Wednesday, October 30, 2013

-- Dracula Lines --

Eight hours later, flying over the dry plain lands of the world's newest country (South Sudan) and the endless dunes of the Sahara desert in Libya, we enter the coast of Sicily and Italy minutes before our final descent over the now snow-covered Swiss Alps and the misty lowlands of Belgium and the Netherlands before touchdown at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and a 45-minutes taxiing through a maze of busy runways.

I say good-bye to my Dublin-bound friend and proceed to clear immigration and take the train to Centraal which is conveniently located only 20 minutes away from the airport on the commuter train.
The weather is dull and a light cold drizzle covers the narrow cobblestone streets, yet I walk around the city to wake up from the lethargy of an early morning start and a long flight towards my hostel , just besides the Van Gogh Museum.
Jet-lagged and tired, energy is only enough for a shower, a visit to the local supermarket for groceries and edibles and for checking my e-mails and messages until I fall asleep, daylight aside.

In the morning, the warm sunshine breaks through the big dorm window and wakes me up. Backpack on shoulders, I walk to Centraal Station for a train to Eindhoven while enjoying a stroopwaffle and a coffee. A place which still features fresh memories of a trip only completed a few weeks earlier.
The golden Autumnal sunshine has dyed the place in tones of brown and outside, the cold wind has sentenced everyone to be indoors. Bikes are not seen around anymore.

I wait at Eindhoven Airport for a few hours, whilst charging my phone and eating the driest sausage roll I've had in my life. The terminal has a viewing deck for the amusement of travelers and family members watching their beloved ones boarding or just the constant noise of budget airline airplanes taking off and landing. Something not very common nowadays.

We are called for boarding at the end of the afternoon and a full flight heavily departs fighting the strong winds, Budapest bound, a nearly three-hour journey over Central Europe, with groups of young people preparing for a weekend of adventure and partying as they scream, laugh and take pictures all through the aircraft for the amusement of some other sleepy travelers.

The always-tacky Ryanair fanfare plays after touchdown at Fehigeri Airport followed by a long walk through the tarmac to the main airport terminal before everyone rushes to the exchange booths to get some exotic-looking Forints.
I am told to board a bus to the nearest metro station and continue onward to my hostel. This is where I get my first glimpse of the Hungarian capital: poorly lit streets, a large amount of derelict houses, (a Tesco) and soviet-era old buses running through the crowded and dark motorway. It feels like being in two different continents at the same time, blended by the darkness of a cold night.

Soon we reach Kobanya-Kispest metro station and the starting point of Dracula Lines.

An old Soviet-style light blue steeled train awaits in the gloomy platform. Long rows of hard seats on both sides of the carriage fill with locals and the odd lost tourist. A sad voice through the communication system recites a warning in Hungarian language and a yellow light blinks as a mechanical noise beeps loudly. The doors close almost immediately banging against each other and a second longer sad announcement in local language is heard. It feels like I have just signed up for a killing chamber or a journey into a abyss. The train then starts its journey through dark tunnels and several stations where the same operation repeats each time.

Locals have a sad look, covered in different layers of bleak-coloured clothing. The cultural knot Budapest once represented becomes obvious in the physical features of their population where Otomans mixed with Austrians and Caucasians.

I reach Deak Ferenc station, right in the City Centre for a transfer of metro lines, facing long tunnels which feature interesting mosaic art and the longest escalator I have seen in my life until I find myself in an even darker station.
The Yellow line has now become famous between visitors and has even featured in a few movies due to its particular spooky dark look, oak smell, and old-fashion signage and carriages.

'Mexiko' station is the last stop. Outside, the outskirts of Budapest are presented as a post-war scene: square soulless buildings and walls covered in graffitis, beggars cramping underneath roofed pathways around old rubbish bags and old trains passing by at high speed on a dark railway.
The hostel is nearby, a dark place with a little sign stating 'Hostel'. For a second, I believe I have made a mistake and thoughts of cheesy Hollywood movie productions splash to my mind as I ring the bell and a rather dodgy looking character appears through the dark garden to let me into the old and musty house.

A group of Polish students are in the kitchen playing cards and a drinking game. I join them shortly after I check into my room and put some sheets on my steeled bed.
Mood is relaxed with the third shot of strong Polish vodka, time when we decide to hit town and see the city at night time, starting with a walk through the empty park , into the impressive Heroes Square where Hungarian's glory leaders are show in a massive display of lights and statues and later through a tree-lined long and pretty avenue into the Jewish District.

A former ghetto area, the Jewish District saw its post-war transformation when private investors decided to use the old unused buildings as places to drink and dance creating the concept of 'Ruin bar', which has now been copied all over the world. A place where basically 'junk' or unwanted items such as old cars and furniture are placed into a dodgy-looking building merged to a beer garden and combined with cheap pizza and drinks.
It is also a place to be seen and where tourists gather to enjoy the capital's nightlife and the affordable alcoholic mixes.

Pizza and a beer for under 5 Euros. I am in for that. As are most of the passengers that were on my flight earlier and groups of foreigners from all over the world. (maybe not the Chinese group playing with their iPads in the corner, they just wanted some free Wi-fi).

We return to the hostel through the long avenue whilst learning a bit of Polish and sobering up with a cheap gyros roll, a Hungarian must-eat.

Friday, October 25, 2013

-- The Resort Life --

Yellow sunbeds lined up around an empty swimming pool. Palm trees noisily shuffling with the strong morning breeze and the Indian Ocean breaking its clean water waves on the white sands. I wake up surrounded by a truly holiday scene. This, is the resort life.

A walk on the beach to awake the senses, with an air of last year's Zanzibarian holiday and surrounded by locals selling tours, boat trips and souvenirs. Soon the stomach claims for attention.

