Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Varanasi. The holiest city in all of India where life and death is conducted in plain site and out on the streets. Varanasi, or Benares as its known in Hindi, has the reputation for being one of the most intense places in India, due to its ancient spirituality and the staggering amount of pilgrims and tourist who visit it each year. It sits on the banks of the Holy River Ganga and thus its importance is unmatched in the Hindu religion. Dying or being cremated here is believed to provide a direct path to Nirvana and just taking a bath in the Ganges will wash away all sins.

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Spirituality is ever-present all over India, but here it seems to be the driving force of everyday live. People come to die here (hospices are a big business) and locals tend to take a special pride in being a local. We actually had the pleasure of meeting an 84 year old gentleman on the street, who was brought to Varanasi by his son for the first time. He did not look like he was going to get to leave the holy city but seemed quite content about it.

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Getting to blow out the candle of your life next to Mother Ganga is very special and happy occasion for Hindu believers. For all of these reasons, Varanasi is one of the most popular destinations for travelers of the spiritual kind, India and foreign, as well as the scam capital of Northern India. You’re as likely to see sadhus as opportunistic charlatans or dreadlocked westerners looking for a shortcut to nirvana. Attain a guru’s advice with the help of the readily available local psychedelics. You’ll be hard-pressed to spend a couple hours wondering the alleys of Varanasi without being offered hashish, bang lassi (government regulated weed laced yogurt drink), or Indian ayahuasca. “Experience the awakening without fear” the flyer says.

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Any guidebook or fellow traveller will warn you this city is not for the faint hearted. You should be prepared to see dead bodies, human and animal, and ones that are very close to dying. You’ll pass more cripples, beggars, lepers and starving children then any other place. Slightly more avoidable are the hypnotic visions of the burning ghats.

Varanasi, India

These are the highly spiritual spots along the river where the ceremonial burning of corpses have taken place for thousands of years. If you spend enough time around these sites you’ll be sure to witness the entire process of the sacred ceremony.

It starts with the dead body, wrapped in an orange shroud, being carried through the city by male relatives. Helping to carry the body to the river provides especially good karma. The body is dipped into the river, before getting placed on the pyre. This is followed by the lighting of the ghat by the eldest son or closest male relative of the dead. The flame is carried over from from a continuously burning fire which allegedly had been burning continuously since the start of these ceremonies hundreds of years ago. To fully burn a body can take up to five hours depending on the size of the corpse and the amount of wood used. The ghats burn 24/7 and nearly 80 bodies are cremated here daily.

Varanasi, India

The chest of men and hip bone of women will not burn completely so these will get crushed with a hammer along with the remains of the skull. Once this is completed by the attendant overseeing the process, traditionally by a member from the lowest caste of Indian society, the fire is put out by pouring Ganga water over it and the ashes are scattered in the river.

It is highly offensive to take close up photos of the burning ghats. Our local guide assured us photos from a distance were acceptable but we put our camera away as we got closer to the site.  The process is quite graphic and can be nauseating for the western observer. We actually saw an attendant struggling to keep a leg in the fire. Sweating from the heat of the six foot tall blaze, he kept tossing the leg back into the flames while laughing about his fight with the unruly limb.

Besides the different levels of human decay, we saw a man’s puffed up body floating down the river and a dead cow laid out on the steps of the ghat with bloody froth streaming from its mount. While in our culture, these images would be considered shocking, causing nightmares for weeks, here it all seemed incredibly natural. Suffering, sickness and death seemed to be approached without drama.

Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India
There was something very ancient about this. I found it strangely calming, if not comforting, for death to be treated like any other life event. Showing emotions during a cremation is considered very bad luck for the dead’s rebirth and women relatives are not allowed at the cremation ghats because they are considered “too emotional” (don’t get me started…).
Even without fully understanding the culture, symbolism, and significance of all of Varanasi, you can’t help but to be touched by its deep spirituality. Sites of the ghats’ flames reflecting on the water, devotees bathing, praying, or doing laundry in the Ganga will quite literarily burn into your memory. Coupled with the sounds of chanting and the hissing of kites flying overhead can easily become the cornerstone of your Indian experience.
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Despite all the warnings and bad reputation, we did not actually find Varanasi as intimidating as expected. As a matter of fact, its probably the most interesting place we visited in India. Sure, there is more trash, scams, and shit (figurative and literal) to be dealt with but the city does have a special vibe to it. You either love it or hate it. There is no in between. We ended up loving it.

Varanasi, India
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How to Survive Delhi

How to Survive Delhi

In our last post we talked about our initial reactions to New Delhi and promised some tips on getting the most from this chaotic city. So here you go!

1) Prebook you accommodation.

Have at least your first night booked when arriving in Delhi. Pick a well reviewed hotel or hostel that will provide you information on how to get there and the latest scams. We talked to SO many travelers who did not book a place to stay, arrived at the New Delhi station not knowing where to go, and fell for touts feeding them a variety of scams. Anything from “a fire burned down your hotel” to “it’s a holiday and no hotels have rooms” to “there is a dengue fever outbreak in that area and you won’t be allowed in”. We met these two kids who showed up at 2 am after 20 hours of traveling with nowhere to go and got talked into a 1000 euro 8 day tour with a private driver.

As we say below…don’t listen to anything anyone tells you. Make your way to your prebooked hotel and figure it out from there.

2) Don’t stay in the center of New Delhi.

