Monthly Archives: May 2012

Walk With Me Through Stone Town, Zanzibar

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Walk toward the ocean. Turn left. Turn left. Turn right. Dead end. Go back. Where is that motorbike you can hear coming? Glance over your shoulder. Take a wobbly step to the left to avoid him hitting you as he turns down the alley. Look up: Electrical wires, black mold encroaching on white buildings, laundry hanging limp in the choked air.

“Sister, come into my shop. Looking is free. I will give you a special discount. I will give you a good price.”
Keep your head down. Keep walking.
Say “pole sana (very sorry)” when you walk through children’s street soccer game.
Notice how deflated their small ball is. Turn right. Turn right. Buy a sliced mango from a street vendor and put chili salt on it at the insistence of him and another man.
Say “Shillingi ngape (how much) ?”
“Elfu umoja.”
Be thankful that he speaks slowly in Swahili. Try to be sneaky about digging in your bra for the money. Pay him, and keep walking.
Say “Asante (thank you)” to compliments on your dress. Step into a shop.
“Karibu sister. Welcome. I have the lowest prices.”
Absentmindedly say “Aiya.”
Browse quickly and try to see more than one thing at one time so you know if you’re going to buy before the salesmen hassles you relentlessly.
Say “Asante sana kaka (thank you very much brother).”
Try not to feel too bad when he tells you you’re his first customer and begs you not to leave the store. Come out of the maze of narrow streets and onto the big one….where cars actually drive comfortably.
“Sister, do not forget us. T-shirt? Tanzania? Zanzibar?”
Say, “Baadaye (later)..maybe,” and realize how amazing it would be to know the word ‘maybe’ in Swahili. You don’t want to make any promises.
“Listen, sister, we are having a party tonight. Playing Ragaae music. We will show you a good time.”
Say “Okay, poa (cool),” and just keep walking.
“ Unatoka wapi? (Where are you from?)”
Say “Mericani.”
“Ahhhh Obamaland!! Very good. Obama is very good. Good country.”
Say “Aiya.”
“Where did you learn Swahili?”
“Rafiki yetu. Walemu Secondaria Sciencia (Our friend. Teacher Secondary Science)”
“Ohhhhh. She is muzungu (white person)?”
“Aiya.”
“You speak very good Swahili, sister.”
Laugh at this. Say “kidogo Saaaaanaa (veeerrry little).”
As you’ve been doing, keep walking.
“Taxi? Taxi?”
Say “Hapana, asante (no, thank you).”
“Maybe tomorrow. You are going to the beach tomorrow? Nungwi? Kendwa? We have a shared van. Tomorrow.”
Say “I have just been to the beach.”
Keep walking. Greet a shopkeeper you met yesterday. Try to look like you know exactly where you’re going. Turn left back into the narrow streets and remember reading that the buildings here were built tall and close together to provide shade on the hellishly hot days. Pause for a split second to look around.
“Sister, you are lost! Are you lost? Where are you going?”
“No, I have been here. Not lost.”
Ignore this helpful man approaching you to show you the way. Realize he probably won’t show you the way to anywhere you’re trying to go and realize also that he will want you to pay him for his made up services. Keep walking. Realize you’ve been smirking the whole journey. Revel in that carefree feeling of being lost. And just keep walking.

 

 

 

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Stone Town’s Street Market and Spice Tour

