Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year in Thailand

View from the beach seconds from our room.
I was in Thailand for Christmas and New Years relaxing with my family. We stayed on Kata beach, and had several excellent buffet breakfasts, days reading on the beach, and massages.
My dad and I took a day on a scooter which we had to rent from a kid because all the scooter places didn't have any left. It was quite fun and we got all sorts of comments on why we were driving on such an old scooter. I could hardly use the front brake as it shook so bad.We ate New Years dinner at a Swiss owned restaurant on the water(see pic) and my dad and I had cigars.
My dad had to leave us after New Years to go back to China and work. My mom, sister, and I headed to bangkok where we took a few days to take in the sites, and of course, a few more massages.
We had several tours and I was extremely impressed by the royal palace, which was perfectly groomed and I have never seen so much gold.My sister and I posed with peace signs as we got such a kick out of how many asian tourists pose with peace signs for photographs. If anyone knows why, please let me know.
This does not do the palace justice, but it does show some of the detail on a roof, and shows the trees a bit as well. It was incredible.After visiting the palace, we had an excellent little tour with the nicest tuk tuk driver(pictured), and had an excellent price as well. After a bit too many things seemed like coincidences, and we were able to avoid a jewelry scam that involved him, a nice professor at a fancy Buddha, and a really classy jewelry store. It is a long story, but we did not lose any money. I am slowly getting a bit street wise in my old age.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Switzerland with Family, India Cancelled

Due to my flight issues, I decided to stay in Europe until I go to China.

I was able to visit my grandparents, uncle and aunt, cousins, etc.. the top picture is of us all eating chicken at this great restaurant.
Earlier that morning I went for a hike in the snow with Jana. It was fun but as usual, I got lost in the woods and was amongst cross country ski trails. When I finaly saw a gravel road and a car, I sprinted to ask for directions to the place my car was. At this point, Jana pointed out it was abou 100 yards away. Later that afternoon we went to Zug and had a walk around the old town and I did some shopping for my mom. My godfather also invited us for a drink, where I had an incredible hazelnut hot chocolate. I also went out with my cousins to see a great cover band. It was a lot of fun, and I even ran into some old friends in the club which I hadn't seen in a long time.
The bottom pictures are in zurich with my friends Martin and Beatrice, and a view of Zurich as it is beautiful and also needs to be included in all the beautiful places I have been.

I barely made the flight to Korea due to the airport being very crowded, a minor passport issue (details) and the fact I though my fight was about an hour later than it actually was. It seems I am cursed to rush, no matter how hard I try to be early. All worked out, and I didn't have another flight disaster. All is excellent, and I wish all Happy holidays.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Safari

I think all is sorted out with the ticket and leaving, so now I will briefly explain my safari.

I went to Lake Manyara and Ngorogoro crater. Both were nice, I saw loads of animals, witnessed lions having um... mating. I saw baboons doing the same. I also saw loads of other animals, including elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, monkeys with blue balls, flamingos, rhino, gazelle, dik dik's and much more.

That was brief. Picture may follow, though I am not sure when. The picture is me changing a tire. I could loads of animals up, but just go to the discovery channel and the pictures might be better.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Stuck in Africa; The Death of Customer Service!

I missed my flight because what was supposed to be sorted out wasn't. I will transcribe what I wrote down last night to adequately paint a picture of what I have gone through with Delta. From my journal, the second entry I wrote so far:

