Monday, March 29, 2010

Zombies, man sized fishes and surfing- all in the same breath

I finally managed to get myself away from the beach, but it wasn't easy. This makes, I think the fifth time I've been on the beach since I got to Africa (Kenya, Tanzania twice, Malawi, Mozambique), and it's hard to beat. I just find myself here over and over. The interior of the continent is much more interesting and exciting, but it's hard to argue with the beach. It's not hard to see why the interior of the continent remained relatively untouched for so long while the colonists flooded the coastline; the beach is just easy. Where ever you are whether it's Africa or Florida, the beach is  the beach and predictable and manageable.

When people ask about the beaches in Oregon, I generally respond that we don't have beach so much as coast. Yes there are miles upon miles of pristine stretches of sand and ocean and the Dungeoness crab is as fresh and cheap as I imagine you'll find anywhere (hollaback Moe's), but the thing is it's just so windy and the water is so damn cold that "beach" just doesn't conjure up accurate images. The beach is for swimming and sunburns, in Oregon we wear heavy sweatshirts and watch rain hitting waves. So, needless to say this whole tropical beach thing is kind of alluring for me. 

Every time I come back from the beach I realize that I didn't really take any pictures or amass any interesting stories. It's like I get to the beach and the world just slows down to slow motion. Wake up, swim in the ocean, lunch, swim in the ocean, dinner, beers, sleep, start over again. Two weeks (or has it been three?) has slipped by and I've  hardly noticed the time pass, but at the same time any other time and place seemed like another planet. It's a hard life I'm sure.

I've been sending gloating emails all week, so I imagine I've made it to the top of a few enemies lists of people working in offices right now. In case anyone out there is planning any witchcraft vengeance spells, I suggest you think twice. I have it under authority from a source here that all I need is some certain special herbs and a dash of chicken guts and I can counterspell that ish right back in your face.  

Seriously though, on the subject of witchcraft: I hear whispers that if one asks the right person in the Mozambique street markets one can find the so-called Zombie Cucumber. The story goes that if you feed a person a drug potion made from some local herbs, they go into a coma whereby the give the appearance of death, while maintaining full consciousness. After witnessing their own funeral and burial, you go dig them back up and feed them a different potion made from this cucumber. It wakes them up and tweaks their brain all out so they become a Zombie-like, living dead slave doing all your bidding for the rest of their days. No joke. I saw something about this happening in Haiti on the discovery channel once: it was saying that people zombie-fie tourists, take them to the ATM to drain their account, then sell them into sex slavery. I am waay to scared to to further investigations to validate this. There's a book I can't find here called Kalashnikovs and Zombie Cucumbers, about Mozambique in the mid-90s. I've heard strong praise about it and it's at the top of my list for when I get home (some other time I'll share my reading list).

Back to the subject at hand, this time around I dedicated myself to doing more than just laying on the beach. I went scuba diving, got certified for deep water diving (100 feet down in the drink) and took it upon myself to learn to surf. Generally speaking, the results were not encouraging.

The Norwegians were serious about their water-sports. There is Alf the kiteboarder, Anders the windsurfer, and for the last few days Lars the surfer showed up. I think all three had been instructors in their respective sport in the last few years, so I was in good hands. Unfortunately there was never enough wind for either of the first two, so it was wave surfing the whole way.

Two weeks of nothing but surfing and I figured I'd have it down. I guess I assumed that any sport invented in Southern California couldn't be that hard. I mean I know plenty of southern Cali folks, and let's just say I've never exactly been blown away (full disclosure: my family on both sides is from Southern California, so I guess I should keep my big trap shut). I figured with my critical thinking skills and solid grasp of English grammar I couldn't help but revolutionize the sport. But man I was wrong. Surfing is HAAARD. I swallowed half the ocean and after a week could barely barely manage to stand up occasionally.

The stereotype is that Surfers are kind of lazy and not necessarily that bright. I'm not going to argue with that, but I will say this: If you spent all day futilely paddling into the mouth of the mighty ocean, you'd probably want to sleep all day too. As far as the latter generalization, I can't really speak to that one; maybe it's all the sun or spending their lives swimming in California Raisin pesticide runoff.

Diving was a different story, though not much more successful than the surfing. I did my deep diving, technically it went off without a hitch. The issue was in what I saw. I was promised megafauna. Whale Sharks, the biggest fish on the planet, frequent these waters as do 10 foot Giant Manta Rays. The day before, people saw the sharks. The day after,  sharks and mantas. But for me: nothing, nada, hakuna samaki. I know there's no guarantees with wild animals, but throw some catfood or something out there for god's sake.

Aside from the letdown, the diving was amazing. It was like Finding Nemo meets Godzilla. There were tons and tons of amazing colorful and crazy little fishies, as well as some huge cool stuff. I swam with a sea turtle for a good long while, at one point he was following me around in circles. That is probably more rare than seeing the damn manta rays, so I guess that's a feather in my proverbial swimming cap. I saw many smaller rays, and lots of eels. The highlight, other than the turtle, would be seeing a serious Godzilla eel. I poked my head into a cave and was face to face with an eel that was -no exaggeration- bigger than me. I'd put him at two feet in diameter and God only knows how long, with a head the size of mine. Needless the say I did the only manly thing, and swam away as fast as my little flippers could carry me.