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Boys are splashing into the bay, running in out of nowhere, more every minute. The older ones are lined up on built-up brick walks of Forodhani Gardens, running and jumping off the edge and into the water in dare devil stunts. An old man in a long white robe and prayer cap stands in silence amidst the chaos, with one foot up on the edge of the brick walkway, watching the sunset. Kids are crawling over and under a small playground that was completely deserted just hours ago. Muslim women stroll in colorful head scarves and high heels, texting and chattering with their friends. Boats bump over the small waves and a wooden dhow with its sail up crosses the burning-orange ball of sun. Suddenly, the stiflingly hot daytime park is cooling and becoming Stone Town’s social center. The grass is green and trimmed, trash free and comfortable to walk across. As we walk toward the central plaza of the gardens, I can smell popcorn popping at our favorite snack shop, the one we go to every day. The one where one of our waiters introduced himself as Mr. Super Handsome and introduced the other waiter as Mr. Lova Lova.
“You know, like the song?” he said.
We pass them and say hello.
In the plaza food vendors are setting up for the nightly street market. We wander through to see the selections: pizza, dessert pizza, fresh juice, beef, various fish, naan, chapatti, corn, salad. I can smell the beef grilling, and I am wishing there were park markets like this in the States. Right in front us pizza dough is being rolled out, meat is being grilled, a man is running thick stalks of sugar cane through a hand-powered press to make juice. And, for once, somewhere in Africa smells good. We order and twilight falls quickly. After we finish our dinner and juice we wander through the other stalls, checking out the dessert selections. We settle on pizza with banana, coconut, and Nutella. The men cooking work quickly, their hands flying in the light cast by a kerosene lantern. The noise and chatter around me falls away as I start to speak to them in Swahili. It is fun, but I am concentrating. Genuine laughter fills the space between their questions and my broken answers. It’s the same laughter that all the Africans we’ve met can emit; it’s the only kind here. Orders before ours are handed out, money is paid, and finally our delicious dessert is ready.
“Lala fofofo,” I tell the two men as we walk away. Sleep like a dead person.
This one guarantees a laugh.
The next day we leave the hotel at 9a.m…well almost. Our spice tour guide is running late (no big surprise) and we head out of Stone Town a bit to a spice farm. Zanzibar is a spice island and I was excited from day one of this trip to learn more about how the heck you grow a spice…I had never really thought it through. With a large group (the most white people we’ve seen in months…forgive my political incorrectness and notation of skin color please) we go walking through the farm, stopping to learn about the various trees, bushes, roots, and grasses along the way. First up is lemongrass, which gives off a delicious lemon scent and can be used to repel mosquitoes. A slew of information and plants follow: ginger root used for stomach problems, cinnamon taken from cinnamon tree bark and sticks made from the branches, nutmeg from a pit inside a fruit, green vanilla beans growing on a tree, coffee cherries on trees, unripe cocoa, ylang ylang flowers, star fruit, oranges, coconuts, a pepper plant producing red, green, and black pepper. Ginger was the spiciest, making me cringe after I hardly touch the root to the tip of my tongue. I suck in my cheeks at the sour star fruit and delight in the fresh citrus scent of the lemongrass and the sweet smell of ripe vanilla beans that makes me think of home and holidays and summertime ice cream.
We proceed to the old Persian bath houses of the main wife of Zanzibar’s old Sultan Seyyid Said. During his time on Zanzibar, the Sultan had nearly forty wives and a few of their old palaces in Stone Town are now historical museums. At the end of the tour we buy some coffee and spiced tea and we all sit on mats on the floor for a traditional Tanzanian lunch of chapatti, spiced rice called pilau, curry sauce, and cooked pumpkin leaves. We chat with some of the other travelers about their journeys and we are soon headed back to sweltering Stone Town.

We got no troubles. Life is the bubbles. Under the Sea!

