Sunday, November 21, 2010

Parental Supervision Required

So it has been awhile since the last post - which is inexcusable because I have been here in Africa - ostensibly having the adventure of a lifetime!  In reality it has been more work than anything else - bouncing between Tanzania, South Africa and Uganda, and trying frantically to dot i's and cross t's before my approaching December 15th return to the US.  Plus I had to plan a 12 day safari / Zanzibar vacation.  In contrast to my usual throw-the-backpack-on-and-wander-out, my parents require a bit more advance planning. After their first African experience in Burkina Faso in 2002, I had to deliver something with a little less "smoke and dirt" if I wanted then to ever consider coming back.

So, joined by my intrepid sidekick Adonis J, we set off for five days in Arusha, Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater.  It was one of my most incredible safari trips to date - and fortunately my parents got to see the big five plus some.  Mom liked the elephants, Pops dug the Cape Buffalo, Adonis J and I both like the dik-dik.

I took literally thousands of pictures over the course of our visit, but as no one has the patience of that (except for maybe Alice!), I have culled and categorized them for your viewing simplicity.


Everyone likes lions, and man-oh-man did we see lots of lions.  Sleeping lions, walking lions, copulating lions, lions in the road, lions under trees, lions in trees, lions on roads, lions in the grass...  They walked close enough to the safari car, that in many circumstance, should you have been interested in a rather unique obituary in the local paper, you could have reached out and slapped one on the ass.  There was also one particularly memorable moment where, having interrupted two lions getting busy, we got stuck in the sand while the male lion glared at us from a few feet away.  We sat there for awhile wondering how this was all going to turn out (and listening to what I assume was a steady stream of Swahili obscenities from the driver), until another car came by and was able to block the lions' view long enough for the guide to hop out, kick gravel under the tires, and hop back in.  Quickly.  In any case, here are the lion pictures:

We only saw one leopard and it was a bit camera shy.  Though I do like the shot of the Reebok in the tree.

While not quite as many as the lions, we saw a bunch of these guys as well.  Including one that spent a good chunk of the morning making some zebra very uncomfortable.

Civet Cat
Rounding out the big cats on our virtual safari is the civet cat.  It is about the size of a extra large house cat and would certainly guarantee that your house didn't have any rats.  Or squirrels.  Or spaniels.  

Hyenas and Vultures
Much like no matter how many baseball games I go to I never catch a foul ball, no matter how many safaris I go on, I have never seen a kill.  This is as close as we came this trip, it vultures and hyenas finishing the job.

We saw lots of elephants. They tend to go pretty much wherever they feel like - and particularly seem to like the ease and convenience of walking on main roads instead of tramping through the bush.  Multiple times we had to stop so the elephants could finish crossing, including once where an old male was oncoming traffic.  Again, close enough to touch.
The Herds
We were lucky enough to be in the Serengeti for the "reverse migration."  While not as impressive as the regular migration - which involves thousands of animals squeezing through narrow bottlenecks on the quest north, the reverse migration - where everyone is headed back south again - is still quite impressive.  Below are the best of all things hoofed.

Hippo and Rhino
One plentiful, one rare, the fat boys are getting lumped together because I didn't get much in the way of good pictures of them.
One Miscellaneous Agama Lizard
I like the lizards and this was the only one that held still long enough to get his picture taken.

Sometimes, as a daughter, you just need to stand back and let your parents learn life's lessons the hard way.  The Maasai village was one of those times.  My mother developed a bit of a fetish of the exotically dressed traditional warriors native to the Serengeti.  That was quickly cured with a Maasai "village tour" which included a brief introduction to Maasai culture, then full blown hard sell buy-my-crap routine.  But after only an hour in the people zoo, my mother was cured.  And I got some great pictures, both of the Maasai villages, and my parents.

That was it for the safari portion of this vacation.  Yesterday we flew from Arusha out to Stone Town in Zanzibar, and a headed to the beach for the rest of the week.  You can look forward to nothing but sunsets and nudibranches in the next post.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Drive and Dive 2010

My mother thinks I work too hard (and for once she is correct).  So she was excited to hear that I decided to take a week off after the brutal last few months.  At least she was excited until she found out that I was planning on taking a road trip with my Former Roommate into northern Mozambique without a map or guidebook or really any sort of concrete plan whatsoever – with the vague intension of finding coral reefs and diving on them.

