Monday, August 13, 2007

Binge Posting

I'm catching up on the last three months of blog posts that I have stored on my computer. If you're still checking this space, you're quite the hopeless optimist, but it finally paid off! Keep checking back for updates and thanks for reading. I'm slowly posting my way to July...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Farewell to Monsoons

It’s my last day in Stonetown, and on Zanzibar. It’s been raining for the last 13 hours straight, which makes me think we got lucky for most of the trip, where we’d get the standard 2 hours of monsoon rains each day, usually in the afternoon. Today, though, it’s pouring buckets. I know this to be a fact because last night the ceiling in my hotel room was leaking, so I set out a bucket and went to sleep. In the morning the bucket was full and my room was flooded.

Today was supposed to be a curio-shopping day, but now it’s a test-out-the-cool-Arabic-style-cushions-in-the-hotel-lobby day. More notes on Zanzibar:

Coffee. Excellent Kenyan coffee is world famous and impossible to get in Kenya. Coffee in general is not very popular in Kenya except among wazungu, and most of the coffee sold in supermarkets is of the instant Nescafe variety. On Zanzibar, coffee is sold on the street in small teacups, for a few cents. Locals drink it black, unlike in Kenya where every hot caffeinated drink is drowning in milk and sugar. (My tribe, the Nandis, like to brew tea leaves in whole milk, and skip the water altogether.) Tanzanian coffee is thick and robust, without that thin taste of tree branches, and every morning you’ll see coffee vendors shuffling kettles and teacups around as fast as they can to keep up with the crowds of thirsty men gathered around their stand. Coffee drinking is apparently not a very womanly thing to do on Zanzibar.

Mosquitoes on Zanzibar are the worst in the world. I have a mosquito scale that goes like this:

Houston, TX – rabid, responsive to Deep Woods Off (30% DEET).
California Sierras – very rabid, move in black clouds, responsive to Jungle Juice (100% DEET).
Malaysia – very rabid, responsive to Jungle Juice.
Kisumu and Lake Victoria – extremely rabid, will find a way into your net, responsive to Jungle Juice.
Zanzibar – extremely rabid, cross-eyed and drooling; will find a way into your net even if you tuck it into your mattress; especially fond of knuckles, toes, bottoms of the feet, and bum; unresponsive to Jungle Juice.

Seafood. Zanzibar has the best seafood in East Africa!! We stayed in a guesthouse* next to the big fish market in Stonetown. Being in the same neighborhood as the fish market was interesting, to say the least. In the mornings, from the rooftop café of our hotel, we could watch fishing boats unload their catch, but afternoons were more interesting. Loud arguments would break out in the street over fish, and a crowd would gather that sometimes included someone waving a fish around.

There’s a seemingly endless variety of sea creatures to whet your non-vegetarian appetite, most of which would make up-country Kenyans shiver and gag: octopus, squid, barracuda, red and white snappers, kingfish, lobster, crab, mussels, clams, tuna, shark, rays.

You can try many of these (grilled on a stick) at Forodhani Gardens, a grassy plaza along the waterfront with no actual gardens, where a modest row of food stands – and their annoying vendors – pop up each night at sunset.

The fresh-off-the-boat seafood, fresh-pressed sugar cane juice (served ice cold with a generous hint of lemon and ginger), Zanzibari pizzas, local dishes like urojo (potatoes, bajias and fried cassava in a cold coconut-lemon-chili soup), and relatively cheap prices make this popular eating destination worth a trip – or several.

But it’s not exactly “a good place to soak up the local atmosphere,” as Lonely Planet inexplicably describes it, unless your idea of soaking up the local atmosphere means being constantly harassed by drunks whose English vocabulary consists of, “Why didn’t you buy me the beer you promised?” and, “Fuck you!”; “artists” hawking ugly paintings that they didn’t paint; vendors trying to sell you the exact same stuff on a stick that the guy at the next table just sold you; and lots of tourists just like you being harassed for stuff because they’re tourists.

We also made friends with one of the cooks at our guesthouse, Salma. We bought a large snapper and squid at the fish market, some oil and lemons, and asked her to prepare a Swahili-style meal for us. For a 5,000 Tsh tip, she deep-fried the fish, and served it with a simple lemon-coconut-chili sauce, which is found in a lot of the local food here. It was one of the best meals we’ve had on Zanzibar.

Today I’ve commissioned Salma to teach me how to make urojo. It’s usually eaten for breakfast or dinner, the light meals of the day.

Vegetables. Leafy green vegetables aren’t very common on Zanzibar, but it seems like the Zanzibari equivalent of Kenya’s sukumawiki (a type of kale not so dear to my heart) is closer to spinach, which is quite palatable.

Swahili. Our guide for the spice tour, Abdul, told me this joke about the prevalence of Swahili in East Africa:

The Swahili language was born in Zanzibar, lived in Tanzania, got sick in Kenya, died in Uganda, and was buried in the Congo.

So I told him a joke that Kenyans love to tell:

In order for East Africa to develop, Ugandans need to learn Swahili, Tanzanians need to learn English, and Kenyans need to learn manners.

Supposedly Zanzibar Swahili is the most proper Swahili. I definitely had to clean up all the village Swahili I’ve been using (which I apparently contaminated Brady with). So instead of speaking like a caveman: “Chakula iko?” – Food, it’s there?

I have to say, “Kuna chakula?’ – Is there food?

And instead of using the imperative Swahili that makes Kenyans so famously rude:

“Nipe chai” – Give me tea

Or, “Letee chai” – Bring tea

I’ve learned to say,

“Nisaidia na chai” – Help me with some tea

Or, “Naomba chai” – I request tea

As much as Swahili is widely and properly spoken in Tanzania and especially Zanzibar, English by contrast is almost non-existent. Which has been great for me, as my Swahili has improved by leaps and bounds in the last ten days. Unfortunately, being a nerd and knowing I’d be traveling in Swahili-land for over a week, I brought all my language notes from my lessons with Nick, and promptly left them in a tour van that I was never able to track down again.

