like being shot out of a cannon. I burst onto the platform, feeling like the train should’ve at least bought me dinner first.

Just walking down the street here is an adventure, and the simplest things, like taking a train, are so full on, that even if you did nothing else that day, you feel accomplished.

Judi Dench’s character in the movie, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was right: India is like a wave in the ocean. If you try to resist, you will be knocked down; the only way to enjoy it is to dive right in.

 

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Gratitude

After months of planning, lots of list making and organizing, I’m finally packed and ready to get on the plane tomorrow! On a scale from 1 to 10 of how excited I am, I’d say I’m at about 4000. While it’s hard to say goodbye to my life in Canada, it also feels a little like a homecoming. Being on the road and living out of a backpack has become such a huge part of my identity. It’s great to be actually doing it again, instead of endlessly talking and writing and reading about it.

I also wanted to take a minute and express a boatload of gratitude.

We’ve raised very close to $50,000 for the Roots and Wings projects in Kyrgyzstan. I am awed and so grateful for all the support we’ve gotten — both monetary and the encouragement we’ve gotten from friends and family — for a country that many people had never even heard of before, and the complete strangers who live there. It’s incredible.

With all of the terrible things that have been happening in the world lately, it’s really heartening to see such an outpouring of generosity and kindness. Go you!

And a special kudos to Roisin, who came up with this crazy scheme as a part of her continuation of her father’s amazing work in Kyrgyzstan. She has put so much love and hard work into this project. You’re the best, Rois, and I’m very blessed to call you my friend!

 

If you haven’t had the chance to donate, and would like to, you can do it over here: http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/jamiemphillips/karakolhike/nonprofit

All proceeds go directly to the projects. Thank you again, so much, for your generosity!!

 

Now, let’s do this!!!

How to Get Ready for a Long Trip

Leave the actual packing until the last minute. You will be a hundred times more efficient with the time constraint.

Except for vaccines. You’ll want to get to the travel clinic at least a month before you go. Your arms may feel like pin cushions but afterwards you’ll be invincible. (Science fact!)

If you’re going to be doing any trekking, it’s a good idea to think about what kinds of activities you can do to train (e.g. short hikes on weekends, running, yoga, going for a walk after work instead of watching Friends reruns and eating stuff covered in cheese). Don’t worry about actually doing any of these things. Everyone knows it’s the thought that counts.

Cancel your cell phone service. When they ask why, feel free to embellish (‘I’ve been chosen to start building a colony on Mars! I’ll put in a good word for you if you stop asking questions and just cancel the damn contract’).

Quit your job. When you leave on your last day, regard your fellow commuters with smug superiority (ha! see you never, suckers!).

Obsessively check flight websites to see if you got the best price. (side note: I found a website where you can track flight prices, and even get a refund with certain airlines if the price drops on a flight you’ve already purchased: Yapta.)

Bring only a small amount of shampoo and conditioner. Unless you’re super picky about what you put on your head (and I am most certainly not; I’ll wash my hair with a bar of soap if I have to), you can pick up whatever you need when you get there. Makes for less weight in your bag.

Actually, that goes for almost everything. You only need to bring the bare minimum. Especially if you’re going to places where the exchange rate is in your favor. In some countries it’s better to dress like a local anyway, and for hot places, the clothes you buy there are made for the climate. Just don’t try to buy a bathing suit in Asia if you are not Asia-sized.

Except for sunscreen… a few places I’ve been to (mostly in South America) have been lacking in the sunscreen department. It can be expensive, and sometimes it can be a pain to find one that doesn’t also purport to whiten your skin.

Make cheat sheets for each country — e.g. currency conversation rates and key phrases in the language — to keep in your wallet or on your phone, for quick reference.

Fret over your bank account. Did you save enough money or are you going to wind up wandering around some crocodile infested backwater, with only six dollars, ravaged by bed bugs (true story!), and far away from your support system? (Look into the Global ATM Alliance. A bunch of international banks have made an agreement where you can use any of their machines with no international fee. For Canadians, this means it’d be prudent to get a Scotiabank account.)

Dream about being lost in airports and forgetting your passport.

After you’ve decided what you’re taking, get rid of the rest of your stuff. This is the best part. You can donate it, sell it, give it away, leave it in boxes in your parents’ basement or a storage container. Whatever you do with it, you’re now unencumbered and free to wander the world.

