More African wings to the US

RwandAir Airbus A330
RwandAir Airbus A330

Rwanda’s national airline is due to begin flights to the United States by the end  of 2017. That’s good news for Americans wanting to visit East — and West Africa.  If it happens.

At present, seven African nations have airlines making direct flights between the Mother Continent and the United States:

An eighth set of African wings is now moving to join the party.

RwandAir, the national flag carrier of Rwanda, expects to begin direct flights between New York JFK and Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, at the end of this year.

Whether that will actually happen, however, depends on whether — and wqhen —  RwandAir can acquire the plane they want for this route. More on that in a moment.

If they can pull it off, it would mean more options for American travelers flying to the Mother Continent — not just to East Africa, which Rwanda is located, but to West Africa, as well.

That’s because this direct flight* between the US and Rwanda will be making a stop in Accra, Ghana’s capital city on the West African coast.

(*NOTE: A direct flight is not a non-stop flight. A direct flight is any flight between two points that uses the same airline and the same flight number — no matter how many stops are made en route.)

For Ghana-bound travelers, the flight between JFK and Accra’s Kotoka International Airport (ACC) will be a non-stop, right around ten hours. The second leg to Kigali (KGL) tacks on another six and half hours.

The JFK-ACC portion of the flight is about the same length of time it takes to fly from San Diego to London. The full JFK-KGL run is about two hours longer than the 15-hour flight from LAX to Beijing.

This is the youngest airline in Africa, founded in 2002 as “Rwandair Express.” Seven years later, they dropped “Express” from their name.  Why? Because Rwandair Express sounded too much like a little regional airline.

And their ambitions are definitely global.

RwandAir has two jumbo jets with the range to comfortably make this hop — an Airbus A330-200 and an A330-300. But like the airline itself, the airplane they have in mind for this route is much newer.

They’re casting covetous eyes on the A350 AWB, Airbus’ answer to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Word is that RwandAir is in talks to pick up a couple of A350s for their US service, but have yet to take delivery.

Like the Dreamliner, the A350 represents the current state of the art in air travel, and very few African airlines have either of them.  So in more ways than one, this is a big move for RwandAir and for Africa in general.

IBIT will be keeping an eye on this.

(NOTE: If you prefer to fly a US-based airline to Africa, your options are even fewer — Delta and United.  That’s it That’s all.  But that’s another conversation.)

 

ETHIOPIA: Africa’s Jerusalem

Arrow
Arrow
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The rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia are solid proof that Black people have always been more than “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

Lalibela is a village of maybe 30,000 souls, wedged into the steep, rugged mountains of northern Ethiopia.   If it’s not at or near the top of your bucket list of destinations, you need to stop and re-do the list.

Now.  Right now. Before you read another word. Before you take another breath. The place is that special.

It’s easy to get caught up in the history of Ethiopia. It has so much:

  • The only country in Africa never to be colonized by a European power (though not for lack of trying, specifically by the Italians).
  • Defeated a modern, invading European army (see the Battle of Adwa).
  • A dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most of any African country — and probably deserves more.

But like I said, this place is special — 11 of the world’s most extraordinary churches, each one carved down the equivalent of three to four stories into those same mountains some 900 years ago.

Full-fledged structures with artful supporting pillars and arches, all cut and chiseled from the inside out over the course of 23 years, by hand.

23 > 600
Compare that with the great European cathedrals, many of which took a century or more to erect (one, the Cologne Cathedral, took more than 600 years — and it wasn’t carved into solid rock).

So if you’re interested in architecture, you need to see these churches.

Unlike the great Egyptian pyramids, these aren’t abandoned relics. These are active churches of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith, and worshipers go there every day.

King Lalibela, the Ethiopian ruler who created the famed rock-hewn churches
King Lalibela

During major religious festivals like Timket and Meskel, pilgrims wearing prayer shawls of thin, white cotton may walk here over miles of stony ground — barefoot.

So if you’re interested in Ethiopian culture and Christianity, you need to see these churches.

