vinod : June 2009 Archives

The Final Slog Home

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Only a few more flights left to get home.  First up was Cathay Pacific from Osaka to Hong Kong (3 hours) and then onwards to Vancouver (another 12 hours).  One of the knocks on their business class seats is that they are terrible for couples.  And they are.

It's impossible to have a conversation with a neighbor in these little cubicles.  However, after 19 days Lillie and I had nothing left to talk about, and we enjoyed the alone time.  These seats were awesome.  Even at 6'2" I was easily able to full stretch out in the lay flat seats.

A great entertainment system with large screen to boot (watching 30 Rock episodes for the 17th time):

 

The food wasn't very memorable as we mostly slept on these flights.  But again for completeness, here are the photos.  I did learn I love Hong Kong-style milk tea, so that was probably the highlight.

Hong Kong Milk Tea and Nuts Salmon with asparagus, dill potato salad, liguarian olives, and capers.; Mixed salad with lemon myrtle dressing; Yuzu soba noodles. Stir-fried beef with assorted mushroom in oyster sauce, steamed jasmine rice, and Chinese mixed vegetables. Haggen Dasz and Hong Kong Milk Tea  Braised beef shank with dried mushrooms in oyster sauce, steamed jasmine rice, and Chinese mixed vegetables. Lemon cheesecake with mixed berry compote.

Descending into Vancouver, it was great to look out the window and see the late sunset with the water and mountains.  It really gave us the feeling we were almost home (or at least back in the Pac NW).  On landing at 9pm we got to use the Nexus iris scanning machine for the first time.  Worked like a charm and we were through customs and immigration in seconds.

We had initially planned on renting a car and driving back down to Seattle.  Instead, after some scheming it worked out cheaper and easier to spend the night and fly down the next morning.  So we enjoyed the Ramada by the airport for free, courtesy of the sadly now defunct Best Rate Guarantee program, and then Alaska Airlines down to Seattle at 6am.

Our friend Jen was kind enough to pick us up from the Vancouver airport and take us to a bubble tea joint in Richmond for some socializing.  It was good for us both to talk to someone other than one another.  Plus Jen was also kind enough to pay for us as we were loonie-less.

Happy to report that our upgrades for YVR-SEA cleared and we got to enjoy the 25-minute flight not in coach.  In the end, Lillie batted 1.000 on non-coach seating this trip while I had to suck up the very first flight SEA-DTW in the back of the bus.  Woe is me.

Thanks go out to Jimmie for the early morning pickup from Sea-Tac to get us back home to Mr. Zizou.  Once more with his new fox from Fushimi Inari:

Ziz!

Props to anyone who made it this far.  This is not a trip for everyone's tastes, but for our money it was quite fantastic.  And speaking of our money, after doing final accounting we did very well on our budget to actual.  I won't get into the line items here, but will say that it's very much possible to travel the world (in some style) for reasonable prices.  So get on out there.

Until the next trip…

  THE END

Last Day in Kyoto

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We had two things left on our must see list—Nijo Castle and Fushimi Inari.  Despite them not being even close to one another, we made it happen.

First we hopped the JR West train from Kyoto Station to the Inari Station.  This drops you right off at Fushimi Inari.  Nothing but Torii (gates) and stone foxes here.  Really lovely stroll (albeit with lots of stair climbing).

We felt a little bad on occasion here as there seemed to be more people visiting here for religious purposes than for tourist purposes.  That certainly did add to the charm, though.  We really wanted to buy a stone fox from a gift shop in this town, but everyone seemed to sell the same ugly colored ceramic one.  Thus we had to settle on a stuffed one for Zizou (previously pictured).

Three trains later and we were at Nijo Castle—this was built in the 1600s.  The place was pretty well fortified with two separate moats:

What stole the show for us here was the garden.  If only we could make our backyard look a fraction like this.

There's no photography inside the buildings (which are very cool), so you'll have to see the rest in person.  You'll also need to hear for yourself the nightingale floors.

Back at Kyoto Station, we headed to the 9th floor for some ramen.  There are a whole bunch of ramen restaurants here, and we were immediately confused to see long lines at vending machines in front of each of the restaurants.  We then realized that you place and pay for your order at these machines.  Then you hand your receipt to the hostess and sit down.  Another delicious meal.

We wrapped up the meal with some ice cream cones:

Our bags were still at Kikokuso, so we made the quick 10 minute walk from Kyoto Station over there to pack our things up one final time.  We said our final goodbye to the adorable proprietors and rolled out luggage back down to Kyoto Station to start heading to the airport.

