Egypt

We left the calm and safety of the Cairo airport and made our way into the throngs of Egyptian cabbies waiting hungrily outside the sliding glass doors. It was seven in the morning here. We’d left Toronto 10.5 sleepless hours prior excited and nervous about our time in Egypt. 

After resisting many cabbie offers we made it through the crowd. Jesse lit up a smoke and we surveyed the drivers. Our meagre attempt to haggle failed and we were too tired to try harder so we accepted the over-priced fare and got in the old car.

It’s early January, the coldest month of the year with the temperature dropping to 5 degrees at night. We kept the window up (our cab driver was cold) and smoke filled the car as we raced through the city to downtown Cairo. The lines on the road proved useless as the multi lane highway jammed up with vehicles expertly weaving around one another, straddling the lines and utilizing the shoulder as another half lane. There are 20.5 million people living in Greater Cairo.

The city is grey and brown, blending into the desert it sits on with a blue vein of life running through the centre. There’s an old world elegance visible beneath the deteriorating buildings, a reminder that Egypt was once a popular vacation destination for Europeans in the first half of the 20th century.

For the first few days in Cairo jet lag woke us up before the first call to prayer echoed around the country. We wandered the streets at a pace that would have been too slow for the day crowd. Eventually we settled into an outdoor cafe where we drank coffees and watched boys scrub the previous days dirt from the vinyl floor. The sun finally rose, a welcome warmth from the frigid night, and slowly Cairo would come to life.

By the end of our busy days we often found ourselves back at the same cafe where we joined the locals in playing dominos and smoking shisha. 

Cairo bears little to no visible signs of the Arab uprisings of 2011 albeit the lack of tourists. There’s still a metro station named after Mubarak, the ousted president. Tahihr Square, once flooded by protesters, is a vast block of pavement with cars buzzing around it and people dashing across roads between them. 

However a feeling of desperation hangs between our encounters with other people. There’s been a drastic drop in visitors since the revolution and the Egyptian pound is worse off than the Canadian dollar. We’re lied to, deceived and mislead often in an attempt to make money which meant we travelled with our guard up. Every once in a while our faith would be restored with a genuine and honest person, but for the most part everyone was looking for a tip or backshis (bribe). As we spent more time here our empathy grew for their plight and we could almost forgive the number of times we felt taken.

Even when paying triple Egypt is an extremely affordable destination. You can get incredible street food for under a dollar, a lifeless hotel room for $10, a ticket on the metro for 15 cents and, most surprisingly, a ticket into the pyramid complex for $3.

Egypt today can thank their ancient ancestors for the impressive pyramids, tombs and monuments and the arid landscape for preserving them so well. They’re likely the only reason there’s a tourist industry here today. They don’t disappoint.
The Pyramids, Giza

The last standing of the seven ancient wonders of the world. 

We took the metro from Tahrir Square then flagged down a local bus the remaining 10km to the pyramids. When you first catch a glimpse of the fabled structures their size is hard to grasp. It’s not until you are at the base of The Great Pyramid that you realize each block used is almost as tall as you are. And there are thousands of blocks reaching towards the gods. 

These massive structures are over 4000 years old. This ancient Arabic saying feels appropriate today: “Man fears time, but time fears the Pyramids.”

 

Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian Museum is a pink building that sits on the north of Tahrir Square and is one place that is full of tour groups every day. Once inside, there are thousands of artifacts to look at. It could be the best Museum in the world, but it’s not modern or organized and even important artifacts are haphazardly placed on a shelf without a label. Somehow, this felt fitting with the Egyptian style and even added to the charm. We focused on the wing containing the treasures found in King Tut’s tomb, the only one that wasn’t found by tomb-raiders until it was discovered by Howard Carter in the early 1900’s. 

Coptic Cairo

After pharaonic rule and before Islam was introduced, Egypt was primarily Christian. As we walked out of Mar Girgis Subway station the fortress of churches, towers and monasteries sat 30 feet below us. This is how much the land has been built up from sand and debris in the thousand years it’s been there for.

We descended the stairs and instantly the noise of Cairo receded into the background. We were left to our own devises to slowly walk around.



