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Athens and The History of Democracy in Photos

Athens and The History of Democracy in Photos

During our time in Athens, I explained to a number of Greeks that, as a history teacher, Athens was a pretty special place to me. I had always wanted to come here. I spent a lot of time sitting around pondering the history of democracy.

Athens Will Contemplating

 

Here I can be seen at what’s left of the Theater of Dionysus looking out at the stage where western theater was born. Sophocles and Aristophanes scripted plays that were performed here. As one historian put it, the Greek dramas don’t tell us much about daily life but they give us insight into the spirit of the people. Art. It’s not overrated.

Athens theater

 

Down the street is this much larger complex built for concerts and recently renovated for use during the Olympics.

athens music spot

 

I also thought a lot about the benefits and excesses of Democracy. In other countries we’ve visited we’ve seen grand ruins that served only the rulers of an empire. In Greece, the monuments are almost all public buildings. But Democracies are far from perfect. Here is the jail where Socrates awaited his death. Athens had recently lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta. They had lost standing as a major power and they were angry about it. And angry nations can do crazy things. Like kill the founder of Western philosophy. Maybe the most rational man of all time.

Athens Socrates jail

 

Of course, the most enduring symbol of Athens is the Parthenon. Unfortunately, the front is currently under renovation.

Athens parthenon

 

But the back still looks pretty cool. Notice how it seems to swell as it rises instead of tapering like most tall things? That impressive feeling it gives off? That’s not an accident. There are a series of optical refinements to create the sense of an enhanced perfection. The corner columns are wider than the others. The horizontal line across the top is actually slightly curved. And each pillar is sculpted to bulge slightly in the middle. Geometry. Finding real world application since 438BC.

Athens parthenon back

 

The Parthenon was meant to display the might of Athens and project the superiority of its democratic system. But the heart of its democracy is tucked on the side of a park, hidden from most tourist maps. Here is the assembly where the property owning men of Athens would meet to debate and vote on the laws they would live under. Early in the Peloponnesian War Pericles stood on the orator’s platform on the right and gave one of the most thorough defenses of Democracy ever argued. He talked about how, in Athens, the power was in the hands of the many and that there was equal justice for all. He spoke of how a man was judged for his merit and not by his birth. Anyone could rise from poverty to greatness. He talked about the benefits of being an open society eager to learn from the world. He bragged that this was a city where citizens could trust one another and did good because of civic duty. I stood in this spot for a while, as I do, and thought about how hubris led to the decline of Athens. I dwelled how long the world went without a Democracy before the American Revolution. Democracy is delicate, not to be taken for granted. I think, in America, we may be forgetting that.

history of democracy

 

There’s slightly more recent history in Greece too. Like this hill where Elizabeth is standing near the acropolis. This is where St. Paul gave his first sermon and essentially launched Christianity as an up-and-comer religion. A few days before this we stood here and watched New Year’s Eve fireworks above the acropolis. That was pretty cool…

Athens Liz and Paul history of democracy

 

Even if you’re not interested in history, there’s still plenty to do in Athens. The gyros are awesome (much better than in Turkey). The ouzo is delicious. And there are so many great hills for sunset, you could hike a different one every night of the week.

Athens Sunset

The islands get all the buzz for traveling Greece, and I’m sure they’re great. But Athens is pretty cool too, especially for anyone interested in emotionally connecting with the foundations of western civilization.

  • Will

For more reflections, specifically about American democracy, you can check out this post about my reflections after running around the National Mall in DC.

Also, this in descript case at a museum is one of the coolest things we saw in Greece. It’s crazy these things still exist. Conspiracy, Betrayal. War… For full context you may wan to check out this documentary.

Athens Themistocles history of democracy

Capturing the Essence of Venice in Photos

Capturing the Essence of Venice in Photos

To plan the Italy portion of our trip, we leaned on the recommendations of our friend Stephanie who had lived here for many years. Her endorsement of Venice was unqualified, “Venice is the only place I’ve ever been that can’t be captured in photographs. The Greek islands are beautiful, but they basically look like the photographs. Being in Venice is an experience.”

I decided to take her comment as a challenge. Over our 10 days in Venice, I set out to capture the essence of the place in photos.