Okay, Fish Market. I just went down to the beach where they sell fish straight off the boats. I was looking for a nice white fish for Salma to fry up for my last meal here. It was raining so I wrapped up my head with a scarf like a local woman, which didn’t fool anyone, judging from everyone’s eagerness to repeatedly announce to each other that I am from “Cheena, Cheena.”

There were all kinds of crazy fish whose names I’ll never know because the vendors only knew the Swahili names for them. Cats of every size, shape, and disease prowled for fish parts and licked at puddles of fish juices. I came up on two men enthusiastically hacking away at large white rays the size of endtables. I stared for awhile, watching them make fillets, until another guy slapped a three-foot shark onto the table in front of me. I left the market with two fillets - a shark and a ray.

Yard Sale On Zanzibar! It’s like becoming a human snowball on the slopes of Tahoe, then face planting several hundred meters downhill. Or maybe it’s more like Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail of crumbs so that I can find my way back here one day. Either way, this was a vacation of losing stuff all over the island. I lost my Swahili notes, a bandana, a pair of sunglasses, my leftover kachori from lunch, and a $100 bill.

Well, I didn’t lose the $100 in the sense that I left it somewhere and forgot where. It was actually stolen from me by one of the staff at the guesthouse where we stayed. First I feel compelled to explain why I was even carrying a hundred dollar note. Before this trip I went to get USD at my bank in Nairobi, but they were reluctant to give me anything smaller than a hundred. In the States, a hundred dollar note is pretty obscene. I don't think I've ever carried one before. In Africa, it's unthinkably obscene, which is why it seems like people (or at least bank tellers) can't comprehend exactly what it means to be carrying that much money in a single bill. So the teller grudgingly changed one of the hundred dollar notes she gave me, and I was stuck walking around Nairobi with three one hundred dollar notes, quite a security concern in Africa's most crime-ridden city.

Anyway, before the money was stolen, I had really wanted to write a glowing review of the guesthouse, because it was a great place to stay. But after this betrayal, which really felt like a betrayal after I thought I’d made friends with all the staff, I now really want to use this forum to trash that guesthouse into the deep blue Indian Ocean. I will, however, do neither.

8:49pm. After seething about it all the way back to Nairobi, I came to the conclusion that this is East Africa. Duh. Even if I were staying at a five-star hotel, there would be people working there who would happily and without hesitation steal my money, even if I was exceedingly kind and generous to them. That’s how things work much of the time.

I'd let my guard down. I was tired of being cynical of people’s motivations all the time, and knowing that it’s the only prudent way to be. I was being naïve and I knew it, in wanting to trust people who were so friendly to me, and wanting to prove wrong all the assumptions about Africans that wazungu and Africans both embrace. I’ve stored up two years of negative perceptions about East Africans, but it’s exhausting to constantly see the world around me this way. At some point I just wanted to assume that people are essentially honest, good and caring. But in Africa, things don’t work according to a mzungu’s assumptions.

(Photos by Brady Zieman)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

I Succumb To The Spice Tour

Zanzibar was one of the major spice islands back in the day. A lot of spices arrived here from India, South America and Indonesia, and many of them are still used in local foods, especially in pilau and curries, which explains why Zanzibari food is so much more flavorful than up-country cuisine.

Scores of tour operators on the island offer tours of spice plantations for the low, low price of $10. Tours are generally very similar, and usually include not only the plantation, but a pilau lunch, a poke around an old slave cave, a tour of crumbling sultan baths, and a dip in the ocean.

There was a French couple and a German family – an MSF volunteer working in Chad and his visiting parents – in my tour group, who all, by nature of being European, made me envious of their multilingual skills. How often do you meet someone from Europe who only speaks one language, except Brits? It always makes me want to dedicate the rest of my life to learning as many languages as possible, starting with a few months in Provence…or Tuscany…or Nepal.

Anyway, today’s tour was probably the only tour I’ve taken in Africa where our guide actually guided without constant prompting. Not only did Abdul know what he was talking about, he actually pointed things out to us as we went along.

We went to a spice plantation owned by the Tanzanian government that’s now used mainly for research rather than income generation. Abdul walked us around to different plants and explained what parts are used for spices and how they’re harvested.

Here’s some interesting information if you’ve ever wondered what’s in your Indian food (and for future reference for those of you who will receive Zanzibari spices as gifts when I get home):

pilau masala = cinnamon, cumin and whole cardamoms.
tandoori masala = cumin, cinnamon and annatto (gives it the red color)

Other fascinating spice facts, according to Abdul:

Nutmeg is taken from the seed of the fruit of the, uh, nutmeg tree. To get nutmeg spice, remove the seed and dry it (if the seed rattles when shaken, it’s dry), then remove the mace (a waxy outer covering that looks like wilted flower petals), crack it open and grind the stuff inside. This is the only part that’s used; the fruit itself isn’t used for anything.

Nutmeg has a lot of cultural significance among the Swahili people. In large quantities, it can be quite intoxicating, so women drink nutmeg tea during special ceremonies, which “puts a welcoming look in their eyes,” as Abdul describes it. “All women on the coast of Tanzania and Kenya know how to use nutmeg.”

Cloves are considered THE Zanzibari spice, even though it’s not a native plant. It was brought to the island by traders and flourished in the warm, rainy climate. Cloves are not quite the big export they used to be on Zanzibar, but locals are still very proud of “their” cash crop.

