Monday, July 13, 2009
While I have no figures, from speaking to various locals, the average monthly salary in the cities is around 2000 meticais ($80). My bus from Beira to Maxixe, in which I was the only foreigner and paid the same as everyone else, cost 650 meticais. That is a third of the monthly salary. I had an enlightening discussion with Diana, a Mozambican couchsurfer, today, asking her how that is possible. She just shrugged and said, we are a creative bunch. We make do with what we have. Food. Outrageously priced. Apparently, while chickens are raised in Mozambique (I can attest to this, having sat with several a chicken in my many tedious bus rides), the market is flooded with chicken from Brazil. The Brazilian government pays Mozambique to insure that their product has a monopoly. A chicken meal would cost me a couple dollars in Tanzania. Here, I’m lucky to get it for $8. I don’t even want to spend $8 on a meal in the US. But what about the basics: milk, eggs, flour? Diana says she’s lucky to get milk twice a month as it can cost as much as 500 meticais (1/4 the average monthly salary). By the way, that salary is supposed to feed, clothe, and shelter an entire family. Mal-nutrition runs rampant here. Her friends in the poorest townships in South Africa live like kings, she mused, because at least they get a daily ration of dairy and a weekly taste of meat. This being said, her mom made sure I was fed when I visited their house (and it wasn’t even meal time).
A country emerging from a civil war has its challenges and the lack of natural resources and infrastructure complicate the situation. I leave Mozambique tomorrow with the sense that I’ve only scratched the surface. I don’t know what I make of these situations, these places where the vast majority seem to have nothing. It is easy to feel sorry for them; and it’s true, no one should be dying of starvation when others are drowning in excess, no one should be succumbing to easily curable illnesses when others are overdosing and overmedicating. However, what constantly astounds me is not what people are lacking, but what they are giving. When I was unable to take out money in Nkhata Bay, Malawi because the ATMs had something against Mastercard, without missing a beat, the owner of my guesthouse gave me my room for half price and prepared a meal for me free of charge. His gesture was not an isolated incident. I’ve had people all over Africa, with a fraction of what I have, sharing whatever they can with me...just because. A subtle but prevalent theme in my travels is that the less you have, the more you are willing to give. Blessed are the poor.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
The value of taking this type of transportation is that you get to experience the lives of the local population, and you get to mingle, learning much about the places you are visiting. On my chapa from Vilanculos to Maxixe (Inhabane-Tofo), I procured a prime spot in the front along with an elderly professor who was not amused when I begged him to keep my bag between his legs. I was sitting next to the gear shift, and since he insisted on taking the outside position, there was really no other solution. However, he proved friendly enough and struck up a conversation. I picked his brain for the next four hours (occasionally reading my book and sprinkling in naps when we briefly ran out of things to talk about), touching on everything from the civil war that only ended about 15 yrs ago, the current education system in Mozambique, governmental policies, imports/exports, and a variety of other topics. He looked like the quintessential grandfather and I became quite fond of him. He made sure I knew when to get off the chapa and took my email address so that the day he finally gets an email account, he can write me. It is an experience like this that sedates me when I have a nervous breakdown before getting on the long distance Mozambican chapas.
I used to not be so feeble but Mozambique transportation has managed to weaken my resolve. It’s not the lack of space, I’ve conquered that. It’s the inefficiency that makes an 11 hr ride into a 15 hr ride. It’s the fear of the driver refusing to make pit-stops that leaves my body dehydrated as I refuse to drink water. It’s the leaving at 3 am only to arrive at the destination after dark, defeating the purpose of leaving so early in the first place. After the third 12+ hour ride of not drinking or eating all day so that my body would reach a point of stasis and practically turn off, I realized I couldn’t sustain this lifestyle. It took me three days to recover in Beira, and another three days to recover in Tofo. The fact that I will soon be reaching South Africa gives me the strength I need to make one more trip, Tofo to Maputo, which is supposedly much less painful. If I can survive this, I will be home free. Mozambique, I concede. I’ve met my match. Through a war of attrition, you have brought me to my knees. However, I will happy continue my bus-riding regimen as soon as I escape this country’s borders.
I found out he had died in Mbeya, Tanzania, amidst French people who thought that CNNs around the clock coverage was comical. But just because the French in Mbeya weren’t impressed, that didn’t mean that the rest of Tanzania wasn’t reeling from the shock. Monica quickly sent me condolences from Dar, as if he was a family member of mine, and my other Tanzanian friends that I met up with later looked genuinely distraught. The music channel ticker was populated with messages of grief from its viewers, many of them expressing thanks for the hope that MJ embodied for Africa. Even if MJ wanted the world to see him as white, Africa (an acknowledged generalization of course) seemed to think he was the symbol of a black man rising against the odds and taking his position as King, a source of inspiration to all on this undervalued continent.
Malawi was no different. When people found out I was American, they would apologize for MJ’s passing and talk about what a great man he was. The clubs played MJ tributes and two of my friends that I met in Lilongwe, would blare MJ’s music as we drove around the city. The energy that vibrated through the seats and jarred the windows was electric. I had forgotten how much of a genius he was. No one had the magic touch like he did. As we sang “Smooth Criminal” and other hits at the top of our lungs, while wondering in the back of our minds what the hell “Shimore”, or whatever he says, meant, I realized that he could never be replaced.
I was in Beira, Mozambique for the memorial service. The Staples Center, really? It was a huge production. Not really what I think of when I think funeral. However, I had always loved the New Orleans style funerals with the brass band playing in the streets and everyone following behind singing and dancing. What better way to celebrate life than through music? Death was not given credence. It was stamped out by the power of harmonic vibration. I could see no other way MJ would’ve rather been remembered. Huddled around my Dutch couchsurfer’s neighbor’s tiny TV, squinting our eyes to neutralize the static, we all somberly watched the event as a mist of sadness wafted through the room. We had an impromptu remembering session, each recalling MJ moments in our lives. I realized that MJ was one of those people that no matter how far off the beaten path you reach, you would never find someone who didn’t know who he was. True, I’ve never been to remote villages concealed by the jungles of the Amazon. Perhaps I could find a couple people to disprove my theory, but I do believe that MJ reached a level of fame that no one will ever challenge. And while I’m not willing to overlook his shortcomings, I am willing to admit that no one has touched the lives of as many people as MJ has, and what a wonderful way he accomplished this: through music.
I decided to get my PADI license in Ko Tao, Thailand. Perhaps learning to dive in Thailand is clichéd but rightly so. Beautiful waters, cheap courses as diving is an excessively expensive hobby, relaxing atmosphere. I was let in on a secret, yet another from the Wiseman Smiley (if you have been following my blog you will remember him from Siem Reap, Cambodia), about Scuba View Resort and Dive, nestled on the opposite side of the island, far away from the mammoth diving schools near the ferry dock. It seems that this place relies on word of mouth as the only way to get to this part of the island was to be shuttled there by the staff. Making a reservation in advance was your passport to an alternate dimension where Scuba class teacher-student ratio is 1:1, where your confined water dives are actually done in a cove that opens up in the ocean allowing you to instantly see a myriad of aquatic life, and where you are given a whole bungalow overlooking one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever laid eyes upon, all included in your class price. The sun also rises here and flaunts itself in front of my window, showing off its gorgeous orange and red hues and giving Carmen Miranda a run for her money. Just writing about my experience there, two months after the fact, catapults me back to that week of grasping a new world of underwater bliss.