It is not that uncommon for me to miss a flight. Usually though, it can be attributed to some fault of my own, and Io am completely comfortable with it. This time, I am truly upset because of the amount of tike I, my sister, and my friends have spent trying to avoid this very situation.
Let me preface this story won the death of customer service in the U.S. by stating that when I came back from the airport at nearly midnight after having missed a flight, I was clearly frustrated, but broken, and briefly informed that my hotel was full. I am not sure if it was excellent customer service, or my silent look fo desperation, but I am now iuna bed that belongs to a student guide, with all o fhis personal belongings beside me. I di buy him a drink, and I believe he is sleeping in a tent tonight, but going above and beyond for a customer is what service is about, and they excelled at it here. With not a room available in the entire Meru House hotel, I received a bed at no charge when I needed it most.
Now let me give you an example of horrible customer service, bordering on illegal I believe. I discovered I was missing one solitary ticket about 3 weeks ago. Whether it was stolen, missing, or pulled by the agent when I came to Kilimanjaro (which is what I believe happened since it was written in my record) is not the point. The point is I proactively contacted KLM 3 weeks ago by visiting their office. They told me award tickets needed to be dealt with by the issueing airline, and that Delta in the U.S. simply needed to issue an electronic replacement since I had all the other tickets. They assured me the Delta online help desk was excellent and not to worry. As I was leaving for Zanzibar the following morning, I wrote a book of an email to the online help desk explaining I was in Tanzania mostly without power, that I would be away from phones and power for nearly a week, the situation, gave all my numbers, credit card info, etc.. I also explained how KLM had instructed me they could not help, and that I had personally visited their office. 3 days later I received a 1 sentence reply stating I needed to contact their “partner” KLM, and the details of their U.S. offices.
When I received this notice while on Zanzibar, I was a little bit upset, but decided to spend a fortune and call Delta, wait on hold, and speak to an agent. After some investigating and some more hold time, I was directed to visit the KLM office. After I once again explained I already had, she told me to visit the one at the airport, as if the head office of Tanzania was not capable of doing what a small airport staff could. I remained calm and asked the agent to put what she told me in writing and email it to me so that I could take it to KLM and they would be more helpful. She replied that she would, and I received a copy of my itinerary with no notes or statements emailed to me. This of course, I already had and was completely useless. I did, however, ask to be transferred to the international Frequent Flier around the world desk, which 9 out of 10 times has meant I get transferred to a different desk and waste more time on hold. She did manage to do this though, and the new agent I spoke with promised to contact KLM personally and sort things out. I asked for an email on the progress when she was through, but she mentioned she was not able to do so because they were not authorized, but that she would request authorization to do so. Again, I left with some hope, and a bill for nearly $50U.S.
When I returned to Dar Es Salaam, having not received an email, I returned to the KLM office. This time I stated Delta told me they could help, and was directed to an agent who specialized in reward travel, though she was busy for 45 minutes counting money. After she listened to my story, looked at my reservation, and saw the notes of the conversation with KLM, she instructed me to call Senegal, as the note stated that Senegal had Delta ticketing authority and that she could not help me. This made no sense to me, and meant more long distance calls and a third party, but I could not work with Delta because of the 10 hour time difference, so I called Senegal after leaving KLM with a print-out of my ticket notes. Both numbers listed were for a hotel in Senegal, which spoke only French, and had no ticketing info. Why Senegal was ever involved still confuses me, but I try not to think about it.
At this point I am wasting entire days dealing with this, and have even been to the airport in Dar Es Salaam. That evening, after convincing a call place to stay open late, I once again spoke with Delta, was cut-off, and tried again. Again a lot of hold time, but the last agent I spoke with was very positive, stating I could have a friend fill out a lost ticket form, and if I didn’t go to India, the entire thing could be ticketed electronically. At this point I was tired of traveling, and wanted to just go direct to China, maybe with a bit of a stay in Europe if possible, and asked the agent to figure something out and that I would email my sister to continue in my place. She gave my sister authority to do so, and said she would try and get me to China direct from Europe. I had a bus to Mbeya early the next morning, so I emailed my sister all the details, and left it in her hands.
The following evening I received an email from my sister stating that after hours on the phone, I needed to go to Senegal. Thousands of miles away, and I seem to remember something about visiting KLM. No progress at all whatsoever. This email prompted an email to my friend Brian about the lost ticket application, and my friend Adam chatted with me while I was online and also offered to help. Between the 3 of them, I ended up with an email stating KLM Amsterdam had faxed Kilimanjaro airport, I just needed to go there and fill out a lost ticket application, pay a fee, and they would give me a new ticket. Again, I felt positive, though I was a 15 hour bus ride from Arusha.
I arrived in Arusha on late Sunday night, and once again called Delta because it was my preference to just do the application the day I left, rather than pay $50US taxi to the airport, or take a bus for more than an hour to fill out an application. I was assured that I could do it the day of departure. I even asked if they could check on possibly flying from Zurich to China instead of India, and the agent promptly found an available flight. I asked him to change nothing, but to reserve the flight. Again, I got off the phone feeling positive, but skeptical, and emailed my sister to confirm what the gentleman said as I was going on a safari for the next 3 days. She did call them, and said everything was legit.
That brings me to today, the 13th of December, and the day of my departure. I actually arrived very early for my flight, and apparently Amsterdam never contacted KLM, and a new ticket would cost near $2000. I called Delta, they couldn’t help, so I asked them to note they needed to reimburse me. I was not able to buy a ticket however because they didn’t accept credit cards at the airport. My following Delta calls kept getting cut-off, or I was on hold while my phone credit ran out, or I was transferred to the wrong people. I left my sister a message to sort things out again, having spent nearly $300 U.S. on calls, internet, taxi, bus, hotel, etc…. I am still here.

