Singapore At Last - WeeCheng Completes Odyssey2
After a long flight from Beirut via Dubai, I have finally arrived in Singapore. Odyssey2, my second major odyssey, this time lasting 8 months, has finally come to an end, after 148,000 kilometers of air and land travel – equivalent to almost 4 times round the Planet Earth at its widest - and 82 flights on 36 airlines. I have crossed borders 54 times, entered the territories of 45 countries, including 41 for the first time, thus bringing the number of countries/territories I have visited to 173. I have visited 31 World Heritage sites, spent my nights in 102 different places, plus 9 overnights on flights or transits at airports. Yes, 34 travel reports and 500 blog entries (see http://twcnomad.blogspot.com )on my travel progress!
I began Odyssey2 by flying to the world's largest river delta that is Bangladesh, merely a month before a cyclone devastated the region and killed thousands. With army escorts, I side-tracked to the Chittagong Hill Tracts where I visited a long forgotten Buddhist kingdom in this majority Muslim country. I proceeded to Nepal, where Maoist guerrillas had their red flag flown everywhere, including Lukla Airport, the gateway to Mt Everest, the world's tallest peak.
Mt Everest from afar
Red flag over the Himalayas
In India, I not only visited popular tourist sights in Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan, Goa and Kerala, but also went to Assam and Nagaland in the far Northeast, where a whole mind-boggling range of little known tribes are fighting the Indian government and each other for demands ranging from full independence and statehood within India, to autonomy of different kinds. And I briefly got delayed by a few hours in Assam when tribal rioters ran amok in the state and enforced a state-wide strike and shut-down.
With tribals in Nagaland, Northeast India
I flew to Maldives and then to Yemen in the Middle East, the ancient land of the biblical Queen of Sheba and of 500 year-old skyscrapers. I had coffee with friendly locals in the ancestral village of Osama bin Laden, in a country where men walked around with daggers and rifles.
Examing my weapons in a Yemeni village
A paradise in the Yemeni Highlands?
The grand canyon that is Wadi Hadramawt, Yemen
Then over to the other side of the world: A few hours in New York City to visit the Guggenheim, then island-hop the Caribbean and the northeastern coast of South America: Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent, Barbados, Grenada and Tobago. In this hot humid tropical paradise, I visited the world's tallest single drop waterfall (whatever the Guyana Tourism Board meant with regards to Kaiteur Falls), colonial Dutch architecture in Paramaribo, quaint old streets of St George's, Grenada and countless volcanoes. No, I did not swim in the many beaches of these paradise isles. Haha…that's just me.
Sunset in Tobago
Kaiteur Falls: Do you want to bungee jump here?
Amazonian colours in French Guiana
Ethnic mosaic in Dominica
I returned to Singapore for two weeks and left for West Africa on the second day of the Chinese New Year. I sped through Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Senegal, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin and Togo, in a mixture of flights, buses and most pathetically, the notorious bush-taxi – over-crowded mini-vans that take three times as long as it should to reach its destination, and which often shower its passengers with generous amount of dust, dirt and frustration. I was almost robbed by ex-child soldiers in Liberia, visited the legendary city of Timbuktu, crossed the magnificent River Niger, walked into food riots in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and witnessed a voodoo ceremony in Benin.
Timbuktu, the legendary city of the Sahara
The Catwalk in Niamey, Niger
Rush-hour in downtown Monrovia
From Bamako, Mali, I flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. I traveled around this vast, diverse and fascinating country, where I visited the ancient civilization of the Queen of Sheba this side of the Red Sea, and the fascinating stone-age tribes of the Upper Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia. I side-tracked to city state of Djibouti, and the tragic lands of Eritrea and Somaliland – the latter a country with its own currency and national flag but which you cannot find on the world map, and where the security guards of a prehistoric rock painting site gave me flint stone fragments once used by man to cut meat and carve one of mankind's earliest art galleries as long as 10,000 years ago.
Ethiopia: Here is my 800 year old bible
and my back garden at Gonder
South Omo: Do you want to visit my humble abode?
South Omo: How do you want tea served?
I went on to Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. I fell sick with salmonella in Uganda, abandoned my original plans to see the huge mountain gorillas in their natural habitat and had to contend with a scenic drive to the Rwandan border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – where international expats sun-bathed on the fine sandy beaches of Lake Kivu in Rwandan territory, while a civil war went on not too far away across the border in the DRC. Worse, I had to cancel my air ticket to fly into Burundi when rebels shelled the capital after breaking a two-year old ceasefire. I flew to Nairobi instead, where only a few months ago, ethnic cleansing and war broke out after alleged election fraud.
Kenya: Catch me if you can
Rwanda: Touched the gates of the gorillas
Welcome to Rwanda
Onward to Libya: I joined friends on a wild 4WD expedition to the boundless Sahara, guided by the Tuaregs, warriors and masters of the Sahara; and visited remnants of mysterious long lost civilizations and ancient Greek and Roman cities. I flew into Khartoum, capital of Sudan, four days after Darfur rebels attacked the city, and found myself alone in a field of rolling sand dunes and forty Nubian pyramids – I walked into ancient tombs of the Nubian kings and found myself staring into 3000-year-old carvings of long dead kings on their journey into the afterworld. How Indiana-Jones could one get?