We typically like staying in the thick of things, but we were so happy to have our nightly escape to a more quiet part of town. Plus, the places are cleaner, brighter, and better run. We stayed at Madpackers Hostel, just a couple kilometers and a quick metro ride outside the city center. Madpackers is quite possibly the best hostel we’ve been to on our entire trip. I’m not sure what made it so great. Sure, the rooms were comfortable, clean, and safe, but that wasn’t it. The place just felt good. And the staff is unbelievably friendly and helpful. They will sit down with you and help you plan your day, warn you against current scams, and even wake up at 5 am to make sure you catch your airport taxi. Madpackers was our oasis and ordering take out from their never ending menu selection was just the retreat we needed after long, hot days in the hustle of Delhi.

3) Ease into it.

Don’t go straight to the bazars or Chandni Chowk. Walking around some of the quieter tourist sites on your first day or two is a good way to get familiar with your surroundings and snap into the rhythm of the city. Navigating the metro ride there will be enough adventure for your first day. As I mentioned in our previous post, the shock is inevitable but it can be great fun if you take it bit by bit.

4) Do not accept ANY unsolicited recommendation.

Most people who offer you an unsolicited helping hand don’t have your best interest in mind. Be very skeptical of the information they provide and don’t allow them to take you anywhere. As we mention above, this is especially true around the train stations. People run extremely elaborate scam operations, usually complete with “official” badges and legitimate looking tourist offices. If you are lost and need directions, do not ask a tuk-tuk driver, group of young men, or other vendor. You will most likely get directed to their “uncle’s” shop. There are plenty of really friendly people who will help. We had success with business men and families.

5) Know the price of your basic necessities.

Any traveler, including Indians from other parts of the country, will be over quoted for everything. Be ready to bargain for food, chai, tuk-tuk rides, water, beer, clothing, etc. It is exhausting but you have to do it. Know your prices, be light hearted but firm, and be ready to walk away from any product/service. 90% of the time this will result in getting the price you want and if not, walk a few feet and you’ll find another vendor.

6) Embrace the chaos.

Delhi is a lot to handle, especially on a budget, but it is 100% worth the hassle. Prepare mentally for the unexpected and approach things with humor and an open mind. If you spend enough time in this part of the world you are bound to get frustrated at points, but it is part of the experience. India will  teach you about yourself and stay with you long after your trip is over.

Delhi – An Assault on Your Senses

Impressions of New Delhi

Lonely Planet calls Delhi “an assault on your senses”. As far as we’re concerned, they are dead on. This description seems to be true about most places in India but Delhi is next level.

If you arrive by plain, the shock is not immediate. You land at the Indira Ghandi International Airport, walk through a very clean, modern and organized terminal to a uncrowded (although slightly confusing) customs desk. Even once you go through immigration and exit the building you aren’t facing off with the hordes of touts, vendors and taxi drivers we grown used to in Africa. They must be forbidden at the airport, and you should enjoy this while you can. You will not be able to escape them anywhere for the rest of your trip. To get to the city center you can ride the special airport metro, which we highly recommended. It cost you about 100 rs and is likely be one of the cleanest and most modern metros you’ll ever ride in.

Delhi Airport

You get your first dose of real Delhi as you change metro lines and find yourself in a rolling underground sardine can, being stared at by your fellow passengers for the entirety of your ride. If you’re a female, ride in the “ladies” carriage, usually the first or the last carriage of the train, to avoid unsolicited crouch to ass action or light groping (no joke). Your metro ride is followed by a sure shock as you surface and find yourself in a completely crazy and unfamiliar world. The level of shock depends on what area of town you get off, but it is certain. Most downtown stops are nuts, but the New Delhi Train Station and Chawndri Chowk are completely insane.

New Delhi Metro

As you ascend to street level, get ready to witness urban humanity in its rawest form. This will include a sea of humans, animals, and vehicles (cars, bicycle rickshaws, bikes, motor cycles and tuk tuks) all swarming around you in a way that makes you feel like you just landed in the eye of a man-made hurricane. Brace yourself. The colors, the smells, the sounds are going to be intrusive and will make your head spin. It’ll take a minute for your senses to adjust to the chaos, like eyes need to adjust to sudden bright lights. Its perfectly normal reaction to want to retrieve and find a relatively quite corner to take it all in. Mich and I tried to jump right into the madness and after walking in a circles for a few minutes, we had to find our way back to the Metro stop where we took a breather before bearing the streets.

The easiest way for me to try to describe the experience is like taking a shot of strong and unfamiliar liquor. Its shocking at first but as soon as the natural repulsion wears off, its likely you’ll feel exhilarated and may even want more. At least this is what happened to me. It gave me a weird sense of thrill and adrenalin that pushed me into the rhythm of the street and made me move as fast and as careless as anyone else around me.

New Delhi Streets

The crowd will push you around and people will be very much inside your personal space. There is just no way around it, as there are just way too many people around. So much so that pedestrian traffic jams are common. Think of what a stadium looks like after a big game. This is everyday life on the streets of Delhi. At one street crossing, there were simply just so many people, bikes, goats, etc. that the mass of beings could no longer move. Like a traffic jam on a highway, except without motorized vehicles. The relief only came when enough people managed to climb over each other and through the stranded rickshaws to make the mass chaos slowly progress.

New Delhi tuk tuk

New Delhi Streets

The traffic, pollution, and noise are only part of it though. The visual overload is an entirely other aspect of the experience. There is color everywhere. The sea of saris and colorful street food under the low hanging orange of the city smog is intoxicating. Banners and flags are strung over streets, cars, shops and you can’t turn your head in any direction without seeing a picture or a shrine of an unfamiliar god, goddess, or deity. Often depicted with animal faces, dozens of limbs or riding a celestial animal. Spirituality here is ever present and in your face. Within the first 36 hours of our stay we visited a mosque, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, and a Jain temple – all with elaborate and colorful statues, flashing lights, smell of incense, and loud music blaring from the temple speakers.