Things started out swimmingly.  Despite drinking until 3 am the night before, we were on the road by 9.  Drove all day south to a town called Mikindani – where we expected to ask around until we figured out where the ferry boat was to cross the river in to Mozambique.  This devolved into a game of good news/bad news.  The bad news was that the ferry sank three years ago.  The good news is that they just finished a bridge.  The bad news is that the bridge is a back-track and detour of a few hundred kilometers inland.  And we still had no frigging map.

Fine, onward!  As we got closer to the mythical bridge, the road devolved into a pitted sand track dotted with wooden culvert crossings (the last of which was so completely rotted through that we had to hug the far wall to make it across).  And we needed gas.

Fortunately the sand track abruptly ended at a 1 kilometer stretch perfect tarmac – and the gleaming new Unity Bridge – which is huge and wide and well capable of taking any form of transport serendipitous enough to make it there.  It was white with four giant protruding tusks (because if you are going to build a white elephant you might as well be literal about it).  We dealt with the border formalities and found someone to bring us a 20 liter plastic container of gas.  Across the bridge and into Moz -  where I am flying down the brand new smooth tarmac.  For about 400 meters.  Then the pavement ends as abruptly as it began and I have to make a U-turn to find the pitted sand track we are actually supposed to be driving on.

I last about 30 kms at the wheel - fishtailing around the sand roads before– in a move rooted partially in compassion and partially in self-preservation - Roommate takes over.  And so we go banging across the nothingness.  We had heard that northern Mozambique was sparsely inhabited, but we passed less than 10 villages in over 100 kms.  We had just driven through Number Nine, we came upon the Problem.  A tractor-trailer pulling construction equipment had jackknifed across the narrow dirt road.  The cab had slammed into the hillside on one side of the road and the back four wheels of the trailed hung off the edge on the other.  So precariously balanced was the truck that the back two wheels of the cab were suspended off the ground.  With no truck crew in sight.

We learned through a pigeon of English and Swahili that the tractor trailer crew had gone to the next town to see if it could figure something out.  After a brief unsuccessful foray back to Village Number Nine in search of food (they either won’t share or didn’t have any), we returned to accident site to wait it out (at this point we didn’t have enough gas to do anything else.)  We toss our mat in a shady spot under a tree and read for awhile.  Occasionally one of us will tramp off into the woods to pee or futilely search for an alternate route.  Basically we just swat at the flies and sit in the dirt.

A few hours in, the circus came to town.  A heavy logging truck arrived, as well as a South Asian foreman, three gendarmes, and assorted hangers on.  Much discussion ensued.  Roommate and I moved the mat up to the top of the hill over-looking the scene and passed the water bottle back and forth.  Plan A is to use the logging truck to ram the back of the stuck tractor trailer and hopefully push it free.  A couple attempts at this only succeed in pushing the truck further off the cliff.  Plan A ends is a large dent in the tailgate of the logging truck.  Plan B, proposed by the gendarmes, was to just unhitch the trailer, let it drop over the cliff, and voila! road is clear.  (The South Asian foreman was less than impressed by this suggestion.)  Plan C is to dig into the cliff to make a path wide enough for traffic to get by.  The foreman predicted that this can be done in two hours by ten men with spades.  Perhaps true, unfortunately what we had on hand was spade, a garden hoe, a tire iron, a bent section of metal pipe, a gaggle of semi interested children, and three able bodied adults (including the Roommate).  The children dug with their hands for awhile, then left.  Roommate dug with the spade and pipe until his hands were bleeding (about 20 minutes).  In the end, the whole process took more than seven hours and ended with some drunk guy standing in front of the car yelling for us to hit the gas (and presumably hit him) as the car pitched onto a nauseating angle before righting itself and landing all four wheels on the dirt on the other side of the truck.  At that time we did in fact hit the gas and got the funk out of there.
We had just short of 100 kilometers to go before the first town of any size that might have gas or a money changer.  It was 9:30 at night.  The road was crap, but the alternative was to sleep in the car.  We passed a hyena in the road, and banged on until we reached Mueda – a shit little town in the middle of nowhere, with a dirty little guesthouse, gas, cold beer, grilled fish, and Chuck Norris movies on TV.  Success.

