Friday, 31 July 2009
Instead, let's do something different. Everyone likes top 10 lists, and I'm no exception. Here's one with my favorite parts of the summer:
10. Chillaxing @ Kipopeo Beach (free Kili with your entry ticket!)
9. Bongo Flava (not really part of the summer; more like the soundtrack to the summer)
8. Onion Rava Dosa from the Badminton Institute
7. Clubbing in Burundi with rappers
6. Cooking big dinners at the Annex while listening to 70s music
5. Stone Town on Zanzibar (esp. the food, the architecture, Jaws Corner)
4. White-water rafting the Source of the Nile (and getting tossed in)
3. Getting my Swahili good enough where I could use it for work
2. Seeing the wildebeest migration in Western Seregenti
1. Making some really great friends. I'll miss you guys.
Fortunately, I don't have a top 10 list of worst experiences. In fact, I can really only think of two things that were just plain bad:
-1. having my camera stolen and not being to get it back even though I knew who took it
-2. being robbed by a Ugandan midget
Apart from those two theft-related incidents, however, I had an absolute blast in Tanzania; definitely one of my favorite summers ever. But it's going to get even better in 24 hours -- I'm going to meet up in Bangkok with the gorgeous Stephanie. We're going to spend three weeks traveling around Thailand and Cambodia before heading back to Beantown. Temples, seedy Thai bars, cooking classes, elephant riding, SCUBA diving... it's gonna be good. Before you know it, I'll no longer be a mzungu... I'll be a farang.
I'm sure I'll be back on Tanzlines before too long, but until then, baadaye!
Today is my last day at TechnoServe. It seems weird to write that (I feel like I just started), but this really is it. I've shied away from worky posts this summer, partly because it can be boring to read, partly because of that pesky Confidentiality Agreement. Now that I've started to say my goodbyes in the office, I figured one little work-related post couldn't hurt.
No job is perfect, but working at TechnoServe certainly has been one of the best experiences I could have hoped for my 1L summer. But, now I'm done and it's time to start celebrating my last night in Dar. More to come soon.
Thursday, 30 July 2009
It was a great ending to fun week of traveling -- I met up with Esther (the one based in Kampala), Kelly, Caris, and a group of Esther's friends, some of whom I had met before. All told there were two full rafts of our group tackling the great river. The Jinja rafting experience is pretty incredible: it's 7 full hours of rafting, including large stretches of peaceful paddling, easy Class 1, 2 and 3 rapids, and several massive sets of rapids that flip the boats. I was sitting at the front so I got the full thrill when we went over the rougher bits. One of the largest rapids was an 8-foot drop off of Silverback, which surprisingly didn't tip our raft. I was tossed out of the raft twice (the best part of the whole experience, and one I had been semi-secretly hoping would happen). The second time it happened, the entire raft flipped right on its head. Someone fell on top of me, which, combined with the surging water, is actually quite a suffocating experience even if it happens only for a short time. It was fine in the end, of course, and I managed to swim back to the raft easily. Altogether, one of the more fun travel experiences I've had this summer in Africa.
Unrelated to any of the above: I'm flying out from Dar this Saturday on Ethiopian Airlines. I was just trying to re-confirm my flight online and I came across this gem of a result on google: "Ethiopian Airlines (Amharic: የኢትዮጵያ አየር መንገድ; የኢትዮጵያ for short) is an airline based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia." Sure, that makes sense -- "የኢትዮጵያ" for short... a lot easier to say when you cut out the whole "አየር መንገድ" thing.
Tuesday, 28 July 2009
At this point, I had no intention of touching any metal or running water in the house. But I did have a scruffy travel beard to get rid of. I managed to shave without touching anything that could rapidly transfer electrons through my flesh, then I shut off the water using the old loofah method.
Now, I'm no union electrician, but this seems like a bit of a big deal. Electricity-charged showers are great for that guy from Crank who has to eat electricity to stay alive, but for the rest of us, it's definitely not fun. I'm going to call the fundi (random handyman) to fix the issue today. If I don't get the shower situation fixed soon, things are going to get unpleasant.
Monday, 27 July 2009
Since you asked... Where: Burundi is a tiny, poor and relatively unknown country, wedged in between the Dem. Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Lake Tanganyika and Rwanda. Why: Bujumbura (the capital) is renowned as a good place to go out. And how often does the chance to go to Burundi come along?
We parked ourselves at a little bar right on the sand, did some people watching and had a few beers. I tend to think that you can tell a lot about a country by its beers. Obviously the quality and range of options tells you a bit about the country's wealth levels. But the size of bottled beers even varies across countries. East African countries tend to favor 500 ml bottles (just under a pint), larger than the 330-ish ml bottles used in North America. Apart from cost considerations (large bottles are cheaper to distribute per unit of alcohol), I always assumed that the larger size reflected the fact that people like to enjoy themselves in this part of the world. If so, Burundian Primus bottles confirm that the people of that country really do like to party; Burundian Primuses weigh in at 720 ml per bottle -- roughly equivalent to a standard bottle of wine back home. Perhaps this is to one-up the Rwandans, whose Primus bottles only contain 500 ml, but it's still hilarious.