Camel Market

Later, many people told us we were crazy to spend so much time in Cairo (6 days), but we were waiting for market day. A dusty 30 minute drive from Cairo is the Bi’resh Souq Gamal (camel market) where hundreds of camels are bought and sold. You can’t help feeling a little vulnerable surrounded by these awkward shaped creatures that tower over your head and mew loudly in your ear. One leg is bent and tied so they are left with three legs, but this doesn’t discourage the occasional one to break loose and gallop awkwardly through the crowd with reckless abandon.










City of the Dead

The most peaceful part of Cairo is a large cemetery where the poor live among the dead. The cemetery resembles a small city with a concrete jungle built up and around tombs. Amongst these are simple living quarters. A few funeral processions rushed by us but otherwise it was a nice break from the noise and hustle of Cairo.






Alexandria

We chose to visit the Mediterranean coast as a day trip from Cairo. The train takes you through 2.5 hours of lush farmland on the way. Alexandria used to be the capital and an important port on the trade route between Europe and India and then later a strategic position in the First World War. Throughout the day we took the local train that snakes its way through the market. It moves slower than we could walk so we easily jumped on and off.






Aswan 

We left Cairo on the night train to Aswan. A private sleeping berth made the 12 hour journey very comfortable as the train gently rocked us to sleep. 

Aswan feels like a breath of fresh air -literally. The air quality is noticeably better than the smog filled streets of Cairo. We passed through the souq (market) without the attention of every shop owner, but the closer you get to the Nile an onslaught of felucca captains hassle you incessantly. 

Aswan is the closest large city to Lake Nasser, the biggest man made lake in the world. The high dam, just south of Aswan, separates Lake Nasser from the Nile River, restricting flooding and drought. All this was built on top of what was once a Nubian village. The residents had the choice of moving south to Sudan or North to Aswan. The Nubians that migrated north have a mix of African features and the middle eastern features of their neighbours. There is a noticeable difference in culture as well and we felt a much more laid-back and content vibe when visiting them on the west side of the Nile. 






Abu Simbel 

By the end of most days we are exhausted and fall asleep early with the chill of January waking us throughout the night. Tucking in at 9pm made our 3am wake up call manageable. We boarded the mini bus to Abu Simbel and watched the desert sky change from moonlight to dawn on the way.

The Abu Simbel Temples are two massive temples once carved out of the mountainside. When the Aswan high dam was built they were painstakingly moved to higher ground piece by piece. Out front are four larger than life statues of Ramesses 2 and his queen, Nefertiti. Their purpose was to impress and intimidate Egypt’s southern neighbour (now Sudan) and discourage attacks.



Nile Cruise

Once back in Aswan we boarded a cruise ship and prepared to move north up river. We spent the first night docked in Aswan and left the following morning. It was a much-needed relaxing few days sitting on the top deck and watching the sun set over the Nile. We stopped at two temples along the way; Kom Ombo one evening and then Edfu the following morning. We killed time reading books, stuffing our faces at the buffet and sharing travel stories with Ken from Canada and Andy from Texas. Three days and two nights later we arrived in Luxor.






Luxor

Luxor is the most visited city in Egypt due to it being surrounded by Ancient Egyptian history. The Valley of the Kings is the main draw. Over a period of 500 years, tombs and chambers were built for pharaohs and nobles, including King Tut. Over 60 tombs have been uncovered so far and they are still digging. We entered three and descended long tunnels with painted hieroglyphs surrounding us on all sides. At the bottom are covered tombs, also often covered in hieroglyphic stories of the afterlife.



Sahara Desert 

The Sahara desert occupies the majority of Egypt, but only hosts a tiny fraction of its population. It’s a totally different side of Egypt that we wanted to experience on our return trip north to Cairo.

This is where it starts getting weird. To the west of the Nile is a string of desert oases – a lush reprieve from the inhospitable Sahara desert. They sit a few hundred km apart and there’s a paved road that runs through them.