In the main restaurant, crowds of sunburned Westerners blend in a mash up of people around tables covered in all sorts of fruits, cereals, pancakes, breads and omelettes, only to continue on their 'tanning marathon' minutes later using every sunbed available in the resort.
There is a limited time in which relaxing in a sunbed is enjoyable and soon , we decide to explore the nearby reef in the low tide while photographing the wild sea life of this particular place.

We decide to venture into town and walk outside the tall walls of the resort to the main local road hailing an old tuk-tuk. It is intense, cramped and bumpy. I am loving it. The young driver speaks on his mobile all throughout the journey gaining his little space through luxurious SUVs and old crowded buses until we reach the Shopping Centre and a Nakumatt Supermarket where we buy some local snacks and basic toiletries.

A tea time is organized every day in the beach bar. Sandy, shady and relaxed. The perfect spot for the end of the day, lazying on a wooden beach bed, enjoying a tuna sandwich and a good cup of tea. Locals walk around the beach finishing for the day and walking along with a few camels offered as a rather picturesque ride, for a small fee of course.

Dinner is next and the same dynamics as the one in breakfast seems to repeat in front of us, with a stronger tone of red-skinned sunburned guests.
The Arabian-style beds by the gardens become the perfect place to digest a big meal and relax for the evening in which we have the opportunity of contemplating a bright full moon hiding in the dark horizon.

In the morning, shortly after breakfast, we start our journey North to the village of Watamu in the Malindi District. A road splattered with small roadside villages, hills covered in pineapple plantations and bicycles.
A couple of hours later, a straight road lined up with tall resorts walls announces our last stop: Turtle Bay Resort, where we rapidly check-in,  in order to make the best of the stunning weather.

White sand & blue water. Empty. An environmental compromise has been made by every property in this area which is reflected in unspoiled fauna habitats, conservancy attitudes and local employment. On my naked eye, represents less local hassling and tourists around.

Hours pass by. Wooden sunbed, empty swimming pool and sleepy fellow guests staring at each other through their thick dark sunglasses, reading British newspapers or playing sudoku. Activities such as water polo are encourage by one of the staff. He silently walks off as nobody seems to notice him splashing in the pool with an old yellow ball.
Tide is up at the end of the afternoon, inviting enough for a dip in the warm Ocean, (something that could never be beaten by a swimming pool) and a walk on the now gloomy and empty beach.

Shortly after dinner, we are entertained by a show of Masaai acrobatics. Physically fit locals play around rings and form tall human pyramids for the amusement of the foreigners sipping on their tropical cocktails, coordinated by the beat of some African tunes. As part of the show, the ending is nothing but the whole 'company' neatly organizing locally-made souvenirs in the floor for the guests to grab (and pay for).

On the last day of the African adventure, I finally discover the meaning of an 'All-Inclusive' holiday. An one-hour paddling through the reef in the low tide is first.
When reaching the shore, I am offered the option of trying windsurfing for the first time, proving that a good technique and strong arms and waist are needed to dominate the constant and warm Southern winds. I fall off the board many times for the amusement of the locals and my travel companion, taking pictures of this event from the comfort of a sunbed on the beach.

A craving for contact with locals and authenticity becomes stronger as the holiday is nearly over. Bikes are available for the grabs giving us the chance of leaving the gated complex and cycle through the small village, a sight featuring used clothes for sale hanging off trees, randomly-located ATMs, groups of 'boda-bodas' waiting for passengers, local women cooking on the floor outside their wooden shacks and a few souvenirs shops where owners shout at almost complete synchronization as 'the tourists approach for some shopping'. Bargaining is a must while being followed by around 15 people in a strong effort to get us to buy their goods.

The last rays of sunshine set the mood for a last walk on the beach, chasing sand crabs and refreshing the now sunburned skin. Followed by reddish-fruity cocktails by the swimming pool and a long warm presentation about the resort and its staff dancing at the sound of 'Jambo Bwani', typically Kenyan.

We only have about two hours sleep until the phone rings in our room and, at 2:00 in the morning, we leave the grounds of Turtle Bay and the coast under heavy scattered showers and driving through roadside villages where nightlife has transformed the landscape and shacks are lit by colorful neon lights.

The lights of a sleepy Mombasa Airport mark the end of the road trip. We check in and wait in the warm terminal to board our small aircraft to Nairobi. Take off happens as the sun rises over the Ocean behind us and an hour later, we land in the busy Jomo Kenyatta Airport.
Worried passengers are seeing everywhere on the plane, mostly result of a dreaded transfer through improvised terminals being contemplated. For our surprise, it happens smoothly, being led through the cargo terminal to an old coach which drives through a small road to the main terminal and onto a long queue and a short and efficient immigration room. I even have enough time to check my e-mails before boarding the aircraft.

The large Boeing 777 rolls through some roadwork and laborers staring at the powerful engines. We leave through dense fog and sharply turn left and North. Mount Kenya's summit appearing through the clouds works as a good-bye landmark, we are now Amsterdam bound.

Once again, Asante Africa, you've blown my mind once again.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

-- Leopard Fly & Drive & Fly & Drive --

Dark and quiet morning in the plain. Pot of coffee and freshly baked cookies are brought to our circular tent. The last game drive of the trip starts before sunrise in the cold savanna morning.
The Land Cruiser rattles through narrow and wet pathways just when the sun appears through the dry trees. Animals are still hiding from the rain that had been falling the night before and they are nowhere to be seen. We reach a creek which had been flooded hours earlier to find a antelope carcass dragged by the current.

I spot something moving in the bushes and suddenly everyone in the car remains in silence. Bright yellow fur covered in black spots: a lonely female leopard is hiding from us. Its green-eyed stare is penetrating and deep. The minutes seem to freeze as we quietly stare at each other until she enters her comfort zone and slowly moves away from the bush and walks beside the car.