Since Ko Tao, I’ve not taken many opportunities to dive. The impression of the diving in Zanzibar was less than stellar as visibility was low at the moment I was there so I decided to pass. In addition, I don’t have the luxury to dive everywhere I go as my scuba budget lacks a healthy diet. However, when I arrived to Nkhata Bay, Lake Malawi last week, I knew that a dive was in store. It is one of the few opportunities to do a freshwater dive and one of a handful of places that still allow night dives. My magic touch when it comes to animals apparently holds true in the water as I got to see the most amusing spectacle. An otter kept swimming around me, jetting back to the rocky outcrop and then returning, obviously curious to why I was there. In all the time the dive instructors have spent at this sight, they have never seen an otter underwater, and only once saw an otter at the surface. They applauded my special animal powers. That night, after studying for my night dive, I embarked on one of the most eerie adventures ever. While people tell you that diving at night is nothing like diving at day, you figure they are just exaggerating. However, a night dive is almost surreal. Your bearings really are turned on their head, the dolphin fish follow you because your torch is the catalyst for their dinner, and the immensity of the ocean becomes almost a non-entity as the darkness envelops you snuggly. Albeit a little cruel, it was fun to shine my light on unsuspecting fish and watch the dolphin fish feast on them. The giant crabs were almost comical as they sat perched on their rocks, leering at you. Oh, aquatic life.
My final dive spot for this trip was in Tofo, Mozambique, famous for its manta rays. While my animal powers faltered for the first time ever, leaving me without a manta ray in sight, I did leave as a qualified deep water diver, now able to descend to 30m. Even better, on the way to the dive site, I had one of the most fascinating encounters ever, a swim with a 10m whaleshark. After grabbing my fins, mask and snorkel, I slipped into the water as stealthily as possible in order to not scare her and approached cautiously until I realized she was thoroughly enjoying the attention and the company. She slowed down and remained near the surface so we could accompany her. Her curiosity led her to the boat where she positioned herself vertical under it, trying to size us up. She was longer than the boat so didn’t seem too bothered. Bored, she continued her swim with us on either side of her. I was hovering around her eye, which was on the side of her head, but got ahead of her at one point, peering into her enormously long mouth. Even though she wasn’t much of a threat to us, her immensity was quite disconcerting. I, therefore, quickly resumed my position at her side, relishing in this singular opportunity. Who knows the next time I will get to dive. I need to get a real job before any illusions of a diving lifestyle can manifest themselves.
Monday, July 6, 2009
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, my identity while traveling in Africa is in constant flux, heavily influencing my linguistic practices and constantly jarring my sense of self. In Kenya, I was a Muzungo, unclear if that appellation simply meant foreigner or if it meant white person. Someone explained to me that in Swahili, “zungo” means to wander while the m- prefix is to denote a person. Thus, a Muzungo is a person that wanders, referring to the first European explorers in East Africa. The application of the word changes from person to person but you get the sense that if you are called a Muzungo, one is trying to highlight the fact that you don’t belong. Persistently being called a Muzungo was new territory for me. In Senegal, Toubab is the word used for foreigners. It means “doctor” in Wolof but as with Muzungo, its original definition has been amplified. I was never called Toubab and as such, saw it more as a racial distinction. Most Senegalese thought I was Peul, from a tribe in northern Senegal who has lighter skin than the majority of Senegalese. Only after speaking, did I betray my origins, but I still felt a sense of belonging that my white classmates in the study abroad program did not enjoy.
However, my changing identity was best displayed when traveling between Kenya and Tanzania, with these countries’ conceptualizations of language playing a role in molding my linguistic practices. In Kenya, I assumed that because I was labeled as a foreigner, I was spoken to in English. However, the picture is much more complicated than that when comparing Kenya to Tanzania. While these two countries are similar linguistically with English and Swahili as official languages and several local languages being recognized as well, their approaches to the official languages vary greatly. In Kenya, English is the language of instruction with Swahili being taught as a language course. Most students speak their local language at home, learn to read and write in Swahili through one or two classes a day, and receive all other materials in English. In turn, many Kenyans are quite proficient in English and Kenya is slowly being seen as a next great outsourcing destination. Tanzania, in contrast, places much more value on Swahili and considers their version more correct than the Kenyan’s use of Swahili (being very generous in their opinions of Kenyan Swahili). The language of instruction, at least in public schools, is Swahili with English being taught as a language course. Most of the young people I met did not speak a local language even though there are over 100 different languages spoken in Tanzania. This lack of local language is partly due to how Tanzania was formed at Independence. Its first leader, Julius Nyerere, heavily emphasized the need for a unified Tanzania (especially after its annexation of Zanzibar) and implored its citizens to see themselves as Tanzanian above any tribal affiliation. This desire for a national identity lead to placing importance on learning Swahili and being able to use it in all domains. While this policy might be detrimental to the other languages as well as to a strong command of English, it has meant that Tanzania has not experienced the tribal conflict that reared its ugly head in Kenya’s 2007 presidential elections.
As for what all this means for me, in Kenya, people spoke to me in English both because of their greater command of English and because my physical appearance did not place me in any of the ethnic groups found within Kenya’s borders. Kenyans use facial features, skin color, style of dress, and accent to tell to which group someone belongs. I did not fit into any of these templates and was thus registered as a foreigner. In Tanzania, where ethnic boundaries are much more fluid and stake less of a claim on the national psyche, I could easily look like a Tanzanian. My skin color fit within the national range, my facial features called attention to myself but with the Arab influence abound in Tanzania I did not look too out of place. When I chose to wear kangas (cloth wrapped around as a skirt) I could move among the population undetected. This ability to blend in, in turn, influenced my linguistic experience.
In Kenya, as a foreigner, it was hard to learn Swahili. I never got the chance to practice because I was almost automatically addressed in English. In Tanzania, because everyone assumed I was Tanzanian and couldn’t get over the fact that I was actually American, they were much more adamant on making me speak in Swahili. This pressure forced me to pick up Swahili more quickly, giving me the necessary practice to improve. My experiences in these two countries have compelled me to reevaluate the angle I want to take when conducting my dissertation research on Senegalese immigrants in France and Italy, and I look forward to applying what I’ve learned during my experience here to my future research.
Monday, June 29, 2009
Lay down your hearts: While a command like this is almost poetic, the reason behind its existence is much more sinister. This is the translation of the Swahili town Bagamoyo, the point of no return for the slave trade. Slaves, brought from the interior, were told to lay down their hearts, in effect, to give up because there would be no sparing them from their new life, or lack thereof. When I visited the Atlantic counterpoint to Bagaboyo, the Ile de Goree off the coast of Senegal, I was overwhelmed by the history. I started incontrollably crying when I looked out the point of no return, a tiny opening in the stone fort where millions of African slaves were shoved through on their way to the Americas. Overpowering was the memory of my ancestors, some of whom undoubtedly had passed this very hell, to their new lives as less than human. I had spent part of my teenage years attempting to recreate my family tree, to learn where I came from, but was always tripped up by missing records, reminded that slaves were property and thus recorded as such. Consequently, I could only trace my lineage back to my great great grandmother, born a slave in Virginia. Only an expensive DNA test can shed light on where in Africa my family is from. However, it didn't matter, that day in 2003. I was African. I knew it by the pangs of dispair and the verge of hyperventilation I suffered when my head crossed the threshhold and I imagined the squalor of months chained on a slave ship. The slave market in Bagamoyo was reminiscent of Ile de Goree. Perhaps not as suffocating because I had experienced it before, perhaps because most of the slaves who passed through Bagamoyo were headed to the Middle East while undoubtedly my ancestors passed thru Goree. Wherever I come from, moments like these force me to carry the burden of all my ancestors who were once deemed less than human until I can transport myself back to the present and wake up from the nightmare of my past's past.
