Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Black and White Stripes

So there are times when even if things don’t work out as planned, the ride is fun anyway. I spent the first week of December in Johannesburg, South Africa, looking at options and interviewing and whatnot. It turns out that I didn’t get the job that I had flown down there to try for (with McKinsey and Company), but I had a couple other things turn up and may end up there eventually anyway.

I flew in on Sunday afternoon last week. Jo’burg is nothing like what I expected. I thought that I had been in large developed African cities before, Dar es-Salaam, Dakar, etc. but nothing prepared me for this. Johannesburg is a modern city, on par with ones in parts of Asia, Latin America, parts of Eastern Europe, and maybe even the non-coastal US. There is huge amounts of infrastructure, real LA style freeways with triple level overpasses and cloverleaf junctions. There are glittering malls with every designer store imaginable. There are also the townships, which, though extremely poor in parts, for the most part have electricity, running water, sewer systems, paved roads, malls of their own.

I was a little worried when I got to Jo’burg because South African ex-pats that I have met living in Cambridge usually describe it like LA during the crack wars. The city in fact, is laid out very much like LA – spread out over long distances and impossible to navigate without a car. It is the car-jacking capital of the world. At night, you don’t stop for red lights unless it is a busy intersection. At any point during the day, there are certain areas that are no-go districts if you are the wrong color and income bracket. Despite all my fearlessness, I avoided them too. No sense being stupid about things.

So Sunday night, this guy Chris, who graduated from my program last year and now lives in Jo’burg, picked me up at the hotel. We went for a drink in one of the posh areas, then he took me on a freeway drive-by tour of the CBD or Central Business District. The CBD is no man’s land at night. The district is made up of a large number of tall buildings, some ranging up to 50 or more stories. During the 1980s though, when cities all over the world were experiencing capital flight, and especially in the early 1990s when South Africans of a certain mindset, or just economically skittish, took off for Australia, the CBD collapsed. Crime went through the roof, all of the business left, and most people wrote it off. Today, there is a big push for urban renewal in certain sections, but the CBD is left largely abandoned. The huge hotels and office buildings are inhabited mostly by squatters. Chris and I drove by on the highway at night during a huge electrical storm. There was no rain, but lightening bounced off the clouds behind up. The lights illuminated this city of dark, or only minimally lit buildings. It could have been some post-apocalyptic scene out of Mad Max.

The next day, I hung around the hotel, trying to get some work done and rent a car. I wasn’t particularly successful in either endeavor. Automatics in South Africa are just about impossible to find, and there is no way in hell that I would be able to drive a stick shift on the wrong side – shifting with my left hand. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to sort out all those pedals. That evening, I went with Chris and friends to this posh part of town for dinner. The waiter at the restaurant was great. It was like Chelsea meets game warden. He was unshaven, in a flannel shirt with a greasy pony-tail, but described the antelope special with truffles and red wine reduction like the trendiest West Side hotspot. And with crazy accent they are sporting down there. Dinner was fantastic.

Tuesday I went on a town of the Soweto township. The first thing that I learned is the Soweto is not an Africa word, it is an abbreviation for SOuth WEst TOwnship. The second thing I learned is that certain parts of it are really nice, paved roads, sewers, running water, well-nicer than anything I have seen even in some of the better neighborhoods of West Africa. And it is 100% black Africa. I asked the guide if that could really be true, I mean even Harlem in the 1920s had some mixing. Nope. No white people live here. Maybe maybe one or two in mixed marriages, but even that was unlikely. The tour guide who had Bob Marley dreds and well displayed apartheid chip on his shoulder told me it was because white people wouldn’t live here. Later, someone else told me it was because real estate prices collapsed during the white flight of the 1990s, and most people can afford to live among their own kind (which is incredible nuanced –people of English decent and Boers and Indians and blacks and all the colors in between – everyone has their own neighborhood.) In any case.

There were some very poor parts of Soweto – about as poor as you would see in Burkina. It somehow seemed much stranger in a country where you can go to the Jimmy Choos store in the same city.

The best part of the whole tour was driving by the power plant. What brilliance!

One of the things that really sort of turned me off the whole township thing was the guide. He was all about telling us how he was going to show us that black South Africans during the 1980s were not terrorists and really freedom fighters. I tried to explain that at least in the part of the United States where I grew up, Nelson Mandela was a hero, even before he got out of jail, and that my issues were generally with white South Africans. I remember having cupcakes and watching him walk out of jail in Ms. Mosley’s fifth grade class. He was having none of that – somewhere deep inside I must have thought ANC a terrorist organization. Oh well. The whole country is still trying to shake off this massive apartheid hangover, can’t fault the little snags along the way.

The next day I went on safari! Well, it wasn’t really a safari. The roads in the park were all paved and you could drive around without a guide in your little Clio with your buddies and a cooler of beer. It was more like a 100 acre zoo pen where things could eat each other. The most interesting part of the trip was the company. I had spent the previous evening thinking about race relations in South Africa, whether I could really live in a country like that, etc. I get on the safari van the next morning and meet the 4 African American Southern Baptist preachers and their wives that I will be spending the day with. It was a very quick and humbling reminder that I really don’t understand race and regional relations all that much in my own country – so who am I to judge?

The trip was fun. I got to see my first zebras. (Only gorillas and polar bears left and I will have checked off everything in a box of animal crackers!) I saw my first African rhinos. I had the best elephant experience I have had yet. There was a big group with three little babies. It was balls hot so the whole herd was playing in the watering hole. They looked just like big kids. They would stand and sway their trunk back and forth, then just haul up and fall over like a tree, kicking and splashing and spraying each other. The little ones were really having the best idea. They looked just like they do in the cartoons. Running in and out and splashing around. It was great. The driver was happy because we were happy. (Things had been a little tense for a while because the Baptists had apparently put in some advanced prayer for a lion and the driver wasn’t delivering.) In order to keep us happy, he kept backing the van closer and closer to the edge of the water. Then one momma elephant caught wind that maybe we weren’t a big white shiny metal elephant. And she charged. The driver threw the van into gear and hit the gas. Fortunately Toyota can still outrun mother nature in a dead 100 meters. It was especially tense for me, who was sitting along in the back seat watching the elephants waves its ears and chase us.

For a late lunch on the way home we stopped at the Johannesburg version of Las Vegas. Slot machines are depressing in the first place, but way more so when the people are funneling a measurable portion of their yearly income into them. There was also this horribly gaudy hotel that was supposed to be African safari meets Italian renaissance. In place of gargoyles, picture 15 foot high stone sculpted antelopes leaping from the turrets. Horror show, and not in the edgy cool Clockwork Orange sense.

The next two days were occupied by interviews and me desperately trying to get some school work done before I returned home. I didn’t get the job at McKinsey. It might have had something to do with my lack of enthusiasm for mining, which is a huge chunk of their income. “Why yes sir! Even as a little girl I dreamt of being part of the exploitative mineral extraction business in Africa!” Probably the best for everyone involved.

The last day that I was there Chris and I decided to go on a little adventure to see the other half of South Africa. We went to the Voortrekker monument. This was built in the late Art Deco (translation : fascist) style and could best be described as what Robert Moses would have built if he had been a raging racist. The monument commemorates the trek of the early settlers (chosen people) through hostile Zulu territory to the land that is now Johannesburg. It is big and stone with incredible beautiful and intricate bas relief carvings. The whole thing had the air of doing the stations of the cross before Easter, and the place does had an almost religious significance to the Boor population. The problem is that the original carvers did not have a particularly flattering opinion of either the actions nor physical traits of the Zulu actors in this little drama. So now the new government doesn’t know what to do. It is tough to enough tourism to something that is so unabashed in its message, but at the same time, if you try to flatten or even change it, 15 percent of the population is going to go absolutely apeshit. So it just sits there.