So there we are, That's my latest beach vacation. I can now officially claim to be a surfer, although not within 100 miles of any beach where I could be forced to prove it. I'm sort of closer to being a semi-legitimate diver and my tan is a shade or two more melanomic. Wicked brah!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Playing with the locals

First the story:
I'm in Maputo, the Capital of Mozambique. I know not a soul and nobody at my hostel speaks English. So I was really and truly on my own to see the city. I walked around and saw the sights of town a bit, but wanted something different. So I decided to do something I've wanted to do since I got to Africa: I picked a bus and got on it. I laugh when I think about doing that at home, that's what crazy people do. Whatever, I guess I'm that guy now.

I picked Costa du Sol, because Spanish tells me that probably means Sun Coast. If ever there was an inviting sounding place this was it, so I got on and rode the bus for a while. Then when the time felt right, I got off. I found myself on the coast, and since it's Africa the sun was there in abundance. I wasn't quite sure what to do from there, I didn't exactly have any clue where I was or what one should do an unknown portion of the way to the Sun Coast. A group of kids my age had gotten off on the same stop; part of the reason I decided this was a good place was that so many good looking young people seemed to think so too. A mixed group of college age people came up and started talking to me, asking where I was going and what I was doing. I admitted that the answer to both was negative, so they invited me to come to the beach with them. I had nothing else to do so I decided sure, why not. Generally speaking anyone who approaches you out of the blue often wants something, but I chose to ignore that voice in my head.

We went down to the beach, whiskey came out and clothes came off. We swam, we laughed, we played, everything was cool. Only one of them really spoke basic English and my Portuguese is all but nonexistent, so I kind of just had to go with it. At one point the girl who had attached herself to me started telling me about how she was hungry. I wasn't quite sure what to make of that, sometimes idiomatic things don't translate well (before that she asked about my son, which meant something along the lines of "Do you have a girlfriend"). So I just kind of laughed and played dumb, but of course it didn't go away. She got the translator involved, and it became clear that this was a Buy Everyone Lunch kind of deal. I'm not sure whether I should have ditched right then or not, since the cards were now on the table. 9 times out of 10 I would probably have bounced, but I decided to just go with it this time. They shared their whiskey with me first, it was only like $1 for all 6 of us, and bottom line if I left I had nothing better to do. So I did, I swallowed my reservations and just went for it. But then, predictably, it didn't end there. Like always, once the gate was opened the requests kept coming. In short order I was asked if I'd pay for 1/2 of another bottle to be split between 6 people, and for airtime. One hard and fast rule I have is that anytime someone who is not your girlfriend or child asks for you to pay their phone bill, it's over. That was the final straw with the "tour guide" in Kampala, that ended our flirtation with the Realtor in Mbale, and that has been the end of countless people met at bars. Don't ask, I'm not your daddy.

So there it was, I got back on the bus and went home. I will probably never see them again, who knows what could have been. Sorry guys, peace. I don't regret the experience, and would probably do the same thing again. Nothing lost, and it was a fun afternoon. To quote Forrest Gump: "and that's all I have to say about that."

And now the boring commentary:
Traveling alone is a funny thing. When I signed up for it I was extremely hesitant. It wasn't so much that I was scared to travel solo, as that I was worried about having to spend that much time with myself. Spending that much time in isolation leads to a lot of questioning yourself and getting to know yourself better; and quite honestly that was my main hesitation. Having to ask "who am I really," just sounded like one challenge I wasn't really ready for. I swallowed my qualms and went for it, and I have never regretted it since. I still haven't had one of those dark and stormy night moments of clarity or anything, and I still see pretty much the same person in the mirror. So I guess that's a good thing. As much as everything seems the same, I'm sure I have changed though. I think it's like one of those things where you can't tell how fast you're moving until you look out the window. I've glanced out of the looking glass from time to time, but never really deep enough to gauge where I am. One thing I have seen however is that I seem to do Africa a bit different than most of the other travelers I meet along the way.

Most people I meet don't associate with the local people beyond the basics. They are polite and distant, but ultimately uninterested. On a certain level I hold that over them, and gloat on how much better I am for giving everyone the time of day. The thing about it though, is I understand why most people don't venture out of the bubble. Interactions with local people usually don't turn out well, I hate to be the one to say it but it's true. When you take two very different groups of people, one group rich and one group poor, the result is predictable. At one point or another 9 times out of 10, the poor person is going to ask the rich person for money. I could claim cultural sensitivity and deny it all day, but the bottom line is I have seen or been a part of this hundreds of times, and the result is usually always the same. Whether it's seconds or weeks, eventually it will usually come.

My philosophy has always to give people a chance and basically give everyone the same chance and expectations as I would at home. Just like at home I talk to strangers, but like at home I'm immediately skeptical of anyone who crosses the street to approach me. Like at home I allow hawkers to make their pitch, then politely say I'm not interested and apologize for some odd reason for not wanting their crappy product. Just like at home I avoid the eyes of beggars then spend the next five minutes beating myself up about it.

The other side of the equation though, is that I don't accept nonsense from people that I wouldn't at home. I have no problem with buying a friend lunch or giving a friend business to help him out, but I will not buy a friend. If you don't know me, you're not going to get anything out of me. If I find out you are exploiting me, then I am not going to call you back anymore. I guess it's just the safety net. This is a long way of saying that in order to have real interactions with locals, you have to keep your guard up and have a set of rules. If you get uncomfortable then ditch it and go back to the hotel. Take a chance, as long as you're smart about it you have nothing to lose. I understand why most people choose to avoid the situation entirely. It's uncomfortable to realize again and again that most people look at you and only see dollar signs. It's a harder thing to admit again and again that you would rather walk away than give someone a dollar.

