Sunday, 30 October 2016

People I met on the way #1

I met a lot of people on my trip, not just my favourite aunties and old comrades. Here are just a few, most of whom haven't yet featured in this blog. Thanks for helping make my trip so memorable.

A fisherman takes a break on the wharf at Muscat, Oman.

A member of a theatre group parades through Bilbao, Spain,

Alfonso celebrates getting his final stamp on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, Santiago de Compostella, Spain.

Martin and Markéta, members of a Moravian folk group I met at a festival in Romania's Apuseni Mountains.

Cheesemakers Helen and Pepe, who gave me a lift in the Picos de Europa Mountains, Spain.

Kind (but rather shy) school canteen cook, České Budějovice, Czech Republic.

Natalia, possibly the most glamorous police officer I've met, and her mum Nina at the Merry Cemetery in Sapanţa, Romania. Natalia not only gave me a lift while I was hitch-hiking to this curiously jolly graveyard, she also insisted on paying my entry fee.

Village woman selling blueberries gathered in the forest, Sighetu Maramaţiei, Romania.

Ioana, keyholder to a medieval wooden church in Ieud, Romania.

Irina, my 70-year-old self-appointed guide when I was looking for a path between the villages of Ieud and Botiza, Romania.

Polish brothers (and avid hat collectors) Jacek and Marcin at a hat stall on top of the Prislop Pass, Romania. The brothers gave me a lift halfway across northern Romania, saving me at least a day's travel and a gruelling bus ride through the mountains.

Marius, a shepherd from Romania's Ukrainian-speaking minority, keeps an eye on his flock near Sighetu Maramaţiei.

A highly entertaining goatherd I met in the hills above Sighişoara, Romania. I didn't need to speak Romanian to understand the grubby jokes he was telling about his goats.

I met this lady when she was trying to sell some kittens on the main street of Chişinău, Moldova. She was there from dawn until after dark. The kittens were priced at 35 lei, about NZ$2 each.

Brother Ifiemi was a lovely orthodox monk I met at Orheiul Vechi in Moldova. The former electrician had spent the past 13 years living in a cave carved into a cliff side.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Things I love about the Czech Republic #3

1. The Kostelec sausage man

Is this the world's most homo-erotic company logo? It was designed almost 100 years ago when a picture of a camp-looking gentleman sucking on a large sausage was perfectly good marketing. Kudos to the company for sticking with their logo, which you can still see around the Czech Republic on tinned meats, trucks and billboards. The only thing about the logo that seems to have changed since I first arrived in the Czech Republic is the removal of the juice dripping from Sausage Man's chin. I do hope Sausage Man will still be there next time I'm perusing the cold meats section of a Czech supermarket.

2. Station masters

One of the joys of travelling around the Czech Republic is the sight of small-town station masters, wearing their official Czech Rail-issued red caps, standing to attention as your train rushes by. They're a charming reminder of the railways of times gone by but, alas, their days are numbered. A few decades ago even the smallest railway station had a station master but they're no longer employed at single-track stations. Ongoing automatisation of the Czech rail system means they'll soon be obsolete at multi-track stations as well. Na shledanou...

3. The right to walk anywhere

Okay, it's not exactly a right, but the fact is you can walk just about anywhere in the Czech Republic. A network of trails branches out from just about every train and bus station in the country, winding over farmland, through forests and along rivers. Fences are as rare as 'no trespassing' signs. I put it down to the Czech love of hiking and - even though it's almost 30 years since the Velvet Revolution - because the idea of private ownership of the countryside has yet to become fully entrenched. (That's my mate Simon, a keen walker, in the picture with his dog in the woods near Olomouc.)

You can also check out lists #1 and #2 of things I love about the Czech Republic.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Video: Ethiopian wedding

During one afternoon in Axum, northern Ethiopia, I stumbled over five weddings. This is one of them. Note the bride and groom's costumes, the women's intricate hairstyles, and the musical instruments - a traditional one-string fiddle and flutes made from lengths of steel pipe.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Video: Street scene in Ethiopia

This was the view from my balcony at Hotel Belayneh in Harar, eastern Ethiopia. I could have sat there all day watching the beggars, the tuktuks, the haggling over chat (a mildly narcotic leaf), the women in brightly coloured dresses like tropical parrots, the porters carrying huge loads on their heads, the donkeys, the stray dogs... Every corner of Harar is bursting with life and in places like this, next to the Shoa Gate Market, it never stops. 