We follow her until she vanishes in the deep bushes and continue towards the hills where an eagle watchfully sits on the top of a tree and small jackals scream their lungs out in alert. We are rewarded by a sight of a 'morning giraffe hour' at the top of the hill.

A stop right in the middle of the plain for a coffee and a snack is made before heading back to the lodge for a brief breakfast and check out. We are driven to the airstrip shortly after that.
Ol Seki Airstrip is one of the busiest in the region and cars filled with tourists are lined up waiting for the small aircrafts to arrive. Flights synchronously arrive at the same time, creating a small confusing scene: 'Which one should I board?' I exclaim mentally while our bags are carried by the Masaai people all around the place.

And within ten minutes, we are welcomed on board a small Cessna Grand Caravan. Front engine roars dispersing a cloud of red dust behind us as we taxi away and lift above the Masaai Mara in between white clouds and strong winds.
The sight of the dry valley can be appreciated at its utmost from above. A dry volcanic landscape splattered by lonely trees, hills and deep gorges. The ancient seismic activity that once prevailed here becomes obvious as we approach a green tall hill covered in big houses, point where we start our descent into Nairobi Wilson Airport in between constant automated alerts from the cockpit announcing heavy air traffic ahead of us.

Upon landing, we are led through a busy tarmac where small and big aircraft seem to be clustered against each other and towards the exit where our pick up car is ready for us.
A brief scope of the Nairobi morning traffic is shown: aggressive matatus fight their way against small cars and lorries. In between the busy lanes, street vendors offer a variety of products, from sweets to DVD players.

Once at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, we walk through the improvised domestic terminal and manage to check into an earlier departure to Mombasa. On the TV, news of a shooting in a shopping centre sprawls passengers' fears and concerns as everyone pays attention to what is being broadcast from the other side of the city.
We wait in the provisional lounge, which is basically a cargo terminal with a few seats, clean portable bathrooms and an amazing scope of the air side facilities. Though not very comfortable, it is a nice experience for those passionate about aviation.

Our flight is finally called and our brand-new Embraer 190 takes-off under sudden heavy rain for a 60 minutes journey to the mangroves and coastal landscape of Mombasa.
I turn on my mobile as soon as I get off the aircraft only to be bombarded by text messages from friends and family, worrying about my whereabouts. Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi had just been attacked and hostages were still held inside. My thoughts are with the innocent people involved (and always will be).

A palm tree-lined avenue heading into the city brings back memories from Zanzibar. Memories that become stronger when we drive through the port area and the main Old Town. It feels like I have landed in a complete different country.
Arabian architecture and mosques are spotted and soon I learn that Mombasa was largely dependent of the Sultanate of Oman and Zanzibar before becoming a British Protectorate and finally joining the Republic of Kenya.
The constant movement of the long day finally takes its toll on my body giving me a strong headache. We drive through wealthy neighborhoods, an empty and run down water park and a massive shopping centre minutes before arriving to our final destination, the resort of Sarova Whitesands.

Check in formalities of what it looks like a massive resort are done and I finally get to rest in a bed for a few minutes before swimming in the Indian Ocean's high tide to relax the muscles after a long journey.
Dinner is next. A combination of an enormous amount of international food and some not very polite fellow guests, happening underneath Arabian lamps, ceiling fans and the warm ocean breeze.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

-- King of Pride Rock --

The hectic itinerary planned for us means we have to leave early for another long drive through the Rift Valley through the town of Naivasha and Narok where memories from last year's road trip remain fresh in my mind and an air of nostalgia fills up the journey. It was in Narok where we stopped in the middle of the night to have dinner. Back then I didn't know where we were and had no Kenyan Schillings left on my pocket. I was the only foreigner in the Uganda-bound bus.

The daylight reveals a landscape unknown to me from last year and brown hills mark the end of the fertile valley and the entry point to the dry plains of the Masaai Mara.
We leave the main highway and enter small dirt roads. Our driver seems a bit lost as we pass by small villages and human settlements where children run after the car waving and smiling and cattle-congested stretches of road.

Six hours later and right in the middle of what it seems a very deserted land (even though 3G coverage is still at its best), our driver finally makes it through the red sandy roads to Ngerende Lodge.

No time for reactions. We are welcomed into the grounds of this exclusive place with a traditional 'Masaai Welcome'. Tall locals lined up and dressed in local red gowns sing loud guttural sounds as we are sort of nervously forced to take part and dance along the rhythm, sometimes even jumping as part of the tradition of welcoming.

Shortly after the staff is introduced to us one by one, we check into our luxurious cabin set on the shore of the Mara River where hippos and crocodiles share the murky waters. Wait a second: ' Someone forgot to build a few walls in this place?'. The experience at Ngerende praises the contact with the nature. Luxurious bed sheets, handmade toiletries and a pleasant wooden deck seem to merge with the shores of the River and the nearby animals.
Wi-fi is non-existent here, something I find difficult to embrace at the beginning.

Our lunch takes place by the pool deck, in between greenery and the omnipresent serpent River. A distant thunderstorm slowly crawls their way into the sky and heavy rain starts as soon as we finish our delicious four-course meal (kindly presented by our personal butler) and we jump into the high safari-style Land Cruiser to explore the National Park.

We are driven by our two local Masaai guides. The landscape is breathtaking with lonely trees scattered around a colourful land which become the main feature. This is where the National Park takes its name from (Mara: lonely in Swahili). On one side, low-rising hills are covered in clouds and rain while in the other, a striking sunset is taking place giving interesting tones of light to our visit to the plain (and a dramatic backdrop to our pictures) while spotting a herd of solid black buffaloes, photogenic zebras, shy giraffes, hungry wildebeests, gracious antelopes, sleepy hyenas and a family of grazing elephants which, by the time they are spot, are walking under a splendid and strong rainbow.