Of course, the first thing people think of when they hear ‘Venice’ are the canals. They’re not overrated. There are no wheeled vehicles on these islands, not even bicycles, and that reality lays the foundation for a truly unique setting.

vebice canal

 

At night the bridges are even more charming, and the streetlights flicker in the water.

venice brideg

 

The shops that line the narrow streets are as much a part of Venice as anything else. You can’t talk about the essence of this place without mentioning affordable Italian leather handbags.

venice shopping

 

Or elaborate masquerade items.

venetian masks

 

There are scores  of fine dining establishments, but if we’re talking about the essence of the Venice, it’s the piles of baguettes in street windows that come to mind first. Though the spaghetti with clams, at pretty much any restaurant, is incredible as well.

venice food

 

We loved how the narrow and angular streets open into irregularly shaped squares with very little warning.

venice square

 

The grandest square is around St. Mark’s Basilica.

venice outside st marks

 

And the Byzantine style, gold leafed interior speaks to the opulence of this place like nothing else.

venice st marks

 

Great art is also woven into the essence of Venice. The consistency of the quality and the shear scale of the canvasses surpasses anything we’ve seen in or outside of Europe. See how tiny Elizabeth looks at the bottom of this photo?

Venice tintoretto

 

Of course, you can’t talk about capturing Venice without at least one photo of a winged lion. Coolest city mascot ever!

venice lion

 

The view from this bridge down the street from our hotel became my favorite view in the city. I love how the streetlight also serves as a lighthouse.

venice light 2

 

Now, I know I’ve failed miserably in my attempt to capture the essence of Venice. But I think it was worth a shot. We loved our time here, and it’s in the running for our favorite place of the trip. Spending time here truly is an experience. Still its essence remains elusive. In photos Venice will always be a place shrouded by fog on the other side of a grand canal.

venice fog

  • Will
The Top 5 Best Podcasts Out There, IMHO

The Top 5 Best Podcasts Out There, IMHO

Traveling the world for the past seven months has allowed me to become somewhat of a Podcast connoisseur. To prepare for the frequent days spent in planes, trains, and busses, I’ve scoured ‘Top 10’ podcast lists on the internet, scrolled through what’s most popular on itunes, and enlisted the help of my friends on Facebook. The result has been several months of sampling a long and eclectic list of podcasts. So, what are the best podcasts out there? Here, in no particular order, are my 5 favorite:

1) This American Life, RadioLab, Serial

OK, ok… I know it’s cheating to put three podcasts in one slot but I didn’t want to clutter up a Top 5 list with three super obvious choices. You probably already know about these three anyway. If not, here’s a quick overview.

This American Life is the godfather of all that we know in the podcast realm. For a good 15 years Ira Glass and company held the torch of interesting radio programming nearly all by themselves. And they’re still producing stories that surpass nearly anything else in the podcast world. Their two part series last year on segregation in education, for instance, may have been the most important Ed reporting I saw in 2015. They have a collection of some of their favorites on the website.

RadioLab is just brilliant. There’s a reason Jad, the creator and co-host, received a MacArthur fellowship. The show is dedicated to curiosity in a playfully rigorous kind of way. The journey is the destination here. They’re comfortable with investigation without the burden of conclusion. Give them a shot and you will be too.

Serial. Well, I’m guessing you’ve heard about Serial. It’s great.

2) Love + Radio

Love + Radio is unlike any other podcast. Each episode opens with a voice, someone who has a story to tell or who has just lived a crazy or unique life. Then you’re with that voice for essentially the entire show with almost zero setup or narrating. It takes a little work from the listener, like reading a really great but kind of heavy novel, but it pays off in the end. People say that great art gives us opportunities to empathize more deeply with other people. Love + Radio is an example of what that can look like.

3) Intersection

There are a lot of interview-format podcasts, but this newish one by Jamil Smith of The New Republic is easily my favorite. It’s built on the quickly rising concept of intersectionality: the idea that race and gender, and all our various identities, are inextricably wrapped up in each other. Jamil’s mind is wicked sharp. In an age of headline-rigor conversations, knee-jerk liberalism, and identity politics, Jamil’s questions push listeners to explore the many beautiful layers of the people interviewed, and he’s not afraid to wade into the complexities of the greater world. There’s a casual poignancy to his tone. The empathy piece I mentioned before? That happens here too.

