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Despite the Cold, It's Always Warm in Sharm

Relaxing at a Desert Resort

sunny 75 °F

It's been several years since I have read the Cliffs Notes for The Inferno, but I'm pretty sure Dante was describing quarry diving when he wrote about the fifth level of hell. When we got our scuba open water certifications last year, we had to do our certification dives at Mermet Springs quarry where the water was freezing and the visibility was at cataract levels. After that awful experience, The Wife was hesitant to pursue diving any further. After much needling and cajoling, I convinced her to give it one more try. However, we decided that the next time would be in the warm, clear waters of the Red Sea, home to many nice and easily accessible reefs.

Initially, I felt pretty stupid flying halfway around the world just to go to a beach surrounded by miles and miles of endless desert. I felt even more stupid lugging around an entire suitcase filled with our scuba gear for the past two weeks. However, once we arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh, I felt pretty damn smart. To say the least, the place was awesome. It was miles beyond the Four Seasons that we stayed at in St. Louis (and at a comparable price).

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We had booked a basic room, but the hotel upgraded us up to this spacious deluxe room without us even asking.

The hotel is actually built on a steep hill, so there can be some walking to do. Alternatively, a funicular can be used to transport folks from the main facilities such as the lobby, main restaurants, fitness center, and spa to the pool and beach down at the bottom. As expected for a hotel of this caliber, the service was impeccable. Housekeeping cleaned our rooms and replaced the towels at least twice a day. The cabana boys were always available to setup new chaises for us no matter how many times we played musical chairs to escape the direct sunlight. I could definitely see how this resort is rated the top hotel in all of Egypt.

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From our balcony, we got a great view of the Red Sea and Tiran Island.

At 10 AM on our first morning there, we met with the Sinai Blues Diving Center located on The Four Seasons Hotel's beach. We had decided to dive with them out of simple convenience. Their fast boats left straight from the hotel's docks. That way we could enjoy the diving and still maximize our time with the hotel's amenities. After filling out the necessary paperwork, we did a checkout dive in their house reef. The water was much colder than we had expected (it was still winter/spring in Sharm).

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Because of the water temperature, we wore shorties over our 3 mm full wet suits.

Being extra buoyant from the two wetsuits and all the fat I have gained on the trip, I ended up having to wear a weight belt in addition to fully packing my integrated weight pockets.

We were a bit rusty starting off, especially when the initial shock of cold water hit us. However, we acclimated quickly, and relaxed enough to enjoy their very nice house reef. In addition to the usual reef suspects, we saw multiple lionfish, stingrays, two huge Napoleon fish (humpback wrasse), and a little black nudibranch with blue spots. I was an oxygen whore, so the dive lasted only 35 minutes. I was really glad that The Wife thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

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Does a nudibranch taste like escargot?

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(Above and below) A stingray relaxes beneath some rocks only a few feet away from the docks.

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Since we had gorged ourselves earlier at the breakfast buffet, we skipped lunch and laid out by the pool for the next two hours. We returned to the pier for our second dive of the day. We took a rigid inflatable boat (i.e. zodiac) to Gordon's Reef within the Straits of Tiran. The journey took under 15 minutes because we were flying along on the crests of the waves. However, it was a cold and bumpy ride, not unlike being on a roller-coaster on a rainy, windy day. We were joined by a novice English diver named Kyle who had been out with a different Sinai Blues instructor for the past few days. He recanted an experience the previous year when he was diving in Greece with a horrible instructor who ignored him. Kyle ran out of air 20 meters underwater. This nearly fatal experience had made him wary of diving centers and instructors. Thankfully, he only had high praise for the Sinai Blues staff which helped calm our nerves for our first ocean dive off of a boat. Once again we had a great time. Our guide, Ligia, was very good at keeping a good pace, fast enough so that we could explore much of the reef, but slow enough so that we never felt that we were ever lagging behind too far. With her 8 years of experience diving in Sharm, she easily pointed out small critters that I would have never noticed.

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In 1981, the Lovilla wrecked in the Straits of Tiran spilling barrels throughout Gordon's reef.

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We encountered many large blue clams interspersed throughout the reef.

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We swam through a group of innocuous purple jellyfish.

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The coral was more pervasive on Gordon's reef, but we didn't see any large marine life.

By 2:30 PM, we were back at the hotel. Instead of having to break down and wash our equipment, the diving center staff took care of everything. We definitely preferred their full service pampering on our vacation. We decided to walk to the nearby Soho Square to see if there was anything interesting there. Nope. Just a bunch of restaurants and souvenir shops. There are also many pharmacies peddling erectile dysfunction medications. Apparently, no prescription is needed, but the prices are pretty much the same as you would find back in the States. We were stuck trailing behind a bald, middle-aged man with a hair sweater rocking a bright red speedo. The Wife couldn't stop laughing uncontrollably. I didn't know whether to be embarrassed for him or for her.

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What about Levitra?

That evening we ate at the hotel's Waha restaurant, overlooking the swimming pool. They had a special where one of the chefs from the Four Season in Thailand was cooking her native dishes. The food was very tasty, but it was also the most we have ever spent on Thai food.

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((Left) Thai chicken and crab cake with a cucumber chili sauce. (Middle) Spicy chicken soup with coconut milk. (Right) Spicy prawn soup with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.

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(Left) Green curry chicken. (Middle) Fried sea bass with three flavors sauce. (Right) Thai taro custard.

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(Above and below) Later that night, we sat on our balcony overlooking the Red Sea while enjoying tea on a moonless night.

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The next morning, we met at 9 AM for a quick RIB ride to Ras Ghamila. This site is known for it's large fan corals. We saw a sea turtle in the distance swimming out to sea. There was also a huge sea cucumber that dumped a huge load of "poop" as we swam by it and a black nudibranch that looked like a stick.

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Posing on our last dive together.

After the dive, we hired a cab for 45 Egyptian pounds to take us to Naama Bay. I finally understood why so many posts on Tripadvisor rip on Egyptian vendors. Unlike most of the shopkeepers we have encountered throughout the country, these guys are beyond obnoxious. They hassled us incessantly to come into their stores. When we politely refused, they demanded that we 'show them respect' as visitors to their country and peruse their wares. I must have overlooked that requirement to shop when I applied for my Egyptian visa. Sadly, most of these guys sold cheap, piece of crap souvenirs and knock-offs likely made in China. There were no shortage of hotels in this area. I would hate to stay at one of them and get hassled every 10 feet as soon as you leave the premises. We did find one nice store called Aladdin (yeah, not very creative) that actually sold higher quality crafts, glassware, and cotton scarves. The best part is the proprieter left us alone while we shopped. We rewarded him with several purchases.

The Wife was on a special mission to find a coptic cross for her charm bracelet. Unfortunately, every jewelry store we checked only carried ankhs. However, she was happy to finally find a Starbucks so that she could add Sharm el-Sheik and Egypt mugs to her collection.

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Arabic for over-priced coffee and scones.

Afterwards, we made a beeline to McDonald's to see what exciting local variations they have on American fastfood. Unfortunately, the menu was almost identical to that back in the U.S.

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(Left) The uniinspiring McArabia chicken is composed of grilled chicken patties stuffed into flatbread with a yogurt sauce. (Right) With McDonald's fatty, high calorie food, will this towel be big enough for the majority of their customers?

Back at our hotel, we hit the fitness center for an hour. I decided to do a night dive on the house reef at 7 PM. The Wife passed on this chance, which was her loss. By far, this was the best dive of the trip. The reef was teeming with life, albeit most of it quietly resting. The coral that was hidden during the daytime, unfurled in the darkness. However, they retracted when the beams of our flashlights fell on them. The reef was teeming with sea urchins which glowed a vibrant purple as our flashlights closed in on them. We encountered many parrotfish hiding in the crevasses and larger fish sleeping under the rocks. The small reef shrimp and crabs were more active, scurrying about in the darkness. At one point two of the stingrays glided around us as we carefully kept our distance. Likewise, we did have to be careful with the large population of lionfish. Ligia explained that they can be attracted to our flashlights and may start following us around. The most amazing thing we encountered was a large colony of "jellyfish" stacked together in a line that stretched at least 15 feet long. As this mass floated by, we could observe their bioluminesce up close.

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Watch where you touch. There's no shortage of lionfish in the house reef.

After the dive, The Wife and I settled on dinner at the buffet restaurant Arabesque. Usually they serve typical Middle Eastern fare, but that night they cooked international food. The food was a huge disappointment, our only bad experience at the Four Seasons. At $50/person, we expected way better quality.

On our third day in Sharm el-Sheikh, we did absolutely nothing. No diving, no sightseeing, and no shopping. We spent the entire day by the pool admiring the bright red tans that all the Europeans vacationers were getting.

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Unlike the other guests, we enjoyed the pool from the shade of the umbrellas.

We didn't pass up a chance at eating at Il Frantoio, the hotel's signature restaurant. The food was so good that we regretted that we had not gone here every night during our stay.

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(Left) Bread. (Right) Amuse bouche of salmon carpaccio.