It was good for me to experience this town though because most of my travels in Africa have been void of historical sites, thus far. Bagamoyo was also special for another reason, the continuing sense of family and belonging that has enveloped me during my time in Tanzania. I went there with Florence, Monica's cousin. This is the girl whose nursing graduation I had gone to the other weekend. There, her father and 3 siblings live in an extremely modest house. They picked us up from the bus station, took us home for some refreshments, and then took us to various historical sites like an Arab town dating from the 12th century, the oldest church in E Africa, and the site where the body of Dr Livingston, renowned slave trade abolitionist, laid until it could be shipped back to the UK. Did you know that slavery wasn't outlawed in Tanganika until 1922! Florence's father thanked me for giving his children such a memorable day out. He only sees Florence occasionally and very seldom do they do something as a whole family. I was immediately adopted by them and left Bagamoyo almost in tears at how generous and kind they were to me. I keep marveling at the people I meet and giving thanks for the opportunity to be surrounded by those that have made my travels what they are.
The other sobering moment was at Aline’s party when I learned more about Pricilla and her family. When I had found out she was from Rwanda, the thought crossed my mind that she might’ve been victim to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where Hutus killed hundreds of thousands Tutsis and moderate Hutus (to learn more, Hotel Rwanda is a good start), but I didn’t really want to ask. Her story came up in the strangest of environments, as talking about mass killings over wine and croque monsieurs is not the normal topic for these types of events. She didn’t go into detail but her whole family save one of her brothers and herself, escaped the genocide. Could you imagine losing your whole family? She most have been only 8 or so when all of this happened. A few years ago, she got a job with the Aline’s firm, which also works in Rwanda. When her boss moved to Tanzania, she asked to be transferred with him because there was nothing left for her in Rwanda, and it was difficult to stay in the country that had allowed her whole family to perish. Looking at this beautiful girl with the most stunning smile and divine yet imposing head of hair I’ve ever seen, you would’ve never imagined she went through the type of horrors we’re only privy to through Hollywood movies, documentaries, novels, and the news. Her smile was captivating but her eyes could not completely conceal the pain that scarred her. I’ve not met deeper eyes in all my traveling. Her childhood disrupted, her education fragmented, opportunities are limited. Working as a maid is probably her only option, for now, forever.
It was also amusing to be in the neighboring town, Mangula, as many of them had probably never seen a Muzungo before. Our second day there we spent an hour trying to book a bus ticket with no common language. We had to get pass the Swahili time roadbump as well. However, the people here were so patient with us and we all had big laughs over our misunderstandings. I had a rush of elation when trying to communicate because it was such a beautiful dance of words and gestures.
I spent the last evening sitting in the dark. The hotel lady brought me a candle as the power had gone, a weekly event. I kept hoping that the work the men were doing on the generator would be in vain because it was quite soothing to be caressed by candlelight.
Mangula was so different from my stay in Zanzibar. Zanzibar's stone town, with it's old buildings and winding roads was quite charming. Meanwhile, the north of the island held its own charm. Everyday, I would sit at the lip of the ocean, marveling at the clouds streaking the sky, mere wisps in stark contrast to the billowy masses that had jostled for position before the rain. A Maasai with his requisite staff, would pace the water's edge, a dab of red on a pale blue backdrop. A mix of reggae and African music would periodically skip, yet no one ever seemed to mind because the upbeat kept people's spirits lifted. I was modestly covered as most of the locals were Muslim but my legs would peak out from under my sarong, toes tapping in rhythm. Fishing boats, sustained by the calm seas, would bob ever so slightly in the distance. Meanwhile, the fishermen were insignificant specks in relation to the stoic wooden structures. No one would talk around me, everyone in their own world, basking in the human silence, something underrated and thus not so common. This was Kendwe Zanzibar. Perhaps this is one version of paradise.
Tanzania. I arrived to Dar es Salaam after a 10 hr bus ride as dusk was approaching. My host, Monica, who also has a fulltime job, was in the middle of MBA exams. I knew she had one the night I was arriving but through a misunderstanding, I thought she would be done when I got there. As instructed, I called her upon arriving, but no answer. Dar has probably one of the doggiest bus stations in the world. You show up with your bag, you better accept your lot as shark meat. When night takes the reins from dusk, the fear factor intensifies ten-fold. After fending off touts for about an hour, I sought refuge in the change bureau where a very sympathetic money changer let me sit with my bags while I sorted myself out. Giving him the only money I had on me, a forgotten 5 euro note that had been stuffed in some hidden crevasse for just these types of situations (I usually carry emergency dollars but was bled dry at the border as Bush’s foreign policy made US citizens the only people who have to pay $100 for their visa), I prayed that the resulting shillings would be enough for me to get a taxi into town or at least to get a room at the bus station hotel. 5 euros don’t really go very far these days, and there were no ATMS in sight. The very concerned money changer let me use his cell phone to call a few hotels and offered to get me a trusted taxi driver to take me to an ATM and then into town, but I finally received a call from Monica. She had been unable to answer my 7 frantic calls as she was taking an exam. We both got the times mixed up.
As a side note, telling time in Tanzania is tricky business as most people use Swahili time, which is shifted by 6 hrs. The day starts at 7am which is 1 am for them. Noon is 6 am. Midnight, 6 pm. Quite practical if you ask me, but a headache when you are trying to catch a bus or keep an appointment. You never knew if someone had successfully converted the time for your benefit so you had to make yourself clear.
We both apologized for the mix up, me for calling her so many times as she was obviously doing something important, her for making me wait around for 3 hrs. From there she explained the situation: her grandmother had just arrived unexpectedly and would be staying with the family. This meant that the bed I was going to stay in would be occupied. She asked if I wanted to stay in a hotel. Assuring her that I wanted to do whatever was easiest for the family but that I did not mind squeezing into a bed, sleeping on the floor, or finding a corner on the couch, she perked up and brought me home to her family.
From the moment I stepped through the threshold, I knew I had found a wonderful counterpart to my American family. I had just acquired three brothers. The oldest, Jonathan, who shares my own brother’s name, was always helping me with different tasks like getting me my bus ticket. The next in line was Isaac, back home from boarding school, who I was encouraged to send out when I needed more phone credit, and Stephen, about 12 years old, and the most polite person I’ve ever met. He would shake my hand each time I got home and asked how I was with a big smile. He kept an endless supply of fresh juice coming my way. When Monica would go to sleep early as she was working and studying full time, I would watch the Confederations Cup or Jean Claude Van Damme movies with my bros. Even the mother welcomed me into the home, not once questioning why I was living in her home (for 7 days when I had only planned on staying for 2!). We spent an hour talking about various topics from education (she’s a primary school teacher) to linguistic differences between Kenya and Tanzania. I felt an incredible sense of belonging. This woman, a collateral bonus to couchsurfing here, had taken me in and made me feel comfortable. Then there’s the grandma who spoke English but insisted on speaking to me in Swahili as I expressed interest in learning. She tried to keep me on my toes though, mixing her mother tongue in there as well. And Monica. Where do I begin? I took to her like a sister from the beginning. She was all smiles and laughs, brightening every moment. She took me out dancing, out for dinners, got her friends together for drinks at Malaika, a beautiful bar/restaurant on the beach, found escorts for me when she couldn’t take me around the city, and went out of her way to make my stay as relaxing and stimulating as possible. We had in depth conversations about a range of topics, most notably about relationships and family planning in Tanzania. My new family was not just the immediate family. The hospitality continued to the extended family. Monica’s cousin took me to her college graduation and introduced me to all her friends as well as set up a day trip to nearby Bagamoyo where I spent the day visiting historical sites with her family. [more on that trip in the next post]. These little things remind me that when surrounded by the right people, home is inevitable.