Then I headed back to collect my things, and began a 28 hour epic trek of my own back to Boston. It was a little tense when a mechanical failure left us stranded on a Dakar runway for 3 hours (time was ticking down and I had finals to take…) but it was all good and I made it home. I am heading back to Africa on January 1st to spend a couple weeks doing research for my second year policy paper. It probably won’t be all that exciting. (And then, on Tuesday, I sat for four hours trying to meet with THIS mid-level bureaucrat… and on Wednesday, I sat for only two hours before I met THAT midlevel World Bank official.) But I will try to get into at least a little bit of trouble so that I have something to send…

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Drunk Flying and Subsequent Central American Adventures

Just want to start this post with a shout-out to all the long time readers that I met for the first time at Katie’s wedding. It was great to meet you. I hope you all had a good time.

I returned safely from East Africa and in time to make the wedding, no coups or other disaster this time… The wedding was great. I had a pastel dress, pink nails and a French twist. Most of you wouldn’t even have recognized me. After the wedding, I stuck around long just long enough to have a couple Bloody Marys and then headed south to meet my roommate in Belize. The goal was to spend a couple days diving and poking around Mayan ruins before heading over to Indiana to don my red dress and drinking shoes for A&E’s wedding…

I arrived in Belize City after an unnecessarily arduous flight with a four-hour layover in Dallas. (Security in JFK is off the hook. In Dubai coming back from Dar es Salaam, I went through with a liter and a half bottle of water and an entire toiletries kit. In New York they call the bomb squad for a tube of toothpaste and half finished Snapple.) And it is a good thing that I had four hours in Dallas. It took me two and a half hours and two terminals to find a salad that didn’t have some kind of deep fried animal product on top of it. (Airports are up there with shady horse farms and India in the rankings of places that I don’t eat meat.) I eventually convinced the guy at the Asian food stand to give me just carrots, broccoli and fried noodle, but not before he tried to add fried pork, chicken, beef, etc…

Upon arrival in Belize City, I immediately bought a ticket to the island of Caye Chaulker, a backpacker hangout and diving mecca off the coast. I had an hour to kill officially, of course I actually had more because the plane was late, so I headed over to the airport bar. There I joined not one, not two, but THREE sets of honeymooning couples at the bar, also waiting for their flights. (You can tell the new couples because the girls all have “wedding nails” and the guys are fiddling with their bright shiny new rings.) The bar was run by this midget, Jet, that had been selling rum punch and beer to honeymooners for forty years. He wanted $5 US for a Dixie cup of rum punch. I asked him if he thought he was in Manhattan. We bantered back and forth for a while before I finally agreed to buy one. He walks over to the bar (which inexplicably had a bottle of Listerine on the top shelf…) and stops. He looks at me and says, “you know what? I like you. You are a pain in the ass.” He drops two ice cubes into the cup, fills it with dark brown rum and throws in a splash of juice. The drink was the same color as the bottle of rum. It was so strong that I could barely drink it, and I can usually do turpentine shots without wincing. So I had two of these while waiting for the plane and was already flying high when the eight-seater finally showed up.

Now Caye Chaulker is only a fifteen minute flight from Belize City. It actually is a “by request” stop, meaning that the plane to San Pedro will drop you off if you ask them too. Like a city bus. I asked the pilot if I could be the co-pilot if I promised not to kick the pedals. He said okay. One of the honeymooners was a nervous flyer and just about dropped dead when he saw (1) the size of the plane, (2) that I was the co-pilot, who he knew had just spent 90 minutes at the bar… But it all ended well and I hopped off with my backpack and went to meet Dennis at our cabana - which was only accessible by walking along the beach. Caye Chaulker was pretty small place. No cars. You walked everywhere or took one of the golf cart taxis.

Next day we did a bit of diving. Nice, warm water, lots of fish… grouper, sea turtles, sharks… The day after that we decided to go out to Blue Hole, a deep collapse crater 60 kilometers out in the ocean. It was a really cool dive. You descended in a free fall where you couldn’t see the bottom, only sharks circling in the murk. You drop through the sharks (they are only Caribbean reef sharks – not really dangerous – but a little unnerving when the swim within inches of you.) When you reach the maximum depth of the dive – 140 feet down – the water gets crystal clear and there is a deep overhang with huge stalactites to swim between. It was one of the best and most eerie dives I have ever done.

After that it was back to the surface for a couple more dives and then back to shore. Next morning we began the long trip across Belize and into northern Guatemala to see the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. First we took the “ferry” to the mainland (some guy with a big open motorboat) and then got on the bus. The trip was long and slow and meals consisted of cheap corn chips bought along the roadside at the border. We arrived on the outskirts of Flores – where we would be spending the night – just in time to get caught in a dead stop traffic jam caused by student protests. We ended up walking, taking a minibus, and then walking again before we finally got to Flores and a place to stay. We ate dinner and crashed. We had signed up for the 3:30 am departure to see the sunrise in Tikal.

Of course neither Dennis nor I had brought an alarm clock. We bought a cheap Chinese plastic piece of crap in Caye Chaulker – which didn’t work. Dennis woke up at 3:20. I will spare you the details of the ensuing dressing packing and leaving debacle. We made the bus. After a 50 kilometer ride to Tikal and a 45 minute hike through the dark – we climbed the temple steps to wait for the dawn. We sat on the top, surrounded by mist and jungle in the dark, listening to the disturbing calls of the howler monkeys out in the bush. As the sun rose and it grew lighter, we saw the tree tops and tops of the other temples fading in and out in the mist. The monkeys and parrots screamed and toucans flew through the sky. Really cool experience.

We spent the rest of the morning hiking around and climbing temples. More toucans and spider monkeys. Just before lunch we set out on what would turn out to be a hot and long and hot journey back into Belize and south to do more diving. Most of the time we road in the back of converted school buses across the bumping roads. Dennis and I gave into our adolescent tendencies and sat in the back – where all the cool kids were – just like middle school…
So now we are in Placencia – a tiny dot of land on the bottom of a peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic that is less than 100 meters wide at points. We had hoped to be underwater by now, but stupid tropical storm Ernesto has kicked up too much chop so we are beached. There is a chance we could get out this afternoon, but it looks like if Ernesto doesn’t want to take a cue from his namesake and visit Fidel and Raul right soon, we are done diving for now.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Just another day at the office.

So despite the fact that I work for the World Bank, my office is in the Ministry of Finance here in Uganda. The ministry is in a fairly large block of government buildings: foreign affairs, communications, courthouse, etc. are all here. About an hour ago I am sitting at my desk, completely absorbed in the exciting world of statistical analysis of poverty indicators, when there is an EXPLOSION of automatic weapon fire right below my office. I pause and wonder if they have overthrown the government, always a concern when working in sub-Saharan Africa. It is quiet for a while so I go back to work, vaugely wondering if maybe I should do some regressions to prove how bad Museveni's government is/was. If it had been a coup and some heavily armed person should enter my little office, I better have something to offer the revolution, no?