Turmeric is used only for its deep yellow coloring, not for its flavor, which is bland. You harvest the root of the plant and grind them up. Turmeric is used mainly in curries and stews, and sometimes as a substitute for saffron to color rice.

Annatto is the red coloring used in tandoori masala. It is made by crushing the seeds of the annatto fruit, which looks like a larger, flatter version of rambutan, with its long, fuzzy red hairs. Like turmeric it doesn’t have a flavor. Annatto is also used by women as makeup.

Durian is ready to be harvested when it falls off the tree. Since durian is rather sizeable and spiky, people have to wear helmets and stand under the tree ten hours a day retrieving fallen fruit like tennis ball boys.

Durian (or, according to my eavesdropping on the Germans, “schtinke frute”) are forbidden on boats, buses and trains in Tanzania (and in most other countries where they’re grown.) Illegal smuggling of durian has never really taken off; somehow the contraband is always discovered.

Jackfruit is the biggest fruit in the world. Fortunately it doesn’t fall when it’s ripe; you have to pick it off the tree. Therefore, no helmets required.

On the same spice plantation there were some dilapidated bath houses used by various sultans of Zanzibar, but mainly by the first and most powerful sultan from Oman. Despite the cobwebs and mildew of today, you could imagine that it was quite the luxurious spa treatment centuries ago. There were massage tables, a sauna room, and the bathtub itself (now home to leaves and algae.)

The slave trade was also big business for centuries on Zanzibar, where slaves fetched the highest prices in East Africa. Men from the Congo were especially valued for their strength, and women from Ethiopia for their beauty. Today women from some tribes in Tanzania still practice facial mutilation – piercing their upper lip and threading a bone through – which arose out of the slave trade, when women would do this to make themselves “ugly” and therefore be useless as slaves. Slave masters were not only Europeans and Arabs, but also Indians and Africans – basically anyone with a lot of money.

We saw a cave that was used as a holding cell during the sultanate, where slaves were kept until they were ready to be sold. Today the cave has a steep stairway that allows tourists to descend the 50 meters or so to the bottom, but the slaves were lowered down using ropes. There’s a natural spring inside, and an underground tunnel leading to the ocean through which slaves were smuggled to awaiting boats. Only a third of slaves survived the journey across the ocean.

Kids are everywhere in Africa, and the spice plantation was no exception. What was different, however, was that some of these kids spoke German, which quickly endeared them to the German family, and was much cuter than any English- or Swahili-speaking kids I’ve ever come across in East Africa, for the mere fact that I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.

Unfortunately some types of communication are universal, and since Brady’s gone and I’m no longer accompanied by a man, I’m apparently required to be treated as a prostitute in this Muslim culture. When I got back to Stonetown this afternoon, 14-year-old boys decided that the proper way to address me was to follow me around making kissy sounds and pretending to swoon at the daring impossibility of a respectable woman walking around alone. I pictured each of them purple, cross-eyed and strangled in my bare hands, and that had to suffice. This may be vacation, but not every day ends as a carefree paradise.

Monday, April 30, 2007

We Tried To Open A Can Of Whoop-Ass And Failed

Brady flew back to Nairobi early this morning, so I’m on my own for the rest of the trip. I was sad to send my partner in laziness back to the fast-paced rat race of his dust-covered village in Ukambani, where a tall pile of work awaited him. Uh…wait. I was sad to send my partner in laziness back to a land where, like Zanzibar, nothing is ever an emergency. Ever.

A van came to pick me up this morning to go to Kizimkazi, on the southern tip of Zanzibar, where we would take a boat out to try to see some dolphins. The “dolphin tour” has been talked down in several travel guides and magazines including the Lonely Planet for being rather unfriendly towards the dolphins themselves. Apparently a lot of boats aggressively chase down dolphins and generally disturb them in their natural habitat just so tourists can get a glimpse of them. Despite all the shortcomings of the boat we took, I have to say that at least our operator wasn’t of the “hunt and chase” variety.

The British couple turned up on the same tour (the male half of whom, incidentally, resembled Gael Garcia Bernal), as well as a Swedish expat living in Zambia, her 4-year-old granddaughter, and an Indian couple from Dar es Salaam. The van dumped us at a beach, where we were greeted by two different vendors renting out the exact same snorkeling gear. The rental fee was included in the cost of the tour, so we didn’t really care whose snorkeling gear we used, but obviously the two vendors did, because they raced each other to our van as we pulled up so that they could abduct as many of us as possible and lead us to their shop.

After we selected our snorkels, a third guy came up and said he was renting life jackets. The couple from Dar had already paid for theirs, but the rest of us nearly started a riot.

“We’re not paying for life jackets. They’re required in the boats and they should be provided for free,” British Gael said.

“I’m certainly not paying for a life jacket for her,” the Swedish woman said, pointing to her granddaughter. “She’s four years old and they’ve got to give her a life jacket. She can’t go out there without a life jacket.”

“Where’s our captain? We demand to talk to him.”

“It’s illegal in this country to operate a passenger boat without life jackets,” we said, not actually sure if it was true. “If anything they should be included in the cost of the tour, but we’re certainly not paying extra for them.”

In typical fashion, the life jacket scam man refused to acknowledge what we were saying, and presented a bunch of lame excuses instead, hoping we would get confused about the real issue and just shell out the money.

“This is my shop,” he said. “I sell life jackets. You must pay for them. Only 2000 shillings, I give you good price.”

The boat captain came over and tried to further explain the incompetence we were currently witnessing. “I have life jackets on my boat,” he said. “But they are broken. So you must pay this man.”

“Can’t you swim?” the captain asked us, as an afterthought.

“Yes, we can all swim, but it doesn’t matter. If the boat capsizes we’ll need life jackets,” we all said in various impatient tones. “And the girl can’t swim.”