The Liebster Award

liebster4

Thank you Chelsea from Adventures of an Expat for the nomination!!! I really enjoyed reading your blog, and I’m glad you enjoyed mine! I’m going to Turkey soon, so it was great to get some inspiration from your writing. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your adventures in Turkey!

This is a cute way to get to know other blogs and nurture online relationships with like-minded writers — sort of like a chain letter, but without the “if you don’t send this to five people in the next five minutes, all your hair will fall out” nonsense. Less superstition and more paying it forward/community building. Let’s do this.

Here’s the Liebster Award “rules”, should you choose to accept:

1. Thank the person who nominated you, and post a link to their blog on your blog.

2. Display the award on your blog — by including it in your post and/or displaying it using a “widget”.

3. Answer 11 questions about yourself, which will be provided to you by the person who nominated you.

4. Provide 11 random facts about yourself.

5. Nominate 5 blogs that you feel deserve the award, which have a less than 1000 followers.

6. Create a new list of questions for the blogger to answer.

7. List these rules in your post. (You can copy and paste from here.) Once you have written and published it, you then have to:

8. Inform the people/blogs that you nominated that they have been nominated for the Liebster award and provide a link for them to your post so that they can learn about it (they might not have ever heard of it!)

***

11 Random Facts About Me

1. I get the hiccups almost every day.

2. I’ve been to 18 countries so far.

3. I ate kangaroo tail once and it was just as horrible as it sounds.

4. I went through a Ouija board phase in High School. One time, whatever my friend and I were “talking to” gave us a phone number and the name, May. So we called the number and asked for May, and the lady on the other end of the phone said, “Hang on a sec, I’ll go get her.” Never played with a Ouija board again.

5. I’d like to try bee keeping.

6. My favorite TV shows are Orange is the New Black and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

7. My cure for homesickness is watching The Gilmore Girls, because my mom and I used to watch the show together when it first came out.

8. One of my favorite parts of travel is long bus or train rides, especially if I’m alone. I love having all that time to myself. I do my best thinking looking out of the window of a moving vehicle.

9. I’m a minimalist — the only material things I really care about are books & plane tickets.

10. I have more anxiety over parking lots than I do about snakes or spiders. Snakes and spiders are predictable, but you never know what sort of driver you might accidentally bump into, or whose spot you might steal, in the parking lot — they could be sweet as pie, or they could be crazier than a shit-house rat. I’ll take my chances with snakes any day.

11. Vietnamese coffee is my one true love.

***

11 Questions from my Nominator:

1. What is your favorite place to be in the world?

On my way to somewhere I’ve never been before.

2. Who do you look up to and why?

Martha Gellhorn. She was a war journalist, novelist, traveler, and endured a brief marriage to Hemingway. I love her writing and her attitude. She was hilarious and intrepid, and had the courage to live her life exactly how she wanted to. One of my favorite quotes from her memoir, Travels with Myself and Another:“… we react alike to our tribulations; frayed and bitter at the time, proud afterward. Nothing is better for the self esteem than survival.”

3. Where is the next place you hope to travel to?

I’m hitting the road again in August! I’m going to Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, India and England.

4. What is your favorite food?

Malaysian Laksa & Vietnamese Pho.

5. What is your dream job?

I love the idea of having a small farm, with chickens and sheep and a great big garden.

6. Where do you feel at peace in the world?

In the outback in Australia, and in the mountains, especially the Rockies, but any mountains will do.

7. What is a book everyone should read at least once in their life?

Self, by Yann Martel (the author of Life of Pi), is my favorite book. I’ve read it a handful of times, and I always get something different out of it. It’s a fictional autobiography with a Kafka-style twist; on the narrator’s 18th birthday, he wakes up to find he’s changed genders and all of a sudden, she’s a woman. Really interesting look into identity and gender. And there’s lots of travel in it, too.

8.  How many siblings do you have and where do you fall within them (youngest, oldest, only…)?

I have one younger bio brother, and two step-sisters. I’m the second oldest.

9. Explain a time you were put out of your comfort zone and what you learned after.

I’m out of my comfort zone all the time when I travel; just the act of getting on a plane is eschewing my comfort zone. Because Chuck Thompson was right: Comfort is the enemy of creativity. Leaving my comfort zone behind — whether it’s spelunking a dodgy cave in Laos or swimming with alligators in Bolivia or herding uncooperative cattle in Australia — is where my best stories come from. And now, I get bored when I’m too comfortable for too long.