We had read one or two accounts that you get a police escort upon arrival to these oases. We didn’t take that too seriously, assuming this experience was an anomaly. We were wrong. The police spotted us in the train station at Aswut waiting for a bus to the southern most oasis. For the next five days we were escorted by the police through the desert. An armed officer guarded our hotel room while we slept, another walked around town with us, ate lunch with us, got us on the bus and there was always another one waiting for us as we exited the bus at the next destination. They were really friendly, but didn’t speak English so after the initial polite greeting it was like having an awkward, silent babysitter. When we finally got an explanation, it was ‘tourists are very important to us and we want to take care of them.’ It seemed like an awful lot of resources just for us, but considering only one or two tourists take this route every few weeks I guess it’s manageable. 

Our first stop was Dakhla Oasis. Here we visited El Quaser built in the 12th century and took a motorcycle into the desert where we played in the dunes, ate lunch and gazed at the sandstone mountains. 

Our next stop was Ferafra where we booked an overnight desert excursion. We crammed in a tiny truck while our guide drifted through the many landscapes of the Sahara. Eventually we set up camp, lit a fire and watched the bright orange moon rise from the horizon and light up the desert with it’s soft glow. Our guide went to sleep and we walked around under the stars feeling like the last people on earth.







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Colombian Convoy

After all of our high adventure in Salento we decided to hit the road, only this time we had back up. John and Paula have been overlanding from California for the past year in a Toyota pick up with a customized camper. Melanie and Lukas, from Switzerland, shipped their Landcruzer to Canada and are having an overland adventure of their own.

Our newfound quirky companions were a blast to hang out with and a big help along the way. Knowing you have others looking out for you on the road is a relief after having the adventures such as we had all been through solo.

Over the next 11 days and nearly 1200 kms we all traveled through the twists and turns, the highs and lows and the rain and shine as the unlikely family we became. Jessica and I took the lead having shed our bags thanks to Team America. We ripped up the dusty mountain road leading to Ibegue like the bratty teenagers in the family, and shedding that extra weight made all the difference.

 

Day 1: Salento to Ibagué
Lukas and Melanie suggested we take a route through the Valle de Cocoras that none of us would have attempted solo, but felt confident doing it together. It was a twisty route through valleys and mountain passes on a dirt road – definitely the road less traveled!

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Here we go!

 

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Our view of the wax palms, most well over 100 feet tall.
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Our motorcycle, The Swede’s Landcruzer & the American’s rig.
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Pit stop shortly after leaving Salento.
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Meeting obstacles like this along the way was not unusual.
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The road was only wide enough for one vehicle, with a steep drop on one side. When oncoming traffic came, the one vehicle would have to reverse until the road was wide enough for the two vehicles to inch by eachother.
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Made it out alive. Enjoying a much-deserved beer,

Day 2: Ibagué to the Tatacoa Desert
We were exhausted and slept well in our tent despite the heavy rain. The next morning the smell of french-pressed coffee woke us up (one of the perks of riding with the convoy). The first half of the day was nice paved roads and highway driving – a nice contrast to yesterday’s physical ride. By midday, the landscape changed dramatically into a desert. It was a few hours getting off the main road and into the heart of the Tatacoa desert where we found another campsite amongst the sparse and vast area to spend the night.

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Picnic lunch just before entering the Tatacoa Desert. Melanie, Lucas, Paula, Jesse and John.
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The Tatacoa Desert.
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The observatory in the middle of the desert. We went to look at the stars when it got dark but unfortunately there was some cloud coverage.
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The longest shadow at sunrise.

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Day 3-4: Tatacoa Desert to Tierradentro
It was a humid night in the desert and the thought of spending another day in the heat was too much for us. We headed back to the mountains – this time to Tierradentro. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the archeological park is the main attraction. Pre-Colombian cultures created an underground funeral complex in the 6th and 9th centuries where they buried bodies, carved sculptures and painted on the walls with red, white and black paint. Each one has a ‘staircase’ (made from stone) down 5-8 metres where there is a main chamber surrounded by several lesser chambers, each containing a body.

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The staircase down to the chambers (which Paula quickly coined ‘bone holes’).
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Inside the ‘bone holes’.
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Our sleeping arrangements.
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Jesse bbq’ing some chicken for the convoy.
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A family style dinner.