Religion in Delhi

New Delhi Temple

New Delhi Streets

View from New Delhi mosque

Those are the pleasant impressions. On that other hand you’ll be sure to do some double takes at people peeing, spitting and yes, shitting, on the the street. You’ll be dodging piles of human and animal shit (we managed to get lost at a goat market and were forced to wade through ankle high puddles of goat poop) and rats running around in broad daylight. What’s weird is that the sum of all these unpleasantries add up to something truly unique and special. I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled to over 50 countries but Delhi is definitely unlike any other place I have ever seen.

I always thought that you’re not a “real traveller” until you experience India and I hold that view more than ever. The chaos and cacophony is on an entirely different level from anything I’ve ever experienced before. Mutilated beggars, kids without shoes, people sleeping in the middle of the street become almost non visible simply since you encounter them so often. Your eyes become sadly immune to this level of suffering. I think there is no other way for our minds to bear it.

Streets of New Delhi

Still, none of these should deter any adventurous travelers to visit Delhi as there is just so many beautiful things, unbelievable food, and ever-present culture to explore. We’ll give you our tips to making Delhi an enjoyable experience in our next post.

Working Towards Travel

working towards travel

When we first went public about our plans to quit our jobs and sell all our worldly possessions to travel the world, we received two types of reactions. Most people were really supportive and happy for us. Others rolled their eyes and said something along the lines of “Wow, that must be nice”.

We certainly know that we’re incredibly fortunate. But it took years of savings and making sacrifices we managed to put ourselves in the position to do something like this. We’re very aware not everyone is lucky enough to have steady jobs where they can make a living wage and save on top of it. At the same time, it’s worth noting that for a lot of people this is totally doable. We’re not hedge-fund babies nor do we come from a wealthy background.

It took us making a conscious decision about three years ago to start saving and maintain a modest lifestyle so we could build up some cash. Most people in their late 20s/early 30s are taking on mortgages, car payments, and babies. We decided to move into a slightly dingy one bedroom apartment and drive our old, paid off car until the wheels just about fell off. Don’t get me wrong, we think our future selves want a mortgage and a baby someday. But our present selves believe an investment into this shared experience will help us set a foundation for our lives together more than a new condo will.

I strongly believe that If you want something bad enough and are willing to work towards it tenaciously for years, you can achieve it. Whether that is moving abroad, becoming a chef, starting your own business, or traveling the world. Of course, having steady jobs and a partner with the same priorities helps tremendously. Two horses pulling the cart in the same direction are always better than one. For years, we both have been extremely career driven individuals. We both had great jobs, filled with cool projects, nice bosses and awesome coworkers. For all these years we worked at a breakneck pace to climb the corporate ladder as quickly as we could. That, of course, came with it’s own set of sacrifices but also allowed us to save a lot of money. The same way someone might save to buy a house is the way we saved for our trip. Our experience makes me believe that anyone with our (admittedly fortunate) background could do the same.
Here are a few concepts that helped our dreams become reality.
Keep dreaming.
It might sound silly but ever since the idea first came up, we kept channeling our goal pretty much on a daily basis. I believe visualizing your future the way you want it helps solidify your path. For me this translated to constantly talking about destinations, watching travel shows, reading related blogs, and starting a million different lists to get ourselves into the actual planning process. In my opinion, details of this initial phase do not matter as much as the act of doing them. Oh and our secret family method…drinking beers from the places we wished to visit.
Hold off on kids.
We obviously thought and talked a lot about our timing on starting a family, even outside of our travel conversations. During these chats, we realized that neither one of us was in a hurry to take this massive step in our shared life just yet. We know this trip will allow us to be better parents whenever we’re ready for that. That’s not to say you can’t travel with kids, we actually see a lot of parents doing just that and it’s inspiring.
Forgo loans and get rid of debt.
This seems pretty obvious, but I think it’s worth mentioning. I understand the recent availability of relatively cheap credit, first-time home buyer tax rebates, and such can be real tempting. It is really hard to save if you’re constantly dealing with a pile of debt. We made sure our credit cards were paid monthly and that we have very minimal monthly payments to make while traveling.
Make life decisions with your goal in mind.
A few simple examples are: signing short term apartment leases, going to month-to-month cell phone plan and opting for second hand furniture. These are the easy ones. One of the more difficult ones for us was turning down exciting out of state career opportunities (in high cost of living LA and Chicago) and staying put in Atlanta where stability, future promotions and lower living expenses were more likely to come by.
We hope this helps those of you who are considering a similar move. Yes, it’s hard work. But it really is easier than you think.

Six Last Minute Ways to Save for Travel

Six Last Minute Ways to Save for Travel

We are using money we saved for years in order to make this trip possible. All along we knew we were saving for something – a wedding, a home, a move, a trip, a dog – but it wasn’t until after our wedding that we really decided to spend our money on travel. We had a good base to start from but these tips helped us squeak out some serious cash right before we left.

Most lists out there include some great ideas for saving pennies, which we followed for years while gradually saving. But we want to talk about the big bucks. Not just a few dollars a week, but substantial changes you can make a couple months before your trip for some last minute travel slush.

