Magical Avatar Stone Forest Hallelujah Mountains in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park China


Avatar Forest, Stone Forest, Hallelujah Mountains in the movie Avatar were inspired by Heavenly Pillar in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in Wulingyuan, China

The First National Park in China. It is in Wulingyuan, China in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. It has some of the most incredible hikes. There’s also the world’s tallest outdoor and glass elevator.

This incredible national park is only 1 hour away from Tianmen mountain. It’s the same train stop, same airport, and that’s not all. The Grand Canyon of China is also nearby! China has been working on improving the ability to get to this very, very beautiful area. Today there’s no direct high speed rail from Beijing or Shanghai. We ended up taking the overnight sleeper from Yichang to Zhangjiajie and later flew out from Zhangjiajie back to Beijing. I loved every minute in this beautiful natural area of China. It’s becoming more popular, so try to avoid holidays and weekends.

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Avatar Forest – Forest Does this look familiar from the movie?


Stone Forest

I couldn’t get enough panoramas of the Stone Forest and the amazing natural bridges. The views were spectacular every few feet.

The World’s highest outdoor elevator.

Glass elevator

While we were waiting for the elevator we saw this guy. Not sure where his troop was.

While waiting for the elevator Dean took some pictures.

This beautiful pagoda is the entrance of the park.

While there is a lot of construction going on in in Wulingyuan, China with beautiful new hotels, the older buildings and community are quite cultural and beautiful. Very easy walking. These National parks are some of the most beautiful in the world. Surprisingly it seemed like more than 80% of the tourists we saw were Chinese. We got recommendations on how to spend our time. You could easily spend the entire day… scratch that 3 days if you wanted. We did a highlights trek seeing the Heavenly Pilar that inspired Avatar, the bridges, the stone forest.

There are a lot of local ancient cultures in China. While Beijing is interested in consolidating cultures and making them all Chinese. You’ll see a variety of ancient cultures and tribal clothing including in a part of the park where you can see some of the old ways, customs and culture.

Worlds Largest Ancient Statue Leshan Buddha Statue and Giant Pandas of Chengdu


Chengdu is the old capital and is known for preserving the old ways.  When you think of Chengdu you should think Pandas and Giant Panda or Mount Emei one of the most holy mountains in China.  I was very blessed to see the Leshan Buddha as we saw it just two days after it finished a very long restoration. I was just there and the fantastic news is it’s now complete. I was lucky to visit when there were very few visitors due to the restoration project. The Leshan is a 71 meter or 233 ft tall stone statue, built between 713 and 803 (during the Tang dynasty). For scale comparison the giant sphinx in Egypt is 20m (66 feet) high, the Buddha is 3 times taller, the Colossus of Rhodes in Ancient Greece was 33 meters or half as tall and would have been destroyed about 60 years before the Leshan Buddha began construction. The Buddha is carved out of a cliff face of red sandstone that lies at the Min and Dadu River in the southern part of Sichuan province, right outside the city of Leshan. The stone sculpture faces Mount Emei, with the rivers flowing below its feet. It is the largest and tallest stone Buddha statue in the world and it is by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world.

The Mount Emei Scenic Area, including Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996.

The Best view is from the water, but it’s a quick trip…

Generally speaking, you can go to Leshan from Chengdu (about 2hrs’ driving), and the Giant Buddha first, then transfer to Emeishan City or the foot area of Mount Emei for accommodation. Have a day tour to the top of Mount Emei – Golden Summit, then descend the mountain, and drive or take a high speed train back to Chengdu. You can spend a lot of time in the area. There’s a buddha park right next door as well as the holy mountain Mount Emei so close nearby. It’s up to you how much time you spend.

You can even find the 170 meter long sleeping buddha… It’s hidden among the trees.

The Buddha park nearby which is a lot newer has some great carvings and a great hike with fantastic carvings.

This Standing Buddha is at least 4 stories high and in a cave.

We don’t even come up to the toe.

After a full day in Leshan, and after the ride back we were ready for Sichuan Hot Pot, a delicious popular local dish.

5. Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base

There are a few places to see the pandas in Chengdu, but that’s the place to go to see the Pandas. In Chengdu there are 3 main places to visit pandas. Out in the world there are fewer and fewer places that have the endangered pandas.

We spent half a day at the giant panda research base. We stood in a long line to take the shuttle to the back of the park and then we walked back visiting each of the panda stations with a focus on the youngest pandas. The Red Pandas were fantastic as well. The best Panda watching in the world is to be had in this area.

We saw dozens of Pandas and had as much time as we wanted with them. While we didn’t get to pet them as some have told in the past, those prices have skyrocketed. It also doesn’t make sense these days with potential spread of disease.

Red Pandas

The young pandas are so fun!

Thanks to China Highlights for putting together a simple map.

Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi’an China – Guards of the Largest Tomb in the World


The story of the Terra Cotta Warriors is an incredible one. I’ve been wanting to go to see the Terra Cotta warriors for years… since before my first trip to China.  Xi’an is a short 3 hour bullet train away from Beijing or you can take the overnight train and get there in about 12 hours… the flight is even quicker.  We ended up looking at all options.

Ying Zheng took the throne in 246 B.C. at the age of 13. By 221 B.C. he had unified a collection of warring kingdoms and took the name of Qin Shi Huang Di—the First Emperor of Qin. He is credited for the first version of the great wall. Beijing was not the capital of China at the time.

largest tomb in the world

The terra cotta warriors are the guards of the tomb of Qin Shi Huangdi—he was the first emperor of China in 221 B.C.  The tomb itself has not yet been excavated due to mercury poison concerns, but understand this… it is the largest mega tomb in the world.

For almost four decades, archaeologists have been excavating the site. So far, they’ve uncovered about 2,000 clay soldiers, but experts estimate there are more than 8,000 in total.

