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.

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