Amy and her friends were really welcoming and nice. They took us to their usual table in the VIP lounge at Toxic (they are rappers, after all) and we hung out there. Around midnight, the club was still practically empty since Burundians like to go out very late indeed. But people continued trickling in and the club was full before too long. We stayed out very late, switching it up between dancing to Congolese tunes, US hip hop and Bongo Flava, and hanging out in the VIP area, which was guarded by a ridiculously large dude who handled the mandatory red velvet rope.
Thanks to Chrissy for managing to get pictures despite a nearly-dead battery!
Day Two, Kigali.
In the morning, Chrissy and I went to the genocide memorial. It's a large, beautiful museum set on a hill in one of Kigali's suburbs. I wanted to see the place, not only because it's one of the few daytime activities in Kigali, but also because I'd read so much about the genocide during college.
The building itself is extremely tastefully done, no doubt generously funded by some Western country or another in a moment of intense, post-1994 guilt. The displays don't pull punches against any of the guilty parties; there's plenty of candid explanations about the Hutu architects of the killings, the role of the Belgians and French in supporting the genocide, and about the ordinary people who participated in the carnage.
The sheer scale of the killing is not what sets the Rwandan experience apart, although 10% of the national population died during that time. What I find craziest about it is the number of people who participated in the killing. Kigali in 1994 was not like the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust, with exterminations done by the military in remote places -- this was ordinary people killing their neighbors in all different parts of the city. Even today, many of the families of the victims have to live side by side with the people responsible for their deaths.
Although the musuem started out pretty factual, it built up emotionally towards the end. The last room was a display on ten-ish children who had been killed during the genocide, with pictures and descriptions about what they liked to do before they died. I kinda lost it there. I wasn't really expecting to cry, but the awfulness of the whole thing was just too much for me at that point.At the end of the children exhibit, the museum opened up onto a garden terrace that overlooks the entire city of Kigali. I had a sense of relief when I walked out of the horrific displays and saw the new Kigali -- orderly, safe, clean -- ticking along just perfectly. But at the same time, it looked almost fake, like the past had just been brushed under the nice new Kigali. As we walked downhill from the memorial to the main road, I found it strange to see middle-aged people on the street going about their business. I just couldn't stop wondering how many of those people killed -- or helped to kill -- an innocent person during the genocide.
On the way back to Chris' house, my moto-taxi stopped at a red light for a few minutes. In front of us was a pickup truck full of soldiers and prisoners in pink outfits. The pink suits are used to identify Rwandans who have been convicted of genocide crimes. Because the sheer number of people who committed crimes is so high and prison resources so strained, the government assigns them to public-works projects throughout the city. This group looked like they were going to do some digging or street cleaning.
Like many other East Africans who run into a mzungu on the street, the pink-shirted guys were motioning at me and trying to get me to strike up a conversation. But unlike most East Africans, these guys had almost certainly tried to kill innocent people in cold blood. I couldn't have smiled back at them even if I wanted to -- it just felt so unfair that the genocidaires were living out relatively painless punishments while the people they killed or maimed get nothing.
If running into genocidaires was tough for me, I can imagine how difficult that legacy is for Rwandans. Although there is a lot of discussion and controversy over both the reconciliation process and Rwanda's development path, the man at the heart of it all is certainly Paul Kagame. Kagame was originally the leader of the anti-genocidaire, Tutsi-dominated RPF rebels who restored peace to the country and ended the massacres in 1994. While there have been a few elections since that time, he's been in power for the past fifteen years.
Later in the day, I got to listen to the perspectives of two successful, pro-Kagame Rwandans who believe that the country is on the right track. The first was from Patrick, a friend of Chrissy's who has worked extensively in both military and civil roles in the Kagame regime, as well as in non-government position. Patrick acknowledged that the President had done a lot for the country in the economic sector, but he pointed out that Kagame had really secured national peace by offering a de facto olive branch to the country's Hutu majority. Even people who had participated on interahamwe killing squads before the RPF victory ended up supporting Kagame because, well, he didn't order them killed even though he could have. At Patrick's place, we watched a good (although not very hard-hitting) interview of Kagame by Fareed Zakaria:
The second pro-regime view came from Jeff, one of my business partners and the CEO of a Kigali-based startup. He pointed out that lasting peace between the ethnic groups would only really be possible when the country was growing and prosperous enough to provide reasonable jobs to most of the young men. His idea is very plausible, and similar to the argument that widespread unemployment and hopelessness among youth in many Muslim countries leads to easy recruiting by al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. As a businessman, Jeff felt that the government's ability to attract foreign direct investment and promote economic growth was the greatest thing it could do for the country -- in Kigali at least.
