Ghana: Your introduction to Africa

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For a first visit to The Mother Continent, this English-speaking nation of proud and friendly West Africans, with its link to America’s slavery past and its comfort level with Black American expats, makes a sensible choice.

You’ve made up your mind: You’re finally going to Africa.  But where?  

That’s no small question, because Africa is no small place. With 12 million square miles, this continent is big enough to swallow Europe, China and the continental United States whole, and still ask about desert.

We’re talking 1.2 billion people divided among  3,000 distinct ethnic groups speaking 2,000 languages in 55 sovereign nations. 

And for too many reasons to chew on in one blog post,  traveling around those 55 African countries isn’t nearly as easy as, say, Western Europe, where you can cruise virtually the entire region on one visa.

SIZE MATTERS
Even ruling out Africa’s conflict zones still leaves you close to 50 countries from which to choose, including tropical paradise islands like Cape Verde in the Atlantic and Mauritius, Reunion Island, the Comoros or the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

So when it comes to travel planning for a newcomer, Africa’s sheer size and scope is always the elephant in the room.

It’s also the lion, the leopard, the rhino and the cape buffalo.

Those animals are known collectively as The Big 5, and they’re a tourist attraction all by themselves.  So if the wild is what’s calling you to the continent, you might want to focus on a well-organized safari tour in  East or southern Africa.

Maybe wildlife is not your thing. Maybe you’re more interested in African history and heritage. I mean way back, before the Europeans or even the Arabs came. If so, Egypt and Ethiopia need to be at the top of your bucket list.

WHAT’S YOUR THING?
Looking for urban Africa at its best — or at least, its most intense? Lagos, Nigeria, the most populous in Africa, or Johannesburg, South Africa could be calling you.

Maybe religion is what you want to tap into, especially African Christianity. That’s Ethiopia again, home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.

If you want to get to the roots of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, you’ll find them in the coastal nations of West Africa, where the slave ships loaded up millions of captive Africans for the nightmare cruise to the so-called New World.

Or maybe you’re about something else entirely — adventure hiking or mountain biking, or surfing, or art, or music, or food, or dance, or…well, you begin to get the idea.

What if you just can’t make up your mind?

CLOSE AND COMFORTABLE
For my clients who find themselves stuck for a choice, I always recommend Ghana.  It makes a lot of things easier for the first-time visitor to Africa.

Being on the West African coast, it’s in the part of Africa closest to North America, which means a shorter trans-Atlantic flight for you. No need to fly first to Europe and then south to the continent.

Its official language is English, so no worries about being able to communicate.

There’s another element that makes Ghana attractive for the first-time African traveler.  It’s one of several West African countries where people take pride in being friendly and welcoming to visitors. A definite plus for the newbie.

If you’re African-American, Ghana has a special advantage for you.  Even though you haven’t set foot there yet, you’re already familiar to many of the locals.

The country has officially welcomed Black Americans to relocate there, and thousands have done so. That means there’s a permanent community of expats in Ghana, mainly in the capital city, Accra, who look and sound just like you.

You know that expression, “Get in where you fit in?” You fit in here. You won’t feel people staring at you because you’re such an oddity, or find people sneaking pics of you or even walking straight up to you and ask to have their picture taken with you because you’re so — you know — “different.”

The more you travel elsewhere in the world as a Black American, the more you will come to appreciate that.

For all of these reasons and more, Ghana makes a great introduction to Africa.

 

Poorism takes a life

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A Spanish tourist in Rio de Janeiro is shot dead at a military police checkpoint while touring one of the city’s infamous hill slums called favelas. It calls into question the practice of using poverty as a tourist attraction.

It happened this week. The victim was a 67-year-old woman whose car failed to stop at a military police checkpoint while touring Rocinha, the largest of Rio’s notorious favelas.

With her were two relatives, another tourist and a tour guide. The other officers realized that the car was on a favela tour and held their fire, but by then, the unfortunate visitor was already mortally wounded.

She was the fourth tourist shot in a favela in less than a year, and the third to die. The other shootings were blamed on drug gangs and at least one victim was thought to have wandered into a favela on his own.