Wish me luck. Thanks Michelle, Brian, and Adam for all your help. I am tired and looking forward to Christmas, or any resolution really. Tomorrow is another day.


Sorry for writing a book.
Thanks,
Christoph

Monday, December 04, 2006

Zanzibar, Dar, and Mbeya


Happy December! Christoph (freshly shaved) and I (this is Heidi writing for a bit) are in Mbeya, TZ at my cousin Nicki’s house.. he is actually cleaning off the kitchen table right now, which impressed me. We are listening to Paul Simon and attempting to write about our trip post-Kilimanjaro.. it’s quite a task b/c we don’t really remember what we did. Time seems to blur together.. days fade into each other, even though we haven’t done that much. The hike down from the summit of Kilimanjaro was an epic descent from snow at 5896m to dense rainforest and of course rain at 1600m in the course of 8-10 hours. The actual descent back to our base camp was 3-4 hours depending.. I was zombie like b/c didn’t have enough fluids or energy given that at altitude I didn’t feel like eating anything and when I did eat two bites of the celebratory pumpkin clif bar in honor of thanksgiving I immediately felt like throwing up. Being awake for more than 24 hours and hiking for most of that also added to our sheer exhaustion.
Upon completing the hike, we next spent 2 days or so hanging out in Arusha sleeping and eating and getting our laundry done and going out of course. Some highlights of that time included tasteless pizza, swimming at a hotel pool, going out to Masai camp and chilling in a tree house and hammocks, atm adventure walks, and a rainbow. We took a bus to Dar es Salaam to make our way to Zanzibar.. an 8 hour bus ride. We stayed 2 nights in Dar at the lovely YWCA.. still with Chris, Jaci and Jana.. enjoying traveling as a group. We ate some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had at a local restaurant.. all vegetarian.. all Indian people aside from us.. it was delicious. After some logistical issues.. we realized that Christoph had lost (or I had lost) his airline ticket from Kilimanjaro to Amsterdam.. the first leg of his trip after leaving Africa and heading to India and then China.. a critical piece of paper suddenly missing. Also, his atm card wasn’t working so all money was coming from me and we were splitting it. This involved me going to the atm everyday and withdrawing the max amount.. about 300usd. We spent a ridiculous amount of money in 2 weeks. Going out to eat and drink and taxis and basically living like westerners.. Africa is cheap but only if you do it like a local would. We are planning on starting that lifestyle now, or at least a bit closer to that lifestyle. One thing that is wonderful is the produce.. mangos for 20cents, whole pineapples for a dollar.. and they are awesome. Very good seafood on Zanzibar.. and cashews everywhere, much better than cashews in the states.. and excellent curries and Indian food. Coffee leaves much to be desired but good spice tea on Zanzibar. Christoph is doing lunges right now with his backpack on.. we have not exercised much at all either.. or at all.. aside from swimming a bit.

