Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Leaping into a Canyon of Dreams
Subtitled: Shocked & Odd

I'm tired of blogging about politics for the moment. I have better things on my mind to worry about: namely, how I'm ever going to get through this week without looking more and more like Hank Paulson. In other words: real, real tired, kind of wrinkly, saggy, and definitely gaunt. Come to think of it, I look like my great-grandfather, who is long dead, but forefront in my memory in the likeness of Mr Paulson.

However, I'd instead like to pose a question to you readers, one which was posed to me recently. The question was, more or less: How do you know when the gig is up? In other words, you've made a bet on YOU. You've left something dear, walked away from conformity, and 'leapt, expecting the net to appear', as Julia Cameron so eloquently describes it in The Artist's Way.

But now that you've leapt, your arms are flailing, your eyes wide with terror that the net won't ever appear. You're falling and falling, and falling some more. Where is the bottom? Where is the net you believed in?

Your heart tells you the net will appear, at just the right time. Your head tells you the edge of the cliff wasn't so bad after all.

Your choice? Well, as it happens, there is a branch sticking out of that cliffside, the one you just jumped from. While you sail down into that canyon of dreams, slowly of course, because this is your imagination, you see that branch and you are welcome to reach out and grab it. In so doing, you'll crawl back to the edge of the cliffside, little by little, bedgraggled and with skinned knees. Who knows, maybe you'll break a limb. Worse, you'll end up with a broken spirit. But you'll make it back. And when you do, will you spend the rest of your days peering over the edge of the cliff, wondering what the canyon of dreams was all about? Or will you be glad to have crawled back to safety?

About a year ago, I sat with a journalist acquaintance, someone who's spent a lot of time covering wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now he's someone who's truly lived on the edge, and I'm not talking about just dreams. He's lived knowing each day that it could be his last. But that's not the point. The point is what he said about mankind.

He told me that he sees dead people. No, I don't mean in the Sixth Sense of it; I mean his view of people, of everyone, is that most people aren't alive. That, in essence, they have already died, having chosen to stop living. I was shocked at the odd concept. But I didn't disagree. After all, I have plenty of unconventional beliefs of my own.

So I pose this question to you: Who are the dead (wo)men walking? And if you do have a say in the matter of life or death, how do you know when choosing life is killing you?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My Port-fall-io

I have just lost my shirt. And my shoes, my future kids' education funds, possibly my future kids themselves if I can somehow sell them or their likenesses. Needless to say, I own Goldman, Citibank, and AIG stock. I have been attempting the un-attemptable: buying on the cheap. I think that's what they call catching falling knives. 

The only thing I have of worth is a gold necklace. Given the move in gold prices, I may melt it and sell it. Until then, I'm wearing it as a badge of intrinsic value. Even dollar bills are looking attractive as fuel for the winter.

I took a walk in Manhattan this morning after having breakfast with a close friend and ex-trader colleague. In his day, he was what Michael Lewis referred to in Liar's Poker as a "big swinging dick". He coolly made prices for and traded the derivative value of billions of dollars. More often than not, he came out winning. Earlier this year, he smelled a rat in the market and cashed out. He seems to be one of the few that got the getting-out timing just right.

But back to my morning stroll. As you may imagine, I passed a lot of bars as I walked through the city. Oddly, given the early hour, they were open and they were absolutely not empty. Stressed-out looking men wearing loosened ties, shirts open at the collar, and that ubiquitous khaki pant typed on laptops while talking on cell phones, or stared numbly at TV screens which were almost exclusively featuring CNBC breaking news headlines. It wasn't a stretch to guess that these men were bankers, or that they had been bankers as of yesterday or even just earlier this morning.

I recognized the dazed look. When I first quit my banking job in 2006, I walked home from work on a beautiful day: warm, sunny, a cold April breeze blowing. I bought myself flowers, thinking this was something I should do. "Surround yourself with beauty!" I told myself. "Drink in this moment; smell its entirety!" I took my flowers home, walking very slowly past a lot of people walking very quickly. After I put them in a vase, I cried for a really long time. "What am I supposed to do now?" I asked myself. And then, "What about tomorrow, too?" But no one answered me. I sat alone in my apartment wondering what to do and where to be.  