It comes only a month after military police had been assigned to Rocinha, the scene of almost daily shoot-outs between rival drug gangs, as well as gangs and police.

PUSHED OUT, KEPT OUT
Roughly one in five of Rio de Janeiro’s 6 million residents lives in one of its 1,000 ad hoc hillside shantytowns known as favelas. They are home for Brazil’s urban poor, who are pushed out — and itas rural poor, who are kept out — of the city’s urban core.

Rio’s favelas are hardly the only ones in Brazil, but theirs are the best known.  The 1959 film “Black Orpheus” and the Michael Jackson music video “They Don’t Care About Us” each were shot in a Rio favela.

Most are controlled by ruthless drug gangs, some of them armed heavily enough to occasionally shoot down a police helicopter. Efforts by the police and the army to “pacify” these neighborhoods yield little lasting success.

Whether in Brazil’s favelas, South Africa’s  all-Black townships like Soweto,  Palestinian refugee camps or Paris housing projects known as banlieues, organized tours of poor communities have become  a kind of cottage industry within international travel.

Nor is the United States immune from this trend. You can find ghetto tours in from Harlem and the Bronx in New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles.  There also were the disaster tours in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

The Rocinha shooting calls into question the whole phenomenon of treating poor communities as tourist attractions, cultural Disneylands for affluent tourists.

(And let’s be clear: In the eyes of the poor whose neighborhoods you visit, if you can afford to fly to another part of the world purely for enjoyment, you are affluent, regardless of how you feel about your bank statement.)

There are varying names for this phenomenon — poverty tourism, slum tourism, ghetto tourism.  It’s even evolved its own term within the travel industry:

“Poorism.”

Its advocates contend that such tours are the only way to get well-heeled tourists from the West — and increasingly, from China — to relate to some of the world’s most desperately impoverished citizens.

RECREATIONAL ANTHROPOLOGY
Only subjecting them to this kind of full-immersion shock treatment, they argue, will trigger any empathy for their fellow human beings. They need an honest, unblinking look at what’s real in the world — and let’s face it, a lot of what’s real is anything but pretty.

Critics counter that all this is little more than recreational anthropology, one slippery step above the human zoos of years gone by. Far from offering any real insight, they’re just letting tourists pay for the — wait for it — privilege of feeling superior.

Even if some of these slum tour operators have the best intentions, the critics insist, they can’t control the attitudes their clients bring to these tours.

Regardless of which side of the argument anyone comes down on, it’s time for the travel industry to hold an honest — and probably painful — conversation about poorism.

Preferably before some other hapless tourist returns home in a box.

 

Travel for the Senses: Taste

Second of an occasional series Long before there was ever such a thing as a “foodie,” people were traveling the world to escape from their culinary comfort zones and delight their tastebuds. When you come to see the world, come hungry.

What are the memories we bring back from our travels? What we saw,  wwhat we did,  who we met…and what we ate.

One of the first questions you’ll be asked when you return from a trip is, “How was the food?” And you will have answers. Because flavors form a major part of our memories when we travel.

And when it comes to cuisine, the world gives us endless chances to make memories.

Some cities are known worldwide for their grub, many of the right here in the United States — New York, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, among others.

Some of them, and the iconic dishes they create, have become national treasures. Some chefs and restauranteurs have achieved a celebrity usually reserved for entertainers, athletes and political figures.

But your food adventure really takes off when you do.

Countries have built global reputations for their cuisine, and you already know a lot of them — France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, India.

And little by little, one nation and one set of dishes at a time,  Africa is elbowing her way onto the world’s culinary stage.

But food is about more than just good taste. A nation’s cuisine can teach you a lot about its environment, its culture.  Everything on your plate comes with a side of history.

A STORY ON EVERY PLATE
You also learn that the world’s poor make the world’s best cooks. Poverty forced them daily to do more with less, and make it appetizing.  Brazil’s feijoada and Mexico’s barbacoa, Italian polenta and Spanish gazpacho, French pot-au-feu and ratatouille  had their start in humble family kitchens.

Today, some of those poor folks’ meals have found their way into the world’s fine dining establishments, where the dishes — and their prices — are equally unreal.

