Our journey to East Africa, just about underway. What follows includes not only our itinerary and a call for your recommendations, but a personal note and a couple of back-stories including $100 given to us with a purpose on a ship in Antarctica.
As you read this, we're on our way to Ethiopia to begin a six week journey through Eastern Africa. We expect the journey to take us from Ethiopia to Uganda, Rwanda and finally Tanzania.
We'll have an opportunity to visit 1000-year old rock-cut churches in Ethiopia (and of course dig deeply into Ethiopian food), seek out mountain gorillas in Uganda, hike the volcanoes of Rwanda and learn more about social entrepreneurship in Tanzania.
Tanzania aside, these countries have known their share of famine, war, and genocide in the last couple of decades. And while we hope to learn more about that history, our ultimate goal is to better understand their people, where they stand now, and get a glimpse into their future through their eyes.
Our East Africa Itinerary
In the mid-1980s, when I was a little girl, my Aunt Betsy worked as a nurse for a year or two in Ethiopia at a feeding station. For Ethiopia, it was a time of drought and famine. I recall sad images, nothing short of devastating. However, my aunt had a first-hand experience of the famine, and despite the suffering she witnessed day-in and day-out, she also shared stories of the warmth and spirit of the Ethiopian people.
Count this among my first learning of the lesson, “there's more to a place and its people than what you see on the news.”
We will explore Ethiopia with the G Adventures Highlights of Ethiopia Tour. We chose this tour specifically for its itinerary. Take a look below and you'll see why.
- Bahir Dar with a visit to the local market and Blue Nile Falls
- Gondar with exploration of the castles and Debre Berhan Selassie Church whose interior is covered with angel faces and eyes.
- Hiking in the Simien Mountains. Take a look at the lead photo of this article. Enough said.
- Lalibela. This segment of the trip might count as the one we're most looking forward to. I'd heard about the underground medieval churches carved into the mountains, but this recent article took my curiosity to a new level.
- A drive through the Sekota and Alamata Mountains with a stop at 3,000-year old Hawzien.
- Ancient city of Axum, Ethiopia's oldest city of almost 2,000 years.
- Although we won't have much time in Addis Ababa, we do hope we will be able to visit Merkato, the largest open market in Africa.
Ethiopian food, you ask? We've had our share in cities around the world, but now it's time to taste it at the source. To say that we are excited to eat: understatement. We expect to consume plenty of Ethiopian coffee and experience a coffee ceremony or two.
Uganda and Rwanda
We'll begin our travels in Uganda with a G Adventures gorillas overland tour. Our trek will take us to the forests near Lake Bunyon to find mountain gorillas. Friends who've experienced this have described a feeling unimaginable, if not unmatched. We must manage our expectations, however, as we know there are no guarantees that we'll actually be able to spot gorillas.
That's the thing with wild animals. True to their description, they are indeed a wild and unpredictable bunch.
Our trip will also include trekking in search of chimpanzees at Kalinzu Forest Reserve and a rafting experience along the Blue Nile near the town of Jinja, all before returning to Kampala.
After our tour, we're free for the next two weeks between Uganda and Rwanda and we'll piece together an itinerary (with the help of your suggestions) as we go. At the moment our Rwanda plans include spending some time in the Parc National des Volcans and Lake Kivu for some volcano trekking and perhaps a visit to Nyungwe Forest National Park before winding up in Kigali.
As the 20th Anniversary of the Rwandan genocide has just passed, it strikes us as an appropriate time to visit to reflect on what happened and through the eyes of others, understand how the country copes and looks towards the future as it continues to come to terms with its past.
We could use your help. If you have suggestions of places to visit, what to do, organizations and people to connect with, or anything else that comes to mind regarding Uganda and Rwanda please email us or leave a comment below.
This time, our visit to Tanzania will feature something a bit different. We are working with Planeterra, G Adventures' foundation, to learn more about two new projects it runs in and around Moshi: a clean cookstoves project in a Maasai village and a women's cooperative in Moshi that provides business skills and training to local women.
What makes these projects unique to traditional NGO projects is that G Adventures' passenger traffic — and the market access that provides — are tied in to help make these projects financially sustainable. For example, G Adventures tours to the Serengeti use a portion of tour fees to serve as contribution to the purchase of a clean cookstove. Additionally, travelers have the opportunity to visit the village to learn more about how the stoves work and what it means for quality of life. Those G Adventures passengers in Moshi will be able to stop by the women's cooperative center to engage with the women involved and to purchase their goods.
Our goal: to understand the local organizations and people involved. And to see firsthand how this sort of partnership model actually works on the ground.
$100 in East Africa: A Backstory
A little more than four years ago, aboard our ship to Antarctica, we were asked to give a talk about our around-the-world travels. As we shared stories from Central Asia to Central America, we shared all sorts of travel stories, including some of what we had seen in the way of micro-finance projects along the way. We mentioned to the audience that we hoped to travel in Africa next. After the presentation, a well-traveled British woman came up to us and placed $100 in my hand in twenty dollar bills.
“When you get to East Africa, give this money to five good organizations you find, to people who are really making a difference in their communities. I spent many years working with projects in this region, and specifically Uganda and Rwanda. But now I'm too old to travel there. I want you to bring part of me with you when you go.”
I asked for her name and email address so that I could follow up with her and inform her as to where and to whom we gave her money, but she didn't want any of that. She told us that trusted us; she believed we would do the right thing.
Although it has taken longer to getting around to make it to the full of East Africa in order to fulfill her wish, we are now on our way.
One Final Personal Note on this Trip
A week ago I received news that my stepfather, Larry, passed away. Amidst the sadness we felt, we also found ourselves deciding whether to cancel the trip and when to return to the U.S. to honor him.
As I spoke to both family and friends that knew Larry, it became clear — with an imagined motion of his hand — that he would have wanted us to go. Everyone agreed he would have said something like this:
“Go. Explore. Meet people. Tell good stories. And be sure to share stories from people and places that don’t usually have a voice. And have lots of fun, too.”
Good advice for us. Good advice in general, I'd like to think.
You see, East Africa was one of Larry’s favorite regions in the whole world. He spent years living, working and traveling in Tanzania and Kenya as U.S. diplomat. And although he also served in other parts of Africa — including an ambassadorship to Gabon and a nice, posh placement in London along the way, East Africa was and always would be the place that stole his heart.
Stepping back, spiritual or otherwise, one might find the coming together of this trip — to be able to spend the next six weeks in an area Larry loved and knew well — as beyond mere coincidence.