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(Left) Oven baked fennel cake, cranberry braised endive, and sauteed prawns. (Right) Seafood saffron risotto.

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(Left) Duck ravioli with a mixed mushroom ragu and sage sauce. (Right) Ricotta pesto stuffed gnocchi, caramelized prawns, and pistachios

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(Left) Handmade pappardelle with lobster, scallops, and green pea veloute. (Right) Eggplant wrapped sea bass with sun dried tomatos, savoy cabbage, and cauliflower sauce.

For our last day in Egypt, we had planned on an excursion to Mount Sinai and St. Catherine's Monastery. In retrospect, the trip sounded a lot better on paper. Who wouldn't want to retrace the steps that Moses once took to receive the Ten Commandmants? Who wouldn't want to visit the offshoots of the Burning Bush? Who wouldn't want to hike up a mountain for two or three hours in the frigid darkness just to catch the morning sunrise? Who wouldn't want to leave the plush amenities of their hotel to spend hours on a bus staring at the endless desert? And who wouldn't pass up getting kidnapped by local bedouins who have been snatching tourists over the past several months to force the Egyptian government to release their imprisoned tribal members?
Once we arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh, it was a no-brainer that we needed to cancel this trip. Instead, we just spent the day lounging by the pool again. The Four Seasons was great at giving us a late checkout time of 5 PM. Later on, we learned that two Brazilian tourists were kidnapped around the St. Catherine's Monastery that same day. As per the norm, they were later released unharmed. I guess we chose wisely.

At 8PM, we boarded our flight for the long, multi-stage trip back to the United States. Looking back at our last 17 days, we were both pleasantly surprised how wonderful our trip to Egypt and Jordan turned out.

Posted by evilnoah 19:36 Archived in Egypt Tagged egypt sharm el-sheikh Comments (0)

The Land of the Confederacy and the Home of the Braves

Travelling to Atlanta with children

sunny 77 °F

Day 1

Fall break for The Kids meant a chance for the family to get away for a couple of days. What cool and exciting place would The Wife choose? Chicago, the current food capital of the U.S.? New York, the culture capital of the U.S.? Or the sunny beaches of the Florida panhandle, AKA the Redneck Riviera?

Atlanta. What?...Seriously?...Atlanta?! That's the best she could come up with? This is the same city that brought us the Olympic games bombing, John Rocker, and the ghetto-fab version of The Real Housewives of Orange County. There was a reason Sherman torched the place.

So when the time came, we piled our little Rugrats into the SUV and made the 6-7 hour drive to Atlanta. The Wife booked the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Buckhead mainly because it is located next to the ritzy malls. The hotel looked really nice, but it was way too noisy for a hotel of its caliber. During our stay, we were awakened several times at 5 AM by the beeping noises of delivery trucks. Additonally, the super-suction toilets were so loud that you heard a loud flushing whenever the people above us used the bathroom. After the fifth loud flush in the middle of the night, I was tempted to discreetly leave a box of Vesicare samples outside their door.

Day 2

Our first stop the next morning was the CNN Center located near Olympic Park. I was hoping for something akin to those ESPN commercials—anchors mingling with sports superstars or team mascots around the studio. Nope. No Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer lurking in the halls. No world leaders waiting in line in the cafeteria. Even Sanjay Gupta avoids us little people by taping his shows in the middle of the night when the area is closed to the public. It is merely a studio with fairly anonymous people reading news off of a teleprompter.

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THIS...is CNN.

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It's hard to surf for porn when all the tourists can also see your moniter.

Our second destination was the Georgia Aquarium, the largest in the world (by fish or by tank volume). The crowning jewels are the whale sharks. It’s a daunting sight to see the immense outline of one of these lumbering beasts right above you as you walk through the plexiglass covered tunnel. I can see why scuba divers get so excited about encountering them in the open water. I'm pretty sure I would soil myself the second I saw an object that large headed in my direction. Incidentally, these whale sharks were delivered to the aquarium via UPS. Can “Brown” do that for me too? I’ll probably need a bigger bathtub. Within the tank are also some large manta rays, black tipped reef sharks, groupers, and other pelagic fish. But, it’s still all about the whale sharks.

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Uh Oh! I think I crapped myself!

They also had some petting tanks that were pretty cool. The stingrays have their tails clipped, so they can't go Steve Irwin on the little kids. There are also some small toothless sharks, starfish, sea urchins, hermit crabs, and large sea anemones. The Girl was such a wuss that she refused to touch any of the critters.

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The petting tanks were great for kids and adults alike.

She enjoyed the dolphin show much more. These orca wannabes and their trainers performed some cool stunts, but the attempt at a "plot" for this musical was inane and pointless. It revolved around some captain who tries to raise his ship that had earlier been sunken by the evil sea monster forces. Shouldn't he have gone down with the ship in the first place? Frankly, the folks at the Georgia Aquarium should just fork over some cash to DC Comics for the rights for an Aquaman musical. He's a natural fit for the water theme. Plus he wears an orange and green costume flamboyant enough for the stage. And he too can perform similar stunts like riding upon the backs of two dolphins. But most importantly, he's the only core Justice Leaguer (except for the completely obscure Martian Manhunter) who has never gotten any love on his own TV series or the big screen. Even the Superfriends have gotten more airtime than him. The dude's a badass. He can talk to plankton!

The rest of the Georgia Aquarium is similar to those found in Baltimore, New Orleans, and even Sea World. There's the obligatory tropical waters exhibit containing colorful fish and corals that can also be found in home salt water tanks. There's also sections with local freshwater animals, polar animals, and various frogs from around the globe. These are all well done exhibits with cool fish and wildlife. If this is the only aquarium that you ever visit in your lifetime, you should be set. However, they are still a couple of coelacanths short of being the perfect aquarium.

In the adjacent property is the World of Coca-Cola, a celebration of the drink that has been fattening up kids since 1886. In our tour group, there were visitors that had travelled as far away as Belgium, Switzerland, and Taiwan, their presence underscoring the popularity of the beverage worldwide. I'm not sure if the tour is supposed to be entertainment or advertisement. I guess the joke is that Coca-Cola's recipe is such a safely guarded secret. But I don't think anybody really cares, so it's not amusing. Personally, I'd rather find out the Colonel's 11 secret herbs and spices.

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Artistic Coke bottles from the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games displayed themes from different countries.

The Wife had been here 15 years earlier (before they had moved to their current location), but they have added many more exhibits since then. Sadly, they just don’t add much to the experience. There was a “Kinect”-like game that had zero entertainment value. At one point, visitors had to pointlessly throw boxes out of a train door using the poor motion-detection technology. How is that fun? They also had a functioning Coke bottling plant. Unfortunately, industrial assembly lines are not quite as fascinating as How It’s Made makes it seem. The most disappointing offering is the 4-D movie. The story about some mad scientist, his assistant, and a weasel searching (once again) for the secrets of coke is really lame. The chairs shake you so hard that it can knock the 3-D glasses right off your head. Within the first couple of seconds, The Girl was so scared of her seat that she refused to sit down for the remainder of the show. Neverthelss, for the Coke fanboys, this place is heaven for all the memorabilia and artwork they had from around the world.

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One of Coke's earliest pieces resembles a chamber pot. It was used to store the syrup that was then mixed with the soda water. Then again...maybe it was also a chamber pot.

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Two abominations of the 1980's--New Coke and Max Headroom.

We did save the best part of the tour for the end--the tasting room that dispenses Coca-Cola products from around the world. Most of the drinks from South America and Asia were spot on in flavor and were really quite good. The varieties from Africa tasted odd and several from Europe were just downright nasty.

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When travelling abroad, why consume what the locals drink when you can have an artificially-flavored, odd-tasting, and obesity-inducing soda produced by a foreign multinational corporation?

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Beverly is Italian for piss.

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This normal-sized vending machine can dispense 100 different favors of Coke products with the touch of a few buttons!

Even by taking only small sips, we tried so many favors that we were disgustingly bloated when we left. The gift shop at the end of the tour contains all sorts of Coke apparel and merchandise. There were giant Coca-Cola Halloween costumes, Coke flip flops, and even Coke-scented T-shirts. The only thing they were lacking were Cherry Coke-flavored edible panties.

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Have a Coke and a Smile!

We ended the day shopping at IKEA, which I’m pretty sure is Swedish for Target. Sure their stuff maybe of crappy qualtiy, but at least it looks good. Furthermore, you can feed a family of four for only about $20--swedish meatballs of lingonberries, of course. And besides, it's probably one of the few places in Atlanta where you can buy Pepsi products like Mountain Dew.

Day 3

I have been a huge Atlanta Braves baseball fan for the past 22 years (the Mark Lemke Era). So it was awesome to finally be able to catch them for a home game. (Previously I had only seen them on the road surrounded by hostile crowds). But this wouldn't be just any ordinary game. It would be the very first Wild Card game for the new winner-takes-all B.S. format. It would also be the first MLB game for The Kids and possibly the last for Chipper Jones in his 19 year Hall of Fame career.