Oh, I know what you're thinking: "Poor you!" And in some ways, I admit I'm thinking it, too. Bankers have had a pretty bubbly run of it for the past several decades. One in particular, a cantankerous Patrick Bateman-type character (familiar to those who've suffered through reading American Psycho) summed it all up as follows: "There is no meaning in life but money. It's the joke that only bankers understand."

I thought about that colleague as I got on the subway. Standing in front of me, with tired eyes and struggling with deep tearful swallows, was another wandering banker. He paced throughout the subway car, occasionally taking out his Blackberry. Without ever looking at it, he would shake his head and put it back in his pocket. He looked as if his job loss had been fresh. And that maybe he, too, shared in Patrick Bateman's life philosophy. He won't be the only one. 

Friday, September 12, 2008

"Give me liberty, or give me death!" -Patrick Henry, 1775


Picture, if you will, me saying this while stomping my feet, arms folded, scowl planted on my face and threaded through my eyebrows.

It's been three days since I had surgery, which should come as a surprise to few of you as I've worried aloud for three months that I was dying. Aside from the prospect of having something really wrong with me, I was worried that I'd gone to rather great lengths (Mongolia, for starters) to follow a dream that would end in...well, end, period. 

As it turns out, my concerns were very much grounded, but I'm going to be fine. However, there is a catch. I can't do anything for three weeks. Huh? You mean, I have to be off my feet?

Well, you know what that means. It means I've been sitting here in my apartment doing what an un-busy person does: procrastinating and thinking about planning a revolution. No, that is not hyperbole. I'm alternating sitting and lying here, not looking at the massive, gargantuan editing task before me for The Book, but I'm trying to stir up cinders of Patrick Henry (from American primary school days, you'll remember him as the man who angrily uttered, "Give me liberty, or give me death!"), and start a revolution against what our country is undoubtedly about to befall itself to. 

Incidentally, I'm also mangling sentence structure: "befall itself to"?, but I'll blame that on the Vicadin.

Recently I met with a man, a distinguished older gentleman who does not give out business cards, and knows a lot about everything, more than just in his field of expertise, which is investigation. This man said to me, "This is not the 1960's. People are not angry enough. Without a lead on anger and outrage, Obama does not stand a chance with polling numbers that roughly match McCain's." 

In quick succession, I became angry and outraged. I wrote a blog post! I emailed people! I broke a rule about donating to a political campaign! 

And in just as quick succession, I received an email from an American friend I traveled with while in Mongolia, who commented on my rage: "The salient point here," he began and from here on I won't quote him (I just had to begin with his turn of phrase, because it is always so clever), is that we'll all go back to work on November 5. We won't begin a campaign to wage war to bring to a premature end to the people that this country has elected into office, whether we like them or not.

Well, then, fine. But what am I supposed to do with all my extra time sitting on my haunches, not editing, not working, and not feeling satisfied with where our country is going?

I can satisfy myself with just one more twinkle from the past, this one from 19th-century French diplomat Talleyrand, who said, "Treason is a matter of dates." 

Without the ability to stand for very long, I humbly declare myself an armchair revolutionary. Unless someone can give me a better idea of what to do with my time?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Literary Pompeii 

I tend to shy away from blogging about political stuff. 


Recently, I received an email whose purpose was to canvas opinions of mostly-conservative family members (myself entirely excluded from this dark, dark part of the Roy G. Biv spectrum). In fact, the email was less a well-thought-out email, and more a forward from a conservative writer, whose name I shall not reveal, for my opinion of this conservative author is "lower than a snake's belly", as my grandmother is fond of saying. In any case, it was sent from a very well-read relative, who had not read the forward in its entirety before sending it on.