From Dar, I left with an American couchsurfer that was in Dar the same time I was and her British friend that was visiting. She had contacted a couchsurfer in Morogoro, a small town about 3 hrs away with a well-known agricultural university. Our host, Rogers, a student at the university, was the epitome of the couchsurfing ideal. The day we arrived was the eve of his last university exam ever. And yet, he hosted 3 people that night, giving up his room and valuable study time. Each time I have a couchsurfing exchange I become more and more impressed with human nature. I don’t think I would’ve agreed to host one person the night before an exam, let alone 3! He gave us a tour around the pristine campus, introduced us to friends and made us feel right at home. Too bad our time was limited because it would've been nice to hike in the surrounding mountains and to spend more time on campus. It's so rare to get to see a college campus in another country.
The third CS experience in Tanzania was in Mbeya, quite a different experience because I was staying with a French girl instead of a Tanzanian. However, the cultural value was the same. I arrived to Mbeya after a 14 hr bus ride and was picked up at the station by Aline, my host, and her roommate Bertrand. They ushered me to a dinner with her team (she is working on a water maintenance project with a French firm), where I got to stuff my face with beef fondue and cider while remembering how to speak French. From there, I went to their amazing apartment where I was given my own room, a key, and told to make myself at home as they both would be working the next day. I had planned to go hiking but had a better treat in store: I met another amazing Tanzanian family. Aline had met Fatima at the pool the other day and the latter invited her over for lunch, in which by extension I was invited. They prepared a meal for us and then we sat around and watched music videos until Aline had to go back to work. I stayed with the family to continue watching videos and then went for a walk in the surrounding hills and along the stream. Later, over drinks Aline met up with us, bringing a Rwandan girl from her job along and the 5 of us went back to the family’s house. The mother was so excited to see us again and had gone out and bought us Tanzanian cloth as a present. She kept saying how happy she was to have us in her home and insisted that we ate dinner as well. I spent about 8 hrs with that family today and now have yet another place to stay the next time I’m in the country.
I ended up staying with Aline one more day than planned as I couldn’t miss the party we were scheming. The next day I woke up early to go on a beautiful hike up the mountain to the white cross that studded the landscape. It was like a pilgrimage as stone markers highlighted the path to the promised land. I passed an old woman along the way, trudging along, had a conversation in Swahili and continued along until I met the next person, a woman cutting firewood who wanted to know what I was doing in Mbeya (not many tourists pass through). I was amazed at how much I was getting out of these conversations as my Swahili was not as advanced as I would’ve liked. As I reached the top of the mountain that overlooked the town, I was confused. What do you do when you reach a giant white cross at the top of a mountain. I crossed myself as if I were catholic, as it seemed like the right thing to do, touched the cross, gave thanks for the marvelous time I was having overlanding in Africa, sat down in front, took in the glorious view, took out my harmonica, and played “Oh Danny Boy” on the harmonica. That is the only song I’ve taught myself so far. I then made up some diddies, before commencing my descent.
I returned to my home, which is amusing in its own right. Aline and Bertrand were renting it from the police chief. This explained the men in the orange jumpers that were working in the garden that morning when I woke up. I thought to myself, hmm, these look like the jumpers that American prisoners wear. Must be another random article of clothing that finds it way to Africa (you should see some of the things people wear that have undoubtedly come from clothing drives). But everyone was wearing matching jumpers. I later found out that the police chief got free labor from the prison, and those were indeed prisoners. I have no idea what they were in for but they seemed nice enough. Each morning we would all go through the standard greetings as greetings are probably the most important thing you can master in African countries.
Aline was off for the afternoon so we went shopping for goodies for the party. That night we had a multicultural shindig that consisted of the three Australian girls I met in Zanzibar who had just arrived and would be accompanying me to Malawi; Fatima and Rukia, the Tanzanian girls who I had spent the day prior with; Pricilla, the Rwandan girl with the greatest smile and hair ever; a slew of Frenchies; a South African, whose marked snobbery was a bone of contention for the other Africans there; a Senegalese guy, one of Aline’s coworkers, whose brain I got to pick as my doctoral research project forever looms in my mind; a Tanzanian guy of Indian descent; a German girl, a neighbor of Aline; and a French-Cameroonian girl with her French boyfriend. Brilliant. After an evening of wine, beer, whisky, croque monsieurs, pizza, chocolate mousse, and crepes (this was a French party, mind you, and food is of the utmost important), we went to the only club in town for a night of dancing. Aline was intent on having a nuit blanche, that’s French for staying up all night, as she didn’t want to have to wake up at 5:30 to take me to the bus station. To keep ourselves a wake during the gap between the club closing at 4am and the departure to the bus station, we listened to loud music, ate nutella crepes, played the harmonica, jumped on Bertrand’s bed to make sure he would get no sleep either, and talked about a variety of topics. I was sad to say goodbye to Aline, because saying adieu to this wonderful person also meant saying adieu to Tanzania as well, and all the amazing experiences I had there.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Mombasa was quite a change of pace from my life in Nairobi. I was alone in a hotel room so I got more time to reflect and to write. I didn’t have to watch awful, dubbed Mexican soap operas or deal with rowdy children getting mad at me or throwing “Obama” at me. I no longer had to take 10 cups of tea per day to appease Thomas. However, I do miss my host family. The Mombasa way of life on a whole is also quite different. Obviously it would be more laid back as a coastal town. The cultural make-up contrasted to that of Nairobi as well. Nairobi has representation of every Kenyan ethnic group. On top of that, there is a sizeable Muzungo (white) population, vestiges of colonialism. There are also some Indians. Mombasa, perhaps by virtue of its coastal trading, has many more Indians and Arabs than whites and they are better integrated, almost all speaking Kiswahili (it is a Swahili town). Islam has a heavy presence with mosques dotting the skyline. I’ve been serenaded by the call to prayer in the mornings and evenings, something I haven’t really experienced since I lived in Senegal. It is one of my favorite things to listen to and really lends to meditation. Many women, both Arab and black, wear a full chador or burka. Many of the men meanwhile wear the skullcap. While Senegal was a Muslim country, people didn’t really dress the part and Islam was more a religion than a way of life. It was new for me to see women with dark skin and features dressed as if they were in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, my identity continues to fluctuate. In Nairobi, I was simply a Muzungo. In Mombasa, I was called South African, Ethiopian, and Jamaican as everyone on the beach tried to guess my origins. Someone at a restaurant started talking to me in what I assume was Amharic. He apologized when I looked at him blankly and he said he thought I spoke an Ethiopian language. I’ve also been told several times I look like the Kenyan musician Nazizi (google image her. I actually do sort of look like her). Normally though, people just called me Rasta. Rastas have a precarious position in society. Before they were only associated with bad, violent people who were known for killing. However, that group no longer runs amuck and people are starting to realize that you can have rastas and not be a cold-blooded killer. Lucky for me. However, hardly no women have dreadlocks and the men who do are looked down upon. But I’m assured that since I don’t look Kenyan, mine are OK.
Thomas insisted that I was his daughter and refused to let me pay for anything during my time there, even when Nakuru national park charged me a whopping $65 as a foreigner while residents are only charged $12. There was no arguing with him, leaving me both touched by what it meant as a member of the family but also upset that he would spend such a large sum of money on me. But this is African hospitality at its finest, and the generosity I received in Nairobi would be extended to Mombasa, and all over Tanzania as well.