With a Tusker in hands, we drive back to the lodge in the darkness of the African plains only to be surprised by a carefully prepared hot bath in our private bungalow. A moment to relax the muscles after a day of constant yet exciting car-rattling.
Dinner is next, full of local specialties and with the personal touch of the chef coming to our table and explaining the locally-sourced ingredients used in every dish.

We go to bed and the petrol-fueled power station goes off. I find myself immersed in the complete silence and dark of the jungle only broken by the sound of the splashing animals sharing the river a few meters below us.

A coffee pot and cookies are brought by our butler at 5:00am. A second game drive has been schedule and minutes later, the sun rises above the hills while we spot a heavy lonely hippo returning to the river after a night of grazing in the pastures. 
A message in Swahili storms through the radio and triggers a fast-paced driving towards the bushes and this is when our search for the day sees its peak moment: A family of four cubs and three lionesses graceful coming out of their nightly hunt and walking slowly through the plain.
They don't seem to bother about our presence and the constant staring. Cubs play about with their heavy paws and jump all over the place. They come close to the car at a point their breathing can be heard. Heart beats rise. Eyes celebrate the moment.

The morning sunshine dries up the moist of the nocturnal rain in the sand and warms up the air just in time for our return trip to the lodge for an omelette breakfast by the wooden deck, packing up and to say good-bye to a line up of incredible staff working in a surreal place.

Taking the main road, we pass through local Masaai villages which become small scattered settlements surrounded in tall branches and organised in circles. Our local Masaai drivers know these lands as the back of their palms and, though we are not driving through any marked road, the sight of an empty airstrip is spotted followed by a sign indicating we have reached our next stop: Ol Seki Hemingways Lodge right in the Naboisho Conservancy Area.

We are welcomed into the lodge by our hostess. She is originally from Britain but has been living in Kenya for a reasonable amount of years. Fluent in Swahili, she runs this place smoothly and explain us about the locally-sourced products and toiletries and the green and social compromises the place has adopted while showing us our amazing canvassed round bungalow which seems to be suspended by cables and wooden decks over the plains of the Masaai Mara.
Wi-fi is available. I rush to check my e-mails shortly before other guests and I are called for lunch at the main tent, sharing stories about our journeys so far and planning an afternoon game drive while savoring delicious dishes and some red wine.

As a constant feature at this time of the year, inclement heavy rain starts shortly after we leave the lodge and small gorges fill up with water creating a landscape I had only seen in movies. The dry plains are flood prone, so care is always needed when driving through it.

The Lion King moment finally happens, underneath a thin rain. A pride of lions resting in the warm rocks. Cubs jump around the lionesses and pull their ears in the most playful way. Four male lions are seen just a few meters away showing their golden manes. Silent and vigilant, protecting the pride from any danger. Eye contact is made while my camera shoots dozens of frames per minute, trying to register every moment and movement made.

It's the end of the day and we return to the lodge in complete darkness. Dinner happens again, gathered around a big table with fellow guests. Wine, beef stew and tea flow in between talks about our experiences in Africa and the animal spotting of the day when the movie fantasy became real.

Monday, October 14, 2013

-- Great Rift Valley views --

A pot of hot Kenyan coffee is brought to the room acting as the perfect wake-up call, just as Uhuru Highway boils with traffic underneath our room. Followed by a lavish buffet breakfast in which the succulent fresh fruits crown the tables. Cassava on my omelette? Why not! (while in Kenya...).

We are met by our driver for the day and say good-bye to the friendly staff at the Kempinski Hotel as we take a wide and busy motorway through the North of Nairobi and landscape slowly change into houses and old apartment blocks scattered around bright red hills and narrow overcrowded gorges. A large University campus surrounded by tall white walls mark the end of the capital and the start of the countryside.

Endless round hills covered in pineapple plantations (the DelMonte juice company empire, as we are told) dominate the landscape as the road narrows into a single carriageway and its shared with lonely cyclists carrying goods, edibles and dried grass.

Aberdare Lodge is reached some three hours after leaving the busy city. Strategically developed outside the famous Aberdare National Park, the first things we are impressed by are the views. A wide 180 degrees glimpse of the fertile Rift Valley with the tall and green eucalyptus trees of Aberdare National Park and the endless plains heading as North as Samburu complementing the view.
We check into a modest and pretty bungalow. Warthogs are playing outside our doorstep. Shy antelopes do the same when we are not looking.

It is lunch time with an African delicacy, Lake Victoria's grilled tilapia, in between peacocks that tamely play in the garden and amuse other guests with their festival of colors and mating ritual followed by some time at the swimming pool to shake off the weight of the morning road trip.

And as promised by the lodge's motto, a relaxing afternoon begins walking around the estate photographing animals and baboons that playfully wander around the bushes. A distant thunderstorm approaches slowly and reaches the hills by darkness.

The lights go off, a typical feature in the Kenyan night. A warm bonfire is the perfect solution to heat up the high altitude night, with the background sound of an Equatorial downpour.

As we leave Aberdare the next morning, the weather suddenly closes, preventing us from seeing the snowy peaks of Mount Kenya while the rain becomes widespread within minutes. Around us, the inclement weather does not seem to stop locals from their daily chores. I spot a runner wearing a bright outfit, and another one, and another one. I am told we are driving through the region where most Kenyan international medalists and marathons runners train. Here, they are treated like idols and their incomes have transformed into real estate or private commercial developments.

We cross the Equator line, not without stopping for a fast picture marking a visit to this geographical landmark and a rapid explanation of the Coriolis effect (memories from Uganda a year ago pop in my head).
Crops of cassava and corn dominate the view. We are on a higher altitude and weather seems more inclement.
A new road is being build  as we reach the bustling Nyahuhuru and turn South to Nakuru for a view of the valley at its widest.

