Author Archives: Dan

Bagan’s 4,000 temples

From Yangon we went to Bagan for some premium temple viewing.

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Beginning in the 11th century and spanning the next 2,500 years, over 10,000 total temples were built, of which over 2,200 still remain. It is truly a sight to behold. There are dozens of temples that could each be a major destination in a more developed tourist market.

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Bagan is quite flat so renting bikes — at fifty cents an hour or $3 a day — is the way to go. We biked all over the three main corners of the city and stopped at a number of temples that caught our eye, leaving our bikes unlocked outside for an hour or two (along with our shoes), no problem. It’s an extremely trusting culture.

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One of our favorite restaurants from the entire two months so far was a vegetarian Indian joint in Bagan’s Old City, called “Be Kind to Animals the Moon”…which was also the coolest name of any restaurant we’d been to.

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We took a sunset boat ride one evening and then climbed the steps of the famous sunset-viewing temple, the Shwesandaw Pagoda, where you can see hundreds of temples dotting the horizon in all directions. That hour alone was worth the trip to Bagan.

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A great few days in what we’re sure will soon become a tourist Mecca for temple viewing.

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Yangon, Burma

We flew from Kilimanjaro to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) where we had a hellish five-hour layover before a hellish redeye to Bangkok. After a brief 36 hours in Bangkok to get our visas for Burma/Myanmar, we headed to Yangon, which was Burma’s capital city until 2006.

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Burma is at an interesting inflection point in its history. Even after a week in this country, we still have no clue what it’s really called. And apparently neither does our President.

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The historically oppressive government has been liberalizing, and after being shunned by the West for decades, it is finally opening up to tourists. Obama is the first sitting US President to visit this country of 50m people. They just got their first ATM in November, they don’t take credit cards yet and you have to exchange crisp US $100 bills. The people are enjoying their first sips of Coca Cola in 60 years. Tourism is on the rise but is still under-penetrated, which we really grew to appreciate on this trip. You can walk around Yangon (4.5m people) for half an hour without seeing another tourist. And Lonely Planet considers it the safest city in Southeast Asia.

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Yangon is typically just a stopover city en route to Burma’s more spectacular sites such as Bagan, Inle Lake and [from what we hear] Ngapali Beach. Prices are still insanely low in the city — take a cab anywhere for $2, or have a great meal for not much more. Foreign investment has started to pour in, so you’ll see old decrepit buildings alongside brand new apartment complexes.

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Yangon’s biggest attraction is the massive Shwedagon Pagoda, a sprawling hilltop Buddhist temple that is best experienced at sunset to see the dome caps glow in the orange light.

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So we exchanged a few hundred bucks for about $10 billion Burmese Kyat (see below for our Scarface-sized mountain of Burmese cashola) and were on our way.

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Back at Mbahe Farm — Last stop in Africa

Jill was dying to head back to Mbahe Farm (base of Kilimanjaro) for a night or two before heading to Asia. Fortunately they had some room.

She enjoyed an afternoon of cooking lessons with Leonard, Mbahe’s beloved chef from Zanzibar (and who everyone affectionately calls “Sugar Ray”). With bananas grown on the farm, Jill and Sugar Ray made some out-of-this-world banana bread. I chopped half an onion for a soup, got distracted, and called it quits. But Jill was in heaven, which is all that matters.

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There were two other women staying there, who serendipitously happened to be volunteering at a local school. We told them about our time at Majengo over the prior week, and they invited us along. We had absolutely no plans that day so we were happy to join them.

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It was great fun. We helped seventh graders work on their map of Africa, first graders do an art project, Jill perfected her “Heads-shoulders-knees-and toes” skills with the preschoolers, and I gave a soccer clinic to about 20 of the seventh graders on their break.

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Simon (founder of SENE and whose family owns Mbahe) and his wife Tara were there, with their two kids, Aiden and Kari. So it was great to spend time with them as well.

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A wonderful way to wrap up our time in Africa.