Although the current regime remains overwhelmingly popular among Rwandans, it has come under attack from many groups abroad. Kagame and his former military allies have been accused of war crimes themselves, and have been indicted in Spanish and French courts, as well as criticized by certain members of the human-rights community: http://www.veritasrwandaforum.org/material/press_release_080208_eng.pdf
Even Kagame's supporters concede that the country is profoundly lacking in press freedoms and freedom of expression. As in many other countries, earlier jailings and harassment of anti-government press have led to widespread self-censorship by locally based media. Reporters Sans Frontieres, for instance, doesn't have great things to say about the matter: http://www.rsf.org/Rwanda,20737.html
Despite the obvious shortcomings of Rwanda's current path, I tend to think that the Kagame regime does more good than harm, at least in the short term. It has prevented further civilian killings, led a relatively successful reconciliation process that avoids further violence, and created a stable and growing economy with some foreign investment. All of these things are improvements -- surprising successes, even -- given the shattered state of Rwanda in 1994-5. The smoothly-running capital, the growing industrial base, and even the high prices suggest that things are on the right track, at least economically.
In the long run, however, I think that the lack of political freedoms and a viable opposition will become a major problem for the country, as they have for many other African countries. After all, when Mugabe first came to power in the Breadbasket of Africa, the world was thrilled to see substantial reform and growth; they simply turned a blind eye to the leader's lack of respect for civil liberties and his willingless to silence his opposition. You only need to look at Zimbabwe today -- hyperinflation, civilian killings, mass starvation -- to know how that one turned out. I hope that Kigali's upward trajectory will give its citizens the confidence to demand for political freedoms as well as increased prosperity.
That was Rwanda -- a little more than I planned to write. Next up, Burundi.
Wednesday, 22 July 2009
Got to Kigali this morning. A few observations about Rwanda and about Kigali in particular.
1. Safety and Cleanliness
Kigali is a very well-ordered and clean city. This, apparently, is the work of Paul Kagame, Rwanda's President and a man who has worked very hard to keep the place very safe and nice to visit. There is very little garbage on the streets compared to other cities, and certainly compared to other African capitals. I saw a lady sweeping up fallen leaves just outside my guesthouse yesterday. That would be unthinkable elsewhere on the continent, where garbage is left to collect in open sewers or else burned at night (ahem, Dar).
My parents, if they read this, can take comfort in the fact that every single one of the city's moto-taxis carries a spare helmet for his passenger's use. The idea was comforting to me at first, until I noticed that the visor of the helmet I had been given looked like it had been shattered and re-fused two or three times -- not exactly a positive sign of the driver's safety record. Still, I've taken a few moto-taxis so far and they have been affordable, pleasant and safe journeys. Plus, wearing a visor makes me feel like I'm in an action movie, which has got to be worth something.
Rwanda is supposed to be a francophone country. When I arrived at the border town of Gatuna I was expecting some sort of language shift. Maybe I expected that the moment I stepped across the threshold into Rwanda, the touts and guards would suddenly start speaking in French. Not so.
In fact, I've been surprised to find that French has proven kinda useless, in Kigali at least. I had a long meeting yesterday with a potential business partner for TechnoServe -- that was all in French, simply because the other folks were educated Rwandans. But in the streets, almost no one seems inclined to speak French. Most of the young people speak English reasonably well (better than Tanzanians, but worse than Ugandans). And almost everyone speaks a pretty fair amount of Swahili, which is what I've been using to get around here. I've been impressed that people here speak two other languages well in addition to the national language (Kinyarwanda) and whatever other tongues they happen to know (often Lingala and Kirundi).
Kagame recently changed the official language of schooling in Rwanda from French to English. I wonder if the non-francophone thing is a reaction to the predominantly English-speaking aid community that has helped Rwanda in the post-genocide reconstruction period. Another factor is likely the fact that Rwanda and France severed political relations some time ago -- France assisted the genocidaires during the war and is currently trying to bring trumped-up criminal charges against Kagame for war crimes in French court.
3. Motel Rwanda
Perhaps it's the fact that my ethnic stock is 100% Scottish, but I have been known to cut corners (budgetarily, at least) when I'm traveling. Unfortunately, Kigali is not a cheap place by regional standards, mostly because the presence of the UN, World Bank and NGOs here has driven up prices drastically for any accommodation that might be remotely acceptable to foreigners. This leaves the Scottish-spirited corner-cutter with few options. I got to Kigali today and checked into a little motel called the 'New and Modern Guesthouse,' noted by my travel guide as one of the cheapest joints in the capital ($9 per night per room).
I can safely say that the New and Modern is probably the worst accommodation I've had in Africa. The room itself was OK, as far as unventilated cement rooms without mosquito nets go. The bathrooms, however, were something else -- to keep out non-paying people, the owner keeps the bathrooms locked at all times, so you have to track him down on the street outside if you want to use the facilities. And he waits outside the door until you're finished so he can lock up! I guess it gives a whole new meaning to 'bathroom attendant.'
But even once you get in to the old WC, it's not great -- very dirty squat toilets that made me feel like I was incarcerated in Gabon. Not that I've ever gone to Gabon (or jail, for that matter) but you get the point. They had (equally gross) shower stalls that were more cosmetic than functional, since there was never any water the whole time I stayed. I asked for water the day I was leaving and he owner pointed me to a bucket of soapy water that a boy was using to wash clothes; "this is your washing water," he said. When he saw I was unimpressed, he pointed out that the water was a plus because it already had detergent added so I would get clean more quickly. I was quite happy to check out the following morning.
Those were my initial thoughts on the city. Up next: a day spent exploring Kigali's dark past.