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“Don’t be nervous. Your instructor is waiting there for you.” As these words left the mouth of another Buccaneer Diving instructor – and after my slight agreement – I was gently pushed backwards off a boat. It was just the bit of encouragement I needed for my first time scuba diving. There were a fair amount of rolling waves on the ocean surface, but within a minute we began our slow descent to 12 meters. Underneath the surface of the Indian Ocean the water was still and turquoise. It is rainy season on Zanzibar, so visibility in the water is not as high as at other times of the year. Still, I could see around me enough to feel comfortable and be fully satisfied with the creatures seen on my first dive. There were unexpectedly purple coral reefs, Finding Nemo fish of various striped and colored varieties and some with oddly shaped fins, big drab fish, sea snakes, small gray fish with neon colored stripes, lion fish, a flounder..and the list goes on! Scuba diving has a truly strange and otherworldly feel to it. Something about being engulfed by water, the constantly and noticeably moving environment, kind of made my mind spin. To this, add all the beautiful creatures and the fact that you can get face to face with them and you’ve really got a weirdly cool situation.
Scuba diving is something I never thought I would do. Then again, so was travelling on the African continent and here I am. Before deciding to scuba dive just days ago my fears went something like this: what if a shark eats me? What if I drown? What if the boat forgets me and I end up as the main star in an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive? On the morning of the dives, my worries were more like this: What if my lungs blow up? What if my brain explodes? What if my ears won’t pop? What if I drown? What if I have a panic attack?
“You’re not going to go all Buster on me, are you?” Alex asked, referring to the nervous behavior and frequent panic attacks of the youngest brother in the brilliant TV series, Arrested Development. I answered an unsure ‘no’ to this.
As we walked to the dive center with the tune of all my worries ringing in our ears I was reminded by Alex of my recent personal conquest to cut out a good majority of the ‘what ifs’ and ‘buts’ in my life. Of course it is a good idea to be cautious and knowledgeable of the legitimate risks of any sport, but I tried to suppress the more outrageous concerns. I knew that the reward for overcoming (or just ignoring) my nerves would be worthwhile. I was doing the PADI Discover Scuba Diving course, which involves pool instruction and then at least one open water dive. With this, the participant is awarded a diving certificate that is good for one year and also counts toward any future coursework in getting full certification. After a skills session in the pool with my instructor, I was still feeling nervous and, honestly, unprepared for an open water dive. In the pool I learned how to clear my mask of any water that might get in, how to find my regulator (the mouthpiece supplying air to you on a dive), and how to share my alternate regulator with my dive buddy if they ran out of air. Learning all of these skills, and at a measly 2 meters, had me kicking for the surface, gasping for air, and blowing water out my nose. I couldn’t seem to get the hang of pacing my exhale if I lost my air source and of not trying to breathe through my nose (odd, because this is a general rule of swimming and I’ve done plenty of swimming). At the bottom of the pool I thought at least once that I would just pay the instructor for the pool time and skip out on the open water all together. My new knowledge of the risks and skills needed had me more worried than before. Sure, knowledge is power. But also…ignorance is bliss.
In committing to the PADI Discover Scuba Diving course, the uncomfortable pool skills were required and I was therefore forced in the direction of ‘knowledge is power.’ In reality, of course this is a good thing. I quickly asked my instructor if we could just swim around close to the ocean surface for a few minutes before descending. I am sure I sounded nervous and shaken and he assured me that we would descend slowly. Alex, who is certified in open water diving, also assured me that I most likely would not lose my regulator or have to clear my mask on the dive. So away we went in the bumping boat!
We reached our dive site within minutes and were, much to my surprise, still within easy sight of the shore. There goes my fear of ending up on I Shouldn’t Be Alive…it certainly looked close enough to swim if I had that kind of life or death adrenaline! As we swam under the surface, my curiosity finally trumped my nervousness and I was at ease, free to go about as I pleased. The 40 minutes of the first dive passed so quickly that when we returned to the surface I was asking, “Are we done already? It’s been 40 minutes?” I had planned on doing one dive but was definitely playing with the idea of going down with Alex and the instructor on the second dive. As does any good Tanzanian salesman, our instructor insisted gently that he would give me a very good price. Unlike most Tanzanian salesmen, though, he actually did (I would have done it without the random 10 percent discount!).
When we got back to the hotel after diving, I was lazing around and thinking about the odd things that happen in my brain when I am out of my usual routine and comfort zone. Of course, certain unpleasant things occupy spaces of my mind that wouldn’t be there at home, like being on the lookout for someone who might rob me, having to watch my bags, not walking very far at night, and trying not to think about the fact that the people who cook the food in local restaurants also wipe their butt with their hand. Moving on….
The deeply fun part about travelling, or living, somewhere outside my comfort zone is that my curiosity perks up a whole lot, I am more relaxed, and I tend not to be concerned with the same things I am concerned with at home. With just a dash of caution, these changes in thinking have led me to some of the best places in life: up mountains, across hundreds of miles of Yellowstone’s trails, and, now, down into the Indian Ocean.

 

Here a cow, there a cow, everywhere a moooo cow

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Just for fun, here’s a quick list of all the places we’ve seen cows in East Africa.
1) In a traffic jam in the middle of Nairobi.
2) Walking down the beach on Zanzibar.
3) Tethered to a tree in the woods at Lake Malawi.
4) Roaming freely in the woods below Mt. Kenya.
5) Next to you as you bike along a dirt road in Madibira, Tanzania.
6) In the river/ crossing the river in Archer’s Post, Kenya.
7) In a field, naturally.
8) Hanging wholly but skinned and beheaded in the unrefrigerated window of a “hotel/butchery.” It took me way too long to learn that hotel here means restaurant. Dah.