4) Reply-All

This is ostensibly a show about the internet, and its hosts can be a bit – well, ‘geeky.’ Especially PJ. But the show is pretty brilliant and most of it is only loosely ‘about the internet.’ For instance, they played the story of a grandmother who organized a protest that led to the resignation of a country’s vice-president. It’s ‘about the internet’ because it started with a Facebook event. Although, they do have a couple tech-specific recurring segments that have taught me a lot about the twitterverse. Overall just super interesting stories, and the theme song from The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder gets you hooked from the start of each episode.

5) The Message

Has the military really declassified a message that could possibly be from aliens? Is it true that the people who have studied it have all died mysterious deaths? I don’t know. Why don’t you check out The Message? The episodes are super short and there aren’t that many of them.

Alright. I hope some of this is useful. I have episodes of all of these (except The Message) cued up for my 50 hours of transit over the next 2 weeks. With so much quality entertainment lined up, I’m almost looking forward to the journeys.

Please feel free to comment with your own recommended Podcasts below.

  • Will

Oh! If you speak Spanish, or want to brush up in a serious way, check out Radio Ambulante. It’s like This American Life, but a bit more intense and focused on Latin America.

The Best Pizza in Naples, Italy, and Probably the World

The Best Pizza in Naples, Italy, and Probably the World

The best pizza in Naples is Sorbillo’s. Some locals may tell you that they actually prefer Starita’s, and I don’t think they’re lying. But I’m assuming it’s the shorter wait and no hype atmosphere that they actually prefer because, with the pizza, there’s no comparison.

The pizza at Sorbillos is just whew, wow, damn… To the uninitiated, it’s like trying to describe color to someone who lives in black and white. The cheese is succulent without being oily. The crust has the perfect flavor of fire and brick oven, without tasting too crisp or burned. The unique shape of each pie testifies to the human touch.

And it’s cheap! So cheap! The basic margherita is about 3 euros, and most of the more ornate pies are still under 10 euros. They could easily get away with charging three or four times their prices, and no one would bat an eye.

Again, Sorbillo’s is the best pizza in Naples. Be warned though, this is not a secret. Here’s a shot of what the ‘line’ outside looked like in early December:

sorbrillos naples, italy napoli

We went for a late lunch at around 3:15 and were lucky to only have a 50min wait. We heard from people who went at peak times and waited upwards of 3 hours. So, you may want to build your whole day around this meal and show up at an especially odd time, like 4:00 or something.

OK, it’s true, we didn’t do an exhaustive pizza tour of Napoli. Maybe there’s some hidden jewel that people like to mention as being better so they can feel cool. Maybe. But it seems to be an uncontroversial line of reasoning to say that, ‘Since Italy has the best pizza in the world, and Naples has the best pizza in Italy, and Sorbillo’s is the best pizza in Naples, then Sorbillo’s is the best pizza in the world.’ No argument from us on that. Pope Francis apparently agrees. This is who he called when he wanted to bless a pizza. Starita’s is still coasting on their photo of John Paul II.

Buen Provecho!

  • Will

 

 

How to Bargain for a Carpet, Rug, or Other Goods

How to Bargain for a Carpet, Rug, or Other Goods

I remember the first time I went shopping in a price-tag free environment. I was 20 and alone in Morocco, and rugs were piling up in front of me. A tray with tea magically appeared. I had no idea how to bargain. Details about the amount of work that went into the rugs and how great a time this was for me to purchase, swirled around my head. It was a disorienting experience. I didn’t even want a rug, but I ended up buying one and paying a lot more than I needed to.

A lot of people are put off by bargaining and don’t quite know how to go about it. Over the last 12 years, I’ve found myself bargaining more than a few times, and I’ve come up with a process you might find useful.

  1. Start a negotiation at 1/3 the asking price. If the person is talking a lot and making a big show, you probably want to lower this to 20% of the asking price. I know it seems like a lot, but you’re aiming to pay 50-66% of the original price. When they tell you the price, it helps to look hurt or surprised and say something like, “Very beautiful, but I’m only prepared to spend ___.” Then smile. This is the most uncomfortable part of the negotiation but also the most important.
  2. The dealer will probably respond by repeating all of the special traits of what you’re buying and reminding you that this is ‘quality stuff.’ Then he’ll probably talk about a ‘cash discount’ (if they take cards at all) and bring it down by 5-10%.
  3. Whatever amount they decrease the price, that’s how much you should increase your bid by. It also helps to wait an uncomfortable amount of time before speaking. Settle in, this conversation may take a while.
  4. Next the dealer will talk a lot and also wait an uncomfortable amount of time. He’ll tell you he’s already giving you a better price than he should. DO NOT SAY ANYTHING until he gives you a new price. He’s trying to awkward you into raising your bid without having to counter.
  5. Look dissatisfied and then generally repeat these steps until you’re near the 50-66% percent range you’re aiming for. Then, wait an even more unusually long period of time during which you seem, excited, pensive, and generally deep in thought. Then smile and say conclusively, “OK, (an amount ~10% lower than his last number).” Then offer your hand to shake, and say confidently, “It’s a good price.”
  6. If he then tries to squeeze an extra couple of bucks out of you, go ahead and let him. There’s no pride to be taken in hustling this guy out of a few dollars that, will certainly mean more to him than you.