My office mate came back a little while later. He told me that it was nothing special. A prisoner had just escaped from the courthouse next door and they needed to get him back, which they did. Then he started laughing as he told me the entire cafeteria had hit the deck when they started shooting because it was right outside the windows. Ha ha, joke's on them! Anyway, happens once in a while, nothing to worry about, back to work.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Conquering the Elusive Giraffe

Many a year ago now, myself and three fellow Peace Corps volunteers set out on an ill-fated trip to see giraffes in neighboring Niger. Just about everything imaginable that could go wring did, and I never got to see any giraffes.

But this weekend I was redeemed! I booked a weekend safari to Murchison Falls national park in the northwest of Uganda. I had wanted to go last weekend, but I couldn’t get Friday off work, and besides the park is only about 20 miles from the Congolese border which would not have been the greatest place to be if the entire region collapsed into armed strife (again) following the Congolese elections last weekend.

So I blew off work on Friday and joined 15 fellow tourists in two vans for an eight hour drive north. The other people in my van were a group of four Israeli tourists, who were very happy to have picked this particular part of Middle Eastern history to take a six month vacation, a Canadian medical student, and teenage American aspiring wildlife photographer, and a Kiwi Blue Helmet working in southern Sudan (Kiwi Blue Helmet: a United Nations Peace Keeper of New Zealand-ish origin). The trip was basically uneventful, except for the tsetse fly store we have to transverse right before we reached the lodge. As tsetse flies have painful bites and are carriers of river blindness, we had to close the windows. But as it was boiling in the van with the windows closed, we would open them just a crack to get some air. Which was fine and dandy until we hit one of the crater-like potholes on the road (occurring every five to ten feet), which would bounce the windows open, letting in the some of the swarm that followed the van. We would then have to slam the windows shut and try to kill the ones that got in. I had two kills. I Kiwi Blue Helmet had none, which just goes to prove the conventional wisdom that UN Peace Keepers couldn’t hurt a fly.

We arrived at camp and were shown to our tents. I got to share with Blue Helmet (who was, despite my constant teasing, an incredibly nice guy). We were given a stern warning that warthogs and hippos were common features inside the camp. Warthogs will find their way into any tent where there is anything edible. You are financially responsible for all warthog tent damage caused by edible things, including something as benign as an empty Snickers wrapper. Hippos were a bigger deal. They tended to feed on the grass in between the tents at night. Should you encounter one on your way to the bathroom at night, don’t approach it and climb a tree if it tries to approach you. (I don’t know about this. Hippos kill more people per year than any other wild animal in Africa. The trees didn’t look like they would support the weight of a healthy child, much less a full-sized adult with a determined hippo at the bottom, as hippos weigh as much as your standard SUV.) There was a poor older Dutch woman who was so scared that she insisted that a bucket be brought into her tent. Fortunately the rains had come recently so there was other grass to eat in places outside the camp. Midnight Hippo Bathroom Blocking is apparently a big problem in the dry season.

So Friday night Blue Helmet and I and a bunch of the other guests got rip-roaring drunk in the safari bar because there really isn’t anything else to do in a tented camp in the middle of no where in northwestern Uganda. We wanted a thunderstorm roll in across the forest and played guitar and drank Tusker, and just generally acted like colonialist frat boys.

This all caught up to us a few hours later though. After crashing in the tent somewhere around 1 am, somewhere before six am feel this blinding white light in my eyes and hear someone asking repeatedly if I am awake. Blue Helmet has his military issue flashlight two inches from my corneas. He is still drunk and thinks this is great. He jogs off to shower as I drag my bones out of bed and into my clothes. Blue-y and I had gotten a little too smashed and had forgotten to order breakfast for the morning. He had a couple of granola bars and a can of peaches in heavy syrup. We made do. Before you feel bad for us, we weren’t the most hard up of the previous nights drinkers. Xavier, an adorable little French 22 year old kid with a snaggletooth, walks over to us after we finish our breakfast and are hunkered down in the predawn light waiting for the van.

Xavier: Wot iz zis?
Blue-y: Its paa-ches, mate.
Xavier: Zwhere iz zit from?
Blue-y: New Zealand mate.

At which point Xavier picks up the can containing the remaining syrup and walks away contentedly drinking it.

The safari game drive itself was incredible. We saw herds and herds and herds of giraffes, a bunch of elephants, cape buffalo and warthogs, things of varying sizes with hooves, a small pride of lions enjoying something that was until very recently in its abbreviated history something with hooves, birds of every color, ill tempered monkeys, etc etc etc. We had one really big score though. We saw a leopard. They are almost impossible to see in the wild. It was sleeping up in a tree until our van and the pack of gawking people with camera hanging out of it, scared it down. It dashed off into the deep brush, and, as if to prove my theory that pintades (guinea fowl) are the dumbest creatures in existence, four of them dashed after it.

After the game drive I went back to the tent to crash. I was hurting a bit from the night before and wanted to grab a quick nap before the afternoon trip to the waterfalls. I had been asleep for about a half hour when I feel the tent shaking and hear a grunting noise. I think that Blue-y is screwing around with me because he knows how hungover I am and how desperately I needed to sleep. I sit up with homicide on my mind and look out the tent window. A warthog is trying to eat the grass under my tent. I could have unzipped it and slapped him on his porky ass. He eventually walked off and I went back to sleep.

The afternoon was a boat cruise up to Murchison Falls themselves. As we boarded the fairly sizable boat with somewhat questionable sea-worthiness, the captain pointed out the life jackets. This was a mere formality as it turned out because we saw hundreds of hippos and nile crocodiles on the three hour trip. As I mentioned earlier, hippos are huge and dangerous, and the nile crocs are 10-25 feet in length. Drowning would be the least of your problems if you happened to end up in the river.

After a far tamer evening, I spent my second night in the tent, and then headed out in the morning. We were supposed to do some hiking around the top of the waterfall, but it was pouring rain so the trip was brief. Although Blue-y and I managed to get our act together enough to breakfast this time, Xavier apparently had another long night. He took a beer along for the morning hike in the rain.

Then it was back to Kampala. On the way out of the camp, we drove though a big herd of baboons, using their big bare red asses to show us that they thought of us driving through their morning hang-out. We stopped for matooke for lunch, the staple meal of Uganda (it is green bananas, cooked slightly, then mashed into a paste. With enough salt it and the appropriate sauce it really isn’t all that much worse than some of the things that Mom boiled or microwaved for us as kids…) And then back to the city. Then back to work for my final week in Africa (this trip).

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

You too can drown in a landlocked country!

So, as promised I did something death defying on the weekend for this dispatch.

After a relaxing day on Lake Victoria at Uganda’s only near-olympic size swimming pool on Saturday, I spent Sunday white water rafting on the headwaters of the Nile.

(The pool was built to be the first Olympic sized pool in this part of Africa, thereby allowing the resort that houses it to host international events, gain notoriety, turn a profit… But alas, due to the usual developing world attention to detail, the pool turned out to be two inches short. And was thereby relegated to being a “near-olympic-sized” pool, catering to Kampala’s well-healed ex-pat population.)

And now, without further ado, the death-defying part. I got up on Sunday at sunrise and boarded a bus filled with hung-over tourists and headed to the headwaters of the White Nile. Way up here the water is clean enough to swim in and wild enough to have one of the world’s highest concentration of class-five rapids.

We got to camp and picked out our equipment, lifejacket, helmet and paddle. The river guide was a Kiwi (New Zealander) kid that had thick blond dreadlocks and an expression that mad it clear that be believed himself impervious to drowning. He asked us to sort into three boats, regular, crazy and death-wish. I was one of the first ones in the death-wish circle.