An old derelict train station and some abandoned toll booths mark the entrance to Naivaisha Town which we don't drive through. Instead, we detour through a dusty and quiet road that loses through the hills until we reach Naivasha Golf Club.

Set just a about a mile away from the silver waters of Lake Naivasha, it's a place where people from Nairobi meet on their weekends off . Locals are also seeing attending multinational companies conventions.
A beautiful garden full of endemic flora surrounds the stony footpath to the wooden cabins which seem to be suspended over the trees, offering a perfect and wide view of Aberdare, this time from the other side of the National Park.

We have a few Tuskers with our lunch to set the mood with some locally-sourced barley. We try the bicycles which break as soon as we rent them. Walking becomes the best option to spend an afternoon sheltering from the heavy patches of rain and stalking the zebras now peacefully grazing in the golf course until the sun sets and the evening gets colder.

The large wooden common area with comfy sofas and a massive fireplace becomes the best bet for the night. Old guidebooks and Wi-fi complement the evening until another blackout happens and bed finally calls.

Friday, October 11, 2013

-- Hakuna Matata: Nairobi Deja vu --

As we clear security in the busy Dutch airport, I quickly send a message to Kenya Tourist Board for the amazing opportunity we are about to embark on and, a colorful Boeing 777 open its doors for boarding.
The crew are proudly wearing a striking red uniform ,resembling the Kenyan flag. Definitely not your typical Euro-white carrier. It is a full house to Kenya tonight but I manage to change seats and get an emergency exit row, meaning that comfort is guaranteed throughout this eight-hour flight.

We take-off from Schiphol Airport under a dense fog and we are soon served dinner. I watch a few comedies and fall asleep almost immediately, waking up to a small tray with breakfast goodies on it and top-of-descent which happens when the sun timidly appears in the African horizon dying the sky and the plains underneath in tones of orange.

Touchdown. And we are welcomed to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in both English and Swahili. The recently burned down terminal in the background means deplaning takes longer than expected, as well as we have the opportunity of wandering around the tarmac just under the plane wings. A perfect chance to see such a magnificent aircraft from close by.
We are bused to the 'provisional terminal' and immigration happens efficiently. I am later told this facility was built to be a parking lot but, due to the fire that completely consumed the International Arrivals Hall a few weeks earlier, it now has been working as the Arrivals Hall.

The smoky morning air of Nairobi invades my lungs as soon as we leave the provisional terminal and look for our pick up transfer in between a sea of drivers, smiles and name plates. A couple of giraffes are spotted across the fence. We hit the traffic of Mombasa Road, crowded with early commuters on their way to work riding all sorts of trucks, buses and matatus, a typical feature of East Africa's largest city.

Memories of last year rapidly return to my head. The busy roundabouts, the scattered eucaliptus trees crowned by massive marabus and finally Uhuru Park, principal green feature of the City Centre. It is like I never left.
We reach the Kempinski Hotel just at the gateway of the Westlands and a place that has been opened for only a few weeks. The fresh paint can still be smelled in the hallways and as soon as we get installed in our room overlooking the main highway and the hills of Millimani, it is time to refresh and kick the jetlag out of our bodies by having a little swim in the endless pool.

Batteries recharged, stomachs call for some quality food and I can't think of a better place than Java Cafe, spot where last year I had one of the best tuna melts I've had in my entire life.
The place is packed with executives wearing heavy suits mixed with sunburned backpackers. Pop music is played in the background when ordering a nice beef and chips dish, topped up by some fresh mango juice and a pot of authentic Kenyan coffee.
It's the energy intake needed for some sightseeing, dodging a sea of cars, buses and motorcycles to the Kenyatta Convention Centre, a building frozen in time surrounded by fountains of water and flags from all over Africa where a meet on Women's Rights is currently happening.
We follow the streets of Nairobi and stop by one of Nairobi's Nakumatt supermarkets in order to get the basic toiletries ( bug spray, factor 50 sunscreen, shower gel, etc.).
A visit to Nairobi Market to test our bargaining skills at their higher level is a must. If only I had space in my luggage to carry those tambourines.

We walk back to the hotel by Uhuru Highway now hiving with cars in every single direction, under the high-altitude sunshine. The brand-new gym is the attraction for the evening, before having a light seafood dinner in the balcony and a well-deserved rest. In my mind, a new Nairobi story has just been written, with the familiarity of last years' adventure.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

-- Paris, a Love & Hate Story --

Five days after finishing the journey through the small states of Belgium and Netherlands, I take my backpack into the office. No mental fanfare this time. I have to work and run to the airport shortly afterwards.
The plane engines finally roar through Dublin Airport at dusk. A short flyover reminds me of the fact I will only be back in nearly three weeks. This is when the adventure starts.

A flight in the dark and turbulent night takes me to Beauvais-Tille Airport, which Ryanair has kindly named as 'Paris Airport', even though a lot of patience and time is needed in order to finally make it to the French capital. (Don't get me wrong, I paid € 20 for my plane ticket. You get what you pay for).

As we reach the city, the Eiffel Tower in the distance flashes in its hourly show and soon we are parking at the busy Port Maillot Station. Rain starts to become widespread while tourists rush with their luggage to the Metro station to find shelter and continue their journey.

Ticket machines, blocks, train, transfer, another train and I finally reach Vanves in the Southern part of the city. The battery on my mobile dies and I find myself slightly lost. Streets are empty and wet. I find a corner covered in flags. It is the hostel, just hidden and squeezed in a quiet and residential area.
A rather warm welcome by the staff refreshes the moods after a long (and wet) journey. In the end, it is nearly midnight and I am dying for a shower and a bed.