Libya: Say hello to the leader of the Revolution
Rubbing shoulders with the Tuareg Warriors of the Sahara
Magical sand dunes of the Libyan Sahara
Dance with the sufis in the Sudan
The adventurer and the Sudanese pyramids?
I hopped to the next Axis-of-Evil state, Iran, and found George W Bush's current greatest enemy the most hospitable of all nations. Here, I met wonderful Iranians who showered me with pure innocent warmth and cheerfulness, not to mention endless cups of tea. I visited the amazing Zoroastrian temples located in the most spectacular natural settings, magnificent remnants of Persepolis and other wonders of the ancient Persian Empire and one of the most beautiful cities of the world – Esfahan, which the locals called "Half the World".
Do you want to mourn Khomeini?
Esfahan, Iran: Half the World
Iran: Spice girls
Persepolis: Welcome to my humble abode
With a tentative peace agreement holding among rival factions and ex-warlords-now-respectable-politicians, I flew into Lebanon. Instead of finding a war-torn land of ruins, I found almost instantly-rebuilt flyovers, motorways and a world-class infrastructure (- some ruined buildings remain though), while tanks and bored soldiers guard branded malls, skyscrapers of steel and glass, and glittery beach resorts full of hard-core partying and boundless hedonism.
Lebanon: My weekend car
Lebanon: My hair and my safe heaven
During my travels, wars, insurgencies or conflicts raged on or had just ended in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts, Nepal, Assam, Nagaland, Yemen, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Niger, Ethiopia, Somalia, The Sudan and Lebanon. In Bangladesh, Yemen and Somaliland, armed guards accompanied me on sightseeing trips.
Somaliland: Wanna buy a tank?
Welcome to Red Nepal
Walking into a riot in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
Yemen: Every man needs a gun
I visited the sources of the Nile, world's longest river, in Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda, and crossed the river in Egypt and the Sudan as well. I gawked at the slopes of Mt Everest, the world's tallest mountain, in northwestern Nepal, and ventured not too far from Africa's deepest place – Denakil Depression - on the border of Ethiopia and Djibouti. I camped and was driven around the Sahara in Mali, Niger, Libya, Egypt and the Sudan, and its outer sandy extensions in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Somaliland.
Source of the Albert Nile, Uganda
Libya: Don't get lost in the Sahara
I celebrated many festivals: The Nepali New Year in Kathmandu; Indian Diwali in Delhi, Hornbill Festival in Nagaland, Camel Fair in Pushkar and Feast of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in Goa – all in India; Carnival in Cayenne, French Guiana; plus a wedding in Sanaa, Yemen and a sufi dance cum ceremony in Omdurman, the Sudan. I got stranded in Tehran, when everything shut down officially to mourn the death anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini and spent time watching endless tributes and profound grieve played out on Iranian TV, whilst most urban Iranians frolicked and sun-tanned on the beaches of the Caspian Sea.
The Carnival in Cayenne, French Guiana
Gate-crash a wedding in Sanaa, Yemen
Celebrate with the Nagas, Nagaland, Northeast India
I love the food of India best, especially the endless varieties of briyani, had the best lamb in my life at Oriental Hotel, Hargeisa, Somaliland, and was intrigued by the peanut sauce and rice dishes of Senegal. I found myself shocked by the sourness of authentic tef injera in Ethiopia, and longed instead for the injera of the Ethiopian Diaspora in London and New York, which were made of rice or wheat. I got absolutely tired with barbecue meat and kebab in East Africa and the Middle East, and had to eat Chinese in Bamako, Addis Ababa, Cairo and Tehran.
Injera of Ethiopia
Or do you prefer this in Nagaland?
Everywhere I went, people greeted me "Ni Hao". China has become the new emerging power, followed behind by India, Russia and Brazil. As I walked on the streets of St George's (Grenada), Paramaribo (Suriname), Aden (Yemen), Conakry (Guinea), Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Tripoli (Libya), young people approached me to practice their Mandarin Chinese, as people used to approach Westerners to practice English in some parts of the world. On my international and domestic flights to the most obscure places, such as towns in upriver Bangladesh, Wadi Hadramaut of Yemen, the Malian Sahara, Eritrean highlands and the Eastern deserts of Iran, I have counted the odd Chinese businessmen, banker, engineer and technical advisor as my fellow passengers, on their way to their import-export business, negotiate the next deal, or to finance or build yet another power station, oil pipeline or national highway.
