An Anglophone’s Guide To Reunion

I used to think that it was impossible to identify the most beautiful place we’ve visited this year. There’s just too much beauty in the world. How do you judge the beaches of Mauritius against the limestone peaks of Halong Bay or the stunning countryside near Lalibella? That was before we arrived on the remote island of Reunion, one of the farthest-flung outposts of France.

As our bus left the coastline highway bordering the sapphire ocean and began its arduous climb around hills covered in deep green vegetation and shrouded in mist, I realized I had been wrong. I had found the most beautiful place of the year:  Reunion. Not its beaches, which pale in comparison to those of Mauritius, but its green hills and mountains that play hide and seek in the clouds, coming out to show off in the early morning sun before slipping away coyly behind layers of fluffy vapor. The place is magical.

It is also rarely visited by Anglophones, particularly Americans. The small jewel of an island gets about 400,000 tourists per year, but the majority are French, while the rest are mostly Continental Europeans. “You’re American?” Our taxi driver asked curiously. “We don’t get many of those. I’ve met three or four in the past ten years.”

There are good reasons for this dearth of Anglophones. Reunion is far from the US, and expensive to reach. As a part of France, its official language is French, and you’re much less likely to find English-speakers here than in Paris or Versailles. And if you want to prepare for your trip with online research, most of what you find will be in French.

But if you like hiking, have a minimal grasp of French, and are prepared to fly a seriously far distance, then put Reunion on your travel bucket list. And to aid any Anglophones out there planning a trip to Reunion, here’s our short guide to the island.

Getting There and Around
You’ll fly into Roland Garros International Airport near Saint Denis, the capital.

The pros and cons of renting a car: Is it necessary to rent a car? Nearly everyone writing online says to rent a car, and Lonely Planet highly recommends it. There are many benefits to having a car on the island:  the public transportation system won’t get you everywhere (including to Piton de la Fournaise, the volcano that is Reunion’s largest tourist attraction); taxis are excruciatingly expensive; and a car provides greater flexibility with timing and destinations.

However, if you plan carefully, don’t mind skipping some smaller towns, and aren’t intimidated by multiple bus transfers, then it’s not necessary to have a car and you will almost definitely save money. You’ll also avoid the aggravation of driving on tight mountain roads and of searching for parking spots, and you might even free up time for hiking, since you’ll be less tempted to move around every day or two. And since you often have to book accommodations far in advance, you won’t lose too much in schedule flexibility by not having a car.

If you’re not renting a car, just make sure that you plan carefully before you arrive. In our case, we decided to not rent a car, so after carefully scouring the Lonely Planet guidebook, we picked two places – Cilaos and Hell-Bourg – that we thought we could access by bus and minibus. It turns out that the poorly worded explanation in the guidebook was misleading. Although we could reach each town on multiple buses from Saint Denis, we couldn’t take a minibus between the two cities:  despite their close proximity, no road goes between them, so you either have to embark on a two-day hike or take the road that goes around the island, requiring either 5 separate buses or a very expensive (170 euros!) taxi. To save time, we opted for the taxi. Despite its painful price tag, this combination of public buses and one private taxi actually ended up being cheaper than had we rented a car for the entire week we were on the island. (And if we had only used public transportation, our transportation costs would have been much cheaper. To get from the airport to Cilaos, we took one shuttle and two buses, with the combined price of less than 10 euros per person.)

Renting a car: If you plan to rent a car, you can book online before you arrive and pick it up at the airport. If you do not have a European license, you must bring a copy of your International Drivers Permit with you. Also, Americans, note that cars with automatic transmission are generally more expensive to rent, so you’re better off if you know how to drive manual!

Public transportation: From the airport, your best option for getting to Saint Denis’s Ocean bus station or into the city center is taking the shuttle (“navette”) for 4 euros/person. The schedule is available online here. To find the shuttle stop, walk out the main doors of the airport and turn to your right; you’ll see a sign for the navette stop at the end of drive. Once on the navette, the Ocean bus station is the first stop, while the city center is the second (and last) stop.

To get out of Saint Denis, take a Car Jaune public bus from the Ocean Bus Station. You can find their schedules online here. To use the schedules, you have to figure out which line you’ll be on, which can be slightly confusing because several different lines might stop at the same cities. Alternatively, just show up at the station, say where you want to go, and the ticket seller will tell you which line to take and when the next bus is leaving.

To get to certain cities, you may have to switch to a different bus company in a connecting city, where you’ll buy your onward ticket. For example, our first trip was from Saint Denis to Cilaos. We purchased our Car Jaune bus tickets from Saint Denis to Saint Louis for about 3.20 euros/person. Once in Saint Louis, we bought tickets from a separate company to get to Cilaos; each cost about 1.40 euros. You can find an overview of these smaller bus companies here.

Main Attractions and Where to Go
Piton de la Fournaise, an active volcano, is one of the biggest tourist attractions on the island. It’s also difficult to reach without your own car, unless you’re willing to try your luck with hitchhiking, which a few people on travel forums say they have done successfully.