For over 2000 years the story of the thousands of warriors and horses was lost to the world.  While the tomb was known, but was also known as extremely dangerous we didn’t know there were pits of thousands of warriors over a mile from the actual tomb of the emperor.  A group of farmers were digging a well when they came upon the greatest discovery of the century… if not since king Tut’s tomb… what they found was extraordinary underground treasure: an entire army of life-size terra cotta soldiers and horses, interred for more than 2,000 years. Over the past 35 years, archaeologists have located some many pits, a complex of underground vaults as yet largely unexcavated, across a 22-square-mile area. Some are hard to get to, but three major pits are easily accessible, enclosed inside the four-acre Museum of the Terracotta Army, constructed around the discovery site and opened in 1979. In one pit, long columns of warriors, reassembled from broken pieces, stand in formation. With their topknots or caps, their tunics or armored vests, their goatees or close-cropped beards, the soldiers exhibit an astonishing individuality. A second pit inside the museum demonstrates how they appeared when they were found: some stand upright, buried to their shoulders in soil. The third pit has horses and chariots made from bronze. Our guide explained there are many thousands of warriors and more that are purposely still buried that are filled with color that burns off in the days after it is exposed to the air. For this purpose they are waiting to unbury a large quantity of warriors and more. Read more about the history of the terra cotta warriors on Smithsonian magazine.

The Back of Pit #1

The warriors look different and there are different warriors indifferent groups with different skills and even different shoes.

Scientists work in pit #2 to uncover and put the warriors back together. Think about it… they’ve been doing this since 1979.

Meeting the man. This was the farmer who was digging the well in 1974 when he found the terra cotta warriors.  Still blows my mind.

In addition the actual tomb is still unexcavated. Imagine us saying we haven’t been inside the pyramids, and as well haven’t yet been inside King Tuts tomb. We know there are traps and danger with large amounts of mercury. “The tomb was filled with models of palaces, pavilions and offices as well as fine vessels, precious stones and rarities,” reads a translation of the text.

The account indicates the tomb contains replicas of the area’s rivers and streams made with mercury flowing to the sea through hills and mountains of bronze. Precious stones such as pearls are said to represent the sun, moon, and other stars. Modern tests on the tomb mound have revealed unusually high concentrations of mercury, lending credence to at least some of the historical account. Chinese archaeologists are also using remote-sensing technology to probe the tomb mound. The technique recently revealed an underground chamber with four stair like walls. An archaeologist working on the site told the Chinese press that the chamber may have been built for the soul of the emperor.”

Experimental pits dug around the tomb have revealed dancers, musicians, and acrobats full of life and caught in mid-performance, a sharp contrast to the military poses of the famous terra-cotta soldiers.

Pit #3

But further excavations of the main tomb itself are very very slow, at least for now.
I expect when China is really ready for tourism they will excavate the main pyramid. It will absolutely be the reveal of the century if not the mellenium. China has the largest pyramid in the world under wraps due to danger…. what would it take for them to decide it is worth the risk?!!

“It is best to keep the ancient tomb untouched, because of the complex conditions inside,” Duan Qinbao, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Archaeology Institute, told the China Daily.

When will the world be ready for the mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China, this UNESCO mausoleum was constructed over 38 years, from 246 to 208 BC, and is situated underneath a 76-meter-tall tomb mound shaped like a truncated pyramid

Gateway to Heaven Tianmen Mountain China


I had a fantastic spring break in China and saw some of the most amazing places on the planet. If you’ve never been to China. Now is the time to start dreaming. In this series I will share 7 Bucketlist level places in China. It was out of this world amazing.  Tianmen mountain is UNESCO world heritage.

#1 Heaven’s Gate or Tianmen Cave at Tianmen Mountain, Stairway to Heaven

A mountain with the world’s largest natural bridge or “cave” located within Tianmen Mountain National Park, Zhangjiajie, in the northwestern part of Hunan Province, China.  This UNESCO heritage mountain is ancient and has since been developed into an important pilgrimage including one of the world’s most interesting roads with 99 hairpin turns, a stairway to heaven with 999 steps or an alternative way to get to the portal to heaven by taking the escalator followed by a second escalator up to the top of the mountain which has 3 optional very affordable glass walkways, chairlift, and one of the longest cablecar like gondola rides down the mountain and through the city.

Stairway to Heaven… Portal to Heaven, Heavens gate.  My 9 year old and I and my sister in law walked up the 999 stairs as my wife and brother in law and his daughter took the series of escalators.  A half hour later both of us arrived around the same time at the top of the stairs.  

Tianmen mountain may seem like it’s all about the portal to heaven, but there are a lot more surprises including glass walkways, gondolas, and the longest sets of escalators you’ve ever been on (unless you went to Kiev).

The Magical Map of Tianmen Mountain.

The walkways hang on the edge of cliffs.  Beautiful, breathtaking, and as my wife says… you get use to it after a while.

Tianmen Glass walkway: note the booties…  Christine, pictured didn’t think she’d be able to handle the glass walkways, but really you do get used to it and it is amazing and a must see!  You feel like you’re invincible.

Looking down from the glass walkways at the 99 turn road that led up to the gateway.  The road is thousands of feet below.

The Mountain is rich with a variety of experiences:

  • 999 Steps up to Tianmen Cave the Stairway to Heaven
  • You can take an escalator or walk up the 999 Steps
  • 99 Turns up the mountain
  • 3 Glass walkways with booties
  • East Glass Walkway
  • Ghost Path
  • West Glass Walkway
  • Tianmen Cableway
  • Tianmen Mountain Temple
  • Cave of the Godess of Mercy

This post is in a series about our spring break trip to the most amazing places in China. Natural wonders, Pandas, the Terra Cotta Warriors and more!

Year in Review 2018 – Joel Oleson Adventure Traveler Fun Photos


At the beginning of 2018, I started working at Blizzard Entertainment and visited a couple of offices in Europe as well and now two of my oldest sons started college.  Great accomplishments for which I’m very pleased.  As a result of supporting 2 in college, I’ve had to get good at cashing in airline miles.   Our big family trip this year was to Ethiopia and Tanzania and it was awesome!  The great migration and seeing the It’s one my wife has been asking to do for years.  I finished the Western Hemisphere UN (North and South America).  I started the year with 155 to go and ended with 163… but lots of great highlights as you’ll see below.

Screenshots above are from “App in the Air” based on Tripit.  Reality is somewhere around 1.5 million miles, but who’s counting?