1. Downsize

Our biggest expense was by far our adorable two bedroom apartment. We loved that apartment, but knew we could save a lot of money by downsizing for the six months before we left. We also knew we would be selling most of our stuff so this also got us a head start on the save, sell, donate game. We saved $500 a month by moving literally across the street to a slightly dingier one bedroom. That adds up to some serious travel cash.

Not everyone will be in the position to just getup and move but there are other ways to save on rent/mortgage. Get a roommate. Rent out your spare room on Airbnb. Or better yet, rent out your entire place on Airbnb and move back in with your mom.

2. Cut the Cord

We were spending over $100 for our cable and internet combined and that was the most basic plan. If you have premium channels, you’re adding even more cost. We still needed internet, but we were able to get an introductory rate for $25 a month. Over six months we saved almost $500. Just make sure you can get out of any contract if you’re switching companies. We knew before changing that AT&T Uverse would let us cancel for free since we were “moving” out of the country.

3. Sell Your Stuff

As soon as you leave for traveling your stuff starts costing you. Storage units aren’t cheap and can eat away hundreds a month. Instead of storing, we sold, donated, or gave away most of our belongings. We were able to make over $500 by selling some small furniture, SUP board, clothes, old outdoor gear, etc. And we traded our queen bed for a Go Pro with our good friends Kat and Pat. A win win!

4. Reevaluate Memberships

Take a look at how much your spending monthly subscriptions like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Spotify, Audible gym, yoga, tanning, nails, waxing, etc. Once you start traveling you are not going to be able to use those so why not get rid of them a little sooner and save the cash? There were things we couldn’t didn’t want to give up like our gym, Netflix (l just cut cable, what else do you want from me?!), and Spotify, which we felt ok about. We were still able to save significant money by cutting the other streaming services, practicing yoga at home, and breaking up with Audible.

5. Sell Your Car

We had one car completely paid off and another one still under bank loan. We sold the one we owned on Craiglist and were able to get a couple thousand dollars cash. We sold the other one back to the dealership we bought it from and were able to pay off the loan and pocket the extra money. Overall this gave us about $3500 in cash and the freedom of not having to keep the vehicles stored or registered while we were away.

6. Make More Money

Gabi has always liked the idea of being a taxi driver and his dream became a reality when he decided to start driving for Lyft. He did this strictly to save more money for traveling. It wasn’t easy – the last thing he wanted to do after working all week was to work the weekend – but he did it occasionally and usually loved it. He typically made $60 – $100 a night which, if you’re diligent about it, can really boost your travel budget. Plus, if you’re serving as a taxi on a Friday you can’t drink your usual craft beers. Those savings alone are worth mentioning.

How to Plan Your Travel Budget

How to Plan your Travel Budget

This might be the most daunting thing about preparing and managing long term travel. Wrapping your head around how much you will spend when traveling for months at a time is hard. But don’t worry! We’re going to help break down how we did it so you can spend more time dreaming about which ocean you’ll be sticking your toes in next.

Step 1: Decide your comfort level.

I’d call ours budget comfort. Let’s face it, we’re no longer in our early twenties and the bar for what is acceptable has been raised over the past decade. But not enough to push us out of the budget category all together. We often stay in dorm rooms, eat street food, and generally skip the expensive tours. However, we still enjoy our daily coffee, clean and safe rooms, and we’re not eating instant noodles for every meal. The important thing is to decide what conditions you’re comfortable with, how much that will cost, and plan accordingly. All travelers are different!

Step 2: Pick your countries of interest.

Travel costs vary dramatically from country to country. A $10 room in Cambodia could be luxurious while you won’t find a couch in a crackhouse for $10 in Australia. You can get a great lunch for $2 in most of southeast Asia, but expect to triple that in South Africa. We didn’t want to plan our route too rigid, so this was a bit of a challenge. However, if you can at least get a rough idea of the countries and regions you’ll be traveling you can forecast most expenses.

Step 3: Estimate airfare.

We started with estimated airfare costs since this was a big set cost. We decided against a traditional “round the world” ticket and are purchasing all of tickets independently. We used Momondo to estimate the prices of potential tickets. Make sure you take into account the seasonality of airline prices when searching. If we didn’t know exactly what route we would take, we plugged in an allowance based on distance and region and figured it work itself out.

For example – we plan to do a lot of southeast Asia overland but we know we will have a couple flights within that region. We’re not sure where or when, but we were able to plan a realistic allowance by searching for a few flights between various major cities during the season we plan to travel.

When writing this we’re about five months in and this strategy has worked out pretty well.

Step 4: Estimate cost per day per country.

Next we tried to estimate a per day cost for lodging and food in each country we wanted to visit. This can vary a lot even within one country based on where you are and what your standard is. Price of Travel is a good start for estimating your costs and Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet forums are also helpful. I used a combo of these resources and added a few dollars a day to make sure we weren’t surprised. Then multiple by the number of days you think you’ll spend in that country. Next add in any other known costs – visas, in country transportation, entrance fees, and activities. We like to call these adventures. There you have your per country cost.

Step 5: Forecast additional costs.

The final step is to make sure you’re accounting for miscellaneous expenses. This includes our health and travel insurance, student loans, storage rental, immunizations, and any other costs you might have hanging out in the background as you travel.

We took all this information and build a pretty extensive google doc spreadsheet to help us track and adjust as we go along. I’d recommend Google docs instead of Excel because you can access on any device, offline, and share with your travel partner.

We found other traveler’s budgets super helpful so we decided to share ours also. We’ll start breaking down our actual per country budget, as well as what we’ve learned on the road, in the next couple posts. As always, comment or email with any questions!