Majengo Children’s Home

After our safari, Alex dropped us off in the small town of Mto wa Mbu (“em-TWAM-bu”) where we would spend the next five days at the Majengo Orphange and explore the area.

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Mto wa Mbu is not a town on anyone’s “Bucket List.” It is a rundown and nondescript place. The community is poor. HIV/AIDS rates are higher than the national average (which hovers around 6%). The main road has hoards of vendors hawking arts and crafts to passing tourists. The outskirts consist of farmland and mud huts, many of which appear on the verge of collapse.

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Mto wa Mbu is right on the safari trail, so every safari-goer drives through it to get to Lake Manyara, Ngorogoro or the Serengeti. And therein lies the heart of the problem that led Lynn Connell, a Canadian woman who had been working at an NGO in the area, to start the Majengo Children’s Home: corrupt orphanage operators were exploiting the passing tourists for donations, squirreling the funds away into their personal bank accounts, and leaving the kids malnourished and without proper care. (Here’s more color on the history of the orphanage).

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A few years ago Matt McKissock partnered up with Lynn to help run Majengo. I had known Matt through work, so when I learned about what he was up to with Majengo, I got back in touch, and here we are. Matt didn’t sugarcoat what to expect of the town and was very helpful in coordinating our visit (thanks Matt!).

Even with Matt’s overtures, Jill and I definitely felt a bit exposed our first afternoon in Mto wa Mbu. We foolishly didn’t arrange a meetup with anyone at Majengo until the next morning, so there we were, dropped off at a beat up little guest house in a podunk African town with a host who spoke not a lick of English, a barely functional cold shower, and a tiny room that was absolutely roasting in the African sun. Fortunately Matt had also told us about the one tolerable place to eat in town, Miccasa, where we had two dishes and two drinks for a total of $2, and a whole bunch of locals staring at us the whole time.

So we started off our time in Mto wa Mbu with a bit of an “Um, where are we?” kind of feeling (much like Charlie in the pilot episode of Lost).

But that evening, as we got back to our guesthouse, a pickup truck was parked outside and a gregarious Tanzanian guy speaking almost perfect English popped out and introduced himself as Charles. Charles is the Regional Director of ICA Tanzania. ICA is a decades-old global NGO that helps run local community-based projects such as Majengo. He’s the main man on the ground in Mto wa Mbu, responsible for overseeing the orphanage. After going out for drinks with Charles and the two longer term volunteers there (Matt Brewster and Heidi), we definitively started to feel a bit more connected to the place. Charles, by the way, is outstanding. He was a great host to us while juggling a thousand other tasks. He’s smart, passionate, cares about the kids, and is a wonderful local leader for Majengo.

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Majengo is building what will soon be an awesome new facility on land donated by the local government, and so we had been planning on doing some construction work a few of the days we were there. Given Jill’s and my complete vacuum of experience on anything construction related, we were fortunate to be able to partner up with the GiveGetGo volunteer trip from Canada (think “Habitat for Humanities” meets “Intrepid Travel”), which just happened to overlap with us. They were great, and very well organized, so it was good fun to work with them alongside the local workers on the site. As we recently learned: wheelbarrowing is “a matter of balance not strength” (Know who said that? Nelson Mandela. True story).

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The GiveGetGo team basically adopted us into their group for the next two days they were there. We did some more work on the site, partook in their goodbye party with the kids, and visited Mama Anna, who runs a great local private school where about 20 of Majengo’s better performing students go to school.

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We spent one morning in a preschool class, doing Head-shoulders-knees-and-toes (and then trying to stay out of the way the rest of the time so we wouldn’t be a distraction). The beginning of the class was really touching. We happened to be there when a few of the kids were on their very first or second day in the preschool. The teacher, Mathilda, has each of the 20 or so kids go up to the front of the class and say “Hello, my name is…” in both Swahili and English. Some of the new kids seemed completely shell-shocked — hunched over, staring at the floor, and too scared to talk. I know new preschoolers anywhere can be shy, but I couldn’t help but imagine what they may have experienced in their home lives leading them to Majengo. But it was equally as redeeming to see the confidence in some of the other kids who had been there for a little while longer. “Give them a week,” Charles later said optimistically.