These stats are primarily based on flights alone since I left Microsoft about 11 years ago.  It doesn’t count the visits by car or train.

8 New UN Countries

Roadtrip from Bissau to Dakar

  • Guinea Bissau
  • The Gambia
  • Senegal

Island hopping around Madagascar

  • Seychelles
  • Madagascar
  • Mauritius
  • Reunion (TCC)
  • Mayotte (TCC)

Weekend in the Caribbean

  • Antigua
  • Grenada

Revisits and some New Areas (Some selected photos below)

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The tribes in the Omo Valley were like visiting my ancestors from 5,000-10,000 years ago.  Huddling in the grass huts and talking about their experiences was surreal. Having my son and nephew experience this ancient tribe was so fantastic.  I do worry these days are limited.  Life on this planet is changing quickly… There was a group of Chinese tourists complete with green screens and lighting equipment that beat us to one of the tribes and I struggled to not be heartbroken.  Just when you think there’s no way you’ll see a tourist…

The Great Migration is one of the most amazing things on the planet, and is the largest mammal migration of it’s kind with more than 1.5 million individuals.  I was told by my driver that I would cry I’d see so many wildebeests. I think my heart was full, but it was others in the group that voted to move on. I couldn’t get enough of these odd creatures.

Travel can be so much more interesting you see a place not how it is, but how it changes… our perspective changes…  a place can be so different at different times of the year.  Our driver was telling us about the different times of the year based on baby animals, the rainy seasons with the hippos and crocks, the dry season where the animals get close and the lions have an easier time.  Imagine how the Serengeti looks if you’re standing in the middle of a meercats den… every day a different story. (Yes, I did see Meerkats and they did NOT dissapoint!) The Wildebeests were a testament to a creator.  The creations of this planet make us think of organization on a massive scale rather than pure chaos.

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Watching The Lion King… in Nature play out in front of my eyes… now that brings you to tears!

lion hunt

Watching the lions in the Ngorongoro Crater was fascinating.  The density of large mammals is the most dense on the earth in the crater.   (Minus the lemurs in Madagascar more on that later). It was incredible to see this lioness be first tracked by a male, then go hunting. 

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This massive 49 meter tall bronze statue located on top of one of the twin hills known as Collines des Mamelles, outside Dakar, mixture of corruption, Stalinist architecture, and North Korean architecture.

I LOVED Madagascar…  The Lemurs, the Baobabs, the surprise trekking of nocturnal night lemurs by flashlight… oh, so amazing… There is so much rich and unique biodiversity in Madagascar, and while it’s so difficult to get there, it ended up being more amazing than I hoped.  Madagascar as a culture is still quite primitive and not without problems, but wow what an amazing experience.   You can read more about my experiences with the lemurs and baobabs of Madagascar. I couldn’t believe I found covered wagons like those who crossed the plains to Utah in Madagascar. I’ve seen a lot of camels, donkeys, and horses, but true classic covered wagons with wooden wagon wheels… that was a first in Madagascar for me.

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Seychelles with the largest nut, the large rocks, the beautiful beaches… I had the opportunity to do some diving.

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Venice is a magical city.  St Marcos Square with it’s looming tower and incredibly ornate frescoes, mosaics,and golden horses.  It’s a must see for any traveler, and even better on this my second visit.

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The Mosaics in Ravenna, Italy seem to capture lost mysteries.  It’s super fascinating to study and wander the dozens of basilicas and churches in the surrounding areas.

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From underwater sculpture gardens, to waterfalls and sulfur hot springs, Grenada was a very green relaxing spice island.

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Antigua is a beautiful island.  It got quite a bit of destruction recently mostly on Barbuda.  This dog followed me for over an hour.  By the end of my walk I had 6 dogs following me.

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Christ the Redeemer in Lisbon was a gift from Brazil

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Mont Sant Michel France

Mont Sant-Michel on the coast of France… very appropriate given the anniversary of the end of World War 1. Our visit to the coast included a walk along the beach in Normandy and a heavy heart.

Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more blogs on some of my adventures last year…  Thanks for your support!  Here’s to travel in 2019!

Current Travel Plans for 2019…

  • Family Spring Break trip to China – Xian Terra Cotta Warriors, Heavens gate, Glass bridge, Huge Buddah statues, Avatar Forest, and Pandas (My youngest LOVES Pandas!)
  • Remote South Pacific island hopping for my birthday including Vanuatu and Tuvalu and possible diving in the Great Barrier reef
  • TBD

Hope you’ll like and subscribe for more in 2019! Let me know what you’d like to see!

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African Road trip – Bissau Guinea Bissau to Dakar Senegal


I was looking for a quick African adventure, and I was not disappointed.  Bissau delivered on the feel of being on the edge of civilization.

Bissau Bus

When we landed we went straight to a hotel and we asked them what time the bus was going to leave.  Online I’d heard it was sometime around 7, but something to do know about African buses is they leave when they are full.  The hotel front desk encouraged us to be ready by 6am.  Sure enough without asking for a wake up call, we got a call at 5:30am telling us to get ready to go and a car was ready and would take us to the bus.  Before light the bus was nearly full of people.  We got on the list and there was only 1 or 2 spots left.  It took another 45 minutes to fill the last couple spots and to fill the top and side of the bus.  This bus for about $10 USD would take us all the way to the capital of The Gambia including two border crossings as it would pass into southern Senegal before arriving in Banjul.  Apparently there’s a bridge under construction so this route may end up being more efficient soon.

African Snacks

This young girl brought fresh cakes to sell.  Very easy to get great snacks along the route.

Day 1: Arrive in Bissau – Explore Bissau, Guinea Bissau

Day 2: Depart for Banjul by Large bus arrive 4pm – Explore Senegambia

Day 3: Explore The Gambia: Banjul & Senegambia – Depart by Ferry then catch a smaller bush taxi or van toward the border (about 1 hour ride), then short 2Km ride to the bus stop to catch a ride to Dakar.

One of the great things about road trips in Africa is the various different markets you’ll see where the tribes and local villagers come together.  Trade is one of the things that makes the world go round.