The Gare de Lyon is one of several train stations in Paris is where you catch France’s famed TGV high-speed trains. It’s also where you’ll find a 116-year-old restaurant called Le Train Bleu, “the blue train.”

What kind of food do they serve? Who cares. Just look at this place.

I’d go there for a glass of water and a toothpick — which might be all I could afford, anyway.  Before checking their menu prices, consult your doctor.

A soft-boiled egg: $27? Mon Dieu!

But it’s no less special when you find an great meal in an  unassuming little joint, or even from a street vendor — and at prices that don’t force you to contemplate bank robbery.

That sort of down-to-earth food experience feeds the soul as well as the body. It becomes your personal treasure, that you cherish for a lifetime.

What’s more, there’s no need to go hyper-exotic to take your palate on an adventure. Once you head for international destinations, you can find lots of culinary surprises in the most mundane — and familiar — settings.

I’m talking places like Burger King, Pizza Hut,  KFC and — yes Lord, help me! — even McDonald’s.

USUAL SUSPECTS, UNUSUAL TREATS
Wherever we went in the world, my late wife Kay used to make a point of visiting one Mickey D’s — which is depressingly easy, since they seem to  have blanketed the planet.

What we both learned — especially to my surprise — was how much McDonald’s menu varies from one part of the world to another. You’ll find menu items that you’ve never seen at the Golden Arches in your ‘hood…and likely never will.

Which is kind of a shame,  because some of them are better — or at least more interesting — than what Mickey D’s serves up here at home:

  • Macarons (France)
  • Salmon burger (Finland)
  • Tzatziki wraps (Hungary)
  • Bratwurst sandwich (Germany)
  • Molletes (Mexico)
  • Shrimp burger (Hong Kong, Japan)
  • McCurry Pan (India)
  • McFalafel (Israel)

As with almost every other form of travel, food travel can be a two-way experience, participatory, immersive, hands-on. Just as you can take music classes and language lessons while you vacation in Europe, the Americas, Asia or Africa, you also can take cooking classes.

LEARN WHILE YOU EAT
Have a favorite dish from a different part of the world? You can learn to make it in the land where was invented, whether from a professionally trained chef or from a grandmother who’s been making it all her life for her own family…and still does.

Together, you can go to the markets, where you learn how to plan whole menus on the fly, based on what looks best and freshest that day. Gathered around a kitchen counter or stove, strangers from around the world share the tasks of the recipe — cleaning, cutting, cooking, plating. Then you all get to share a table and sample your handiwork.

By the time you leave that table, you’re not strangers anymore. Especially after the second beer or glass of wine.

You can do this in a city, or a farm, in some resorts. Even cruise ships are starting to get into it.

If you’d rather your cooking lesson be more intimate — and your budget has room for it — to don’t have to go to the class. Your teacher can come to you. You can do this if you stay in short-stay apartments instead of hotels when you vacation.

Apartments have kitchens.

Bottom line: food is as good a reason to travel as any. So when you come see the world, come hungry.

 

Travel for the senses: Sound

First of an occasional series

Silhouette of a trumpeter on Arles street, France
Silhouette of a trumpeter on Arles street, France

Music — any kind of music — is a great reason to travel.

Say what you will about millennials and their successors — and let’s face it, most of us do.

But the young Black Americans traveling the world today have figured out something that many of my generation still haven’t grasped, namely that there’s more to travel than just sightseeing.

A lot more, in fact, if you want it.

for them, it’s all about the experience. Hands-on, interactive experience.

So in this first installment about traveling for the senses, I’m deliberately not starting with the first sense that most of us automatically think of, namely sight.

I’m starting with sound. Music, to be exact.  Because whether you want to hear it, learn it or meet those who make it, music is a great reason to get a passport and start packing.

A WORLD OF MUSIC
Officially, there currently are 195 countries in the world, and you’d be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t have some sort of audio expression of their culture, or at least one music festival on its national calendar.

Pick any region of the world. You’re guaranteed to find multiple musical expressions of culture put to sound.

Among Africa’s 55 countries alone, you’ll find some 40 styles of modern popular music, styles developed within the last hundred years or less. You could easily spend a long and happy life sampling them all.