In the morning ,the weather doesn't seem to have improved. Eager guests rush through the bathrooms and corridors of the hostel. Plans of sightseeing are overheard while savoring a rich croissant and some strong coffee and just as fast ,everyone seems to leave at the same time, rain or no rain.
It is my fourth time in the French capital and I am up for a relaxed plan. Catacombs I say while grabbing my rain jacket and making my way through the wide and busy avenues of Alessia.

Is that a queue? Is that going around the corner?. It is Patrimony Day in the end. Perfect timing if queuing is your thing as most attractions are either free or with reduced fares to the general public. I am already soaked under the rain and decide to cancel my plans and walk around the city, getting some lunch and sit by the Seine, sheltered under an elm tree while watching the 'intergalactic-style' boats cruising with tourists.
The rain falls even harder when walking through Champs de Mars. I stop for a minute to contemplate the dynamic scene around me: Tourists stand in blocks and pose in the most strange ways in order to get the full dimension of a world icon (The Eiffel Tower) into their pictures. A few others play the basic 'you dropped the ring scam' while a group of people asks you to sign some sort of petition. All of this under the inclement weather which does not seem to bother anyone.

I was once like this and will never forget the first time I went to Paris and saw this landscape. I was petrified and thankful for the experience. Today, I cynically look at everyone's glow in their eyes with a bit of jealousy. I start to hate Paris for no apparent reason and keep walking to find Pont de Bir-Hakheim which has been a setup for a few movies (read Inception) due to its special architectural characteristics. The metro line running over it, supported by thin steel columns play with the sense of perspective and make a perfect setting for interesting pictures. I am not alone in this thought and many newlywed couples are seeing taking their memorable pictures here.

I return to the hostel and sit comfortably on the couch. An Australian girl makes a small comment about the weather, triggering a conversation which lasts hours and prolongs through dinner in a nearby Italian restaurant. Rain doesn't stop outside.

It is Sunday and the sun shines through the old hostel window. Most of my roommates are already gone sightseeing. I check out and take the metro across the city to the North where I meet my friends from Uruguay (but living in Dublin) in a rather surprising coincidence of travel plans.
No clouds in the sky. We follow the narrow and steep streets of Montmartre to reach the always-busy Sacre Couer hill, boiling with tourists who had the same idea.

It is one of my friend's first time in Paris. An opportunity to re-discover the pleasures of the City of Lights I think, whilst taking many pictures of the beautiful landscape unfolding beneath us, an image that never gets tired.
We walk down the cobblestone streets, leaving the crowd and entering St. Lazare. Our hours in the city are limited and we walk fast through the greens of Parc Monceau where Parisians are seeing reading the newspapers, having coffee and jogging as a shoal of fish would in the Caribbean.
Arc do Triomph is next, working as a massive landmark, placed in the Etoile (star) of Northern Paris, followed by Trocadero which boost the best view of the Eiffel Tower you could have.

Only a few hours left and a 'bucket-list' desire has to be fulfilled. We rush down the hill and buy a bottle of wine and snacks. It finally happens: A picnic at the Champs de Mars, under the shiny steel tower.

I say good-bye to my friends, under the light effects of fast-paced drinking and rush to the Metro station. Clocks tick faster and I feel anxious, fearing I might lose my train. I run through the long tunnel of Montparnasse-Bienvenue station. I catch another Metro and clinically time the interval between stations, exactly 1 minute and 57 seconds. Every passing second seems to be important. I swallow hard, I have a cold sweat running through my forehead and my heart is beating faster until I reach Gare du Nord Station. I run through the escalators knowing the future of my trip depends on it. I see the Thalys train. Doors are still open and panting, I hand out my ticket to the officer, only seconds before the whistle blows and the train slowly leaves the station, finishing one of the best days I've had in Paris.

It is a Love & Hate Story.

I fall asleep while cruising at 300 km/h through France, Belgium and finally reach Amsterdam Schiphol Airport a few hours later. The modern terminal, conveniently organised into two massive wings is easy to understand and well-signalized. I check-in, clear immigration and wander around the many free lounges, restaurants and duty-free shops. My friend and colleague is waiting for me. We meet and excitement invades both of our minds. Our flight is called: Kenya Airways KQ116 is ready to board and another adventure in Africa is about to begin.

Next stop: Nairobi!

Monday, October 7, 2013

-- It's waffle time: Belgium --

The next morning, I leave the hostel and walk through the asleep streets of Amsterdam and the Museum Quarter where the creativity of the world-famous IAMSTERDAM sign amuses tourists from all over the world in search of the perfect pose.

Queues are slowly forming underneath the striking golden arches of Rijksmuseum while the sun heats up the fresh morning. I follow the crowd and, without knowing, end up at the entrance of a solid square building. It is the Van Gogh Museum which I decide to explore as part of a personal wish I had since my times of sitting behind a desk designing for hours, back in University days.

I am not disappointed, and a perfectly-organized space unfolds and feed the anxiety of exploring and running across colorful halls full of exquisite masterpieces painted by this well-acclaimed artist.
His history is also interesting. At some stage it even becomes obvious on how his mental stage transformed his work through time. Tourists contemplate each painting and run across the halls like kids. The combination of colors strikes everyone's minds. It is a massive pointillist playground for grown-ups.

I follow my journey through the now busy streets of Amsterdam. The canals are now packed with all sorts of boats. I sit on a bench while having a waffle and a coffee just to contemplate the scene revolving around me: Open top cruises crowded with all sorts of cameras pointing at every direction, young people waking up from the lethargy of a good (or at least eventful) night out and walking through the red cobblestone streets like zombies, groups of people enjoying a morning coffee and a 'special muffin' at one of the many coffee shops that make Amsterdam famous.
Across the canal from me , Anne Frank's House is boiling with tourists and a queue that extends around the corner. It is the sign I need to finally decide to leave Holland's largest city whilst walking through Dam Square and reaching Centraal Station.