Along the way, we spent some of our last yen at one of the ubiquitous drink vending machines that are on every street corner and then some.  They can look something like this:

We had actually read about this Fanta drink in some Japanese tourist magazine I got in Seattle before the trip.  So when we saw it in a vending machine we had to get it.  It's a hyper carbonated grape soda that you shake before opening—and there are large grape jelly globs in it.  The weird part about it was that it was actually pretty good.

With the energy from this drink, we caught a train earlier than planned from Kyoto Station.  We hopped the JR West Haruka to Osaka Airport (KIX).  This is a 2,800 yen ride typically.  The trick though is to buy a one day JR West pass for 2,000 yen that covers the route.  We also used this same one-day pass to go down to Inari earlier in the day, so it was nice value.Seventy-five minutes later we were at KIX to start our long trek back home.

Sayonara, Japan.  We will definitely meet again…

Kaiseki at Kikokuso

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

As great as the toilet was, the kaiseki dinner and breakfast are what we were really excited (and nervous) about.  The husband half of the team does all the cooking while his wife served us in this private dining room adjacent to the garden:

Every single course of dinner was delicious and beautifully presented.  Many items were things we'd never seen or heard of before, but that didn't get in the way of the taste.  Neither of us wasted a single bite.

Here's a slideshow with the full course.  Pardon the vague captions, but it's honestly the best we know!

 

While not quite as elaborate, breakfast was a continuation of dinner.  Waffles it ain't, but delicious again.  Another slideshow:

 

As you might guess, these meals were not particularly cheap.  They were a really outstanding and classy way to wrap up our trip, though.  When in Kyoto and thereabouts, everyone should budget on a splurge like this.

Kikokuso Ryokan

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Kikokuso Outside

For this last night in Kyoto, we stayed in a traditional Japanese guest house.  I can't imagine having made a better pick than Kikokuso.  This place is run by a completely adorable husband and wife team.  Up until last year you'd also be greeted by their Shiba Inu named Gonta.  There is a small memorial to Gonta when you enter, and there's no doubt that his presence would have made the place just a bit more perfect.

The courtyard garden was impressive.  This ability to turn the smallest of spaces into such beautiful gardens is just amazing.

An iPhone shot of the Japanese bath.  This bath was pretty cool—when you flipped the faucet for more water, it would come dribbling out of the rock wall.  I love a boiling hot shower, but I found myself suffocating in this total body heat.

Caliente!

The beds at these ryokans are simple futon mattresses on the floor.  After you wake up, the staff quickly rolls them back up until its bedtime again.  As a result, I missed that photo-op.  So this is what our room looked like after clean up:

Just like the Westin room, the toilet was again the star of the room.  After you flush the toilet, there's a sink on top for a quick hand wash with the water that's heading into the bowl.

Ingenius!  Don't be surprised to see this in our guest bathroom someday…

Remember how we said the owners were adorable?  They gave us this postcard when we left.  Brilliant.  Without knowing Gonta the dog…we rather miss him, too! 

Gonta's House

Checking Out From the Westin Miyako Kyoto

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I'm pretty loyal to the Starwood program if you can't tell, so we spent two nights at the Westin Miyako Kyoto to start the Japanese portion of our trip.  I had a pretty decent rate for the first night and a cash and points stay for the second night.  As usual, we got bumped up a room category to a much larger room thanks to SPG Gold status.

We are very messy

Nice enough view from the window:

The best part of the room was this, though:

It's very important to always know where the STOP button is…

The Heavenly Bed did it's job on our second night here—we barely made our 1pm late checkout.  The jet lag and exhaustion from the trip had finally caught up with us.  This day was pretty squandered, but our bodies weren't going to let us have it any other way.

Our only real accomplishment for the day was checking out a 100 yen shop.  It was a bit disappointing in that there was nothing "weird" there.  Just about everything was rather nice and super practical.  We came out of there with some chopsticks.

Tired from not doing anything all day, we threw in the towel at 5pm and popped over to where we'd spend our final night in Kyoto…

Doctor Fish in Kyoto

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I don't know whose feet these are, but it pretty clearly illustrates what we did (no photos allowed where we were):

 Doctor Fish on random feet

This was a pretty unplanned venture.  We had heard and read about Doctor Fish, so we asked the concierge if there were any places in Kyoto that offered this.  The concierge immediately started laughing and said she'd done it before.  She hopped on the computer and gave us a printout with the below map to this place:

Where to go

Yeah, not a really helpful map if you don't know Japanese.  With the assistance of seven other Kyoto maps, we were able to triangulate this place to be at the Oitaguchi stop on the #11 bus.  This was an absolute shock we successfully made it here with no issues (lots of high fives).