We had a couple of hours to kill before the game so we headed over to the nearby Phipps Mall. After The Wife did her obligatory shopping, we brought the kids to the Lego Discovery Center on the third floor of the mall. They have two rides that are friendly for the smallest of kids. There is also a 4-D movie that is much better executed than the one Coke had the day before. There's also a tiny obstacle course but my little tykes were not allowed in with neither shoes nor bare feet. It would have been nice to know beforehand that they require socks. And that’s about it. Really nothing else. The kids enjoyed playing with some of the building block stations, but I don't think it is worth the steep price of admission.

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There's only a few things to do at the Lego Discovery Center.

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Lego Turner Field

We had figured that taking the MARTA subway and then jumping on the Braves Shuttle would be easy enough. We left almost 2 hours early for the 5 PM start time thinking we would have at least 30-45 minutes to look around the stadium and check out all the sights there. Boy, were we so wrong. Apparently, everybody else must have had the same idea. The line for the shuttle took so long that we actually just made it into the stadium mere moments before they threw out the first pitch.

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The queue for the Braves shuttle extended through Underground Atlanta

We had purchased off of Stubhub some overpriced seats 3 rows up from the right field fence. However, they were in the perfect position when Jason Heyworth, the Brave’s right fielder made an incredible leaping catch to rob the Cardinals of a home run. He made the catch just a few feet away directly in front of our seats. It was an awesome play and a completely unforgettable experience for all the fans who were so close to see it. Unfortunately, I was not one of them because I was inside the concourse standing in the slowest beer line in the world. Turner Field must employ some of the laziest people because the guy at the concession stand literally took 5 minutes to pour each cup of beer. Everybody in line was so exasperated with his slowness, that they started heckling him to speed it up. Of course, I think that just made him go even slower. I was STILL in line at the bottom of the inning when the biggest highlight for the Braves happened--a two run homer by backup catcher David Ross to give the home team the lead. I ended up ordering the maximum number of beers just to make the long wait worth the effort.

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Go Braves!

Sadly, by the time I got my beers and returned to my seat, it was all downhill for my favorite team. Error after error after error by their three worst defensive players led to a 6-2 St. Louis lead. A play that scored two runs for the Braves was erased for a "running inside the base path" violation. The frustration from the home team fans was evident. But like loyal fans, everybody kept cheering on the Braves and doing the tomahawk chop. That was great for my two kids and The Wife (who could care less about any sport) because it gave them something to do besides listen to me yell out expletives.

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The Boy and I chopping away.

Then the infamous "pop fly heard ‘round the world" occurred. With two men on and one man out, Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons hit a towering fly ball into mid left field. There was cursing and moaning all around me as everybody knew that this would likely be caught by the outfielder. When the ball somehow dropped between him and the shortstop, everybody went completely nuts. The bases were loaded and Brian McCann, one of the Braves' most dangerous hitters would now be at bat. But all the exuberance was suddenly turned into rage when everybody realized that the umps had made an incredibly insane call. They invoked the infield fly rule when the ball landed 40-50 feet out into left field. The runner was ruled out, and the chance of rallying to erase a three run deficit and save the season was all but over. That was the tipping point for the home team fans. Booing and calls of “Bullshit” and “Replacement Refs” drowned out all other sounds.

The first object I saw flying was a full cup of soda--ice and all--along the right field corner. What a horrible deed! That soda probably costs $5. Then all sorts of debris (mostly empty plastic bottles and snack bags) came raining down...and raining down...and raining down. The poor grounds crew would pick up a bottle or two and five more would land back in the place they just cleared. It's a good thing that Turner Field prohibits metal cans or glass bottles, so mostly everything was fairly harmless. THUMP!! Something huge landed with a thunderous noise on the fence slightly off to our right. Apparently, some idiot with a weakass arm tossed a shoe that didn't quite make it onto the field. Fortunately, it missed the folks in the first row.

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@#!%@!% infield fly rule!

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Somewhere out there is a noodle-armed Braves fan walking around barefooted..

At that point, The Boy, not quite understanding what was going on, grabbed one of our empty water bottles, walked right passed the ushers who were looking upwards for flying objects, and tossed it over the railing. I found this simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. I didn't want us to get kicked out, and I didn’t want him to think that that action was okay. However, he did get to do what me and all the other angry Braves fan wanted to do. Afterwards, I ended up having a long talk with The Boy about what is not acceptable behavior at a baseball game.

Eventually the game resumed and the Braves lost. In a way, you can say that Chipper Jones retired on his own terms. He was still putting up quality numbers good enough to be on a MLB roster for next year. And ultimately, the end of his last game, season, and career was essentially decided on his fielding error that led to three runs, the difference in the game.

As horrific as the umpires' calls were, the MARTA system was just as bad. Everybody crowded together in a giant mass of bodies fighting to gain entry inside the buses shuttling folks from the stadium to the subway. It was like the Fall of Saigon Part 2. There was no semblance of authority directing an orderly evacuation. This crazy mob of people pushing and shoving each other was definitely not a place to bring your kids. Luckily, a nice lady helped us fight our way onto the shuttle bus. She screamed "I'm a mother! I have kids too!" as she kneed and elbowed people in our way

When we finally made it back to the hotel, I asked The Boy if he enjoyed the game. "Yes, except for the parts were you kept getting angry and yelling bad words," he responded. Hmmm...maybe I shouldn't have drank all of those beers. Maybe I should have just thrown them on the field.

Day 4

The day started with a splurge at the REI store to stock up on gear that we would need on our trip to Tanzania next year. Then off we went to Stone Mountain, an Atlanta institution. It's a gigantic, free-standing rock where the enormous images of prominant individuals of the Confederate States of America are carved.

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CSA's President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson ride once more.

In 1916 Gutzon Borglum was commisioned to create the monument, but he eventually abandoned the project to create Mount Rushmore. It wasn’t until 1972 that the monument was finally completed. Much of the initial financing for Stone Mountain came from white suprematist sympathizers. And the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan got its start here in 1915. With its turbulent past, it wouldn’t be surprising that Stone Mountain would not be the favorite destination among minorities. Needless to say, despite the thousands of visitors we saw in the park that day, only a small fraction were African American.

And that's a shame because there's so much more there for families to enjoy. Miles of trails circumventing or leading to the top of Stone Mountain were there for adults, kids, and even pet dogs to hike. There is also an old plantation, a grist mill, and a covered bridge that all date back to the 19th century. We chose the more modern attractions and purchased discounted twilight passes (for after 3PM), thus saving a large chunk of change.

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October is the Pumpkin Festival at Stone Mountain.

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Artificial snow is created for the opening of Snow Mountain later in the year.

The Kids got to play on the mini version of the Sky Hike, an elevated obstacle course. The Wife and I passed on these activities, mainly because closed toe shoes are required and nobody sent us the memo. The Kids were also fascinated by the glass blowing demonstration. We did waste 40 minutes waiting for the scenic railroad train and another 30 minutes on the totally forgettable ride. We should have spent that time instead at the Yogi Bear 4-D movie or the Great Barn which has kids activities like trampolines, slides, and games.

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The Geyser Towers are a good way to cool down on a sweltering day.

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Unlike the real Sky Hike, the liliputian version does not require any safety ropes or harnesses.

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Any craft that requires a blowtorch has gotta be cool.

As dusk was starting to settle in, we boarded the Skyride, a tram to the top of Stone Mountain. There are great, relaxing views of the surrounding forests and the skyline of Atlanta in the distance.

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The view of Atlanta from atop of Stone Mountain.

By the time we got back down off the rock it was already 7 PM. We decided to stay another hour for the laser light show. It was well worth it. Many folks had already staked out a spot on the lawns earlier that morning. We were lucky to find a small patch of grass to lay out and have a picnic. The show covered themes such as the music of Georgia. There was an homage to James Brown, REM, Indigo Girls, and of course Charlie Daniel's "The Devil Went Down To Georgia."

Moreover, the folks doing the laser light show do a good job of addressing Stone Mountain’s controversial past. They acknowledge its purpose as an monument to the Confederacy but make no glorification about the war or the misplaced Southern ideals. And intermingled with all these images are pictures of Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, and native son Martin Luther King Jr.--likely a nod to his “I Have a Dream Speech”. Surely , over the last century, Stone Mountain has transcended its dark origins. And in the end, the laser light show capped off a great day spent with the family enjoying a beautiful day outdoors.

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Finale of the laser light show.

Day 5

There are few things that can elicit as strong of a craving as cocaine will do to a junkie. For a kindergarten girl, American Girl is like crack. If The Girl sees an advertisement or picture of one of these dolls, her body gets jittery, her pupils become dilated, and her speech becames rapid and incoherent--"I want that! Mine! Gimme!" Even saying the word "girl" a minute after uttering "American" produces the same response from her.

We drove for about half an hour to Alpharetta to the American Girl Boutique and Bistro. Although most of the shops at the adjoining mall had not opened yet, the American Girl store was buzzing with little ponytails and curls bouncing around in euphoria. On display in glass cases are different looking dolls adorned with their clothing and accessories which reveal their unique "personalities." Several of the little girls in the store were clutching at least two or three of these toys, ogling others for their parents to buy. There were also a couple brothers and dads (The Boy and I included) who stood there dumbfounded and bored as these diminutive packets of estrogen raced around the store.