He explained us to the basics of rafting, which basically consisted of forward paddle, back paddle, and swim if you find yourself in the river. AND DO NOT LOSE YOUR PADDLE if you get dumped. People are free to make more of, paddles cost money. We did a practice drill of flipping the boat in the still water, because he said that on average the boat will go over two or three times during the course of the day. (Yeah, we went over three times before lunch.) The drill was a little scary as I got stuck under the boat, and that was in still water. The guide told us not to panic if we find ourselves in the river. Just grab your lifejacket and count to five and you will be on the surface. Then swim to the boat, wait until still water, wait until the boat is flipped back over, climb in and do it all again.

So off we went. Through the rapids, laughing, screaming, getting soaked, getting tossed as the boat flipped. It was really good fun. Getting tossed is like getting caught in a wave when you are swimming in the ocean. You know when you don’t dive deep enough and get washed ashore… (I know this because Dad was really into bodysurfing when we were kids. I would go out into the waves with him. Six foot waves, six year old child, what could go wrong?) If you live in a landlocked place, or aren’t familiar with getting caught in a wave, just climb into an ordinary household washing machine and put it on the “SuperWash” setting.

The picture isn't me. They wanted $30 for a CD of the pictures of me drowning. The picture is the one they put on their promotional material. They are going for a certain type of client.

On the third time we went over, we flipped at the start of a long string of rapids. I was in the water, one… two… thr… pop! Back on the surface. I opened my eyes just in time to see the wall of water crashing on top of me, one… two… three… pop! This time I got two gasps of air before BANG, back down I go, one…two… three… four… Anytime now… Seven… Uh-oh. Eight… Hmm, better open my eyes to investigate… nothing but brown water… that’s not good (surface water is white)… ninetenele… pop! Gasp! Dunk! One… two… three…

This continued until I washed into the still water. I was heaving and exhausted when the safety kayak caught up with me. Boy was I glad to see him. He asked for the paddle that I had doggedly held on to for this entire ordeal. Then pointed and told me to swim for the boat. Upon getting back in, another rafter which had taken a similar trip down the river asked about drinking the water, because, like me, had just ingested a couple liters. Guide responded, oh man, don’t want to do that, that’s dangerous.

We flipped over once more during the course of the trip. Eventually an older woman in the boat (a horse trainer from Canada with, inexplicably, a diamond implanted in her left front incisor), asked the guide to stop flipping the boat. Chicken. Man, I hope I am not that yellow when I get into my 30s.

We got all the beer we could drink on the endless bus ride back to Kampala.

Other than that, I am living the quiet ex-pat economist life here in Kampala. I have a room at a guesthouse at the local university. I take a moto-cab (glorified moped with an extra seat attached to the back) to work. Because I am always in a skirt, I ride like the African women do, sitting sidesaddle, ankles crossed hanging over traffic and my laptop balanced on my lap. The way that most of these guys drive, zig-zagging through traffic moving rather in indiscriminant directions, all in all, my daily commute is probably more dangerous than the rafting trip.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda, Greetings from, Ka-amp-ala!

So I am in Kampala, Uganda. You can definitely tell that Uganda is a couple clicks down on the old development ladder from Tanzania. Kampala actually looks like an African city, with dirt and beggars. So much for the false glories of East Africa as exemplified by Dar es Salaam.

I haven’t seen much of the city yet, but so far the most interesting thing about this place is the Marabou storks. Some cities have pigeons, Kampala has Marabous. They are everywhere. On roofs, in trees, in the street, everywhere. Which would sound like a standard urban problem, but Marabou stork are quite a bit taller than I am (admittedly that is not to impressive for a human, but this is a frigging BIRD), with a six foot wingspan. These things are huge. They are taller than the TV antennas. I’ll see if I can get a good picture.

I left Dar at 6am on Saturday morning. In my infinite wisdom, I decided to take a bus instead of flying to save a couple hundred bucks and see some of the Tanzanian, Kenyan and Ugandan countryside. The trip was supposed to take 22 hours, but it ended up taking just shy of 30, counting the two hour midnight stop in Nairobi. Thirty hours is a long time to be cooped up on an African bus.

The countryside in Tanzania was beautiful though, through the foothills of Kilimanjaro. I was hoping to see a zebra out the bus window, everyone said that it was possible if not likely, so I kept up a quiet intense vigil for the 12 daylight hours that I had, carefully scanning the horizon for zebras. Except for one false alarm with some hoofed thing with curly horns just shy of the Kenyan border, I didn’t even see a dog. *sigh.

Since I have been in Kampala, I have been working with the Ministry of Finance to finish a World Bank study. It is interesting to work in a government office here. “Good enough for government work” is a decidedly lower standard.

Other than that, I have just been trying to find a place to live. I have been in five hotels in five different nights, before I just gave up and decided to pay through the nose for a really expensive one so I could get some sleep. The first one was nice, but in the suburbs, an hour from work, right next to a really loud bar TV playing Mexican soup opera dubbed into English, and strangely, had no sink. I had to brush my teeth in the shower. The second night was a dumpy backpacker joint that charged a (small) fortune for a room with no fan or openable windows that was a five minute slog through the rain to the bathroom, which was filthy. The third night was in a “tourist hotel” downtown, where my window opened onto the enclosed courtyard bar, where Rod Stewart and Linda Ronstadt echoed off the walls to all hours of the night. The fourth night I stayed a hotel conveniently placed between two huge open air discos. I could feel the base in my teeth, as much as Michael Bolton has base. Took a pair of sleeping pills to salvage that night.

So now I am paying a (large) fortune to stay at a nice hotel with a pool and excellent restaurant. I can’t keep it up for more than a couple days, but it is nice to sleep for once. I will try to do something death defying this weekend to make up for this whiny dispatch.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Pemba Island

I spent the long weekend on the island of Pemba, off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean, north of Zanzibar, and as my archeologist buddy puts, on the bog end of no where. Pemba is a lush green island known for clove plantations, scuba diving and poverty. I was most interested in the second of the three, at least on this trip.

I flew out of Dar on the smallest commercial airliner I have ever been on. There were six of us on the plane. The pilot hopped into the plane, looked back at us, asked okay? Then starts down the runway, taxiing like a drag racer, trying to put on his seat belt while talking to the tower and jaggering with the guy behind him in Swahili. Total African cowboy. The flight itself was definitely noteworthy. You could look out the window to the blue-green water and coral reefs. And the flight was short so we only topped out at 3500 feet. And even that was uncomfortably far away from the ground. This guy wasn’t a particularly good pilot. I am pretty calm flyer, but there were moments when we were bouncing around the sky that I had my airplane mantra “People die during take-off and landing, planes do not fall from the sky” running through my head.

At the airport I got to again deal with my least favorite people on earth, taxi drivers. I was locked in a heated argument with a driver (over 80 cents and principle), when he made the cardinal mistake that any driver can make with me. What are you going to do? Walk? Listen buddy, it’s only 3.5 miles and I have two hours of daylight left. I told him to ask one of the other five passengers if they need a ride. And hitchhiked into town.

The place I stayed in was an old mission house turned dive shop. Pemba is 99.9999% crazy conservative Islam (little girls as young as four or five were veiled), so the mission was probably more profitable in its current incarnation. It was a very communal living type of place, with all of us sitting around a big table on the deck for evening meals. I stayed in the dorms with a 30 something Austrian guy who said he was European Commission diplomat. He about as much of a diplomat as James Bond was a special trade envoy, but live and let live.