“So you pay for a life jacket for her.”

“Do you understand that without providing life jackets you’re running an illegal operation?” British Gael said. “Are you even licensed? Show us your license.”

“Ah, my friend,” the captain said. “I have left it at home.”

“So what you’re saying is, you’re not even licensed to operate a motorized boat, and you want us to pay for life jackets because you’re breaking the law.”

“This is my shop,” the life jacket man said again. “If you want life jackets you must pay.”

“That’s wrong and illegal, and if you don’t provide life jackets for free we will all get back into the van and go home,” British Gael said, looking at the rest of us to make sure we’d back him up.

We all nodded, looking back at the van to make sure it was still there. It suddenly dawned on us that we hadn’t been given receipts for the tour. The van could have driven away and if we ever found them they could have denied that we ever paid for anything.

The captain finally offered to let us try the broken life jackets in his boat. If we could get them to work, we could use them for free. So, um, how exactly do you break a life jacket? And even if you manage to break one, how do you end up breaking several, all in the same boat?

All of us, except for the couple from Dar, were ex-pats living in Africa. We were all too familiar with how things work, and more often, don’t work. So we should have known better.

In fact, I think we did know better, but we were hoping that since there was a group of us that our demands might have some weight, as opposed to, for example, when I’m the only person complaining on a matatu stuffed with 25 people, even though everyone else is thinking the same thing but not willing to do anything about it.

It was low tide, and the beach was really long and flat, so it took us ten minutes to walk out to the boat. The water was knee-deep in some places and full of sea urchins. The Swedish girl had taken a liking to me in the van, and waded next to me, chatting away.

I’ve developed a reflex where if I see a young kid it means I have to speak to them in Swahili. So when this girl starting talking to me, I couldn’t stop marveling about the not-so-remarkable fact that a four-year-old was speaking to me in English.

“My Mum took me on a safari. There were a lot of zebras. We saw lions, and giraffes, and then we went to the zoo and saw monkeys,” she said. “Do you like elephants? Elephants are my favorite.”

“See those black spiky things in the water, under all the rocks?” I said, excited that I could use adjectives and adverbs.

“Yeah?” she said.

“Don’t step on them,” I said. “They’ll sting you and it’ll hurt.”

“Are they alive? Are they animals?” she asked. God, this girl was brilliant!

“Yes, they’re sea urchins,” I said.

There were several guides who were escorting us out to the boat. As we got to one area with a lot of sea urchins, one of them asked me, “Do you want me to carry your baby for you?”

This is one of the great mysteries of East Africa. It’s easily assumed that this blond, curly-haired, blue-eyed girl must be my daughter. If I travel with a male colleague who is white, I’m often asked if he’s my brother. And the lady at my bakery thinks Neetha and I are sisters.

“You think we resemble?” I’d ask, thinking maybe she was using the term “sister” loosely, like when touts at the stage say, “Eh, sister, why can’t you buy some sunglass?”

“Yes, you are so similar,” she’d say.

“But she is tall and dark brown, and I’m short and light brown,” I’d say.

“It is true,” she’d say. “But the face is the same.” Apparently the way Harold looks like Kumar.

Anyway, we finally arrived at our boat, a motorized wooden dhow covered with a makeshift tarp which, we surmised from the large UNHCR logo stamped on it, used to be a tent from a refugee camp. We climbed inside the dhow, and guess what? No life jackets. I know that deep down none of us were surprised, but we were indignant nonetheless.

“You lied to us,” we said. “You said you had life jackets in the boat. You’ve been sailing around without life jackets. That’s illegal.”

British Gael got out of the boat. “I’m going back to the beach. I won’t go without life jackets,” he announced to the captain. To us he whispered, “I’ll go rent the damn things.”

The captain and some of the guides scrambled to a neighboring boat and found some life jackets. “Here! We have some! We will bring them.”

This seemed to appease British Gael enough that he got back into the boat. We left the captain to collect life jackets and settled into our seats. We inspected two of the life jackets, which were indeed broken – all the buckles were missing. They were also archaic models that were counter-intuitive to put on and possessed questionable flotation properties, but we practiced putting them on until we thought we might be able to do it in an emergency.

“Hey, they only brought us two life jackets,” someone observed. There were five of us. “Hey, where are the other life jackets?”

It was too late. Our captain had already sped us out to sea.

“You know,” British Gael’s girlfriend said, “I’m actually licensed to operate this type of motorboat.”

“Well, you’re more qualified than anyone else here,” I said.

“That’s worrying,” British Gael said, as we turned to look at the captain, who had passed the duty of operating the boat to a boy who had inexplicably joined our trip.

“It can’t be more worrying than the fact that a 12-year-old is now driving our boat.”

We motored around for a long time, and the beach kept getting farther and farther away, until it was just a thin white strip in the distance. Occasionally we’d pass other dhows carrying tourists hoping to see dolphins, and our captain would ask if they’d seen any. Almost an hour passed and we hadn’t seen a thing, except for a few snorkelers we mistook for dolphins. Disappointment was starting to set in. After the life jacket fiasco it would have been nice to at least see some dolphins, even though we knew that dolphin sightings weren’t guaranteed on these trips.

“This is not a dolphin tour at all,” the Swedish girl sighed, verbalizing sentiments the rest of us were reluctant to say out loud, the way only a four-year-old can get away with.

A few minutes later, we finally spotted them. There were several groups swimming together, in threes.

“Jump in!” our captain said. We looked at each other hesitantly. They had explained that this was what we were supposed to do, but it didn’t feel very natural to jump into the deep blue sea with a bunch of very large dolphins whose size could have easily rendered us dismembered if they so chose.