Next day it was back on the road again.  This included only a half day of driving and only getting lost and stuck once, though there were a few uncomfortable moments as we passed men in green jumpsuits sweeping the side of the road with their metal detectors.  (We both really thought this province had been de-mined already.)  Extremities intact, we arrived on the beautiful coastal town of Pemba.  After a late lunch of beer and fish on the beach, we made some plans for the coming days.  Diving, then a drive up the coast for a hundred or so kilometers, then a boat over to the island of Ibo and then on to Matemo – where a five star all-inclusive dive and beach resort awaited us.  Beers and bonfire on the beach capped off the day, and barring the one more small problem of mice getting into our luggage during the night and eating all the soap, toiletries, paper (including nibbling on the car title), and a few assorted items of clothing, we were officially on vacation.

The next day consisted of two leisurely morning dives, then a short two hour drive, then a bit of weirdness with getting the boat to the island (ie carrying the luggage as we waded into thigh deep water), then more grilled fish and beer.  In fact “diving, grilled fish and beer” basically can sum up the rest of the week (with perhaps a smattering of “sitting on the boat, wandering Portuguese colonial ruins, and vodka-tonic”) so, as you have indulged me this far, I will spare you the details.  For me, the week ended Sunday by jumping on a plane back to work and Dar.  Roommate and Car are still in Mozambique/southern Tanzania somewhere.  (Please let me know if anyone has heard from them.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Who says you can't go home again?

I try not to be an introspective blogger. Amusing anecdotes, crazy mishaps, inadvertent cultural faux pas, those are acceptable to toss up on the internet for the world to see. I shoot for ‘comically stoic’ as a medium – skipping personal triumphs as self-aggrandizing and occasional heartbreak as Sally-Struthers-esque. All of which makes this post about Burkina particularly hard. I had done quite a bit of travel in the past 10 years, but these last two weeks have been the most personally intense. Burkina is both completely different and exactly the same. An African friend described the duality to the common Western confusion between modernization and development. Yes, there is electricity and cell phones and satellite dishes and flat screens and cars where there previously had not been. But there is still the same poverty of opportunity. Village mentalities and lives are largely unchanged, even if the ornamentation has improved.

I am not sure I completely agree. Some things in Burkina have gotten better. Cell phones are everywhere – even the fous seem to have them – and the road and transportation networks are markedly improved. There are banks and ATMs in most cities and even some large villages (there were actually more in my hotel than previously in the capital city). Clean water and basic health care are more widely available. The literacy rate is still among the worst in the world – but it is ten points higher than ten years ago. Pagne pants have fallen out of fashion – meaning that today’s Burkinabe male youth look substantially less ridicules than just seven years ago.

But even with all the new bright lights and big city of the new bar strip in Kwarma N'kruma, and the massive gosplan new ‘2000’ neighborhood of condos and ministry buildings, and a new rage for constructing overpasses (including a triple-decker on the Fada road), Ouaga still feels like Ouaga. The air still smells the same – of cooking smoke, dust, humidity, peanut sauce and raw sewage. You can still get a place of riz-sauce for 100 cfa, and a cooked chicken retails for 2000 cfa (though my trip to get a poulet legendaire at Boulougou’s was thwarted by a national cooking gas crisis.) 750 ml of beer are still less than a buck (though there has been a seismic shift in beer market. Not only have two new competitors entered the scene – Beaufort and Export33 – but Brakina, the previous green bottle swamp water, has been replaced with a new brown bottle formula that tastes, dare I say it, *better* the SoBBra). Peace Corps volunteers still stock up on American whiskey and canned goods at the Marina Market, but gone are the dusty shelves and past-due expiration dates. The new Marina Market is a Burkinabe Target, encompassing three floors and selling everything from bourgeois vegetables to home furnishings. The Ouaga marché has been rebuilt after the great fire of 2003 – it is still a shit show but no longer a death trap. Fonctionnaires still wear fonctionnaire suits but it seems they are now all legislated to carry laptop bags. Taxis are no longer glorified Flintstone cars – with the worst of the worst being taken off the street. Similarly there has been a massive crackdown on tomato cans kids – I only saw a handful the entire time (including one older than I was making me think that he was not a legitimate marabou follower but rather a fou with an old can). Peanut sauce still tastes damned good. There are still rocks in the rice.