The way I see it at the end of the day, there are three choices:
1. Don't play with the locals, stay in the Mzungu bubble. It's easier, it's more comfortable and it's more pleasant. You won't be alone, 90% of people take this route.
2. Go with the flow, and play Mr. Rich Man. As long as you're paying the bill at the end, everything will be fun and fine and your new friends will take good care of you. It's only when you say no that things get awkward.
or 3. Try and fail again and again. If your new friend asks for something in the first few minutes, oh well just another day. Maybe it will take a few hours though, in which case it's a few hours of good fun. Sometimes they don't want anything, and that will probably be the story you'll tell all your friends back home forever about how great you are. "And then my boyfriend Antonio took me to a local bar... Yah, he's a local... and I was the only white person in the whole bar..."

So that's the rant. It sucks, but it's the truth. The important thing to keep in mind is that this mostly happens to people travelling or new to the game. If you are a tourist spending your time in tourist places, you're mostly only going to meet tourist oriented people. If you look like you don't know what's going on, someone will appear to help you out of your money. Just like at home, no one in their right mind would choose to hang out with clueless tourists day after day unless there's a financial incentive. That's the most important part though: When I wasn't a tourist I made very real friends who shocked me over and over with their caring and generosity.

I am closer with my Ugandan friends I've known for less than a year than with many of my American friends I've known since middle school. Partly that's because of the cultural difference in relationships: it's been said over and over and over that in the West wealth is measured by possessions, while in African it's measured by friends. But it's also because I have actually asked things of my friends here. At home asking for something as small as a bite of a sandwich was impossibly hard. Because I am such a fish out of water here, I have no choice but to ask for help from people. Admitting that you need someone else and allowing them to help just brings different kind of closeness that I have always been squeamish of. It's because I gave them the chance to put me in my place, that people like Eddie, JB, Rodney, Fred, James and Veronica changed my life and my view of what a friend should be.

In the end, to me it's worth it. It's worth it to me to get knocked down time after time with uncomfortable situations. I could take another 10,000 fake friends and still, the thing I'll treasure most about Africa is the summer when I was introduced to what my life might be like if I were an African and treated like a brother by Eddie and JB.

Most people didn't have my experience, so I understand why they don't see the point of trying. I won't hold it against you anymore, I get it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The best things in life are free

I didn't get a chance to throw up a proper post about this at the time, and I'd hate for this to get lost in the mists like my stories from Karamoja.

A couple days after I went to Victoria Falls Tommy, Olivia, Izzy and I went beck to the falls for one last look. After trying unsuccessfully to sneak into the national park we decided to just go hang out at the bridge between Zam and Zim (-bia and –babwe, as they’re known). If you ask the border control nicely, they’ll let you out onto the bridge without a passport or even paying a dime. Maybe its not as good, but at least it’s free.

Me being me, I saw a sneaky little path by the bridge and wandered off the road. Bad idea; I forgot I was in an international border crossing. Sneaky little paths on borders are for illegal immigrants. The soldiers were not pleased by my impetuousness. Strike that, I think they were quite pleased to find an opportunity to demand a bribe. “This is very bad, now we must lock you in a cell. Maybe you have just five dollars and we can pretend we didn’t see…” No I will not pay you and no I will not accompany you to the jailhouse. Nice try though.

We spent the afternoon hanging around on the bridge looking for trouble and playing “look I’m standing in two different countries,” waiting for the sunset. For some mysterious reason low evening light + 1000 meter high wall of mist = a full 360 degree rainbow 100 meters in diameter.

I'm no physicist, I know I had no idea it was even possible, but I saw it with my own eyes. I've seen a lot of natural splendour in my life, but this was in a class of its own. I imagine I'll probably go the rest of my life without seeing anything like it again, but it was quite possibly the most amazing sight I have ever laid my eyes on.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Great Zcott!

(the Great Enclosure on the left, home to only the most favored wives of the king)

While in Zimbabwe we decided to check out Great Zimbabwe, the largest pre-colonial structure in sub-Saharan Africa. There's not a lot to say about it really, the pictures really tell the story.

(The king and his buddies live on the top of the hill. Sorry, no girls allowed)

I don't really remember the facts unfortunately. It is dated to around the 15th (or was it 12th?) century. It is now accepted that it was built by bantu speaking peoples, despite the best efforts of white historians to ascribe it to just about anyone other than the Natives- Egyptians, Chinese, Indians, whoever.

(Scholars postulate that this structure could possibly be phallic in nature. Hard to imagine)

It was thought that about 2000 people resided there in its heyday, with status determining who makes it inside the walls. It was abandoned well before the colonists arrived, for unknown reasons.

(The walls appear to be built haphhazardy, the builders learning as they went along. Note the difference in craftsmanship between the inside wall- done first, and the outside which was finished long afterwards)

It was an amazing place, dwarfing and timeless. It really makes me want to see the pyramids and other great ancient structures, but that will have to be another trip. I really wish I knew more about it. Luckily the only person I know for sure is still reading this blog, my Mom, studies African history. Maybe you can shed some light on the subject?