The rest of the time I amused myself with my surroundings. Daily pool visits were a must, and always eventful. During my first trip, the baboons were casing the pool when I got there, happy to see me with my bag of goodies that consisted of my towel, my phone, my camera, and some soap for my outside shower. No food. They shouldn’t have been interested. That’s when I realized that they are kleptos, the whole lot of them, and they were just excited to have something to steal. So as soon as I got in the water to start my laps, the biggest one started inching over to my bag. Seeing him scheming, I swam back to chase him off. But these guys are relentless. The next time I came up for air, I saw that there were now five baboons and a baby. Each with one eye on me, one on my stuff. So I chased them away and moved my stuff to a spot where they couldn’t reach. I then spent the next 10 minutes mimicking the one baboon that wasn’t skidish. He would scratch his head. I would scratch my head. He would bite his toe, I would approximate biting my toe (not flexible enough). I was amused for a while and then went back to swimming butterfly.
Evening ritual consisted of bathing in nature in a beautiful outside shower before embarking on the daily animal feeding frenzy. The variety of animals Nani has is astounding. They have the biggest hog I’ve ever seen. I wish I knew its weight. It’s about the size of a calf, but fatter. There are also 3 camels, 4 ostriches, 4 donkeys, 5 horses, 10 dogs who sit on your lap when you eat, a million geese who could smell my disdain for them, and various parrots that all said “Hello.”
Late evening was reserved for my musical ambitions. Nathan, one of the sons, was back home and an avid guitar player so I would accompany him on harmonica each night. Having become addicted, I have sense bought a harmonica and play during my travels. I love playing music but unfortunately chose to learn upright base and piano, not exactly traveling instruments. So I never get to play, just sing along when needed. Why did I not think of getting a harmonica before?!
All in all, my time in Kitengela was a valuable foray into the world of glass art and something I hope to add to in my artistic journey that resurfaces from time to time.
Saturday, June 6, 2009
The woman felt awful, especially since she was the one I had booked my trip with the year and a half ago. I gave her the most pitiful face I could muster, all the while, assuring her that I understood the situation and waited for her to call around to other companies to see if there were any spots. However, those that had availability were also at least twice the cost of mine and I was unable to pay the difference. Finally, as she was reimbursing my deposit, one of the companies called back and said I could go at the price I had paid with my company. This meant I got a serious upgrade for nothing. Instead of a camping tent, I got a massive permanent tent with its own bathroom and hot shower. I don’t remember the last time I took a hot shower as I’ve been taking bucket baths since arriving here. The food was incredible. I practically got on my knees and kissed the chef’s feet because the food was so delicious. The guide knew the park like the back of his hand and was able to get anywhere when an animal was spotted (they had two way radios to call in various sightings). My fellow travelers were awesome. Mainly American, which was shocking as I’ve met few Americans in my travels. Two of them were volunteering in Uganda and were on a quick break. Another one was visiting them from the US. Another girl was volunteering at a theatre camp for street children in Nairobi. The only non-American was this retired Italian engineer who now spends his life traveling the world. He has no family and can go anywhere he wants whenever he wants. I brushed up on my Italian.
As for the animals, my o my. The first day we saw cheetahs, leopards, gazelles, antelope, zebras. We saw all of those again on the second day plus warthogs, giraffes, ostriches, hippos, crocodiles, lionesses. All we had left on our list the third day was a male lion, rhino, and elephants. The rhino was the only one that failed us. Meanwhile, the lion was insane. It was so majestic and clearly in his own world. He ignored all the vans and just walked slowly and deliberately as if this was his morning ritual that no one was going to disturb. It was awe-inspiring. We kept playing the Lion King soundtrack, convinced it was what was summoning the animals. Pretty much, every time we played the Circle of Life, a lionness showed up! Classic. The elephants eluded us the most but just as we were giving up and heading back to base camp, a whole herd, about 7 elephants emerge. It’s amazing how much more impressive animals are in their natural habitat. My animal-lover self was in heaven.
Sitting around the campfire and lying underneath the stars with my new pals was nice, as well. We got to trade stories with the Masai guards who were watching over our campsite for wild stray animals. We also had a chance to visit a Masai village. They clearly cater to tourists whose interests are much different than the anthropologically minded people of my group so we were left wanting. All their answers to our questions seemed canned, as if they were geared towards inspiring gasps of disbelief from their visitors. They loved telling us how all their huts were made of cow dung and the beds made of straw and sticks. Meanwhile, we spotted plush mattresses hiding in the corner and plenty of simple, cement houses tucked away. This seemed to be the general trend, impressing on us how their original culture had been preserved while traces of modernity peeked through the traditional veneer. This is not to say that nothing in Masai culture harkens back to the way things used to be done. There are plenty of remote villages that have succeeded in preserving practically all their customs, but the ones on the edge of one of Kenya’s greatest tourist attraction would not be those. Meanwhile our guide loved making jokes about the Masai, most of them centered around the idea that the women do all the work, building the homes, tending to the daily chores, walking kilometers with pales of water, while the men sat around all day watching the cattle. He said that was pretty much how the lions worked, the females doing all the hunting while the males would wait for their dishes to be served to them. Who knows how accurate a description of the Masai this is, but the guide loved reiterating the point.
All and all, my trip to Masai Mara was quite exhilarating. Very different from the random animal encounters I usually have, but just as satisfying, all the same.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Monday after my trip to the second Sunrise of Africa School, in Kitengela, I had the opportunity to visit baby elephants and rhinos through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The school in Waithaka has adopted a 7 mo old elephant named Ndii, who was found at the bottom of a pipeline breather tank. After my experiences with the grown elephants in Siem Reap, it was amazing to see how small she was. This project is exceptional in its scope, having reared over 85 elephant orphans between 1987-2009 and successfully reintroducing them into the wild after years of trial and error to find suitable milk formula, as elephants need milk for at least the first 3 years of their lives. Some have even given birth to babies in the wild. You can find more information at www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org, as they have done a wonderful job of explaining their mission and what their work entails.
The following weekend I got an up close and personal meeting with ostriches. I went to the ostrich farm. and realized just how ginormous those crazy birds are. I learned all too well that they like shiny things as they all went for my bangles. I mean, they peeped their huge, small-brained heads over the fence and snapped at my wrist, relentlessly. One of them got a hold of my watch and I had to wrestle it away from the little thief. I found them quite amusing. I then feasted on ostrich meat, quite tasty. I guess I should’ve felt bad about eating something I had just had a showdown with but when in Rome...Speaking of food, I’ve been trying to get my family to kill the evil goose that keeps chasing me around the yard, hissing and wagging its tongue. I’m putting geese on my hit list, right up there with turkeys (don’t make me relive my Turkey incidents but you can see them both at www.mayainbrazil.com and www.mayainmexuco.com). The geese keep me up at night and Sunday morning they went after my baby sister who was playing with a bucket of water. I guess they were thirsty. It was quite comical, even with the 3 yr old’s blood-curdling yells. I’ve asked for a deep fried goose waiting for me when I get to Houston for Christmas. I also live with a rescued kitty. She was given to my family, frail and suffering from what we think was pneumonia. She was also missing fur from some tussles with various animals. She has almost been nursed back to health, however. I feed her chicken, trying to get her on my good side so she’ll catch the renegade mouse that is hiding somewhere in my room and woke me up with its incessant scratching last night.