The next day it was out on the reef. It was a miserable morning with pouring rain, but it doesn’t matter much when you are underwater. The diving was beautiful. The water was crystal clear, there were no other divers and the reef was well-stocked with brightly colored fish. I tried out my underwater camera for the first time. Shooting fish underwater is like trying to take pictures of roving herds of puppies from the back of a motorcycle. You move, the current moves and the god damned fish will not just hold still and get their picture taken. My first day’s work was met by the divemaster with the comment, maybe you should stick to coral, sponges and fish whose defense mechanism isn’t flight. But the diving was fun anyway.

That night we all hung out on the deck and drank beer while the sunset over the banana plantations. The view was only marred by the cloud of mosquitoes that hung in the air. Occasionally a Pemba native “flying fox” would swoop through the air. (Flying foxes are bats that appear to answer the age-old question of what happens when a vampire gets it on with a werewolf.)

Next morning it was back out to the reef. The diving the second day was even better, there was less current and I stuck to shooting pictures of sponges. And a scorpion fish, who is so mercilessly poisonous that he didn’t seem to mind my camera six inches from him.

That night was more of the same with beer and balconies and flying foxes. Next day I couldn’t dive because I was flying out that afternoon, so I decided to go see Mark the archeologist at his dig site at the north of the island. I got on the daladala (public pickup truck) that ran north. I explained to the driver where I wanted to go by pointing to a picture of a ruined mosque that was in my guidebook. It came in handy as I was dumped off on the side of the road in a rice paddy. I eventually found some women washing clothes and two children were promptly dispatched to lead me through the rice paddy and mint fields to the dig site. Mark and the other archeologists apparently don’t get many visitors because I was very well-received. Mark and the other head archeologist gave me a tour of the site, showing the 14th century mosque they had under excavation, and the other mosques they had dug up in years past. Their special mission this year was to figure out how the common people lived. Rather unfortunately for the archeologists, the common people lived in mud houses. So they are digging centuries old mud out of current mud. Again, live and let live.

Mark also showed me the old fort and an excavation he was working on of a 9th century mosque. As we careened through the knee-high grass and fields (Mark never walks anywhere), he pointed out the hundreds of bits of broken pottery that littered the field. People were planting in a place where they had apparently been breaking pots for over a millennium. He lets me keep a couple of the nicer shards I picked up, which I am sure will lead to an amusing story in a couple weeks as I am arrested at the border for smuggling antiquities out of the country.

Then I got to spend a half hour digging. You take a little trowel and very carefully dig very slowly. Then another team shifts what you have just dug up. I found three pottery shards and a broken piece of ostrich egg. Which leads me to believe that perhaps Indiana Jones movies are a bit edited for the general audience.

Then it was back to town to shower, grab my bag and head to the airport. Flying back I discovered a new cost saving method that could be huge boost for the struggling domestic airline industry. Stay with me here. So you buy a plane that seats fifteen passengers. Which is good. But what would be better is to buy a plane for fifteen people and put sixteen people in it anyway. You really only need one pilot right? On the way back they wanted to seat me in the copilot’s seat, a common practice on overbooked planes. (“Madam, copilot, yes?) You just have to be careful not to hit the pedals on the floor. I was tempted, but I decided to let one of the kids sit there. He cared more than I did. I would probably feel less guilty if he took out a plane full of people because he was trying to take a picture out the window.

So I am back in Dar, finishing my last week here. Next week it is on to Kampala, Uganda…

Monday, July 03, 2006


So in an effort to escape the boredom of a weekend in a city where you know no one, I caught the 4 pm ferry on Friday from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. Zanzibar is the main island of an archipelago that, along with the mainland of Tanganyika, make up the country of Tanzania. Zanzibar has a history of kind of funny unions. It was part of the sultanate of Oman for a couple centuries. And, yes, your working knowledge of geography is correct, those two are not even remotely close to each other. Then it got to be its own sultanate for a while before being a British protectorate. Then it started had a revolution and started making all sorts of Marxist rumblings at a time when Marxist rumblings got you a large dose of CIA intervention. Instead, we just bought off the right people and, instead of turning into an African Cuba in the Indian Ocean, it became part of this weird hybrid union, Tanzania. The Zanzibaris are still a little pissed off about this and make you gets your passport stamped coming onto the island. The culture itself is really interesting. It used to be an Arab ruling class, an Indian merchant class and then an African peasantry (which also serves as the main export – slaves). Then there was a revolution bit and heads rolled (literally) and things got a bit more mixed up. The city is still a hodgepodge of different neighborhoods and architecture. Most of the (crumbling) center of the city is called Stone Town, and is a maze of little alleyways, much like a Middle Eastern souk. And they have really intricately carved doors. In different styles. Mark told me.

The boat ride over was uneventful. We watched Craig David music videos and some weird movie in Swahili about a white tribal chieftain and a black American pro-golfer (you feel like someone in casting didn’t get the memo…) that had lots of safari animal humor. I arrived after dark in a really dark port. You had to walk through narrow lanes in the shipping containers to get to the exit, all filled with the most wretched of Africa’s creatures, taxi drivers. There was no way that I was running the gauntlet alone, so I waited for the biggest meanest African lady I could find, and followed her. If she only had an umbrella to beat them with…

I found my way to the Pyramid Hotel, politely waited until the World Cup match went to commercial, and checked in. The hotel is a remodeled traditional house, and my room was on the top floor, so it involved a staircase that was more ladder than staircase. But the hotel water and ceiling fan worked most of the day, and I had a traditional Zanzibari bed, so I couldn’t complain. For dinner I walked down to the fish market to find a good selection of grilled aquatic creatures on sticks. The market is famous for tables covered in all sorts of seafood, you could get lobster and crab if you were confident that it was fresh enough… I settled for tuna and prawns. The problem was that it was well after dark and I had to negotiate the narrow alleys of the old city in the dark. The alleys are only about 5 feet wide and don’t go in any one direction for much for than a couple yards. You could get lost for months in the old town. I eventually made my way out and got something to eat, but I had no idea how I was going to get back. Then I spied Purple Shirt. Purple Shirt had been in the lobby of the guest house and I had followed him part of the way out. He was about my parents age (so OLD), had a bright purple shirt, pink shorts, black socks and brown shoes. (If you look very closely at the seafood picture, you can just see him in the background.) He also had this really distinctive walk, like a penguin with hemorrhoids, but fast. I went up to him and asked if I could follow him home. He looked at me skeptically, but agreed. Somewhere, some old actor said this is going to be the start of a beautiful friendship. So that is how I met Mark. Mark is an archeologist, and as I discovered over the course of the weekend, a minor British television celebrity. (People kept coming up and saying, excuse me, aren’t you…) He has the mannerisms of a cartoon British academic, but was unbelievably interesting. He had been “digging up the place” for about twenty years and consequentially knew every bit of history of the town. He had found a good chunk of the local museum. So I started asking him questions. He started telling me stories over a glass of sugar cane juice (Katie would love this stuff – they squeeze fresh sugar cane right in front of you into a glass, it is so sweet that you have to put lime juice in it to make it palatable.) Next thing I know, I am chasing after him all over town as I get a nocturnal tour. We are peering over fences, running around the alleys, and he just lets himself in to the historical sights like the fort, all while giving me a running history of the place in this very hushed whisper. The whole enterprise had an air of a junior high mystery story (like Big Sister and the Missing Hairbrush), but was incredibly entertaining at the same time.