THE SURVIVOR KING
The man who conceived these structures is also the one who gives their location its name, King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, part of the Zagwe dynasty.*

(*NOTE: For sheer drama,  Shakespeare would’ve loved Ethiopian royalty. If rival rulers weren’t trying to kill you, your ambitious relatives probably were. Lalibela’s brother and uncle forced him into exile, and a half-sister tried to poison him — all before he ever took the throne.)

Many Ethiopians traveled to the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, until Muslim Arabs captured it in 1137.  After that, Ethiopian Christian pilgrims trying to make the pilgrimage risked death.

The king’s solution — create his own Jerusalem. He chose the site — originally called Roha — organized the labor force and went to work, settling on the designs one by one, learning from each.

JERUSALEM TO ETHIOPIA
Once a single massive block of pink volcanic stone had been cut out from the rest of the mountain, the interior had to be carved from the top down and the inside out.  One mistake and it all would come crashing down on anyone beneath.

When it was finished, Africa had its own Jerusalem.  Now, Ethiopians had 11 mighty sanctuaries where they could freely and safely worship.

Almost a millennium later, they still do, walking for miles every day through the mountains, in all weather,  to get here.

The most iconic of the 11 is Beit Giyorgis, St. George’s church. It was the last one built, and the most impressive. It also is the only one carved in the classic shape of a crucifix.

The UN granted Lalibela’s churches World Heritage Site status in 1978. They erected gigantic canopies over several of them to shield them from the erosion of winter rains.

A somewhat less popular UN protective move was to move scores of Lalibela residents into new, modern homes, well away from the churches.  For the residents, that meant modern conveniences like running water, but a much longer –and steeper — walk to church.

HATERS GONNA DOUBT
Certain European pseudo-experts have suggested that Ethiopians could not have conceived, much less, built these structures themselves.  They must have had help, their theory goes, possibly from the Knights Templar.

This fanciful notion is roundly rejected by the legitimate scientific community — and virtually every living Ethiopian.

The reality is that an Ethiopian king, a Black man, conceived these churches, chose the sites, directed the design and construction.  And an army of Ethiopian craftsmen, also Black men, took his vision and made it real.

Some folks just can’t handle that idea — and they’d prefer that you not embrace it, either.

But that’s their problem.

We are descended from great people, and the seeds of their greatness remain in us, in you.  In Lalibela, that fundamental truth is literally set in stone.

Which is why, if you are a Black American — or a Black anyone — you need to see these churches. Your children and your grandchildren need to see them, be inspired by them, and know that these miracles of faith and architecture are part of their DNA.

So the next time someone tries to make you feel lesser than you truly are, you won’t need to repay insult with injury. Just point them the way to Lalibela.

IF YOU GO
Getting to Lalibela means flying to Ethiopia.  Several international airlines fly to the capital, Addis Ababa.  The national flag carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, is Africa’s largest airline, and highly respected worldwide.

You reach Lalibela by road or air.  The drive from  Addis will take 13 hours to two days, and is recommended by almost no one.

The flight from Addis  takes two hours, with a stop in Bahir Dar or Gondar, another of those World Heritage sites (the return flight is non-stop.) From the airport, it’s a short, gorgeous mountain drive to Lalibela.

Hotels in Lalibela are Motel 6-basic, but if youcan score a balcony room, you may not care.

The site is open daily 6 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is US$50 for adults and $25 for children ages 9-13. Your ticket is good for five days, so no need to try to see all 11 churches at once.

Get yourself in shape — and your kids’ behavior in shape — before you visit. This site is 8,500 feet above sea level, long on climbs and short on guardrails.

A good guide can make your visit unforgettable. A bad one can ruin it. Go to the Lalibela tourist office and hire a licensed guide. They may cost you between 200-400 Ethiopian birr per day —  roughly $9-18.


Tours of historic Ethiopia — including Lalibela — are available through Trips by Greg LLC. For more information, contact us as info@tripsbygreg.com

National Parks Senior Pass: Get it while it’s cheap

 

The National Park Service’s Senior Pass is good for admission to all of America’s incredible national parks — for life — and it’s only $10. But only until Aug. 27. 

