Sunday, December 25, 2011

Afar Afar Away

I am late again.  I guess of all the things that I could be late for at this point in my life, a blog post is probably one of the least mission-critical, but I am still going to resolve to blog more and more closely to the time of actual events in the ’12.

So I am writing this in a 767 one hour from landing and Dulles airport and the kickoff of my weeklong 7,000 mile DC-LI-NYC-PA-CA holiday swing.  I spent the last two weeks cleaning data (which if you have the benefit of not knowing what that is please for the love of god don’t even change that about yourself) in the steamy tropical Dar es Salaam.  None of the events encompassed in the previous two sentences are even remotely interesting *but* I spent most of the first two weeks of December in Afar.

The Afar region of Ethiopia is located in the northeast of the country – having exotic and interesting neighbors like Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia.  The region itself actually lies below sea level in the Afar Depression.  It will eventually flood with ocean when continental drift finally tears the Horn completely off from the mainland (though they are pretty safe for the next few millennium).  And while I know that I seem to say this with alarming regularity – the people of Afar have a long proud tradition.  But seriously though.  The skeleton of Lucy was found in Afar.  For those of use that aren’t quite sold on the “dinosaur bones are a test of our faith” line of reasoning (which I like to think is the majority of people even if the minority of Republican presidential candidates), that pretty much drops the ace of trump on this particular discussion.

Tradition has it that men are armed to protect the family’s herd – which in one go contains the household’s main food source and entire net worth.  And indeed most men wear a long curved ornate sword over their traditional skirts.  But the neighborhood has gone downhill since your grandfather’s day – warlords and beardos setting up shop just down the street – that curved sword just isn’t quite the deterrent it once was.  But luckily you can buy a Klashnikov for about $75 bucks (of course my male colleagues asked).  As such, every male over the age of 16 has an AK-47.  And a few clips.  (Whereas in many parts of Africa every male of 16 has a gun, but you can be reasonably assured they can’t afford bullets.)

Also, when you first cruise into “town” you notice there is a surprising amount of green being sold despite the surrounding territory having the fertility of southeastern Mars.  Then you realize this isn’t vitamin rich spinach for the kiddies.  It is qat.  Qat is a cross between chewing tobacco and LSD – giving you a nice little mildly hallucinogenic buzz.  So the basic rule of working up here is that you want to get up really early if you want to do anything – because by noon it will both be too hot and everyone will be too stoned to get much else done.

Other than that – just spent my week following a henna headed local guide with his Klashnikov over his shoulders – through the sand – sweating like a goat (no pigs allowed in Afar) in the sun under my long skirt and head scarf.  Then kicking back in my little dung-constructed room in the UN guesthouse (which nonetheless had an air conditioner fully capable of commercial meat storage), eating eggs, drinking warm bottled water, cursing the irony of mosquitoes in the desert, smoking cigarettes, and getting ready to do it all again the next day.  The funny thing about this is that it was all my idea.  It was me that proposed we test out a new methodology for counting nomads and their herds in Africa.  It was me that wrote all the grant proposals.  Me that secured the funding and planned the trip.  What the hell was I thinking?  Next grant proposal is going to be to count traditional surfers in the Solomon Islands.

Happy holidays everyone.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Just a Batburger in Paradise

So admittedly this is poor form.  It has been almost a month since I got home from my latest wanderings – the standard assortment of work stuff - teaching a course in the Kingdom of Swaziland, checking in on my nomads in Ethiopia, potentially getting myself tangled in an unholy mess in Kenya -  and then 10 long sunny relaxing days doing shit-all on islands of the Seychelles. 
For those of you not familiar with the Seychelles, it is an island chain that split off from Gowana about the same time Africa and Asia decided to go their separate ways.  Therefore, unlike most small island nations which are volcanic, the Seychelles is granite.  And as those of you who have recently installed countertops (or been dragged to 1001 Long Island granite showrooms with loved ones who recently installed countertops) know – granite is nice.  Particularly when mixed with stunning powder soft white/pink sand beaches and sunsets.  One of the beaches we visited – Source d’Argent – was recently voted the nicest beach in the world by National Geographic.  I was skeptical.  I don’t know about these NatGeo guys – but this chick has been around a bit.  There are some nice beaches out there. 
Then I was converted.  If it isn’t the nicest beach in the world – it is damned frigging close.