And that completely ignores the ancient traditional forms of music that evolved among Africa’s 2,000-plus ethnic groups.

Have no interest in other people’s music? Then maybe you’d enjoy seeing how much love the rest of the world has for yours. Because American music is embraced by people across the globe.

And four of its most popular forms — jazz, blues, hip-hop and gospel — are the creations of Black artists.  Might as well throw Jamaica’s reggae into the mix and make it five.  All are wildly popular all over Europe.

French Catholic cathedrals routinely host gospel concerts.  You can hear gospel in London or in Lithuania.

Liverpool, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rome, Lisbon, Moscow — all loaded with jazz clubs and/or jazzfests of their own.  One of the word’s pre-eminent jazz festivals is held every year in Montreux, Switzerland.

OUR JAZZ, THEIR JAZZ
Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Beijing, all have their share of jazz venues. And you’d need a calculator to add up all the jazz venues in Africa.

The same is true of gospel, hip-hop and reggae. In all four cases, Africans have embraced these uniquely African-American music styles, added their own flavor and produced both universally familiar and uniquely theirs.

So what, you say? I can hear all of that right here at home. True indeed. But can you see London or Paris at home? Can you see Rio or Havana or Tokyo or Bangkok in your ‘hood? Can you experience Accra or Dakar or Nairobi or Cape Town on your block?

Which reminds me: At Trips by Greg, we’ve got a tour of South Africa built around the 2018 Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Check it out.

Music gives you the chance to see the world — and hear the world — at the same time.

Want to do more than just hear some of your favorite artists? Try a music-themed cruise. Not only do you get room, board, transportation and musical entertainment all for one price, but you also get to rub elbows with some of your favorite musical performers, right there aboard ship.

Classical, jazz, gospel, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, electronica, chill, house in all its variations — you name the music and there’s a good chance somebody has built a theme cruise around it.

DON’T JUST LISTEN: LEARN
But this doesn’t have to be a passive, one-way activity. Just as you can travel the world to hear great music, your travels can also help you learn to play it.

Example: Is there a better place on the planet to try your hand at the guitar than in Spain?

I have a good friend and client, herself a musician,  who’s planning her own music vacations across France and Spain, playing her violin, composing songs and hooking up with local musicians as she goes.

Our next group trip to Ghana will include some time spent learning some of the techniques of traditional African drumming under the guidance of master Ghanaian drummers.

Not only can you find short classes to introduce you to different instruments or playing styles, but if you’re lucky, you might find one being taught by a world-class musician — who also happens to be living and teaching in a world-class travel destination.

Toward the end of his life, Spain’s Pablo Casals, widely considered the greatest cellist of the 20th century, was teaching the cello to young people in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Spectacular sights, new friends, great music — how many glorious life-long memories can your mind absorb from one vacation?

Design your trip around music — or have a travel agent design one for you — and you can have a lot of fun finding out.

A grand tour of Africa? Yes

With a huge impetus from the African Union, an epic journey covering the length of the Mother Continent is going to become a practical reality in 2018.

Back in the 1600s, when Europeans were busily “discovering” lands already populated by peoples of color, well-to-do families would send their kids on on a journey through Europe lasting several months.

These weren’t extended vacations, but extensions of their formal education. The kids were expected to absorb local cultures, art, history and languages along the way — even if it meant stopping in one city or country long enough to — gasp! — take a class or two.

Now, the African Union isa putting its own spin on this practice with the official debut of the Grand Africa Tour, announced last month at the Africa Travel Association’s annual World Tourism Conference, held in Kigali, Rwanda.

In distances alone, the GAT leaves the original European version in the dust. It covers the length of the African continent, seven destinations from Cape Town to Cairo — more than 8,200 miles.

And with a total of 55 sovereign nations in Africa, there’s also an awful lot more to learn — especially for those of us on the western side of the Atlantic who have been kept in the dark — either through oversight or malicious intent —  about the reality of Africa, its natural beauty, its history and its many cultures.

The first of these tours is set to launch in October 2018.