 

Getting There is Half the Journey: Tanzania Edition

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The longer I travel in Africa, the more apparent it becomes that adventure is unavoidable here if you’re trying to get anywhere. Many tourists here step right off the plane and into clean and comfortable safari vehicles, all together avoiding public transportation. There’s nothing at all wrong with this and I often dream about my few days here in a safari company car when I’m stuffed in an 11-passenger minibus with 25 other passengers, when I’m pushing a minibus up a hill in flip-flops, and when I’m fervently checking that my bags aren’t leaving any bus without me. Despite the inevitable chaos that comes with getting yourself around in Tanzania, I’ve learned a lot and made oodles (yes, oodles) of memories on public transport here. So, without further ado, let me tell you about them.
Daladala/ minibus: Like Kenya’s famed matatus, Tanzanias daladalas go everywhere all the time. They also have a habit of stopping to pick up every last passenger on the road, which causes them to be severely overcrowded. I’ve never ridden a daladala where every passenger is happily and comfortably in their seats and are not made to share this seat with 1,2, or 7 other passengers. The worst daladala yet, as mentioned above, was made for 11 passengers but was carrying 26. With this, I recommend that if you plan on taking a daladala you get in your seat and quickly say a prayer for safety to God, Allah, the Universe, and the Fates before the thing starts moving. Next, daladalas break down a lot in many different ways. One day we found ourselves piling out of the vehicle and pushing it up a hill. Then, once it got going, we were running and jumping in in true Little Miss Sunshine Fashion. Ladies first, at least. Other times the vehicle breaks down and the driver and other passengers and bystanders will spend a considerable amount of time just banging on parts of the car until it seems fixed for long enough to reach the destination. There are also buses a little bigger than daladalas called coasters and there are the glorious charter-type buses (Sumry bus line is the way to go!!). Sometimes the will have similar problems, but never quite as severely as the daladala. On the recent coaster ride to Matema Beach, we contemplated bargaining the price of the ride, as we spent half the route walking around deep mud holes. So what have I learned from riding on buses? Always wear good pushing and walking shoes, bring something to do in case…no, wait..because the bus will be hours late, and don’t be afraid to make jokes in Swahili about having a big butt…this might get someone to scoot over and give you an inch more of room.
Wooden canoe: If you’ve been reading this blog, you know all about our recent wooden canoe debacle at Matema Beach. Yes, we did come dangerously close to sinking a boat. Yes, our boat was saved and bailed out by a man in his underwear. In the end, we made it to our destination market and, in noticing our subsequent seasickness, walked back to our hotel. I learned here that I’m not meant to be a boatwoman, that most Tanzanians will help you when they see you are in peril (or sinking their boat or their friend’s boat….), and to always laugh at your mistakes.
Ferry: Oh glorious ferry! Two days ago we got on, by far, the most comfortable vehicle in Tanzania. It’s the Kilimanjaro ferry to Zanzibar. With air conditioning blasting down on me and Mighty Joe Young playing on three flat screen TVs, I almost forgot I was Tanzania. Again, I am not a seafaring gal so I was feeling a bit queasy on the ride. But it’s nothing that looking at the horizon and eating a crispy Samosa couldn’t fix. I learned…always take the ferry if there’s a ferry to take! Except some of them sink here, so avoid those rumored to be faulty.
Bicycle: One of the good things about Tanzania is that you can get almost anything you want if you just pay up. With this, we decided to “rent” bikes from a man in Madibira one day. I guess all renting really is is paying money to borrow someone’s personal property. So, yes, we rented bikes. The brakes on mine were reversed and the brakes on Alex’s didn’t work. Luckily, we checked these things out before we needed the breaks and went rolling away easily enough on the rickety things. Sarah has her own bike and although it has brakes it has a problem with the chain falling off. We biked to Madibira’s rice scheme, sharing the road with all the usuals-walking pedestrians, motorbikes, cars, the occasional farm tractor- and also with migrating cows and goats. It was fun to ride on crappy old bikes and lay them haphazardly on the side of the road to walk somewhere, like kids on summer vacation! With Sarah’s chain breaking outright by the end of that day, she hopped on the back of a power tiller with her bike and we followed her home on ours. We also practiced the art of riding twoesies in Madibira; Sarah and I were considerably more successful at this than Sarah and Alex and, luckily, none of us crashed…this tends to happen to me on bikes.
Walking: Once we reach a place by the various means of public transportation, we walk. Walking through Madibira was the best way to meet people. Each day we saw the same people outside the same shops and restaurants. We stopped to greet them every day, and it was easy to see that we would never have met these people if we had been in a car. This, to me, feels like what small-town America is too. But still, if I were walk to the store every day at home there’s a good chance I wouldn’t encounter anyone or greet anyone, but I was always happy for this interaction in Madibira. Additionally, walking attracts children. Yesterday we were walking through the town of Bwejuu on Zanzibar and we suddenly had a small gaggle of young schoolgirls by our side. Soon, both my hands were in their hands as we walked along and they were chattering away in Swahili. I like kids and I usually don’t mind them hanging around me, at least for a little while! Lastly, I’ve seen a few amazing sunsets and starry nights while walking in Tanzania, those little things that remind you that life is good.