I was joined for this adventure by my favorite travel sidekick – whom you may remember from such adventures as Drunk Flying and Subsequent Central American Adventures and Drive and Dive 2010 – Roommate.  (Roommate’s wife also came along for the first few days but she had to return to work.  Interestingly, we met her boss on the flight back a week later.  I’m not saying nothin’ I’m just sayin’ is all.)  Our goal was to do the trip on about 100 USD per day each (excluding diving - which is worth selling a kidney every time).  It involved a fair bit of haggling, some public buses, and a few home-cooked meals that were straight out of the dark days of undergrad (as a bonus we got to open a can of tuna without a can opener – also just like college), but we basically made it.  We were greatly assisted by the fact that there is a law in the Seychelles that – while you can buy as much property as you want up until the shoreline – beaches are public property and therefore you must allow public access to them.  Oh – hello $2000 a night Four Seasons patrons – we are just going to walk down to your magnificent white sand beach and pop a squat with you.  That’s cool right?  (Note: don’t fear – the 1%-ers got their pound of flesh when we bought drinks at the bar… a single sandwich cost more than the day’s car rental – add the gas too if you wanted fries with that.) 

Okay, more fun facts about the Seychelles.  First, they were found uninhabited by the French in the 1700s, though at least one old cemetery indicates that sailors had been passing through from a few centuries prior.  As a result, the entire population had to be imported – from Africa, France, South Asia.  The language and culture has evolved into a Creole mix – which if nothing else – knows how to make fish.  (The written Creole language is similar enough to French that I can read it.  As far as understanding spoken Creole – it is hopeless.  Though in a very telling moment about a number of things in my life – one Seychellois, after listening to me speak French with my hybrid New Yorker-West African accent, asked me where I learned to speak Creole so well.  *sigh.)

More Seychelles stuff – the main islands used to be home to super huge giant turtles, but various sailors, explorers, pirates, navies, etc ate them all.  (Slow and tasty is apparently a pretty tough evolutionary combination when you mix with things with opposable thumbs.)  But the native population was sad when there were no more turtles, so they brought over some just-regular-huge giant turtles from one of the other really remote islands.  So now those guys ‘roam’ (albeit not super fast) around the island.  Or more accurately the penned enclosures that every tourist establishment – regardless of size or function – conveniently has out front/back/in the parking.  And these things get old – routinely into their 130s-140s.  (Which led to a priceless moment in which we overheard an Italian tour guide admonishing a 120 year male turtle for bumping shells with a 30-something female – the guide jumped on the enclosure wall yelling ‘child abuse! child abuse!”) 

So in the spirit of conservation – we didn’t eat any turtles.  But in my grand tradition of suspending my vegetarianism to try local delicacies – we did have sautéed flying fox (pteropus megachiroptera for Elin, fruit bat for everyone else).  Eating the world’s largest bat – which can have a wingspan of up to 6 feet but weigh less than 5 pounds – is a good story.  It makes less appealing meal.  I said it was reminiscent of overcooked half-starved duck.  Roommate suggested monitor lizard.  (I swear sometimes he does these things just to show me up.)  In any case it came with a buffet that included all you can eat fresh grilled tuna – so we didn’t linger on the bat. 

Keeping with the rather non-linear stream of conscious nature of this post – let’s talk about pirates.  So the Seychelles is in the middle of the Indian OCean, and just about the only thing the island produces are tuna and coconuts (more on the latter in a minute).  Everything non-tuna is imported.  There are two main components of import prices – shipping and insurance.  Insurance prices are directly related to how likely Lloyd’s of London thinks it is that Somali pirates will jack the boat.  So the Seychellois hate pirates.  Every time those crazy SOBs grab a tankership – the cost of a car in Victoria doubles.  But do you know who else hates pirates?  Americans.  Americans hate pirates so much that they put a drone base at the airport to hunt down the pirates (and whatever else drones might get up to in the Yemen/Horn of Africa region).  In addition to that – these awesome Americans *pay* the Seychellois to have the drones there.  Bar none – there is not a country in the world that loves us as much as the Seychelles.  Every time we got in a cab and the driver figured out we were American, they thanked us for the drones and asked us if we worked on them.  We always said they were welcome but alas we were just tourists. 