Sengalese Market

How many stores or commerce do you see in this photo?

African women

I see no less than 4 different stores.  The local industry is really thriving and people are very passionate about what they are selling.  No need to give money away, you can help out the local economy by buying fresh bread, fruit, nuts, and getting a ride across town.

On the bus we made a lot of friends with the friendly people.  The relatively short 6-7 hour bus ride cross from Portuguese speaking Guinea Bissau through French speaking Senegal to English speaking The Gambia.  Many of the people also speak a couple of different tribal languages.  Incredibly diverse.

When we arrived in the greater Banjul area we got some advice from our new friends to head toward Senegambia the beach area.  Huge variety of food including local varieties and also European and even Thai varieties.  I was trying to get some cultural experiences and local food.

Drumming in Senegambia, The Gambia

The wild monkey fit the bill.  We listened to local drumming and dancing while we had some vantastic local food.

African Dancing

Here the locals mix a spicy peanut sauce with a variety of meats

Domoda

Local dish usually served with Rice known as Domoda

“Caramelized onions, chicken and tomato stock, and hot chili peppers are also added. Maggi bouillon cubes are readily available in many parts of Africa and are commonly used in African cooking, including this dish.

In The Gambia there are some great opportunities to see African Animals.  I didn’t have a lot of time, but I was anxious to see the Chimpanzees of Chimp Island.  There are apparently 3 islands that have over 75 individuals.  It’s not easy to get to, so when I was offered a ride to a Chimp Reserve.  Unfortunately the driver was mistaken and he instead took me to a place with Baboons.  Not the same.  If I had more time I would have tracked down the Stone Circles of Wassu which is a lot like the Stone Henge of Africa.  There are a couple of UNESCO sites in The Gambia.

Baboon IslandNight in The GambiaWassu stone circles

Sites of The Gambia

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Sunset in Senegambia

Senegambian beach

Beautiful beach of Senegambia.  These beaches are shared by the hotels and the fisherman.

China Aid Gambian Confernce Center

China Aid is building a massive convention center.  China has the most interesting agreements in injecting stimulus into so many countries in Africa.  It blew me away the projects I saw in Ethiopia.  Incredible.

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Big variety of African birds

green vervet

green vervet monkey

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We bought a thing of natural peanuts to give to the troop of monkeys in a small reserve area.  They are very use to humans.

There’s a monkey park with 3 different varieties of monkeys with a couple

red monkey

The Monkeys are so amazing

cute baby monkey

I love the baby monkeys!  So cute!

I do really love the monkeys.  Such beautiful animals.  So human like in their features.

beautiful monkeys

The Gambia mosque

Mosque

gateway to the gambia

Gateway to Banjul

Streets of Banjul, The Gambia

The old city has seen better days, but it’s quite interesting to wander

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My ticket from Banjul to Bara on the ferry.  The cost was less than 1 US dollar.

Ferry women

Getting ready to unload the fascinating colors of The Gambian people with their loads get off the Ferry

 

colorful gambian boat

Fisherman off the coast of Barra.  These boats become an alternative method to getting around the port as well.

car wrapped in duck tape

Cars last a lot longer in Africa.  I’m sure this van had seen 1 million miles.  The duck tape keeps it together.  We stopped asking for AC and started trying to just make sure we got a window.  One of the tricks to local overland travel in Western Africa is learning that for comfort you can simply buy more seats.  Rather than simply trying to negotiate a private car which would have cost us 200-300 euro to get from Barra to Dakar, we instead took the local transport to the border for about $10 or less then negotiated buying seats next to us to give us more room.  When we couldn’t do that in the vehicle that was ready to leave, they offered to put us in the next vehicle, and it was there that we’d negotiated 4 seats for the 2 of us, and since they considered 6 seats as full we simply needed to pay for 2 more and we were on our way for about $40 USD, saving us hundreds of dollars from a private taxi.

Primitive house

donkey cart senegal

transportation in a lot of the smaller villages is still by donkey cart, but they go far for efficiency.  It’s not unusual to see large groups on a cart.

donkey carts

The race to Dakar…

Senegal mosque

Spires of the mosque at sunset

Baobab trees

The majestic beauty of the Baobabs.  The locals have superstitions that keep them from cutting them down… which is fantastic.  There are so many more for us to appreciate.

broken down car in senegal

Interestingly along the way we saw another vehicle that was having issues, and we took half their passengers on in our vehicle.  More the merrier.

Roadtripping West Africa: Lagos Nigeria to Accra Ghana


I had a blast on Two recent road trips in West Africa.  Immersive experiences in cities not use to tourists.  The world’s past and future are tied up in these budding African cities.  Nigeria and Ghana are going to be so important not just to Africa, but to the world.  They represent where the developing world has been and the potential for tomorrow.

 

Road Trip from Nigeria to Ghana with stops in Cotonou, Benin and Lome, Tome and final destination of Accra Ghana

Before I left home I had to make sure to get both the Nigerian and Ghana visa ahead of time, Benin (e-visa) and the Togo visa on arrival at the border.

 

ghana to nigeria

Day 1: Lagos, Nigeria

 

Lagos Cathedral

Downtown Lagos, Nigeria – The hustle and bustle of street markets are everywhere.  Lagos is filled with energetic youth… Africa’s promise.

bus ridersbus riders lagos nigeria

The beginning of the road trip… City bus ride

 

The key information in roadtripping in West Africa is understanding how people move.

1. The first thing to understand is the key is finding the bus depot/bus garage.  In any given African city there’s the main bus stop where everyone gathers who wants to go to the next major city.  Early in the morning starting not later than 6am the people will gather and start to fill up the big buses.  The big ones often only go between the capitals, but there are the smaller bush taxis that go between all the major cities.  Buses don’t necessarily leave on a schedule, but instead leave when the bus is full.  Each seat will be filled or paid for and the tops and any given space is filled and then they are on their way.