Thanks to the printout, we were able to match the logo on the website to the logo on the front door:

As mentioned, there's no photography allowed inside this onsen.  And there's no English going on inside this place either.  After a 1,000 yen entry fee each, we got 15 minutes of foot soaking time with these dead skin eating fish for another 500 yen each.

Hard to say if our feet were in any better shape afterwards.  Can say that it tickles like none other.  Again, an awesomely unique Japanese experience.

We ended the night with delicious tonkatsu at Katsukura on the top of Kyoto Station.  Sad to not have photos of this meal as it was one of the best of the trip.  Breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets are always pretty good, but this was next level.

This concluded a solid 13+ hour day roaming Kyoto.  We were happy to tuck ourselves into the Heavenly Bed at the Westin…

Kaiten-Zushi

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We stumbled on one of these at a perfect time when we were starving.  It's right between Ryoanji and Kinkakuji and easy to spot.  Most everything on the menu/conveyor belt is 110 yen.  The food really wasn't that great here, but the experience was what it was all about.

Here's what our little booth looked like:

There is no reason to ever deal with a waiter here.  That black spigot looking thing spits out boiling water so you can mix up your own green tea.  Then you chuck your empty plates into the metal area in the bottom of the photo—which then tallies up how many plates you ate for billing purposes.

If you don't see what you want on the belt, just hop on your little touchscreen LCD:

Select what you want (and how many) and the order is sent to the kitchen.  When your item is about five feet away on the conveyor belt, your LCD screen starts going crazy alerting you to be ready to grab it.

This was the future.

Temples and Gardens

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The list of potential temples and gardens to visit in Kyoto is pretty ridiculous.  On our first day, we decided on: Kodaiji, Kiyomizu, Kinkakuji, and Ryoanji.  For some reason, I didn't take any photos at Kodaiji.  As for the rest:

Kiyomizu is a zoo.  Hordes and hordes of tourists (almost all Japanese) here.  From watching others have their photos taken at the entrance, this is apparently how you are supposed to pose:

Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple Pavilion, was stunning.

Ryoanji was one of our favorites—it's a Zen rock garden.  Due to some construction of the viewing platform, it was especially difficult to get a good photo.  Sitting and looking at 15 rocks and gravel might not be for everyone, but we quite enjoyed it.

We also caught a nice glimpse of a Great Blue Heron at Ryoanji.  We see these on just about every trip we go on (in North America, South America, and Africa), so it was nice to add this trip (and Asia) to that list.  Never gets old seeing this awesome bird.

Laundry in Kyoto

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We've done the washing clothes in the sink thing in the past and just aren't sold on how "clean" your clothes really get.  So on this trip we decided we'd pay to have our clothes cleaned.  Unfortunately, we had terrible difficulty finding places to clean our clothes given our travel schedule.  Then when we did have time, we were staying at swankier hotels that wanted $10/pants.  No thanks.

We asked the concierge at the Westin Kyoto about the whereabouts of a coin laundry.  Our expectations were far-exceeded when she ran into a back office and came back with a nice pre-printed map.  (See said map here)

This laundromat was a treat and weirdly a highlight.  The sign alone was welcoming:

There was just enough English signage that we had no troubles operating the machines and we were out of there in less than an hour.  The only bummer was that we didn't have a pair of shoes handy to give this guy a spin:

Big First Day Roaming Kyoto

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In pre-trip planning for Kyoto, we came up with a rough list of things we wanted to do.  It provided a nice backbone for once we are on the ground to play things by ear with some ideas in our pocket.

The forecast for the day was thunderstorms.  The actual weather was blue skies and sunshine.  Simply beautiful.  We started the day by purchasing a 2-day bus/subway pass for 2,000 yen each.  Again, we had great success purchasing this from a machine without assistance.  The rest of the day was spent ping ponging around town on public transit—which was stunningly easy to navigate.

Highlights of the day were: doing laundry (!), four different temples and gardens, kaiten-zushi for lunch, fish chewing on our feet at a spa (!!), and tonkatsu for dinner.