Monday, 20 July 2009
I've been in Kabale (and environs) for about a day now. I have accomplished three main activities during this time:
- be cold
- canoe around a lake
- visit a Bakiga museum
The being cold thing really caught me off guard. I was sitting on the roof deck of my hostel last night drinking a beer and sharing travel stories with other backpackers. It was *not* warm. I had on my hoodie, a grey shirty-jacket thing, jeans and shoes and I was still freezing. If I had to guess, I would say it was about 50s (F) or low 10s (C). I've really never seen temperatures like that before on this continent, and it's not like it's winter -- we're just barely over the equator.
I visited Lake Bunyoni today, supposedly Uganda's deepest lake. Incredibly beautiful place -- it has dozens of islands and inlets and is surrounded by rich farmland. The farms are built on man-made terraces built into the sides of the steep hills that surround the lake. From the lake shore, the terraces give the appearance of thousands of tiny patches of land each growing different products. The water is cold and relatively clean (it may even be bilharzia-free, although I didn't feel like exposing my ears to find out).
One of the big activities at Bunyoni is to rent a traditional dugout canoe and visit the islands on the lake. I was by myself, but I figured I could get around fairly easily. I am a Chief Scout, after all; I should be able to outperform a bunch of tourists. But it turns out that a dugout canoe is way harder to use than the standard birch-bark or fiberclass canoe pioneered in Canada. Without a keel, the dugout canoe really just slides around on the water and catches the wind unless you go against the wind head-on. About two hours out, I realized why most of the other tourists had rented larger, motorized boats to explore.
I did make it out to a few islands right in the center of the lake. The most interesting one was Punishment Island, a swampy, small island where villagers of generations past would take unwed pregnant women to die. Actually, it wasn't all that bad -- the women also had the choice of being tied up to a tree and eaten by animals, or of being shoved off a giant cliff onto rocks. Punishment Island was probably the option of choice is those situations. My rump was starting to feel a bit punished itself by the end of the trip; four hours sitting on a wooden plank ain't fun.
I took a motorbike back to town after the lake and visited the cultural museum at my hostel. The museum is basically a tiny room inside the building, inside of which they've built a (fake) shrine, a (fake) homestead, and a (fake) latrine. The idea was to recreate a traditional village from the Bakiga (bah-CHEE-gah) people indigenous to this area. Rather than give you a blow-by-blow of the experience, here are the key takeaways:
- Bakigas don't like pygmies, because the Bakigas think they're lazy and steal animals and beer
- Witch doctors/medicine men just trick people into thinking they actually do something. Most of the time they just get drunk on the beer that patients bring to appease the gods
- The prize livestock used to sleep in the master bedroom underneath the bed of the mother and father of the family. This was to prevent theft by pygmies (supposedly).
The other backpackers are now foaming at the mouth. Will write more from Kigali.
Sunday, 19 July 2009
Not sure if this post is going to work or not, given the precarious internet situation here. Blogging in Kabale is kinda like writing in your diary on the edge of a cliff. It could work out, but things might go wrong and nobody will ever know what you wrote. So I'm gonna keep it short.
After I finished up yesterday, I went to see the tombs of the Buganda kings, which was pretty interesting. There are basically a bunch of buildings from what used to be the old palace of the Kabakas (kings) before they realized that a villa with satellite TV and a swimming pool was preferable to a giant grass hut. I had a brief history lesson from my guide, George, on the role of the Buganda kings in Ugandan culture and politics. Like many tribes in Africa, the Buganda are composed of many clans and subclans who traditionally specialized in different trades (e.g., milking, fishing, guarding) and recruited actively from other ethnic groups. Although somewhat independent, the different groups all pledged loyalty to the king. In fact, there's still a king today, although only 20% of Ugandans are his nominal subjects and there's quite a bit of tension with the central government. I really don't like monarchy or monarchs really, but it's interested to learn about. Other points of note at the tombs: a stuffed leopard from the late 1800s that served as the king's pet, and a round of a game called Yawezo (I think) that involving dropping seeds in little bowls and stealing the other person's seeds. It's not the best game in the world, but it's ok -- I'd rank it somewhere between Mouse Trap and Monopoly.
Yesterday night, we met up with my old friend Esther from school and a couple of her crew. It was a really fun night out -- we went to get Turkish fare then get drinks at a bar. The Turkish food was probably some of the best food I've eaten in a long time. Although I've only been there for two nights, Kampala really does seem like a great place to live. Unlike in Dar or other cities, where the restaurants are all spread out, Kampala has a number of massive entertainent places with over a dozen bars, restaurants and clubs in one small area. It makes it really easy to walk around different places and try out a few spots. One other thing I've got to point out: the music in Uganda is awesome. The actual Luganda stuff is actually pretty mediocre, but I've heard music from multiple bars that's really great -- blends of US hip hop, Bongo Flava, some classics (read: MJ), and even the more tolerable strains of European electronic. I got a little more good music than I might have liked yesterday, since our hotel room was 7' away from the popular Iguana Bar.