Yesterday I went to Giraffe center to hang out with the tallest animals on the planet. The purpose of the center (www.giraffecenter.org) is “to educate Kenyan school children about their country’s wildlife and environment.” At the moment, 9 giraffes live at the center on 60 acres of land. The center is made possible by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, started in 1979 by Jock Leslie-Melville. His wife, Betty, had “discovered the sad plight of the Rothschild giraffe- there were only 120 left...There are now over 300 giraffes-all safe and breeding well in different parts of Kenya.” I must say, I never imagined just how tall they are and feeding them is a memorable, if not slobbery, experience. Just like the elephants, they have marked personalities with some being grumpy and others being playful. They all are adorable and amusing. I even had a giraffe kiss me and I admit that I liked it. However, I feel that she was using me as I was tangling a piece of her food out my mouth.
These various experiences are a nice precursor to the Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru National Park. Stay tuned.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
I didn’t know what to expect during my taxi ride from Jomo Kenyatta Airport to my new home in Waithaka, a suburb of Nairobi. I had just spent about 18 hrs traveling from Singapore via Doha. Doha provided the catalyst needed to switch my mind from SE Asia mode to Africa mode because it was so unlike anything I had seen the past three months and, I presume, just as unlike anything I will see in these next three months. Arriving to Doha at 5 am after a 7 hour flight, I assumed the eeriness was due to sleep deprivation. But there was something more. I somehow felt I was no longer on earth. It could’ve been that I’d never landed in a desert before. It was immense, sparse, disorienting. Everything was the same gray color. I thought for a moment I had gone colorblind and was destined to a life of monocromasity. The roads, the ground, the buildings, the same. I either felt that I’d been transported to another planet or that I’d gotten trapped in a story book. The skyline was ethereal, sandcastles jutting from the plains. And then, there was sunrise, to further transport me into otherworldly bliss. At 5am, the sun was a ginormous orb hovering over the horizon. The sandy backdrop mixed with the golden glow beseeched me to take a moment of pause. This was truly the perfect transition from the beaten path of SE Asia to the road less traveled in Eastern Africa.
What was awaiting me in Nairobi was unexpected. Two institutions marked my arrival to Kenya: churches and schools. I was met with an array of churches from both well-known congregations to denominations I had never heard before. In Senegal, I was confronted with mosques. I was unfortunately the victim of a very tone-death Call to Prayer every morning, insuring my acknowledgement that Islam was all around. Arabic was abundant on the radio, as different religious programs read from the Koran and talked about societal issues. However, I was not architecturally assaulted by Islam in Senegal as I would be by Christianity in Kenya. Every few buildings seemed to be a church. And when there wasn’t a church, there was a school, often affiliated with a church. One reason I was headed to Nairobi was to work at a Christian Science primary school for two weeks. Much value is placed on education in this country as many see it as the only way for social and economic mobility both at home and in the world arena. However, lack of resources and overcrowding make it impossible for the public sector to handle the demand. In some places, one teacher will have 150 students. It is impossible to give quality education when you have that many students. I thought the overcrowding in the US was bad, but imagine: 150 students to one teacher! This has caused the private sector to step in and alleviate some of the burden, often in the form of religious schooling. Meanwhile, companies have been quietly looking to Kenya for the future of outsourcing, thus Kenya is following in the footsteps of India in more ways than just in its abundance of Masala Chai that I am forced to drink about 10 times a day, and its chapatis, one of my favorite dishes and what my host family patiently taught me to make even though I was useless at making the dough form a perfect circle.
As mentioned earlier, I was partially in Nairobi to see what inroads education was making, particularly at the Sunrise of Africa Schools (www.sunrise-of-africa.com- there is a campus in Waithaka where I am currently staying and a newer one in Kitengela). My mom, the headmaster of a Christian Science School in Houston and an adviser to the Board of Directors for these schools in Kenya, wanted to know about the type of education these children were receiving, having heard brilliant things about their curriculum evidenced by their students high scores. I have been sitting in on classes from pre-school through 5th grade, as well as guest teaching art to the older students and what I’ve witnessed as been quite impressive. I was humbled by the teachers’ preoccupation with what I would think of their classrooms, which are insanely small and barely accommodate the students who are literally on top of each other. (The school has seen rapid growth, now having more than 150 students and adding a grade level each year. It is quite a feat to keep up with the demand). They share all the materials and use them until they are in tatters. But what I’ve witnessed firsthand is that physical environment is worth so little in the grand scheme of things. What is important is the quality of education, and the teaching here is clearly top notch. The students work extremely hard, attending class year around and many opting to come on Saturdays for extra tutoring.
The Sunrise of Africa’s vision is to provide “academically outstanding co-educational schools, based on Christian principles,” namely (and I paraphrase)...to love and respect themselves and others; develop self confidence; be optimistic; express God-given qualities such as love, enthusiasm, freedom, self-control, joy, vivacity; recognize and support others in the diversity of religious beliefs, be encouraged to achieve excellence, and learn practical problem solving. I’ve seen these qualities manifested in all grade-levels. As a non-profit making school, they aim to provide education equal to the expensive, Nairobi private schools. Emphasizing the development of the whole child, they use a combination of the well known Montessori Method and the National Early Childhood curriculum. The Sunrise schools are making good on this promise. They have students that come from broken homes, whose parents are dealing with a range of issues. They even have orphans as well as refugees from neighboring countries. Regardless of their background, they are given the opportunity to receive a stellar education.
Classes for the primary school students are conducted in English, the official language of Kenya, although explanations will occasionally be given in Kiswahili, especially for the younger children as a means to emphasize a point. A period is devoted each day for Kiswahili, the national language, where students learn to read and write, as all of them are already fluent in spoken Kiswahili. Meanwhile, the youngest preschoolers have class in Kiswahili but are gradually exposed to more and more English, reaching a stage of balanced bilingualism by the lower primary grades. While English is obviously favored as it is the most prominent international language at the moment, much respect is shown to Kiswahili and all students are expected to be fluent in both, with no detriment to the development of reading, writing, and speaking skills of either language.
As part of the religious aspect of the school, the kids are requested to attend Sunday school, and all students attend Monday school, which is a shortened version of Sunday School comprising of the Golden Text and Responsive Reading of the weekly Christian Science lesson sermon as well as various hymns relating to the weekly topic. Religion plays a lesser role during the rest of the week, but the principles of Christian Science (www.spirituality.com) are the foundation of the school.
As I travel around the various neighborhoods, what I notice most are the school uniforms donned by every student. There are no shortage of schools, and no shortage of students. While I cannot speak for the other schools as I have not visited them, Sunrise of Africa Schools are making a positive contribution to the education and rearing of Kenyan students. While perhaps lacking in material wealth, they use what they have to the fullest. I wish this sort of ‘using what little you have to the max’ could be imported in the poorer neighborhoods in the US as poverty should not be an excuse for insufficient education. It should be taken into account but only to then be combatted as minds can grow if there is a belief that they can. If the public schools are overtaxed, the private sector should be able to offer quality education but without the price tag of most of the private institutions that only wealthy children can access. Those children with no material wealth have a wealth of a different kind: the ability to learn and grow. They hold inner qualities that outshine outward wealth. I worry that my idealism will become battered and one day wither away but hopefully I can do much by way of my own projects before that day arrives. I will definitely use these schools to remind me that anything is possible, regardless of the odds.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Southeast Asia has four main animals that are held above all others. They are often the protagonists in fables and the subjects of artwork and I managed to have up close and personal encounters with all of them. Each interaction seemed to outdo the last and while most things don’t phrase me, I am well aware of the singular and impressive few weeks I’ve had. While I tend to steer clear of chronological order in my blogs, it was as if each experience was preparing me for the one to follow and so I will tell the animal section (as I very seldom have travels without some sort of traumatic or impressionable episode with an animal i.e. buffalo in India, turkeys in Brazil) from beginning to end.