 

Transportation in Africa isn’t like your traditional Western countries

moto taxi

Moto taxis are guys who drive their motorbikes around.  In some countries the drivers where little vests

gotta love the tuk tuk

Tuk tuks are for local rides.

modern dirt roads

In Western Africa you’ll see everything.  Contrast of old dirt roads and brand new buildings and infrastructure

My friend had some business we needed to attend to in Lagos before we left, but getting around the city on a bus wasn’t too difficult.  We did have to get to the right bus stop to find the bus that would take us to Contonou.

inside the bush taxi

The bush taxis can be quite crowded.  They don’t leave until their full and they get stacked up.

 

 

Day 2: Cotonou, Benin

 

temple robes

A Celestial religious group complete with White Robes and Caps.  They even have their own radio show.

royal palace togo

Outside the royal Palace.

statue in tribal Togo

Large statue of the old Tribal King in Togo

African voodoo

VooDoo is the official religion.  Superstition is rampant, and faith runs very deep.

 

African Courts in Togo

The green grass isn’t always what it seems.  You’re looking at the royal courts at the Imperial Palace near Port Novo, Benin

 

Togo and Benin border

A friend recently asked me if I’ve ever been scared while traveling.  This was clearly one of the the scariest experience I’ve had while traveling.  It was on the border of Tome and Benin.  I was dealing with a strange situation of the immigration officer trying to figure out why I had a visa and exit stamp in two different places.  It was just then that I saw a big truck barrel toward the border crushing people as it went and then topple over into the embankment crushing a small stand as it went.  People screamed and rushed to the place where the truck lay.  Immediately after the commotion they locked the fence to the border and the people gathered together to roll the truck off of a child.  A motorbike with a casket arrived at the scene and the locals sobbed as they put the child in the casket and marched around.  I felt so very vulnerable.  No ambulance rushed to the scene.  No police came to the aid, and instead the border police brought out their clubs and worked to clear the road and scatter the people.  It was a very sad scene.  I did think to myself I could have been crushed if I had only finished with my visa 30 seconds to 1 minute earlier.

 

Day 3: Lome, Togo

 

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Goat intestines, millet porridge and okra spicy dipping sauce… great local breakfast.

 

African tribal facade

Old traditional style on the façade of a building in Togo

Togoalese fishing

Major western African port with big and small boats

fishing nets of Togo

The men relax on the fishing nets and the children play

Voodoo Market signVoodoo market

While I was looking for the Voodoo market, I was not willing to pay 5000F just to get in and take a photo.  I found a nearby voodoo market that didn’t charge to take photos.  So I didn’t get the baboon heads and strange bones and all sorts of odd stuff they sell.  It seemed like it was either becoming tourist trap or was one.  I don’t know when the last time they sold a baboon skull.  I started feeling bad for being there anyway.  5000 is about 7 dollars.  Very pricey.

cat cage

Why were these cats in such a small cage at the market.  Sad.

 

Togo child femaletogo child male

The cutest kids waiting for their parents to work in the market

Togo Market

The hustle and bustle of the market in Togo

intestine stew

Intestines simmering in chili sauce

watermelon

How many watermelons can you balance on your head?

 

Togo monument

National Monument of the struggle in Togo

Day 4: Accra, Ghana

 

markets

Our bush taxi stops for a moment and the locals bring up selling, fruit,  nuts and snacks

Ghana fishing boats

On the shores in Accra Ghana… at a fishing village

Ghana foods

Fresh grilled

 

Ghana LDS Temple

Accra Ghana LDS Temple

Giant water urn

Water Urns outside an impromptu squatter tent village

littered beach

The scattered littered beaches of Accra Ghana.  I have high hopes this will change.  There are many who live on these beaches who struggle.

Accra Ghana National Monument

My friend Ifeatu and me at the national monument in Accra Ghana

Modern Apartment building in Accra Ghana

Modern Apartments in Ghana

traffic in Accra Ghana

Ghana is changing fast!  Accra is a leading city in Western Africa

Beautiful beaches in Accra Ghana

Beautiful beaches and pier in Accra outside the old fort with beautiful little fishing villages that could easily be seen as squatters, but these locals have been here for generations.

As I reflect on this road trip, I think about the crazy foods, old religions and voodoo that’s on the edge of tourist fascinations and the sights, smells, and sounds… I saw so much and experienced so much in just a few days.

 

I was happy to have shared much of my experiences with my good Nigerian Biafran friend Ifeatu Osegbo travel blogger on that other city.

Where did life begin? Traveling to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley – Early Man


My passion for understanding the past through early man caves, paleontology, archeology, encounters with ancient tribes with connections to the past and life origins and what matters most…  these strike directly at the heart of what I find meaningful in travel.  Indiana Jones wasn’t just looking for gold statues… he was looking for answers.

Early Man Ethiopia

If you’re trying to connect with the past, there really isn’t any place where you’ll find more diverse tribes in such a small area than in Ethiopia.  Seriously.  If you have found something more diverse and connected with the past, I’d really like to know.  While the exact number is unknown, there are around 80 tribes and 86 living languages with an incredibly diverse ethnic groups living in Ethiopia. Most of the urban population belongs to the Amhara or Oromo tribes.  Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the oldest in the world.  Ethiopia today is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and yet has some of the best preserved untouched primitive tribal living in the world. What makes Ethiopia unique is the longevity of Ethiopia without much outside influence.  Italy was trying to build an empire in Ethiopia had such a small impact, you’ll struggle to find anything Italian unless you visit Gondar where there are a few buildings that look Italian.  Italians made an attempt to have Ethiopia as their share of Africa. They invaded in 1893 but were shamefully defeated by the Ethiopians to become the first European losers in a colonial war. This led to the Italy-Ethiopia war conducted in 1930’s.  Ultimately Ethiopia was colonized by Italy from 1936 to 1941.  Only 5 years, so you can understand how little impact would come from that.  Things will change. 

So, going back to it.  Ethiopia has a lot of primitive tribes that continue to live the way they have for thousands of years… I was anxious to visit early man, and what an incredible experience I had making so many new friends and gaining insights about ancient life.   