It was a uniquely Japanese day—a nice day it was.  I'm going to group this first day up into common themes, rather than writing totally chronological.  To be honest, we simply aren't going to be able to maintain the same level of excitement as earlier reports on baby gorillas.  Regardless, hopefully you'll stick around for these last few dispatches, and find some nugget of entertainment value in them…

Onwards to Kyoto, Japan

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There were definitely a few times at the end of our stay in Uganda where we were thinking: "We're going to Japan, next?"  Indeed. 

We had a nice and relatively short layover at Heathrow this time (3 hours).  By the time we did the T5 to T3 hokey pokey this was down to 2 hours.  We passed the rest of the time in the Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge—not that great of a lounge, but it was good to start consuming some Japanese beer and snacks.

Beer Nuts

This London to Tokyo flight was our longest of the trip thus far at about 11 hours flying time.  Sadly, their Shell Flat Seat was probably the weakest seat we've encountered (relatively speaking!).  Yeah, it's flat…but at a wicked angle.  Many hours of sleep were still achieved, though. 

For the meal service, I went Japanese and Lillie was soft and went Western.  First the Western meal. The starters (picture on the left) were: chicken liver and wild mushroom pate, prawn & gravlax, and a fresh salad with olive oil and balsamic dressing.  And the main dish is a fillet of beef with red wine and herb sauce.

Amuse Bouche Organic Australian fillet of beef steak served with herb flavor rich sauce made from red wine.  Accompanied by leek and potato gratin, sauteed spinach, and carrots.

The Japanese meal was the most elaborate airplane meal I've ever had.

Left to right in the izakaya style starters (picture on the left): tofu custard with crabmeat; fillet of sea-bass sashimi style; tuna sashimi with yam sauce; fired marinated small fish; Japanese noodle somen; grilled chicken Japanese style; deep-simmered vegetable; and sake-steamed whelk.

And the main course is braised Iberico pork with tofu custard; steamed Koshihikari rice; Japanese pickles; and miso soup.

Kobachi Dainomono

Before landing, we got our snacks on.  On the left is my Chinese ramen noodles in soy sauce flavor soup with Kagoshima pork fillet.  Lillie's tray on the right has Japanese udon noodles in soup with fried bean curd.

IMG_0070 IMG_0071

One of the main reasons we were going to Japan at the end of the trip was for the food, so this was all a nice way to kick things off.  Upon landing at Tokyo-Narita, we got our first glimpse of the surgical mask craze in Japan as we went through a health screening to ease concerns we had swine flu.  It was just a few yes/no questions, so no big deal and we had our free visas soon enough.

We had a short hour and a half layover here before our connection to Osaka-Itami that we spent at another JAL Sakura Lounge.  All sorts of awkwardness here as I was trying to make some green tea for myself.  Only to have an old Japanese women push me to the side and take over.  Watching her it was very clear that I was doing many things wrong and I was thankful for her intervention.

After a completely uneventful domestic flight to ITM, we landed at 6pm.  The next step was to hop onto the Airport Limo bus to Kyoto.  Within seconds of stepping up the automated ticket kiosks, we had tickets in our hands, and marveled at how easy it was.  Our fingers were crossed that everything would be this easy in Japan…

It's a 50-minute ride on the bus to Kyoto Station and it's very nice.  You'd almost think you're riding some light rail it's so quiet and smooth.

Once at Kyoto Station, our final destination was the Westin Miyako.  Only two subway trains to go to get there!  Like our previous bus tickets, this subway ticket machine was an equally pleasurable experience.  Very quickly we had two tickets to take us to the Keage station right next to the Westin.  We high fived as we walked into the hotel less than 90-minutes after landing at ITM.

We set out by foot randomly looking for food and fast realized there isn't a whole lot in the immediate area.  Then we stumbled on a 7-11 and grabbed some (what turned out to be delicious) little packaged dinners.  I also picked up a little guy of Haagen Dazs green tea ice cream to wash it down. 

Then back at the Westin late at night we started fighting jet lag for the first time on the trip…

Back to Kampala and Out of Uganda

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We used 4K Starwood points to stay at the Sheraton Kampala (excellent value, although it now costs 7K+).  We were booked into their lowest category "Classic" room, but thanks to SPG Gold status were upgraded to a "Superior" room on an upper SPG floor.  SPG Gold is pretty easy to acquire one way or another, and these little upgrades definitely keep us loyal. 