My journey with the big four began in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The info bequeathed to me by the stoner at my guesthouse paid dividends. Basically, the owner’s friend, Smiley, couldn’t have been more on point with every suggestion he gave. Perhaps, he’s a wise man, concealing his powers behind the stoner facade. Whatever his true nature, his first direction to us was to find his friend who cares for the elephants at Angkor Wat. While riding an elephant around Angkor Wat is not on my list of things to do before I die and was fortunately not on the menu as nothing screams tourist more than that, getting to spend an afternoon with them, watching them eat and bathe, was quite a memorable experience. Elephants are incredibly expressive, each with marked personalities. The one who captured my heart and who literally captured my hand as her nose reached out for me was, in fact, quite shy and took time to get to know us. Every time we tried to take a photo of her, she would hide behind the pillar. When we put the camera down, she would sneak from behind her haven and cautiously approach. If we moved toward the camera, she would go into hiding again. Meanwhile, the others showed various personality traits as they went for their afternoon baths. Rival elephants had to bathe at different times or there would be trouble. Some would taunt others if they got to go first. It was like dealing with a kindergarten classroom, except your students weighed several tons more than you. You could sense their joy during bath time when they would snort as much water as possible and shower their backs with what seemed like fire hose strength. Even though each step could shake the ground, they were quite graceful. Proud and majestic they stood, yet humble in a way I can’t describe.
Smiley then led us to the Tiger Temple in Kanachanaburi, western Thailand. The sanctuary was started when a Buddhist monk was given a tiger to care for. The center has since grown to house many tigers with volunteers from all over the world. If you get there in the afternoon, you get to pet the tigers and have your picture taken (yes, I know, touristy, but still thrilling) as well as watch the babies get fed bottled milk. I’ve never been so close to a tiger. And even though they are subdued from the afternoon heat and are surrounded by trained professionals who watch their every move, your instincts are to freeze up. I didn’t realize my hesitancy until I saw my first couple pictures. I don’t think I’ve ever been caught so wide-eyed and cautious.
The next part of my journey landed me in northern Laos. The Brit, who returns only briefly in my adventure as part of the framing narrative, practically commanded me to do the Gibbon Experience in the Bokeo National Reserve. While having the utmost respect for the Brit and his ability to provide animal adventure (he was there for both the buffalo incident and the camel safari), the offputting price of the three day escapade at a whopping $220 was convincing me otherwise. I swallowed my starving artist/career student attitude enough to hand over my credit card (actually my friend’s credit card since mine still hasn’t been replaced from the identity theft). There is something almost otherworldly about living in a tree house for 3 days, zip-lining and hiking around a gigantic forest, tracking gibbons at 5 am. Even though I spent a week’s budget in those three days, I was happy with the decision I made. I wasn’t aware of what repercussions that decision actually held.
The second day, I briefly met a Scottish couple who had worked for the Experience before and who spend a lot of time rescuing animals. They passed through my tree house and stopped in for coffee. When we were hiking out on the third day, I met them again at the village bordering the Reserve. I also noticed a small monkey in a makeshift cage behind the door but didn’t put two and two together. Leaving most of my group to hang out with the guides for a while, I saw the Scottish girl walk towards me with a somewhat sheepish look on her face. What was she up to? She sat down next to me, made some pleasantries, and asked if I was heading to Luang Prabang. I told her I was leaving the following day by bus. The sheepish look transformed into badly concealed pure delight. She then asked if I were willing to do her a favor. A favor? She must need something transported. As long as it wasn’t contraband, I would be happy to. Her smile grew even bigger. That’s when she proceeded to explain to me how she needed a monkey, a long-tail macaque, to be exact, transported to her friends. The monkey had been confiscated by a forest ranger who was now trying to find a way to provide long-term care for it. As is often the case, these animals are confiscated from illegal trades after their mothers have been killed in order that the poachers can take the young. Since she was headed to Thailand, she was unable to provide refuge. The monkey’s only hope was a bus ride to Luang Prabang where, lucky thing, she had been promised the final place in an informal sanctuary.
I don’t know if I should’ve been more hesitant, or actually thought about my answer before speaking, but I responded with an unequivocal yes. I mean, seriously, how often do you get asked to transport a monkey 12 hrs on a bus? The next morning we met at the bus station around 7 so she could hand over the goods and make sure the bus driver was ok having a monkey on board. Since it was supposedly a VIP bus, I thought maybe a monkey would not be welcomed. I was wrong on both accounts. The VIP bus was actually a local bus with my being the only farang on there. The driver didn’t even bat an eye as animals are common fares on local buses. He was impressed with the towel I put down under her cage, but when reading his eyes, they seemed to say there was no point, and I soon learned why.
I have a very strong stomach and am not prone to motion sickness. If I could handle the winding mountains of Mexico, I could handle Laos. However, Laos was a very formidable opponent and I was one of the few left standing. The mountains are treacherous, the drivers, insane. The endless supply of plastic bags was inadequate because as we went barreling around the mountains, the floor started to look like a Rorschach test. Hardly anyone kept their lunch down. I was somewhat protected as I was sitting behind the back wheel with Renee’s cage wedged between the seat and the wheel. Yes, the monkey was temporarily named Renee as the Scottish girl could not remember my name and kept calling me Renee. Neither the monkey nor I look like a Renee but I needed to call her something other than Monkey and adopted that. But I digress. My fortress consisted of a back wheel and a huge plasma screen TV, whose box was shoved up against the side of my seat. Where did a plasma screen come from in the middle of the Laotian mountains, beats me, but I’ve never been so happy to have one because the box shielded me from everyone’s mess. I think Renee and I were probably in the cleanest area on the bus. 12 hrs on a bus is long in any situation, but couple that with a scared monkey, a bus full of sick passengers, and death-defying mountain driving and you have an ulcer in the works. However, I took the experience in stride and enjoyed my monkey bonding time. I was also constantly amused. I had a sitcom playing before me in the rearview mirror. The first time I looked up the bus driver was nonchalantly attacking the mountains with a cigarette hanging out his mouth. This went on a couple hours. However, the programming changed because when I looked up later, I noticed the driver didn’t look too hot. Someone should’ve given him a plastic bag. When I woke up from a nap, I realized that the bus driver was no longer driving. He had relinquished his seat to what appeared to be a 10 yr old boy. Everyone looks younger than they actually are in SE Asia but he couldn’t have been over 14. I guess he was the backup driver. I was wondering where the driver was as I had arranged to use his cell phone when I got to Luang Prabang so that I could successful make the drop off. Then I noticed the driver clutching a plastic bag in the front row. Just great, the driver also has motion sickness. I decided to go back to sleep because I realized that sleep is the best defense mechanism you can possibly have. When fear takes over and there’s nothing you can do in the present situation, go to sleep. I also found that reassuring Renee would reassure me. She would make this sort of tsk tsk sound and I would respond with an approximate noise to let her know I was close by. I would also slip pieces of banana and tamarind through the cage, along with drops of water. Caring for her got my mind off the fact that someone who could barely see over the steering wheel was driving my bus.