The next day, Mark wrote his paper for some keynote speech he is giving next week, and I went on a spice tour. Spice tours are the requisite tourist activity on Zanzibar, and involve going out into the countryside to see how vanilla, pepper, cloves, coffee, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, etc. etc. etc. are grown. The nutmeg was the most interesting one. It is the alien looking thing in the picture. And I learned if you take enough of it it acts like an aphrodisiac (or “make ‘orny” as the guide put it). I think if you ingested the require amount of nutmeg for it to work you would likely get cancer or die of nutmeg poisoning or something – probably why it hasn’t yet overtaken Spanish Fly on the commercial market. Then it was fish and coconut milk over rice for lunch (I was on this tour with 25 other western tourists, some of which actually left the tour and took a taxi back to town rather than sit on a plastic mat and eat rice and sauce – stupid stupid people.) Then a weird 40 minute drive to look at a beach for 10 minutes, and then an hour back to town…

I got back and left word for Mark that I would be at the Africa House Bar. It was the refurbished version of the old English colonial club. It is much better now because anyone willing to pay the exorbitant prices to drink Tusker beer and watch the sunset is allowed in, unlike the olden days when you had to be in the social register in addition to paying exorbitant prices. Mark eventually came in and we sat around drinking and discussing Zanzibari history (we had gotten back the 9th century by this point…). Then dinner, ice cream, and more late night running though the city to look at churches, mosques, caravan houses, etc.

Next day I went sightseeing while Mark finished his paper. I saw all the things he had told me about, but it wasn’t near as interesting. I met him for lunch and he promptly took me to all the places that I had missed during the morning. Then a quick lunch (who knew that octopus went so well with spicy tomato sauce…) and some fast souvenir buying before heading to the boat. Mark was great at negotiating. He had been in Zanzibar longer than some of the merchants and was having absolutely none of this price gouging… I bought a really neat Zanzibar chest. Then back to the hotel, grab my backpack and dash to the ferry. I made the last boat home with 10 minutes to spare. And unfortunately, I now have to work all week until I can go and do something more interesting again.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Nothing Special, Just Testing this Blog Thing

I have just been hanging around Dar. I wanted to go scuba diving this weekend, but I got bacteria dysentery. I wasn’t going to let that ruin my weekend though. Popped a couple pills and went off to one of the islands off the coast to lay on the beach for a few hours. Hit the local market (which has a frigging ATM, East Africa is different.) Went to the pool at the swanky hotel on the ocean. (I am not sure who designed this pool and the accompanying hotel, but I am pretty sure the name on the checks he was cashing started with “Sheikh” or “Prince Al-Something.” I have seen less ostentatious architecture in Ottoman harems.) All in all, nothing exciting.

I spend my days working on a World Bank report about how to move out of poverty in some distant province. One major problem I've come up against in the regions is "man-eating lions." They have a tendency to pick off household livestock and small children. Got any policy suggestions? Using my crack knowledge of development economics, coupled with Geoff Klock's encyclopedic knowledge of Warner Brothers cartoons, we came up with the following policy recommendations: (1) Stop filling children's pockets with raw meat. (2) Do not season children after dark. (3) Stop dressing them like gazelles. I am getting promoted for sure. Or fired.

I know this isn't all that interesting, but I am trying to figure out how to use this blog thing. If successful, I will try to post pictures (the reason for this unseemly transition from e-mail), and the back issues of my wanderings. Therefore Mom can stop worrying about getting copies of them for her bridge club, and instead focus on more important things, like taking care of everything that is traditionally done for a wedding by one (very absentee) maid-of-honor.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Kilimanjaro Pictures

This is the view of Kilimanjaro from about day two of the hike. We are already well out of the thick undergrowth and above the cloud line. I hiked for a day and a half on a mountain that I had never seen because of the thick cloud cover. Uhuru Peak is behind the glaciers on top.

This is from the middle of the second day. We had just (well, maybe a while ago) crossed the cloud line.

This is the top bit of the peak climb to Gillman's Point. The 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) hike takes about six painful hours of weaving back and forth on the swithchbacks.

This is me looking like I just got finished with a death march, but standing at the highest point in Africa.

This is the top of the mountatin. Rocks, glaciers and clouds. And not much else.

These are the lodging on the hike. Nothing short of luxurious.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


So I am sitting my little office in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. I am supposed to be working on a document for the World Bank, but it is downloading rather slowly, so I will take this opportunity to run out a few words on the latest stupid thing that I have done.

I arrived last Sunday in Dar, took a cursory look at the city out the taxi window, slept the night at the YMCA, stashed my bags and headed out towards that crazy overgrown hill, Kilimanjaro. Standing at just shy of 20,000 ft , it is the tallest peak in Africa and the tallest free-standing peak in the world (it was apparently a particularly bad-ass volcano a few millenia ago.) And I was going to endeavor to climb it. Kristen Anne Markers-Mark-on-the-rocks-and-can-you-toss-another-of-those-cigarettes Himelein was going to climb a mountain. I figured that I was in pretty good shape from spending a measurable portion of last semester at the gym, and really, at 26, I am not getting any younger, so now is the time.

I arrived at the Nija Panda junction just short of Moshi after harrowing bus ride. The drivers here go way too fast and pedestrians walk on the road to avoid the knee deep mud of the rainy season on either side of the road. The bus following mine from the same bus company hit and killed a 15 year old girl while making the same trip. And buses here have that distinctive third world characteristic of passing on blind hills. Which makes for really gruesome traffic accidents, though I only saw 3 on the 9 hour journey. But I lived and, as this story's protagonist, that really is what is important here.

Upon arrival at the hotel, I learned that I would be climbing with another, some English guy. I met my fellow climber over dinner. Young, cherubic head of blond curls, and the thickest lambchop sideburns this side of the disco era. After about three days, I was able to decipher his accent enough to ascertain that his name was Michael and he was a builder from southwestern England.

The first day was easy enough. It was only a three hour walk (though we ascended quite a bit) though thick rain forest. The most exciting bit was when I stopped to drink some water a little too close to a red ant colony. They were less than amused and I spent the next 2 kilometers on the trail bouncing around like an epileptic cheerleader trying to kill them all. Bastards bite you know.

The first night was at the Mandara Hut (9,000 feet). The huts were built by some Norwegian NGO a couple years ago, so they are these little A frame deals made out of something only slightly more sturdy that posterboard. The beds were straw (only maybe not, but it sure felt that way) mattress on the board floor. It was the first of many nights that Michael and I would spend staring at each other across the 2 meters of board that was our little house. Dinner was excellent because we were on the first night, soup and vegetables and fried chicken.

The next day was a bit more of a slog. We were out of the rainforest and into the "alpine" terrain, which meant coniferous trees of diminishing size as we progressed. By lunchtime the clouds were far below and I was quite a bit taller than any of the remaining "trees." We spent the night at the Horombo Hut (12,500 feet). The air was thinner here and it was cold. I slept in flannel pants, tee shirt, heavy sweater, two pairs of socks, two sleeping bags and a knit cap. Midnight trips to the outhouse were an adventure. You wanted to run as fast as you could because it was freezing, but running more than three or four steps left you gasping for air. In the morning, when I went to brush my teeth in the community water spigot, it had frozen.