Hiking is the real draw here. Your best bet is to head to one or more of the three “cirques,” beautiful canyon areas carved from ancient volcanoes. All are filled with excellent hiking opportunities, meandering through forests, past rivers, and over steep ascents. Cirque de Cilaos and Cirque de Salazie are accessible by road, whereas Cirque de Mafate can only be reached on foot. We met a man who was born and raised in Cirque de Cilaos, but who had never visited the neighboring Cirque de Mafate because he didn’t like to walk!

The Office of Tourism in each town can give you a map and/or directions for local hikes. While some people hike from town to town, most seemed to do day hikes.  (Our one specific hiking tip that we wish someone had given us:  if you hike from Hell-Bourg to Trou de Fer, you have the option of taking the sentier or the piste to Trou de Fer once you arrive at Gite de Belouve. The sentier, which goes through the forest and much more mud, is slightly more scenic but definitely more difficult than the piste.)

Looking for even more activity? There are a number of other sports you can try out as well. Depending on where you go, you can find canyoning, hang gliding, white water rafting, and surfing.

The island has beaches, of course, but I wouldn’t fly all the way here just for the sand. The neighboring island of Mauritius, less than 45 minutes away by plane, is a better beach destination.

Sleeping
The most important thing to know about finding accommodations is that, if you want to have the best choices and don’t want to stay in a dorm room, then you should to book far in advance. We failed to do this, assuming wrongly that since it wasn’t during the French holidays, we wouldn’t have a problem. This is one place where we feel like we screwed up; contacting places only 3 weeks in advance, we struggled to find good value, non-dorm options that weren’t fully booked. On some French forums, I found people who said they had booked five months in advance! But don’t worry: if you fail to book far in advance, rest assured that you’ll likely be able to find something; we noticed some last-minute cancellations that freed up rooms at both gites where we stayed.

Tripadvisor and Reunion’s official tourism site both list a range of accommodation options. Some towns also have their own website listing accommodation options, though not always in English. For example, Cilaos lists local accommodation options here (under “herbergements”).

Eating and Drinking
Reunion’s food did not impress us, though if you’re a fan of French food (which we’re not), you might have a better time. The food is generally a mix of French and local Creole, with many imported ingredients.

Restaurant prices are generally high, and we found that it was much more economical to buy groceries and self-cater as much as possible – particularly for breakfast. (Since we didn’t have kitchens, bananas, granola, and peanut butter, which I brought from Mauritius, were my go-to staples). Boulangeries generally offer baguette sandwiches, which are great for cheap lunches or hiking picnics.

Local wine has been improving, but if you order traditional local wine, be ready for something that is so sickly sweet that it tastes like fake grape juice. Someone told me that they add 50 kilos of sugar to each wine barrel to make it drinkable. Not sure if that’s true, but diabetics (and everyone else) beware.

Of everywhere we ate, there are three places I’d recommend:  the bakery in Cilaos on rue du Père Boiteau across the street from the Tsilaosa Hotel (check out their pain chocolat banane!) and the creperie in Hell-Bourg. Both were excellent and good value. Ti Chouchou, also in Hell-Bourg, was another good option.

Communicating
If you don’t speak any French, you might struggle. If so, head to the tourist office in each city or town that you visit; one employee generally speaks English and will get you sorted out. (As a general note, the tourist offices were very helpful; we stopped by in each city we visited to ask advice about hiking, transportation, etc. In Saint-Denis, they even called a taxi for us when we failed to find one on the street!)

Want more pictures? Check out our album here

Rwanda: Favorites and Recommendations

 

 

 

 

 

As I mentioned in a previous post, Rwanda is a charming place for a foreigner traveler. Some of our favorite aspects of the country:

The moto taxis. This was Andrew’s favorite part of the country, though I had slightly more mixed feelings. Drivers on 150cc Japanese motorcycles cruise along city streets, offering the cheapest and easiest way to get to your destination. It’s fun to glide through traffic, curving around hills until you stumble upon a spectacular view. It’s practical, too, and we even did it multiple times carrying our luggage on our backs. Of course, when a new friend working at a hospital in Kigali told us that about 90% of the emergency room visits they saw were from moto accidents, we saw our new habit in a different light. Luckily we only had one moto ride left – to the airport – after that conversation, and we emerged from the country without a scratch.

The natural beauty. Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, is one good-looking country. Driving through the countryside, you wind your way through lush hills, most of them covered in steeply terraced fields. The land not given over to agricultural is carpeted in thick forests, making it easy to imagine what it looked like before people decided to use the land for agriculture, a dense and rolling forest. Lake Kivu, spreading out along the border with the DRC, is lovely and serene (making it difficult to comprehend its grisly history as a dumping ground for bodies during the genocide). Near Kibuye, the lake is scattered with small islands and its edges scalloped with peninsulas, creating bays that have an almost Swiss look.

The safety. For foreign tourists, Kigali is generally very safe, which is somewhat rare for a large African metropolis. We walked around at night without any problems.

The people. Apparently Rwandans love to make small talk; it’s rude to walk into a restaurant or shop and to get down to business without starting with a hello and how are you, many times followed by other banter. Most everyone we met was friendly or sweet.