Early Man Lucy

While it may seem like Ethiopia has always been the cradle of civilization it was not until 1963 that ancient hominids were discovered in Ethiopia where stone tools that were over a million years old at Kella.  Since then many important finds have propelled Ethiopia to the forefront of paleontology. The oldest hominid discovered to date in Ethiopia is the 4.2 million year old Ardi found by Tim White in 1994. The most well known hominid discovery is Lucy, found in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia’s Afar region in 1974 by Donald Johanson, and is one of the most complete and best preserved, adult fossils ever uncovered. Lucy is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago.  You can see Lucy and Ardi bones in the museum in Addis Ababa in the capital.  

early man skulllucy bones

There have been many other notable fossil findings in the country. Near Gona stone tools were uncovered in 1992 that were 2.52 million years old, these are the oldest such tools ever discovered anywhere in the world.  In 2010 fossilized animal bones, that were 3.4 million years old were found with stone-tool-inflicted marks on them in the Lower Awash Valley by an international team, which is the oldest evidence of stone tool use ever found anywhere in the world.  In 2004 fossils found near the Omo river at Kibbish at 195,000 years old, the oldest date in East Africa for modern Homo sapiens. Imagine walking around in a valley where the bones you might stumble across could be an ancient ancestor.

tribal encounters

You really don’t have to spend much time with the tribes to find their simple, but ancient traditions to be enlightening.  You really don’t have to go to distant islands where you risk getting shot by arrows.  You can come to the Omo Valley, and get a guide and scout who are provided for your safety and convenience to communicate with the chief and his warriors, who are really quite friendly.

olmec headimage

Last summer I traveled to Mexico to see the Olmec heads.  I was NOT expecting to see one in Addis Ababa outside the museum in Ethiopia.

National Museum of Ethiopia

The National Museum of Ethiopia is worthwhile.  Even in just the last few years it has gotten a lot better.  It was the Lucy bones that drew me the first time, but taking my 9 year old boy to put some context in paleontology was very worthwhile.

 imageNational Church Ethiopia

My friend Abeye who I met on a trip to Lalibella, Ethiopia 8 years earlier with his school friends.  It was him and his friends who were our guides when we were trying to locate an orphanage.  I had the biggest epiphany… everything you think you know about Africa is wrong.  Everything you think you know about Ethiopia is also wrong.  Giving money to the orphanages in Lalibela would have been a mistake.  They were the only spoiled kids in the city.   Who would have guessed?  Instead I found a blind kid and his friend who helped us locate school supplies which we were able to distribute to as many kids as we could find.  It was a life changing event.  Bringing books and school supplies to a few schools along our route on our trips was a lot of fun for the whole family.  Mission accomplished.  My 9 year old and his cousin will never forget how they felt as they had many first contact type experiences with the kids at the markets.  If you’ve never had the opportunity to be a minority, I highly recommend it.  It’s important to get out of your comfort zone, and let a villager touch your freckles or softly pinch your skin and stare right through your blue eyes.  You sort of feel like an alien.  Imagine if everyone had the opportunity to feel like an alien.  How much prejudice and bigotry would melt away to empathy?

first contact

first contact ethiopia

No matter how much you try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you will still struggle to understand how someone could put such a large plate in their lip, but if you don’t try to connect with them and imagine life in a straw hut and attempt to connect with their present and your past… to see what life might have been like 3,000 or 30,000 years ago.

Mursi tribe

The Mursi tribe are a nomadic people known for their lip plates, they live in grass huts between the Omo River and its tributary the Mago, one of the most isolated regions of the country.  They are animists. Lip plates are a well known aspect of the Mursi and Surma, who are probably the last groups in Africa amongst whom it is still the norm for women to wear large pottery, wooden discs, or plates in their lower lips. 

happy tribal encounters

I had a great time with my new friend.  We were taking selfies and could keep a straight face.  After traveling 3 days to get deep into the Omo Valley I was so excited to spend time with one of the most primitive tribes in Ethiopia.  Clothing optional, this tribe could construct their grass hut village in less than 24 hours.  They are a nomadic tribe.

Zebra kids

As we drove by these zebra stripped kids I was struck.  I was really on the edge of the planet.  Our guide said, “don’t take their picture they’ll throw rocks!”  It was too late.  I caught this beautiful photo first.  I hope it represents them well.  For the most part prior to us arriving at a village there were terms on photos and we’d work it out with the chief.  It’s true… sometimes they wanted money for each picture, but it was my preference to trade.  If we could bring things the tribe needed, I felt a lot better…. school supplies, solar lantern, or simple toys.

Ancient Konso pole

This pole may look like a bunch of poles lashed together, but actually this is a clock.  The tribe adds a new pole to this central point in the village every generation (18 years.)  Konso, this ancient UNESCO heritage village is over 400 years old.

Tiye UNESCO

Tiya, a UNESCO site of large stones from an ancient burrial ground.  No one recognizes the swords.  They don’t match any on record in Ethiopia.   I love it.  The site is still being understood.  You can be an archeologist and figure it out!  The guides on site have some good ideas, but you can tell much of what they are saying is guestimates.

Ethiopian sword and shield

You can compare these swords from the museum… Doesn’t look anything like it.  The 1600s was a pretty exciting time in Ethiopia with the royal courts, castles, and conquests.  You wouldn’t believe the history.  Gondar Ethiopia where the castles are is a must for a longer trip to Ethiopia.

Ethiopian crock Lake Chamo

Humans aren’t the only ancient thing in Ethiopia.  Very old crocodiles and hippos in the lake.  You can take a guide, captain and scout by boat and go trekking for animals in Lake Chamo Nechi Sar

Adadi Mariam

Ancient stone churches are both in the North and in the South.  Lalibella in the North has some of the best monolithic buildings in the world.

The only southerly rock hewn church Adadi Mariam… It’s like visiting a cave church carved out of rock, not unlike the cave churches in Cappadocia, but those churches don’t have a holy of holies and these are all fashioned after Solomon’s temple and often have a ark of the covenant replica based on the real one… just ask them.  The religion runs very deep in Ethiopia, and there’s no doubt they are from lost tribes of ancient Israel… the DNA studies and the heritage back up the stories.  The stories are fantastic and rich as the countries culture.

Ancient New York

Breathtaking natural beauty outside the windows of the ancient village near Konso.  This valley is coined New York for what look a vast city scape in dirt… like sky scrapers.