Now, all of this advice is for actual high-quality handmade or delicate stuff. If you’re buying something that’s machine made you can normally start closer to 10% and end up paying 20-40%.

On the other hand, there are usually 1-2 shops in a market that will give you a much better starting price than other stores. The main rug in the feature photo for instance. One shop showed a rug of the same size and quality with a starting price of $1200. The shop I ended up buying from had a much less over-the-top dealer and gave a starting price of $450. Our friend Sarah wanted the other two rugs so, we bundled the deal and I ended up paying $350 for the main one in the photo. So, less than 1/3 the price at the first shop but only a ~20% discount from where we actually bought it. Maybe we could have squeezed a slightly better deal, but we were happy with the price. Point being, it pays to get initial quotes from a few places.

Also, my experience comes mostly from Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey. In South America bargaining is less of a thing, and people will kind of stop talking to you if you start as low as I’m recommending here. I look forward to trying this method in India and South East Asia in the coming months, and I’ll amend this post if I find things are drastically different.

Happy Shopping!

  • Will
Responsibility is More than Compliance: Another Lesson from Switzerland

Responsibility is More than Compliance: Another Lesson from Switzerland

 “You should ask them about their apprenticeships” suggested Melissa, the dynamic English teacher who had let us take over her classroom for the period. We had been asking the Swiss students our usual questions. With some shyness, they had just shared that, if they could change anything about their school they would have less homework.

“What type of apprenticeships will you have next year?” we asked. One student, sitting up straighter than before, said he wanted to be a businessman and would be apprenticing at a bank three days a week. The other two days, he would take classes in English, German, and economics. “And how much will you earn?” asked Melissa. We had no idea the apprenticeships were paid. “800 euros per month for the first year,” the student replied with a smile, “but I don’t know how much for the second and third years.”

Other students in the class proceeded to tell us about their apprenticeships. One student will apprentice with city government, another in computer science, many in business. All spoke with confidence and excitement about this next stage of their lives.

There is a marked difference between the type of responsibility expected of students in Switzerland and the United States. In the US, we often mistake compliance for responsibility. Students act “responsibly” when they decide to follow directions – getting to class on time, cleaning up after themselves, doing their homework, etc. While complying with rules does build good habits (rules are there for a reason), it does not actually transition our young people into adult decision making.

desk at school in switzerland

Swiss schools, in contrast, give students responsibilities in preparation for adulthood. They are required to make judgments that will affect not only their present classwork, but their future jobs and economic stability. This seems intimidating, but it’s not if responsibility is released gradually. At The Ruggenacher School, teachers and administrators ready students for the transition to apprenticeship by requiring them to manage 7-8 hours of independent work time each week and plan their own large-scale social events. When students falter, grown-ups provide support. Students are trusted – not only with their behavior, but with preparing for their life paths. This builds confidence, empowerment, and investment in school. It communicates to students that they are about to become contributing members of society and they are trusted to learn, and be strong, and do the right thing.

We also visited Gymnasium Unterstrasse. At this school, most students are preparing for university rather than apprenticeship. Even so, teachers and administrators trust them to make real life judgments. Students plan and attend a week-long ski retreat every year without any adult supervision. “Aren’t you afraid something will happen?” we asked the headmaster.

Swiss School 02

He said there is always the risk of an accident, but students have been trained to know what to do. Every four years the adults at the school turn the building over to the students and allow them to run the entire school for three days – including all teaching, administrative tasks, and building management. It has always gone well.

At both schools, teachers and administrators prepare students for their responsibilities. Ruggenacher provides students with apprenticeship application support. They have a special program to prepare students who are not yet fluent in German or are weak in math. At Unterstrasse students receive specific training in the jobs they perform when adults are not present. This gives students confidence that they can handle the responsibilities they are given.