Video flashback: Rwandan dancers

More dancing at Jan and Yvette's wedding in Kigali, this time by a Rwandan dance troupe

Video flashback: The bride arrives

The bridal party arrives at Jan and Yvette's wedding venue on a hilltop in Kigali, led by a group of singing aunties. Yvette is at the back accompanied by her brothers and a nephew carrying spears.

Video flashback: Burundi drummers at Jan and Yvette's wedding

The tiny and troubled country of Burundi, Rwanda's southern neighbour, has (so I'm told) the best drummers in Africa. So when Jan and Yvette got married in Kigali in August they of course hired a drumming troupe from Burundi - here's a couple of video clips of them performing for Jan and his best man before the arrival of the bridal party. All these drummers are refugees from Burundi now living in Rwanda.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

2016tour: Best and worst accommodation

View from Naseem Hotel, Muscat

I stayed in a lot of places during my 2016 Favourite Aunties and Old Comrades Reunion Tour, ranging from haybarns and broken-down fleapits to a fancy-pants eco-resort. Because everyone loves a list here's a rundown of the best and worst places I stayed...

Best view 

The title for best view goes to Naseem Hotel, in Muscat, Oman. Accommodation in Oman didn't come cheap (18 rials, almost NZ$80 a night) so when I booked a bed I demanded a room with a view. The photo above is the view from my window over Muscat's old harbour, mountains, a medieval fort and the Sultan's private yacht. 

Best free accommodation

Prize for best free lodgings goes to this hay barn in the hills of Maramures, northern Romania. Warm, dry and comfy, and check out the view that greeted me when the mist cleared in the morning. 

The prize for best free lodgings goes to...

View from my lodgings in Maramures, Romania

Highest accommodation

No, we're not talking about Amsterdam, but a hikers' hut - refugio in Spanish - at 1634m in the Picos de Europa mountains of northern Spain. Cold but the views were awe-inspiring. 

Refugio Vega de Ario

That's the refugio in the bottom right corner of the photo

Most Soviet

In the breakway statelet of Transnistria, sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine, I stayed in this flashback to the Soviet Union. The Hotel Aist has not been redecorated or repaired since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 - though the staff were super-helpful, not a typical Soviet characteristic. Felt like I was time travelling. 

Hotel Aist in Tiraspol, Transnistria

Classic Soviet bathroom design 

View from my balcony (yes, I had my own balcony!) towards the River Dnister

Most desperate

During a washed-out folk festival in Romania's Apuseni Mountains I was pretty desperate for a dry place to sleep. The few B&Bs in the nearby villages had been booked out weeks earlier and the rain was too heavy for a heavy-duty tent to withstand, let alone the flimsy sheet of plastic and bits of string I'd brought along... Luckily I found a dry spot above a chicken coop (the lean-to tacked on to the side of the barn in the photo below) where I sheltered for two nights. I'm sure the farmer knew but he was too decent to kick me out. 

My home for two nights in Romania's Apuseni Mountains

Friendliest accommodation

This coveted title goes to IQ Hostel in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. This wee hostel - two cramped dorm rooms, with an equally crowded living room, kitchen and bathroom is owned by two young men with their friends and cousins helping out as staff. I've never stayed in a backpackers hostel where the staff were friendlier, more helpful or more concerned for my welfare. After a few days I felt like family. Saying goodbye was tough.  

IQ Hostel staff Alex, Dana and Daniel. 

Runner-up in the friendliest accommodation category goes to the super-obliging Murugo Hostel in Kigali, Rwanda. 

Evode, a worker at super-friendly Murugo Hostel in Kigali, Rwanda. 

Fanciest accommodation

The most luxurious place I stayed was Butuceni Eco Resort in a village in Moldova. It's a cluster of historic village houses, each of which has been turned into a villa combining creature comforts with traditional decor and furniture. It's the only place I've stayed where I could choose between indoor and outdoor pools; the other guests were wealthy Russians. By Moldovan standards it was a bit of a splurge but it didn't cost much more than a bed in a backpacker's hostel in Western Europe. And it was a lot friendlier...