Remember how it felt to be a high school senior, a college senior?  It was an exalted status in large ways and small (at least until you had to start repaying your college loans).

You almost felt, dare I say it, privileged.

Well, if you’re a US citizen age 62 or older, you’re privileged again. For the cost of a Senior Pass, you get admission to more than 2,000 recreational sites run by:

  • The National Park Service
  • The US Fish & Wildlife Service
  • The Bureau of Land Management
  • The Bureau of Reclamation
  • The US Forest Service
  • The US Army Corps of Engineers

That includes all 59 national parks and 24 national recreationa areas across the United States.

For life.

The one-time cost to you: $10. That’s it, that’s all. No renewal fees.  Nothing. Ten George Washingtons. Done.

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?  Well, it is. Because after Aug. 27, that $10 fee jumps to $80.

As you might expect, there currently is a run on Senior Passes across the country, but the National Park Service has plenty — and Americans are snapping them up as fast as park rangers can collect their Alexander Hamiltons.

To get one of these magically cheap lifetime tickets to America’s natural wonders, you have two options. The cheapest is to go to the nearest of those 2,000-plus national recreation properties and buy one in person.

The other option is to order your pass online. The feds will tack on an extra $10 for processing, raising the total cost to $20. Not as good as $10, but still a lot better than $80.

If neither of those options work for you, there’s one left, an annual Senior Pass for $20 a year. Still not a bad deal.

There’s one other benefit to this Senior Pass that I neglected to mention: Anybody entering the park with you gets in free. 

So not only do you get the mother of all bargains while taking in some of the world’s most spectacular sights, but you also get to be really popular with family and friends.

You can find more details on all this at the US National Park Service.

Meanwhile, as you rummage through your excuses not to check out a network of national parks that is the envy of the rest of the world, take a look at the video below of Yosemite National Park and remind yourself of something:

As an American citizen, you own this.  It belongs to you.  And your family. And your friends. Come up some time and check it out.

And bring Grandma and Grandpa with you.

The birth of a traveler

Do you remember the day you became a traveler?

Every traveler has a story. Big deal, right?. Every traveler has thousands of stories, a verbal slideshow of every place they’ve ever been. And if you’re not careful, they’ll inflict every damned one of them on you in one sitting.

Those aren’t the stories I’m talking about.

I’m talking about that special story every traveler has, the one they may not share with everybody. It’s the story of the trip that changed their lives forever.

The one that made them travelers.

I was six on, a cross-country train trip with my mother from New Orleans to Los Angeles aboard the Sunset Limited.

I’d taken a train journey before, from Chicago aboard another famous train of the time, the City of New Orleans. But in my young mind, that one didn’t count since I remembered almost none of it, having slept through virtually all of it.

A mistake I was determined not to make aboard the Sunset Limited.

Which explains why, from the moment our sleek train of passenger cars in their fluted aluminum skins began to glide away from the platform at New Orleans Union Station, my little head was swiveling back and forth like a windshield wiper — 180 degrees, left, right, left, right. Determined to see out of both sides of the train at the same time.

All things are possible when you’re six.

We rocked and rolled west out of the NOLA, over miles of seemingly endless bayou, flanked by tall cypress trees. They stood mute and resolute in a sea of motionless water covered by a layer of bright green algae, thick as icing on a cake. Spanish moss hung from their limbs like a grandmother’s shawl.

Many hours later, somewhere west of Houston the cypress gave way to cactus and bayou swamp to desert sand and rocks. Dry, A hard, harsh land. To the eyes of an unknowing child, a dead place.

Sleep is the implacable enemy of a 6-year-olds. It infiltrates under the cover of night, silent, insidious, relentless. All too soon, the eyelids fall without your knowledge or consent.

This time, though, something woke me up in the middle of the night.

It was maybe two in the morning. The passenger car was dark and silent. There was more light outside than within. A ghostly cast from the moon and stars covered the land like a smooth, thin crust of snow. It draped the rocks and the cactus the way the Spanish moss draped the bayou cypress we had left behind.