Today has been fun, but totally unrelaxing. I've basically just spent the past 11 hours traveling what was supposed to be a 6-hour trip. To pass the time, I bought a Ugandan English-language newspaper. It was one of the better 45-minute chunks of my day. I'm not sure if this is true of Ugandan dailies in general, but this paper (the "New Vision," I think) devoted its content equally to three topics:
- corruption scandals and government disputes
- nightlife and sex
The corruption part interests me hugely, but I'm going to leave that for another post. The religion thing is worth writing about though. Ugandans are largely Christian (especially Kampala and the southwest), and have traditionally been Catholics until quite recently. In the past few years, however, pentecostals and other evangelical/born-again/charismatic Christian groups have been flourishing and winning tons of converts from the traditional Catholic congregations. I noticed that the most common billboards in Kampala (after mobile phone ads) show duos or trios of famous preachers giving massive performances in stadiums or concert halls. Most of the posters I've seen feature a prominent Black evangelical preacher from the US, hosted by a Ugandan bishop or pastor. The newspaper article I read today was describing how the Catholic church has been forced to respond to the rising evangelical tide by offering its own charismatic elements (including speaking in tongues, more praise-y sorts of music, etc.). Apparently there are now official Charismatic Catholic priests in Uganda who blend the two approaches together.
The nightlife-and-sex section of the paper was also pretty fascinating. It was pretty news-free, actually, but contained a bunch of columns, op-eds and special features. One article discussed mistresses of married guys -- in other words, women who maintain long-term adulterous relationships with wealthier men in a very overt lovin'-for-financial support exchange. Rather than condemning what seems like a very widespread practice, the (female-authored) column was trying to explain that mistresses fulfill an important demand in the market because many married men are neglected by their wifes and need to feel loved. If that's the women talking, you have to wonder what the men would say. Reading the rest of the section made me realize how difficult the public-health workers have it in East Africa. I have a few friends who work on behavioral AIDS prevention and health marketing on the continent, and it's insanely tough to try and change behavior when hunting for casual love (even paying for it) is so accepted.
Back to Kabale. It's a cool place: leafy, green, and mountainous. I'm staying tonight in a museum and am going to go explore the nearby lake tomorrow. Local tourist info calls this place the 'Switzerland of Africa,' although I doubt I'm going to find any fondue tonight.
Saturday, 18 July 2009
It's my first day in the Pearl of Africa, so I thought I'd throw out some initial impressions while they're still fresh.
The biggest differences with Tanzania are probably the landscape and temperature. Kampala is a stunning city spread across many large hills. For some reason it reminds me of Quito when I look out during the night. Even though the city is very big, it seems peaceful when you're outside of the city center. And because of the altitude, the temperature is much nicer; today, in fact, is some of the best weather I've seen in Africa.
Most people speak English quite well. Almost all of the people I've met have spoken reasonably good English, even if they weren't very educated. English isn't just something used for foreigners, either -- most of the local advertising is written in English. Communicating with non-English speakers is tricky, though, since almost no one here speaks good Swahili. People know a few words, but it doesn't really get you anywhere.
In some ways, there isn't a lot to do in Kampala. The staff at our hotel didn't have any suggestions for sights. Even the Lonely Planet writers, who normally fill their country guides with breathless, enthusiastic reviews of obscure points of interest, only listed two attractions in the city, conceding that one of them was not, in fact, worth seeing. Using process of elimination, I'm going to check out the other sight -- the tombs of the Buganda kings -- after I finish up here.
Despite the absence of attractions in the city, I had quite an interesting morning. Chrissy, my traveling buddy, and I were supposed to catch a bus this morning to Kabale in the Southwest of the country. When we got on, I stuffed our bags into the overhead racks. Shortly before we left, Chrissy noticed that her bags weren't there anymore. The bus driver suggested that maybe one of the official porters had moved the bags into the hold for safe-keeping. I went out and helped the porters check for the bags, but we couldn't find them after checking thoroughly. At this point I was really irritated, and was surprised to find myself back in West (as opposed to East) Africa conflict-resolution mode: yelling, demanding money back, insisting on speaking with the manager, etc. Often raising hell really pays off in those type of situations, but despite the porters' best efforts, they couldn't find the bags. Eventually we realized that a local midget/little person/dwarf (don't really know the correct term here) had come on the bus, taken the bags off the rack and passed them out the window to a regular-sized accomplice. By the time we realized it, however, it was too late, and the diminutive thief had already left the station. No one ever suspects the little people!
Once we realized that the bags were lost, we decided to file a complaint with the local police office, truly a caricature of African constabulary in action -- four sullen, unhelpful men in army fatigues sitting in a tiny room overlooking the bus station. They took about 30 minutes to write a one-page report on the situation, which likely used up their productivity quota for the day.
What else? I've been traveling around the city on bodas -- small, 3-seater motorbikes that weave crazily through the traffic but cost less than taxis. They're fun.
More to come.
Friday, 17 July 2009
The main thing to report is my second trip to Zanzibar. This trip was better than the last one, even though I did a lot of the same stuff. We went in a huge group this time -- 15 people in all -- which was a lot to organize, but was definitely worth it. We stayed in Stone Town on Friday night to see a bit more of the city, then traveled up to the beach party at Kendwa on Saturday.