Foreigners on Buses and Boats: Adventures on Matema Beach, Tanzania

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The only light in Madibira is a pair of headlights, coming quickly down the main road. We can see them approaching as we walk that way and, with this, we are running. It is dark-before 6 a.m.- the sand on the road is deep and our packs are heavy. We are determined to travel from Madibira (just outside of Ruaha National Park) to Matema Beach on Lake Malawi/Lake Nyasa in one day. I don’t know how many kilometers we will go, but it’s enough to mean getting on the first bus out of town. The first leg of the journey is so dusty I can hardly breathe. We stop so that the driver can pound away at something on the undercarriage of the vehicle in an attempt to fix whatever it is that’s broken this time. After this the rest of the bus rides blur together. There’s a beautiful winding road lined by tea plants, patchwork fields, homes settled in banana tree groves, dropping valleys, lingering fog, and nothing but the color green rolling over the land. I make my first out-the-bus-window purchase: avocados 5 times as big as those in the States, and four for 75 cents! We get off one bus to find the next, only to discover the bus we were just on is going where we need to go…we get back on to find the eyes of many Tanzanians looking at us. We are in need of a bank and visit one being run out of a bus, after I previously, and rather ragefully, stormed out of an ATM that wouldn’t give me money. There is one bus change where we tiptoe through tarps of corn and rice in a parking lot, only to find eager touts and subsequent fistfights at our bus stand. We eat dinner outside of a grimy building that looks abandoned but is actually a restaurant. And we scarf down the last bits of it rapidly in order to flag down our bus as its leaving town. Finally, we are on the last bus of the journey! But it’s not really smooth sailing on to the end. Multiple times we are made to get out of the bus and walk around gaping mud holes while our bus slides precariously through them, nearly ending up in a watery roadside ditch once or twice. We reach our hotel in the dark and it’s one of those travelling days that feels like three in the end. But we accomplished our goal! We made it in one day, and now we have two days to do as we please on the beach.
The first day is spent in 100 percent beach style: doing nothing but laying in the sun and swimming. We watch visiting university students playing in the waves, men and women mingling freely. We marvel at how much more Western they are than so many Tanzanians. We bring up the good and bad parts of an undeveloped country striving to be so much like a developed country. We talk about progress and about how sometimes culture itself can hinder progress. Sarah, who has spent a year and a half in Tanzania as a Peace Corps volunteer, thinks that Tanzanians would have to lose parts of their culture to truly make progress. The hours of this day dwindle by, as they should on the beach.
The next day we are feeling motivated and inquire at the Reception desk about the hotel’s kayaks, which Sarah has rented before. They don’t have the kayaks anymore, they tell us, but we can rent a wooden canoe for the day. It’s decided! We’ll give it a go. Once we have the boat in our possession, we are directed on how to use it by a local (possibly the boat’s owner… this was never clear). We shove the impossibly heavy rig off the safe shoreline in excitement. We giggle a bit after we nearly tip it over on our first attempt to get in. Soon enough we are in and are beginning to paddle. We don’t really know who’s supposed to be steering and who’s supposed to be driving us forward…the front person?..the back person?…we know nothing about canoes. We turn in a full circle. Then another. And yet another. All the while the white-capped lake waves are crashing into and over the boat and then we are riding one into the shore. Now, we are beached on a boat full of water. Good thing, or we probably would have sunk it! The trusty local, who was spastically running down the shore and in and out of the shallow water to help us, now throws off his shirt (his pants were long gone) fully exposing his green, cotton panties, and begins tipping the boat over and bailing the water out with a plastic bottle-turned-scoop. As soon as the boat is returned to a useable condition he insists on paddling us down shore to the market we were aiming for when we first began turning in circles. We arrive at said market with no troubles, other than that we are all three feeling queasy by the time we reach land. It is soon decided that we are not seafaring (or, rather, lakefaring) people and that we should probably walk back to avoid vomiting. The trusty local in his green underwear rows the whole way back, following closely our progress on foot. As Sarah pointed out at least once during this ordeal, this is what you get when you take Colorado and Wyoming people and put them in a boat: nothing good.
The day we almost sunk the boat was the last day we had with Sarah until she comes home in November. In an effort to end our journey together fashionably, we sought out a delectable dinner. It began with garlic bread topped with parmesan cheese ( OMG cheeeeeesssssssseee!!!!! In Africa!!!!!!) accompanied by a simple little salad of cabbage and cucumber. Next was the pizza, which we were more than willing to wait an hour and a half for. There was actually spices on this thing, which is pretty much unheard of in all the traditional Tanzanian foods we’ve been eating. Lastly was a sliced up banana dusted with cocoa powder and cinnamon and turned into a smiley face. Sorry if it bores you to read a whole paragraph about food, but after almost two months of travelling in Africa this meal felt like the most special and revitalizing thing on the planet, despite paying three times as much as expected for it! So it was with full bellies and good spirits that we ended our adventure-filled time at Matema Beach, said goodbye for now to one of our best friends (much less tearful and dramatic than the drunken goodbye a year and a half ago on the shore of some reservoir outside Cody, Wyoming), and began a two and a half day journey across the country and across the ocean to Zanzibar!