Monkey and me made it to Luang Prabang in one piece. The bus driver was still alive as well and called the Scots’ friends to have them come pick up Renee. For the hard work, they helped me find accommodation and then offered me the best payment anyone like me could’ve imagined. They had contacts at the bear sanctuary and said I could come around the following day for a special tour. I arrived and was ushered to the bear house where I laid eyes on the cutest thing I’d ever seen, a three month old Asiatic Black Bear named Fun (pronounced Foon). As is normally the case with these animals in sanctuaries, his mother had been killed. Since he was too young to be in the large enclosures with the older bears and there were no bears of a similar size he was not able to have physical contact with any other bears. This meant that the rescue center staff had to play surrogate mother and be his play mates. Ordinarily the rescue center does not encourage interaction with the bears and contact is limited to a very small number of people only when absolutely necessary. My thank you for helping with the monkey gave me a chance to become a part of this cub's adopted family and help to provide the stimulation and interaction that he should have been getting from his mother.
I spent the next hour wrestling with Fun, who I renamed “Bitey” for his propensity to bite every chance he got. He never broke the skin but enjoyed using me as a chew toy. He wobbled when he walked which made him even more endearing if that was possible. He climbed on top of me. I had to make it known straight away that I was not able to nurse him as that was the first place he gravitated towards. He also enjoyed my dreads and tried several times to climb up my body and chomp down on them. He was a messing eating, stepping all into his mixture of banana and milk, and smeared honey all over the floor. I’ve had incredible experiences on this trip and through all my travels, but nothing comes close to the hour I had with him.
As for my animals, we’ll see what insanity awaits in Eastern Africa, my next destination.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
It is fitting that I should be writing this post from the back of a bus. When I say back of the bus, I’m not evoking Rosa Park’s 1950’s Montgomery. I’m talking about being sent behind the mysterious red floral curtain to what I presume is the driver’s private enclave, complete with mattress, a few changes of clothes, and a towel, on my way between Johol Bahru (JB) and Mersing, Malaysia. When we tried to catch the bus from Singapore to Mersing, the driver told us the bus was full so we concocted plan B and opted to take a bus simply to JB, on the border with Malaysia, and then catch another bus to Mersing. Little did we know that the bus in JB would be the exact same full bus we were trying to catch in Singapore. No emptier than it was in Singapore but apparently more available, as he let us get on. Maybe what’s not allowed in Singapore, i.e. hiding tourists as if they were illegal immigrants, flies in Malaysia. Whatever the reason for his change of heart, it’s hard to get five people on a full bus. This isn’t India, seating capacity is respected here. People aren’t allowed to be strewn across the floor, or crammed three to a seat. This isn’t Nepal, you aren’t allowed to get on top of the bus and hang on to the luggage racks for dear life. The Malaysians have other ways to get around silly seating rules. So as an angry Chinese woman yelled at us for being in her family’s seats, the driver calmly herded two of us to his lair. I had a valid seat but jumped at the opportunity to go to the back, a section of the bus I didn’t know existed two minutes prior. In my new locale, I pulled the partition closed. This would be where I could update my blog for the next three hours: my new home office.
I’ve been wanting to write a post about transit for a while. Most people don’t like to consider transit as part of the travel. They want to get where they are going without actually participating in the going. A four hour bus ride seems tedious as it is nothing more than the wall that keeps them between two geographic locations and two moments in time. I, on the other hand, relish in the actual travel part of travel. 20 hr train ride? Sign me up for it gives me time to reflect. 14 hrs on a plane? Great time to catch up on sleep, especially since I can’t stay awake in a moving vehicle for more than five minutes (people who road trip with me find me useless company). And the best of all, you don’t know who you are going to meet along the way.
The train. India has the most extensive train network I’ve ever seen. While lacking in punctuality, it makes up for this in character. Oh man does it have character. My new friends in Jaisalmer, also Brits as they seem to run rampant in these here parts, refused to ride anything but A/C, which is 1st class travel. I tried to convince them of the beauty of traveling 2nd class sleeper (which would translate to about 5th class) but they weren’t having none of that. They were scarred for life after an incident whereby a little girl decided to drop trough on the seats right in front of them. As the mother embarrassedly tried to clean up the mess, which was worsened by the fact that girl clearly lacked fiber in her diet, the girl moved to another location and repeated her previous action. While the mother followed her daughter around like a New Yorker curbing her dog, my friends were making simultaneous mental notes: no more traveling with the plebeians. A/C all the way for now on.
I can’t fault them for their respect for hygiene but I did try to show them that second class sleeper has its merits. I made them sit with me on the way from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur after the ticket Nazi wouldn’t allow me to sit with them in fancy shmancy A/C. There facial expressions were marred with fear. Flashbacks of the “incident” was playing back, stuck on repeat. After a little coaxing, they were with me and the Brit, crammed between several people. The Brit was soon whisked away by a soldier who wanted to share his hidden stash of whiskey so only I was left to hold my friends’ hands as they made this giant step towards recovery. Luckily, we had an amazing experience. While no one in our section spoke much English, we were able to get them to teach us phrases in Hindi, draw us maps of India complete with all the states and home towns, tell life stories with no guarantee of comprehension, and laugh uncontrollably over cultural differences.
Another key to sleeper class is to carry with you a bit of food, and offer this food to any woman you see, because in return, she will pull out a picnic basket concealing a 10 course meal, and undoubtedly return the favor. There is nothing worse for an Indian mother than to think that you might not be stuffed beyond belief. However, Indian mothers are somewhat of a commodity and can be hard to find on some itineraries. As a female traveler, you have to be aware that at times you could be the only female on your coach. For some reason, my 20 hour ride from Delhi to Jaisalmer was void of all things female. I think even the cockroaches (and there are many of those, something you should probably learn to accept if you are going to travel extensively in India) were male on that leg of my journey. While A/C has some sense of order and anyone without the appropriate ticket is quickly escorted out, with sleeper, the collectors have a much more laissez-faire attitude, giving many general seating travelers license to sneak in. You shouldn’t be surprised to wake up in the middle of night and find a whole family sleeping on the floor between the bunks of your compartment (as was the case between Jodhpur and Delhi). Getting to the toilet can be quite dicey as you have to avoid stepping on body parts and luggage. One time, I finally made it through the gauntlet to find that one bathroom had been converted into some sort of office as about five men played cards and conducted all sorts of business from the comfort of the latrine. Meanwhile, the other bathroom was occupied, indefinitely, as some guy was smoking up. Herding a group of men out of the bathroom in another language is not the easiest of tasks and the 20 other people crammed in the hallways love to see how you handle the situation. As with most things, giving food as an offering usually suffices.
At my stop in Jodhpur, the train cleared, only to repack itself with military personnel. For this leg, I was sandwiched in between soldiers, rifles, and all sorts of military paraphernalia. As always when I’m the lone female among a group of guys in India, I get my “don’t even think about talking to me” face. I scrunch my eyes in the shifty-eye position, jut my lips out slightly in a menacing fashion, and cross my arms. However, holding this stance for hours on end is tiring. They seem to know it’s a war of attrition and that you will eventually weaken. As soon as the moment occurs when your face sets itself into neutral, it begins: “where are you from”, “are you married?” “where is your husband/boyfriend?” “why are you traveling alone?” in that exact order. However, after exchanging pleasantries this time, the soldiers wanted to know what I was listening to. This led into hours of comparing music and trying to get our bluetooths (blueteeth?) to synch in order to share. It turned out to be an enjoyable ride hanging out with the boys and watching the desert panorama pass me by.
Planes. Since I had such little time in India, I had to grab a couple flights to cut down on the length of travel time. However, there are none of the usually amusing Indian travel experiences when traveling by planes. In fact, they are comfier and cozier than any of the American or European flights I’ve been on. Kudos, India, kudos.
Autorickshaws. I thought hitting a buffalo head on in a motorcycle and flying in the air was scary. But nothing, I repeat, nothing is scarier than autorickshaws in India…if you are not used to them. Fortunately for me, I am now used to them.