One by one we lowered ourselves into the water. The dolphins barely noticed, and with our fins and snorkels we were able to keep up with them with a leisurely kick. Despite their size, they are incredibly docile. I think it helps that their mouth is shaped into a perma-smile.

Dolphins are more amazing and beautiful up close than anything you’ve ever seen on National Geographic. It was breathtaking to watch them frolick in the sapphire water. We could almost touch them, but they were obviously acclimated to random snorkel-wearing people wanting to do just that because they stayed just beyond arm’s reach. I followed one group for awhile. It was a calf and two adults, and they would dive deep, then swim in an upward spiral with the calf in the middle. Dolphins are apparently rather fond of log-rolling underwater. Another group let me follow them for a short distance, then the trailing dolphin decided to take a crap in my face. Nature wins again.

It was one of those experiences that could never last long enough. I see why this tour gets mixed reviews. The experience of swimming with dolphins is unmatched by anything else, but after awhile I did feel like my “following” became “chasing.” As with any opportunity to see wild animals in their natural habitat, there is obviously some human encroachment on their territory and habits. But like any experience that exposes us to new things – people, animals, art – we gain an appreciation that we wouldn’t otherwise have. People who have the rare opportunity to swim with dolphins, I think, inevitably walk away with an appreciation for the beauty of dolphins and of nature itself that few people will ever have. It’s a tradeoff.

This same dilemma exists for tourism in general. A lot of people mourn the disappearance of traditional cultures, especially as modern cultures have more access to vacation destinations in developing countries. But contact and exchange between different cultures has happened throughout history, and cultures are constantly evolving because of it.

With animals – and natural destinations like forests, mountains and oceans – no matter how lightly we tread, there will always be environmental degradation as a result of tourism. But without tourism, and opportunities to experience places different from our own, we couldn’t develop the compassion and understanding that bridges ignorance, hatred and indifference – some of our planet’s most abundant natural resources.

British People Talk Funny. After the dolphin adventure our guides prepared a very meager lunch of fish and rice for us on the beach. I didn’t quite understand the dearth of portions considering how all of my African friends are not shy about piling several pounds of food onto my plate and insisting on seconds. But I figured it was our guides’ way of skimming as much of our tour fees into his own pocket as possible, because really, wazungu have plenty of money. Why not steal what they’ve paid in good faith?

Anyway, most of our clothes were at least a little wet from wading from the boat, so as we were waiting for our one-minnow meal, I hung my jeans on a post next to British Gael’s towel and said, “Remind me to take my pants down after lunch.”

There was a confused pause, and then he said with a tiny, withering grin, “You mean your trousers.”

(Photo by Brady Zieman)

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Languid Beach Days

April 26, Thursday. We headed north to Nungwi and the white sand clear blue cliche that so many people flock here for. Really, there’s not much to say that’s not already revealed on postcards of every beach paradise destination in the world. What I can say is that I’ve needed a vacation like this for a long time. No more backpacking across a country with clown-caliber infrastructure and crap buses while people constantly try to steal your stuff and rip you off, in the name of feeling like a hard-core independent traveler. That’s been everyday life for almost two years now, and I’ve stopped trying to be a hero because after awhile, being a hero starts to feel a lot like suffering.

For the next few days I did nothing productive and was harassed almost zero times, except for when Brady harassed me because I went back to our bungalow and took a nap after breakfast. Oh, wait. He didn’t do that, because he was taking a nap on the beach. WE ARE SO LAZY AND PROUD OF IT!!

The beaches are distinctly, if not lawfully, segregated on this part of the island. They’re the one part of Zanzibar that a mzungu can go and never really interact with locals beyond hotel staff and tour operators. Clean, silky white beaches are reserved for wazungu and anyone else who looks like they can afford to stay in one of the airy bungalows on stilts overlooking the ocean. Dirty beaches are open to anyone, meaning Zanzibaris, who don’t mind trudging barefoot through rotting seaweed and large carpets of crushed seashells cutting your feet and black, possibly-once-alive-goo and discarded timber from dhow builders and dead fish and rusty nails and glass bottles and impromptu choos created by kids.

April 27, Friday. Brady and I decided to take a break from napping and drinking cocktails, and managed to get ourselves onto a boat to go snorkeling off the coast of the neighboring island of Mnemba. On our tour was a group of animated Mennonite missionaries from the U.S. and a British couple whom we would continue to run into as we (and they) made our way around the island.

I wouldn’t rank the reef here among the world’s best, but if you can appreciate coral reef ecosystems for what they are instead of for how they don’t live up to the Great Barrier Reef, then it’s still an underwater wonderland with at least a hundred species of fish and other sea creatures, including the school of tiny stinging jellyfish and that inexplicably makes you realize that yesterday’s dinner is knocking to go out.

“Excuse me,” I yelled to our boat captain while I treaded water and let jellyfish feed on me. “I need to help myself.”

“Big or small?”

“Um, big.” I was speaking Swahili so the other tourists wouldn’t know that I had to poo. “Can you take me up to the beach?”

[Laughter.] “It’s a private beach, you can’t go there. Just wait.”

“Until when? I can’t wait.”

[More laughter and no sympathy.]

April 28, Saturday. We spent a day wandering through some of the villages around Nungwi, collecting shells on the beach, and following the sound of drums and boys reciting Islamic prayers. Late in the afternoon we found ourselves at an aquarium next to Mnarani Lighthouse, just east of Nungwi. The aquarium is actually a sea turtle conservation project. It’s small; just a man-made pond fed by the tide, where sea turtles are bred and raised until they’re old enough to be released. The babies are kept in plastic basins labeled with the batch’s date of birth, and there is a row of basins and small pools with young turtles of varying ages, from a few weeks old to three or four years. The pond is home to at least 20 adult turtles as well as several species of excitable fish. Included in the ticket price is as much fresh seaweed as you want, which you can feed to the turtles as you sit in a small alcove where they like to gather.