Madibira: A Tourist’s Bypass, A Traveler’s Paradise

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First of all: roosters. When talking about Madibira it is important to begin with roosters as this is how every day begins in Madibira. This is unfortunate. Roosters are miserable. They have officially become my least favorite creature and I decided that if I ever have a farm with roosters I will have their voice boxes surgically removed. Sans roosters, Madibira would be a little slice of paradise. It’s certainly not a tourist destination. In fact, we were perplexed when we spotted another foreigner in town. And days later, her driver brought her over to talk to us when we were eating. I’m thinking he was thinking that we are all white and speak English so we would surely get along. Because it is not a place geared toward tourists, we got a lot of Tanzanian village flava, good and bad. This meant being greeted by everyone as we walked down the street to town. It also meant hearing the whimpers of a girl being beaten by a teacher at school, as Tanzanians still practice corporal punishment at school. But, as with many places I’ve been in Africa, the good outweighs the bad. People are happy and kind here despite a slew of unsavory circumstances.
At Madibira Secondary School, where our friend Sarah is working for the Peace Corps, there was a gathering to celebrate Tanzanian Labor Day. Sarah, Alex, and I were invited to sit at the high table. It became clear that we were being welcomed in a big way.
“We will sit together and talk, chat. We will drink sodas and party,” Sarah’s headmaster told us.
With his beaming, genuine smile I could hardly keep from chuckling at this. He was pleased that we would travel all the way from America and choose to land in Madibira. According to him, it is very much in the middle of nowhere. He told us later that the reason America is so great is because the people are so charitable and, like us, are willing to travel to a “bush school” to teach its children. Admittedly, our intentions were far less altruistic. We never would have visited Madibira if our good friend had not been put there for her service. The welcome from the headmaster made me feel inexplicably and irrationally guilty about this. Our week and a half there felt longer as we passed the same people each day in town and stopped to chat, as we were invited into their homes to share meals, and as we took part in celebrations with them. Each night we stopped at the same woman’s shop and she quickly became one of my favorite Madibira residents.
In addition to gaining a more genuine perspective of a place, visiting a non-tourist spot also means having a lot of time to do absolutely nothing. We spent hours, even whole days, lounging in Sarah’s house just catching up on each other’s news, completing an embarrassing amount of word puzzles, learning Swahili, and watching TV shows and movies on the computer. But we did get around a bit. We spent one afternoon riding bicycles out to Madibira’s rice scheme. Oddly enough, this was started years ago by a Colorado State University professor. Rice reaches a shade of lime green when it is growing that is unmatched by any other vegetation I’ve seen. It’s vibrant and fresh and in Madibira it stretches for miles and miles over flat land, and is then met with a backdrop of jungle-covered mountains. Is it weird that the Madibira rice scheme is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen on this trip? Wanting to know more, we dropped our bikes on the side of the dirt road and waded through a swampy ditch to reach a berm on top of which a rice farmer was working. Sarah picked his brain about the process of rice farming and translated from Swahili to English for us. Then away we went.
A couple of days later we attended a wedding in the village of another Peace Corps volunteer, up the road about an hour. We arrived more than an hour late. Let me note, that this is acceptable and normal in Tanzania where things rarely start or run on time. The wedding took place in a barn-like building: brick walls, a thatched roof, and dirt floors. Guests sat on skinny benches or plastic chairs. Speeches were being made when we arrived and continued for hours. Then dancing began, with guests sitting down for seconds between each song…I don’t know why. Gifts of fabric and dishes were presented and in-laws were greeted by each other, all the while with the bride, groom, and their witnesses looking fashionably miserable. We were told that this is just kind of the way Tanzanians look during celebrations. Finally by 11:30 p.m. we were scarfing down a dinner of meat, rice, and potatoes. The bride and groom and many guests left shortly after this, while the partiers (like us!) stayed to party.
Madibira is a place where a tourist would never end up but a lucky traveler just might. I’ll leave the getting there part a secret, but if you happen to end up there make sure you eat the Chipsi Mayai (the best in the country), visit the blue and white shop on the far side of town, practice your broken Swahili (and bring someone who speaks it well), watch a sunset, get clothes custom-made by a fundi (technical worker), play with children, look at the stars (no light pollution), ride twosies on a bike, drink booze from a plastic packet, chase a chicken, eat rice and beans until they come out your nose (wait…don’t….this just happened to me during an extra unfortunate vomiting fit), visit the secondary school headmaster, take a bucket shower, and, whatever you do, don’t forget to poop in a hole.