The highlight of Friday night (and probably the whole weekend) was dinner at the barbeque pit behind the New Africa House. I went there last trip to Zanzibar -- it's an amazing place where you can buy almost any kind of street food you want for really cheap. All the chefs wear hats, and people (both locals and tourists) sit on the grass or on benches while they eat dinner. Here is a pizza stand:
Unlike last time (when I ate a terrible meal at a boring tourist trap), this time I decided to pig out exclusively in the barbeque area. I tried a few samosas (ok), octopus skewers (awesome), chapati in sauce, grilled meat sticks, and a couple of Zanzibari pizzas (thin fried dough with ground beef, onions and hot peppers inside -- pictured sizzling here):
They don't sell beers there because Zanzibar's conservative Muslim sensibilities don't work so well with outdoor drinking. The non-alcoholic drinks they have are fantastic, though. I had a giant glass of fresh-pressed sugarcane juice mixed with lime and ginger, then switched to a very nice spiced tea. The amazing thing is that the whole meal (easily twice as much food as I needed) was around $6. Not bad!
Once of the fun things about Swahili is that it's completely phonetic, like Spanish. English words often get converted to Swahili spellings by locals; 'Tusker' (the beer) becomes taska and 'battery' becomes betri. This phonetic-spelling approach leads to some pretty funny writing when locals try to spell English words. The following pictures show some hilarious attempts.
Can I interest you in some brad?
Or perhaps you'd care for some pholaphel (i.e., falafel). They're phresh!
Not pictured here: 'Crab Close' (claws), 'Pronws' (prawns), 'Stake Skuwer' (brochettes), plus 'Spices Octopos,' 'Karamali,' (kalamari) and 'Sordfish.'
We hired a couple of minivans to take us to Kendwa (Northern tip of the island) during the afternoon. The meet up point was the Big Tree, which is actually pretty gigantic when you look at it. I have no clue how old it is.
The whole group of us went to the Saturday-night party at Kendwa (which I also did last time). The folks who run Kendwa Rocks hotel have the party running like clockwork: DJ starts blasting tunes at 9, acrobats and fire dancers come on at 10, dancing continues until about 4 in the morning. The party was even better this time because we had such a large group... and possibly because we brought four bottles of Konyagi, a local tipple that tastes like a better version of gin.
So that was Zanzibar, Round 2. Big things coming up: I'm flying for Uganda in a couple of hours. I've got a ten-day trip in the works, probably covering parts of Uganda, Rwanda, and (maybe) even remote Burundi. And I promise that I'll blog about that stuff.
Also, thanks to Sara for hooking me up with these pictures.
Thursday, 2 July 2009
2. Shower (this is a big one for me)
My new lair:
Winner: The Annex
Winner: VolCon House
Sunday, 28 June 2009
In North America or Europe, taxis are highly regulated; they have metered prices, cleanliness requirements, medallion fees, etc. This makes them pretty close to commodities. Here, taxis vary on every conceivable dimension: cab quality, driver reliability, location, body odor of driver, fares. Mwenye taxis, as the drivers are called here, have to differentiate themselves somehow. Some guys wait at prime locations, others speak good English, and there's even a woman taxi driver who offers a harassment-free environment to female travelers.
All this variation means that a good cab is tough to come by. I haven't found a perfect cabbie yet, but I have found a few guys who work well for me. I have four main guys that I call: Rafa, Ali, Andrew and Charles. Andrew is just ok, but he's available during afternoon hours when cabs are scarce. Charles is good too, although he lives a bit too far away. Rafa is ultra-reliable and never argues on price, but his car screeches and groans whenever he drives it. The screeching might be a positive, though, because I can always hear him when he's pulling up outside. And Ali is a small bearded guy who works strange hours. He was driving us to a bar the other night and was bragging about how he works "the very most" of the taxi guys. He said he'd been awake for two days straight driving people around to make extra cash! Eyes on the road, buddy...
Ali pops up in strange places. We were looking for a cab after lunch today and I found him sleeping without a shirt in his car next to the restaurant. He didn't mind waking up to take us home, though. One of the advantages of working with the same guys over and over is that they start to rely on your business. In exchange for frequent airport runs and pricier trips off the peninsula, they're willing to do almost any run at a good price, and you can get priority over other customers. Once they know you well, they can also pick you up from home, which is a convenience in a city with no formal address system.
I'm painting quite a rosy picture, though. Overall, the taximen negotiate fiercely, drive like maniacs, often claim to know where something is when they have no clue, and maintain their cars badly. Even Ali's car broke down a couple of the times the other week when he took us downtown to get Indian food. The first time, we managed to roll it into a gas station and revive it. The second time, though, there was no bringing it back. A few of us got out and pushed it to the nearest corner. Here I am (looking back nervously at the oncoming traffic):
We tried to push it what looked like a driveway. After we got it in, I realized that the driveway was actually the parking lot of a graveyard. The automative gods have a sense of humor after all.
Wednesday, 24 June 2009
The American Heritage Dictionary defines atmospheric as 'something intended to evoke a particular emotion or quality.' When I blogged about my central Asian travels last summer, I used the A-word a bit too much. It was always writing about atmospheric mosques, atmospheric villages, atmospheric ruins. This summer, I decided to turn over a new blogging leaf and self-impose a moratorium on the word. So far, I've stuck to my vow.