The contents of the forwarded email, as you may have already predicted, caused an outpouring of heated rage, possibly something like a Literary Pompeii. I cannot claim to have risen above the depths to which we all sunk. For example, I derided those that suggest that late-term abortions were for cosmetics, ignoring the fact that few suggest that late-term abortions are performed for cosmetic purposes. And one particularly conservative relative retorted in kind, angrily typing in symbols rather than letters that "it's amazing to me that we live in a society that completely overlooks the fact that unmarried women are ######## and using abortion as a form of birth control." 

See what I mean about the symbols? Aren't you angry at the mere symbolic suggestion that women should be following someone else's version of morality? I feel like writing into On Language by William Safire of the New York Times to see what his take is on the use of symbols in lieu of actual words, which presumably were: 'screwing', or it's far more harsh cousin that's starts with an F. However, linguistics is not my point here.

The retort's angry response to my original retort went on to suggest that all Obama supporters are the "lucky recipients of a government handout" and that we (meaning we Obama supporters) should be thanking someone, although the responder didn't say who. As an Obama supporter, I guess I'll start with thanking myself, considering the amount of money I've paid in taxes since I started working at age 16.

Yet I digress. 

My point here is two-fold: one to balance the tight-rope that is discussing politics amongst family members, and two, to ask the uncomfortable question about who we're unfortunately likely to elect.

First: Why is it that we can't just talk politics? In my own, thereby anecdotal, experience, I've only ever come in contact with one person who is able to extract emotion from the debate. My brother Tim responded to the back-and-forth snark of that aforementioned forward by trying to quantify the cost-benefit analysis of immigration (another heated topic we'd embarked upon). His response was really just a balanced set of questions that forces you to uproot and examine what you've held as comfortably dogmatic. 

Second: (And this is going to be anything but balanced). Are we really (really?) going to elect an evangelical Christian who is a lifelong member of the NRA to be a single heartbeat away from a septuagenarian's death? If we can forget for a moment the NRA and the religious overtones, let's take a look at what the UK's Independent has to say about her environmental track record: "The woman has an environmental policy so toxic...it would make George Bush...blush." The article details, as follows: "She wants to start drilling. She wants to block US moves to list the polar bear as an endangered species. And she has allowed big game hunters to shoot Alaska's bears and wolves from low-flying planes." Why, you ask, would she do such a thing? Because, as the Independent writes, these federal decisions will cripple energy development offshore. 

Oh, I see. So it is more of the same, then. No, it's more of the worse. 

Fact is, everyone, according to Foreign Affairs, 40% of Bush's 2004 vote came from evangelicals. Forty percent

What's the conclusion? In my mind, anyway, and I am happy to hear how wrong I am (join the lynching mob of those that read my vitriolic response to the conservative email), we are about to elect the sort of crowd that rolls back the clock for women, for the environment, for minorities, and for simple logic (humans are simply not 4000 years old). 

Could someone buy me a vowel? An "A", please. Make it red. Scarlet, even. And pin it to my lapel. Call me Miss Prynne. 

Monday, September 08, 2008

Continued from "The Kittenskills"

"Hi-ho, neighbor!" a man chirped metaphorically the next morning. A cute blonde family wearing Keds and Dockers were up at the crack of dawn. This version of Ned Flanders was smiling as he cooked, his four (yes, four) kids were under ten but were silent, smiling and looking fondly on Dad, who was whipping up made-to-order omelettes for his perfect family.

"Oh, my head," Jesse and I both said in unison. And then, "Coffee."

While Ned smiled some more and deeply inhaled the evergreen-smelling Catskills, Jesse and I boiled water and squeezed it through torn coffee filters to make our own version of French press coffee. Hmph, we both grimaced, we can make eggs, too, just like Ned.

"Honey?" Ned called out, beaming in our direction, "Fried or sunnyside up?"

Mrs. Ned had a choice of eggs? Jesse and I didn't even have a pan to cook ours in. Not to be thwarted, we made runny omelettes and pretended like they were delicious, praising each other just loudly enough for the Ned and Mrs. Ned to hear. 