 

May Day in Madibira + Sarah is Awesome

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I am running with my hands stretched out in front of me, the way I always do when I am trying to catch something: a ball, a Frisbee, and, today, a chicken. I am in the lead, just behind the weaving chicken. It runs into some tall grasses –I’m thinking it looks thorny in there—and a Tanzania woman dives at the chicken from behind me. She is laying there with a struggling chicken in her grasp. The chase is over. And we don’t get to eat chicken for dinner tonight.
May 1 is worker’s day in Tanzania so there were festivities to participate in. We are currently in Madibira, Tanzania. You probably won’t find it on a map. It’s more than three hours from a paved road, but you can get almost anything here except bread. And running water and electricity. We are visiting our good friend Sarah, who is coming down the homestretch of her service in the Peace Corps. She tells us that Madibira is a rich village and an oasis. What makes them rich is their rice scheme that produces rice to be shipped all over the country. What makes them an oasis is the fact that you drive for hours on a dirt road, seeing hardly anything, and then there’s a bustling little town. I find myself thinking it’s the kind of town I’d like to live in in the U.S. There are little restaurants, local women running shops and sewing clothes on the street corner (I’m having a dress made right now!). Everywhere we go Sarah stops to talk to all the people she knows around town.
Today we are celebrating with the teachers from the area. We begin with a weird kind of meeting that is all in Swahili. Then we get to eat and drink soda. Then the festivities begin. First is the men’s 100meter race, which Sarah’s teacher friends force Alex to enter. He runs barefoot across the dusty soccer field and wins by a hair! They all love him now. Then is the women’s 100meter race which, despite my high school track experience, I graciously sit out of. I have to save my energy for what’s next: the chicken chase. Alex is in the men’s chicken chase and doesn’t catch the chicken, and Sarah and I fail in the women’s group. Darn! Next is men’s tug of war, which Alex’s team wins. Everyone loves him even more! Then Sarah and I get on the losing team for women’s tug of war. Darn! Now come the real sporting events. Women’s net ball brings a crowd that seems big enough to be the whole town. Everyone forms a square around the court and we watch the intense game for about 45 minutes. Then is the grand finale: soccer. East Africans (I can’t speak for the rest of Africa) love soccer! The crowd moves to the soccer field. The game is not as intense as net ball, so we end up playing with some cute little kids. At this point in the day, many of them are ignoring the main event to watch the white people. We sneak away at half time and conclude our holiday with a spaghetti dinner at Sarah’s house. For the next couple of days we will go to Sarah’s school, where she is a chemistry teacher. Then (stay tuned) we will attend a Tanzanian wedding on Saturday!