10. Are you religious and/or spiritual?

I’ve always been an interested party. I went to Christian bible camp one summer in junior high, I’ve spent time in Buddhist monasteries (one in Canada and one in Taiwan), and I took a handful of religion courses in University and studied everything from the Greek pantheon, to the Koran, to the 333 million Hindu gods. Religion is endlessly fascinating.

11. If you could go back to school, what would you study or if you are in school, what are you studying?

I got my undergrad degree in psychology and it was awesome. 10/10 would do it again. If I went back, I’d take English Literature and Anthropology. If I were better at science and math, I think I would have liked to be a doctor.

***

11 Questions for my Nominees:

1. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

2. What’s one of your best/favorite memories?

3. What’s one book everyone should read?

4. What’s your favorite country?

5. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

6. What’s one thing you’re glad you did, but would never do again?

7. What’s the first thing you do when you arrive in a new place?

8. What’s the nicest thing a stranger has ever done for you?

9. If money wasn’t an object, and you could do anything at all, what would you do?

10. Who do you look up to and why?

11. What inspires you?

***

And the Nominees are…..

Bamboo Igloo

Rebe With a Clause

I’m not lost, I’m just exploring

Internationally in Debt

A Ducks Life

Meeting People Abroad

 

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. The host for this month is Reach to Teach, here you can find other similar articles. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article to this blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with me at dean@reachtoteachrecruiting.com, and I’ll let you know how you can start participating!

Read the rest of the articles here.  

This month’s topic is How to Meet People Abroad.

Meeting people when you’re backpacking is as easy as breathing. Depending on where you go, it can actually be harder to get any time for yourself. Travelling solo is really only leaving your home by yourself; you won’t be alone for long, unless you want to be.

 

Step by Step Guide to Making New Friends Abroad:

  1. Check into a hostel.
  2. Wait for someone to show up, either in your room or in the common area.
  3. Ask them where they’re from or wait for them to ask you.
  4. Congratulations, you are now friends. Feel free to spend as much or as little time together as you want.

 

Meeting people abroad is completely different than meeting people at home. And it’s funny when you compare the two. At home, you’d never approach a complete stranger, and ask them a couple of generic questions, and then spend the next 72 hours straight with them (eating together, sleeping in the same room, taking turns arguing with rickshaw drivers, taking turns being sick; doing everything together). But that’s how it goes on the road.

There are five ice breaker questions: Where are you from? How long are you staying for? Where have you been? Where are you going? What’s your name?

After a while, it does get a little boring of having the same conversation over and over — and once you meet a few people, everyone’s travel resume gets mixed up in your head. I stayed in the same working hostel for a few months in Perth and there was talk amongst us long-termers that we should start making collector cards or t-shirts that had the answers to the five questions on it, so we could keep track of everybody.

Travel relationships are special. They are quick, intense, and frequently turn into long lasting friendships (I am still in regular contact with someone I only spent one day with in Argentina five years ago). It’s easy to get along with anyone on the road, no matter their background, I think, because you are on the same wavelength — you want to see what there is to see, eat good food and drink beer, all as cheaply as possible.

Time is different on the road, too: spending an afternoon with someone is like spending a week with them back home. A month is like a year, etc. Maybe it’s because the rest of your life is stripped away: you’re not worried about rent or work or that jerk who keeps parking in your space. Everything becomes an adventure, especially the bad stuff. The heroin addicts who scammed you out of 500 ruppees, or the stray dog you saw eating a diaper, or the guy who vomited all over your bag on the train, or the maggot you saw doing the backstroke in your dal, or the scooter that broke down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night: it all becomes a good story. Sharing travel horror stories over a few beers with fellow backpackers is some of the most fun I’ve ever had.

Just like the experiences you have while travelling — whether it’s having your breath taken away on the top of a mountain in the Himalayas or fighting a donkey for the outdoor bathroom while you’re sick — the people you meet are just as indelible. I’ll always remember the Americans I had my first rakia with in Turkey, the Brazilians I spent Christmas with in Buenos Aires, and the Russian girl who gave me her perfume on my birthday in Goa because she didn’t have time to get me a present.