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Must have it...

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She may look cute, but she may also scalp you in the middle of the night.

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Granola girl loves nature, eats only vegetables, and doesn't shave her legs.

There is even a “salon” where employees will clean the dolls of all the dirt, grime, and nasty substances that little girls will drag their toys into. The ladies will even style the doll’s hair into one of several different looks to choose from. Additionally, there is a restaurant attached to the shop where the dolls can dine with their owners. We had reservations for lunch, and The Girl was thrilled to finally be able to bring her dolls to the dining table.

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This doll's hairdo costs more than mine.

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That better be water. There's no way I'm spending money for a doll to drink juice.

As cheesy as the whole American Girl phenomenon is, it’s probably better off for girls than older products like Barbie. Mattel has long been criticized for the impossible body ratio with their Barbie’s. Their American Girl dolls definitely don’t look anorexic, maybe even a little chunky. Also, American Girl dolls come in various ethnicities and facial features which better promotes diversity and uniqueness. Interestingly, they do have some accessories (wheelchairs, crutches, and casts) which are designed to represent dolls with injuries They don’t go so far as to promote any dolls with permanent disabilities or handicaps, but it seems that they are possibly on that track for the future. So that leads to the question, if they come out with an amputee doll, will it be 25% cheaper?

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One of the nice things about American Girl is that kids can pick a doll that looks alot like them. Mine chose a blue-eyed, blonde-haired one.

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How'd she break an arm AND a leg?

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So let me get this straight. It costs $14 to make your doll deaf?

After our foray with the future brides of Chuckie, we headed over to the Discovery Mills Mall on the eastern outskirts of Atlanta. Of course I was stuck watching the kids at the toy stores, while The Wife shopped at the Neiman Marcus and Saks outlet stores.

When we met back up, The Wife excitedly exclaimed, “Guess what? I just saw a celebrity.”
Was it Ted Turner? Usher? Or perhaps Tyler Perry? I pondered.
“Who?” I inquired.
“I just saw Nene!”
“Who?”
“Nene!”
“Who!?!”
“Nene from The Real Housewives of Atlanta.”

I didn’t know what is more depressing—that somebody from reality TV is considered a celebrity, or the fact that The Wife watches that abortion of a television show.

So why did we drive all the way out to this fairly lame mall? It has a Medieval Times. Anybody who has seen The Cable Guy knows the absurdity of this theme restaurant. Performers recreate the Middle ages, resplendit with kings, princesses, and knights.

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In order to storm this castle, you have to take a right at the Nike Factory store.

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All of the armor on display is for sale. Prices range from $4K-8K.

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In order to get knighted, you can either slay a dragon, or just pay a little extra money.

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There's about an hour to kill between check-in and the start of the show. Guess where they want you to spend your time and money.

The audience was divided into one of six color-based teams. Our champion was the gallant Red Knight of Castille, with our noble allies the Yellow and Black-White knights. Seated across the performance area were the “enemy” colors. It was evident by just looking at those sections that those audience members were lying, jobless, filthy wife-beaters.

Dinner consisted of tomato soup, garlic bread, half of a roasted chicken, a BBQ rib, baked potato, and an apple turnover. Diners were expected to eat the “medieval” way—no utensils, just their hands. In breaking with tradition, though, they did not provide any dogs to wipe our greasy hands on.

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Righteous members of the Red Team cheer on their honorable champion.

The show includes acts of horsemanship, falconeering, and a tournament of the knights to determine the champion of the kingdom. This all culminated in jousting on horseback followed with melee combat to the “death.” Just like a sporting event, the crowd was encouraged to cheer loudly for their knight. The Boy really got into the spirit of things waving his red pennant and yelling at our dastardly opponents. The performers played up to the crowd giving out flowers to the females. The Girl even got a ribbon from our courageous knight representing the red team’s “Queen of love and beauty.” Our indefatigable knight progressed through the tournament to the final round. Sadly, our brave warrior was run through by the nefarious green knight. The Boy booed vehemently, so I kept a close eye on him lest he decide to throw something into the arena.

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Our servering wench also doubled as a performer in the show. Don't forget to tip your wait staff well at the end.

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To those about to die (or feign death), we salute you!

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The most important member of the show--ye royal pooper scooper.

Yes the show is as authentic as Wrestlemania, but the performers certainly go to great lengths for their craft. You can tell that they have to practice hard on their fighting choreography. They swing pretty hard at each other with solid swords. Sparks will fly when iron strikes iron, and loud thuds cry out when shields block a morningstar. I’m sure that they are sacrificing the long-term health of their legs every time they feign a fall from a galloping horse. Although we didn’t see Ferris Bueller face off against Ace Ventura, The Kids really had an enjoyable evening at Medieval Times. If they were a few years older, I suspect they wouldn’t find it too amusing. But at least for now, it was a nice ending for a short vacation to Atlanta.

Posted by evilnoah 18:43 Archived in USA Tagged america united atlanta states Comments (0)

From Couch To Kili

Journey to Tanzania

sunny 72 °F

"So what do you locals think about all the people who travel from so far away to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?" I asked Edward, our Tanzanian driver.
Edward just grinned loudly.
"Do you think we're crazy?" I inquired.
Edward nodded.
"Don't you or your friends have the urge to get to the top of Kilimanjaro?" I followed.
He shook his head and replied, "The mountain is very good for business. But it is very cold and there is nothing up there. Why would anyone want to climb it?"

For the past six months, I have been trying to answer that question.

Some people are born to hike or rock climb. Others are built for adventure and adrenaline. The Wife and I are neither of these people. Sure, we have done some trekking before. Years ago, we hiked the classic Inca Trail in Peru and actually enjoyed it very much (more now rather than at that time). However, it was not a seminal moment that changed our exercise habits forever. In the four years since that trip, we have done zero hikes and zero outdoor adventures. Heck, at the last moment we cancelled a light traipse to the top of Mount Sinai in Egypt last year in favor of a nice swimming pool. The bottom line is that, just as our blog title clearly states, we are couch potatoes.

After spending the past few years visiting swelteringly-hot, religiously-conservative countries, we wanted to spend our vacation relaxing on a beautiful beach. The research was done, ping pong skills were perfected, and we were all set for a trip to Thailand. So why am I not surrounded by lady-boys right now?

By chance, I came across someone's blog about their experience climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Inexplicably, I found the whole concept of tackling Africa's tallest mountain quite intriguing. It would be great to see the quickly diminishing glacier at the mountain's peak before it has completely disappeared. It would be good incentive to exercise and get in better shape. Plus the whole experience would be good for the bucket list.

The more I read about the trek, the more I realized that no technical climbing experience is needed. Each year, about 30,000 people try, and about two-thirds reach the summit. It doesn't sound like most of the people are necessarily very athletic. It's just a lot of normal people, young and old, and a couple of celebrities who have made the climb. In fact, some paraplegics have even made it to the top. Eventually, I felt that The Wife and I should have a go at this trek. Surprisingly, I had no problems convincing her to change our vacation plans.

However, we knew that there could be one major problem. I have issues with altitude. Years ago on our trip to Lake Titicaca and Cusco in Peru, I had multiple episodes where I could barely stand up in the thinner air of the Andes. I was the only passenger who felt sick when we took a small puddle jumper flight to the Amazon jungle in an unpressurized airplane. In contrast, The Wife is completely unaffected by higher altitudes. It must be completely genetic. The Wife's people--the Chinese--are like cockroaches. They have multiplied across the globe thriving in every environment they have encountered. They can live anywhere and eat anything...literally (hide your pets). In contrast, my peeps--the Vietnamese--are not built to stand on mountains. In fact, as the tunnels of Cu Chi can attest to, we are about as close as you can get to being dwarfs of Tolkien lore. Kilimanjaro would be a much bigger challenge. The highest point on the Inca Trail (Dead Woman's pass) sits at 4,200 meters. We made the trek with the aid of Coca leaves. The top of Mt. Kilimanjaro is much higher at 5,800 meters. Unless we could find a good street pharmacist in Africa, we would be without any stimulants to aid us in this endeavor.

Preparation wouldn't be too hard. We dusted off much of our equipment stored in the attic from the Inca Trail hike. Kilimanjaro would be significantly colder, so we did add several more warmer clothes including down coats.

The next issue was figuring out which route we wanted to take. There are multiple ways to get to the top of Kilimanjaro, some more popular than others. Harry Stedman's guidebook on trekking Kilimanjaro was very helpful in helping us make the choice. We decided on a route that would start on the western side of the mountain, traversing the Shira plateau. This would keep us away from the possible throngs of hikers that frequent the Marangu and Machame routes. Plus, we wanted to maximize my chances of acclimating to the altitude by taking a route that would be more gradual and, in return, take a few more days. We contemplated spending the pre-summit night at arrow glacier. However, we were scared off by the multiple warnings that camping at that altitude could be dangerous.