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Spending time with the rest of the kids when they were all home from school around 430pm was fantastic. Jill and I were continually impressed by how well behaved and patient they were.

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One of my favorite moments happened when we arrived for the first time to play with them. I went inside the office and asked Irene, a local volunteer there, if they had a simple picture book I could read to some of the kids. She gave me one with a bunch of animals. So I wandered back outside to find a few kids who might want to partake, and suddenly every kid in the yard sprinted past me back toward the house — “Good timing,” I thought, and assumed they must be going to dinner. I sat down and started chatting with Jill alone in the courtyard, and Irene pops out, confused, and says “What are you doing? They’re waiting for you in the classroom!” I walked inside and sure enough about 50 kids were crammed in there waiting for me to read them the story. Definitely not what I was expecting! Their English at that age is only marginally better than my Swahili, so I just showed them the pictures of the animals, said the names in English, did my best to make the animal noises, and then had them make the noises with me (I “nayed” for a zebra…who knows?).

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With the all-too-free frequent corruption and exploitation at orphanages around the world, Majengo is one of the good ones. Some of the kids were literally dropped on Majengo’s doorstep, starving and malnourished, by friends or relatives who could not care for them. Those kids now have a shot at a healthy life and an education — things we often take for granted but are game-changers for the kids at Majengo. And every year Majengo assesses the children’s home situation or checks in with relatives to see if the kids are safe to move back in with family.

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Majengo runs on a remarkably lean budget: just over $100k a year to support 74 boarders, plus 40 more kids served three meals a day and cared for, 18 staff members, facilities, supplies and all other costs. I was impressed by how much they are able to do with so little.

The new location is going to be an amazing step up for these kids. Several acres of land, more spacious living quarters, a garden to provide them with fresh fruits and veggies, a soccer field and more. And it only costs a few hundred thousand dollars to build.

If you have read this far and are interested in contributing you can click here to learn more or donate.

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Thanks to Mike Duran, Will Adams and Mark Strauch for encouraging us to go, and a very special thanks to Matt McKissock for making it happen. We look forward to staying connected with Majengo and are excited to see all the positive changes coming in the near future.

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Tanzania Safari: The Serengeti

We drove straight from the otherworldly Ngorogoro Crater to the neighboring plains of the Serengeti, a name derived from a Massai word meaning “Endless Place.”

The whole drive was spectacular. Leaving the crater takes you into an adjacent valley, which is equally lush and green with Massai villages lining the inside, and young Massai herders weaving their livestock through a few zebras and wildebeests that share the valley. We even saw a handful of giraffes there just snacking in the trees.

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Once we got into the Serengeti, Alex took a surprising sharp left turn off the road and headed out into the plains. There were no roads, no end in sight, no other vehicles, and plenty of wildebeests, gazelles and hyenas to keep us entertained. Pretty unexpected and very cool.

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In the Serengeti, we stayed at one of the semi-permanent Halisi Camps (ours was called NunguNungu), which consists of a dining area and about a dozen large private tents. There is no electricity or running water — they use a pulley system to lift one bucket of warm water per person per day above your tent, which then flows through a shower head inside.

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The Halisi Camp was an amazing experience. You are living right in the middle of the Serengeti. You are not allowed to walk around at night unescorted, and spend little time doing so during the day either. Elephants, lions and buffalo are known to wander through. We had several buffalo grazing behind our tent one night, and the host insisted that we not step outside — buffalo can be the most aggressive, often more dangerous than lions or elephants because they are more likely to charge.

One of the coolest parts of the camp was the “white noise” at night. You have never heard such a cacophony of different creatures’ sounds quite like the Serengeti at night. We slept like absolute babies/stones/logs. Sitting outside early the next morning to have a fresh cup of coffee (for me) or tea (for Jill) was heaven.