Mursi Warrior

This Mursi Warrior may look tough, and they are, but they are also very sweet.

Raw Beef

If you don’t stick to tourist food, you can try some amazing tibs.  Tare tare may be a french term, but at this shop, they chop off cuts of fresh beef, seasoning optional.  Strips of raw meat – Tere Sega.  I LOVE Ethiopian food.  It took some convincing my driver that I had an iron stomach, then I could get to the really good places where the locals eat.  Tibs, Shiro, Kifto, Gomen, Doro Wat, Shiro Feces, served with a layer of Injira. 

Ethiopian Market

Incredible markets.  Tribes would come to trade or sell their vegetables or clothes.  Markets aren’t every day, but on market day it’s a treat to meet those that come from far away.  I did find it annoying that some local government officials thought we needed a permit to go to the market.  They were persistent.

Konso tribal hut

Traditional ancient Konso tribal Hut.  These are really the nice huts.  There are much more primitive and temporary huts.

Ethiopian hard working women

The hardest working women in the world.  I believe.  These women spend all day looking for sticks to turn to charcoal to sell or to use as firewood to feed their families.

Konso Tribal Elders

The wise tribal elders of Konso

Tribal market

Those wooden seats double as a pillow and are one of the few items you might find in a hut.

Ancient tribal hut

The inside of a hut.  This women was near the center of the village so she has some additional amenities.

huts

The animals live in the stone walled in village for protection.  The further outer rings of the village the newer but more risky.

inside Mursi hut

The inside of the grass hut.  Embers still warm.

 

In a spirit of transparency.  I’m fine sharing what I got

Omo valley cultural tour

Day 1 – Rock Hewn church, Tiya UNESCO site

Day 2 Trekking for Zebras, visiting crocks and hippos

Day 3 Jinka!!! Konso tribes the 400 year old UNESCO village including New York

Day 4 Mursi tribe and Mago National Park.  This is the lip plate tribe.  Dimeka Market…

Day 5 Turmi cultural tribal city in the middle of Omo Valley

Day 6 Dorze village

I ended up going back to Paradise Lodge.  We loved that place.  The view was incredible.  So we elected for 3 nights there in Arba Minch. 

King Dawit tours

For $75 a day for $525 we had a Toyota Land Cruiser driver and vehicle for about 7 days.  I felt pretty good about what I negotiated.  Our driver knew the route, and while he didn’t like driving in the dark.  We were able to push him to put in 12 hour days and saw an incredible amount of Southern Ethiopia on this trip.

It was so great to get back to Ethiopia one of my favorite countries not only in Africa, but in the world.

If you enjoyed this post… you might enjoy my previous post on Ethiopia on Lalibela and the Rock Hewn Churches where I first met Abeye and fell in love with ancient Ethiopia.  My friend Abeye is now building his own ethiopian tours.

Natural Wonders of the World – Underground River of Puerto Princesa


Philippines is hidding a real gem.  In fact, scratch that, they are hiding some of the most amazing islands for vacation in the world.  I’ve been to the main island a couple of times, but it was this intentional visit to go see the 7 natural wonders of the world that brought me to the little gem of an island of Palawan.  Puerto Princesa Underground River started with a motor boat ride to the nearby beach to an outfitter to provide us with smaller boats bright mandatory big orange life jackets and shiny hard hat helmets. 

The puerto princesa national park is a limestone karst mountain landscape. The actual St. Pauls Underground River Cave is more than 24 km (15 mi) long and contains an 8.2 km (5.1 mi) long underground section of the Cabayugan River. The river system of the cave flows into the West Philippine Sea and is navigable by boat up to 4.3 km (2.7 mi) in from the entrance. The cave includes major formations of stalactites and stalagmites, and several large chambers, including the 360-meter-long Italian’s Chamber with approximate 2.5 million square meters of volume making it one of the largest cave rooms in the world.

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Tourists getting ready to enter the cave

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Just inside the cave system

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On the first boat headed to the beach with the smaller boats

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The island of Palawan has many uniquely styled canoe boats designed to move quickly over the water

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The boat captains love and live on the water.  It is life.

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Bats, snakes, birds, there’s a lot of life going in and out of the caves.

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Chili crab.  Some of the best food on a banana leaf.

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The boats are a very important part of life on Palawan island

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I stand back to back with our guide and she’s next to one of the indigenous oldest elders.  They are known as pygmy people due to their height.

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Palawan not only has an underground river cave system, but also native tribes!  This friendly looking tribe recently emerged from the forest.  They danced with us and taught us about their mythologies and shared traditions.  A young guide who is from another nearby tribe can speak their language and helped us communicate with them.   The young ones are now attending a school built right next to the huts, the teacher resides nearby.

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There are 70 indigenous peoples and the Bataks are thought to come from Asia 50,000 years ago.   The island of Palawan, the largest province in the Philippines, is home to several indigenous ethnolinguistic groups namely, the Kagayanen, Tagbanwa, Palawano, Taaw’t Bato, Molbog and the Batak tribes. They live in remote villages in the mountains and coastal areas.  We drove as far as we could and then walked across 6 streams to this remote village.  We visited this small tribe of about 17 individuals, some of the last of the Batak tribe.  The Batak tribe is a group of indigenous people who reside in the rugged interiors of the northeast portion of the province of Palawan. These group of people lives close to nature and are extremely peaceful and shy, traditionally they believe in nature spirits with whom they communicate with through the aid of a shaman. At present, there are only about 500, or less, Batak people remaining in the Philippines.  This group is now Christian and preferred not to talk about the old beliefs, but did tell us how much their lives changed when they found rice.  It was rice ultimately that drove them from hiding in the forest to coming out and coexisting with the other people.

Tribal Adventures in Papua New Guinea


The tribal chief would explain to us that when he was a boy he was wandering through the forest and he and the other boys heard a sound.  Large bats up in the sky.  They were afraid.  This was first contact.  What an incredible story to hear how their entire tribe would be transformed with World War II.  War planes would later land and change their lands forever adding roads, infrastructure, schools, hospitals, and more.  Papua New Guinea has an ancient and very modern history.  They hold onto tradition and have a rich culture which provides an insight into the past I haven’t seen elsewhere to such depth.  I have lived with tribes in Mali, Swaziland, and Fiji and LOVE the opportunity to connect with these tribes on their terms.