Zanzibar
It was so hot on Zanzibar that we were moving at a snail’s pace in everything that we did.. pole pole.. Swahili for slowly. We were introduced to this phrase when hiking Kili and it seeps into all African life. I see that my portion of the blog entry is a lot of rambling. I’ll try and focus.
Zanzibar.. ferry from Dar is 1.5 hours and about 35 usd. Local ferry is 2usd and 7 hours on a dhou.. local boat. Westerners take the fast one of course. We were barraged at the port by people trying to sell us tickets as there are many different ferries. We are used to being barraged by people trying to sell us stuff.. this happens constantly.. but this time was especially bad. I was starting to lose it.. thankfully Christoph helps me keep it together quite well and we take it in stride. And then a guy shows us where the grocery store is so we can buy some stuff before we get on.. and when we get back to the port he wants money, 3,000 tsh (Tanzania shillings- 1,300 is 1usd).. which is way more than we wanted to pay.. especially since all help is unsolicited and they basically force it on you and then demand money. This guy was quite angry that we weren’t going to pay him and started telling all the people around us.. and there were a lot.. that he helped us and we refused to pay him. Finally.. we entered the gates to get on the boat and all the touts remained on the outside. Our friends were suppose to meet us on the ferry after getting some paperwork from the embassy b/c their passports were stolen… and we didn’t see them so figured they were going to miss they ferry.. but then at the last minute they got on. Christoph is now doing some sort of dead lift move with his backpack. Ok, Zanzibar.. Stone Town is the main city.. we stayed here one night which included going to this old fort bar, eating amazing seafood at this market by the water. At one point during some sort of Zanzibar pizza purchase(eggs, dough, meat, cream cheese, lots of oil) Christoph ended up almost trading his shirt for a soccer jersey, but ended up trading it for a bloody Ralf Lauren whitish polo shirt with about 2 buttons and several holes. Since we ended up at Dharma lounge his new extremely smelly outfit did not make him as popular as he would have liked. The following day we got a driver to take us to the beach. We chose Kendwa beach on the north of the island, which was quieter than some others and had the best full moon parties, which was coming up. The best beaches are on the north and east of the island.. Stone Town is on the west. We arrived on the beach on a Wednesday afternoon.. and stayed until Monday morning when we got a ride back with the owners of the place we were staying.. Chris and Christoph both managed to step on Sea Urchins upon entering the water for the first time, with Chris doing it twice whining like a grenade had just gone off below his foot.
Maleika.. 6 beach bungalows.. we had two. We basically laid on the beach.. and swam.. and ate and drank beers at one or two of the local bars at night. It was very hot. Unbelievably humid. The water and the beach was gorgeous. Christoph managed to join a local beach soccer match which gained him the respect of the locals and promises of many future deals on everything from artwork to snorkeling. It also resulted in sore legs for the next few days. There was a bonfire on the beach every night with locals playing bongos and singing, and late one night Christoph and Chris managed to do a Vanilla Ice, Shaggy, Bobby McFerrin medley to bongo drums one night, with Chris even doing a bit of the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtle theme song. This delighted the locals as they were obviously sick of singing the same 3 songs for the tourists and eager to learn new tunes, as Christoph later lent them his ipod to learn some Toots and the Maytals. A german woman, Ruth and her family owned Malaika, and she would make us dinner with fresh fish and vegetables if we asked her to earlier in the day. We had some great fish. The whole fish on the plate.. eggplant, carrot/papaya salad, curry potatoes, tomato/mango salsa.. lots of spices.. cloves, curries, etc. We also had octopus.. which was good.. interesting.. you can see all the suction cup thingies. But I ate it, and it was quite good. We drank a lot and slept in a lot, walked on the beach, swam, read, wrote, listened to music.. at times it was a struggle to do nothing, at least for me.
The full moon party…. (Now this is Christoph doing the commentary) This was the main reason we came to the north as these were quite popular. The evening started with a trip to Kendwa Rocks, where the party was to begin. We paid for a buffet which included Calamari, Tuna, squid, and chicken.
There was also salad, rice, and other fillers provided to distract you from the good stuff. After a couple of drinks, excellent African music, and great food, Heidi, Jana, and I decided to try to Nungwi, a town up the beach which can only be accessed at low tide. The full moon party was still pretty dead, so we started the long walk. On a side note, long walks are no big deal when you have nothing to do, and are quite common and refreshing. Walking there involved a small section of walking in shallow water as the tide was already coming in. This meant that we didn’t have much time to get back before we were stuck, and only had a chance to buy a few ice-creams and a drink and head right back. The walk back involved getting wet, but we made it.
There was also a nice hotel restaurant above the water on stilts which had live music we checked in on. There was also a nice chill shisha lounge place where we were able to chill for a bit and listen to the music (the picture of me with Jana demonstrates both the lounge and the fact that it was necessary to walk in water as can be seen by my wet shorts.)
After relaxing and smoking a hookah, we headed back to the full moon party, which was extremely active at this point. There were blondes (part of a highly anticipated group of Norwegians who showed up but as Fife pointed out, “their chat was rubbish” paired up with Africans all over the beach. There were groups swimming and dancing, with some people doing Poi (fire attached to a chain, see pic)
, and a lot of dancing and relaxing. It was extremely crowded, and the men by far outnumbered the females, largely due to very few local females being present. Apparently, in the local culture it is normal to get denied multiple times before a female will show interest, and this fact obviously annoyed Heidi as pretty much the entire trip she was trying to be friendly about making it clear she was not interested. After some late night swimming, a smuggled bottle of rum, some dart playing, and a late night swim we went to bed. The following morning was supposed to be a trip back to Stone town, but ended up being a day of relaxing which included beach volleyball with the President’s son, tending to wounds, and going to bed early. We organized transportation into town with the German owner the following morning, and I got up before 6a.m. to try and catch what a sunrise was like. There were many locals about, but no westerners. After relaxing conversation with Jana and a good breakfast, I made the mistake of trying to go for a swim during low tide. This was like navigating a mine field of sea urchins in shallow water, resulting in getting stung in my hand. After a quick shower, packing quickly, and jumping in their van, we managed to get back to
Stone town early enough to once again visit an ATM, eat a nice meal, go to a pool, and once again have a good night out. We went to the old fort again, had excellent seafood by the water market again and had conversation with locals on the difference between Tanzanians and Zanzibarians and their history. We returned to Alex’s house to sleep, as we were going to meet early in the morning for diving. We overpaid for diving the following morning, but it was a very professional place, and we did have fun, seeing sea slugs, sea horses, and other things that live in the sea. We had a good meal and returned from some proper ice-cream. After that I managed to again be disappointed by both the bank and Delta for giving me no information and proving that customer service in the States has become a game of pawning off questions to someone else until they give up trying to find solutions. I am extremely bitter, but after calling my local bank branch, at least my atm card works again, though I have had to hand over the delta ticket situation to my sister as I am now far from civilization. While making calls, Heidi informed me she would go watch the sunset. I only had a few minutes left, and then proceeded to wait for her, went to the beach to find her, and then went back to wait at the internet place until it was dark.