I buy a train ticket only to find out it is not valid for the Thalys high-speed train. I am not given a lot of information apart from the fact I am told the ticket is only valid for local trains, triggering an instant reaction of running across the packed underground corridor to the platform for the next local train to Rotterdam.
It is a long journey with stops in every local station. An interesting way of seeing the Dutch countryside, heavily populated. The strong aircon in the carriage makes me forget about the steamy day outside. Bikers are seeing everywhere, enjoying a beautiful summer weekend.

By the time I make it to the busy and futuristic-like Rotterdam, I am given one minute to run across the station and catch my connecting train to Roosendaal, near the Belgian border.
The landscape changes dramatically and a purely nautical culture surrounds me. Canals, ports and locks are literally flew over by modern and tall bridges.
It rains mildly and our heavy blue-yellow train makes it to this small station. All passengers travelling 'abroad' are told to switch to a dated Belgian train. I meet with three other fellow travelers. The American one quickly relates to me and we start a long conversation and a 'travel friendship'.

As we enter Belgium, small houses provide a glimpse of the Flemish way-of-living with locals mowing their laws, having a barbecue or simply playing in the garden with the youngsters. The people also look physically different to those just across the border.
The noisy and rusty train makes it to the busy city of Antwerp, pride of the Flemish area. We wander around the many levels of its train station to find a state-of-art facility full of rich architecture and fairly decent commonalities. A phone-charging station powered by cycling becomes a must-try in our 45-minute layover.
It's time to catch the final train of this long journey. It is packed with commuters making it to the capital of Europe and last stop of the day: Brussels, which we finally reach 'only' 4 hours and 45 minutes after leaving Amsterdam.

My 'new American friend' has a reservation for a hostel in Brussels and I decide to tag along. We are kindly directed to the Metro by a local who speaks non-stop French to me. I kindly agree with everything she says, though I don't understand.
Once in the North of the city and after checking in, time for some Japanese-style sightseeing.

The high-rise buildings in the horizon become closer as we walk through run-down neighborhoods where Arab and African-descent looking inhabitants are seeing walking , smoking , having a drink or playing ball on the street. Brussels' motto becomes obvious in an instant: It is a city of immigrants. Belgium's presence in Africa has had interesting tones through the last century, specially in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Morocco and Rwanda.

It is a Saturday, but the wide avenues of the city centre are packed with locals. 'Beerfest' is on and stands selling one of Belgium's passions are scattered by the main buildings. Time for a pause by the 'Bourse' building to devour a 'Metraillette' (machine gun) consisting on a massive baguette filled with some sort of processed meat, sauce and a fair amount of fries. It is the perfect meal after a long journey.
Grand Place is next, squeezed in between chocolate and biscuit stores and tall, striking Gothic architecture buildings. The last rays of sunshine turn the walls golden and the shadow contrasts become more dramatic. The perfect backdrop for a dozen of 'Beerfest' tents overflowing with people and beer.

The tour follows through Brussels' tourist trap alleyway and onto the statue of 'the peeing kid' or Manneken Pis. Old historians affirm that these type of statues were produced and placed in strategic spots where the least wealthy could meet and sell their urine to the leather makers. Eager cameras surround this small statue which is now emblematic to the Belgian capital. Waffle shops beside it deliver the message: It is time for dessert. It is waffle time! (covered in copious amounts of Belgian chocolate and strawberries).

We walk back to the hotel in the early hours of the night. The squares of the Northern neighborhoods transform with locals socializing, while a strong smell of shisha, curry and spices fill the air. A few drinks in the hotel terrace while meeting fellow travelers. The weather just asks for it.

In the morning, I have troubles finding my way in the circular line of the Metro. Most tourists are asleep when I reach the famous Atomium, a 102 meters silver structure that dominates the area. It was built in a time where atomic energy was seen as futuristic and the solution to all energy problems in the world, a commemoration to the World Expo held in Brussels in 1958.
After a few pictures in the wide esplanade, I decide to get into the building and a travel in time takes place. Clumsy neon lights illuminate the long and narrow escalators, defying my sense of direction and vertigo. On every 'ball' of the building, an exposition on energy and the building itself takes place. A small restaurant has been placed on the top. The views of a foggy Brussels are worth the visit while low-passing aircraft are seeing departing from the International Airport.

After a short metro journey and a long run across Brussels Zuid Station (Belgians are awful with signposts), I barely manage to catch the bus to Charleroi Airport which I reach an hour later, only to find out I had gotten the wrong information on my flight: Despite my strong beliefs that our departure time was 3:00pm, an announcement at the airport read 13:00pm. Boarding pass check, the announcement was right.
My mind drifts into ideas on how to make it to Dublin on that same day while I run (again) through the crowded terminal, asking security staff to let me skip the queues in order to make it to the gate. I manage to breath when the immigration officer smiles at me and says: 'Don't worry, you've made it'.

The gate closes shortly after I enter the aircraft and we depart. It is sunny and clear. We cross the English Channel and the sight of London is clearly seen through my window, almost a compulsory view when flying to Dublin from mainland Europe, weather permitting. We land in Dublin a few minutes later, ending a trip that combined the thrill of swimming competitions, new friendships, endless train journeys and the experiences of two cities that have become icons for their uniqueness and a shelter for those who decided to adventure to these small, low-lying lands.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

-- Smile & Cycle: Netherlands visit --

A long overdue visit to the nearby Netherlands finally happens, taking advantage of an extremely cheap Ryanair flight and the European Swimming Championships in the small city of Eindhoven. For the first time , an early departure from Dublin Airport takes me directly where I want to land.