It’s a common teenage-ism in the US to be waiting for real life to begin, to be itching for the real world. Schools have the opportunity to induct students into the “real world” and adulthood earlier, and more gradually, building investment in the lessons they learn today because those lessons will come into swift practice tomorrow. While many of our thirteen year olds are still required to walk in line to lunch, Swiss students of the same age are planning their careers. It is hard to let go of control, especially in today’s climate of high stakes testing. But gradually trust students with more, and we may be surprised at the investment, empowerment, and adult-teenager relationships that develop.

 

Reflections on Terror from Istanbul

Reflections on Terror from Istanbul

Yesterday a suicide bomber approached a German tour group by an obelisk near Sultanahmet square and took the lives of at least 10 people. Less than 24 hours before, Elizabeth and I were walking around Sultamahmet with our friend Sarah. We talked about the layers of history around us and lamented that American students aren’t exposed more to the richness of culture and history in this part of the world. We stood before the obelisk and realized that, a thousand years ago, we would be in the midst of racing chariots. This was the Hippodrome where emperor Justinian once massacred tens of thousands of protestors.

Elizabeth and I were at breakfast on the other side of the city when the explosion happened. We didn’t hear anything. There were at least a million people closer to the blast than we were. We heard what happened like most people several continents away, on the TV. As details emerged, we began to feel increasingly uneasy. This was the exact place where we had stood the day before. We thought of our families and worried for the groups of German tourists we’d seen around the city. We were lucky.

Blue Mosque 01

Photo Credit: Sarah Payne

We were perhaps too cavalier when we dismissed the concerns from our friends and family about visiting Istanbul. This is a country whose eastern border is an active war zone. The crossing with Syria is porous, to put it mildly. On our first night here, we met a journalist who joked about taking us to the east. As we left, he made sure to be a bit more serious, “Do not go to Syria,” he said. “You will be kidnapped, 100%.”

So, many people are reacting to yesterday’s attack as something that’s tragic but unsurprising. For me it’s underlining a different reality: Nowhere is ‘safe.’ Boston, Paris, Cologne, San Bernardino, an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. I have friends who were personally affected when a gunman opened fire in a movie theater in my home state of Louisiana. Black people in our country live with the fear that routine interactions with the police could end in death. Sending their children to play in a white part of town has become an act of courage. Terror is everywhere. I don’t feel any less safe today than I did on Monday.

One of the most startling things about yesterday is how quickly a place can appear normal. Yesterday evening people came back to the hostel having just learned what had happened. One man had spent the whole afternoon near Sultanahmet square without knowing a thing. Public transportation in the area was briefly halted, but it’s running again now. Of course the political ripples will continue much longer, and for many people life will never be the same. A certain melancholy hangs in the air. Periodically I imagine what the scene must have looked like and feel sick.

Data shows that the world is actually safer than it’s ever been. But the ways it’s unsafe today are unfamiliar, and they are especially susceptible to narratives of fear and aggression. There is a temptation to define an ‘other’ and rage against them. The broader the ‘other’ we define, the more satisfying our anger will feel. But fear and unquestioning anger will only further radicalize people in all the fractured pieces of our world. I am not a pacifist, but I know that strength cannot be righteous without compassion.

Last week I visited the hill in Turkey where, it’s believed, Saint John wrote his gospel. When I returned I decided to read some of it before going to sleep. I was reminded that Jesus also lived in turbulent and oppressive times. His guidance was clear, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” I don’t think you need to be a practicing Christian to think that there’s truth in that idea. In times that seem dark, maybe each of us should do our best to find the light we wish to carry. It’s difficult, but it’s a more uniquely human ability than fear.

  • Will
On Comfort Zones

On Comfort Zones

No doubt – Africa was an awesome experience. Between the landscape, the people, the wildlife, and the history – it was a travel experience I will never forget. But by the time we were leaving Malawi, headed for Zanzibar, I was feeling homesick. I was sick of the food, the mosquitos and the heat were getting to me, and the Paris attacks had just added an extra melancholy to being far from home. I fantasized about getting on a plane to the US instead of Italy.

Two weeks later, we flew from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to Rome. Upon checking into our hostel and taking a walk through the streets, I felt euphoric. I was back in my comfort zone. We got a cappuccino and a croissant. We took a meandering city walk. We had pasta and wine for dinner. The windows closed and we didn’t need a mosquito net. We could log on to Netflix again. I felt a little guilty to admit it… but being in my comfort zone was AWESOME.