One of the hardest problems was finding a trekking company. There are way too many of them listed on the internet and the tripadvisor forums. We looked at some of the higher end companies such as Nature Discovery (via Thomson safaris) and Tusker Trails, but the prices and schedules weren't right for us. And we avoided some of the less expensive, mass-marketed operations such as Zara that gets mixed reviews. Eventually, we settled on the African Walking Company (AWC). They have a good reputation from previous reviews and they seemed to meet all the ethical standards (safety, porter treatment, park preservation, etc.) that everybody seems to care about nowadays. While we would have preferred to join a group, our tight schedule only allowed for a private trek with just the two of us...and 15 other guides and porters. The price was right, the schedule was right, but most importantly, a private toilet would accompany us up the mountain.

Oddly enough, we couldn't book directly with the AWC. We had to book it via an outside agent. Peak Planet does the booking in the U.S., but we were not impressed with their after-climb safari options. We used African Travel Resource (ATR), a U.K.-based company to book the climb and a five-day safari afterwards. Their extremely informative website alone is worth looking at for great photographs and in-depth reviews of safari camps. Unlike most other companies, ATR lists the prices of each camp upfront. This helped us pick out the specific safari camps that worked for our interests and our budget. A couple of correspondences to a helpful agent over the internet, and our itinerary was set.

The cost for airfare, an eight day trek, and a five day luxury safari is pretty darn exorbitant, especially considering that we would mainly be living in tents without any HVAC. However, it would be a once-in-a lifetime experience. That is, unless we fail to reach the summit and have to try again...

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Our vacation started off rather poorly. Our three flights including layovers to Atlanta, to Amsterdam, and then to Kilimanjaro airport took 24 hours. The Delta airbus 330 was old, uncomfortable, and worn out. The controls for the in-flight screens were mostly unresponsive. In contrast, the KLM airbus was brand new. The captain announced that it its maiden voyage was yesterday. Once we arrived in Tanzania at 8:40 PM, we had to wait in line at immigration/customs for 30 minutes. We were annoyed because we had gotten our entry visas in advance. The line for those folks getting it on arrival was way faster than ours. After finally getting through the line, we found to our dismay that my checked-in luggage never made the flight from Amsterdam. The Amsterdam-Kilimanjaro leg is somewhat notorious for sucking up suitcases. It's like a big F.U. to the weary trekkers who are already jet-lagged and nervous about doing their upcoming hike--albeit now without all of their gear. We had planned for this possibility. We wore our hiking boots on the airplane, and we had packed at least one change of warm clothes and our large coats in our carry-on. In return, I had to stow some of my expensive electronic and camera equipment in the checked luggage, something I would normally never do. Unfortunately, I was still without some essentials that just wouldn't fit in the carry-on including my camelbak backpack, sleeping bag liner, thermal underwear, etc. It would be a horrible experience if my luggage did not arrive within the next day.

We finally arrived at our hotel, the Onsea House well after 10 PM. This quaint boutique lodging owned and operated by some expat Belgians is a highly recommended respite 10 km outside of Arusha.

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Bed and bath in bungalow 6.

Jet-lagged, exhausted, and stressed about our lost luggage, all I wanted to do was take a nice shower and hit the sack. But to add insult to injury, halfway through my shower, the curiously slow cold stream of water stopped completely. I stood there covered in shampoo, soap, and water freezing from the cold air wafting through the windows. A quick call to their hustling staff soon revealed that someone had just forgotten to turn the water valve on to our room. Eventually we got well-pressured hot water, but it took 15 minutes of standing there pissed off.

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With daylight the following morning, we were finally able to see the beauty of the surrounding landscape. Our preconceived notion of sub-Saharan Africa--dirty, dusty and miserably hot--was completely wrong. The 70 degree F weather with no humidity, the rolling green hills, and the attentive service at the Onsea House was like paradise.

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There is no shortage of lush green hills around Arusha.

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(Left) Bungalow room. (Right) Dining area.

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Pool area.

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View of Mt. Meru from the Onsea House.

We could have lounged around there all day long, but we had a much more important mission. We had to hunt for trinkets.

We hired a car and driver (the aforementioned Edward) for $50 to drive us around Arusha for the next few hours. Our first stop was the Mt. Meru (Maasai) Crafts market. They had no shortage of "local" hand-carved statues, bracelets, and polyester "Maasai" blankets likely made in some sweatshop in China. Most of the stuff was of suspect quality. Some guy even tried to sell me an ostrich egg that he had hidden away in a brown paper sack. I regretfully told him that I already had one. We were more interested in the Tinga-Tinga paintings, a distinct form of artwork popular in East Africa. We bartered hard getting them for 40-60% of the initially quoted price. I'm sure that the items' real worth is a mere 10-20% of the price. But at the end of the day, both the shopkeepers and us were satisfied with the transactions. What we were not thrilled about is how badly the shopkeepers manhandled the paintings once they remove them from the frames. They would roll them up and wrap them in newspapers as expected. But they would then secure them so tightly in tape that the canvasses would be bent and creased. [note: we would later find that the packaging job was so botched that the canvasses actually tore in several places.]

Our next stop was to the Arusha Hotel to visit the Swala Gem Traders. Tanzanite was first discovered in 1967 and introduced to Tiffany & Co. and the rest of the world by John Saul, a Kenyan geologist. The only place in the world where this precious blue stone is found is in the hills around Arusha and Mt. Kilimanjaro. There is no shortage of tanzanite dealers in Arusha. The biggest concern is finding a reputable one who won't rip you off. It's apparently not uncommon for tourists to spend hundreds of dollars on a piece of shiny blue glass from some shady dealer. The selection at Swala was top-notch. They had plenty of other stones besides Tanzanite as other precious gems are also mined in Tanzania and Kenya. Some of their gems were already set into jewelry pieces, but most were sold loose. The Wife had previously done a thorough job researching the expected prices for these gemstones. In the end we picked out a pair of earrings and some nice loose stones. We negotiated a discount between 10-20% (it depends on how much is bought and whether paying with cash or credit). Compared to prices in the U.S, we got a good deal. Did we get the cheapest prices out there? Absolutely not. However, we did get the peace of mind knowing that we weren't being sold junk. After all, Swala Gems is owned and operated by the sons of John Saul. They have his reputation and legacy to uphold.

After finishing our errands including paying $25 for a pre-paid sims card, we headed back to the Onsea House to meet with Ngaya, our representative from the African Walking Company. He gave us a thoroughly detailed orientation on the history of the mountain, our trekking guides and porters, and the route we would be taking.

"Any other questions?" Ngaya asked.
"I've heard that people actually die doing this trek. Is that true?" I joked.
"Sadly, there have been two deaths so far this year. A very accomplished Irishman was hit by lightning. Very sad for the country since he has brought many climbers up this mountain over the years. Another man, I think, had a heart attack. I met him--I think he was Korean. But he was older. Probably in his late 30's--" said Ngaya.
"Hey, wait a minute! I'm 37! And I'm Asian. Is that a joke?!" I interrupted.
Ngaya looked at me quizzically, not joking.

Somehow I got the feeling that this trek would not be a simple walk in the park.

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We looked forward to dinner that night as it would be the last fancy meal we would eat in more than a week. Plus, the Onsea House is known for having the best dining experience in Arusha.

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(Left) The weather in Arusha is perfect for outdoor dining. (Right) The sunset can be enjoyed during dinner service.

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(Left) Meatball with sweet chili sauce. (Right) Bread in tomato salsa.

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(Left) Pizzette. (Right) Pea soup with coriander chutney.

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(Left) Calamari Tanzania style with nuts, chili's, and garlic. (Right) Eggplant lasagna with a balsamic vinegar reduction.

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(Left) Prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin with roasted potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli with a gorgonzola sauce and stuffed tomato. (Right) Lobster with mashed potatoes with spinach and a white butter sauce.

South African wines were paired with the starters and the entrees. The food and ambiance did not disappoint. We were certainly happy that we had spent the extra money to stay at the Onsea House.

The relaxation and enjoyment from dinner was short-lived. New guests had arrived to the hotel from that night's KLM flight. And there was still no word that my luggage had made the flight. I barely slept that night worried how badly our trek would be without the rest of our equipment.

Posted by evilnoah 11:10 Archived in Tanzania Tagged tanzania kilimanjaro arusha Comments (0)

An Immodest Disposal

A Swift Solution To A Flatulent Problem

overcast 45 °F

1. It is a melancholy object to those, who drive around in Arusha, or travel in Tanzania, when they see the streets and roads crowded with trucks, followed by three, four, or six more safari jeeps. Their poor owners, instead of being able to take a nice lovely stroll through the green hills, are forced to load them up with massive amounts of gasoline for their helpless tourists: who as their vacation progresses grow larger and larger in girth on the abundance of food and lack of exercise.

2. I think it is agreed by all Parties, that this prodigious number of Tourists is a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these Tourists sound and useful for the country.