Adult sea turtles are rather large, with shells as big as 3 feet long. Brady has this ability to find wonder and beauty in things that would begin to bore people (well, me) after a short time, so he was totally geeking out on the turtles, repeatedly circling the pond with his camera, mesmerized by their deliberate, unruffled industriousness.

In contrast, this one here (me) decided that it would be entertaining to try to touch one in the eyeball. Needless to say, don’t try to poke a sea turtle in the eye. They may not move very fast and it may not hurt, but they’ll still snap at you with their toothless mouths, and for some reason this act of aggression makes you feel like a bigger jackass than, say, having to make the following phone call:

“Hi, Medical? Can you get rabies from a sea turtle?”

April 29, today. Well, three days of white sand laziness was enough for us. Brady wanted to see some monkeys on his last day of vacation, so we headed to Jozani Rainforest, home of the rare red colobus monkey. Rare indeed, but not shy. One minute into our hike, a troupe migrated right in front of us, leaping on low branches from tree to tree. It was pretty clear that they weren’t actually migrating, they were just checking us out, hoping to have their pictures taken. Our guide said that during the week when there are fewer tourists, the monkeys even make their way into the forest service offices, looking for company.

Our guide also took us into a mangrove forest at low tide, which is much less impressive and much more smelly than at high tide. There was a crumbling, half-renovated boardwalk winding through dark, stinky stands of red and black mangroves and their ground-dwelling crab and spider companions. I’m going to be one of those annoying comparative tourists now, and say that Jozani Forest is not the place to see a really cool mangrove forest if you’re a mangrove layperson. Try Bako National Park in Sarawak, Borneo.

What did impress us, though, was our guide’s ability to engage us in a lively conversation about witchcraft and other black magic practiced by local tribes, and then as soon as we started asking too many questions, becoming silent and ushering us quickly out of the forest. Was it for our own good? Was it to cover his own arse? This island has been plundered and exploited by foreigners for centuries now, but some mysteries will always remain deep in the African rainforest, carefully guarded against the prying eyes and moral judgments of outsiders.

(Photos by Brady Zieman, except for red colobus)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Shopping for Spices in Stonetown

It’s just sweltering hot. I may have grown up in Houston, the world’s best and most miserable sauna, but at least there they have air conditioning. Also, for the last 15 years I’ve lived in: Chicago, San Francisco, and at 2,000 meters in Kenya. I don’t know hot anymore. It’s been years since I’ve smelled myself, and hopefully will be years before I do again.

Brady suggested that we go in search of spices to buy in bulk. We had contemplated the spice tour, which is standard on most people’s Zanzibar itineraries, but decided against it when we were told we wouldn’t be able to buy bulk spices. I personally get a little lost with a handful of whole cardamoms or a pod of vanilla beans, but it sounded like I would get a culinary education, so we set off for the market.

Man, trying to buy spices in bulk is like trying to buy illegal drugs. The first few people we talked to just shook their heads mysteriously and told us it wasn’t possible. A few spice vendors began referring us to one particular guy, who they had to track down. Our “dealer” finally showed up and led us to an unmarked, unassuming closet squeezed between some stalls of fruit.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“What do you have?” we said.

He unlocked the thin, creaky wooden door to reveal a dark, dusty room full of large gunny sacks. The sweet scent of cloves, cardamom and a potpourri of other spices wafted out, along with a charming musty smell that would become all too familiar on this island pounded constantly by monsoon rains.

“Karibu, karibu,” he said, welcoming us inside the closet that didn’t appear to have room for us to stand in. “I have cinnamon. You want cinnamon? I have cloves. You want cloves? Cardamoms, good price for you cardamoms. Ginger, good price for you.”

An hour later, after explaining repeatedly that we don’t actually want a whole kilo of cinnamon, maybe just a quarter kilo, and being told repeatedly that “bulk” meant we had to buy at least half a kilo, or enough to make French toast for five generations of offspring, we walked off with a respectable stash of spices, all for less than $30. Our booty included three packets of saffron the size of my palm for about $5, not exactly shabby; a handful of whole nutmeg, although neither of us know how to get the spice from the nutmeg; whole green cardamoms; way too many black peppercorns; cloves; cinnamon; whole mustard seeds; white peppercorns; a bag of curry leaves and a bundle of vanilla pods.

So, um, if you come over to my house anytime in the next 75 years, I’ll make you pilau.

Urojo! As we were walking back from the market with our spices we passed a small crowd of people sitting inside a shop eating something out of bowls. Neither of us really noticed until Brady said, “Hey, do you smell that?”

I did, and it was beautiful. We backtracked until we found a couple of old mamas deep frying balls of unidentified starch-like substances.

“What is it?” I asked in Swahili.

“Five hundred shillings,” the mama said.

“No, I’m asking what it is,” I said.

“You tell her how much you want, for one hundred, two hundred, three hundred shillings, and she’ll give you,” one of the customers said.

“It has potatoes?” I suggested, trying to get an actual answer.

“Yes,” the mama said.

“And what are these balls?”

“How much do you want?” the mama demanded.

So much for improving communication by knowing the local language. “I’d like three hundred.”

Whatever it was, was delicious. It had potatoes, bajias made of chickpeas and fried cassava chips in a cold soup made of coconut, lemon juice and chili sauce. It was so good that we bought another bowl, and agreed to come back later.

And after a lot of asking around, I finally found my answer: It’s called urojo.

(Photos by Brady Zieman)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Look At Me, I’m in Zanzibar!