The food. Okay, we wouldn’t go here (or most places) just for the food, but the capital city does host a number of excellent restaurants. We even found fresh donuts! And though vegetarian local food is not common, when you do track it down it’s generally solid:  platters filled with peas, vegetables, and starchy bananas, potatoes, and cassava. The veg platters won’t win any food awards, but they are satisfying and healthy.

Travel Recommendations For If You Go:

STAY: We were pleasantly surprised with the accommodation options in Rwanda. In Kigali, we stayed three separate times at the Step Town Motel; it was an excellent mid-range option that was very clean, run by a friendly manager and staff, and within walking distance of the city center. Highly recommended.

If you’re looking to get out of the big city, Lake Kivu is lovely. We spent a few days in Gisenyi at the Paradise Malahide Hotel (aka Hotel Malahide Paradis), and two nights in Kibuye at the Centre Bethanie. The Paradis Malahide boasts beautiful grounds on the shore of the lake, perfect for bird watching over delicious breakfasts. We even heard a bird that sounded like she was humming part of Mozart’s Rondo a la Turka. The Bethanie, which is also a conference center, is less intimate, less charming, and has fewer communal places to hang out, but the inside of our deluxe room was more comfortable than at Paradise Malahide, and it also provided a gorgeous view of the lake. For what it’s worth, although Gisenyi is more popular with tourists, we both thought Kibuye was slightly more beautiful.

EAT: In Kigali, we enjoyed risotto and quesadillas at Heaven Restaurant, wood-fired pizzas at New Cactus, and the excellent smoothies, soups, and sandwiches at Shokola Lite (which also had the best wifi connection of everywhere we visited). ABC Bakery has fresh donuts on Saturdays, and they make a mean vegetarian bagel sandwich, though the vibe is very expat-y. If you’re looking for a good (but expensive) cup of coffee, heading to one of the Bourbon Coffee locations is your best bet. Their banana bread is good, though sandwiches and veggie burgers are mediocre. And after spending two weeks in Ethiopia, the Kenyan Nakumatt grocery stores were simply amazing; I even found peanut butter, and Andrew a Dr. Pepper!

Since we’re not fish-eaters, we didn’t check out the local fish, but a friend of a friend highly recommended going to the Nyamirambo neighborhood and getting a fried fish from Green Corner. Apparently it’s huge and amazing.

DO: In Kigali, we would highly recommend visiting the genocide memorial, which I talked about in this post. It’s upsetting and gut-wrenching, but it’s an important memorial that both honors the genocide victims and provides useful information on the lead-up to the genocide, its atrocities, and the aftermath. It’s impossible to leave the last exhibit, focused on children who were victims, with dry eyes.

If you’re looking for some responsibly sourced souvenirs, don’t miss Ineza Cooperative. It’s a women’s cooperative comprised of genocide survivors, many of whom are living with HIV/AIDS; the cooperative provides members with an income source as well as a range of other support. Their handmade colorful cloth products – including bags, aprons, and toys – are beautiful, and your purchase will help support the incredible cooperative. [The cooperative is based in a residential house in Remera, and no appointment is necessary. To find it, take the road to the airport; once you’ve passed Chez Lando, continue straight (don’t curve to the left) for a short distance until you see a blue building called Sunrise House – most taxi drivers know it. To the right of Sunrise House is a small dirt road between it and another building – go down it. Pass behind these buildings, and you’ll see a house in front of you and slightly to the left with a blue gate. There is a small WE-ACTx sign outside. Just open and go in; they work in the house at the back of the lot (go around the house to the right).]

Activities in the Lake Kivu area center around the lake; in both Gisenyi and Kibuye, you can take boats out for a couple of hours. Paradise Malahide will let you use their canoes for free, or in other place you can hire a motorized boat to take you around. If you find yourself in Kibuye, there’s a nearby island that houses thousands of bats. We didn’t realize that our guide was going to wake them all up during the middle of the day so that we could see them fly above us, and so we’ll leave it to you to decide whether you want to disturb their sleep. But I will say that seeing thousands of bats flying overhead was one of the most bizarre sights I’ve seen.

READ: I’d highly recommend reading more about the genocide before or during your trip. One of the best books I’ve ever read – period, not just on this subject – is Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families. Another book that I found informative was Jean Hatzfeld’s The Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, which is essentially a compilation of interviews with a handful of killers from the genocide. It’s a difficult read because it’s a difficult subject, but it helps to shed light on how such a horrifying and inexplicable mass murder could occur.

How Do Penguins Drink Their Cola?

 

On the rocks.

When all of your family and friends are murdered, who is left to remember you?

The Kigali Memorial Centre is relatively sanitized compared to other genocide memorials you can find in Rwanda (only a small number of skulls and bones on display), but that doesn’t make your experience much easier. Situated on a pretty little compound set on the side of a gentle hill, it was created as a place for survivors, as well as a way to teach the world about the grotesque atrocities committed less than 20 years ago. Though I didn’t see any survivors wandering the grounds on the day we went, there were many Western tourists with ears glued to audio-guides.