Then the last day of the trip Roommate and I were picking up a pizza to go at one of the beach joints.  There was a young (early-mid 20s) clearly American guy sitting by himself.  As single people in the Seychelles are rare – it is the honeymoon capital of most of Europe – and Americans are even more rare – and because I am insatiably curious – I asked him what his story was.  He was from Alabama, contractor, working ‘out at the airport.’  I was so excited!  After 10 days – a real life drone guy!  When I said as much this guy almost had a heart attack.  SSSHHHH!!!  That’s classified information.

Someone better brief the taxi drivers.
Now from pirates to coconuts.  Seychelles is also home to the Coco de Mer coconut – the world’s largest coconut.  This is a fact that would probably be relegated in importance somewhere with Minnesota’s World’s Largest Ball of Twine, or Suffolk, England’s World’s Largest Rubber Ducky, had it not been for the rather unusual shape of these nuts.  The female coconuts are shaped like a woman’s… ahem.  And the male - long thin phallic stalks.  For those of us not down with the Divine Plan – this seems like one hell of a coincidence… Moving on – the coconuts are found only in this one forest preserve.  And fittingly they grow on oversized trees.  But the trees are shaped like giant weeds – so the whole reserve has a distinctive Honey I Shrunk the Kids feel.  Very cool to say the least.  (And I really like this photo that Roommate took of me.)

Other than that – the trip was lots of driving around the islands, taking ferries to other islands, eating fishing, diving, hiking, drinking beer, reading books – generally relaxing.  It was a bit of a bummer in that some of the dive sites were closed and there were bright yellow shark nets ruining the landscape on one of the most beautiful white sand beaches on Praslin Island – but two people had been attacked and killed by sharks there in a span of two weeks in August – so I guess that it was a necessary precaution.  We saw some sharks while diving but they generally didn’t bother us.  I guess they only eat French food.  Snobs.

I think that is about it – though one of the dangers of waiting this long to post is that I am sure that I am forgetting things.  My apologies.  Should any of you independently wealthy readers like to bequeath me a huge sum of money so that I can quit this statistics crap and become a professional travel writer – I’ll let you know where to send the check!

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Gotas de Lluvia A-Fallin’ on My Head…

So Chiloe Island is about 650 miles south of Santiago – jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.  In addition to being the termination point of the Pan-American highway (which starts in Fairbanks, Alaska), it is best known for misty mornings, hiking, kayaking, and mountains of shellfish at every meal.  Like if Maine was in Chile.
One should have perhaps thought more about the idea going to one of the rainiest places in the country, during one of the coldest and rainy times of the year.  Like if Maine was in Chile and it was early March.  It was damp – to say the least.  The seaside tourist market was partially boarded up – and many of the remaining stores had stowed the regional handmade knitware in favor of being Americanos (which is what stores selling used clothes are called down here). 

Despite the constant state of mainly-rain, there were one or two days of mostly-sun, so I was able to sneak in a day of hiking in the national park.  It was still early in the season so the trails at points were not that clearly marked (and to be honest I am not sure they ever get that clearly marked).  My fellow hiker and I got a bit lost and ended up walking up into a modern version of the fairy tales that Chiloe is famous for (though their fairy tales see to include a greater incidence of vicious sexual appetites and cannibalism than I remember from your standard Brothers Grimm).  We spotted two adorable little lambs, one black and one white. 

(My traveling companion was Welsh and taking pictures of sheep is apparently a bit of the national pastime – when one is not mining coal or playing rugby.)  We followed them down the path, trying to get a good picture, until we came upon a little wooden farmhouse on a hill.  Out from the farmhouse popped a pair of forest gnomes (okay, maybe not actually gnomes but they were certainly wee).  They led us into a low ceilinged wooden hut, where they imprisoned us until we bought handicrafts.  No joke.  I escaped with my life only by paying $2 for a splinter-throwing hand-carved wooden spoon. 

The best experience of the time in Chiloe though was the sunrise kayaking trip.  In the Chepu section of the park, a husband and wife team have set up a little eco-tourism lodge, with the main attraction of kayaking through the sunken forest at dawn.  (I know, but this fairy tale is slightly more grounded in science.  In 1960 a massive earthquake rocked Chiloe Island.  It caused this section of the coastal forest to suddenly drop six feet.  This proved to be an unfortunately development for the resident tree population as the forest floor was now below sea level.  The ocean rushed in and the trees died.  Now the sunken rotting stumps sticking out of the tidal plane is all that remain. In the misty dawn, this is a really eerie place to paddle around.)   It poured most of the time, but was still worth it.