Day 5-9: Tierradentro to Popoyan to Chachagui to Ipiales
We made our way to Ipiales with two pit stops: 1. Popoyan, a quiet colonial town where we stayed in a mediocre (at best) hotel and managed to get some laundry done for the next leg of the trip, and 2. Chachagui, a small town with lots of character where we camped on the lawn of a nice hostel with a pool and a kitchen. It was raining by the time we got to Ipiales and we were cold and wet. We checked into the nearest hotel that advertised hot water and warmed up before going to explore the church over the river.

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Taking a break from the road to take in the views.
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Our first glimpse of the church straddling the valley.
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Can you spot the weirdo?
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Saying goodbye to our favourite chips of all time in Colombia and hello to an interesting delicacy as we crossed the border to Ecuador.

We crossed into Ecuador together the following day. Crossing with a vehicle is always a little nerve racking. There is a lot of paperwork involved with importing a vehicle and with us on an Ecuadorian bike with only the ownership and no licence we had to hold our breath and just play it cool. We didn’t mention the bike and made it through with out much hassle. It took quite a while for the others to process their paperwork so we just hung around nervously drinking café and exchanging the rest of our Colombian pesos. Everyone got through just fine and we were off for more adventures getting ever closer to the equator.

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A border guard dog eyeballing us up and down.

Salento, Colombia

After three days of arduously amazing motorcycling through the relentless twists and turns of the Colombian countryside we finally arrived at our next destination La Serrana Finca & Hostel, Salento.

La Serrana set just outside of town was an absolutely stunning base to camp out, unwind and explore the area. Between campfires and beers in the evenings or waking up to the temperate sunrise and delicious breakfast with bottomless coffee in the mornings you are bound to relax and forget any previous hardships.

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Our campsite overlooking the valley to the mountains.

One of the main draws to the area is the Cocora wax palm forrest, a bizarre and otherworldly landscape. The king of this jungle is the awkwardly long legged wax palm, towering nervously overhead at nearly 200 feet tall they truly stick out.

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A short drive out of town brings you to the Valle De Cocora. We hiked one of the trails up and around the valley.

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At one point we scrambled down the mountain with our new friends John and Paula. After our hike we returned to town and were treated to a not-so-tipico Superbowl Sunday party thanks to John.

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Instead of riding our bike out to the valley we decided to catch one of the iconic and overloaded jeeps from the centre of town.

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Stand up jeep drankin’ like it’s spring break yo.

The Hostel was able to organize a horseback riding tour run by a local caballero for the next day. This was honestly so much fun. They take you through town and down some very steep valleys, through serene farmers fields and spooky old train tunnels to a freezing cold waterfall for a swim. If you are comfortable on a horse you can gallop as fast as you like. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard in my life. Highly recommended.

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Our guide and ourselves.
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Waterfallin in love.

Next was the quintessential coffee Finca tour.

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Fresh coffee beans.
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Don Ellias and his grandson at Finca Ellias.
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Beans being roasted to perfection.

It was in Salento that we finally found a place to play Tejo. Tejo is like a Colombian version of horseshoes … only a-fucking-mazing.

So you have an angled clay pit with an iron ring. On the ring is placed four folded paper packets of gunpowder. The player then takes twenty or so steps back and lobs a large iron half circle type thing at the packets. The object of the game you ask? Blow shit up.

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The tejo bar and the groundskeeper.

A Wrong Turn out of Bogota

We missed an exit leaving Bogota and were presented with two choices. 1: Backtrack towards the city and risk getting stuck in traffic, or 2: Take the mountainous route to Salento. We picked option 2. On the map it doesn’t look like a longer route than it’s southern counterpart, but we’ve learned that distance doesn’t mean much when you’re riding in mountainous terrain and you could drive 500km or 100km a day depending on the roads and mountains you encounter.

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We intended to get to Salento in one day, and may have if we’d taken the right highway, instead we went the long way ended up being a three day motorcycle ride stopping in Guaduas and Manizales before arriving at Salento. It ended up being a very beautiful ride, although difficult due to hairpin turns and terrifying large truck.

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Left: Jesse hanging out in Guaduas. Right: Our hotel room above the Zona Clik.
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Our view from where we ate lunch; a little restaurant perched on the peak of a mountain.