The surrounding grounds host clusters of small gardens, dedicated to specific groups – women, children – or made to represent the different stages of Rwanda – before, during, and after the genocide. The latter three gardens are peopled with small statues. In the garden representing the genocide period, the statues have their backs turned from each other. In the garden representing after the genocide, one statue is a monkey on a cell phone, telling the world what happened.

Mass tombs take up much of the outside space; this is the final resting ground of more than a quarter of a million people. Nearby, the wall of names seems pitifully small, a mere fraction of the names that you see on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. The paltry number is partly because the Genocide Memorial doesn’t know who many of the victims were. When all of your family and friends are murdered, who is left to remember you?

Inside, the building walks you through the run up to the genocide, including the colonial period and the build up in anti-Tutsi propaganda; the genocide itself; the international response; and the aftermath. Tidbits of information highlight the role that the international community played. The colonialists, seeking to divide and rule, classified people based on how many cows they owned: ten or more? A Tutsi. Less than 10? Why, you’re a Hutu. The French, in the lead up to the genocide, armed and trained Hutus; near the end of the genocide, they essentially created a safe zone for the Hutus to flee to the Congo. No wonder the post-genocide government abruptly changed the official language of education from French to English.

After running through the history – illuminated with photographs, video interviews, and documents – you come to three small rooms that house photographs of those murdered, exhumed skulls and bones, and other personal belongings taken from graves. There’s a Superman bed-sheet. A faded Ontario, Canada t-shirt. Track pants. Skirts and shawls and other clothing. Outside, a quotation on the wall asks, “When they said ‘never again’ after the Holocaust, was it meant for some people and not for others?”

Upstairs, a small section dedicated to other genocides and genocidal massacres discusses what happened in Armenia, Namibia, Europe during the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Yugoslavia. How does so much evil exist in this world?

Entering the last section, a sign at the front reads “In memory of our beautiful and beloved children who should have been our future …” Inside, life-size photographs of children are accompanied by personal information:  their names, their best friends, their favorite foods, their dreams – and how they were killed. One that made me want to break down sobbing:

David MUGIRANEZA
Age: 10
Favorite sport:           Football
Enjoyed:                       Making people laugh
Dream:                          Becoming a doctor
Last word:                    “UNAMIR will come for us.”
Cause of death:          Tortured to death

UN, did you hear that? You were warned about the imminent genocide but declined to do anything. Later, Kofi Annan acknowledged “sins of omission.” But UN, but world:  does it still weigh on your soul?

It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around genocide. It’s equally difficult to understand how society can begin to move on. How do you heal in a place like this? How do you build a future, when the recent past is so atrocious and impossible to ignore? How do you find justice when almost every single person in the country is, in the words of the memorial, a survivor, a perpetrator, or a collaborator? There were some who were not, of course. They are “The Just,” as the author of Machete Season calls them, similar to the “Righteous among the Nations” of the Holocaust, but the percentage is very low. In a video at the memorial, one survivor said that she didn’t think everyone was evil. No, no. Rather, she estimated that 5% were good and 5% were neutral. It’s staggering.

Rwanda, Rwanda

We decided to go to Rwanda without really knowing what we would do there. Although we had initially been intrigued by the possibility of gorilla tracking, the hike in fees to $750/per person for one hour of viewing wild gorillas made it too steep for us. But I was still interested in visiting the country, wanting to glean a better understanding of its horrific recent past, its complicated present as both a development darling and human rights pariah, and its possible futures. And since tourist dollars are important for their economy, we figured we might as well spread the love even if we were skipping its main attraction. So we booked our tickets for Rwanda and then fielded the same question over and over, from curious Americans to skeptical Ethiopians: “But is there anything to do in Rwanda?”

Each time we were asked, we shrugged. Surely, there must be something to do. Yet thumbing through the Lonely Planet chapter on Rwanda before we arrived, we struggled to come up with much that didn’t revolve around primate tracking. Sometimes this is a blessing, a chance to take a breather, to read and to think and to learn. Facing a lack of tourist attractions reminded me of the question that someone posed to me before leaving on our yearlong trip:  “What are you going to do everyday?” At the time, I wasn’t completely sure. “Just be, I guess.”

Being, as a foreigner in Rwanda, turns out to be great. Rwanda is beautiful, interesting, and doesn’t make you feel like a failure if you’re not acting like a tourist every minute of every day. (Unlike during a short stopover in Le Havre, France, when the hotel employee scolded us for being lazy when we took an afternoon to sit around reading. Particularly funny since Le Havre is not generally a sought-after tourist destination.)

While Rwanda provided plenty of opportunities for relaxation, I also found it, in a way, deeply unsettling. Out of all the countries we’ve visited so far, this is the one that I have the hardest time sorting out my feelings towards. This stems in large part from the genocide that took place less than twenty years ago. Though we’ve visited other genocide memorials this year – the Killing Fields in Cambodia, Yad Vashem in Israel – this is the genocide that’s hardest for me to wrap my mind around, partly because of its relative recentness, and partly because, unlike the Holocaust against the Jews, where survivors often had the opportunity to begin a new life in another place, survivors in Rwanda had to try to pick up the pieces of their broken lives while living side-by-side with neighbors who often were perpetrators or collaborators.

