Saturday, February 26, 2011


21 - 26 February 2011: Northland, NEW ZEALAND

After the wedding, myself and Ciarán joined Sinéad and Gavin, their sisters and some friends for five days of swimming and barbequing five hours north of Auckland in Doubtless Bay. It is a beautiful part of New Zealand with some amazing beaches and the sunshine made it perfect for relaxing (although most of this active bunch were up running, cycling and/or swimming bright and early each morning!).We drove up to windy Cape Reinga, the northern tip of the country where you can see the Tasman Sea meeting the Pacific Ocean.and we also went sea fishing - even though I was the least experienced fisherman of the group, I somehow caught the most fish, while Gavin's sister Deb caught more of the tasty snappers.Then it was back to Auckland, via the site of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, to celebrate Sinéad's 30th birthday. It was a fun week - now time for the South Island.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"So I went to a wedding in New Zealand..."

16 - 19 Feb 2011: Auckland, NEW ZEALAND

When I left on my travels my plan was to get to New Zealand by February 2011 for Sinéad (who I used to work with in Dublin) and Gavin's wedding - with three years and a world full of options it was very handy for me to have something on which to anchor my plans. I've lost count of how often I told people "Well I'm working my way to New Zealand for a friends' wedding and after that I'm not sure" (and I'm still not sure what I'm doing next!).

I flew with Ciarán from Sydney to Auckland, where we enjoyed some sunny days seeing the sights, including going up the Sky Tower and walking to the top of the volcanic Rangitoto Island, in the days before the wedding. Then, after a barbeque at the Lloyd's house (the first of many great barbeques we had in New Zealand) where there was a cross cultural hurling-cricket exchange, Sinéad and Gavin's big day arrived.

Their wedding had it all - a happy couple, including a beautiful, violin-playing bride wearing a dress made by her talented mother, a great venue with a sunny view of the bay, delicious food, quality speeches and even a "performance" of the Walls of Limerick at the end of the evening.It was a great day - congratulations Sinéad and Gavin!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Feeling at home while being away

Sydney, AUSTRALIA: 12 - 16 Feb. 2011

My five days in Sydney were spent with friends from home: Kate came up from Melbourne for the weekend, then Ciarán arrived at the end of his three weeks in Australia, and I stayed first with Conor and Lisa, and then with Aileen (whose parents were also visiting). The fact that Aileen's plan of having a barbeque on my first day were washed out by the rain just added to my sense of being back in Ireland.

As well as catching up with friends, I went swimming several times (including at the famous Bondi Beach and in the aquatic centre used for the 2000 Olympics - a personal highlight) and I spent a day in the city centre seeing the likes of the iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House (as well as loads of joggers including many wearing boxing gloves). In all the cities where I've done a DIY one day central walking tour, I think Sydney certainly is one of the most impressive. Or as Aileen put it, it has a great initial "wow factor".

While in Sydney, my sister Aileen confirmed that she had booked flights to Australia for August, so happily I'll be back in Sydney again.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Flight of the maids

Addis Ababa to Dubai: 10 Feb. 2011

At this stage I've had some memorable experiences travelling from one country to the next, including:
  • sitting at the front of a speed boat watching flying fish as I sped from Belize to Honduras;
  • getting a motorized canoe across a river that separates Mexico and Guatemala; and
  • bussing it high across the Andes from Argentina to Chile.

Now to add to that list I have "flying first class in an airplane full of women from Addis Ababa to Dubai".

A taxi to the airport in Addis would have cost about five euro, but after a month in Ethiopia I couldn't pay such a high price for anything (100 birr, which is roughly five euro, is the largest note they have in Ethiopia). So instead I took a "line taxi" (a mini bus that drives a specific route picking up and dropping off people along the way) for €0.15, and then walked the remaining 1km into the airport - a bargain! I joined the check-in queue and quickly realised that there were about 200 young women ahead of me, and not a single other guy. When I had checked-in and was sitting at the gate, one of the Ethiopian Airlines staff came up to me and the handful of other men on the flight and swapped our economy bording passess for first class. The large, comfortable seat with leg room, and the champagne and steak dinner served on a fine white table cloth was a big step up from the smelly, packed line taxi that I took to the airport.

While I was enjoying this luxury I asked the man next to me (all the men on the flight were in the first couple of rows) about all the women on the flight. He said they are all Muslim girls (about a third of Ethiopians are Muslim) who were going to work as maids in rich Muslim houses in the UAE. He called it the modern version of slavery given what he heard about how they are treated.

Obviously this took the gloss off my first class experience. Thinking about the inequalities in the world is certainly a threat to enjoying a holiday in Africa, like when hearing that a room in the Sheraton Hotel in Addis can cost US$500 per night when Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world.

But since I had never flown first class before, I decided to just ask for more wine and then I sat back to watch 127 Hours - it turned out that a film about a guy cutting off this own arm was the perfect distraction from the world's problems.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Ethiopian spreece

Bahir Dar, Gonder, Simien Mountains, Gorgora, Addis Ababa: 24 Jan - 9 Feb 2011*

I was asked over Christmas if there were things for tourists to do in Ethiopia. To be honest, I didn't know; I was busy during my time back in Ireland so I left all the planning to Síle - and she came up with a great plan for the two weeks after my visit to Mettu. It turns out that there is a lot to do and see but, because Ethiopia is quite a big country (roughly twice the size of France) with a not so great transport infrastructure, we booked flights north to the area around Lake Tana and focussed our sightseeing around there. As it was the semester break (although Síle could never find out the actual college term dates - things like that don't seem to be planned in advance, or if they are the staff and students aren't told, which doesn't seem to bother anyone) we were joined by three other VSO volunteers - Vicky, Liz and Críona (so that made three Corkonians and two English girls).

In Bahir Dar we went on a boat trip to see lake isle monasteries, where we met some interesting characters,
did a short hike to the Blue Nile Falls, cycled out into the countryside in an unsuccessful attempt to see one of Haile Selassie's palaces, saw the world's funkiest police station and generally relaxed around the lake spoting hippos, drinking a juice spreece (a mix of various things, usually including avocado) or coffee.
From Gonder, where we checked out the castles, we headed into the Simien Mountains for a three-day trek. We were accompanied by a local guide and a "scout", who was a local farmer who walked with us inexplicably carrying a very old rifle that we suspected was empty. The scenery was spectacular, and the troops of baboons that we came across topped the whole thing off.After that exercise, we had more lakeside relaxing, this time at the north of Lake Tana in Gorgora. That set us up nicely for our last few days back in Addis, where we walked up to see a rock-hewn church (which was bombed during the second world war) and where I tried different type of Ethiopian spreece drink - a mix of tea and coffee, which was surprisingly nice.

There is a great spreece of things to do on a visit to Ethiopia, and this trip has definitely made we want to see more of Africa.

*According to the Ethiopian calendar, which has 13 months, my visit took place in 2003! Ethiopia is 7 years and 8 months behind because they stuck with the Julian calendar when in 1582 we switched to the revised Gregorian calendar. And a further time anomaly exists - time in Ethiopia is measured in 12 hour cycles, starting for us at 6am and 6pm, i.e. when the sun rises and sets. This actually makes sense where there is little variation throughout the year in the length of each day. While confusing at first ("Did you mean 1 o'clock your time (i.e. 7am) or 1 o'clock my time?"), I realised that our system whereby the days starts in the middle of the night is a much harder one to justify to someone who has never kept time that way.