Inle Lake

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Our trek led us into one of the hundreds of finger-like canals that feed into Inle Lake.  It is a stunningly beautiful place, with homes on stilts over farmland that somehow grows right into the lake. The lake is fairly large at 44 square miles but the average depth is only five feet.

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We saw men up to their chests in water tending to the crops. Women were rowing long sleek canoes filled with vegetables. Inle Lake is known for the “leg rowers,” where men hold a single paddle with one leg, standing on the other leg at the back of the boat, gyrating their body rhythmically to row. It keeps their hands free for fishing and farm work.

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While there were certainly some tourists around, Burma kept its “untouristy” streak going strong at Inle Lake. It is serene, unique and still feels relatively untouched.

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We stayed at the Golden Island Cottages 2 which was fantastic. It was our “splurge” in Burma at $80 a night. It is centrally located on the lake and all the rooms are private cottages on stilts over the water, with open lake views on one side and the bordering hills on the other. An amazing place to stay.

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Unfortunately… Inle Lake was the only place I got sick during our three months on the road (I think my large intestine was trying to eat my small intestine but only for 24 hours). Nonetheless, the place was still unquestionably a highlight of the trip.

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Trek to Inle Lake

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After temple touring in Bagan we headed to Kalaw, a small mountain town in Central Myanmar, to start our three-day trek to Inle Lake. This trek is a must-do for backpacker travelers in Myanmar, and since we had transformed into super tough and rugged backpackers over the past two months (see “modified backpacking” in Chile, 16 porters on Kili, and a very tearful summit) we signed up right away.

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Dan had organized our trek with a local guide, Toe Toe, months ahead of time — her company was recommended in Lonely Planet and she had rave reviews on Trip Advisor, so we were excited that she had two spots on a trek that worked with our itinerary.

As planned, we showed up at Toe Toe’s Kalaw office the day before our trek, but the door was padlocked shut with a sign that said “Closed — come back at 12 or 4:30.” Not a good sign.

We were so devoted to the elusive Toe Toe that we waited in front of the office at noon and again at 4:30 PM, hoping this 5-star trip advisor guide had not forgotten about us.

She had. Or, as we later learned, Toe Toe’s trips leave when six trekkers show up ready to go, email ‘confirmation’ or not. Welcome to Burma!

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As it approached 6 PM we realized we needed a Plan B. Our hotel recommended Sam’s Trekking, which was also Lonely Planet approved, so we walked over to Sam’s office hoping we could sign up for a last minute trek.

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We were in luck! Sam has 22 guides and fit us in on a trip leaving the next morning. Each trekking group can have up to six trekkers, so we joined up with a group of four awesome travelers from Ireland, Estonia, and Germany.

The total cost of our trip for three days/two nights, plus all food and lodging included, plus a guide and dedicated cook — was a whopping $40 per person. Welcome to Burma!

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The trek turned out to be our favorite Burmese experience. We hiked through remote villages and beautiful countryside. Our chef (below in the hat) made amazing traditional Burmese meals — the best food we ate in Asia, all cooked over a tiny little fire.

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The first night we slept in a family’s home, on the floor with mats and blankets. No toilets, no running water — just a bucket for washing located next to the buffalo trail (see me below).

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The second night we slept in a similar setting, at a small one-room house that Sam’s trekking company rents out along the route.

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Our 22-year-old guide Chau Xu (“Cho Sue”) was awesome, and insisted on holding every baby we passed along the way.

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Our trekking family — Yasmin and Paul from Ireland, Kristiina from Estonia, and Alex from Germany — was the best. The long, hot hiking days passed by quickly as we all shared travel stories. And as always our list of must-see destinations grew by the minute.

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By the end of the three day adventure we were completely exhausted — intense heat, blisters (I missed my Kili boots!), dust and more dust. We all had a newfound appreciation for showers and beds and agreed however primitive our next guesthouse was, we’d be grateful!

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We finished the trek at the base of the mountains, on a small river leading into Inle Lake. After lunch and fresh coconuts we took a little boat down one of the hundreds of canals leading us into Inle Lake, passing floating gardens and villages along the way.

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In the end, we were thankful that our plans had fallen apart and Toe Toe had stood us up. Our new guide and group could not have been better. Another travel fiasco turned blessing in disguise…and now, onto Inle Lake!

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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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