That days walk wasn't particularly difficult, but it was slow. You plodded along with one foot barely coming in front of the other, making sure that you didn't do anything to get winded because it could be a long time gasping before you were ready to go on again. The only "vegetation" around were lichens and a few confused wildflowers growing very very close to the ground. By the time we reached Kibo Hut (15,500 feet), the flowers were gone and there wasn't even much in the way of lichen. There weren't even ants up this high. The air was really thin. I spent most of the rest of the day sleeping and trying to force myself to eat (altitude kills your appetite).

At 11 pm, the guides woke us up. We layered on literally every article of clothing we had to start the summit push. You have to start that early to get across the glaciers on the crater rim before
the sun melts the upper layer of ice to water. You are pretty much guaranteed a gruesome fall to your death if you are up there when that happens. From 11 pm to 5:30 am, I climbed very very slowly up the switchbacks through the volcanic ash towards Gillman's Point (18,635 feet). The four mile climb takes over six hours. Gillman's Point is the top of the crater. To reach there you are considered to have reached the top of the mountain. You earn a green colored certificate and a pat on the back. I never thought I would make it. I was huffing and puffing the whole way through the ash. Glacial patches glowed in the moonlight to the sides of the trail. In my oxygen deprived mind, I thought they must be halogen lights being used to light up Gillman's Point. (Don't worry, I get crazier as the hours progress.) The last hour is way way above anything that could be growing, so there is nothing to break up the large boulders. You pull yourself up and over until, finally Gillman's Point. I curled up in a little ball and drank a cup of hot tea. I had made it.

Then the guide asks me if I am ready to go on to Uhuru Peak. Uhuru Peak is on the other side of the crater and the highest point on the mountain, and in African in general. It is the ultimate goal of most climbers. (You get a gold certificate for that one.) Although it is only 600 feet or some higher (and when you are around 20,000 this is trivial), but it is up and down over the crater rim, and across the glaciers, to get there, about another two hours. I haul myself up. It took me nearly the full two hours, but at 7:20 am, I made Uhuru Peak. It was a glorious scene. I panted on my hands and knees for a few minutes, pulled myself up to take a picture (in which I look like I am about to be executed) and headed back. I was there no more than five minutes. Then back down.

And then I saw my salvation. There, not 100 meters in front of me, was a donkey. He was nibbling at the grass. Oh happy day! The DONKEY will take me back down. This is perfect. Wait. We are 100 meters about the lichen line. There is no grass here. What could the donkey be eating? Oh. I am seeing things that aren't really there. (It is really common to hallucinate that high up.) The donkey turned back into a rock and I trudged on.

The trip down, once you get to Gillman's Point, was quite a bit faster. You "ski" down the volcanic ash, using your climbing stick as a brake as you go. Unfortunately you end up inhaling a bunch of ash, which your already strapped respiratory system doesn't appreciate. I made it back to Kibo Hut and collapsed. I had an hour before I had to eat dinner and then walk back down to Horomo Hut where we would spend the night. I was hurting when I got back up, pulled on my pack, and started down. The night at Horomo was cold, but I slept like a rock through most of it so I didn't notice until the morning.

The next day it was up at 6 am and back down the rest of the way to the gate. I was never so happy in all my life to see a motorized vehicle than when I walked into that parking lot. I signed the log attesting that I had reached the peak, bought a phone card to tell me mother, and went back to the hotel. After my first shower in nearly a week, and a few icy cold Tuskers at the bar, I was feeling pretty damned good about me and my gold certificate. I had walked 60 miles and ascended (and descended) 15,000 feet in the last five days.

The next day it was back on the bus and back to Dar. Currently I am living in a cold water YMCA, looking for housing that I can afford in this god forsaken city. I have looked at a number of things that I either cannot afford, or are brothels. Other than that, and the fact that the city is basically under water from massive late season rains (can you say cholera anyone?), I am having a good time. Work is fine and I am trying to pick up a bit of Swahili.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Blame Ollie North

So it has been a while. Sorry to not really finish this summer's African adventure. There was a coup in Mauritania and my schedule got all screwy and I ended up taking all sorts of weird Eastern European carriers, but I did eventually get home. And went to Graduate School. And then on vacation to Central America.

I have always avoided Latin America because I can't speak Spanish. But I got a really sweet cheap flight from New York to Honduras, practically free, so I figured I had to learn at some point... I landed in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and figured out just how little Spanish I spoke. I was able to mime my way through directions and ordering dinner (if you moo repeatedly at the counter staff of the local tacoeria, you eventually get a beef taco. I thought that was more dignified than the Chicken Dance...) Next morning I headed out for the coast. Bay Islands, beautiful weather, great diving...

Sort of. The weather was disastrously bad. (I spent the whole ride over on the ferry flipping my stomach inside out.) There were mosquitoes by the billions, and the diving was sub-par. There was one decent wreck but the island caters too intro divers so they have killed most of the coral... I didn't stay too long...

Back on the mainland I decided to have a day of "Adventure EcoTourism." I always hate this after I do it because I spend too much money and never really get that much of a rush, but I continue to do it anyway... I was picked up from the hostel in something that was one part truck, one part school bus, one part tractor and one part armored personnel carrier. The most likely possible explanation is that is WAS actually one part all those things and just soldered together by a creative mechanic. It got me up the steep "road" into the mountains though so I guess I shouldn't complain.

My first "extreme eco-sport" was canopying. This is were you hike around a mountain, occasionally zip lining across rivers, ravines, etc, hoping not to hit the surrounding trees. I wasn't very good at this sport and would continuously start spinning dangerously like a top when I was over water. I managed not to fall, break any bones or piss off any of the fire ant communities along the way, so I suppose it was worth the thirty bucks.

Then I went rafting. This was not the most organized eco-lodge in the jungle, so they misplaced the group I was supposed to go rafting with. Instead, because they couldn't lose my fee by not taking me out, they sent me out with two "guides-in-training," which is Spanish for, "Kids who don't speak English." Apparently though they too dream of hoping in the adventure tourism moneytrain, so they needed to learn. We set off in our little boat through the class IV and V rapids. What could go wrong right? Well, the "guides-in-training" haven't gotten to "left" and "right" in their English classes yet, so when the actually Guide yelled commands, they usually go it wrong, sending up dangerously spinning in the wrong direction. This led people to get thrown out of the boat. Which is really funny when it is one of the "guides-in-training." Less funny when it is you. Completely ruined my pedicure getting dragged across the boulders in a class V. I headed out the next day.

I needed to catch the bus to Nicaragua from the un-picturesque and slightly dangerous regional capital of San Pedro Sula. Of course I am staying at a $5 a night flop house in the middle of town, which doesn't improve the situation. I spent most of the afternoon walking around the market, haggling of stuff I really didn't need, then read my book until it was time to go to dinner. I went out onto the street to see every commercial establishment was guarded by people in uniform with pump action shotguns, or without uniform and sawed-off shotguns. There was a little man that sold handmade saddles and rope from a glorified cardboard box of a stand. He had a, I kid you not, Wyatt Earp era six shooter, with extra ammo in his belt. I ate a plate of chicken and beans across the street, returned to the hotel, shoved a chair under the door, and went to sleep.

See how careful I was? See what common sense I had? Fat lot of good it did me the next day in Managua, Nicaragua.

I am not green. I have been doing this a long time. I trust my instincts and keep my guard up. I check into a hotel in Managua that was a little off, but Matt was flying in from Paris to meet me there so I was stuck with it. I needed to go to the ATM to get some Nicaraguan currency and I wanted to make sure I could do that, hit the internet cafe and grab a bite before it got dark. It is not safe to walk around at night alone. I didn't trust the desk, so I took everything worth stealing and put it in my purse. Then set off on a crowded street, in the middle of the afternoon, to the ATM.