But while the outdoor activities were a bit of a washout, the bivalves were stupendous.  The town of Castro is known for its pulmay – which is basically a huge pile of mussels, clams, giant mussels, giant clams, all served with (an easily removed) sausage and potato.  The giant mussels were the biggest that I have ever seen.  (Some of these guys had beards that would make the most harden Taliban commander envious.)  This plate was work.  I came in hungry, spent three hours, had three glasses of wine, read a book, picked up a fellow traveler, and I *still* had trouble finishing.

Having completed my twin missions of mollusks and outdooring, I headed north to Puerto Varas.  As far as I could gather from the Lonely Planet, Puerto Varas was a beautiful Alps-like town, nestled at the base of snow covered volcanoes.  Maybe.  I saw a lake and more rain.  Not to be thwarted, I hopped on the local bus and headed out 45 miles to the *really* scenic town.  My cloud friend accompanied me.  I stopped to see the majestic waterfall against the backdrop of the volcano.  I saw the waterfall and Cloud.  I waited 45 minutes trying (unsuccessfully) to hitchhike to the lake town.  Cloud kept me company – patting me lovingly on the head with his raindrops just to let me know he hadn’t forgotten about me.  I finally got to the lake, where I saw lake and Cloud.  I hiked up to the first view point on the volcano trail – where the soggy tourist map promised me an incredible panorama including the lake and three snow capped volcanoes.  I saw Cloud.  I told him to suck it.  This apparently pissed him off because he kicked it up a notch from steady rain shower to outright pouring.  I stubbornly continued to hike up until the trail became a free flowing creek. 
(The trail was not super well marked.  There are nice painted arrows on the bottom, which peter out to arrow-shaped piles of rocks after a mile or so, which further diminish to piles of rocks after another two miles, which fade out completely after that.  Going up was fairly easy – I just took the branch of the trail that seemed most against gravity – with the intention of following my boot tracks in the mud down.  The creek was a major impediment to the successful implementation of this strategy.)  So I gave up.  And stomped down the mountain, soaked to the bone, slipping in the mud the whole way.  Screw you Cloud.  I will have the last laugh.  I can go to places where you aren’t welcome.  I can go to places where it hasn’t rained in *years.*  Oh yes Cloud.  It’s on.

Then the next day I headed back to Santiago for a day of museums on my way back to DC.  I saw a couple of art exhibits and the pre-Columbian museum (it seems pre-Columbian society was really into psychedelic mushrooms and pottery).  And mercifully in Santiago – it was cold and clear.  I was enjoying my first dry day in a good long while.  Then, I shit you not, I almost got fire-hosed.  I was walking around Santiago and came across a couple of guys, in period costume, trying to get a 1864 steam powered fire truck to work.  They had stuck the intake hose into a fountain, had a pile of burning coals on the sidewalk, and were just wailing on this baby will all sorts of wrenches and business.  There was a crowd laughing and taking pictures.  (This is literally in the Chilean equivalent of Herald Square.)  Suddenly the contraption lets out a piercing whistle and the pistons start pumping madly.  The period fire fighters rejoice!  Except for the poor bastard that’s holding the fire hose.  The water steam swings madly across an intersection, broadsides a bus, then arches up and directly for the crowd.  This is the last picture I took before he started taking out bystanders and I was up over the barrier (admittedly into the middle of the street but fortunately there was traffic).   My hair had just dried and I was facing a 14 hour flight.  I’ll take my chances with an oncoming taxi. 

Then, after maxing my allotment of duty free Chilean wine, it was back to DC.  Just in time to meet the remnants of tropic storm Lee. 

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui is what the locals call what the Chileans call Isla de Pascua which is what we call Easter Island.  The place is in the middle of no where (a phrase which at this point in my life I do not use lightly).  It is about equidistant from Tahiti and the Chilean mainland - but more than a 5 hour flight to either.   The island itself is about the size of Manhattan south of Canal Street (though admittedly the infrasructure is somewhat less developed).  Rapa Nui is also famous for being the place where humans learned a very valuable lesson about resource conservation.  Once the island was about 60% covered in trees.  The different family groups lived in different parts of the island in relative harmony (or as much harmony as a people that practice sporadic cannibalism can really expect), and built these large stone totems to ask their ancestors for fortune.