Even aside from the genocide, the country is complicated. Rwanda is generally a development darling, receiving huge sums of foreign aid while held up as a gleaming example of a country achieving development goals. At the same time, the government unflinchingly represses certain political and civil rights and intimidates those who attempt to advocate for them. (In this way, it is somewhat similar to Ethiopia, which receives huge amounts of aid that is distributed in a discriminatory manner, an issue that the development community generally does not want to address.) Tellingly, when I asked a human rights acquaintance who spent years living in Rwanda for recommendations of local human rights organizations, she told me that essentially no human rights groups are left in the country.

This post is getting long, so I’m splitting the rest of my Rwanda reflections into two different posts, which I’ll put up next week. The first is about the Genocide Memorial in Kigali; the second is a selection of our favorite aspects of the country as well as travel recommendations for anyone planning a trip there. The second post is decidedly happier!

54 Hours in Jordan

    

If you think the desert has little to offer a curious traveler, think again. At first glance, the arid land of Jordan seems impossibly harsh. Yet a visit to the ancient city of Petra highlights how the land has sustained people for millennia, while sufficiently long drives offer visions of green fields sprouting from the midst of sand and dust. And if you can stand the heat, Jordan offers tourists a fantastic destination full of possibilities.

Monday

8 a.m.
1) A HEARTY BREAKFAST

Breakfast like a king is more than a diet strategy; it’s what you do at the Movenpick Resort in Petra. Start your day off right with the massive buffet breakfast that includes a made-to-order omelet station, fresh juices, and piles of pastries and fruit. In the mood for something more regionally appropriate? That table in the middle is heaped with Middle Eastern delights, from hummus and olives to labneh and pickles.

9 a.m.
2) TREASURING HISTORY

Channel your inner Indian Jones and get thee to the Treasury. No guide or horse is necessary, and you’ll never forget your first glimpse of this majestic building carved into a cliff, peeking out beyond the canyon walls. It’s believed to be a 2,000-year old tomb, though it got its name from Bedouin beliefs that it sheltered a pharaoh’s fabulous treasures. Come earlier to avoid crowds and to catch the best light. Otherwise, gawk at the VIP group that travels with armed guards and a motorcade of fancy SUVs.

9:30 a.m.
3) GET OFF THE BEATEN PATH

Petra is much more than the Treasury, though, and if you’re in luck, you’ll find whole swaths of the site with very few tourists. Right before the massive theater, take the path towards the High Place of Sacrifice, stopping to admire the beautiful views while drinking a glass of tea offered by a local Bedouin woman. It’s free, but tips are very encouraged. Keep winding along the path until you reach the High Place of Sacrifice, with views that stretch to Jordan’s neighboring countries. Take a local’s advice and don’t retrace your steps, which most tourists do, but follow a different path into the Butterfly Valley (Wadi Farasa), making your way past the Lion Monument, the Garden Triclinium, and a handful of colorful tombs. If you suddenly panic because you’re running out of water and you’re not sure where you are, have no fear:  an overpriced bottle is never that far away.

3 p.m.
4) DIP IN

If your internal temperature feels dangerously hot, cool yourself in the Movenpick’s small but impeccable pool. Feeling hungry, too? Dine poolside on a platter of Middle Eastern favorites, including creamy hummus and a tabouli that’s definitely not made in America. Surprisingly, it’s no more expensive than the nearby tourist-trap restaurants; unsurprisingly, it’s much tastier. (And if your friends gifted the stay at this hotel as a wedding present, think about how much you love them.)

Tuesday

9 a.m.
5) MAKE LIKE A MONK AND TAKE A HIKE

Your visit to Petra is not over yet! Today’s goal:  the Monastery, one of the furthest-flung but most interesting buildings in Petra. (Of course, if you want to follow prudent Internet advice, go in the afternoon, when the route is shadier.) Walking over 800 steps to reach it, you’ll be rewarded with lovely views on the way and a site that is completely devoid of packaged tour groups. Of course, this intricately carved building was likely not a monastery, but rather another splendid tomb. Marvel at its sheer massiveness, reminding you of your relative smallness. Fear not the sweat that has escaped, as a kiosk near the top offers cold Gatorade and Vitamin Water. Marvel at this, too.

6 p.m.
7) SET OFF FOR THE SETTING SUN

After making your way to the Dana Biosphere Reserve and checking into the only eco-lodge in Jordan, take advantage of the lodge’s free guided sunset hikes. Only a short walk away, clamber onto nearby hills for a view of the multicolored rock surroundings. While the sun goes down in a blaze of glory, sip tea with your local guide. Shifting your gaze down to the ground, you might even find an ancient stone arrowhead. If you’re like our guide, act blasé, because it’s common.

9 p.m.
8) SATISFY YOUR INNER ASTRONOMER

They sure don’t make stars like this back home. On the roof of the eco-lodge, in the middle of the desert, partake in a free stargazing session. Learn how to find the scorpion, the swan, and the summer triangle. You may be surprised to learn that you’ve been mistaken on the Big Dipper ever since high school. Make a wish on a shooting star, or two, or three.