Butuceni Eco Resort, Moldova

Traditional Moldovan breakfast at Butuceni Eco Resort

Liveliest view

The balconies at Belayneh Hotel, in Harar in eastern Ethiopia. look out over the fantastically lively Shoa Gate Market. I could have sat on my balcony for days just watching the comings and goings of tuktuks, beggars, women dressed in colours like tropical parrots, porters balancing stacks of mattresses on their heads, and buyers and seller haggling over chat (a mildly narcotic leaf). I say I could have watched for days - but I didn't because the Belayneh also won the prize for worst bedbugs. They were even bigger than the cockroaches. 

View from Belayneh Hotel in Harar, Ethiopia. 

Crappiest hotel

This hotly contested title goes to the Continental Hotel (yes, that really is its name) in Dire Dawa, eastern Ethiopia. The lights and fan were operated by sticking a bare wire into a socket, the windows were broken, and with no running water I had to fetch a bucket of water any time I wanted to wash or flush the communal loos.  I wouldn't have minded except that they had the cheek to charge me an inflated foreigner rate of 150 birr, about NZ$10. 

Continental Hotel in Dire Dawa, eastern Ethiopia

Best value

The night after the Continental Hotel I stayed in Africa Hotel in Axum, northern Ethiopia. For 200 birr (about NZ$12) I got a large room so clean I could have eaten off the gleaming floor, an en suite bathroom with unlimited running hot water (!) and free airport pick-up and drop-off. 

Africa Hotel in Axum, northern Ethiopia

Prettiest accommodation 

The prettiest place I stayed was Rowda Cultural Guesthouse in Harar, eastern Ethiopia. This is a traditional, centuries-old home turned into a B&B, with a peaceful courtyard and every square inch of the interiors decorated in the age-old Harari manner with carved bowls, spears, baskets and carpets. I was made to feel at home - at least, I was made to feel like a 12-year-old when I was still at home... Harar is a conservative town and Rowda sets a 9pm curfew (which I ignored). Worth it though to get a first-hand look at a traditional home. 

Inside Rowda Cultural Guesthouse, in Harar, Ethiopia

The courtyard of Rowda Cultural Guesthouse

Monday, 3 October 2016

The end. Well, almost

So, this is it. The 2016 Favourite Aunties and Old Comrades Reunion Tour has come to an end. I have seen my favourite aunties, dozens of cousins and more old friends than I can count. I've seen a cousin get married in Africa, climbed mountains in Spain and Rwanda, taught the haka to Czech school kids, and explored a Soviet time-warp in a country that officially doesn't exist. On Thursday night I'll be back home in Kerikeri and on Saturday I'll be back at work. This isn't the end of my blog, however: I still have a heap of videos to post plus I'm hoping to compile a few photo galleries and a list of highlights and lowlights. So watch this space...

Mystery solved
I wasn't looking forward to the long flight home from Ethiopia but it turned out to be a breeze. When I went to check in online I found that someone had already booked me the best seat on the plane all the way from Dubai to Auckland; then during the flight Emirates staff gave me a cake (see picture above). I assumed it was a mistake - surely it was meant for someone celebrating a birthday? - but it was labelled with my name and seat number. I had to eat it all before I reached biosecurity in Auckland; fortunately, a few fellow passengers volunteered to help me out. No one on board could tell me why I was being singled out for special treatment. The mystery has now, however, been solved. It turns out it was the work of my awesome travel agent Aimee Ruka. Cheers Aimee!

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Ethiopia's most colourful festival?

The end of my stay in Ethiopia coincided with one of the country's most colourful festivals, Meskel (known in English as the Finding of the True Cross or sometimes as the Exaltation of the True Cross). According to Ethiopian tradition St Helena was looking for Christ's cross in the 4th century when she was told in a dream to light a large bonfire - she did as instructed, added frankincense to the blaze, and watched as the smoke rose into the sky then returned to the ground. She started digging where the smoke touched the ground and discovered the cross. 
Every September 26, on the eve of Meskel, Ethiopians gather by the thousands to dance, pray, chant, make music and light tall, tapering bonfires. I went to the biggest celebration of them all, on Meskel Square in Addis Ababa. The security was over the top (I've never been frisked so much in my life) and I kept being turned back by jumpy policemen, but on the fourth attempt I got through the police lines. Once on the square I was spotted by a friendly soldier who ushered me to a front-row seat. 
Thousands of people took part in the celebrations which culminated in the lighting of a large bonfire in the middle of the square while the crowd lit candles, prayed and sang. It was an amazing spectacle. I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story...