But if I'm allowed to use the word for one place I visit in East Africa, I'd use it for Zanzibar. It's an incredible place -- mysterious and exotic, but also fun and welcoming. Three of us left work early last Friday and took the four o'clock "Fast Ferry" to the island. Tanzanians aren't so great on choppy water, so the ferry staff passed out small black plastic pouches labelled "SICK BAG" in English. People used them, although I managed to make it without throwing up. I was too busy trying to understand the Jet Lee movie with Indonesian subtitles, although I probably wouldn't have figured it out even in English.
Zanzibar is a unique place from a political and legal viewpoint. When the African countries were getting their independence in the 1960s, Zanzibar actually won its independence several years before Tanganyika (the mainland). When modern Tanzania was created a few years later (TAN-ganyika + ZAN-zibar = Tanzania), Zanzibar was given a lot of independence. Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, of course, but it's semi-autonomous (like the UK / Scotland, or China / Hong Kong). Zanzibar has separate elections, political autonomy, its own flag, and customs controls. Fellow lawyers will be interested to know that there are even Sharia tribunals that operate in tandem with the national common-law courts!
The ferry arrived early evening in Stone Town, the oldest settlement on the island, with old buildings from earlier Portuguese, Omani, English and post-independence regimes. I've always loved exotic, 'Eastern' cities with narrow streets, tiny stalls and old buildings. Zanzibar is probably the best city I've ever visited for just walking around in the urban labyrinth. Here are a few pictures of the heart of Stone Town:
There are some great dining options in Stone Town. Unfortunately, the place we had dinner on Friday was not one of them. I probably should have guessed, since we were the only living creatures in the restaurant except for the big grey parrot next to our table. Afterwards, we went for a drink at New Africa House, a gorgeous house built during the Omani sultanate, now converted into a fancy hotel. Caris, Chris and I sat out on the balcony overlooking the ocean and watched the crowds below. Right behind the hotel is a giant outdoor food market which had been temporarily moved from its usual location at Forodhani Gardens. The food market had about twenty stalls, each manned by chefs in white chef hats who make incredible food. The prices were really ridiculous: shark meat kebabs for $0.75 each, giant helpings of 'Zanzibari Pizza' (fried pastries) for a dollar, and grilled chicken and meat for even cheaper. A few vendors were selling prawns on skewers -- kinda like a Swahili version of camarões da tarde. When I was walking around and smelling all the aromas, I really wished I hadn't spoiled my appetite at the place with the parrot. I bought a Zanzibari dessert pizza and spiced tea, a Stone Town specialty -- it's basically black tea brewed for hours with a bunch of local spices thrown in. If I go back to Stone Town again, I'm definitely going to eat all meals at the food stalls.
The next morning, I met up with two more TechnoServe volunteers and an American woman, Teddy, who was traveling around Tanzania. Teddy had hired a guide for the morning and invited us to join her on her tour. Our guide, Fareed, was gay (semi-openly), and was renowned for giving no-holds-barred insight into the gossip, taboos and intimate practices of the local people. At first, we walked around and saw a lot of the things you'd expect to see: a Hindu temple, fruit merchants, ancient buildings, and some boutique hotels. I'd actually never gone to a Hindu temple before. Although I have seen these before:
But we also saw some stranger things, including 'Jaws Corner,' a random little spot in town named after the shark film (it was a bit hit on Zanzibar). Fareed spent a long time talking to us about doors, the most famous cultrual symbol of Stone Town. (So famous, in fact, that many tourists have bought them illegally and shipped them home). All of the doors are two-paneled. Women and men used to knock on different sides so that an inhabitant of the appropriate gender could come to greet them. The older houses have elaborately-carved doors that used to convey information about the people inside. Flowers above the door showed the number of non-slave residents, the welcome slogan indicated religion, fish on the vertical part of the frame signalled pre-Islamic beliefs, and scrollwork told the occupation of the owner. Also, the spikes on the door are designed to protect against elephants. I have to admit that I didn't totally get that part. Here are some door photos:
After door-time, Fareed took us to a local cultural center, where he told us about some of the Swahili subleties around clothing and jewelry. Wearing your prayer cap a certain way lets women know that you're on the prowl; doing it differently says that you're in a bad mood, in mourning, or that you want to barter. I also learned about what Fareed called 'sex beads' -- chains of plastic beads that women can leave on their beds as non-verbal cues: 'come hither,' 'I have a headache,' 'I'm pissed at you,' or 'I'm leaving you.' We also discussed some more intimate practices, but I'll leave that for another time. Overall, the sublety and intricacy of Stone Town culture really reminded me of the complex non-verbal social cues that I've read about in ancient Persia or Baghdad, which makes sense given Zanzibar's cultural influences. A photo of us at the end of the tour, on a hotel roof deck.