Wednesday

8 a.m.
9) FOLLOW THE RIVER

Don’t let the desert heat scare you off of a 4-5 hour hike. The Dana Nature Preserve offers a range of hiking opportunities, including a stop at a copper mine described in the Bible, but if you’re worried about the 90+ temperatures, opt for a canyon hike. Following a trickle of water that turns into a stream, you’ll find decent amounts of shade and lots of cool water to splash in as you make your way to the start of a canyon. Since no hike here is complete without tea, drink some while sitting on shaded rocks at the mouth of the canyon. Making your way back along the same path, you may stumble upon goats, donkeys, and a rock that is striped like a tiger. Your animal adventure may not be over yet:  at the end of the path, there’s a real possibility that an ornery camel will be blocking your pickup truck.

IF YOU GO

While we only stayed in two places, we would highly recommend both, though they are not for penny pinchers.

The Movenpick Resort Petra has one of the best locations in Petra, mere steps from the historic city’s entrance. Not sure if we would have picked this pricey place ourselves, but we absolutely loved our stay there (which was gifted by our friends). The hotel is gorgeous, service was perfect, and the air conditioning and pool were very much appreciated.

If you’re concerned about your environmental impact, Feynan Ecolodge claims to be the only true eco-lodge in Jordan. With no electricity except in the bathrooms and at reception, the hotel is lit at night by hundreds of candles. Their environmental commitments extend to serving only vegetarian meals. Prices include free guided stargazing and free guided sunset hikes; they can also arrange a variety of other hikes and activities for guests.

[A Note to Our Readers: Our Jordan visit was two months ago, but it was too magical to ignore. So to follow up on our 36 hours in Phnom Penh, here’s a travel guide for those of you NYT-reading travel enthusiasts with a little extra time on your hands. And while we were there for more than 54 hours, we’re sparing you the less exciting or repetitive parts.]

Sunset in Reverse – The Upside to a Window Seat

Ethiopia: Travel Highlights and Tips

I’m putting Ethiopia up there with one of my favorite countries visited this year. It’s beautiful and interesting and unique, full of friendly people and historical wonders. It’s not the easiest country to travel in (can anywhere beat the well-trodden backpacker route in Southeast Asia?), and I left covered in flea/mosquito/ stinging-ant bites, but it’s nowhere as difficult as Lonely Planet makes it out to be.

A few highlights:

The churches of Lalibela. They’re hewn from rocks! Imagine a massive piece of rock that was chipped away at by hand(s) until, one day, emerged an intricate church. Then imagine 11 of them in close proximity. Impressive.

The countryside, particularly surrounding Lalibela. It is stunningly beautiful, and completely unexpected. No one ever told me how beautiful the country is. Pictures of Lalibela tend to show just Bet Giyogis, a small church surrounded by a dirt area, leaving the impression that it’s a dusty, brown town. Come at the end of the rainy season, though, and you’ll find a riot of green fields and yellow wildflowers.

The palaces of Gonder. The royal enclosure with multiple palaces is a nice place to spend a few hours. In contrast to the châteaux of France, these castles are in ruins (mostly thanks to British bombings of Italian troops living there during the war). But it’s interesting to walk through the complex, imagining royal Ethiopian life several centuries ago.

The monasteries of Bahir Dar. After visiting two, I somewhat suspect that they all look similar, but they’re definitely worth a visit. The circular, thatch-roofed buildings each host an inner room, reserved for priests and Arc-of-the-Covenant replicas, but the real draw are the paintings – colorful, lively pictures meant to teach lessons from the Bible to those who can’t read it. How else would I have learned about the cannibal who went to heaven?

The food. Ethiopian food is delicious. I can’t speak for the meat dishes, but Ethiopia is a great place to be a vegetarian, since people here fast nearly half the year (every Wednesday and Friday, as well as a number of religious holidays). And by fasting, I mean eating vegan. Fasting platters are the best:  a huge piece of injera bread piled with a variety of vegetable and lentil dishes. But even if a restaurant doesn’t offer a fasting platter, they can generally whip up some meatless shiro, a red, creamy, chickpea-based dish.

The Balageru Cultural Club. This local haunt in Bahir Dar was awesome. A tightly packed crowd sits in a circle on overturned beer crates, watching performers (and others) singing and dancing. And that dancing is incredible. One of the performers kept making fun of us (though we couldn’t understand what she said), raising roars of laughter from the crowd. I guess that’s the price you pay as a foreigner.

The coffee. Coffee culture is king here, and a traditional coffee ceremony is on offer at numerous places. But cappuccinos are also ubiquitous and good, often covered in cocoa powder and less than a dollar. Mmm. (Though, as I’m currently reading The China Study, I feel compelled to say that you might want to reconsider your consumption of dairy if you’re concerned about your health …)

IF YOU GO:
The Lonely Planet is somewhat outdated, particularly with prices, and, frankly, we found it less helpful than the advice of friends and online resources. Here’s a quick roundup of our top tips:

The route: Most travelers visit the North or the South. If you have 2 weeks, like we did, you can do the Northern route at a fairly leisurely pace. If you want to move more quickly, you could probably squeeze in a short trip to the South or East. A lot of people visiting the Northern route work their way from West to East (generally Bahir Dar – Gonder – [Simien Mountains] – Aksum – Lalibela), though we did it in reverse with no issues.