So, about Nepal…

As most of our friends and family know, trekking in Nepal has been a pillar of our trip from day one. We were thrilled when we found out the country would be open and ready to receive travelers after the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in April. Our entire schedule so far was planned around making it to Nepal by October in order to attempt the Everest Base Camp trek during peak season.

For the past six months, I’ve obsessed a bit about this trek. Researching and reading everything I could to try and mentally wrap my head around the challenges the 20+ day trek would entail. I’m pretty unsure about my physical preparedness, but logistically I thought we had it down and were ready to roll. However, political turmoil leading to border blockades and fuel shortages is definitely not something I considered or prepared for.

I suspect the international media is paying little attention to the current situation in Nepal so I’ll give you the basics. A political crisis has been brewing in Nepal since August when the Madhesi population, an ethnic group who occupies Nepal’s southern plains bordering India, began protesting the new constitution. The group feels the constitution and new federal boundaries leave them unrepresented and don’t take into consideration previous agreements. Over forty people have been killed in these protests.

Since then, the violence has calmed down and a constitution was signed, however the Madhesis are still on strike. In solidarity with the minority group, India, who could have helped negotiate a more agreeable constitution had they acted earlier, has essentially blocked fuel and other essential supplies to Nepal (although they deny any responsibility for the blockade). Regardless of India’s claims, the fact of the matter is that the fuel shortage in Nepal reached a critical point.

In the meantime, the US Embassy has issued a strong warning urging travelers to reconsider visiting Nepal. We weren’t sure how seriously to take this warning, so we called the embassy in Kathmandu. We surprisingly spoke to the person who issued the warning and she walked us through the multiple reasons for the advisory. We feverishly posted on Trekking Partners and Thorn Tree to get some info from travelers in Nepal and consulted some local guides in Darjeeling who run tours into Nepal. Pretty much everyone told us the same thing. The situation is bad. Reschedule if you can.

After a couple rare Indian beers (we have been ridiculously sober in India), we decided it would be best for us to reschedule Nepal for the spring. The border we were trying to cross is the center of the social unrest and still faces sporadic violence and closures. Even if we could enter the country, we might not make it far with few buses or vehicles running. And in the chance we did made it to our trek, we might be without helicopter evacuation in case of emergency.

India denied our visa extension so we have to leave here by the 20th. Although we’re mourning Nepal, we think this will be a great opportunity for us to slow down and spend meaningful time in one place. In order to meet new people, save some money, and contribute to a project we decided to search Workaway for a volunteer opportunity.

We found a great hostel on the beach in Sri Lanka that needs our help for a few weeks. So we’re heading south. We’ll be helping the hostel get ready to open by painting/decorating and doing some work on website design and content. We’ll hang out in Sri Lanka until early December when our friend Dhanush meets us there.

Yeah, we’re disappointed we had to reschedule, but let’s be real. It’s easy for us to avoid the crisis. It’s not so easy for the Nepalese. They were rocked by the earthquake just six months ago and now, during peak tourism and festival season, the country is crippled by this political crisis and fuel shortage. Cooking gas prices have increased ten fold, schools are closing, and hospitals are running our of medicine and fuel for generators. We can only hope a resolution is reached quickly or Nepal could be facing a serious humanitarian crisis.

Stone Town, Zanzibar

Stone Town, Zanzibar
What comes to your mind when you hear the word Zanzibar? It always made me fantasize about the smell of exotic spices and ladies carrying bags on their heads, dressed in bright colors, walking down narrow alleyways. What’s strange is that Zanzibar, and especially Stone Town, ended up being very close to those imaginations. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the only places I travelled so far that was so similar to what I thought it would be it completely stole my heart. Stone Town is a very special place. Most of it, like most places, probably has to do with its geographic location and its history. And of course with the favorable trade winds of its coast.
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Zanzibar is actually an archipelago consisting of many small islands and two main larger one, Unguja and Pemba. Unguja is the island most people are thinking of when they say Zanzibar. Located about 30 miles off of the Tanzanian coast, it is in technically part of the United Republic of Tanzania but remains a semi autonomous territory. It’s easy to see why. It’s culture and vibe could not be further away from the constant and crazy hustle of Dar es Salaam and the rest of East Africa. Though it’s located just off the African continent it is relatively close to the Middle East with a convenient maritime access to India. For this reason, the island served as an important port of the first trading routes between all these regions. Portuguese, British and even the Sultan of Oman have traded control (read exploited) this little island through the centuries.
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
Stone Town, Zanzibar
Besides the usual and sad colonial legacy, this had another, much nicer effect on Zanzibar. Culturally, and architecturally the mixture of African, Arabic, Indian and European influences are palpable throughout the island but mostly in it’s amazing capital city of Stone Town. This becomes apparent as soon as your ferry pulls close enough to shore to see the dhows (traditional fishing boats) and the two story skyline of the city. You get your first delicious taste of this exotic stew as you step off your 2.5 hour ferry ride from Dar and practically run into the charmingly rundown but beautiful colonial structure of the Old Indian Dispensary.
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
One quick note about the ferry –  we used the reliable Azam Marine Ferry ($35/person each way) and had a great experience with it. If you’re going to Zanzibar from Dar, there is no sense on flying or considering any other mode of transport in my opinion.
We had arranged accommodation in Stone Town through AirBnB and that turned out to be a great decision. We were hosted by an Australian documentary filmmaker named Benj.  Benj is a really cool cat. To give you an idea on his cool-factor: He actually just finished a 4 year project making a full length movie about hip hop in Mongolia. You can’t get much cooler than that. Beside general coolness, Benj also happens to be a very nice dude. He showed us around and included us in his social life for our three days in Stone Town. He took us to his favorite lunch spot, hooked us up with morning beach yoga (check out Mich’s post on this here), cooked with us (if you stay with him ask him to make you ceviche) and introduced us to his friends, a set of locals and cool expats from all over the world.
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
We spent three days in Stone Town before heading to the beaches, and although I think we had a chance to get a feel for the town, I could have stayed much longer. Stone town is just the type of place that is easy to get stuck at. And I suspect that a lot of people do. It’s cool and pretty in a gritty sort of way. Just seedy enough to be charming. Kinda like Al Pacino in Scarface. You can safely wonder it’s narrow, colorful, stinky streets and see ladies chatting in traditional dresses and large groups of guys huddled around a single TV set watching soccer. You will pass shopkeepers selling the usual tourist trinkets, but at the same time you will see kids playing soccer in the streets, old guys smoking cigarettes while playing bao (local board game) or answering the imams call for prayer. The town is westernized enough so you can find much of what you would at home, yet still manages to maintain a very unique atmosphere. Of course, you will see a ton of tourist doing the obligatory spice tour (dressed in Hawaiian shirts with safari hat) but it’s easy to remove yourself from those crowds and feel like you are doing some traveling.
Stone Town, Zanzibar
 