Two guys saw me coming (or, more likely, were tipped off by that SOB at the hotel). They ran up and tried to grab my bag. No way bastards. What I lack in size I make up for in sheer stubbornness. They could break my damned collarbone before they got that bag off my shoulder.

I guess they figured this out, or maybe got nervous because they were trying this on a crowded street in the middle of the day. Or they were just high. In any case the bigger of the two takes out a big shiny handgun and puts it against my throat.

I gave them the bag.

Man was I mad. It never occurred to me to be scared. But I was furious afterwards. I lost everything. Wallet. Passport. Credit cards. Camera. MP3. Watch. Everything.

A butterfly flaps its wings in Toyko, and it rains in Boston. Oliver North and Ronald Reagan send boatloads of arms to Contras, I get mugged in Nicaragua. See what happens when you vote Republican?

Matt arrived a few hours later and bailed me out. I got a new passport the next day and Prince Charming had me sleeping on 300 count sheets in a beautiful restored hotel in the colonial city of Granada by the next evening.

The next day we set out for the island of Omtepe. Omtepe is an island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua formed by two volcanoes, and, as far as I know, the only black sand, fresh water beaches in the world. We took a rickety old fishing boat out. We could have waited for the nice car ferry, but this thing looked sturdy enough, especially if you sat on the upper deck where the life jackets were. We checked into the Hotel Aly (a backpacker dive, but the price was right) and set off to explore the town and surrounding area.

The next day we wanted to climb a volcano. Conception is the taller of the two, and our first choice. Unfortunately it has been spewing noxious fumes for months (the island has been evacuated four times in the past year because they think she is going to blow...), so we couldn't climb it. That left Madras, the smaller, wetter and quieter of the two.

As we were driving out that morning, the guide was talking a blue streak, mostly about guide crap that no one cares about. Then he says, "Well we are not really supposed to tell tourists this..." (we thought it was going to be another stupid story) "... but the ferry sank yesterday..."

Holy Crap. Good thing we took the fishing boat! Apparently they overloaded it with plantains and down it went. Oops.

Matt ended up not going on the hike because he didn't feel well. (We were both drinking the tap water, but as I have been doing that all over the world for years and likely actually have a negative ph in my stomach, I didn't get sick.) So I slogged up the volcano in the rain (they said "cloud forest", they didn't mention the accompanying downpour) and ankle deep mud with a Hungarian woman and her German husband who looked like a cross between Ice Man in Top Gun and the breeding stud down at the local dairy farm.

Needless to say, they were in better shape that I was... They were also better equipped that I was. (Did you know that volcanic mud and the soles of Converse All-Stars form a perfectly frictionless surface? One for the physicists....) And man was it wet. The mud was the only thing not growing moss. There was moss that grew specially on other moss. It was truly impressive. There might have even be moss on the white face and howler monkeys, but we didn't get close enough to check.

We headed out the next day, back to Granada. It took FOREVER to get off the island. Apparently someone discovered a book of "safety precautions" for the boats.

Once in Granada, we set off to see the Volcan Massaya. It was supposedly easier than Madras, mostly because you took a bus to the entrance, paid your fee, hitchhiked your way up to the crater, walked around a bit looking at the lava fields and taking in the noxious gases, then hitchhiked back down. We stopped in the "bat caves" while were were up there. They were old lava tunnels with blood bats in them, which the guide assured us were unlikely to bit humans but not to poke them nonetheless... We took the tour with a guy about our age, Nicaraguan-American, and his little blond girlfriend from New York. He had a car and took us around a little bit after the hike. We went to the top of another volcano (noticing a trend here?) and watched the sunset while eating traditional Nicaraguan snacks (fruit, cheese and meat, in various concoctions, deepfried...) (He was very sympathetic about my robbery. Lots of guns in Nicaragua. He carries a Glock himself...)

Next day Matt headed back to Paris and I headed down to San Juan del Sur on the Costa Rican border. It was a surfer hangout. I don't really dig the surf but I like the beach. The best beaches were a couple km outside of town, so you had to get a pick-up from the hostel to take you out there. The kid that drove us out was Canadian and man was he dumb. Or fried. Or both. We spent the day in the sun. On the way back, the other group was running late. I told the kid I would be on the beach and come get me when before they left. He forgot. Short-term I suppose... It took me FOREVER to hitchhike back to town... I went to the hostel to tell them about getting left. They responded, "again?" and gave me my money back.

That night after I was all showered and aloe vera'ed, I was sitting around shooting the shit with the other backpackers. They were talking about the Hotel Aly on Ometepe. Yeah I stayed there too. No, what happened to you? You too? Massive tarantula problems? Size of dinner plates? I promptly excused myself and shook every article of clothing out of my bag.

Next day I spent on the beach and using the Lonely Planet as my primary source to write an overdue research proposal for a spring trip to Cuba. I am going to study tourism, not surprisingly...

Next day it was back north to Esteli. Lonely Planet says it was a picturesque little town damaged heavily in the war. I didn't find it picturesque. And maybe it was war-damaged as compared to, oh, I don't know, Toledo, but it has nothing on Dubrovnik or Brazzaville. Lonely Planet Central America is about as up-to-date and useful as Christopher Columbus' journals.

Next morning I began the long and arduous journey back to Tegucigalpa to go home. This was comprised of 6 local bus trips. I made the journey with a Swedish kid named Marcus. He didn't know too much English and our two days together was straight out of a Beckett play, but the company was nice.

Then I headed for home. I had bought a couple pieces of ceramics and I packed them up in a cardboard box that I stole from a grocery store, and headed out.

Now I don't check luggage when I fly because I never have anything big enough that requires it. So I had my Box and my backpack and a 9 hour layover in El Salvador. Like hell I was staying in the airport.

I went to the Immigration officials, that assured me that all I needed was a pass and I could leave without having to pay the $32 tourist tax to re-enter the airport. I should get that pass from my airline. When I asked for said pass I was told the following things by a sequence of people leading up the food chain (I had nine hours, I could ask to speak to supervisors all afternoon...) (1) Passes are only for people who missed connections. (2) Passes are only for people with layovers shorter than 10 hours - when I pointed out that in fact my layover was shorter than ten hours, I was told that the hours were not regular hours, but aeronautical hours, which were different and my layover was longer than ten hours. (3) Passes do not exist. Come and go as you please.

So Box and I left. The taxis wanted almost $30 to take me to the local beach resorts. Forget that. I knew the word for beach in Spanish, so Box and I walked down an exit ramp to the intersection where the public buses were. We jumped on a bus to a little town called San Luis where we waited at a roadside stand for the pickup truck to take us to "la playa." I loaded Box onto the front with the eggs and sacks of corn, climbed in an off we went.

After about 15 km, we did indeed reach a beautiful coastline. The others on the pickup assured me that I wanted the hotel at the end of the road. So Box and I bumped along the dirt track through little Salvadorian villages until we reach this huge yellow compound. I let myself in. It was incredible. Beachfront bungalows, decks, pools, restaurants, marina, birds of paradise... and no people. I wandered around until I found a kid working construction who spoke slow enough for me to understand. The hotel is only for North American on package deals. It is only open from Wednesday to Sunday. Would I please come back then? Box and I asked to sit on the deck for a while. We sat long enough for me to finish my book before I got bored and we headed back. I had lunch at the little sandwich stand where I had waited for the pickup that morning, and headed back to the aeropeurto, back to New York.