Eastern Africa had me uncomfortable in ways that were both tedious and perspective enhancing. I missed coffee that isn’t instant and milk that needs to be refrigerated. I missed always feeling appropriately dressed. I missed being able to wander city streets and explore without being hassled to buy tourist trinkets. I missed the predictability – of not having to haggle, of reliable electricity, of consistent expectations on public transportation.

Comfort zones get a bad rap when you are doing anything adventurous or challenging – whether it’s traveling or moving ahead in your career or meeting new people. Your comfort zone is where you DON’T want to be if you are looking for an exciting, meaningful, learning-filled life. No one says “yeah, I’m looking to stay in my comfort zone on this next adventure.”

where-the-magic-happens-3
Just because the magic happens outside your comfort zone doesn’t mean your comfort zone isn’t also magical.

But this makes comfort zones seem like bad places, when really they play an important role in the journey. Your comfort zone is where you regroup. It’s where you process what has been difficult and prepare for the next challenge. It’s hard to be uncomfortable all the time – everybody needs a reprieve once in a while.

Traveling for a year is a huge gift and privilege. But without moments in my comfort zone (for example, the 6+ weeks we spent in western Europe over Christmas) I wouldn’t be able to appreciate and process everything I’ve learned while outside my comfort zone. And I certainly wouldn’t be ready for the next chapter – India and Southeast Asia – if I remained outside a familiar culture straight through the trip.

I guess this all to say: you should definitely get outside your comfort zone and explore things unknown to you. Being uncomfortable is a good thing. It’s also okay to relish feeling at home.

Spice of Life in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam

Spice of Life in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam

Dar Es Salaam is big and dirty. Cars and motorbikes swerve around pedestrians. Potholes fill with murky puddles. Parts of the sidewalk by our hotel were taken up by people welding a variety of metal contraptions. But the city is also a vibrant mix of peoples and cultures. Mosques, churches, and Hindu temples can be found just a few minute walk from one another. A variety of tea shops offer masala (chai) tea and an assortment of delicious snacks. There’s at least one sprawling vegetable market that wraps around two sides of a large city block and some of the best Indian food we’ve ever had. Coming from Malawi, Dar seemed like a return to civilization, but it’s also the sort of place that can tax your energy just getting from one place to another.

Most people come to Dar Es Salaam on their way west to do Safaris in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater or to take the ferry to Zanzibar. Dar doesn’t have any ‘attractions’ per se, but it’s definitely an interesting place to explore for a day or so. And, seriously, if you’re there, find some Indian food.

We stayed at Safari Inn. We had our own room. No frills but affordable.

Ferry to Zanzibar

The Ferry is pretty straight forward, but follow basic travel advice when buying your ticket. 1) Ignore the people who are telling you they’ll take you to where the tickets are and just go in the building that’s obviously marked as the place to buy tickets. 2) There are a ton of porters who will ask to help you. Our taxi driver emphasized that we should not let them take our bags.

Stone Town

stone town square

Some people go straight to the beach and only do Stone Town as a day trip. This is a mistake. Stone town in unlike anywhere else in East Africa. There are narrow streets, a variety of stores selling clothes and spices, and an outdoor eat-on-the-spot seafood market that makes for an unforgettable experience. There are ‘sights,’ like a couple palaces and museums but they’re pretty run down and not really worth the effort. The church where the old slave market used to be makes for an interesting and powerful visit though.

The real joy of Stone Town comes from wandering the streets, buying snacks from local shops, and perusing the textiles and crafts, before heading to the seafood market for dinner. The hidden treasure there though isn’t the seafood at all, it’s the Syrian kebab stand on the edge of the market. Delicious.

night market zanzibar

We also took a day trip to a spice plantation from Stone Town, which surpassed my expectations. We walked through the forest and our guide pulled spices and fruits from the trees around us. Black pepper, bark from a cinnamon tree, cardamom, roots for turmeric, and several fruits whose names I’ve forgotten. We got to taste it all. You don’t see the manufacturing side but I preferred the hands on, spices-in-mouth approach much more.

zanzibar spice tour

We stayed at Zanzibar Lodge. At first we thought we walked into a woman’s home but we had the right place. Free breakfast, affordable private room, and great location.