Getting around: Ethiopian Airlines flies between most of the cities listed above (though Bahir Dar and Gonder are fairly close, so no need to fly between the two), and tickets are cheaper than listed in Lonely Planet if you buy once you’ve arrived in Ethiopia. Assuming that you’ve landed in Addis, get thee to an Ethiopian Airlines office – there’s one in the Hilton hotel. You may not get your first choice in terms of dates and destinations if you want to leave the next day, but you’ll be able to make something work. Our four domestic flights averaged out to slightly more than $50 per person per flight – well worth it if you consider that the other option is seriously long bus rides (we’re talking 10 hours to several days). From what we’ve heard, it’s better to deal directly with Ethiopian Airlines than to go through a travel agent. And if you need to switch a flight, just pop in to your local Ethiopian Airlines office, which will happily switch a ticket’s time or destination for a 100 birr ($5.50) fee.

Worthy Restaurants, Cafes, and Bars: Of all the places we’ve tried, these are our favorites:
Ben Abeba in Lalibela: Perhaps the best restaurant view in the world. At least it’s the best view that we’ve found in 8 months of traveling. The funky architecture lends itself to superb 360-degree views over the lush valleys below. And the food is pretty good, too.
Four Sisters in Gonder: One of my favorite Ethiopian meal experiences. Four very nice sisters run this brightly painted restaurant, and the food was excellent. Warning: portions are huge! Think about sharing.
Shaheen in Addis: This restaurant is really pricey, but we couldn’t resist the combination of a strong recommendation and Indian food. Andrew still talks about the chili-coriander naan (as does my friend who recommended it!).
The Balageru Cultural Club in Bahir Dar: See above, as it was also a highlight! But order a Dashen beer rather than the tej (honey wine).

Hotels: Write us if you want our full recommendations, but here are some of the best options/values we found (shout out and thanks to Elana for her much appreciated help):
Tukol Village in Lalibela: The rooms are cute, the views are wonderful, and the manager is way nicer than his unflattering description in Lonely Planet. It’s a bit pricey (we bargained them down to $57), a 15-minute walk from the center, and I found 2 fleas in our bed, but overall we’d recommend it – you probably can’t get much better than this. Just don’t eat the not-very-tasty-and-overpriced dinner.
Quara Hotel in Gonder: It’s not as nice as the Taye Hotel, which we also stayed at, but it’s less than half the price, and thus a much better value.
Ghion Hotel in Bahir Dar: The rooms leave a lot to be desired, and I wouldn’t call them clean, but the garden area is beautiful, the restaurant overlooks the lake, and the price is right: 250 birr (less than $14) for a double. That’s about one-tenth the price of its beautiful neighbor next door, the Kuriftu Resort & Spa (though if you do splurge and stay at the Kuriftu, the price includes breakfast, dinner, a massage, a mani-pedi, a pool, and a free “cocktail” hour!).
Addis Regency in Addis Ababa: Our friend said that this was the best value hotel that she could find in Addis, and though we haven’t checked out any others, we do really like this hotel. Friendly owners, fancy cappuccinos, free airport shuttle service, and pretty decent wifi compared to other hotels at which we stayed.

Other Ethiopia travel tips:
- Bring earplugs if you want to sleep. It’s hard to find a quiet hotel, and earplugs will seriously improve your life.
If you want a guide for a site, find a licensed one from the site’s ticket office. Most hotels can also arrange a guide for you (and some are pushy about it), but their price is always more expensive. Guides at the ticket office generally have a set price:  in Gonder and Aksum, for example, a guide for all the main sites is 300 birr (for the group, not per person).
Give money to NGOs rather than street kids. Of course this is an ethical judgment you have to make on your own. But you’ll be confronted with lots of children asking for money, for candy, for schoolbooks or uniforms, etc. Our guide in Lalibela told us to not give money to children who say they need it for school supplies, because he knows the kids in the community who do this and knows that the money isn’t used for school. Even worse, he said that some of the children getting money from tourists then decide to drop out of school: a short-sighted decision with serious repercussions for their futures. Some tourists pass out pens or purchase schoolbooks directly at shops to distribute. My preferred alternative is donating to an NGO that works with children. In Gonder, a new friend vouched for Yenege Tesfa, a local organization working with street kids. Alternatively, if you’re in Gonder or Addis, you can buy meal/bread tickets at various hotels, which children can redeem for a meal/bread.

Stories from Ethiopia

If you find yourself in Heaven, watch out for this guy!

I’ve been remiss with posting on this blog:  sometimes traveling means that there’s not enough time to write about traveling. Or really, my priorities have been focused elsewhere, which is probably a good thing. I find myself thinking often about blog posts I could write, stories that I want to share. But then traveling takes over, and the blog posts remain ideas without form, floating in and out of my mind without ever making it to my computer screen.

I’ll try to change that, though as I promise this it sounds like a New Year’s resolution:  an aspiration that likely as not will remain an aspiration. Since the last blog post, we’ve visited Israel and Jordan, and both merit at least one if not dozens of posts. But since we’re nearing the end of our time in Ethiopia, that’s what I’ll tell you about today.