I am welcomed into this small and modest country by the sight of the beaches in the South (very popular with the inhabitants of Amsterdam) and the city of Rotterdam. Colourful fields mark our descent into Eindhoven International Airport under a very strong sunshine.

I make my way to the swimming pool. It looks close enough for a warm-up walk and I set the pace for what it looked as an easy and short walk. I am once again wrong. The heat strikes me as I walk through typically Dutch neighborhoods. Perfectly tree-lined streets combined with geometrically-designed houses. Streets are spotless and children are seeing playing around with their toys on doorsteps. The cycle tracks are perfectly designed and in immaculate state. It defines the culture of a country which is flat and under the sea level.

 As soon as I reach the main population conglomerate of Eindhoven, I am welcomed by a refreshing park where joggers are sharing the space with old couples and curious tourists who are attracted by the system of locks, canals and watermills placed just in the middle of it. The main Swimming arena is next, kindly named as one of Holland's greatest swimmers: 'Pieter Van den Hoogenband' ,who won several medals for his country in both Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
 I register, warm up and almost immediately compete in the 50 meters butterfly sprint. The same feelings transport me to the World Championships in Italy in 2012 or even when I was a teenager and competing was the center of my life. Everything around me happens so suddenly: First call, second call, third call, walking into the big arena with hundreds of spectators around me, name being called, the extreme silence in the block, the sprint. It's a feeling I still treasure and something I have become addicted to. I achieve excellent results and head to the hostel for a well-deserved rest.

Walking into the city centre, Eindhoven introduces me to the real Holland. A grid-organized city with broad avenues, large houses that merge with modest apartment buildings and conveniently located shops and facilities. Bicycles are everywhere. I am told that Dutch people use them all year round and  cycle tracks are kept spotless from snow and ice during the winter.
The city looks empty and streets are quiet. Even having in mind that it is a week day and all business are open. Once the sun sets and the temperature becomes milder, the bars in the City Centre boil with young people, while the beer gardens and squares which work as the perfect gathering spots for dinner and drinks in a warm summer evening.

Eindhoven does not have many sights of interests. The small Phillips Museum marks an interesting point to visit while learning about this famous brand of electronics. The hostel is full of fellow swimmers and we have a short chat about our whereabouts and results.

The next morning, I compete in the 200 meters breast stroke. Results aren't too good on this one. I leave the arena on a rush in order to catch the next train to Amsterdam. The massive yellow-blue train departs on time. It is comfortable and has Wi-fi as well as information about the route traveled. Around us, green and yellow wheat fields lose in the horizon, clearly defined by canals navigated by barges and yachts of all sizes. The landscape changes and becomes busier. The houses and endless web of railroads give me the message: I have finally reached Amsterdam.

As I get off the train in Amsterdam Centraal Station, the smell of marihuana strikes me in seconds. It is legal in the Netherlands (and this is a famous fact known in the world). Outside, the sight of the busiest city in the country somehow resembles the exit of a busy train station in India: people fighting their way against green and red lights and dodging bicycles coming from every corner. Slow and heavy trams cross along the way while a number of cars try to gain their own little space in the crowd. It becomes an interesting example of organized mess.
I walk down the main streets. The main language is English. I notice Amsterdam is not the classic Dutch getaway pictured in Eindhoven but a melting pot of multiculturalism. Here, people from the Dutch colonies found their home and it is noticeable in the accents and physical appearance of its inhabitants. It is also a very popular destinations with foreign students.
It is summer and the city is boiling with tourists. Dutch-style thin and tall houses limited by narrow cobblestone streets and canals are the main characteristic of this famous city. Cafes serving 'special muffins' and restaurants are packed with foreigners. It somehow feels like a giant version of Temple Bar in Dublin. It is intense and exciting. Dam square is next and the place where Amsterdam got its name. A dam was constructed here some hundreds of years ago over the river Amstel which now flows South of the city. It was the 'Amstel Dam' (Amsterdam).
 The hostel is a quiet part of the city, near the Heineken Museum. It is an old building with one of the dodgiest lifts I have seen in my life. The common area is busy under a thick layer of 'special' smoke. I wait for my friend to arrive. I met her in 2012 on my Zanzibarian adventure. She is from Poland but lives in the German/Netherlands border.

After a few hours, we finally meet. She explains how hard it is to drive in Amsterdam, a city where having a car is discouraged at its utmost and bicycles and trams are the winner combo. After finding a parking space, it is time to walk getting lost in narrow streets, crossing bridges and watching locals having beers and private parties in slowly cruising and dim lit boats. Space is precious in Amsterdam and canals are not only for navigation, but also for social life and even for building floating households. We reach the area of Amsterdam Centraal which is an outstanding building itself. A red-bricked fortress with an elaborated tower clock overlooking the busy streets around it. The new area of Amsterdam is just beside it. A combination of coloured glass modern buildings housing high-end apartments and offices and The NEMO Museum (Netherlands Science Centre)which rises above the water like a massive white ramp covered in trees and tables.

When dark , the city transforms into a festival of lit canals and dark streets. We hit the Red Light district where prostitution is legal. Cameras or footage are not allowed and, as I make eye contact with a few prostitutes a mental contradiction goes on: 'It is wrong, but it's legal, so it's right...but it's wrong, is it?'. It proves to be an experience, covered in cheap neon lights and pictures of sexual scenes, sex shops and pod.

We end up in the main street, ready for a Dutch delicacy: Chips. Or frittes are a popular dish in this region and they are topped with any sauce you could possible imagine. I choose the classic garlic mayo and try a Frikandel, which is basically a minced-meat hot dog, covered in fresh diced onions and mustard. At the end of our evening, we pick up the car and a 'drive around the corner' in order to drop me at the hostel, becomes a pilgrimage through the dark streets of Amsterdam until we finally reach the place, some 1 hour and 30 minutes later.