I was pumped about the free wireless internet available here, but then was less pumped to find it running at 4 kbp/s.  A nice room on the 9th floor, though it looked a bit neater at check-in:

Sheraton Kampala Room

At the same time, this hotel is a bit ridiculous with all the NGO peeps running around fighting poverty and such.  We mingled with them at dinner, where a Korean trio with a scantly clad female member sang slow jams like Desperado, and I mistakenly ordered a Mexicana Pizza.  (The first and only time I felt ill from food on this trip...an obviously stupid decision.)

We had grand plans of cleaning some clothes in Kampala.  With our time constraints this turned into a dead end.  The Sheraton wanted $10 for a single pair of pants, so that was a no go.  However, this Kwik Wash place could be a great asset for others.  We crossed our fingers we'd be able to figure out something at our next destination.

At 6:30am we started the 30+ minute drive (with no traffic) to the Entebbe airport for our 9am BA flight back to Heathrow.  Here we said farewell to Baker.  Great guy that we would recommend without any reservations (more on this later).

Lillie and Baker

At EBB, business class passengers get access to the Karibuni lounge after security.  I had very low expectations for this place and was blown away.  Big (and clean) leather couches everywhere, computers with a reasonable internet connection, and delicious samosas that we ate too many of for 8am:

Samosas!

The BA flight was just another BA flight, which is typically a good thing for us.  The only downside being the Club World seats on the 767s they send to EBB are in really dire condition.  Though there really aren't too many glamorous options otherwise, so no big deal.  (Had we paid full price, I might not be saying that.)

Just for the sake of completeness, our BA brunch (which wasn't all that amazing):

Salad of roast tomato and peppers topped with garlic and anchovy  Grilled tilapia with lemon garlic butter Marinated grilled chicken served on pesto risotto


Notes regarding the planning of the gorilla tracking portion of the trip:  I started by creating an itinerary that would allow us to track gorillas on both sides of the border.  This was shaped by various trip reports online, the Bradt guide, and the BA flight schedules since they only fly 3x per week.  All of this to achieve a nice balance in comfort with cost

My attempt to save some money had me booking things a bit a la carte.  I wanted to have total transparency into how much everything costs--I'm not a fan of the convenience that a single package price provides.  I arranged all our accommodations directly with the hotels via email.  For a car hire with driver and gorilla permits, I exchanged emails with different tour organizers from this Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) list.

In the end, I settled on Crystal Safaris because they answered emails promptly and were a simple $100/day for Land Cruiser and driver for five days, plus actual cost of permits.  We were responsible for paying for petrol along the way--this came out to $186.75.  We prepaid for the car and permits in advance via wire.

Considering the quality of Baker, I am supremely satisfied with the value received.  He was smart, punctual, anticipated any needs, funny, and spoke perfect English.  We are very picky people, and we would recommend Baker to everyone we know. 

The Road to Lake Mburo National Park

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We bounced out of Lake Bunyonyi at 8am to start the five hour drive up to Kampala, where we'd spend our final night in Uganda.

On the way, we made a detour onto the road that leads to Lake Mburo National Park.  The idea was to catch a glimpse of some Burchell's Zebra and Eland.  Technically, you shouldn't be driving on this road unless you plan on continuing all the way to pay the park entrance fee.  So in theory, we were breaking the law here.  The upside is that we caught a glimpse of both of these guys, albeit from a pretty decent distance.

This photo is really horrible, but it at least shows both the zebra and the eland:

This was a nice little bonus treat as we'd never seen either of these guys before.  Also along this road, we got ice grilled by a water buck:

We stopped for lunch around Masaka where we ate a "rolex"--it's a rolled up chapati with an omelet inside.  Variations of this are a very popular street food in Uganda.  Very tasty.

Soon enough, after fighting the rather terrible city traffic, we were in Kampala checking in at the Sheraton for our final night...

I Left My Glasses at Lake Bunyonyi

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As much as I had gots to get them, I did not (if you're not hip to the reference).  These specs I left behind were a solid twelve years old and no doubt still fashionable, so it was a little sad to have accidentally left them behind.  Oh well, I just got back from Costco where I ordered some hopefully equally stylish glasses.

Anyway, after leaving the gorillas behind in Rwanda we made the three plus hour drive to Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda.  For the most part, it was mission accomplished on this leg of the trip.  We just had to make the drvie back up to Kampala/Entebbe for our flight out.

Border formalities were more of the same as previously.  The only bummer being that Uganda only does single-entry visas, thus we had to drop another $50 USD each to reenter Uganda.  (The Ugandan immigration guy told me we could get multi-entry visas from the Embassy before arrival, but they cost more than $200.  Not cost-efficient for our needs.)