Stone Town, Zanzibar

Kilimanjaro Express Bus Company

I researched a lot about the best budget way to get from Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania and our entry point, to the northern cities of Moshi or Arusha, where our safari was starting. Tanzanian buses are notoriously dangerous and have a reputation for being overcrowded, dilapidated, and unreliable. It’s nearly 600 kilometers from Dar to Moshi and we were just starting out in Africa, so I wanted to make sure we found the most professional company, even if it cost a few more dollars.

We found three companies that seemed legit: Dar Express, Royal Coach, and Kilimanjaro Express. After searching some forums online we figured out they all leave from Ubungo bus terminal early in the morning, with multiple departures per day. We needed to buy our ticket a day ahead of time to make sure we got a seat. This was not ideal for us since our hotel was far away from the station and we wanted to avoid an expensive cab ride or long daladala haul just to purchase the ticket. We decided to ask the staff at Econo Lodge, our Dar hotel, their thoughts on our best option.

Well, it turns our you CAN’T find all they information online and as we’ve said before, asking a local is always the best option. After talking to Econo Lodge we found out there was a ticket office for both Dar Express and Kilimanjaro Express just down the street from the hotel. We took a walk to both offices to get pricing and purchase our tickets. Dar Express still left from Ubungo which would have meant a 5 AM cab ride to the insane bus station, but Kilimangaro Express offered the option of leaving from their downtown office. This saved us cab fare, avoided having to fight through the crowds at Ubungo, and gave us 30 minutes extra shut eye. Win, win, win.

Kilimanjaro Express downtown bus stop at 5 AM.

Kilimanjaro Express downtown bus stop at 5 AM.

Our experience on Kilimanjaro Express was better than expected. The bus left on time (we’ve sat on buses in Africa for four hours after their scheduled departure so this is priceless), the staff was friendly, and the bus was in good condition. It was similar to any coach you’d find in the USA or Europe, which is not usually the case in Africa. Just beware, the ticket office will tell you the ride is seven or eight hours. It took us twelve. I guess Tanzania is cracking down on bus safety and the buses are subject to more weight ins, check points, and speed limits. All a good thing, considering the drivers are a little terrifying, just get ready for a long ride. 

To wrap up, here are a few pointers for those looking to do Dar to Moshi/Arusha or Moshi/Arusha to Dar by bus.

FROM DAR:

You CAN buy your ticket on both Dar Express and Kilimanjaro Express at their downtown Dar es Salaam offices. Their offices are both next to the posta (post office) on Libya and Morogoro streets. Kilimanjaro even leaves from that downtown location making it much easier if you’re staying close by. We booked the day before and paid 33,000 TZS per person. The ticket agent tried to charge us another 10,000 for our luggage but we pushed back. There is a posted sign saying you’re allowed 20 kilos before you’re charged a baggage fee, so don’t fall for it! Even if you’re bag is over 20 kilos wait until they are putting it on the bus to pay the extra fee. No one once bothered us about our backpacks and I’m pretty sure the ticket agent would have just pocketed the extra cash. 

FROM MOSHI/ARUSHA:

Both the Moshi and Arusha offices for Kilimanjaro Express are close, but not in, the main bus station. Just ask any local and they’ll point you in the right direction. We booked from Arusha and were able to buy our ticket six days in advance. Again, it was 33,000 shillings back to Dar. On the way back to Dar they do NOT drop off downtown, but from their location close to Ubungo. Again, not in the station, but a little down the road, closer to the city. We were able to negotiate a cab back downtown for 17,000 shillings, or about $8 USD. Just beware of the taxi touts greeting you as you get off the bus. Go straight to an actual driver and negotiate with him and only pay once you get to your destination. The touts will take a commission, charging you more money or potentially charging you twice. 

ADDITIONAL TIPS:

Kilimanjaro Express left on time so make sure you report 15 minutes prior from departure to get your bag under the bus and find your seat. 

Seats are assigned and you can pick when you book. The earlier you book, the more options you have. We sat in the very last row on the way to Moshi and the very front row on the way to Dar. Both were totally fine. Depending on the craziness level of your driver, the front can be terrifying. Sometimes it’s just better not to know how close to dying you are. 

All the amenities of Kilimanjaro Express...including sweats!

Kilimanjaro Express ticket…complete with biscuits, water, and…sweats?!