After the tour, we left Stone Town and headed North into the naturally beautiful parts of the island. North of the city, there aren't any more ancient buildings, and the fields are filled with typical Tanzania villages, spices, coconuts and fruit. Our driver took us on a detour to a spice farm along the way to our hotel. As much as I'd like to think that I visited a working spice farm, it was pretty touristy -- after all, the sign said HAKUNA MATATA SPICE FARMS and the 'farmers' spoke English. Still, they grew vanilla, cardamom, pineapples, cloves, ginger and turmeric, and I got to smell and taste pretty much all of it. The taste of the spices right out the ground is actually quite different from the processed stuff. And who knew that cloves grew on trees and turmeric grew below ground? Not me.
One of the young apprentices at HMSF was an expert coconut-tree climber. He tied a rope around his feet and wormed his way up a coconut tree, where he knocked off a couple of dafu (young coconuts) before coming down again. He also sang a song at the top of his lungs while he was going up and down. Pretty hilarious!
Our host asked me if I felt like climbing up a coconut tree. Why not? If some 12-year old can climb up a tree in 40 seconds while singing at full pitch, I should be able to at least climb a few feet, right? It was tougher than it looked, though. You have to tie the rope around your feet in an infinity shape and then jump up and bear hug the tree trunk. At the same time, you jam your ankles against the trunk, so that the ragged rope will catch on the bumps of the tree; this stops you from sliding down. Once you're on the tree, you can wriggle your way higher. Here's me climbing the tree:
Post-spice farm, we went to Kendwa Rocks, a budget beach resort famous for its massive full-moon beach parties. We weren't there on a full-moon weekend, but the party was pretty great anyways: people dancing in the sand, a live acrobatic show featuring an albino who could dance with a flaming wheel on his head, cheap houkahs*, and a multinational crowd united by their love of reggae (or tolerance of reggae, in my case). Before the party, I walked along the beach (gorgeous) and played some more beach volleyball (quite intense). Here are some shots of the beaches at Kendwa:
That was atmospheric ol' Zanzibar in a nutshell. I hope I get back before I finish up the summer.
*'Houkah' refers to pipes, not professionals
**Thanks to Chris and Chelsey for giving me pictures for this post.
Thursday, 18 June 2009
It works like this: bulk apparel traders in North America and Europe buy all the leftover clothes from consignment shops, charity drives and fire sales for a couple of cents per pound. They compress them into palettes and ship them in containers to African ports, where they unpack the clothing and sell it to bulk apparel wholesalers, who then ship it to market stalls around Africa. There, it sits in big piles of shirts, pants and undergarments until someone buys the items super-cheap. The price here is about $0.30 per article. The first time I came across the stalls (in Senegal) I was really amazed. Some of my favorite (and ratty) shirts are from a stand in the fishermen's quarter in St. Louis.
There's no telling what sorts of things show up here. Because many Tanzanians don't speak English, I've seen a lot of people wearing clothes that seem out of place and/or hysterical. For instance: a tough-looking taxi driver wearing a teal-and-pink Hello Kitty backpack, a farmer wearing a high school shirt ("working harder than Prep since 1890"), someone wearing a Brown University hoodie, and guys wearing women's soccer team shirts. I see a lot of people wearing red or black D.A.R.E shirts, and in one case the wearer was drunk. Occasionally, you'll see someone wearing something designed for the opposite gender. Am I wrong, or does this fellow have a purse?
The best part is that people wear Western clothes in totally different ways than back home. Take the farmers I work with: they all wear long-sleeved dress shirts and dress slacks when they're in the village or the field, because that's just what grownups wear. T-shirts might seem like they make more sense, but those are for kids. People here -- especially if they have less cash -- basically wear dress shoes or flip-flops, with little in between (e.g., sneakers). They use flip-flops because they're cheap, and dress shoes make sense because you can repair them over and over (for cheap). Also, many Tanzanians have a different sense of what's appropriate for various occasions. For funerals, weddings, etc., it's easy: you wear a suit or nice traditional clothing. In a business setting, it's not so clear. I went to a meting a few weeks ago with some farmers and businesspeople. It was quite formal and we met in a company conference room. Most of the farmers showed up looking proper in dress shirt, dress pants and dress shoes. One guy, though, showed up wearing a sort of pricey-looking, rapper-esque grey tracksuit with Chinese writing on the front. And sunglasses, which he wore the entire meeting.
Not everyone likes the second-hand clothing industry. Some development types think that the availability of recycled apparel stifles the chance for local clothing manufacturers to build up a strong textile industry. In Tanzania, for instance, there is very little clothing manufacturing outside of traditional kanga and kitenge makers, probably because would-be consumers can just buy second-hand clothing for the fraction of the price.
I still think the clothing trade is a good thing. People with small incomes can still clothe themselves and their families, after all. Plus, the slogans on second-hand clothes make me laugh at least twice every day, which has gotta be worth something.
Wednesday, 17 June 2009
I don't feel like making a real post, so I'm gonna do something requiring less effort: spitting out random things in my brain. Kinda like freestyle rap, except it doesn't rhyme.
Sunday, 14 June 2009
It also retains a certain Tanzanian something:
I drank a few beers, swam in the gorgeous water and played beach volleyball. The volleyball was my favorite part. The court was tiny and the net was low and sagging, but that didn't stop oh, fifteen people from squeezing on the court and getting in each other's way. I joined the fray and played for about an hour -- just good, unathletic fun with a bunch of random people.