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.