(Great Zimbabwe is unique in that the inhatants incorporated their structure into the natural world in harmony with the surrounding landscape, rather than blasting their way through.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Forget what you heard about Zimbabwe

(Beautiful central Harare)

Zimbabwe has a reputation that precedes it. Tell someone you're going to Malawi or Zambia and more times than not they'll just stare blankly with an obligatory "Is that in Africa?" Zimbabwe however, people know. Zimbabwe carries a specific set of images to most Westerners with a solid grasp of current events (I think). Think about the word Zimbabwe, what comes to mind? For me it was three things. Robert Mugabe: governmental mismanagement at the most unimaginable scale. Trillion dollar bills: The utter failure of an economy and the highest inflation rate in the world outside of a war zone. White farmers getting their land stolen: official government policy placed any land owned by whites up for grabs to any squatter with a gun and started a land rush to the bottom. Zimbabwe in the Western media is a Bad Place whose president is leading them to their own destruction as fast as his old legs can carry them. I was under the impression that white people should not visit Zimbabwe, that my kind is not welcome there. Having been around the block in Africa a little bit, I knew better than to take all this at face value; however I had no idea just how off it was. Zimbabwe is not the country it was a few years ago.

Zimbabwe was, in a word, spectacular. I felt like I could really live there, which I haven't said about many places. Not just spend a few months working but actually start a life there, make a home there. As someone who spends a lot of my life on the move these days, of course the first thing I noticed was the roads. The infrastructure in Zimbabwe is unbelievable (for Africa). The roads were great, though in need of some touch up after a few years of neglect. Even way outside of cities, the main roads were fully paved, lined and signposted. "Speed limit 80 km," "sharp curve ahead," "No parking." Even before I got to the city, I had the impression of a place where order had edged out chaos. I was pleasantly impressed and excited for the capital Harare, which I had heard described as "the nicest city north of South Africa." I arrived in Harare not really knowing what to expect. I was blown away.

(Looks like a real city, right?)

Harare was a real city. Not a beautiful, but suspicious facsimile of a city like Kigali, where you spend your whole time looking for the catch. It was also not like Dar es Salaam, really nice if you look past all the things that are awful (unspeakably terrible traffic, absolutely zero nightlife because it's a Muslim city, oppressive heat and humidity). Harare was a big, modern, functioning city. Skyscrapers, tree-lined streets, well maintained parks, walk signs, malls and cafes. I'm sure it's the biggest cliché in Southern Africa, but Harare felt like I was back in the Western world. If Uganda is the Pearl of Africa, Zimbabwe is the Diamond.

This is not to say the stories you hear about Zimbabwe aren't true. Zimbabwe is without question a case study in failure. The economy was so mismanaged that the official currency in Zimbabwe is now the US dollar. I heard a story from a guy who said inflation was so bad that he'd get paid his salary, and by the time he could get to the bank the currency had been devalued so many times that his pay check wouldn't even cover the gas to get from the office to the bank. People say you can't buy anything for a dollar anymore. I can say for a fact that's not really true. At least In Zimbabwe, 1 USD gets you a nice big plate of sadza and meat. As nice as the USD is, Zimbabwe doesn't have any US coins. A soda everywhere else in Africa generally costs between 25 and 50 cents, in Zimbabwe there's no real choice but to charge a dollar.

The best thing about Zimbabwe, like everywhere else, was the people. I found Zimbabweans to be friendly on a level I haven't experienced anywhere else in Africa. Even in the big city, people were incredibly helpful and nice. Everyone I met went out of their way to make sure that if they were the only person I talked to, I would have the right impression of their country. I got the distinct feeling that Zimbabweans were proud to be Zimbabwean, and deeply hurt and offended by all the negative press surrounding their country. Several times I had strangers stop me in the street just to make sure I was ok. At almost every interaction from taxi drivers to police to total randoms in the street, people thanked me for visiting their country and were adamant that I spread the word that Zimbabwe isn't a bad place anymore. This is me doing my piece.

We planned on spending just a day in Harare, but ended up staying an extra night. I would have preferred to spend a lot longer, but the guys I'm hitching a ride with were in a hurry to get to the beach. We were taking a walk around town and a random guy sidled up next to us to talk, just like always. We assumed eventually he would ask for something or try to sell us something, but he never did. He asked if we were tourists and what we had seen and where we were going and all that. When he heard we hadn't seen much and planned to leave soon, he was appalled. He insisted that we let him guide us around the city a bit. He was on his way to his office for a meeting, but said it was more important to him that he make sure we get "the right impression" of Zimbabwe. That, my friends, is the definition of African time. Josh showed us around the city, focusing on the mall and nice cars. At every turn it was "See, Zimbabwe is a nice place. We have the newest cars, we aren't eating each other." When he finally showed his cards, it was only to tell us that he works with foreign investors and needed us to spread the word that Zimbabwe was safe again.

Or there was the desk clerk of the hotel that was clearly out of our price range. He saw our hesitation so he butted in with "but you're locals right? I can give you the local rate of half price." I had to write what city I lived in on the form, but for the life of me I couldn't think of any other places in Zimbabwe. Again he saw my hesitation, "Maybe you live in Mutare or Chinohyi..."

(Heroes' Park)

Or Madeline, the owner of the tiny local restaurant in a nowhere town on the highway. She was delighted when we came in for her freshly prepared sadza (shima, ugali, posho, whatever you want to call it) and beef. She brought our food then sat down with us to chat while we ate. Again, just trying to make sure we got the right impression.

Or the taxi driver, Ivan. The original plan was for a quick ride to Indian food, but we found the restaurant to be closed. So he asked around and found us a different restaurant in our price range. Then he came in and had a beer with us while we ate. Then he took us to a bar, and came in to watch the music with us. We ended up spending the whole night hanging out with him seeing the sights of the night. At the end of the evening we asked him how much we owed him and he responded with "how much do you want to pay?" No bargaining, no haggling, nothing. As we were on our way back to the hotel he asked if we wanted to go on a "night safari." Of course we said yes, expecting who knows what. He proceeded to take us to the prostitute district and amuse himself by shining his lights on hookers and watching them scatter.