The Beach

Zanzibar sunset

There are several ways to do the beach in Zanzibar. The northern part of the island has a reputation for being more developed and having a better nightlife. We didn’t stay there. Instead, we opted for the undeveloped east side. And that’s what we got. There really isn’t much here at all, other than a few hostels and one mid-size hotel. We could walk for a mile in either direction on the beach and only see a handful of other people. There are a few options for activities. I took a traditional sail boat to go snorkeling one day, which was awesome. Other people at our hostel took day trips to Stone Town and to the jungle in the middle of the island where you can see red backed monkeys. One night there was a birthday party for a guy who works at the hostel and we were invited to take shots and eat a goat they roasted, but I don’t think that’s a common thing. Mostly we just lounged and relaxed at the back and in the hammocks around our hostel. It was perfect for what we wanted. But if you’re looking for more of an active scene you may want to check out other parts of the island.

swimming zanzibar

Tips: check the tides before heading to the beach. At low tide the water slinks back behind the seaweed and it’s pretty tough to get to.

We stayed at Sagando Hostel. It was nice. Sand floors. Lots of hammocks. There’s one local restaurant on the other side of the dirt path, where you can eat for a bit less but options there are limited. We ate most of our meals at Sagando where the food was a bit more expensive but outrageously delicious.

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This two week stint in Tanzania was the final chapter in our Africa adventures. At the airport, I began to feel a premature nostalgia for the continent we were leaving behind. But once we got to Italy that feeling quickly slipped away. Stay tuned for more.

  • Will
How We Traveled Malawi 2015

How We Traveled Malawi 2015

Traveling in Malawi was definitely outside my comfort zone.  I like lots of information. I like to sort through it, reject some of it, and come to a conclusion about what I can expect and what remains unknown. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in Malawi.  There are a few tidbits of information on the internet, all vague or outdated. We would have to rely on advice from other travelers and hostel bulletin boards.

Of course – considering I’m here writing about it all – we figured things out. Not without hiccups (stories for another day), but by the helpfulness of friends, strangers, and a few taxi drivers, we were able to experience the best of Malawi. In the spirit of paying it forward, I offer the details from our Malawi trip to the internet.  I hope it satisfies a google search or two.

WHAT TO DO IN MALAWI:

There are three main things to see in Malawi: Lake Malawi, Mt. Mulanje, and wildlife. The cities in between are just launch points. We had just come from a safari in Zambia, so we skipped the wildlife.

OUR ITINERARY:

Entered Malawi in Lilongwe

Bus from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay (via Mzuzu)

Bus from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre (via Mzuzu and Lilongwe)

Mini bus to Mulanje, taxi back to Blantyre from Mulanje

Flight from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (12 hour layover in Lilongwe)

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Lilongwe (arrived from Chipata, Zambia)

We arrived in Lilongwe from our safari in South Luangwa National Park. Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, and also had the largest airport. We stayed at Mabuya Camp, recommended to us by travelers we met in Zimbabwe, as well as some of our safari compatriots. As most people will tell you, Lilongwe isn’t much. Many of the other travelers at the hostel were volunteers or working for NGOs. The city is a bit spread out, and you have to take a taxi (or bicycle taxi) most places. We did have a delicious dinner at Bombay Palace – an India restaurant downtown. It is expensive for Malawi, but not expensive for fantastic Indian food.

Lilongwe Malawi Travel

 

THE LAKE:

Nkhata Bay

There are a number of places to visit Lake Malawi.  Monkey Bay and Cape McClear are in the south and have sandy beaches.  Nkhata Bay is in the north and has rock cliffs.  There are many places in between as well.

We got to Nkhata Bay from Lilongwe by bus (to Mzuzu) and taxi. While it’s possible to take a mini-bus, we opted for the safer, big-bus option. AXA is really the only game in town when it comes to reliable, safe, timetable buses. Other busses don’t leave until their full; AXA sticks to a schedule. But the AXA bus doesn’t depart from the main bus station. It has a ticket office in City Mall and that is also where the buses arrive and depart. We bought our ticket in person the day before, but you can also buy the day of or on the bus (not recommended). The ticket cost about 6,600 kwatcha ($12) per person.