After securing our Monopoly game-pieces with paper-weight rocks and candles, we set out for Kaaterskill Falls, one very steep foothill of the Catskills.

Kaaterskills Falls is a double waterfall in the eastern Catskills. At over 250 feet, they are the highest falls in New York state. Yes, taller even than Niagara Falls, but nowhere near as wide. Jesse and I drove to the base of the falls, and started climbing. Negotiating footfalls over craggy rocks in a cool pine forest, we reached the top in no time. After playing in the cold pools and splashing the mineral water on our flushed faces, we hiked the cliffside of Kaaterskill, then drove to Woodstock for lunch.

Old hippies with long hair and beards played banjos on street corners, women dressed in black protested war, and a grizzly but cheerful Vietnam vet sold creative smoking products. Sounds like a cliche, but it wasn't. This was the real Woodstock, with perhaps a few coats of paint and some new-age Sufi wisdom offering you the chance to view your aura (we ate pizza instead).

After spending a few hours getting lost in the maze of green that is Route 32 North, Route 32 South, Old Route 32, and Route-32-off-Route-212, we napped on the shores of North-South Lake, a crystal blue heaven whose calm was only interrupted by quiet little angels being screamed at by their incredibly overweight parents. 

Jesse and I left to hunt and gather at the supermarket. Prime steaks and a fine wine in hand (again), and we returned to our campsite. We'd finally invested in a disposable grill, and on it we slowly grilled our kill over a charcoal fire, marinating them in a local exotic mixture of nothing special but everything delicious. The Ned Flanders family had left, which was a real shame, because Jesse and I had finally hit our culinary stride. Tucking in to steak, buttered corn, and grilled asparagus, we ate until it hurt. And then found room to polish off half a bag of jumbo marshmallows.

We didn't stop there. I had a Monopoly championship to win. 

Sidebar: The only time I've ever lost a game of Monopoly, or ever come close, I was about 13 years old and faced with being bankrupted by my younger brother (my own brother!). In protest, I overturned the board and its contents and stormed off. Although my undefeated reign is disputed, I (alone) stand by it.

As I wrote in my last post, the night before, Jesse had suggested trading my Boardwalk for his Pennsylvania and North Carolina Avenues. I'd readily agreed, pouting and acting sorry that I had to make such a big concession. Eyeing each other warily, we both bought little green house after little green house, building up our Monopolies (oddly, the rest of the board's real estate was divided equally between us). Finally, we invited the developers in and paid for hotel complexes. Like suburban America, it was the beginning of the end of someone's empire. 

Jesse landed on my North Carolina.

I didn't land on his Park Place or Boardwalk, instead passing to Go and smiling wickedly in the process.

Jesse landed on North Carolina, again.

I didn't land on Park Place or Boardwalk.

Jesse landed on my Pennsylvania. 

I didn't land on Park Place or Boardwalk.

One last time, Jesse landed on North Carolina, and it was all over. America took the Monopoly cup in her hotly contested match with one fantastic kiwi.

I comforted my opponent with the second half of the bag of marshmallows, trying to toast them to a crispy golden brown, but mostly getting impatient and setting them alight.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Kittenskills

Armed with way too much wine and beer for two people on a short-ish long weekend, Jesse and I drove to the Kittenskills, our nickname for the foothills of New York’s Catskills mountains.

The plan was to hunt & gather, kill with our bare hands if necessary, and camp next to a roaring fire (ignited not with those new-age things called matches, but by rubbing two sticks together). Fortunately for the squirrels residing near our tent, there was a supermarket not far from our campsite.

After we put up the tent – by “we” I mean “he” – I took on the important task of chilling our beers, wine, and non-squirrel meats. Jesse rubbed two sticks together for the longest time, nearly gave himself blisters, and settled on using a lighter to start our fire. Settled in, we began a two-day outdoor Monopoly championship match between America and New Zealand. But not before we began to roast cubed steak and corn on the cob over an open fire.