Somewhere out there was a horizon, but it was hard to tell where it was. Could this be where true desert life was hiding? Were there ghosts behind the rocks, waiting to dance in the moonlight once we had passed?

Without warning, the earth fell away. Not the ground. The planet. All below was perfect, infinite blackness. No shapes, no color, no bottom. Stars above, nothing below. Nothing. The Sunset Limited was racing over empty air.

Even at 6, I knew what gravity was, even if I couldn’t spell it. But gravity seemed to mean nothing here. How long could we keep this up before the abyss swallowed us whole?

I look around around the inside the car. Every soul was asleep. I had impending oblivion all to myself. At first, I prayed it would end. Then, overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of it all, I prayed that it wouldn’t.

Decades later, I would learn that we had crossed the Pecos High Bridge, a few miles outside Langtry, TX. Half a mile long and almost 400 feet high. All of which looks like infinity at 2 in the morning.

Especially when you’re six.

What other incredible sights were out there beyond the horizon, beyond the reach of this train, waiting to grab my imagination and run away with it?

I didn’t know it then, but that was the moment I became a traveler. Fifty-nine years, five continents and 30 countries later, I’m still trying to see out of birth sides of the train.

See you on the bridge.

Do you remember the experience that started you on the traveling life?  Share it here on IBIT!

Africa: The Brazilian Connection

The flow of culture between The Mother Continent and South America’s largest country runs both ways.

Wherever you set foot there and for as long as you live, Africa will always find ways to amaze and surprise you.

The latest surprise to me came as I was preparing information on a nine-day tour next year to the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau.

Adventure? The country boasts pristine forests, wild rivers, unspoiled beaches, the world’s largest continuous line of mangrove forest.

Culture? Try the Bijagos Islands, an archipelago of 88 islands, of which only  20 are inhabited. Because of their isolation, the tribal culture there has survived into the 21st century intact.

But this was what stopped me in my proverbial tracks: “Carnival is the main festivity in Guinea Bissau.”

We’re actually talking here about Carnaval. As in the Carnaval of Brazil.

Say what?

The African roots of Brazil’s biggest cultural festival are a well-established fact. But those roots have reached back across the Atlantic all the way rto Africa — some by choice, some not.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade took more captive Africans  to Brazil than anywhere else, upwards of 4 million over three centuries, many of whom were Muslims of the Yoruba and Hausa peoples.

It must have a been a bizarre relationship — West Africans, often Muslims literate in Arabic, being worked and brutalized by slaveholders who often couldn’t read or write in their native Portuguese.

Some fled into the jungles to form Maroon communities called quilombos. Others rebelled, most notably the Malê Revolt of 1835.

The revolt was crushed, and the open practice of Islam eradicated. Many of the surviving rebels were deported to West Africa.

Over time,  many Brazilian slaveowners — for commercial more than moral reasons — opted to free their slaves. Slavery in Brazil ended altogether in 1888 — partly in fear of another Malê Revolt.

Many of the newly freed remained in Brazil and develop today’s rich heritage of Afro-Brazilian culture. Others returned to their ancestral homelands.

Some returned to Nigeria, where they remain as both Africans and Brazilians to this day.  Others went to countries like Guinea-Bissau.

(At the same time, there are significant numbers of native-born Angolans, whose ancestors were a major source of enslaved Africans from Brazil to Louisiana, who today are opting to migrate to Brazil.  )

So around the time that Carnaval is being celebrated on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Salvador, Bahia, you’ll find similar celebrations going on in Afro-Brazilian communities up and down the coast of West Africa…including in Guinea-Bissau.

For more information on that, and other cultural tours in Africa, visit  Trips by Greg.

 

Yellow Fever: Shot shortage

If you’re planning a tropical vacation in the next year or so, especially to Africa, get your yellow fever vaccination sooner than later — if you can. 

Buried deep in the bowels of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site is the following little announcement:

“Sanofi Pasteur, the manufacturer of the only yellow fever vaccine (YF-Vax) licensed in the United States, has announced that YF-Vax will be unavailable from mid-2017 to mid-2018 because of delays in the production process.”