Malawi Travel AXA Bus

Once in Mzuzu, we took a taxi to Nkhata Bay for 12,000 kwatcha ($32). Again, you can also take a mini-bus for about 900 kwatcha, but it was getting dark and we decided to splurge on door to door service. The taxi ride was quite a trip. Many people walk along the narrow roads, so the taxi swerves around them, honking a warning to watch out.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 02

Nkhata Bay is a veritable paradise. Situated on Lake Malawi (the world’s largest freshwater lake), we stayed at Mayoka Villiage – a hotel/hostel that consists of a group of wooden chalets, stone cottages, and winding walkways. Mayoka is built into the side of a steep hill that ends in the lake. There are several rocky points to enter the water, and people frequently utilize the kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes. We met up with our friend Rachel there.  It was a blast.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 03

We considered taking the ilala ferry from Nhkata Bay to Monkey Bay.  It takes 2.5 days and criss crosses the lake. We chose not to because of windy conditions and the fact that we didn’t have a tent. The first class deck is open air (they have mattresses), which is nice, except that it was stormy while we were there.

On our way from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre we spent one night in Mzuzu. The AXA bus from Mzuzu to Blantyre leaves early in the morning. We originally wanted to stay at a hostel called Joy’s Place – but it was booked. We ended up at a place called Mzuzu Zoo. It was quite inexpensive and had a decent restaurant and bar.

Blantyre

After the 10 hour bus ride to Blantyre, we found ourselves at Doogles – a popular accommodation for western travelers. It is next to the bus station (though not the AXA bus station) and has cheap, clean rooms, and a nice restaurant/bar. Blantyre has more of a downtown than Lilongwe, but not much. I was able to find contact solution at the pharmacy on the main drag – a product that had alluded me since South Africa.

Many people walk in Blantyre, though it is not a pedestrian friendly city. We started out taking taxis, but soon switched to walking – especially to our favorite restaurant there, Veg-Delight, a tasty Indian joint. We also prepared to visit Mulanje while we were in Blantyre, stocking up on food and leaving most of our stuff at Doogles while we were on the mountain.

 

MULANJE:

Mt. Mulanje was a highlight of our time in Africa – but we’ve already written about it. You can check it out here. We spent 5 days in Mulanje, 3 nights on the mountain.

Mt. Mulanje path

Blantyre-Lilongwe-Dar Es Salaam

We decided to fly from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam to save time. The overland travel would have taken several days, cutting down on our time either in Malawi or Tanzania. We had also heard from other travelers that the buses in Tanzania were particularly bad. We ended up having to pay for the plane ticket in person, in cash, at the Malawian Airlines office in downtown Blantyre. All fligths to Dar included an overnight in either Lilongwe or Johannesburg. We spent one more night at Mabuya Camp and had one more dinner at Bombay Palace before saying farewell to Malawi.

 

TIPS:

Cell phone

Malawi has two major cell phone carriers: airtel and TNM. We went with airtel because it was widely recommended by other travelers. In order to use the sim card (which cost 3000 kwatcha, or $6) you have to load it up with “airtime” or “talktime.” You buy these little vouchers for certain denominations of money (from 100 kwatcha to 1000 kwatcha), load them onto your phone using the instructions (you have to dial a number and punch in a code) and then dial a different number to purchase either data GB or voice time. It is confusing at first, but once you figure it out, it becomes easy.

We used the data on our phone a lot, but our voice time would not load correctly onto the phone. We would put a significant number of minutes on the phone and then it would only give us one or two calls. If this happens, I recommend abandoning voice and trying to stick to internet or having the hostel make a call for you.

Internet

Malawi has a national internet service called Skyband. You can buy GB and use Skyband at certain hotspots (some hostels are hotspots.) This is an okay solution, but is not always reliable.

Recommended: Turn your phone into a hotspot if you can. We loaded our iphone 5c up with data (4GB for about $12) and used that. It was great. It was reliable and could handle our internet needs. We even used it to Skype. We did the same thing in Tanzania.  It was not more expensive than Skyband.

Money

Most places in Malawi only take cash. Also, the largest denomination currency equals about $1.80. So, get comfortable making multiple withdrawals at a single ATM stop.

FINAL THOUGHT

If you can, approach Malawi as a camping trip.  Every place we stayed had camp grounds and we saw a few people cooking their own food on camp stoves. None of the hostels had kitchens, so having a camp stove is really the only way to cook for yourself.  You can save a ton of money, plus have all the gear you need for Mt. Mulanje and for taking the ilala ferry in comfort!

Malawi is a beautiful country with wonderful people. We are certainly not experts, but questions are welcome!

Ciao,

Elizabeth