Sound romantic? It is. Except that the cob that sheathes corn is flammable. Which is to say that it burns brightly and quickly when put over an open fire. Oops, did I say “put over”? That’s not quite what happened. When Jesse and I planned our trip, we weren’t too sure how it would all turn out. We’d only met a few months ago, and had never camped together before. Rather than invest in luxurious accessories such as cooking utensils, we borrowed a tent from a friend, and planned to make do with the rest of the equipment by being resourceful.

In so doing, Jesse built for us a small and highly flammable grill made of wood. On it, we deposited our corn. The grill went up in flames (as wood is prone to do); the corn went with it. To avoid the same mistake with our steaks, we held them over the fire. After cooking our hands and our steaks, we tucked in. But not before we realized that between the two of us, we had only one spoon. Again, we had just one spoon – to eat two tough cuts of cubed steak. We suibstituted knives and forks with our hands and teeth.

Two bottles of wine later, Jesse offered his Pennsylvania and North Carolina Aves for my Boardwalk. The trade would be a fatal mistake for one of us. Possibly more fatal was breakfast the next morning.

To be continued...(let me know you're reading, even just one of you!)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Looking for an Agent

It's my own fault that I'm hearing an echo when I type this blog. It's been since March that I last wrote, and hoping that you're all still reading reminds of a Hitchcock episode where three travelers get stuck in a giant steel drum. Talk about echoes, that drum is very empty.

Yet I digress. As many of you know by now, I'm about a third of the way through writing The Book (which does have a title but you'll have to stay tuned for it), and am now looking for an agent. Thanks to those of you who have provided some leads. I'm following up on those.

But if anyone out there in this cyber-space steel drum has a literary agent contact for adult non-fiction, I'd love to be put in touch with them. I have a proposal ready to go, waiting for the right eyes. Email me at trishsexton@hotmail.com or patricia.sexton@gmail.com . Thanks again to all of you who've read over the years.

Friday, February 29, 2008

"I Am A Self-Made Man!"

Madrid at 9am is Manhattan at 6am. The Spanish capital is rubbing its sleepy eyes, cafés are rolling up their corrugated metal doors. Octogenarian couples walk arm-in-arm, in that boxy shuffle that only old couples do well. This morning I sat in a local café and ordered the traditional Spanish café con leche, a kind of thin cappuccino, and a bocadillo, a baguette filled with butter and stringy, chewy ham. I pondered my evening and my seeming inate ability while traveling to meet comically deplorable characters. Rarely do I meet someone so repulsive as to request of them that I may take notes so that I miss nothing when I write about them later...

Sitting in the very posh bar of my very posh hotel in my very un-posh backpacker clothing, I sipped a coffee and read a book about Belgian King Leopold´s 19th-century genocidal misadventure in the Congo. I´d hoped to finish the book while traveling in Africa, but the dense and often emotional nature of the book required more attention than I was able to give while bungy-jumping, driving, and photographing lions killing fresh prey (see blog post from 9 Feb entitled "Grace Under Pressure, Sort Of...").

A man with stained yellow teeth and no visible eyelashes approached. "May I join you," he asked without waiting for a reply. "I am Belgian and you are reading about the birth of my country." He pulled up a bar stool and called a waitress over. "Vodka. Coke. Four cubes of ice," he said in English to the Spanish waitress. "Four cubes," he emphasized in English. She returned moments later with his iced vodka-Coke. Into his glass full of more cubes than four, he tucked his puffy tobacco-stained fingers. "You heard me say four?" he asked with no hint of recognition that the waitress didn´t speak English. He extracted the offending surplus ice cubes and deposited them on her tray. Bewildered and somewhat embarrassed, the waitress left me alone with "Cerdo" (not his real name, but for those of you that speak Spanish, the perfect alias for this man).

