Sunday, April 26, 2009

Zanzibari Rains

So I am back in Dar es Salaam to finish up a few last things before I head back to Washington. I spent the last five days with one of the field teams off the coast of mainland Tanzania on the island of Zanzibar. It is an interesting place. Having been a separate state until the 1960s, it leaned a little too far to the left and was consolidated into the much larger mainland Tanganyika to keep it from becoming the Cuba of the Indian Ocean. (Though in what must have seemed like more than fair compensation in the minds of the colonial powers, the archipelago was able to lay claim to half of the letters in the name of the future country, despite having less than 5 percent of the population.) Once known for exporting spices and people, it is now known for exporting spices and importing people – with tourism being the main source of hard currency. All this taken together with the tropical setting results in a drink which is one part decaying sultanate and colonial majesty, one part fundamentalist Islam, and one part delicious sea food, blended and served in a coconut.

Though most of my time there was taken up with the rather mundane crap of earning my living, I did decide that I was going to take the weekend off. I had all sorts of *fun* non-work activities planned, diving, shopping, sightseeing, lobster on the beach… When Saturday morning arrived, I threw back the mosquito net and opened the shutters to my balcony, and of course it is pissing down rain. Bloody hell. Not to be dissuaded from my pre-planned good time, I put on my bathing suit and slogged over to the dive shop. Barack, my Kenyan dive guide and I, loaded the gear onto a wooden boat with a somewhat sickly sounding Yamaha outboard and started across the white-capped channel. Even in my full wetsuit, it was a cold trip. But once we were underwater it was fine. The lack of direct sunlight overhead and the murk because of the currents made it difficult to see. Coming upon each new corral head or sunken boat was like making a fantastic discovery. Or so I told myself because god damn it I was having *fun* on my day off. The second dive followed one of the shortest surface intervals in recorded history because it was just disgusting shivering in the rain as the boat tossed on the waves. I should have appeciated it though. When we came up from the second dive, we discovered that the wind and rain had really kicked up. The boat captain was soaked and annoyed as hell that we had spent another hour underwater. We climbed in the boat and headed back across the ocean channel. What had been chop and whitecaps in the morning were now full blown ocean rollers. And the direction of town was perpendicular to the wind, so the waves hit hard on the windward side, crashing spray over windward passenger (me), then rolled the boat hard to the leeward. Twice we lost the rail under the water, sending water crashing across the deck and scattering the heavy air tanks. To pass the time, Barack shouted stories over the wind about wooden boats like this one that had sunk in the last two weeks. His aggregate death toll was at 75 when we finally entered the harbor.

After a hot shower, I awaited a break in the rain to take a look around town. In a fleeting hour of intermittent drizzle, I was able to visit the National Museum, the Sultan’s Palace, and the former grounds of the slave market. (At the latter I found the largest spider web I have ever seen, pictured here. Keep in mind those babies are the size of your palm. Spiders? Why does it always have to be spiders?) Lobster on the beach was tabled for tuna at the bar.

By the time I woke up this morning the choices were pretty much build an ark or get out of Dodge. I headed to the airport to see if I could get on an earlier flight. It didn’t bode well that the water in the airport parking lot reached nearly my ankles. Everything was delayed, but I could fly standby for the first flight out. A few hours later, I found myself in the standby seat (ie the co-pilot’s chair) of a 12 seat plane, trying to make small talk with the Canadian pilot as we waited to clearance for takeoff. “So how long you been doing this?” “10 years.” “Always here?” “No I flew in the Canadian Arctic for 5 years.” “I see, sounds cold. Any special advice for flying a single engine prop across the ocean during a monsoon? (ha ha)” “Nah, I have to say it worries me though, the single engine…” “Oh.”

WHAT IS WITH THESE PEOPLE? Don’t they know it is not good for tourism to tell people that they might die doing said tourist activity? My day off is supposed to be *fun*. Being reminded of my own frail mortality is decidedly not *fun*.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tepid Tanzania Training in Tanga

Alright alright, I have been in Tanzania for almost a month and haven’t posted a blog entry. Fine, I know. I have been remiss in my duties. But, other than the noteworthy yet not particularly interesting event of my hard drive crashing, not too much going on here. (My battle weary computer had soldiered on despite receiving a near fatal blow in an overhead luggage rack on the Guate City – DC direct in March 2007, but alas, the heat, humidity and Confliker onslaught of tropical Tanzania did her in. Her hard drive finally gave out in the small town of Tanga, where she was lovingly attended to by an Iraqi √©migr√© with radical clerical wallpaper on this cell phone – my national origin notwithstanding – but, in the end she just faded away… RIP). So you can’t blame my technologically hobbled self too much for being a little slow with the posts.

And I don’t have much in the way of good stories. I was ensconced in one of the nicest hotels in Tanzania for two weeks while I worked in the National Bureau of Statistics. Except for the occasional avalanche of unfiled telephone book sized questionnaires that stretches to the ceiling in most offices, it’s a statistics bureau. Not a whole lot super exciting going on there. Then I went up to Tanga for a training. And while Tanga got plenty of CNN play for being close enough to Mombasa, Kenya to appear on the inset map during all those Somali pirate shenanigans, not much going on *in* Tanga. The most exciting part (for lots of different players in fact) was me learning to drive on the other side and not kill the large numbers of pedestrians, donkey carts, children, bicycles, chickens, etc that share the narrow roads. This was only permitted by my colleague during moments of dire necessity.

I did spend a week doing field visits, while is always interesting. (And alls I have to say to Peace Corps Tanzania is buck up – you have palm trees!) As I spent most of the day during this time listening to people conduct interviews in Swahili (and having the general utility of a lawn gnome), I passed the time making faces at the children. And oh boy am I funny looking. I have included a few pictures of some of the better reactions…

Things are looking up for me now though. I am doing field visits in Zanzibar this week. And anywhere that involves white sand beaches, fresh fish, and the ubiquitous culinary use of coconut milk, is going to be a-okay in my book.