I had eleven leave days to use before May 3, due to a Peace Corps policy restricting us from taking vacation during our last three months of service. So I’m off to Zanzibar Island, off the coast of Tanzania, with Brady in tow.

First of all, this has to be one of the coolest flights I’ve been on – Nairobi to Zanzibar. We flew right by the snows of Kilimanjaro, and the book title doesn’t lie. There’s lots of snow up there.

Tanzanian shillings are a bit shocking after Kenya. The exchange rate is about 1250 Tsh to 1 USD, and about 18 Tsh to 1 Ksh. So when the taxi driver wanted 10,000 shillings to take us to Stonetown, we were a bit stunned, until we realized it was less than 600 Kenyan shillings. (Later we would be at the market waiting for 250 Tsh (14 Ksh) in change, while all the vendors laughed at us for bothering with such a small amount. Hey, you can almost buy a soda for 14 Ksh in Kenya.)

Stonetown. It’s the main town on Zanzibar Island, where you’ll find most tourist accommodations and services, including internet and supermarkets. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, renowned for its old architecture, historical buildings and winding alleyways reminiscent of the various peoples who have inhabited the island throughout history.

Although it’s similar in feel to Lamu - waterfronts dotted with languid dhows bobbing on a gentle tide, whitewashed buildings, ornately carved wooden doorways, mosques, skull-numbing calls to prayer around the clock, and a distinctly Arabic feel – it’s also a typical African town with a chaotic bus stage (featuring the Tanzanian equivalent of matatus, dalla-dallas, which are basically glorified pickup trucks with two benches in the pickup bed for the comfort of the passengers who are packed in like sardines), random and alarmingly large piles of garbage everywhere, random and alarmingly large piles of not-so-mysterious brown stuff in places that are not the choo, vehicles spewing black clouds of toxic smoke into the air, and lots of people in various states of employment and/or sobriety harassing you for things, or for being foreign.

There’s a decent market in Stonetown, next to the stage, with decent local fruits and vegetables, and lots of spice vendors hoping for gullible tourists willing to pay mzungu prices. There’s also a pretty impressive chicken market with the equally impressive smell of live chickens, and conveniently located chicken-slaughterers and their vat of boiling water for people like me who prefer not to slaughter chickens ourselves. And of course, on the other side of town on the waterfront, a sizeable fish market with a sizeable fish market smell.

Quick Historical Geography, or Geographic History. For centuries Zanzibar has been a preferred destination for explorers, merchants and rulers from places as diverse as Portugal, Persia, Oman, India and Britain. Like many areas of the East African coast (Lamu comes to mind), there is an Italian ex-pat community on Zanzibar, whom I’d like to thank for bringing gelato to the non-Italian world.

The Zanzibar archipelago used to be made up of Zanzibar Island (called Unguja by locals), Pemba Island and Mombasa, all of which were part of the British Protectorate in the late 19th century. After independence from the British in the 1960s, Mombasa became part of Kenya while the remaining islands became part of Tanzania.

Interestingly, Tanzania was called Tanganyika until Zanzibar was incorporated into it. Mathematically: Tanganyika + Zanzibar = Tan-Zan-ia.

Today there is still a lot of political tension and resentment between mainland Tanzanians and Zanzibaris.

Also, Freddie Mercury Lived Here. The guy from the band Queen was apparently born and raised on Zanzibar, and someone was keen enough to exploit this bit of trivia to rake in tourist bucks. Such is the story of Mercury’s, a mostly mzungu joint overlooking the beach with spectacular sunset views, tasty seafood, half-decent cocktails (it’s still Africa, after all), cold beer and a selection of t-shirts that say, “Mzungu.” Prices are also “mzungu.” Despite this, Brady and I spent a good portion of our time in Stonetown keeping ourselves hydrated at Mercury’s, watching the pickup football (futbol) game on the beach, and the cast of characters that came with it, like the kid wearing a life vest ostensibly fashioned out of discarded foam padding from an shipment of TVs.

Speaking of TVs, there is a giant banyan tree in town that has, inexplicably, a broken and rather large-screened TV jabbed into the trunk at eye level.

(Photos by Brady Zieman, except Mt. Kilimanjaro)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

This Is Why I Got A Cat

Oh God! That's my yoga mat!!


Crunch crunch crunch crunch.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Digging Through My Oddball Photos

Lady Gay Lotion Makes You a Real Gay Lady

You Die In Our Wards, We Give You Discount

View Our Collection Of Bodies Abandoned By Loved Ones Who Couldn't Afford Our Mortuary Fees

Sunset Over Lake Victoria, From the Aptly Named Sunset Hotel in Kisumu

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Pussy Wants Juju

I’m teaching another of my apparently very popular HIV workshops, this time to members of Neetha’s organization, which provides support and care to orphans. Neetha herself is out of town for a different workshop, so I’m staying at her house for three days while I teach. Observation #1 about her house, which I’d never noticed because I’d never lived in it: Neetha owns exactly four dishes. One of these belongs to the cat.

Not that I’m complaining (too much); she’s letting me use her cooking gas, sleep in her bed, bathe with her self-fetched water, and drink the milk her neighbor brings her twice a day. Observation #2 about her house: Her cat looks like an evil Anime cat, complete with big pointy ears, giant Siamese eyes with black slits for pupils, and a tiny nose and mouth for expressing disapproval. It’s hilarious.

I also brought Fatso along, because I leaving her alone with three days worth of food usually results in lines of enthusiastic ants marching all over my house. So this morning I stuffed her into a pillowcase, and boarded a matatu to Neetha’s village. Fatso hates the pillowcase and was meowing loudly, which was immensely entertaining to all the other passengers, who couldn’t stop laughing.

“It’s a pussy?” they would ask.

“Yes,” I’d say, as if there was any doubt.

“It’s your pussy?”