3. But my Intention is confined only to the Tourists who will be climbing mountains, it is of a great extent.

4. As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for the last few hours, upon this important Subject, and maturely weighed the several Schemes of other alternative fuel enthusiasts, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true that a Climber, just arrived on Kilimanjaro, may be supported by a meager diet of rice, eggs, Africafe coffee, and Cadbury chocolates, for a few days on the mountain with little other Nourishment, at most not above the Value of two thousand Tanzanian Shillings, instead of being a Charge upon the Local economy, contribute to the Refueling of many Thousands of vehicles.

5. There is likewise another great Advantage in my Scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary episodes of flatulence, and that horrid practice of having to smell the odors of others upwind, alas! too frequent among us, Cutting the cheese, I doubt, more to avoid the bloated sensation, than the Shame, which would move Tears and Pity in the most Savage and inhuman breast.

6. The number of Climbers on Kilimanjaro being usually reckoned to be 30,000 per year, Of these I calculate there may be about 29,999 who are able to afford gasoline for their vehicles, although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the Kingdom.

7. I am assured by our merchants, that the gastrointestinal discharges by a boy or girl climber after twelve years old is a salable commodity.

8. I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

9. I have been assured by a very knowing American research article, that a healthy climber well-feed can produce a most vicious and foul-smelling amount of flatulence; and I make no doubt that this amount of methane will equally serve as an alternative energy source for all of the safari vehicles.

10. I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the thirty thousand climbers already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for flatulence collection, whereof nine-tenths part to be males; and my reason is, that these climbers are more experienced and adept in the expulsion of digestive gases. That the remaining ten thousand may be offered in the case of any emergency fuel shortages; always advising their guides to let them eat plentifully, so as to render them plump and fat for plenty of reserve gas. A climber will make enough methane to fuel many a Land Rover.

11. I have reckoned upon a medium that a climber at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet will weigh 180 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, increaseth to 250 pounds.

12. I grant this fuel source will be somewhat malodorous, and therefore very proper for people suffering from sinus congestion

13. Methane gas from Climbers will be available most of the year with the exception of April and May, but more plentiful in the dry season when more people visit Kilimanjaro...

32. I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of the country of Tanzania, by advancing their tourist trade, providing fuel for their safari vehicles, relieving the poor climbers downwind, and giving some pleasure to the bloated ones upwind. I have plenty of flatulence by which I can propose to power an over-sized Toyota Land Cruiser with the extra row of seats.

Most people learn about High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) when they are preparing for a climb in high altitudes. People suffering from acute mountain sickness can progress to these serious, potentially life-threatening conditions. However, not everyone is aware of their more socially-disturbing and malodorous cousin--High Altitude Flatus Expulsion (HAFE). The phenomenon is caused by the differential in pressure between the bowels and the outside air. As the altitude increases, the air pressure decreases. This causes climbers to discharge large amounts of higher pressured flatulence in order to equalize with their environment. Over the next few days, we would become very much acquainted with this problem. But it would only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of gastrointestinal maladies.
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The morning that we were to start our Kilimanjaro trek, I was still frustrated that my luggage had not yet arrived. Thirty minutes before the driver was to arrive to transport us to the mountain, a representative from the airport stopped by our hotel. He had my lost baggage! What a huge relief! We frantically repacked all of our equipment and clothes. In the process we discovered that my HD camcorder, canon flash speedlite, and cell phone were missing from the bag. Hmmm...luggage is missing for more than a day, and the most expensive items are missing. I had a TSA compliant lock on the suitcase. Stay classy TSA. There was no time to rue or complain about that loss. Our driver had arrived and we were off.

After a two hour journey on a nice paved road to Moshi, we turned off onto a bumpy, dirt road leading to the west side of the mountain. Since we were now inside the National Park, we were surprised to see numerous people toiling hard to grow potatoes. Our driver informed us that the government allows these farmers to plant vegetables on the land in return for them maintaining the trees in the park. We were also surprised to see several black and white colobus monkeys yards away from these folks digging up and eating their potatoes. As we neared our drop-off point, a white station wagon came peeling around the corner passing us in the other direction. Our driver pointed out that it was an ambulance transporting a climber down to Moshi's hospital. Not a good sign, I thought.

We were introduced to our team. Our head guide was Tosha, a 30 year veteran of the mountain, who has been up Kilimanjaro over 300 times. Our assistant guide was 34 year-old Eli. Unlike the rest of the team who were loud and lean, he was pudgy and reticent. Plus, he looked like Darius Rucker's doppelganger.

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Tosha was smooth, confident, and in complete command of his team of porters.
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Hootie without the Blowfish.

We also had a cook whose name was Godlisten, but he went by the name of "Doctor." I guess the nickname of "Cookie" was already taken. We also had nine regular porters to carry the equipment, and three helping porters who had more responsibilities in addition to their load. Two of them were named Frank. Frank #1, who was responsible for serving our meals, spoke pretty good English, but had no real interest communicating with us. Frank #2, who was responsible for our campsite, spoke almost no English but kept trying to talk to us. Personally, I thought he was trying to be nice, but The Wife thought it was creepy. The third helping porter was, surprisingly, a woman named Stella. She had the unenviable job of taking care of our shit...literally. She had to carry our chemical toilet, set it up in its special tent, and empty it daily. Plus, she also carried the same weight load as the male porters. Unlike our Inca Trail trek where we had a 70 year-old porter, the oldest person on our team was a youthful 56 years of age.

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Each porter carried up to 25 kg (55 lbs)

Kilimanjaro is actually three volcanoes--Shira, Mawenzi, and Kibo (the only active one). The Shira volcano erupted long ago leaving a caldera. The Kibo volcano went off afterwards. The resulting lava flowed down into the Shira crater flattening it out to create the plateau. The first day would be an easy two hour stroll across the Shira plateau to the Shira One camp.

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A high ridge remaining from the extinct Shira volcano overlooks the plateau.

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The flat terrain was occasionally broken up by a gorge with a small stream trickling through it.

We hiked through the rocky, black soil kicking up tons of dust and dirt at each step. Although we were only at an altitude of 3,550 meters, I was already starting to feel some stomach cramping. As we neared our campsite, we noticed another group of hikers from the Lemosho route. One of them was a fat girl (I live in the Deep South, I know fat). We joked that if she could make it to the top, then so could we.

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The Shira One campsite

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By early afternoon, cloud cover had all but obscured the mountain.

With a whole afternoon to kill, I was able to catch up on some sleep that eluded me the night before.

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Once the sun when down, it got really cold really fast. One minute I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and the next minute, I was throwing on my down coat.

Dinner was served in a small tent meant for two. The guides amd porters did not dine with us as they ate their own local food. Months ago, we had requested a gluten-free diet (mainly for The Wife). The food was actually pretty good but way too plentiful for the two of us.

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(Left) Zucchini soup. (Right) Fried tilapia, fried potatoes, bread, pakoras, and sautéed greens.
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(Left) "vegetable sauce" comprised of eggplants, peppers, carrots, and onions. (Right) Fruit salad.

A private toilet may sound like a silly luxury when you are roughing it on the mountain. However, after experiencing the disgusting bathrooms on the Inca Trail, we would beg to differ. In Peru, the walls of some of the stalls were literally smeared with fecal matter. It was as if someone had stabbed Mr. Hanky to death in there. We weren't going to take a chance on that happening again in Tanzania, so we considered a private toilet a necessity for our Kilimanjaro trek. And we did not regret it.

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(Left) The bathroom tent is waterproof, windproof, but not noise proof. (Middle) A reservoir of the chemical toilet can be filled with water for flushing. The waste is deposited into a compartment below that can then be closed off with a handle. (Right) The alternative was the campsite's permanent latrines, a hole in the ground.

One of the worst things about camping is having to leave the warmth of your tent in the middle of a freezing night. We had come prepared for the effects of the diamox we were taking. I had brought a couple of empty plastic bottles, and The Wife had packed something called a Travel-John. However, neither one of us was prepared for what was an attack of The Shits. There is no plastic bottle big enough for that problem.

I don't know whether it was the altitude, something we ate, or the effects of so much travelling. I do know that both of us spent the night running back and forth from our tent to the toilet tent. We got eight days use of that private toilet that night alone. By morning, we had exhausted the whole roll of toilet paper that Stella had provided.

"Crap! I hope that roll wasn't supposed to last us the whole trip!" I exclaimed to the equally concerned Wife.

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One benefit of having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night is the views of Mt. Kilimanjaro and the night sky.
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At 6:30 AM the next morning, Frank #1 brought us our wake-up tea. As we unzipped the door of the tent, we were treated to a gorgeous sight--the sun rising over Mt. Kilimanjaro. The mountain was absolutely clear with not a cloud in the sky. The new sun bathed the mountain with the warmth of its orange light. We just sat there, snug in our sleeping bags enjoying our tea and the view. [note: In retrospect, I wish I had taken a photograph of that sunrise. It would turn out to be the most impressive sight that I would see on the mountain].

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Although the orange glow behind the mountain had dissipated, the remainder of the sunrise was still beautiful.