And briefly for the former denizens of Yako – Chez Abel is still alive and kicking. The catfish guy is sadly not. Yako not only has a ‘cyber center’ but the lycée has a computer center and a blog ( The upper floor of the school is structurally unsound and condemned. There are paved basketball courts. The dirt track to Koudougou is now a straight up legit road. The vulture hotel is still there but oddly there are no more vultures. The painted the mosque and it actually looks really nice. Donkeys still wake up in the morning – and inevitably you will be hungover. The new volunteer has a robinet. My elephants are still on the wall in the old house.

And finally – my friends are still there. I had fallen out of touch with most of my old colleagues but still had one or two e-mail addresses. I was worried that no one would remember me – it’s been more than seven years. But I heard back from the two and they said they would invite some of the others for drinks. Fifteen people came. (Fortunately I remembered all but one or two.) It was incredible to see everyone. To hear how well they are doing. To hear about promotions, new jobs, wives, children (including a 7 year old named Kris!). To see that they not only remembered my “il faut partager” trick with reluctant drinkers but used it on me completely successfully. To talk about the crazy old days in Yako. To just be together again.

There, you see, I made it almost all the way to the end without getting sappy. But as long as the sentimental cherry has been popped – I love you Burkina Faso.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Genesis Story

People often ask me why I joined the Peace Corps. This question is asked in various tones of voice, from incredulous to honestly interested, but it has been a mainstay of almost every non-professional introductory conversation over the past ten years. My answers vary with the questioner. I usually say something along the lines of “I had been lucky in what I had all my life and thought it was time to give some back” and “I saw a Peace Corps commercial during Saturday morning cartoons in 1983 and it always stayed with me.” Both of which are true. I usually leave out the third reason. “Because I was living with my boyfriend in a shitty apartment in Queens, working in a job I didn’t like, and one day looked down the road and saw the path I was on.”

The next question people ask is usually “Did you like it?” I usually respond by asking them how they liked the time period from 2001 to 2003, just generally. It had its localized highs and lows, but yes, generally I did like it. And regardless of whether I liked it or not, the decision to join changed everything – going back to the old path just was no longer possible.

Of all the people and experiences from that time, the story of Mariam and Armella was perhaps the most influential. Mariam was my age and worked nights at the bar next to my house. As I (from time to time) could be found at the local bar at night, I got to know her a little bit. She was about my age (24), had two children on her own, Armella, age 7, and Aristide, age 3, plus she took care of Karim, age 5,the child of one of her relatives. Eventually I knew her well enough to offer to employ her at my house doing laundry and dishes and the like so that she didn’t have to work at the bar.

Mariam never impressed me with her decision making skills. She worked late with sleeping three year old tied on her back. She would come to my house and ask for money for medicine for the baby – with a brand new expensive hair weave. She completely drove me crazy with her lack of reliability in anything. But the kids I liked - particularly the oldest girl. Armella was sharp as whip. She knew to come by with a pack of her friends in the afternoon because I would give them lollipops. She also knew to come by alone with her primary school report card – class rank 5 out of 113 got a plate of bonafide American mac&cheese.

Mariam died a few months before I left. I worried about Armella. I brought by food and money once in awhile while I was still there. I sent some money back to a village elder. I wrote letters and sent them through people in the village. But eventually people moved and died, and I lost contact. I tried to find her over the years a few times through current serving Peace Corps volunteers, but never with any success.

Then a few months ago a request came into the division for technical assistance on a project in Burkina Faso. In hindsight I might have overplayed my hand a bit in trying to get it (after all Burkina generally isn’t high on Joe World Banker’s priority list) and if I end up sitting in Tchad or Guinea Bissau at some point I have no one but myself to blame. But I got it. And on Sunday September 5th at 3:30 pm, I landed in Ouagadougou for the first time since I left as a Peace Corps volunteer more than seven years ago. Burkina has and hasn’t changed over the years. (I promise to write another post next week on that.) And on Friday I took advantage of the end of Ramadan holiday to escape the office and head north to Yako.