But in order to transport these increasingly larger stone statues, the islanders cut down more trees.  This, in addition to thedaily use of trees for fishing and cooking, led the island to run out of trees.  At which time, all hell broke loose,  massive tribal wars started, the stone totems were pulled down either by enemy tribes or by regular people no longer buying what the elites were selling, more than 80% of the island either died or paddled away into certain doom in the blue.  (Least you think that we whiteys are finally off the hook on this this one,don´t worry, we kidnapped,enslaved and basically killed off all that remained.)

Moral of the story: if you live on an isolated outpost in the middle of no where, it is best to be a bit careful with your resources, as it is a long paddle to Mars.

Fast forward a few hundred years (that´s right - this took place only a few hundred years ago), I arrive!  After the blustery cold of Santiago, I am in paradise.  This place is only nominally in South America, in reality it is all     South Pacific.  I spend the day tooling around in a taxi, exploring agricultural sites, taking pictures of statues, climbing around in caves, watching huge waves crash out of the torquise sea onto volcanic rock coastline, trying to teach my taxi driver English - amazingly the man could spend the day serenading me, in English, with Marc Anthony songs but I had to teach him the word for tree (or perhaps not that surprising).  That night he suggested that I check out a traditional dance show.

I am expected some tame hula nonsense with pretty girls in grass skirts and maybe a little ukelele action.  And, indeed, all of those things featured in the show.  What I hadn´t really counted on was the band having a full drum kit and electric bass, and the feathered cod pieces.  Oh yes, that´s right.  The show opens with two almost completely naked men painting themselves with mud war paint.  They are soon joined by a bunch more similarly attired warriors, all of which were either chosen for their ahem... stage presence... or else I believe I just received a profound sociological insight into why the average Rapa Nui woman had15 children.  Much of the show was war dances (think the Haka performed by the New Zealand rugby players) and what I assume were some sort of fertility dances).

At once point during the performence, the warrior leader leaps off the stage, lands in front of me, grabs my neck, and raises his club screaming.  I assume that this would have been both terrifying and the end of my story had I been an 18th century rival tribesman, but instead I just got a giggle spasm because my nose ended up two inches from his feathered stage presence. All and all, this might have been the most entertaining $20 I have spent in a long long time.

I spent the rest of the time in Rapa Nui hanging out, drinking Mahina, and eating ceviche and tuna empanadas.   Exploring more sites, taking more pictures of statues, buying souvenir crap.  It was sad to move on back to the mainland.  My taxi driver came by to give me a hug and traditional shell necklace (a gesture that really touched me until I saw that literally every single tourist on check in line was wearing one), and back to the icy mainland I went.

 I got off the plane at 9 pm, walked upstairs to the ticket sales, asked what they had leaving that night, they looked at me blankly, found someone that spoke English, I repeated my question somewhat less dramatically, and got a ticket south to Puerto Montt.  Where I arrived at 1 am, in the freezing cold, with no hotel reservation and not speaking Spanish.  At one point in my life this situation would have freaked me out but really now was no more than an inconvenience, and this self-satisfaction kept me warm until an enterprising taxi driver interested in a nice tip drove me to an English speaking hostel.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Letting My Pinko Flag Fly.

So in setting a new personal best for a weekly total in frequent flyer miles, over the course of a week I flew from Dar es Salaam to Zurich to Washington DC to San Francisco (congrats Mike & Sara!) to Washington DC to Santiago de Chile.  For those keeping score at home, and if you let me count the six hours that I spent raiding the complementary gummy bear and Toblerone bar in the Zurich airport lounge (which I actually had to get stamped into Switzerland to go to), that is four continents in seven days.

Don’t ever do that.

Two things are immediately noticeable when you arrive in Santiago.  One, it is winter here.  Complete with snow capped mountains and the occasional flurries.  Two, the country seems to be in the middle of a major social uprising.  Complete with water cannons and tear gas.  More on that in a couple paragraphs.