There's Lake Bunyonyi in the distance en route:

We spent the night at Bunyonyi Overland Resort--at about $35 USD for the night it's very good value.  The rooms are rather tired (albeit clean), but the property is just outstanding.  The gardening is really first class.  This is a pathway along the lakeshore:

The food in the restaurant and service were also top class.  I had fresh crayfish from the lake while Lillie had a Hawaiian pizza (with a chapati serving as the crust).  I was initially critical of the Hawaiian pizza selection, but the pineapple we ate every morning in Uganda was always amazing and Lillie's logic quickly made sense.

Really nothing else to report here other than that this is a nice place to stopover, and to be on the lookout for my glasses if you pass through Cottage #5.  Otherwise, the most exciting thing we did here was lay in the putting green-like grass:

Tracking the Group 13 Mountain Gorillas

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

After a 6am breakfast at the Virunga Hotel, we headed over to Parc des Volcans headquarters in Kinigi, the meeting place for gorilla tracking.  The facilities at this place were exactly the opposite of Nkuringo's.  This was also the first time on this portion of the trip we encountered hordes of tourists.  It was a full house for gorilla tracking here with lots of tour groups present.  We were blown away by all these folks doing 60 and 90-day overland tours through Africa.

This time we'd have a full group of eight tourists, and we'd be tracking Group 13.  Groups are assigned a bit randomly on the day of, so you have little control, but this turned out to be a great group.  There are 28 gorillas in the once more accurately named Group 13.

(Coincidentally, on a later flight this trip we watched Natalie Portman and Jack Hannah track Group 13 in Saving a Species.)

After the initial orientation with our guides we hopped back into the car for a short 20-minute drive on a horrendous road to get to our starting point.  We walked a whopping one hour through very muddy farm fields until we were told we'd arrived.  Just like in Uganda, you drop your packs and only take what you need on your body (though a small camera bag is apparently acceptable).

We hopped over a five-foot stone buffalo wall and within a few minutes of bushwhacking had met the silverback.  Whereas with Nkuringo we basically stood in one place and watched all the gorillas surround us for the hour, here we were constantly moving as everyone in the group was very active.  Lots of scrambling through freshly bushwhacked trails to keep up.

One of the most amazing sights was the silverback climbing fifteen feet in the air to sit in some trees that then collapsed to the ground under his weight.  We sat watching him up there, listening to the cracking limbs, and waiting expectantly for the tumble.  The silverback wasn't fazed by the fall one bit, though.  It's dense enough rainforest that his fall was slowed by vines, bamboo, and other trees.  It was often hard to decide where to look as we were completely surrounded - both high and low - by this family of gorillas. 

Also memorable was a little guy who was just hamming it up for us.  He'd do a somersault, thump on his chest a la King Kong, and repeat.  Occasionally he'd also engage in some roundhouse kicks while playing with another infant.  Precious stuff.

Some of the better photos from the outing:

 

We were very glad to have seen the mountain gorillas twice and in two different locations.  They were completely different experiences.  This is obviously an expensive proposition, but definitely recommended if you can make it happen.  Also regarding bush-whacking: there was some ridiculous stinging nettle here, so covering up and wearing gloves can be a very good idea.  It's not like the stinging nettle we have here in Washington, either.  These leaves are as big as your open hand.

Once again, we were done in three hours.  This worked out nicely as we were driving back up to Uganda to Lake Bunyonyi afterwards.  As we were driving out on that horrendous road, a five year old boy ran along side the Land Cruiser for a few minutes (that's how slow we were driving) while waving and singing: "Bye bye Muzungu!  Bye bye Muzungu..." over and over and over...

(This post is mostly about travel particulars, so likely quite boring to those not planning such a trip.  Just fair warning...)

Crossing borders by land in Africa is always a potential treasure trove of stories.  (Our highlight being an immigration official in Kasika, Namibia not being there, and having to be rounded up from the bar to come down and stamp our passports.)

This wasn't terribly exciting, but the ridiculous amount of paperwork and bureaucracy is always amusing.  We first went to a little shed with a Ugandan police officer who took down our information.  We told him our professions were "marketing" and "HR".  He didn't seem to believe that these were real jobs, but he didn't press us.  He then gave us a tiny piece of scrap paper with his initials on it to take to Immigration. 

At Ugandan Immigration we filled out our departure cards, turned in our previously acquired scraps of paper, and quickly had our exit stamps in our passport.