(I have turned into a stereotypical Japanese tourist; look someone crossing the street!)

Oh and did I mention live music? We went to a bar with GOOD live jazz from a local band, full of local people enjoying themselves. Electric guitars, drum kit, a proper band. After that ended we went to a different bar with a local mbira band straight from the village. It had been so long since I'd seen real live music, I forgot how great a mellow night out can be.

Zimbabwe is not without it's problems. All I know is I had a great time there and can't wait to go back. Zimbabwe is an example of a trend in Africa: The places you hear the worst things about are the nicest. I guess it's about having a place worth fighting for.

(Some mall Josh insisted we visit. Apparently it won an international design award because it's so breezy and cool without using A/C)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

One for the Record Books

(The Zambia-Zimbabwe bridge over the Lower Zambezi river)

(Tower of mist from Victoria Falls, "The Smoke that Thunders")

Saturday was definitely a day like no other. I had been complaining about things being too slow and uneventful for the last week or so, but when it rains it pours. Highlights of my day include:

1: Spending the day hiking and chilling around at Victoria falls, which does justice to the title of one of the 7 Wonders of the World*
2: A standoff with a troop of baboons whereby an unwitting AZN tourist nearly had her purse snatched.
3: A sunset booze cruise on the Mighty Zambezi where we saw hippos and crocodiles, in between drinking our faces off of course.
4: Getting a phone call from my family- post booze cruise, and wishing my Dad a happy Father's Day (It was his birthday, so an honest though not particularly impressive mistake)
5-6: More or less unknown
7: Waking up in a hammock at the wrong gueshouse, conversations with an unknown +44 phone number (England) in my SMS history
8: Later finding out I met some Norwegians with a Land Rover with whom I made an elaborate plan to roadtrip to Mozambique leaving tomorrow.

Well done Luke. Without further ado, some explanations:

(Eastern Cataract of Victoria Falls)

Victoria Falls was amazing, awe inspiring really. I waited and waited for a sunny day not sure if I'd ever get one. Finally Friday rolled around perfect and beautiful, but unfortunately I as a little under the weather from too many gentleman's sodas the night before. Bogus. Saturday, was just as perfect. So together with my new friends Tommy, Olivia and Isabella, all from Exeter, England we set off for the falls. Being the wet season, we spent most of the day soaked from the 100 foot tower of mist rising from the waterfall. There was just such a massive amount of water, really unbelievable and indescribable. My pictures don't really do it justice, so I'll also include one from a helicopter I found on the internets to show the full scale. Looking for pictures I just learned that the falls are over a mile wide and the mist rises 1000 feet into the air and can be seen from 30 miles away. Big.

(Victoria Falls, Zambia/ Zimbabwe border)

We spent the day chilling around, dipping our feet into the river like 20 feet from the lip of the falls. During dry season you can actually swim right here in the Devil's pool, right on the edge of the falls. It's not possible at this time of year though, as you'd get carried like a twig to certain doom.

(The Devil's Pool- indent between the two bits of brush on the left)

Towards the end of the day the girls got tired and went to the Bar that Thunders for some sodas. Tommy and I took this opportunity to take the 580 step walk (they were labeled) down to the Boiling Pot. It was a really nice swimming spot right beneath the bridge where you really got a feelnig for the scale and volume of water. It was a good little hike with some nice rocks to chill on, nothing life changing. We set off for the walk back up the path and about halfway up, we rounded a bend and found ourselves face to face with a full grown male baboon. "Uhh, what do we do? Do we scare him off, wait for him to leave?" As we were pondering it, Tommy went for his camera. Instantly the baboon was on him, all up in his face. I guess he thought that it was food. After we finished defecating ourselves in terror, we decided it was probably better to just wait it out. So we waited: 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 25 minutes. He wasn't going anywhere. The stone steps are a good place to crack tasty nuts by the look of things. We started to think that this must not be the way to go, so started to skirt around him on the path. We took a couple steps into the bushes and found it impassable. Just then, two more baboons showed up right behind us, a female and a baby. We were surrounded. Over the next few minutes like 10 more baboons and an Asian showed up, just kind of hanging around. The Asian woman pulled a Tommy and went for her camera but she wasn't so slick as him. The baboon went for her purse and got a handful, she ended up playing tug-of-war with a baboon over her purse. We eventually had to just walk past the baboons, like passing street toughs in a bus station hallway, certainly close enough to touch if one (or they) were so inclined. I don't know if we were actually in any danger, maybe they're as harmless as park squirrels. But I'm telling you, it was scary. If it's any consolation, the Zambians who showed up were as scared and clueless as we were, so I feel slightly less emasculated.

(Murderous Apes)

We were talking to one of the soldiers afterward and telling him our harrowing tale. He was nonplussed. "You should have been here yesterday," he said. "There was a baby with some biscuits and the baboon, he snatched the baby and ran off into the bush." I imagine there was a slight miscommunication, or maybe that's no big deal? We said he should be down there with his gun. He laughed and pulled out a slingshot. "This is a national park, we can't shoot the animals. We use catapult instead."