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After an early breakfast we got into the car and took off into the plains again for a dawn game drive. There are well over a million wildebeest there, which is hard to comprehend. You can see a few thousand right up close and what looks like hundreds of thousands more just dotting the horizon as far as you can see. Then you drive to another part of the plains, and see an entirely different group of equal size.

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We saw a bunch more giraffes, a few lions, tens of thousands of zebras, gazelles, hyenas and even a rare feat of a mother cheetah teaching her cubs how to hunt a gazelle (she was unsuccessful).

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All in all, the safari was a really unique experience and Tanzania was an incredible place to do it.

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Tanzania Safari: Ngorogoro Crater

Following Kilimanjaro, we had our detox night at Mbahe Farm then took off at dawn the next morning to begin our safari.

Our guide, Alex, needed to make a quick stop at his home en route to our first game drive. So after successfully thwarting Jill’s kidnapping attempt of his one-year-old son Caleb, we were on our way.

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The first game drive was through Lake Manyara, which I hate to say was not all that exciting. Even leaving at 6am from the farm at Kili, we arrived in the heat of the day at noon when most of the animals had retreated to cover in the shade. We saw a bunch of zebras and flamingos in the distance, a few blue monkeys and tons of baboons. But it was a pretty uneventful first day.

The next morning we went out into Ngorogoro Crater, which was absolutely stunning. It’s a massive 100-square mile caldera, which is effectively a sunken crater from a volcano that has descended into the earth over the past few million years. Ngorogoro is believed to have been a larger volcano than Kilimanjaro.

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You start by driving up to the rim, where you get a view of the crater. It looks like a massive coliseum… and functions like one down below: over 30,000 animals live there, with buffalo, zebra, hyenas, lions, wildebeest, rhinos, elephants and more all inhabiting the same playing field. It’s about as close to the Land Before Time as you can get… except for the dozens of Land Rovers, but you get over that. It wasn’t as crowded as I thought it was going to be.

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Driving into and around the basin is an amazing feeling. Even with all the vehicles around, the animals seem relatively relaxed and just go about their business — which consists of eating grass, sleeping, and steering clear of lions.

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The lions were definitely the most impressive part. Amazing creatures, clearly running the show in the Crater — seemingly docile but with a power and ferocity you knew they could unleash at any moment if they wanted to. Much like Pete Sampras in his prime.

The lions are completely unfazed by the cars and seem to have an implicit agreement with the vehicles: you can take all the photos of me you want if I can sleep in your shade. They only hunt and eat once a week, so the vast majority of their time is spent resting and conserving energy.

While we certainly got a little stir crazy being in a car all day after being so active the previous seven days, the Ngorogoro Crater was an amazingly beautiful and unique experience.

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Kilimanjaro: The Summit

Sorry for the false post a few days ago — this is the real one.

Summiting Kilimanjaro is not for the faint of heart. Turns out, I’m extremely faint-hearted. Good thing my wife is less so, otherwise I’m not sure we would have made it.

The first five days were a cakewalk. Our vital signs were great, we felt great, and 4-6 hours of moderate hiking was pleasant. Then came the summit, which was like going from kindergarten teeball to the Major Leagues over night.

Here’s how it went down:

At dinner on the 5th day they tell you what to expect: Don’t look up. We’ll go extremely slowly so that we need very few breaks due to the cold. “Should I wear this third layer?” Yes. “How about this fourth layer?” Yes. “And I have this fifth layer…” Yes. “Also, should we bring toilet paper?” Yes.

They wake you up at 11pm after a post dinner nap, if you can sleep — we hardly could because of the anticipation, as well as the altitude (16,000 feet at Barafu Camp) and the cold. You have a brief snack around 11:30pm, make final preparations, then head out at midnight.

It’s pitch black, except for an endless trail of headlights straight ahead — rather, straight up. Everyone tells you not to look up, which makes you want to do nothing but look up. It’s truly daunting. And when you hike up for what seems like hours to the first “ridge,” you realize it’s not a ridge at all and the headlight ants continue for miles still.