According medical media reports, this all started in 2016, when Sanofi Pasteur began switching to a new manufacturing plant. In process, already manufactured doses of YF-Vax were lost.

Nobody is saying exactly how many were lost, but apparently, the number was pretty large.

By now, the country’s supply of YF-Vax may already be gone.

According to CDC, Sanofi Pasteur has offered up a French substitute, Stamaril. It’s currently used in 70 countries, but it’s not licensed in the United States.

Which means that, under federal law, it has to be treated as an experimental drug.  That means only a limited number of travel health clinics around the country —- 250 — will even be allowed to offer it.

Two hundred fifty clinics across the US with Stamaril vaccine — so what’s the big deal, right?

Compare that with the 4,000 clinics that usually have YF-Vax, and you see the problem.

This CDC page will show you where you can find the US clinics that have Stamaril.

If you’ve already been inoculated against yellow fever, you’re golden.  The vaccine is now considered to give life-long protection against the disease.

As always, check with your doctor before you travel, but so as long as you can show your signed and dated “yellow card” like the one above, you should be fine, even if the date has expired.

If you’ve never been inoculated for yellow fever before, get thee to a clinic in a hurry. Either that, or start looking elsewhere for your next big trip.

Like, maybe, the Alps?

Yellow fever was long ago eradicated in the US. Elsewhere in the world, where mosquitoes are not as well controlled, it’s still a potential scourge.  A 2013 worldwide outbreak, produced  127,000 severe/toxic cases and 45,000 deaths.

Nine out of ten of those fatalities were in Africa.

ONE DISEASE, TWO FLAVORS

Like malaria, yellow fever comes in two versions — mild and severe. The Mayo Clinic refers to the mild version of yellow fever as “acute,” and the severe version as “toxic” — which should tell you something.

The mild/acute version is like the worst flu you’ve ever had, times ten. The severe/toxic version can kill you in a few days, especially if doctors mistakenly diagnose it as something else — which happens often.

And like most other mosquito-borne diseases,  there is no cure for it.

THE TEN-DAY ITCH

These days, most African countries require visitors to show proof of vaccination against yellow fever in the form of a yellow vaccination certificate like the one shown above. If you can’t, you may be denied entry.

“Can’t I just go to a hospital and get the vaccination once I arrive in my destination country?”

No. The vaccine needs ten days to take effect.

If they’re not covered by your health insurance, these shots can be obscenely expensive. I’ve seen travel clinics charging almost $300 — and that was before the YF-Vax shortage.

Eye-watering as that price is, it still doesn’t compare to the money you would  lose if your trip was scuttled because you didn’t get  inoculated.  So get your yellow fever shot.

If you can find one.

 

 

I never really left…but I’m back, anyway!

After some months of upheaval, confusion and long periods of awkward silence, that which is old is new again here at IBIT. 

I’m still old, but as longtime readers can easily tell, the blog is new.

Greg Gross
Greg Gross

That’s partly because IBIT is sporting a fresh new look, and partly because — *drum roll* — the old IBIT is dead and gone. Literally. All of it.

It’s a long, annoying story that I will not bore you with, simply because I refuse. So don’t even ask.

If I seem strangely sanguine and serene about the reality of eight years of toil, tears and joy vanishing forever into the digital ether, it’s because…well, I am! I’m not even mildly upset over it.

This is a time for new beginnings, starting fresh.

You long-time IBIT readers out there — and we both know who you are! — welcome back. I’ve missed all my digital travel podnuhs out there.

If you’re new to this blog, get ready to laugh a lot and to learn a lot — not because I know a lot, but because I’m going to be learning right along with you, as I have been since I started this blog in 2009.

Basically, I’m following the advice of Negro League pitching great Satchel Paige, who famously said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

He was right. So from this point on, IBIT and I only have one button: Fast-Forward.

And I’m pushing the hell out of it.

So please return your seat backs, tray tables and flight attendants to their full, upright and locked positions, because IBIT is taking off.

Again.