We made a quick stopover at our backpackers guesthouse to change and eat a quick bite, where I had to switch hotels because I didn't book ahead of time and they gave my bed away. Then it was off to sail the mighty rio; Heart of Darkness with an open bar. Much beer was drunk, many chickens were eaten, a few hippos were laughed at. In all a great time was had by all. It's a good thing we made the most of it, because we probably aren't exactly welcome back on the SMS Matooke any time soon- there was a slight issue with a missing bottle of rum. From there things get a little hazy. From what I gathered ex post facto, I apparently convinced myself I was about to travel to Madagascar and was telling everyone all about it. I don't really know where I came up with that or how I got so gung ho, but it's not exactly the itinerary at this point. So, sorry if I made travel plans with anyone to go there. Probably it's not happening.

Which brings me to now. I did in fact make travel plans that night with Alf and Anders, two Norwegians with a Land Rover. I learned the next morning that we had mapped out a whole plans for Northern Mozambique. I met these guys Three Sheets, and yet they still wanted to spend the next few weeks travelling with me. Either I was quite charming and witty (doubtful), or it's going to be an interesting few weeks. We are on the road now, we stopped for the night in Lusaka, couching it at Tommy and the girls' place. By nightfall I should be either in Mozambique or Zimbabwe, we have quite ascertained which road we will take. From there it's maybe another day or two then I'll be back on the beach. Try as I might I can't escape the pull of laying on the beach eating $5 plates of fresh from the sea prawns. Not a bad way to live really.

Like always, things just keep coming up roses. Not two weeks ago I had marked off North Mozambique as impossible because I was told it's all but impassable in anything short of a Land Rover. Here I am today, in a Land Rover with mostly broken A/C and a slightly broken ipod dock- that is to say amazing luxury. Ready to make Mozambique cry. I would mark off Zimbabwe as not going to happen since it will be a lot of extra expense to go through there rather than go straight from Mozambique, but I think I've learned my lesson. Every time I mark something off as not going to happen, I do it anyway. So we'll see, maybe in a couple weeks or a month. Maybe I will make it to Namibia after all. Also, the diving with whale sharks I decided wasn't going to happen; I will be in the right place at the right time, so I think it's back on the menu. Life is good, the sun is back out. To top it off, these Norwegians are serious kite surfers. I told them I had windsurfed a little bit and they are stoked to teach me how to do it properly. I told them I was a snowboarder from Oregon and I think they assume it must be in my blood- the Columbia Gorge in Portland is like a Mecca for windsports. It looks like I might stay in Africa till May afterall.

(Sunset over the Zambezi)

N.B: The 7 Wonders of the Natural World, according to CNN (via Wikipedia of course):
  • Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA
  • Great Barrier Reef, Australia
  • Harbor of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Mount Everest, Nepal
  • Aurora Borealis and Auroa Australis
  • Parícutin volcano, Michocán, Mexico
  • Victoria Falls, Zambezi River, Africa

Monday, March 8, 2010

Livingstoned- UPDATED

(Mango Drift on Likoma Island, Malawi)

I am now in Livingstone, Zambia, on the border with Zimbabwe. Livingstone is a very cool city; mellow, clean, with a lot of food and things to do. It's roughly the size of Mbale, which makes it very comfortable for me. It was the nation's capitol pre-independence, so it has a lot of nice older buildings and a good layout. It would be a nice place to spend a few days even if it had no tourist attractions at all. But Livingstone does, have a little toursit attraction of its own to offer. In the local language it's called "the smoke that thunders," and though I haven't been to see it yet I have seen the mist hovering about 10 kilometers outside of town. It is also often refered to as The 7th Wonder of the World, Victoria Falls. I don't really know the specifics, and I know there's a lot of wiggleroom about "biggest" when you talk about lakes and waterfalls. Whatever the case, I think they say this is the biggest waterfall in the world.

I have been marooned here for a few days now, waiting for the rains to slow down and give me a good sunny day to see the falls. It's been nice and chill, but more or less boring and uneventful. The backpackers spot I'm staying at is full of other people who are also here for extended stays- maybe 20 of us, so there's a nice sense of community. Some, like me, are waiting out the weather, a few are waiting for Botswana visas, and then there is a good handful that are doing community development projects and staying here for weeks. The last few days it's been raining so hard and so unceasingly that there’s really been nothing to do but hang out and hit the sauce. In an effort to save some money, and to show some of these soft travelers a taste of real life, I together with a Brit named Tommy have been hitting sachets and Shake-shake .

(Mayoka Village in Nkhata Bay, Malawi)

I imagine I've mentioned the magic of sachets before, but they are essentially ketchup packets of liquor. 10 cents for a shot of 100 proof fire. They taste somewhere between gasoline and nail polish remover, and have amusing names like Double Punch, Tyson, Knockout (sense a pattern?) and Superman. Continuing the trend of inventing amusing new drink recipes, we now have the Matooke Sunrise- waragi and Fanta passion- and Septic Nightmare- cane spirit and some strange Schweppes green apple soda with a sour gummy worm lurking near the bottom like in tequila.

Chibuku Shake-shake is a new arrival to my life, something I never saw in East Africa. For starters, it comes in a litre carton and is incredibly cheap. It is like the local millet brew in Uganda, except commercially produced. That is to say it tastes sour/ vaguely rotten, is opaque, and chunky. It's called shake-shake because you shake it before you drink it because it separates when it sits. It is, in a word, horrendous. It smells like death and tastes like vom, so needless to say I psu hit on every new arrival to Africa that I meet. There are few better ways to finish a night out than to pass around the ol' shake-shake carton, grimacing and choking down the awful witches brew and pretending to enjoy it while laughing at people who gag (which happens disturbingly often). Bright, a PeaceCorps volunteer in Malawi told me she likes to mix it with milk and pina colada juice. She swears by it and says it tastes kind of like a rotten alcoholic milkshake. Delicious.