SO MUCH TO SEE
What might you see on such a grand tour of the Mother Continent? Here are some of the possibilities listed by the African Union:

  • South Africa’s world-famous Blue Train, from which you might catch a glimpse of Table Mountain.
  •  Robben Island, where Nelson MAndela was imprisoned in isolation for 18 of hiis 27 years of incarceration, only to get the last laugh as the first president of an apartheid-free South Africa.
  • Botswana, where a safari will give you an up-close look at wildlife found nowhere else on Earth.
  • The ruggedly beautiful deserts of Nambia.
  • Zimbabwe, home to the Zambezi River and to Great Zimbabwe, the largest ancient ruins south of the Sahara, second only to the Egyptian pyramids in size and grandeur.
  • Victoria Falls, “the smoke that thunders, so immense that it straddles two countries, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
  • The Serengeti plain, extending from Tanzania to Kenya, scene of the never-ending Great Migration.
  • Mount Kilimanjaro, “the roof of Africa,” the tallest mountain on the continent — all 19,341 feet of it.
  • Rwanda and Uganda, where you can come face-to-face with Africa’s fascinating and endangered mountain gorillas.
  • Ethiopia, home to more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other African country, including .
  • Spectacular religious sites, from the incredible rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia and the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Cote ‘dIvoire to the Grand Mosque of Hassan II in Morocco and the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

For those with the time, stamina and adventurous spirit, there’s already an 8,200-mile highway running the length of the Mother Continent, from Cairo on the Mediterranean Sea to Cape Town on the farthest reaches of the South Atlantic.  So theoretically, you could make this epic journey on your own, right now.

But what will make GAT unique is the direct involvement of the African Union, which mans that you won’t be on your own.

AU PAVES THE WAY
Your epic African tour will actually start in Washington DC, where you welcomed and personally briefed by H.E. Dr. Arikana Chihombori Quao, the African Union Ambassador to the United States. 

When you set out on your epic African journey, the AU will assign a continental guide who be with you for the entire tour as you roam from one country to another. In each of those countries, you will be met by a country guide giving you their personal introduction to their country and its cultures.

What makes the AU’s involvement so critical is that they will be arranging all your needed visas for you before you leave, taking an immense amount of hassle out of your trip before it even begins.

The Grand Africa Tour is meant to be but one of the steps toward that goal. Follow IBIT for more Tour details and pricing information as it becomes available. Use the form below to send in your questions about what is about to become the world’s greatest odyssey.

“I CAME TO WASHINGTON TO GET THINGS DONE.”
The driving — and I do mean driving — force behind The Grand Africa Tour is Amb. Arikana Chihombori Quao, a no-nonsense physician with ambitious goals for Africans, whether you were born on the continent or not.

One of those goals is a passport.

Dr. Arikana Chihomburi Quao, African Union ambassador to the United States
Dr. Arikana Chihomburi Quao, African Union ambassador to the United States

“I’m going to demand African passports for my Diaspora. Because we can’t be running around all over Africa looking for visas. We need an African passport.”

She also wants to create a Professional Diaspora Registry, to enable Black-owned businesses on both sides of the Atlantic to connect and cooperate on joint ventures.

“We want companies to come and talk about what they do on a platform that we have created, so we’re creating ways that Diaspora can begin to dialogue, so we can bring about these obvious marriages that need to take place that are not happening because we are so disjointed.”

The key to making these and other great things happen, she says, getting together and getting organized, because “as long as we’re talking as individuals, we’re going nowhere.

“When you’re organized, I can represent you. When you’re organized, I can speak for you. But until we start doing that, and think like that, like the rest of the ethnic groups…we’ll forever complain. We’ll come here next year and talk about the same issues. I don’t have time for that.

“So for me, it starts with unity. It starts with us coming together. It starts with us decolonizing ourselves. Us getting rid of the legacy of slavery. It’s us realizing that our sheer survival depends on us working together and looking from inside. Because we’re on our own as Black people.”

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

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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.

Further, as a travel destination, Northern Ethiopia has enough attractions to wear you out:

But if you have time to do justice to only one of these places, Lalibela should be the one — 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 (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 you can 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 uneven stone steps — 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.