While Baker was handling all the paperwork to bring the car into Rwanda, we walked over to Rwanda to get our entry stamp there.  A little tip if you're making this walk: don't take a shortcut in the grass.  Stick to the road.  The Rwandan police politely summoned us to explain that the grass is not to be used for border crossing.  Lesson learned.  Americans get a free Visa on arrival in Rwanda, so we filled out our arrival cards and were quickly good to go.

As mentioned before, our driver handled all the paperwork for the car at the border.  But here are some details on that to give you an idea of the costs involved.  You need a Cart D'Entree that cost us 15,000 Rwandan Francs.  And you'll also need to buy some car insurance which set us back 10,040 Rwandan Francs.  So about $45 USD.

Money in Rwanda is sorta odd.  ATMs there don't accept foreign cards, so with Baker's assistance we did some ForEx at the border for some Rwandan Francs to last us a day.  We probably lost like $5 due to a shoddy rate, but it worked for the given situation.

The first things we noticed as we started driving in Rwanda: (1) they drive on the "right" side, (2) they have very nicely paved roads, (3) their roads are very narrow, (4) there are ditches next to the road/no sidewalks for people, and (5) the roads seem even narrower due to the hordes of people walking six abreast on them.  Baker did not seem to appreciate Rwanda giving pedestrians the right of the road.  His speed was also quite curbed from Uganda.

We elected to stay in Musanze, which is less than 30-minutes from the Parc de Volcans headquarters that is the morning meeting place for gorilla tracking in Rwanda.  There are many options closer to the park headquarters, but for $65 USD we got a brand new, clean room with a decent enough wifi connection and DSTV at the Virunga Hotel.  I painlessly booked directly with them via email.

The downsides to staying here were that street noise late at night can be a bit loud, and we also learned that since they don't really cater to gorilla tourists, their concept of a packed lunch was quite poor, but the wifi was really great!  Plus the view from the room wasn't too shabby:

View from Virunga Hotel

One quirk about the room: can anybody explain if it's possible to shower in a shower without a shower curtain and not drench the rest of the bathroom?

Wet Bathroom

We went for dinner at the Tourist Rest Hotel where we found a buffet.  It reminded me of the Vegas Vacation line: "Best buck forty-nine boofet in town."  However this buffet was closer to $2.99.

There was a menu laying on the table and Lillie for some crazy reason made the assumption that just because something was on the menu that they actually served said item.  She asked for some chocolate crepes for dessert.  After much consultation amongst the staff, they agreed they could make it.  Twenty five minutes later (after a trip to the store?) they brought out the crepes.

Can't imagine there are too many culinary gems in Musanze, so this place was definitely fine.  And the staff very nice.

We obviously would have had a more peaceful and tranquil experience staying outside of town and nearer the park.  But we found it to be a nice little change of pace staying in town.  Also the price was attractive to us. 

Birding on Lake Mutanda

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

Baker (our fantastic driver) hooked us up with Gerald, a Kisoro resident who knows his birds.  We paid him about $40 USD for 5+ hours of hiking and birding around Lake Mutanda.  This turned out to be a really great little side trip that wasn't on our itinerary.

Lake Mutanda

We hopped out of the car and started the walk down towards the lake.  Lots of birds along the way.  Below is a selection with IDs in the captions (please post a comment if you spot any we've misidentified - certainly possible).  One bummer is that we somehow only saw Crested Cranes from a long distance on two occasions.  We went into the trip thinking we'd be tripping all over these guys.  (They are Uganda's bald eagle)

 

We also met here the Kisoro Parrots.  These were young kids yelling "How are you!" (notice the exclamation point and not question mark) and "Give me money!"  To that one, Gerald told me to respond right back with "Give me money!".  This only seemed to cause confusion, however.

We were a bit off the beaten path here, so these kids aren't seeing a whole lot of Muzungu (foreigners) and we were thus a big novelty.  Our group of three often swelled to ten or more when a troop of kids would start following.  We've got a pretty strict 'no photos of people' policy, but since these kiddos were begging to have their photos taken, we were happy to oblige. 

 

Another fun part of this side trip was riding a dug out canoe across the lake.  We paid about $5 to a local guy for a pleasant 45 minute paddle.  Even while in the middle of the lake we could hear the Kisoro Parrots yelling our direction.  Here's the chariot we cruised in:

Canoein'

Back in the car around 2:30pm, we headed back into Kisoro for a late lunch.  We gave some local food a whirl--goat (me), scrawny chicken (Lillie), with rice, matoke and ugali.  Not too shabby and only about $3.