They provided a cupcake snack, a soda, and a bottle of water throughout the journey. 

Enjoying our free refreshments.

Enjoying our included refreshments.

There are one or two bathrooms stops on the 12 hour journey so drink accordingly. One stop was insanely clean and well supplied. The other was the exact opposite. 

What to Expect from a Tanzanian Safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

It’s not easy to put into words what it feels like when one of your childhood dreams actually become reality. Being able to experience the Serengeti National Park in all of its incredible raw and awe inspiring beauty was one of those experiences for me. I am not sure if all Hungarian kids in the 80’s grew up with David Attenborough’s African documentaries, or if it was just another on of my grandpa’s legacy to me. In addition to camping trips in the woods and mushroom foraging.

Nevertheless, Serengeti, Kalahari, and the Namib have always been magical words to me. Words that filled my imagination with exotic animals and far-off landscapes I thought I would only see on the pixelated screen of our Soviet made black and white TV. In my young mind, you only got to see those places if you were a full time explorer or documentary film maker wearing a khaki outfit, funny hat (perhaps a moniker and a pipe), and had a perfect BBC accent. So when we first started researching the Africa portion of our trip and realized the long forgotten magic land of Serengeti could actually be on our Tanzania itinerary I was ecstatic. There were no longer any need for discussions on where we should do our Safari. Due to time and budget constraints, visitors usually have to pick between the Southern or Northern circuit of Tanzania for safaris. We, needless to say, had the Northern circuit locked-in.

After many hours of researching, Michelle found a local company, Peter Tours, that offered a five day/four night camping safari that covered two days in Serengeti, two days in Ngorongoro Crater, and one day at Lake Manyara. The tour was to be shared with another couple for roughly half the price of other (foreign) companies with similar itineraries and group size. We were stoked about the price and about being able to support a local business. About our experience with Peter Tours and on general tips on how to find a reputable yet affordable Safari company look for a later post from Mich. For now, here’s a recap of our five day safari.

Day 0 – We arrived to the town of Moshi a day early to get our bearings and meet up with Peter to go over our plans, logistics and itinerary. Moshi is neat little town, full of Mzungus and is more of a hub for Kilimanjaro hikes rather than safaris, as most safaris leave from the town of Arusha about an hour drive further up north. If in Moshi, however do not miss the Pamoja Bar and Cafe, probably the best local meal we had in entire Tanzania, and Union Cafe for western style coffee shop and surprisingly reliable wifi (to be purchased by the 1/2 hour at the internet cafe next door).

Moshi, Tanzania

Day 1 – Peter picked us up at 6AM at our hotel (New Siesta Inn) and drove us to Arusha to meet our guide Frankie, camp hand and cook who was referred to as “Chef”, and our travel companions. We were lucky to got paired up with Martin and Ilse, a super nice and well traveled Dutch couple on a three week holiday through Tanzania.

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

Side note – as we learned, some companies that promote themselves as “tour operators” are simply booking agents or brokers that use other companies to handle logistics for their bookings. This did no seem to be an issue for us but worth mentioning our actual operator was World Tour Safaris who we had a good experience with…minus a constantly overheating truck of course.

After all the supplies and bags were loaded onto our 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser we hit the road and drove about 8 hours to Serengeti National Park. The drive took us through cute little towns and actually passed by both Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater. Our trip was planned visiting the furthest location on our itinerary first and work our way back towards the other sites before getting back to Arusha. The long drive was surprisingly pleasant, although a bit bumpy and dusty once you leave paved road.

I found a special delight in driving throughout Maasai country. Seeing some of the last remaining semi-nomadic people on Earth with their amazing braids, wrapped up in their signature colorful blanket, carrying a stick and spear was a special treat. Seeing the painted faces of young men awaiting initiation, out of the window of our fast moving car made it clear that we were entering a very special place. On the other hand it was hard not to think about how the livelihood and traditional way of these amazing people are being threatened by outside influences (read travelers like US) and a constantly shrinking territory. We were told, and saw first hand, how Maasai now are often forced to give up their traditional way of herding animals and move to cities to scrape a living together. People who have managed to live off the land for thousands of years in sync with their natural environment are now struggling to survive in our “civilized” society. You’re further reminded of this at every stop, as seemingly out of nowhere, Maasai appear asking for money, food, or your empty plastic bottles. Sobering. It was one of those experiences that stuck with me and made me feel helpless, knowing that if anything, me witnessing is probably only contributing to the problem rather than solving it.

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

Once, however you enter Serengeti National Park you leave any and all human civilization behind as no one (including Maasai) is allowed to live within the boundaries of the park. We reached deep inside the park right before sunset and immediately were rewarded with sites of zebras, giraffes, impalas, and hippos. After an hour or so of giddy excitement and a close encounter with a small but angry heard of elephants, we found our campsite, set up our tent and had some much appreciated dinner before passing out under the incredibly starry Serengeti sky.

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

Day 2 and 3 – Serengeti.  Both these days were all about game driving and were ones that we’ll not any time soon forget. After a wee bit of restless sleep (I actually snoozed great, but Mich was a little disturbed by sounds of water buffaloes and elephants passing through our un-gated camp) we had some early breakfast of eggs and chapati (my new favorite dish) and set off for long drives to explore a wide area of the park. We only returned for lunch and managed to see dozens of species, most of which we were completely unfamiliar with.