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(Left) Millet porridge would be a staple of every breakfast on the mountain. (Right) A hearty meal of eggs, bacon, and fruit.

After breakfast, we would have another fairly leisurely hike for the next 4-5 hours. While our porters would be going straight to the Shira Hut campsite, we took the scenic route via the Shira Cathedral. We passed several trees that were toppled over, their bases seemingly charred. We both wondered whether they were felled by lightning--not a good sign as the trees were barely taller than us.

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The low bushes and trees allows for good visibility for miles around.

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Tosha reassured us that the large bags the porters carry are light and filled with sleeping bags and mattresses. To carry it on one's head up the mountain is still pretty impressive.

Although some mammals reportedly live on the Shira plateau, we didn't see any wildlife. Tosha said that he used to see gazelles occasionally, but none in the past five years.

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(Left) Dried up jackal feces. (Right) A dead mouse was the only animal we saw that day.

At mid morning, we made a quick climb up the Shira Cathedral (I have no idea where it got its name) but couldn't see much because the mist and clouds had already started to roll in.

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The view from atop of the Shira Cathedral. We could see for miles in the direction we traveled from, but mist up ahead completely obscured our vision.

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Someone took the time to build a cairn at the top of the Shira Cathedral.

We proceeded to hike another two hours to our campsite at the Shira Hut (3,840 meter elevation). Along the way we passed a road and helipad, the highest place that modern machines could get to evacuate any sick climbers.

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The helipad is really just a clearing marked with white stones.

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A wheeled stretcher facilitates the evacuation of sick climbers.

As we approached the campsite, we passed the fat girl that we saw the day before, heading back down the mountain. Apparently, the route ahead wasn't going to be that easy after all.

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Lunch was once again an overwhelming amount of food for the two of us: carrot soup, pakoras, boiled eggs, toast, mangoes, watermelon, and a salad of avocados, tomatoes, peppers and onions.

That afternoon, we huddled in our tent for what would soon be a daily ritual. A light rain came down, so all we could do was stay in our tent and keep warm in our sleeping bags.

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A light rain and mist covered the campsite in the afternoon.

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It may have been a bit cozy, but we spent most of the non-hiking time in our tent.

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Our porters and guides also sought refuge in their tents.

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I suggest that they turn the heater on.

I passed the time that afternoon by working on my journal. The wife read her trashy romance novels that she had brought along. Eli stopped by at 3:30 PM and asked if we wanted to do an hour-long acclimation hike in the hills above camp. Since it was still raining outside, we both declined. We eventually surfaced for dinner.

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(Left) Cucumber soup. (Right) Grilled chicken and rice.

Unfortunately, the gastrointestinal issues were not any better today compared with yesterday. I don't know if Stella was conscientious of our "issues" or not, but she did setup the bathroom tent much closer to us at this campsite. And there was a new roll of toilet paper! While we did miss having other hikers to meet and pass the time with, we were glad that we didn't have to share our little commode with anybody else. Nothing would have been worse than having to wait outside in the freezing rain for somebody else to finish their business.

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The campsite's permanent bathrooms were at least 75 yards away from our tent (our commode tent was only 15 feet away). The building on the left was for tourists, and the one on the right was for the guides and porters.

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The only difference between the porter stalls vs the tourist bathrooms is that the latter had nicer tiles surrounding the hole in the ground.

One of the downsides of being at a large campsite being used by multiple groups is the ridiculous amount of noise at night. We had looked at multiple recommendations for a packing list for Kilimanjaro and not one had recommended ear plugs. Porters from some of the lesser reputable agencies blasted their radios the ENTIRE night. Maybe I'm just getting too old and un-cool; but I'm just not a fan of listening to Madonna or African drums at three in the morning.

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There was no shortage of different trekking groups at the Shira Hut campsite.

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Sunrise over the Shira Hut campsite.

"Sometimes I REALLY hate you." said The Wife as she glared at me coldly.
"Trust me. I'm not a big fan of myself right now either." I replied.
"The next time you have a stupid idea like climbing a mountain, keep it to yourself." The Wife retorted.

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Breakfast in that small tent with the two of us was awkward to say the least.

We were freezing cold and tired from our inability to sleep. Our backs were aching from not being accustomed to carrying packs and using sleeping bags. We were also both fretting about the toilet paper issue as we completely used up that replacement roll (in fairness, they were pretty small to start with). We ended up having to break out the emergency roll we had stuffed away in our bag. But the biggest problem we were having was that we were not having fun. After all, this was our vacation and we were paying good money to be miserable. And we had six more days to go.

There was not much we could do about this, so we packed up and began the steep hike up the hill overlooking the Shira camp.

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Since we were around an altitude of 4,000 meters, the climbs up these hills got a bit tougher.

Eventually the trail forked. We went left towards the Moir Hut campsite.

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These porters on the Lemosho route took the pathway on the right which led to Lava Camp.

Our path eventually took us to an altitude of about 4,400 meters, but we then hiked down 100-200 meters into the shallow canyon where the campsite was located. It was still only 11 AM in the morning when we arrived, so we elected to go ahead with our acclimation climb up Lent Hill.

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From the Moir Hut campsite, Lent Hill looked so far and so high.

The first 45 minutes of the walk were pretty tough. The hill is pretty steep and we were already tired, not having taken a rest. Eli led us up at a deliberate pace with Frank #2 following behind. The sun was bearing down on us actually making it very hot. But once the outer layers of clothes came off, the clouds would obscure the sun making it incredibly cold. The trekking poles were very helpful especially since my legs were already fatigued. I did glance back at one point, and Frank #2 was walking around with his hands behind his back as if he was just taking a leisurely stroll through the park.

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The ground was littered with large shards of rocks.

The terrain was like a moonscape with barely any plants around. The Wife and I kept ourselves preoccupied during this tedious walk by looking for nice pieces of obsidian rock. Our son is a big Minecraft fanatic so he wanted some pieces of obsidian (he kept jabbering about building a portal to the Netherworld or something). Finally, we got to the base of the large rock at the top of the hill. We ditched the trekking poles as the climb required using our hands to pull us up. Having gloves on was very helpful as some of those rocks were pretty sharp. We eventually made it to the top which was at an altitude of 4,700 meters. I felt rejuvenated. We were only 1,100 meters below the summit of Kilimanjaro. We were already higher than the last camp we would stay at, and we were both feeling great.

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The top of Lent Hill was very cold and windy so we snapped a few quick pictures and headed back down.

The journey back to camp was much quicker. We arrived just as the daily afternoon rainstorm started to come down, so we sheltered in our mess tent and had lunch.

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Lunch was comprised of leek soup, french fries, salad, fruit, and toast. We avoided the baked beans since we were already gassy enough).

There was only one other group besides us at this campsite. Some folks with Nature Discovery (Thomson) had arrived hours after us. The wife experienced some tent envy as they had significantly larger ones than we had. Of course they also came at a much higher priced tag. Once again, we stayed holed up in our tent to avoid the afternoon-long rain. I was finally tired of the gastrointestinal issues, so turned to an old friend--Immodium (Loperamide). It helped immensely. Also to our relief, Stella had provided a third roll of toilet paper in our bathroom tent. How many of these was she lugging around?!

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Dinner was rice and cabbage and another "vegetable sauce."

Thankfully, the porters for our group and those of Nature Discovery were all very professional. There was no noise during the night. There were several less trips to the bathroom as well. Altogether, we finally got a much better night's sleep. By the next morning, we were high-fiving each other out of excitement. We were ecstatic to see that there was still half a roll of toilet paper remaining. It's these small victories that mean so much on the mountain.

Posted by evilnoah 16:20 Archived in Tanzania Tagged tanzania kilimanjaro Comments (0)

Hitting the Wall

Fighting Altitude Sickness on Kilimanjaro

rain 43 °F

"Get me off this f--king mountain!" I moaned in despair.
"We've gone too far in this direction to turn back. The only way out is to keep going to the next camp." said Tosha.
I winced at the sight of the daunting rock face of the Barranco Wall, the top already shrouded in mist.
"You're kidding me!" I exclaimed.
"No. We have to keep going." replied Tosha calmly.
"F--k it then! Let's go." I said in resignation.

The problems had started the day before. We had left the Moir Hut campsite and hiked for a few hours up to Lava Tower located at an elevation of 4,500 meters. It was a fairly easy walk with a gradual slope covering the 300 meter increase in altitude. Along the way, our path joined with the hikers who were doing the Machame route. They would pass by Lava Tower and hike down to the Barranco campsite at 3,800 meters. Our route instead had us camping at the base of Lava Tower.

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During an early morning break, we enjoyed a clear view of the Kibo peak.

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Some modern amenities can't be left at home. A solar panel can help power them.

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Many of the different routes up Kilimanjaro converged along this pathway.

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Our guides recommended an acclimation hike up these slopes towards Arrow Glacier.