So other than being located in a giant crater that is ideally designed to collect smog, Santiago is in the perfect location.  Drive one hour up – snow and skiing.  Drive two hours down – sea lions and surfing.  And what did the master planners stick in the middle?  Vineyards.  Seriously.  Does it get better than that?  Oh yes, in fact.

Besides the awesome nearby amenities, the food here is also epic.  As it was explained to me by my host, “Chilean food didn’t used to be anything interesting.  Then everyone had to leave because of the dictatorship, and when they came back, they brought their food with them.”  Now it is basically a 'best of' hit list, with the freshest ingredients.  Plus there is all sorts of crazy aquatic shit that lives in the Antarctic current.  We went to a fish market for lunch one day – cheese baked clams, sea urchin in tomato sauce, and eels stew.  Washed down with a perfect crisp white wine.  All delicious.  

What could possible spoil the tender budding romance between Kristen and Senor Santiago?  Well, riots.  Hundreds of thousands of people marched for education reform (the conditions sound pretty dire) over the last two days.  Basically it was peaceful, but it turned really nasty in pockets (particularly around the hotel where I am staying).  200 people were injured, 1400 arrested and a 16 year old boy was shot and killed.  Protesters threw stones and bottles, police had tear gas and water cannons (and allegedly live ammunition as well).

Note – as I promised my mother – I stayed away from the protests to as much as extent as possible.  There was one occasion when, just as I was thinking that was an unusually large group waiting on this particular street corner, the light changed and everyone raised their fists and started singing.  I thought about pulling out my World Bank badge and lecturing them on the glories of free market capitalism, but I just crossed the street instead.  I would have gotten my high-heeled, business-attired, laptop-toting ass kicked.

And, speaking in a totally personal capacity and in no way reflecting the views on my omnipotent employer, good for them – they should get a better education system.  Hell – we all should.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hot and Heavy

The first thing my sister asked me when I got back: what it as hot as Haiti down there? Definitionally yes, since Haiti must be and can only be as hot as itself, but actually no, it was quite a bit cooler in Port-au-Prince than it has been over the last few weeks in say, New York or Washington. (Hot as Haiti was my grandmother’s favorite climatic expression. There were few times in the dog days of summer when it wasn’t ‘as hot as Haiti out there.’) Her second question was if I had met Wyclef Jean – to which all I had was that Bill Clinton was staying at the same hotel I was.

But what Haiti lacked in heat it made up in heavy. Haiti is a heavy country. A year and a half ago, and estimated 200,000 people were killed in the earthquake. This is the percentage equivalent of the United States losing the entire state of Arizona, or the combined population of Chicago and Los Angeles, at one time. Nearly all those were in a tightly packed section of six communes around the capital. The hotel where I stayed was in the process of being re-built after collapsing and killing 200 staff and guests. In addition, the country has been plagued with gang violence, multiple cholera epidemics, and almost statistically impossible levels of unemployment. Driving to work on morning, what the driver calls a ‘fight’ in the street is actually one guy standing there screaming at another while pointing a gun at his head. (Not to ruin the ambiance set up by the previous paragraph, but really? What could this guy have possibly done to you to piss you off that much at 9 am? Neither of you even own cars.)

But despite all the above, it is not a miserable country. It looks a lot like West Africa, which in its own way is frightening since I like to reason that one of the causes of poverty in West Africa is its remoteness, whereas from Port-au-Prince, I can get to Miami in less than two hours on American Airlines. But like a little green sprout growing in a lava field, life finds a way. And that is what Haiti feels like – healthy skin growing back over a bad scar. And like everywhere in the world, it is not immune to me stumbling through and inadvertently offending the populace. Like the morning where I got lost on my run and ended up in the middle of a displaced persons camp. Tank top, running shorts, no wallet or cell phone, standing there soaked in sweat among the tents, slightly goggle-eyed and mumbling ‘shit shit shit’ under my breath. They were nice about it – knew where I came from – and pointed me back.

Or the day that my official World Bank vehicle got pulled over for ‘illicit window tinting.’ (In a law dating back to the bad old days when kidnapping was rife, you need official permission for window tinting. Apparently it is harder to make a clean getaway through Port-au-Prince traffic with an MP’s wife screaming in your back seat if you don’t have tinting.) In any case, the cops (mounted on ATVs) pulled us over and used nails to scrap off the aftermarket tint while the driver went thermal on the sidewalk. I know I was only making the situation worse because I couldn’t stop giggling.