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

Our guide Frankie was awesome. He was not only super knowledgable about ALL the animals and their behavior but could also spot them (who knows how) from miles away. He’s been guiding for a long time and it showed. He actually took us off the beaten path and away from the crowds. Safari trucks pass info to each other (by radio and drive-bys) on where the animals can be found and thus often hang out in the same area. For this reason, its not uncommon to see a line of 20-30 trucks cueing up to gape at the same sleepy-eyed lion. Not our idea of a great African safari. Frankie did a great job finding animals without having to get in line. Even when we ended up around other trucks, he seemed to be able to find a way to navigate our car closest to the animals. That is how we managed to see lions, elephants, zebras, giraffes and even a cheetah from only a few feet away. Also the same day, though from a distance, we saw three cheetahs take down an impala. Hard to believe that we got to witness something like this.

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

On our first full day in the park we had an incredible sunset drive and the following morning we had a very early rise and was treated to a sunrise over Serengeti. I’ve said it before that sunrises and sunsets in Africa are in a league of their own. Witnessing them with giraffes and elephants galloping across the horizon is something out of a high-def Natural Geographic movie. The intensity of the lights, the vividness of colors, and the size of the sun are somethings I can’t adequately put into words. Its surreal, magical, and something I wish every one could experience. The vastness of this unforgiving landscape is mesmerizing. It reaches deep into your core and touches your humanity. Like staring into the flames of a big fire. Without trying to be too weird or transcendental, I just have to say that its an experience that charged me with intense energy while calming me down at the same time. I surely will be carrying this memory with me for the rest of my life.

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

Day 3 and 4 – In the afternoon of our 3rd day (and last game drive in Serengeti) we packed up and drove a few hours to Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.  It is striking how different the temperatures were between the scorching heat of the savanna and the high elevation on the rim of the crater. After days of constantly lubing ourselves up with sunscreen, now we had to dig deep into our backpacks for long pants and base layers. After setting up camp on the rim we walked around a bit until sunset, had an early dinner and settled in for a good night of sleep without wild animals chumping away a few feet away from our heads.

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

Next day we rose early again for a drive into the bottom of the carter. And what a drive it was! Again, saying that sunrise over the crater was stunning is an understatement and hope the pictures we took manage to do somewhat of a justice to the views we were lucky enough to catch. The crater was lovely but seemed pale in comparison to Serengeti. I should have prefaced that statement by saying anything after Serengeti would have probably felt like a bit of a letdown. Also, I have to add that us visiting in the dry season could also be a factor in our experience. The crater and the rim this time of the year are both dry and brown and the wildlife is much the same (just less of it) as in Serengeti. Also, the crater covering a lot smaller area, it seems quite a bit busier with a lot more trucks compared to the vast Serengeti. The highlight of this day was the stunning sunrise, seeing a pride of about 30 lions (cubs playing and tumbling around included) at a watering hole, and a lovely lunch by a hippo pool. Btw, the hippo pool was our first and only encounter with National Geographic style animal copulation during our safari.

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

Day 4 and 5 – After leaving the crater early afternoon we headed down to the town of Mto wa Mbu and the lovely Twiga Campsite just outside of Lake Manyara National Park. Here we had to say bye to our friends Martin and Ilse as they had a ride waiting to take them back to Arusha as they had to a flight to catch to Zanzibar the next morning. At the campsite we took advantage the much needed and appreciated hot showers, went for a run with a flock of kids in school uniform in tow, and took a stroll into town before hitting the sack.

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

At dinner Frankie came by to inform us that he’s been drinking Konyagi, the local liqueur with the tagline “Spirit of the Nation”, that afternoon and to ask if his two daughters could come join us for our drive into Lake Manyara National Park the next day. Of course we were delighted to have them along and were excited to see them the next day all shy and dressed in their Sunday best.

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

Our day at Lake Manyara went by rather quickly by trying to find the flamingos that the lake is famous for. Again, this being dry season there was a little less to see then usual. One really neat thing about this park is the actual visitor center experience. As you pull up with your truck, you are immediately greeted by a tourism student doing their practical training at the park. Once you sign the guestbook they give you the historic background on the park and the resident animals, including the famous tree climbing lions. They show you around the old facilities that were destroyed in a devastating flood in the early 2000’s. Both Mich and I were both impressed, not just by our supper friendly guide, but also about the idea of this professional development program helping young people, particularly women who are often ignored as safari guides, transition into Tanzania’s tourism industry.

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

What to expect from a Tanzanian safari

After dropping Frankie’s girls off, it was time to conclude our awesome safari and head back to Arusha. As we were settling in for a 3-4 hour drive Frankie kept giving the Land Cruiser’s thermometer some worried looks. We did not think much about it, as it’s been giving us trouble since day one of the trip, overheating at the slightest incline. This resulted in a rather annoying set of short delays, which we took as the small trade off for our half-priced Safari. The issue was usually fixed by the tried method of letting the vehicle cool off for a few minutes and poring some cold water into the radiator. Except that the usual fix did not work this time. After popping the hood, we quickly realized that the hose connecting the cooler to the radiator completely busted and there was no moving the car until the hose was replaced. As Frankie was making plans to hitch a ride to town for the spare part a friendly guide/truck pulled over to help us out. As it happened this truck had extra space and would be our ride back to Arusha. It was only carrying a young German couple back from a private safari.

What to expect from a Tanzanian Safari

As we were dropped off at our hotel, Richard the owner of World Tours Safari greeted us with huge apologies and a bottle of red wine (17 per cent alcohol I may add) for our inconvenience. A nice and unexpected touch we thought. We were not too concerned with the car breaking down on us, just were a little bummed that we did not get to say our proper byes to our awesome guide.