After that I looked for her at the fish market, and decided she must have gone to where we were staying. When I arrived, I realized that Heidi had also given me all her money to pay for the internet and I had my doubts on her ability to even find the place. Once I realized that, I decided to take a shower and go out for some food. Before doing so, I left a note with a phone number, and made another lap of her usual hang outs. It didn’t take long to find her sipping a cup of tea at the fish market surrounded by locals. She admitted that she may have been gone a bit long, and that we surely missed each other at the internet café. This was good to hear, because I was convinced that she had told me where to meet her, and that I just wasn’t listening. Heidi, Jana, Jaci, and I then tried a nice restaurant and proceeded to order everything on the menu they had run out of.
This was frustrating but the food we ended up getting was good, and we headed home as we needed to catch the ferry at 7a.m. the following morning. Catching that ferry was also a bit of an issue. We literally bought out tickets when the ferry was supposed to be leaving, and then had our passports stamped and ran to the dock in time to see the ferry about 10 yards from the dock heading away. Luckily, it reversed and we jumped on when it got close to the dock.

Back in Dar Es Salaam

Arriving in Dar Es Salaam was anti-climactic as I made one more trip to KLM (wait for my bit on customer service) which did nothing, and then headed to a place called Pugu Hills, a small lodge near a nature preserve about 30km outside of town. This was interesting as there were no signs and all dirt roads, but eventually we made it even though a normal car should probably not have driven those roads. The location was amazing, and worth the journey. A dutch couple (who were not ideal for being in a service industry) were not welcoming, but the restaurant and huts and view and pool made it worth it. We all went for a swim, had an excellent shower, and then ate beef and fish and quiche, finishing it off with some apple pie. Since it was now dark, and Jana and Jaci had a flight out, we had to get going. The taxi driver, who we essentially hired for the remainder of the day, was not comfortable driving the 4-wheel drive roads in the dark, so I drove. It was quite fun, but once we got on normal roads I handed over control as I could feel people were uncomfortable, especially when I started driving on the wrong side of the road. After loading up bags, we headed off to the airport for an emotional goodbye. I then headed off to find another place to call the US and sort out my plane ticket and debit card(see the death of customer service) The following morning Heidi and I caught a bus to Mbeya.

Mbeya

The bus journey to Mbeya was long and hot, but I managed to sleep and read and share a bit of music with Heidi. For some strange reason, I am also able to eat making less of a mess on a bus while bumping along a horrible dirt road than on a stationary table. After one of the stops on the 12 hour journey to eat and use the restroom we returned to find our bus gone. This was really no big deal, as we are used to finding our public transport gone, and glanced around finding the bus waiting near the road. Once we boarded I realized that we weren’t the last ones missing, but the only other white person on the bus was also missing. Everyone else on the bus also seemed to notice that only the white people were missing, so using one of the 5 words I know in Swahili I exclaimed “Mzungus” as if white people were idiots causing the bus to laugh. Our arrival in Mbeya resulted in the usual mugging of taxi drivers and “friends” offering “special price”. After a short walk, we randomly walked into Heidi’s cousin Nicki, went out for a drink and dinner and had an early night. The following day we sat around and wrote this, had a nice local lunch, saw some local soap making, had a few drinks out at night. Today we went to visit Deborah’s orphanage and saw the construction of new dormitory. After a nice lunch, we headed to the internet café to upload this. Tomorrow I head off to Arusha on an 15 hour bus ride, and then get to sort out my lost ticket and maybe do a safari.