Or my absolute inability to grasp the concept of the Haitian dollar. I am not sure I have the story completely straight, but this is how it was explained to me (feel free to jump in and correct me on this if I am bit fuzzy on the details) : once upon a time Haiti had a currency (called the Haitian dollar) that was pegged 1:1 to the US dollar. But, as all good little MPA/IDs know, in order to maintain your peg, you need foreign currency reserves. And when those run out – that’s it for your peg. So Haiti ran out as some point, and had to float the currency. To make this more palatable, the government issued a new currency - ‘gourdes’ – at a rate of five gourdes to the old Haiti dollar. But people still liked the Haiti dollar, and even though it doesn’t exist anymore, they still generally post prices in it. But now it is no longer pegged to the US dollar and now hovers somewhere in the ~1.6 range. I have no proof that this whole elaborate system was just set up to rip me off of cigarettes, but I feel my circumstantial case is strong.

So that’s my five paragraph overview of 11 days in Haiti. It is most definitely *not* the worst place on earth – I am looking at you Choum, Mauritania. And now, after less than 48 hours in the US, I am in Ethiopia – on the third continent of my four continents in eight weeks summer 2011 tour.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Tito and the Small Hope

After spending so much time bouncing around Africa, it is going to be tough to write an interesting blog post about five days at a resort in the Bahamas.  And I am still coming to terms with my new underwater camera so the photos aren’t even any good.  But I hope to get better with the camera, so I just consider this a baseline post. 

Last weekend I took a quick five day sanity check on Andros Island in the Bahamas.  Andros is the largest and probably least developed of the major Bahamian islands, which guaranteed a healthy separation between me and a potentially homicidal situation with cruise ship crowds.  I stayed that the Small Hope Bay Lodge – which is kind of like summer camp for big kids.  (Note to campers everywhere – it takes much less time to get to first base on a hammock if there is an open bar.)  Small Hope is the type of place my sister and brother-in-law would hate – no pool and no TV.  But my cabin was right on the beach, I went diving every day, the chef was excellent, and there was that aforementioned open bar. 

Andros is a bit in the middle of nowhere though.  It is about a 25 minute flight from Nassau in a five seat single engine prop.  I know this because that is how I got back to Nassau to get my connection back to Baltimore.  I had been supposed to take the comparatively luxurious 12 seater commercial flight, although it left at 7 am and would strand me in dangerous proximity to the cruise shippers for six hours.  But there was this guy with a plane – which I was assured by the staff - was immaculately maintained – and he could fly me over to Nassau after lunch as long as I could track down two other passengers to share the ride.  After talking a very nice Californian couple into my scheme, we headed to the airport.  And an immaculately maintained five seater plane pulls up, loads our luggage, and proceeds down the runway just far enough to hit a piece of sharp coral and puncture the nose tire.  That’s game over for us.  The pilot assured me – with my already tight connection in Nassau – that he had a buddy that had a plane and it was all going to be no worries. 

(In the mean time, the departure room had filled up with about 50 cranky Navy and Air force personnel waiting for their ride back to Florida.  The crankiness may or may not have been due to the fact that their transport plane was circling overhead – unable to land without the wash of the much bigger plane flipping our little five seater stuck on the side of the runway.  And do you think that they would agree to drop me off at Andrews?  Even though I asked nicely?  Even though there was plenty of room in their C-23?  Noooo.  Why do I even bother paying my taxes?) 

I was starting to get a bit nervous.  If I wasn’t wheels up in 15 minutes, I was definitely going to miss my flight back to the US.  Then Tito shows up.  You know Tito.  He is the guy that comes to pick you up at the train station when your boyfriend’s car won’t start.  He has a 1989 maroon Cutlass Ciera with duct tape seats on the seats.  Wire is intimately involved with holding the driver side door on.  The engine sounds like someone dumped a full bucket of loose screws and squirrels in it.  Yeah, except in my version of the story, Tito’s hoopty is a plane.  I smile apologetically at the very nice couple from California whom I had talked into this mess, and asked Tito if he could please give it a bit of gas, I had a flight to catch. 

Which I did – after admittedly having to fast talk a selection of airline and ground staff.  And the result of all my efforts?  I am back in DC and back at work.  Lesson learned: next time don’t try so hard.