I've just been hanging around in this waiting purgatory, I am like 10 km from one of the most amazing sights in the world but haven't yet made it there to catch a glimpse because of the park entrance fee. I'm currently reading The Grapes of Wrath, which Africa has given me a totally different perspective on. In a lot of ways, Africa outside the big cities is just like America 75 years ago. I've met a lot of interesting people from all over Europe. The backpacker places are certainly not the best way to meet Africans, but you do meet a lot of cool White people. I spent my first week in Malawi with Brigid and Brady, a couple from New Zealand who taught me all about their fascinating island nation. For example, did you know that the flip-flop was invented in New Zealand. Since then I have been moving with Dave from England and Marid from Holland for several weeks now, both very cool people. I've met countless other Brits, quite a few South Africans and oddly enough, tons of Norwegians. Not a lot of Americans, and the ones I have met, I'm sorry to report, have kind of been obnoxious tools. Americans, to generalize, seem to think they are the coolest thing since eggs on toast, and are not hesitant to sing their own praises- repeatedly and at top volume. "Didn't you hear me?! I said I'm an IT specialist! I work on computers so I can do it from anywhere! Isn't that cool!?"

Things are good if a little mundane. Matooke Weatherman says tomorrow is supposed to be sunny, so hopefully it's for real. I'll think I'll check out the falls tomorrow one way or the other as long as it isn't a monsoon, because this is getting ridiculous. After this I go to Zimbabwe to see the falls from the other side (below rather than above) then go see what kind of trouble I can find over the next week or so in Zimbabwe.

P.S. My new phone number for the next bit while I'm in Zambia is +260 96 951 8289. I would like to assume it will work in Zimbabwe too, but we'll see. I think this is the easiest way to get my number to the few random people who may want it. If anyone else has a few spare pennies bouncing around and wants to hear interesting tales of lion wrestling that are too PG-13 for this blog, send me a text or give me a call or something. I really like hearing from people from home (or getting replies when I send them texts, you know who you are), and the 30 cents or whatever that it costs to send a text is very worth it to me.

Friday, March 5, 2010

My life as I see it

Another day, another town, another country. I've been zooming around from place to place for a while now and sometimes it feels like it's hard to straight just where I am. I guess it's the nature of backpacking and trying to cover a vast distance in a limited amount of time, but I spend a lot of time feeling pretty untethered. I've been in Africa for close to a year now, and travelling/ homeless for about 2 months since leaving Mbale for Southwest Uganda. In that time I have been through countless towns and villages, 5 capital cities (Kampala, Uganda; Nairobi, Kenya; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Lilongwe, Malawi; Lusaka, Zambia), and covered a distance of I don't know how many thousand kilometers.

I've travelled by bus- both what Paul Theroux refers to as "chicken buses" and more Western luxury ones, car, truck, ferry, motorboat, sailboat, rowboat, canoe, motorcycle, bicycle, and of course on foot. I've crammed into taxis, matatus, dalla-dallas, matolyas, and minibuses; different names depending on the country for the omnipresent 15 seater Chinese minibuses (In reality more like 20+) Generally, no matter where I've been things are pretty much the same. The languages and currencies change, but the villages all look pretty much the same- albeit through a bus window. There have of course been many differences, both big and small. It has been interesting and fun to compare the different places, which I guess is the whole point.

My favorite country so far has been Uganda, no surprise considering I spent so much longer there than anywhere else and that I had a reasonably established and normal life there. In Uganda I had my town, my friends and my spots to grab a beer or dinner. It was a real life. Beyond that though, I feel like Ugandans have overall been the most friendly and welcoming. In Uganda more so than anywhere else I felt as though people accepted me me as a normal person and not just an income source. Again, this is also probably because I spent most of my time in Uganda outside tourist areas and have been pretty much exclusively on the travelers' circuit everywhere else. Talking to other people along the way, I have heard the same thing though, so it must have some truth to it. My least favorite country has probably been Kenya. To stereotype, it was a bit rough and lawless and too openly corrupt. It was the only place I've had anything stolen, it was the only place we were openly solicited for bribes by law enforcement (Kenyan soldiers at the border took our passports). I did really enjoy Kenya though; I had a great time visiting Erin at her PeaceCorps site and the Kenya coast was great. Rwanda was the most unlike everywhere else. Rwanda, more so than anywhere else, exceeded my expectations. I came expecting genocide and wreckage and found the most beautiful and functioning city and stunning countryside I've seen in Africa.

Tanzania- Zanzibar and the Serengeti had the biggest reputation to live up to, both blew me away and were better than I expected. Really, there have been very few times where I left a place unimpressed. Queen Elizabeth National park in Uganda comes to mind, though you get what you pay for with a free safari (thanks Drake University). The snorkeling in Zanzibar wasn't that great either, but talking with other people I think we just got a bad day. Tanzanians have been the least friendly and the most exploitative, though this is not to say they were necessarily unfriendly. In Tanzania I sometimes felt like whites are merely tolerated because of their wallets, but that we're still seen as the oppressors. Malawi had the most irritating and insistent touts and street vendors, Uganda or Zambia the least.