Armella was still there - still living in the same compound. We drank Fanta and I found out she is 16 now and going into her 3eme exam year at school. (Less than 30 percent of Burkinabe children get that far in their education with the rate for girls being far lower.) She is a pretty happy kid who hates math, dissolves into giggles when we talk about all the silly games we used to play, and is excited for the school year to start. I will still worry about her – she is now also old enough to serve drinks at the same bar where her mother worked – but so far she is doing great.

I apologize for being sappy. This has been a really mixed up emotional week being back here - way more introspection that I am used to either experiencing or sharing with the world. I promise next week to have a more upbeat *oh those crazy Burkinabe* posting.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

What’s with all the Italians in the Mafia?

Mafia Island is about 130 miles southeast of Dar es Salaam (or about 35 minutes in a single engine prop).  It is part of the Zanzibar archipelago, sharing with it the tropical climes, beautiful reef, ancient culture, incredible cuisine, and a shit ton of Italian tourists.  I don’t know what it is about this handful of dots in the Indian Ocean that attracts them in droves, but hotel managers, dive shop operators and the like, all Italian.  They seem particularly well adapted to the “third class service, first class price” mantra of the leisure industry in Africa.
In any case, this was my first weekend off in three months and I was determined to enjoy it.  And as my 5 passenger flight touched down on the sand and shell runway, and I looked out over the small island and big reef, I knew I was right to leave my laptop locked in a desk drawer.  (I take sand and shell runways to be a good omen – like men with good jobs and large tattoos – it just shows a healthy sense of priorities.)  The guy that picked us up was driving a hot-wired 70s vintage Range Rover.  An hour later I was standing on a white sand beach with my book and an ice cold Kilimanjaro. 

Rather unfortunately for me, one of the quirks of diving Mafia is that the viz is crystal clear during high tide, and total murk at low tide.  This wouldn’t have been a big deal had high tide not been at 6 am that weekend – half hour before sunrise.  So each morning of my weekend started off with shivering on the beach at 5:45, watching the sky turn grey and waiting for the crew to finish loading the gear on the wooden dhow that would take us out to the reef.  The good thing was it doubled my time there, because I would be done a full day’s diving by lunch, leaving the afternoon to sleep on the beach and explore the coastal mangrove forest. 

Diving itself was pretty good – particularly on the early morning dives.  There were lots of little things (nudi-branches and colorful flat worms) and big things (like huge sting rays and giant grouper) and all their cousins in between.  My dive camera finally wheezed its last on this trip so the pictures aren’t great, but a new one is on the way next month should be a bit better. 

The off-gas day (you can’t dive then fly within 24 hours) was spent poking around ruins, teasing the huge numbers of fruit bats that live in the trees, and sleeping on the beach.  And arguing with Mafia’s Mafia - the over-chargin’ Italians at Mafia Island Lodge.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Musings of a Food Powered Work Machine

Hopefully this entry will signal the start of more frequent posting from my outpost.  I have just finished three intense weeks of work in the town of Morogoro, and am now back safe in my expat ghetto in Dar es Salaam.  Despite some grueling hours lately, I did manage to squeeze in two three-hour hikes and a 1000 km road trip. 

The road trip was for work, the hikes were ‘fun’.  The first hike was from Morogoro up to a nearby waterfall, and turned out to be little more than an overpriced uphill march through People Tryin’ A Sell Me Shit Land.  I am attaching a picture if only a reference point for the Second Waterfall. 

(Interesting aside: along the way we passed a woman making small brown rolls that looked like clay.  They were a locally produced nutritional supplement for pregnant women that, for a price of course, we could try.  So I gave it a go. As I am crunching on something that tastes like pre-fired ceramics, the guide further described this local specialty – made of clay from the nearby woods, they also have the secondary use of decorating the exterior of mud huts.  I have to admit that they got me good.  If a bunch of people earning in a day what I made in a year came stomping through my town, I might be tempted to amuse myself by making them pay to eat dirt too.)