Welcome to Tanzania!

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At the end of last week we left the rain-soaked Maasailand plains and headed for Kenya’s neighboring country to the south. In Tanzania, we are visiting a good friend who is in the Peace Corps and then spending the last week of our two months of travels on Zanzibar. We are still within the region of East Africa, but we’ve found a couple differences so far between Kenya and Tanzania.
Landscape: Tanzania has mountains! I am a Colorado girl…I love mountains! In Kenya we visited the dessert-y northern parts and the sprawling plains of the south. We encountered some pretty rolling hills along the way and saw Mt. Kenya peek out of the clouds once, but that’s about it for mountains. Right over the Kenya/Tanzania border at Namanga, we were driving through mountains. We’ve spent about 24 hours on buses in Tanzania and we’ve seen mountains all along the way. Kenya is a beautiful place in its own right, but mountains are always refreshing. Additionally, Tanzania is much more lush than most of Kenya, and is filled with beautiful, thick jungles.
Language: It was clear very soon after entering Tanzania that English wasn’t going to get us anywhere. Most of the people in Kenya speak English if they’ve been to school. Most of the people in Tanzania do not. In Kenya, students begin formally learning English as soon as they enter primary school, as all of their classes are taught in English. In Tanzania, they have an English class in primary school and then in secondary school all of their subjects are taught in English. I suspect that more adults speak English in Kenya because they are taught at a younger age, which engrains the language into their lives more and helps them retain it better. We are trying to learn the necessary Swahili phrases, but Swahili is so unlike anything we’ve heard before that it’s hard to remember all of its sounds. Also, Kenyan Swahili and Tanzanian Swahili are different, making most things we’ve learned up to this point worthless. Kenyan Swahili is a really strange mix of English, tribal languages, and Swahili. We’ve heard odd statements on the phone that have been all in Swahili and then suddenly you hear “top left” or “green roofs” thrown in. Swahili in Tanzania is pure, and many of the things said in Kenya are considered rude in Tanzanian Swahili.
Cleanliness: I only remember seeing one town in Kenya that wasn’t completely littered with roadside trash. In Kenyan towns there are pits next to the road that are full of trash and mud. Bare bushes have trash stuck in them. Places that are kind of supposed to be sidewalks are strewn with litter. Rural Kenya is beautiful and much cleaner than even the smallest urban areas, but still the towns are dirty. I’ve noticed that Tanzanian towns are much cleaner. I’ve seen people throw trash out of bus windows, just like they do in Kenya, but I’ve also seen trash cans. I don’t remember seeing one trash can in a Kenyan town. As a result, I find Tanzanian towns a little more charming.

Rain is a Good Thing

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During our last week in Kenya we got unbelievable amounts of rain. Locals said they hadn’t ever seen it rain this much in Maasailand. Every day we took a piki piki (motorbike) 4 km from our hotel to the less savory road that lead to the Olooloitikoshi Girl’s Rescue Center. Then we walked 1km across a field to reach the GRC. As the rains continued we got muddier and muddier each day. By the time we were preparing to leave, we had to get off the piki piki at points on the main road to walk over spots where the road was washed out or covered in knee-deep puddles. Walking through the field to the GRC was like walking through a field of pudding. I am not exaggerating. My shoes were sucked into the mud and off of my feet so many times that I eventually started going shoeless. We were a muddy mess every day, but having fun! Additionally, there was flooding in some areas and more washed out roads through larger towns.
Despite the inconvenience that such rains and muds bring to locals and travelers everyone knows it’s a good thing. Rain means water for people to drink. Rain means growing crops and livelihood. And it usually means less early marriages and circumcisions for girls. All of the girls at the GRC have left home because of the threat of early marriage and circumcision, so I got to thinking about what rain means for girls in Maasailand. Rain makes the grass grow. Grass feeds the cattle. The cattle don’t die, so men don’t need to replace them. Fathers are not desperate for the dowry cattle that their young daughters can bring them. Daughters have more of a chance of avoiding the circumcision that prepares them for marriage, and more of a chance of remaining at home and in school until they reach the legal marriage age of 18. Rain is a good thing!