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Mirador Piedra Capira

Colonial Towns, Columbia

With the bike-mares behind us our next stop was San Gil, a small town set in the mountains full of adventure. We got half-way there and our bike problems began again. Gas was pouring out of the carburetor. Although it was another beautiful ride, the stress of mechanical issues tainted the beauty of the landscape. Another mechanic and another repair, this time it was the float in the carburetor. Luckily it was a quick fix and we headed to La Pacha Campground set way up in the mountains outside of town.

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Our peaceful camping spot in San Gil.
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Coffee at La Pacha Campground.

We set up our tent and drove to Barichara for dinner. Barichara was another pretty colonial town with white-washed buildings, grand churches and skinny cobblestone streets surrounded by mountains.

 

The next day we went paragliding for the first time! We both had butterflies as the wind picked us up off the cliff and brought us over the mountains to see the small towns below. It was an incredible sensation and something we would love to do again.

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A shot from the sky while paragliding. That’s my shadow in the middle!

After two nights in La Pacha it was time to move on. The next stop was Villa de Leyva, a valley sitting at a high altitude with a desert feel to it. Since the town has no mineral deposits nearby to exploit it has undergone little development in the last 400 years, meaning that it retains most of the original cobblestone streets and colonial architecture from the 16th century (thanks Wikipedia!).

After looking at a few guesthouses we opted for the cheaper option of camping. It was a strange ‘campsite’ – really just a huge fenced in patch of grass. There was one other character camping there named Antoine. Our first introduction to him was him offering us bologna from one hand while his other gripped a giant empty bottle of whiskey. He looked like a street kid but once he awoke from passing out mid-afternoon we spoke to him around a fire and learned he was from Costa Rica and had a masters in music in which he later demonstrated by singing some Latin opera.

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One of the more rugged ‘campgrounds’ we’ve stayed in.
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Hobo’s Paradise Hotel

We spent the evening walking around and taking in the town – including Plaza Mayor, the largest square in Colombia at 1400 square metres. Eventually we sat down at an Italian restaurant and enjoyed food and wine on a balcony over Plaza Mayor while a live band played some great music.

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White-washed walls at dusk in Villa de Leyva.
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Plaza Mayor, Villa de Leyva.

 

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Enjoying some vino tinto!

Although there were things to do we’d been to so many colonial towns (in fact, at one point I had to ask Jesse to remind me what town we were in). We were too excited to get to the capital city of Colombia and left after only one night.

Taganga

We left Medellin on a 12 hour night bus that ended up taking 17 hours – at least we were able to enjoy the comfort of sitting directly across from the baño. It was 17 hours of slamming doors, bright lights and a constant stench, not to mention the occasional child locking his or herself in.

But in the end we were heading to the Caribbean so who cares.

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Taganga. Local fisherman ferry people in and out of the nearby beaches and Parque Tayrona.

We arrived to a sweltering thirty five degrees along with, what appeared to be, the entire Colombian population. Apparently the two week national holiday had just begun and everybody and their grandma’s cousin had the same idea as us – head to the beach.

Our first night was memorable to say the least:

We checked into Mr.Wilson’s beauty salon and campground, it received good enough reviews and seemed like a normal enough place, so why not. We were greeted by a young guy with a good command of english by the name of Andreas, we would later find out that Andreas was some sort of slave to Mr.Wilson the crossdressing beautician/ campground proprietor. Mr.Wilson constantly ordered Andreas around and addressed him simply as niño (boy).

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Mr .Wilson doing Her thang and niño checking us in .

We set up our tent for the first time, made dinner in the disgustingly unclean “kitchen” after another camper defiled it with his raw chicken, and kicked back to a few beers.

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Jessica decided to tuck into a book for the evening while I went down to the beach to continue the fiesta and listen to poor niño rant about life under the whip of Mr.Wilson. While Niño and I were enjoying some of Colombia’s national export (not coffee or bananas) there seemed to be some kind of domestic disturbance back at the campground that had kept Jessica up most of the night. When I returned the scene seemed to have died down but it had definitely tainted the place. We packed up and left in the morning, and the peace disturber left with a slightly modified tent.