Three days after that so-called adventure, I set off on a real odyssey.  I had three field teams to visit, all in the mother-loving middle of nowhere in central Tanzania.  So packed up the car and the research assistant and off we went.  Note that road trips in Africa are a little different than those in the developed world.  The essential ingredients, like road signs, maps, gas stations, and, in certain places, the roads themselves, are non-existent.  I got well acquainted with my gas light over these three days.  The first day I really almost got us stranded.  I left the regional capital with what I thought was a half-tank, but discovered after about 20 minutes that I had a sticky gas gauge and, by the time I got to the next sign of civilization, I was down well under a quarter.  The one station in that town, however, didn’t have any gas that day.  Unable to make it back, we decided to press on, even though where we were leaving the paved road and all logical hope of finding gas.  Things were looking pretty dire when we finally passed a dusty building marked ‘filing station’.  Gratefully we pulled in.  We knocked on the door and found the Tanzania equivalent of stoned gas station attendants watching a bootleg action DVD on vintage computer screen.  There were some language difficulties, but they were desperately trying to convince us to join them.   We explained that we were looking for petrol.  They assured us that ‘Mr. Petroli’ would be here shortly and that we should just have a seat.  Sensing we were in the company of morons (who had probably watched a few too many bootlegs about American women), we decided to take our chances with the road.  And left.  But by now my gas light was on.  We rolled (literally) into the next town and fortunately located a village gas station (a 100 gallon metal drum of gas that was transferred to my tank using a bucket and funnel system) and were able to purchase 10 liters (about 3 gallons and enough to get us through).  But evidencing that I have much work to do here in Africa spreading the gospel of market economics, they only charged us only a tiny markup over the price in town, even though I was rich, in trouble and without an alternative.  Makes a girl want to trace supply and demand curves in the dirt. 

Next day we began, with a full tank this time, a two day odyssey to visit two more teams operating further south.  I didn’t have a map or anything in the way of concrete directions but fortunately there are only about 10 roads in this country so it is hard to miss your turn.  About three hours into a nasty five hour drive mostly on dirt, I found out that the field teams I was headed for had had some transportation issues (completely believable since I more than once worried that I had broken my axel on unexpected moon crater in the road) and hadn’t started working yet.  This coincided with my arrival at another national park, so we decided to bugger off for a few hours and hike a waterfall. 

We chose the Sonje Falls in the Udzungwa Mountains.  Sonje Falls are the ‘highest falls in a national park in Tanzania’ – rising in a three tiered cascade 180 m (more than 500 ft) through the forest.  (I’m attaching a distance shot for reference.)  From the top, which if you can make it there, they let you walk right up to the edge and look down at the endless flat valley of sugar cane in front of you.  (This is sugar country – we pass a high school whose name translated as ‘Secondary School of Cane Cutters’ – certainly a name that encourages students to dream big.) 

Happy to have gotten a good hike in, we headed for the teams.  Meeting one team that afternoon, we talked ourselves into an overnight at some Swiss fancy tropical medicine research center, and headed to see the other the next morning.  My directions were to cross the Kilombero River and follow the road 75 kilometers.  I was in for two surprises that morning.  First, I had naively expected a bridge.  Instead I joined a queue of all-night truckers high on glue waiting to cross on a rickety metal ferry.  Secondly, I thought we would be driving through more flat, dusty valley.  Instead I found myself leaning on the horn almost continuously as I wound through narrow mountain roads (which were inexplicably and mercifully paved!) – really hoping that my story didn’t end in a head on with a lorry full of illegal timber. 

But we survived, visited the team, and made it all the way back to Dar by yesterday afternoon, stopping only to buy some local fabric, a blanket weaved by leper women (the store was advertised in the Swiss tropical medicine center so I am assuming that my toes aren’t going to fall off from using it), and a strange little carving made of wood, bone and porcupine quills from a road side stand that had a bunch of carvings and a phone number written on the wall in chalk if you wanted to buy anything. 

(And as a bonus, I am attaching pictures of this fun multi-tone grasshopper that I found and the *huge* spiders that live in the tree under which I parked my car each morning.)