Then of course there's the food. In my experience so far, African food in general is not great. I haven't ever eaten West African food, and I've heard it's better, though kind of more of the same. The exception that proves the rule is Ethiopian food which is amazing (delicious, different and fun, I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn't ever tried it). I don't think there will be an African restaurants craze in the West any time soon, the food is generally pretty utilitarian. Everywhere all the time there is the cornmeal staple, whether called posho, ugali, nsima, shima, or whatever it will be called in the next place. I've heard it described as many things, but for me the closest comparison in texture and flavor is cold Cream of Wheat- except steaming hot. You eat it with your hands, rolling it only little balls in your palm then dipping it in sauce- beans or broth or whatever it may be. Uganda truly is the land of matooke, it is the only place where it has been the major staple (I have heard this is the case in a lot of West Africa). I can't say I don't miss matooke quite a lot, though if I were in Uganda I'd still probably pick rice over matooke.
The best food has been without a doubt Swahili food in Zanzibar and along the Indian Coast. It was about the same as everywhere else, but with the addition of copious spices of every shade and flavor. Really genuinely delicious.

No food I've had has been "bad," just often bland and boring. Living in Uganda I never thought I would have said this, but Ugandan food is not the worst I've had. That prize has to go to Zambia. Malawi isn't far behind except that there's cheap fish everywhere since nowhere in the country is more than like 100 miles from the coast. The food is about the same as Ugandan food minus the hint of Swahili influence you get in Uganda and minus matooke. Plus there's often not a lot of meat at localfood spots. Just lots and lots of posho and beans, Yumm! My favorite African dish is pilau, which is spiced rice with meat. I learned to cook it in Kenya and Uganda, and I brought some pilau masala seasoning home, so I will be able to shock and awe my friends and loved ones with basically the one good African cuisine I have found.

East Africa in general had much much worse transportation infrastructure. All the roads within and between cities in Malawi and Zambia have been immaculate. It has been possible, dare I say easy, to read while in transit- something unheard of in Uganda or Kenya. The streets of downtown Kampala are significantly more potholed and decrepit than anything I've encountered since I left Tanzania. Southern Africa seems easier, with a greater separation between rich and poor. I get the impression that it is easier here to live an insulated life of relative ease without seeing poverty or suffering. There are luxury buses everywhere that are quiet, smooth and livestock free. There is often wi-fi, though never free. The cities are nice little enclaves of order, shady promenades and manicured lawns, the poor people live in ghettos outside of town. In east Africa things seemed more jumbled with rich neighborhoods and poor ones interspersed around the city. Of course I don't really know any of this, it's all just conjecture based on the snippets I see here and there. I'm probably playing a dangerous game by pretending like I know what I'm talking about, so don't go basing any term papers on my expert analysis.

And of course there are hundreds of cool, quirky and interesting backpackers hostels in Southern Africa, which cater specifically and exactly to the needs and desires of people just like me. There is literally one in every single town of consequence along the sightseeing circuit, whereas in Uganda there are like 10 or 20 comparable places, total. It's great because there are hot showers, food at all hours of the day (rather than 8-10am, and 1-2pm like real Africa) and other travelers to talk to. It's not so great because it's a bizarre artificial mzungu bubble and it is entirely cut off from the real culture. That plus they're often about twice as expensive as local places, (as in like $10 a night vs $5) though they are usually about twice as comfortable.

So that's it. Africa in a nutshell. I have had a great time, both while living a pretty normal life in a normal house in Uganda and being part of a great community and while vagranting around from country to country. I haven't bought my ticket home yet. It's no more expensive (sometimes cheaper even) to book a flight for the next morning then months in advance because TIA and flights are never full. I have up to about 3 months left if I stay as long as possible, but I may go home before then. Pretty much day to day I change my mind from wanting to leave in about a month to wanting to stay as long as possible to wanting to get the eff out of here tomorrow. I'm just kind of figuring it out as I go along, so we'll see. If I wait through another couple months of rainy season, I'll be able to catch some last minute beach time in Mozambique before I go home, which is hard to pass up.

It's a funny thing. I decided to stay here through the winter, in large part to miss the overcast rainy season in Oregon. Instead I caught the rainy season in the tropics which is probably 10x wetter and without the infrastructure to handle the water. It is nice to see the full cycle of seasons to get a handle on what live is really like here. Every sunny day while I hope the rains are over for good and lay out on a rock absorbing the UV like a lizard, the farmers on the next block are rain-dancing with all their might to ensure their crops won't die in the ground. I guess I should have known better, but then again I guess that's just the way life is. You can't live your life running from the unpleasant parts, because it'll catch you one way or the other. There wouldn't be good without bad, and my afternoon inside is another person being able to feed their children.

That said, I still don't want to get a real job and I will continue to run from that particular unpleasant reality.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Matooke Time

Just a quick thought that I've been laughing about for while now. When I was in Zanzibar arranging a snorkeling trip I got to talking to the guy as always happens. We told him we were from Uganda and he thought that was great because his brother in law or something is from there. We then of course started trying to bargain him down in the price (unsuccessfully) at one point sending matooke internationally was brought up because the Tanzanian matooke is just quite as tasty. So anyway, we had it all set up and asked him what time to show up in the morning. He said 8:00 or something and we asked him if we had to show up on time. He responded with:

8:00 means 8:00, not 8:05 or 8:30. 8:00 White time, I know you two are from Uganda but not Matooke Time. If you are late we will leave without you.

I think he was probably serious, because over the course of the trip there were probably no less than 3 times where we showed up too late and missed out on something.

Then he proceeded to refer to Caitlin as "Madame Matooke" for the rest of the week.