On a flight from Djibouti to Eritrea, I met a few young, sophisticated, Western-educated bankers from China who belonged to the Ethiopia/Horn of Africa team of their bank, and are stationed here for up to 2 years just to do deals relating to Ethiopia, Eritrea & Djibouti. The fact that this bank – merely one amongst other Chinese banks, has dedicated teams in over 20 African countries, financing all sorts of projects and deals, is to me a clear illustration of China's involvement in Africa. Having worked in a Western investment bank, I could not even recall if any of the western investment banks have any African country team. Anytime they need to do a deal, they fly expensive teams from London, New York or Dubai, and most of these teams won't stay a long time in these "hardship locations". The commitment to the region by banks from the new boy on the block, China, is very impressive indeed. And laden with onerous lending conditions and terms, plus the need of a whole host of environmental due diligence plus an army of overpaid of management consultants and constantly harassed by difficult NGOs and human rights activists, it would be a miracle if the West can compete at all in Africa.
The ethnic mosaic of French Guiana
and of Ethiopia
During Odyssey1 in 2002, across Latin America, Russia and Asia, I saw a world full of middle class people working hard to improve the quality of their work and their lives, and getting their children into good schools. These universal middle class values are now seeing fruits. Asia and Latin America are on the ascendant, and India, which I visited during Odyssey2, is booming like never before.
Kenya: Are you happy?
I visited 7 of the world's 10 poorest countries on this trip – all of them in Africa. Africa is the only part of the world where incomes of many countries are lower than they were fifty years ago at the time of independence. Sierra Leone has been named by the UN, as the world's "least livable country" and Niger almost consistently the poorest in the world. As I travelled through Africa, in particular, West Africa, I was often shocked not only by the prevalence of poverty, the dilapidated state of infrastructure, perilous state of law and order and the general difficulty of travelling around, but also the number of times I had to bribe my way through everyday life.
Ethiopia: Happy family?
More often than not, I had to pay bribes at embassies to secure visas, and at immigration checkpoints and airports when entering and leaving the countries. More alarming were the numerous internal checkpoints and the random policemen and soldier on the streets who would approach me with an outstretched palm, uttering the only English words they knew, "Give me money." Or the police that would stop my taxi when they saw the foreigner aka walking ATM to demand for a piece of my driver's takings. I call these beggars with guns.
Corruption and by extension, bad governance, I reckon, are the reasons why Africa hasn't progressed since independence. I have walked into many West African supermarkets and all I saw were products manufactured in faraway France. Unlike developing countries across Asia and Latin America, nothing in many African supermarkets, not even simple everyday products of a slight industrial nature, is made locally. If a casual traveler gets harassed for bribes on an everyday basis, I cannot imagine the trouble a businessman had to go through to run a factory, essentially anything with a long term perspective, in Africa.
I know this is generalization, but I suspect many African elites have little interest in developing their countries. Their universe, it seemed to me, gravitate towards former colonial capitals like Paris or London, where they continue to shop, study and play. Some African intellectuals, as I gathered from local newspapers, seemed to be more preoccupied with praising Mugabe, or obsessed about reparations from the West for slavery than examining their own governance and development. Asia and Latin America had long moved on - They have been spending time building their economies instead of blaming colonialism and past injustice for their current woes, and with their success, are now buying up Western banks and companies.
Sierra Leone: Who are we?
Sierra Leone: Please give us a ride
Thank goodness I have completed the trip fine and sound, except for a nasty bout of salmonella in Uganda and Rwanda. I survived the mad drivers of Iran, Libya, Lebanon and Egypt, not to mention pathetic roads and non-roads of West Africa and Ethiopia. Maybe I have to credit all that to the prayers uttered in Buddhist temples in Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches in Nagaland, Goa and Lebanon, countless Hindu temples in India, mosques across Africa and the Middle East and a voodoo shrine in Benin, not to mention a lesson about the ancient and mysterious Druzes and their belief in reincarnation, which took place in a hostel in Beirut.
Mali: Top of my bush-taxi
Ethiopia: My god and yours
Nepal: My prayers and yours
I had my haircuts in Bangladesh, India, Suriname, Mali (ever seen a Timbuktu haircut ?), Kenya and the Sudan. Things wear off quickly on long-term travel. I have repaired my backpack, and bought new clothing and shoes, in a vain attempt to boost global economy in the era of subprime crisis and inflationary food and fuel prices. Right now at the end of my journey, I wore an Eritrean T-shirt, and a China-made pants (albeit with Italian cutting) and Vietnamese-made shoes – of which the latter two were bought in that unknown fashion hub called Tripoli, Libya.
Pokhara, Nepal: The promised land?
Iran: Or the never ending march to self-fulfilment?
Now that my journey has come to an end, what have I gained and what does it all mean? My conclusion for Odyssey2 is the same as Odyssey1. I have realized a number of things. Nothing is impossible and something that appears bad initially may well turned out to be good. And once you have done the most painful and difficult West Africa, nowhere else in the world is too troublesome. The most important thing in life is, follow your heart! The next question is, have I done enough traveling? Hmm… NO WAY! Life is but one long journey
Too much hardship?
Maybe a beach is all one needs
OK, enough of my monologues. Wish me good luck in my job search and most certainly, more travels in the years to come!
Singapore, home at last!