This is the goat variety.  It was goaty.

After lunch, we made the less than two hour drive across the border down to Musanze, Rwanda.  This would be the jumping off point for our next gorilla tracking outing...

Tracking the Nkuringo Mountain Gorillas

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Email and RSS subscribers will likely need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

We had breakfast at the dark hour of 5:30am and were in the Land Cruiser at 6:00am for the bumpy 1.5 hour drive up to Nkuringo from Kisoro.  At 7:30am we were at the Uganda Wildlife Authority's little "headquarters".  The main gorilla tracking operation in Uganda is in Buhoma, so this little outstation very much reflected that it's an outstation.

No matter, we soon found out we were the lone tourists for the day.  Nice!  (more on this lack of traffic at the bottom*)  Lillie and I each hired a porter (~10 USD) to carry our packs and we set off with our guide, the porters, and two guys with guns.  Funny that we never even wondered why these guys had guns, at the time.  Gun = African walking stick, some say.  In reality, they are to scare off angry elephants or buffalos that might be encountered along the way.

To get to the mountain gorillas at Nkuringo, it's a quite steep initial downhill climb.  Fortunately for Lillie, the Ugandan Porters feel very much so obliged to your safety throughout the trek.  Godfrey carried her backpack but also held her hand on any steep, slippery sections of the non-trail.  From there, it depends on where the gorillas are hanging out.  We've heard that it can get quite strenuous getting to this group, but we were fortunate.  Less than an hour, and we had arrived.

Just before you get to the gorillas, you meet up with the trackers and are required to drop your packs and take only what you need on your body (no food or water allowed).  This is to ensure no gorillas go running away with your lunch box (amongst other things).  Then we proceeded with two park rangers to spend an hour with these mountain gorillas.  There are 19 members of this group--including six month old twins!

Instead of the usual long scroll through inline photos, I'm giving an embedded slideshow a whirl below.  You'll need Flash, but otherwise please leave a comment if you have any troubles viewing.

 

It was still early in the morning and most of the group were just getting up and eating breakfast.  We stayed in pretty much the same position for the hour while the entire group went about their business immediately surrounding us.  Seven meters is the official line on the distance you keep.  In reality, the mountain gorillas are unaware of this rule. 

As mentioned previously, taking photos was pretty tricky.  You're in a dense jungle with low light and there is always a blade of grass or leaf in the way of your shot.  On some of the photos above you'll see what looks like lots of brown dust on the lens--those are actually dense clusters of flies.

An hour passes pretty fast.  Time flies when you're having fun, I guess.  It was hot and horribly humid (for us) on the steep climb back up.  We charged up at a very speedy pace and were back to the station in an hour.  The rangers complimented us for being "very strong".  We would have stopped for more breaks had we known that was the impression we gave.  Less than three hours roundtrip, in the end.  But that's very much a "your miles may vary" situation.

We drove back to Kisoro to eat the packed lunch we didn't get a chance to eat while tracking.  We got the "you're already back?" from everyone at Traveler's Rest Hotel.  Speaking of which, they make a very nice packed lunch for this occasion.  We sat in their garden watching the birds and Rottweilers play before retiring to our room for a nap.

Happy to say it was a tremendous experience, and worth all the money and travel required.  And it was great knowing we would give it another go in Rwanda in two days...


*Some commentary on Nkuringo.  From what we gather, this outstation is being horribly mismanaged.  There are eight permits per day available and six of the permits are allocated to Clouds Mountain Resort--a $900/night lodge nearby.  The existence of this lodge is insane.  I can't imagine anyone paying that kind of money to stay at a lodge that requires a quite bumpy road of more than three hours from Kabale to reach.  Plus, I can't imagine people paying that much money being interested in enduring what is a very strenuous trek to reach to the gorillas.

To these points, it seems nobody is staying at this lodge.  Thus partly explaining why there were only the two of us tracking the group that day.  On the flip side, I'd say this is an excellent opportunity for some travelers to take advantage of.  It was quite a luxury having the gorillas all to ourselves!  On a sad note, I think USAID was involved with funding some of this madness.  I'll do some research on that another day.

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Zizou and the Fox

We just got home at 8am today and Ziz already has his new friend from Kyoto (a fox from Fushimi Inari) with him on the couch.

Apologies for the lack of posts from the road.  We assure you it was all for good reason.  We were actually out doing stuff and not just sitting in airports like we initially were on the trip.

Starting tomorrow morning our updates from Uganda, Rwanda, and Japan will start streaming out…