We reached the campgrounds at about 11 AM, well before the expected afternoon rains. Several hikers climbed up the Lava Tower rock to an elevation of 4,600 meters. Our guides felt that the rock could be dangerous when wet and instead recommended that we would better be served doing a higher acclimation hike. Still feeling very great, we followed Eli and Frank #2 up the pathway that leads to Arrow Glacier. The walk was fairly steep and we had to take it slowly to catch our breaths. The higher we climbed, the more frost and ice we began to see on the ground. The walk was a bit frustrating. We would near the apex of a ridge, believing that we would be at the top. However, when we reached the crest, there would be yet another ridge above it. We could see some snow covered rocks ahead. Was the glacier nearby? Nope. Eli broke the news that we were at least another 30-45 more minutes away before we could see it. By then the clouds and mist had rolled in obscuring the view ahead of us. Then we felt some sprinkling of rain. We were already up to almost 4,800 meters. Since we would probably not be able to see anything else up there anyway, we decided to turn around back to the campsite.

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On this day, we would be higher than Mount Meru (4,565 meters) seen in the distance.

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Mist shrouded any ability to see the terrain above us.

As we returned to our campsite at the base of the Lava Tower, I was surprised to find that I was feeling much more fatigued than expected.

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Lunch included onion soup, baked beans, rice, and fruit.

After eating, I started to feel much worse, now with a throbbing headache and some nausea. The Wife meanwhile felt rejuvenated. She had washed her hair using some no-rinse shampoo and was happy as can be. I was resigned to wearing a hat for the remainder of the hike as a helmet-like crust now covered my hair. We settled into the tent for our afternoon ritual of hiding out from the rain. To my dismay, I continued to feel worse and worse despite laying down.

"Give me a bag!" I demanded.
"What?!" replied the wife as she looked up from her Judith McNaught book.
"A bag! Now!" I exclaimed as she handed me a gallon ziplock bag.
"Blaaaahhhh!" I threw up into the bag.
"I don't know how good Tanzanian coffee is supposed to be, but it sure tastes awful coming up."

I was glad that throwing up made my nausea and headache go away. The Wife was glad that the ziplock bag didn't have any holes in it. Luckily, I felt well enough to take a nap for the next few hours. During the evening, I was able to stagger out to the mess tent and tolerate a few sips of soup. However, every slurp caused more and more nausea. It got so bad that I had to break out the Zofran (Ondansetron) pills. If it works for chemotherapy patients, then it should work for me.

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The Wife had a big pile of mashed potatoes, chicken stew, and vegetable soup all to herself

That night was a miserable experience. My head felt like it was going to explode. Thankfully, we were once again sharing the campsite with only one other group, so there weren't any loud radios playing through the night. Somehow, I was able to fall asleep for a few hours. But my biological clock was still screwed up (no thanks to the frequent trips to the bathroom courtesy of diamox). By 3 AM, I was already awake, laying there for the next 4 hours praying that my massive headache and unrelenting nausea would get better once we descended to a lower altitude.
___________________________________________________________________

The next morning, I was feeling better and anxious to get moving. While most groups were busy tackling the Barranco Wall first thing in the morning, we would reach it by late morning. The other group who shared the Lava Tower campsite with us would instead head up to the Arrow Glacier to spend the night there.

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We left Lava Tower in pursuit of a lower elevation.

The route down to the Barranco campsite was supposed to be nice and easy. Unfortunately, I felt sapped of all strength. My legs were like jelly and I was short of breath walking DOWNHILL. We had to take breaks every 10-15 minutes for me to gather myself and keep from throwing up. Instead of feeling better as we descended to a lower altitude, I continued to feel worse and worse. The Wife, on the other hand, felt completely normal. That still didn't stop her from slipping and falling on her butt four times during the trip downhill.

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(Top and bottom) Giant groundsels have a unique strategy to survive in the harsh conditions on the mountain. When the outer leaves of the plant die, they do not fall off. Instead, they remain to insulate the plant from the cold.
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By the time we reached the Barranco campsite, I was exasperated. We had descended 700 meters and I felt worse than before. It made no sense. We were at the same altitude as two days before. I should have been feeling like my normal self. I questioned whether it was an altitude issue at all. Maybe it was a stomach virus or some other gastrointestinal infection. After all, I was feeling the same kind of reflux and nausea that I had experienced in Egypt the year before.

I knew things were going from bad to worse. In the last three hours, The Wife and both guides had all taken pit stops at least twice behind some of the big rocks. Despite taking 750 mg of diamox, I had absolutely no urge to urinate. I knew that I was severely dehydrated. We had been told countless times to drink at least 4-5 liters of fluid/day. But, in the past few days, I had been losing so much fluids out of practically every orifice that I got really behind. The problem now was that I couldn't rehydrate because I could barely keep anything down.

If I had an option to leave the mountain, then I would have. I felt so sick that I didn't care about all the time and money that we had spent for this trip. But as Tosha pointed out, the only way down was to go up first. So the decision was made for me. Tosha offered to carry my pack. I refused several times before relenting. I knew it was the right thing to do as that 15 pound backpack now felt like 100 pounds. But, no guy ever wants to admit defeat and hand over his gear for someone else to carry.

We slowly made our way up the Barranco Wall. All I could do was focus on trying not to vomit. I was so disengaged from the experience that it was mostly a blur for me. It was a shame because, in retrospect, it would have actually been one of the more enjoyable parts of the trek. There were several areas where we had to climb over rocks hand over hand--a good break from the tedious uphill walking. By the time we made the ascent in the late morning, the rain had already started to come down, making the rocks very slippery and potentially dangerous. How the porters could do this while carrying heavy packs is an amazement to me. Since she can barely do something as simple as walk downhill without falling on her butt, I was surprised that The Wife was able to navigate these rocks fairly easily.

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The view down from the Barranco Wall underscores the steepness of the climb

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it to the top. We found a nice rock wall to shelter us from the winds and had lunch. In our packs, we all had a boxed lunch that contained a boiled egg, cheese, fried potato cubes, pakoras, and a juice drink. I refused to touch mine because I knew it would induce more vomiting. Luckily Tosha was carrying a thermos full of carrot soup of which he gave me a cupful. After taking a few sips, I closed my eyes and rested my head between my knees. The next thing I knew, hot soup was splashing on my ankles and shoes. I guess I must have fallen asleep sitting up.

We still had a 30-45 minute hike over much flatter terrain to the Karanga camp at an altitude of 4,000 meters. The few minutes of rest must
have done the trick, because I felt much better afterwards. I asked Tosha for my pack back, but he just gave me a polite shake of his head. I know what he was probably thinking: "Too bad, wuss. You already had your chance to be a man, but you embarrassed yourself in front of your wife."

During the walk, we spoke with our guides about what my options were once we got to our next campsite. One option was to abandon the climb and spend the next day hiking down with Eli for about seven hours until we reached the bottom of the mountain. Then I could spend the next two days in Moshi (with a hot shower!) until The Wife finished her climb. This plan sounded very enticing at the time, and a reasonable option if we were doing a group trek. However, with just the two of us on a private trek, it would be a very lonely climb for her if we were separated. She would have been safe with the guides and porters, but would have no one to complain to and be miserable with. The morale boost provided from camaraderie can be invaluable.

As we checked into the ranger station at the Karanga camp, we met The Happy German. He was a climber who had slipped earlier that day on the Barranco Wall and had dislocated his left shoulder. He said that his three friends were nice (or mean) enough to ram his shoulder back into place. Although he had his arm in a make-shift sling and was still in considerable pain, The Happy German remained upbeat and smiling. We discussed both of our predicaments and we agreed that the only solution was to keep going up.

The Wife and I crashed in our tent for the next few hours. Since our group was the last ones there, we got the worst spots. Our tent was on such a steep slope that our sleeping bags kept sliding downhill. If the tent flap wasn't closed we would have slid out the front. I downed a cocktail of antibiotics just in case my problem was infectious in nature. I also popped a Zofran to hopefully help with the nausea. Frank #1 brought some tea and coffee to our tent for us to drink. I was feeling much better so I had several cups. Stupid mistake.

When we left our tent to go to dinner, I took only a few steps before I felt a massive wave of nausea. I ran to the bathroom tent (which was thankfully only a few feet away) and threw up everything that I had drank for the last several hours. I couldn't stop heaving for quite some time. I was afraid I was going to get an esophageal tear and start puking blood. Thankfully that didn't happen. Once I was able to regain my composure, I rejoined The Wife in the mess tent. She was happily enjoying a nice beef stew with carrots and potatoes as our cook had gotten resupplied at this campsite. I couldn't eat anything, but I knew I had to have something to drink to stay hydrated. I forced down some tea and hot chocolate.

After dinner, we settled into our tent for the night. No sooner had I laid down, then I felt another massive wave of nausea.

"Bag!" I exclaimed.
I puked my guts out into the ziplock bag that The Wife handed me. Unfortunately, this one had a small hole in it which started to make a mini mess.
The Wife asked, "Are you gonna be okay?"
I lifted my head up from my dripping bag of vomit and moaned, "Get me off this f--king mountain!"

Posted by evilnoah 05:11 Archived in Tanzania Tagged tanzania kilimanjaro Comments (0)

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