"So what do you do?" asked Cerdo. Finding a literarily comic opportunity in this otherwise entirely interminable moment, I replied that I was researching Belgian atrocities in the Congo and writing a book about travel. "But," Cerdo warned with limitless condescencion, "you must in your reading and writing learn to separate fantasy from reality."

"Really?" Icountered. "But this book seems to have been well-documented?" In fact, the documentation of terror in Adam Hochshild´s King Leopold´s Ghost of the crimes committed is akin to the documentation by the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis of their victims´fates. Cerdo scoffed. I changed the subject.

"So what do you do?"

"Me?" He smiled a dirty yellow Chesire-cat smile. "I own companies in 22 countries. I travel constantly." I stared at him blankly.

"Maybe you think I´m arrogant?" I again stared at him blankly.

"You are a very interesting person," he offered. "May I invite you to dinner tonight?" I hesitated just long enough to let him know that I was about to lie.

"I am meeting some old friends tonight." My lie was a half-truth; I´d been planning to meet the family in Madrid with whom I´d lived years earlier, but I was not due to meet them until later in the week. My chronically guilty conscience gave me a rare pass on this little white lie. Fatefully, I added that the family had children and I´d best meet them very soon before the children were put to bed.

"Perfect!" he said. "They have children. They will return home early. You can meet me at midnight." He winked at me. I uncomfortably demurred, assuring him that my old friends were party animals. He offered me his mobile phone. "Call them from my phone. You can make your plans from my phone because the call is free. I own the phone company. Ten years now I´ve owned it."

"Wow," I said without any facial expression, "you are very fortunate."

"The internet, too. I saw that trend coming." I again stared blankly at him and got up to leave, thanking him for paying for my coffee. "I am a self-made man." Funny, I thought as I put my books back into my handbag, me too! I am a self-made woman!

As quickly as is not noticeably rude, I rushed out of the hotel bar and into another bar, where I soothed my frayed nerves with a glass of sweet sangria and crispy olives. I tucked my nose deep, deep into my book, with the intention of avoiding any further human contact for the remainder of the evening.

Stay tuned for my adventure at the Arab bathhouse with a one-legged man and a girl who while changing into a bikini, showed off her strategically-placed "Hello Kitty" tattoo. I´ll leave you to draw the conclusions on the meaning of the latter; this is a family blog!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"I Love Tuning"

Remember those really unfashionable black-and-white checkered loafers from the early 1990´s? I ran into (or rather, away from) a pair of them while moonlighting in Madrid. I was due to return today from my African adventure, but decided to stay the better part of a week in a city in which I studied over ten years ago. Desperate to shed my worn and dirty backpacker clothing, I immediately upon arrival set out to shop for shoes. I counted my record-low-value dollars and exchanged them into four euros. After soliciting an ATM and imbibing copious amounts of traditional Spanish coffee, I went on my shoe safari.

So here is where I say goodbye to everyone. I´m moving to Spain. I have already applied for a job (oddly, I´m serious, explanation to come) and quickly scrawled some phone numbers about renting apartments near sangria bars, one of which I was patronizing in the warm sunshine. By the time I´d begun drinking my glass of cold and tart sangria, I´d already been successful in finding a pair of shoes for a mere nine euro. Spain is not exactly known for its bargains, case in point my hotel which charges the same nine euro for a package of potato chips. Another case point, that previously mentioned pair of black-and-white checkered loafers showing off the English logo "I love tuning". One of my favorite things about traveling is finding those things that just don´t make sense. No matter how many consonants and-or vowels I added to "I love tuning", I couldn´t come up with whatever the colloquialism was meant to signify. I sipped my sangria and smiled. I´d found a gorgeous pair of black patent leather flats (nine euro!), a red handbag (not nine euro), some jewelry, and fresh socks.

On my way back to my hotel, I stopped in a churrascaria, a sort of local bar that serves meats and beers. I´d noticed earlier that the bar was looking for a new worker. I´d also decided earlier, yes before I´d drunk the liquid courage that is coffee and sangria, that I´d apply for a job at the churrascaria. So, I did.