Tribal feather headdresses of papua new guinea mt hagen sing sing

Yotube my footage: Massive Tribal Sing Sing in Papua New Guinea in Mt Hagen

All of the photos and videos you see linked here are mine captured during my trip. Enjoy, but if you want a copy of any of these let me know, I have higher res ones.  In addition, I created a number of fun short videos you can see in a single playlist  Joel Oleson Travel Youtube Channel Papua New Guinea Tribal Playlist and visit these videos be sure to like and subscribe!

Joel Oleson Youtube Channel - Papua New Guinea Playlist

It started with a friend of a friend on Facebook, named Felix.  I explained to him I wanted to have a true tribal experience and he replied quickly saying we could visit his tribe in the hills.

Felix - the SharePoint and Exchange guy on the island of Papua New Guinea

Felix from Port Moresby, PNG

He was an Exchange Administrator who had even done SharePoint in the capital.  He had a good job.  We had arranged to meet Felix at the airport and continue on.  He said he wasn’t able to get off work, but that his brother Saki would be there.  Saki has been out of work, and had ample time to take us around.  His english was very good and he was very well educated.  Come to find out, Felix and Saki’s dad is the tribal chief.  When we arrived at the village, the villagers surrounded our van and cheered.  It was an incredible feeling.

Sari tribe, Kali Clan, Puman Clan Papua New Guinea Highlands

Some of our new friends from the Sari Hill Tribe (Kali Clan and Puman Clan) … Saki is in the middle with the hat.  The boy with the gun is a gangster (just kidding, it’s a toy gun, but for real he was our body guard as was a half dozen other guys)

The tribes and clans in Papua New Guinea still operate on foundation of offerings of pigs and tribal war rules.  We stayed with a tribe that was very peaceful, loving, and trusting.  They worried about our health and safety at all times and made sure we had plenty of villagers to be with us.

 

We attended a funeral

PNG Traditional Tribal Funeral March

At a funeral the mother’s tribe traditionally puts mud on their bodies and adds ferns to the waist line.   Marriage is very frequently across tribal lines which create alliances and offerings that create stronger bonds in the community.  A bride price could easily be dozens and dozens of pigs.

View the video on Youtube: Traditional Funeral March in Papua New Guinea

Sharing an umberella with the colorful tribal friends

Colorful rainbow umbrellas are popular among the villagers.  The people sometimes look Mauri, native Australian, they love their beatlenut which is another form of currency.

Looking for something to eat

Shoes are optional.  Don’t get me wrong.  These are some of the happiest peaceful people on the planet.  They live off the land.  I wouldn’t call them poor, as they have some of the most beautiful land in the world, and they have fruit on the trees and yams and sweet potatoes in the ground.  With a few pigs for trade, they are doing great.  The family, tribe and clan bonds go very very deep.  The wealth of the tribe contributes to the wealth of the individual and visa versa  It is commune style living.

We saw a sing sing in action as tribes from across the island gathered in Mt Hagen in anticipation of the Prime Minister of PNG.

PNG Mudmen

Mudmen

SingSing in Full Swing Mt Hagen Cultural Dance Festival

You can identify a tribe based on their paint and look.  These tribesmen are from Mt Hagen.

Tribal Abs of Steel

Tribal thumbs up

Their beautiful features are some times from endangered birds so that creates controversy, but these guys don’t seem too concerned.  There is a hierarchy of needs.

what are you looking at willis?

Scary kids!

Some of the war paint is definitely designed to look scary.  Shaving the heads down the middle too.  Yikes.

Cultural Dancing in Mt Hagen with little kid

I love how the kids get into the tribal dancing too.  Traditions being passed on.

Enga dance troupe

Saki recognized some of his friends, he was showing us how it was done… drumming on the SharePoint mug

beautiful head dress

Youtube: A Walkthrough of the Beautiful Tribal Sing Sing of Papua New Guinea in the Highlands

Catholic Church Singing in the Small Village in Highlands Papua New Guinea has a Tribal Sound and Feel

loin cloth

I have to imagine the tribes are in different stages of living off the land or embracing western society, but it is great to see them coming together to sing and dance.

There is one serious thing the tribes and clans still need help fixing.  It is the tribal to modern warfare.  It was a great education to see how problems would have been settled in the past.  I’ve heard even in the capital some Enga people still don’t trust the judges to settle issues if they feel marginalized and wronged.

Enga is still known to have tribal fighting.  This is a clip from the museum in Wagga.

Modern Warfare Papua New Guinea

Rules of Warfare in Papua New Guinea

The tribe where we stayed has not been involved in a war since the mid 90s.  They have decided it is better to pay the bigs and kina than retaliate.  The tribal warfare goes back many many years, but it has become more dangerous due to the escalation in weapons.  All tribes have weapons including bows and arrows, how most of the wars start.  We did visit a tribe where their huts and buildings had been burned to the ground.  It was sad to see, but they were happily rebuilding.

Rebuilding the town with a smileEnga Tribal Dancer

Left: Rebuilting their houses and huts.  Right: Traditional look of the tribes we were visiting.

 

 

 

 

PNG traditional hut

We spent one night in this hut.  It was Felix’s Uncle’s house.  We all slept in one big room on the elevated floor on mats around a fire in the middle.

 

On our last night the kids caught a cecada massive flying bug, and asked us to eat it.  Saki explained that’s what they use to eat and they still did.  He popped one in his mouth.  They found another and another and before long I was crunching down on what I can only describe as a cream puff taste.  Michael thought it tasted like peanut better.

Eating bugs

Youtube video: The kids brought me a treat!  A large Cicada, of course I’d give it a try….

 

I’d love for you to see some video as well… go to my Joel Oleson Travel Youtube Channel Papua New Guinea Tribal Playlist and visit these videos be sure to like and subscribe!

 

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YT Video: Cool Dancing Music with PVC pipes with Funny Dancer