Pretty soon into our midnight hike, Jill started to feel awful. Very nauseous. She seemed wobbly on the trail, which is steep and narrow, and I got nervous for her. She sat down on a boulder and tried to close her eyes for a second, which is when I first thought something might be seriously wrong — it took a reminder from Ayumwi that she couldn’t doze off there (in the middle of the trail in freezing temperatures). She was in bad enough shape that we contemplated turning back. But she got up, went “to go see a man about a horse” a little further off the trail, had some electrolyte-infused water, a bite of a Cliff Bar, and then soon started to feel much better.

Just about as soon as Jill started to feel better, I started to tank. I felt lightheaded, nauseous and just exhausted. The altitude was crushing me. We were only two hours into the summit hike and I was completely miserable. Ayumwi and John kept telling me to throw up if I could — and boy did I try — but I just couldn’t get it out. We must have seen six other people throwing up on the side of the trail, so I clearly wasn’t alone in my state.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get better. As we kept climbing, I kept feeling weaker and weaker, and more and more nauseous. Jill and I had both tested great on our vital signs up to 16,000 feet but I guess those last 4,000 are another story. Every step was brutal. We couldn’t feel our fingers or toes, our remaining water was completely frozen, we were physically exhausted, and the altitude was eating me alive (and while I wasn’t exactly thrilled that Jill took this photo of me at time, it makes for good blog material).

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Finally, the first sign we were close was the sunrise over neighboring Mewenzi Peak, which at 18,000 feet is the third highest in Africa. We were told it would take anywhere from 6-8 hours to reach the summit, so if we had left at midnight and were now seeing the sunrise we were getting close. And getting out of the dark certainly helped our spirits a bit too.

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Those last thousand feet or so to the lip of the crater were just brutal. I had to go about ten steps at time then take a break. But there was no way I was turning around. I knew it wasn’t about winning… ok it was all about winning and goddammit I was going to make that stupid summit.

We hadn’t been on remotely flat ground or taken more than a 30-second break (due to the cold) for seven hours, so when we finally reached the ridge I just about completely collapsed onto a boulder and stared out into the crater. I couldn’t speak. Jill came over and we were both crying. It was that punishing, and that rewarding.

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The final kick in the shorts was that we still had another hour to hike up around the rim to reach Uruhu Peak, the actual tallest part of the mountain and the single highest point in Africa. That hour was just as brutal as the last. But reaching it was an unrivaled feeling.

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After about 10 minutes at the summit taking photos, we got the hell outta Dodge. It only takes 2-3 hours to get back to camp because you slide down this massive meandering loose dirt trail alongside the one you went up. Descending can be more dangerous than summiting, since trekkers are completely exhausted and therefore super accident-prone. I watched a guy right next to me try to slide down too quickly, slip, and break his ankle. Three guides had to carry him down the remaining 3,000 feet from the summit to get him in a wheelbarrow-like stretcher — and then down a horribly bumpy trail for the last 16,000 feet. Our guides later told us that three people that morning had to be taken down in a stretcher. We also found out later that a nice guy gamed Eric to whom we had given a ride from the Kili airport made it to 19,000 feet before vomiting blood and needing to be raced down the mountain due to acute altitude sickness.

We slept like babies that night then had a relatively easy five-hour hike back down to the gate, where we had a final picnic lunch before heading to Mbahe Farm for our first shower in a week and a farewell dinner party with all of our porters.

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So given all that… Would I recommend summiting Kilimanjaro? Absolutely. It was brutally hard, and perhaps harder for me and Jill than others, but we both consider it the greatest physical achievement of our lives. Simon’s company, SENE, earned a Triple A+. Amazing competence, professionalism and support from top to bottom — from Simon himself, the office, our guides, our porters, Mbahe Farm, the food, everything. Thanks to Catie and Sharon for introducing us to Simon at Catie’s wedding in California!

All in all, an experience we find ourselves reminiscing about constantly, and one we’ll surely never forget.

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