“Yes,” I’d sigh, mentally noting the innuendo that would have existed if this conversation had happened in the States, but that was un-ironically absent because we were in Kenya. “It’s my pussy.”

After a few minutes I let Fatso out and held her in my lap for awhile, which seemed to calm her down a bit and make everyone giggle.

“Oh, you have such a beautiful pussy,” said the man in the front seat, as people behind me continued to laugh inexplicably. I knew they weren’t laughing about the word “pussy,” which is what I would’ve been laughing about, if I’d been laughing.

Fatso put her front paws on my chest, which sent the entire matatu into fresh gales of laughter.

“It wants juju!” the women howled.

Juju, I decided, must have something to do with breastfeeding or breastmilk, which didn’t make it any funnier to me. I let them enjoy themselves, thinking resigned thoughts about how juvenile their sense of humor was.

Apparently they took my non-involvement to mean that I hadn’t understood them. And apparently this joke was so good that they had to share it with me.

“Juju,” the matatu conductor tried to explain, looking at my boobs.

“I know,” I nodded vigorously, indicating that I understood and no further explanation was needed, especially not one using my boobs as a visual.

“Juju,” he said again. “Here.”

He put his finger an inch away from my nipple.

“I GOT IT,” I said, sending everyone into hysterics again.

Side Note On Ants, From My Aunt. Here’s a trick I learned from my relatives in Taiwan. Instead of spraying toxic Doom – aka Raid – all over your kitchen when you have an ant invasion, swab all the cracks in the counters, walls, floors, etc with that Chinese herbal stuff that’s made from camphor oil and menthol. I don’t know what it’s called but it’s basically liquid Tiger Balm, and it’s available in Kenya. It’ll keep the ants away until you get around to cleaning, and you won’t coat all your food with a tasty layer of poison. Plus your kitchen will smell just like a Chinese grandmother.

Oh Yeah, The Workshop. The workshop is based on a Training of Trainers (TOT) model, which emphasizes discussion and analysis of issues surrounding HIV/AIDS like cultural practices, gender inequality and communication skills, rather than rote memorization of acronyms and biology. So inevitably, the conversation turns to all sorts of interesting cultural insights and quotable quotes that sometimes end up on my blog.

For example, I always get stumped by the belief among adult Kenyans that if you talk with children about sex, they will immediately run out and try it. I tried to explain that studies comparing young people who attend sex education classes and those who attend abstinence-only classes show that there is no difference in the age at which these kids first have sex. Other studies show that kids who know more about sex tend to delay their sexual debut slightly longer than kids who don’t. Talking frankly about sex creates healthy attitudes, and empowers kids to make informed choices.

The response is always the same. “America is a very open society,” they say. “It’s okay to speak openly about sex and boyfriends and girlfriends. But here, we cannot.”

I never know what to say at this point, without sounding judgmental and inappropriate. Especially after someone said today, “If a girl brings her boyfriend home for lunch with her parents, she will be killed.”


I wasn’t sure if they meant that literally, but the point was made.

Then there’s the insistence that condoms have holes, and the corresponding resistance to all my assurances to the contrary. I’ve decided that the “condoms have holes” myth has been so completely drilled into people’s heads that I’m fighting a losing battle trying to convince people otherwise. No matter what kinds of demonstrations I do – blowing up condoms and tying the end, submerging them in water to show there are no air bubbles escaping – or what kinds of numbers I present about diameters of HIV and oxygen and pores in latex – the “condoms have holes” damage is done, and thousands of PCVs all around the world can’t undo it.

The argument is seemingly convincing: Latex has microscopic pores in it. So HIV can sometimes pass through, rendering condoms effective only 75% of the time.

First of all it amazes me that someone went to the trouble to cook up something like this. My response is always to point out the math.

“The truth is that condoms are effective 99% of the time when used correctly. I know you may not believe me, and I can’t force you to. But let’s assume that your number is right, that they are only effective 75% of the time. So if you use a condom, chances are 25% that you could get HIV. But if you don’t, chances are much closer to 100% that you could get HIV. Which are better odds?”

People always state the obvious answer. They would choose to use condoms. But the truth is that the “condoms have holes” myth isn’t the biggest problem. It strikes me more as an elaborate stunt pulled by churches to further their own social agendas, and it distracts from other factors.

People don’t avoid condoms because they think they have holes. They avoid them because there’s so much social taboo against using them. With your wife, because you’re both supposed to be faithful. With your girlfriend, because only prostitutes use condoms. In general, because they don’t feel as good and it’s not manly. And ultimately, because you could go to all this effort to make sure you use condoms to protect yourself, and tomorrow you die in a matatu accident, not of AIDS.

How do you respond to such a complex litany of excuses? At this point, I’ve almost come full circle. It’s embarrassing to say this, but George W. would be proud.

Now, I just say, “Well, then, abstain.”

And then I think in my head, “It’ll save the world from irresponsible people spawning their irresponsibility into the already fetid gene pool, and their genital ulcers into other un-ulcerated genitals, and their HIV-positive dependency into the deep pockets of international aid ear-marked for this immense social, political and economic scourge that may or may not be out-smarted by worldwide intervention anytime soon.”

And it’s about as effective as saying, “Use condoms.”

The whole ABC (Abstain, Be Faithful, Use Condoms) prevention campaign is deceptively simple on the surface, and a hugely controversial teaching aid pitting abstinence-only finger-waggers against freedom-of-choice liberals. And in Kenya, it just seems useless for anyone who teaches about AIDS.

This is why I’ve latched onto this TOT curriculum. It’s focus is on talking about things that are hard to talk about. It teaches people about the one thing that has historically proven itself to resolve almost every conflict and problem in life, at the individual and universal level: communication.

Well that, and death.