Ethiopia, like many countries that we’ve visited this year, is a land full of stories, and yet the stories about this land told in the West are often misinformed. A few stories I’ve learned and myths that need to be busted:

Story I’ve learned: There once was a man who, tempted by the devil, ate 78 people. He then came across a leper, who didn’t look very appetizing, so the man decided not to eat him. The leper asked for a drop of water in the name of Saint Mary, and the man gave it to him. When he died, the devil tried to take the man to Hell. While the heavenly scales were being weighed, determining where he should go, it didn’t look so good for the man. On the bad side, he ate 78 people. On the good side, he gave a drop of water to a leper. But the man appealed to Saint Mary, who shifted the scales, allowing him to come to Heaven. There’s a moral in there somewhere. I found this story painted on more than one monastery:  it’s from the book of Mary.

Myth to be busted: In the United States, a common refrain at the dinner table is the admonition to finish your food, because there are starving children in Ethiopia. When we were in Burma, our guide was surprised to hear that we were going to visit Ethiopia; she told us that they, too, also told children to finish their food because there are starving people in Ethiopia. This isn’t totally a myth; levels of food insecurity here are very high. But I suspect that this admonition is rooted in famines that have swept the country in the past. And so here’s the originating myth that needs to be busted: the idea that farmers cannot produce food here, requiring food aid to be flown in from other countries.

One of my favorite parts of visiting Ethiopia is seeing the beautiful countryside, bursting with fields growing wheat, sorghum, teff, maize, and other crops. And one of the most terrible things is knowing that, during periods of high food insecurity, when the United States was shipping large amounts of food aid to Ethiopia, farmers in Ethiopia were growing and harvesting food for which they could find no market, because the US food aid program required purchasing US food products, rather than local products. For a fuller explanation of how this could happen, I highly recommend reading Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman.

Stor(ies) I’ve learned: Saint George was very important here, for he slayed a dragon. The story is in an Ethiopian holy book. The Queen of Sheba lived here (and I saw her bath — ignore people who say that she actually lived in Yemen). And the Ark of the Covenant, the one given to Moses, is still here, in Aksum. This is something that Ethiopian Christians believe fervently. If you visit, you can only see the outside of the chapel in which it is located; no one except the guardian priest can go inside. And that guardian priest is the guardian for life:  he’s not allowed to leave the chapel grounds, ever.

Myth to be busted: Many people haven’t heard of the Jewish community in Ethiopia, but those who have often think that they have all already left for Israel. The Lonely Planet guide describes a “Falasha” town near Gonder, which used to be home to a large community of Ethiopian Jews until they were airlifted to Israel over 2 decades ago. While it’s true that there are almost no Jewish people in that town, there are an estimated 2,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Gonder, waiting to emigrate. Someone working with the community told us that the Israeli government, though providing support to the waiting population, only allows about 150 people to immigrate each month. It’s a long and difficult process; many people have been waiting in Gonder for years.

Story I’ve learned: I think Frodo Baggins used to live here. Or, at the very least, J.R.R. Tolkien seems to have been inspired by this land, home of Gonder and Shire and Roha …

French language classes, and other fun things

We’re back! After a long hiatus, we’re reunited with each other and ready to return to the blogging world. A few highlights from our past six weeks:

Kaitlin’s five weeks of French school
My French has been slowly rusting for years, and our yearlong adventure seemed like an excellent time for some French immersion. Finding the perfect school ended up being more complicated than I had expected:  I didn’t have many personal recommendations to go on, and online resources leave much to be desired.

After hours and hours of online research, I finally found CLE, based in Tours. The biggest selling point was the small class size; other advantages were its proximity to Paris and the unaccented French spoken in the region.

Overall consensus: it was great, and well worth the time and money. My professors were excellent, my class size ranged from 2-7 people, and Tours was surprisingly charming, with a cathedral to rival Paris’s Notre Dame. I’d definitely recommend CLE to anyone searching for a good French language school.

Andrew’s solo adventures
Since Kaitlin’s writing this, I can tell you, honestly, that Andrew prefers traveling with me. Bien sur! But his solo travels took him through the Balkans and Central Europe, leading him to small Bosnian cities, a week in spectacular Budapest, and a car rally down the Croatian coast. His adventures deserve a travel blog of their own, but in keeping with his general mystique, I’ll stop here.

Friends, friends, friends!
We started this six-week period after two weeks surrounded by good friends, and I was a little sad to say goodbye to everyone. But Andrew one-upped me, by taking an unexpected trip back to the United States, where he managed to see many good friends and lots of family in New York and Chicago. He even filmed my dog for me! And I managed to squeeze in another visit to Geneva to see some dear friends before heading out of Europe. Now we’re in Israel, staying with more close friends. It’s great meeting people and making new friends (like the wonderful people I met in Tours), but it’s fabulous seeing old ones.

A short stopover in Berlin
We’ve heard good things about Berlin for years. It’s all true. Great city, good vibe, full of interesting history and vegetarian restaurants and stylish people on bikes. A great last stop in Europe!