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Sunset, Taganga beach.

We moved  over to Sierraventura hostel, a nice place run by a local woman Jenny and her sex-pat husband Nico. We got a private room, private bath, good internet for vegging out and a pool. A nice reprieve from Mr. Wilson’s beauty salon/house of horrors.

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Jessica and the rest of Colombia, Taganga Beach.

We spent the next few days relaxing by the pool by day and cooking by the wood fire bbq by night .

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Dinner poolside.
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I caught a scorpion that was terrorizing the hostel guests. I am now known as “El Cazador de escorpión” (the scorpion hunter).

At Sierraventura, I got into a conversation with Jenny about a motorcycle they had there that had caught my eye. Jenny told me that the bike was actually for sale …… and that was it, we were obsessed.

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The bike in question.

Mandalay, Myanmar

When we arrived in Mandalay we were tired and cranky after being bounced and tossed around on a train for 14 hours. We walked to the first hotel with a/c and crashed for most of the day.

Mandalay feels much more laid-back than Yangon and has more of an urban sprawl. The city is big but doesn’t feel as compact or busy as the Yangon. As usual our first few days were spent biking and walking around, getting a feel for the city.

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A shrine of some sort.
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Young boys fixing a motorbike in a shop.
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Pick up trucks are the cheapest and most popular mode of transport for locals traveling short and long distances. Once the back fills up they start sitting on the roof We rode one for several hours and I can’t say it’s the most comfortable ride I’ve ever experienced.
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The luggage compartment of this bus provides shade on a hot afternoon.

By exploring this way we were able to try out and find out favourite tea shop. There is a very strong tea culture in Myanmar and mostly men sit around with eachother drinking sweet tea, smoking, eating, and gossiping. A pot of weak Chinese tea sits on every table, while you order small mugs of a much sweeter tea. It’s usually about half condensed milk and half tea, with a spoonful of white sugar for good measure. Tea boys run around the shop serving the customers who make kissy noises to get their attention. This isn’t a rude gesture and is practiced around the country.

Being the only white people in the tea shop and often the only couple we attracted a lot of attention. Most days we would wear traditional longyis – mine embroidered and jesse’s checkered – since it’s important to dress conservatively there. I think it was met with some appreciation, but mostly just amusement. Several people attempted to show Jesse how to properly tie his longyi – it’s an art! For most of the time spent at the teahouse we had at least three people standing around our table without saying a word. Jesse managed to joke around with the tea boys quite a bit and they were very interested in his tattoos and our iphones.

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Tea boys are brought to the city from the poor rural areas to work for almost no money. It’s really sad that they aren’t going to school yet they are so cheerful. Seems to be a Burmese thing: no matter how much suffering they have endured, positivity seems to radiate from them.
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The happiest baby alive.
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On one of our bike rides we found the teak monestary, Shwendaw Monestary. It’s roof and walls are covered in carvings depicting buddhist myths.
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These places aren’t just tourist attractions. Monks live and pray here – and something just relax and read the local paper.

We were finally able to see the comedy routine of The Moustache Brothers. They are famous for their risky commentary of the regime/government in Myanmar. The trio includes U Par Par Lay, U Lu Zaw, and Lu Maw. Two of them have served time in a labour camp for their criticism of the government. They are now under house arrest and perform their show in the front of their house with the help of their families.

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A traditional dance.
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Par Par Lay arrested on September 25, 2007.

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On my last day in Mandalay I endured the sweaty bike ride to see the longest bridge in Myanmar, the U Bein Bridge. A picnicking family offered me food and I shared a big ricecracker with small fish in it (not my thing!). I sat and watched the juxtaposition between the tourists that come in busloads and the families that use the area to fish, bath and play in. Besides the people selling things, there’s not much interaction or connection between them!

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My first view of the U Bein Bridge, barely visible in the distance. At 1.2km it spans the entire photo plus some.
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It is the oldest teak bridge in the world built in the mid 1800s.
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A resting spot mid-way across the bridge.
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Local kids play on a beached boat.
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Some boys return from fishing on a very narrow path.
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A man tries to entice tourists to view the sunset from his boat.