The bartendress seemed halfway amused, bordering on irritated. "So," she said in rapid-fire Spanish, "you are staying at a nearby hotel and want to work for this restaurant gratis while you are on vacaciones?¨ I agreed that those were my intentions and she asked me to return the following day to see if my verbal application would be accepted. She seemed much less excited than I for my offer of free employment for the remainder of the week.

Stay tuned tomorrow to see whether or not I get the job at the meat & beer bar. And thanks to all those who asked what the conclusion was to the Johannesburg robbery attempt. Update to come, possibly in longer format of a book.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Jump Over The Robot!

Um, cough. I am really struggling with how to write the following post. I mean, you try creating a patchwork of a story from a dinner of smoked crocodile and honeyed vodka, a gyrating midget, and threatening taxi drivers, and if successful, you can take over this blog.

After an eight-hour drive across the South African border from Botswana, our international overland group of 16 people parted ways. Most of us said our pleasant goodbyes (a few grumps were not so charitable); three of us made plans to meet later for dinner.

Anna and Jean, American sisters, met me at my hotel. We were carefully instructed by the hotel concierge staff to make certain we dined in the nearest mall, and that we took a taxi to the mall, which was only a short walking distance from the hotel. Johannesburg is supposedly the murder capital of the world, and we'd been warned repeatedly to refrain from walking alone at night, walking at night, and just walking in general. Ditto talking.

After perusing the menus of several perfectly satisfactory establishments, we took a chance on "Lekgotla", an African bistro. Although we hadn't seen the menu of Lekgotla, we immediately were drawn to the restaurant's ambience: soft lighting, cozy, slightly moody. It looked like a quiet-conversation sort of place, a place where one could relive the moments of the last three weeks of driving from east Africa to southern Africa. However, this restaurant was not such a place.

We were seated at the back of the restaurant with a few local African families, a few couples, and a large table of what appeared to be local whites. No one looked surprised that a midget wearing ripped jeans and "Calvin Coin" boxer briefs was gyrating suggestively on stage. Nor did anyone seem anything but nonplussed that the midget timed the sway of his tiny hips and the bob of his head tightly wrapped in do-rag pantyhose with a lead singer that looked more like Ray Charles than Ray looks like Ray Charles. Both Ray and the midget sang and danced in unison to a selection of Bob Marley and Gypsy King songs.

"I feel like I'm on a bad malaria trip," Jean said of the surroundings. Malaria pills are notorious for causing wildly vivid dreams, and occasionally, insanity.

The menu offered a selection of game meats, which I'd been looking forward to trying. We chose carpaccio of springbok and crocodile, and ostrich spring rolls. Both the springbok and crocodile were extremely smoky and salty; the croc meat looked like shaved ginger, the springbok like raw tongue. Neither was particularly appealing. Our main courses of very western steak and fish were a source of relief.

"Would you like a Dawa?" asked the waiter. Not at all sure what it was, we agreed. A "colored" man appeared, which is, uncomfortably, what South Africans call non-white, non-black, people of mixed race. He was carrying an unwieldy large wooden box, balanced by a strap around his neck. He juggled ice, honey, limes, and vodka until we had our "dawas", which turned out to be the most delicious version of a mojito that I've ever had.

"But," I asked, confused, "why is this drink called a dawa?"

The traveling bartender smiled, and put thick wooden rods in our drinks. "Because," he explained, "this is a dowel rod." We used the "dawa" to scrape the chewy bits of cold viscous honey from the bottoms of our glasses and agreed we'd take this recipe home with us.

Sated and tired, we abandoned plans to hear more local live music at a jazz hall. We instead opted to buy gelato and find a taxi to take us home. We spent the next hour and a half looking for the elusive taxi. Oddly, finding a metered taxi in Joburg is more difficult than finding, say, the Shroud of Turin. Finally, the familiar site of a placard on a car that said "Johannesburg Metered Taxi". It seemed pretty clear that we'd found what we were looking for. Until the driver took off his magnetized metered sign and hid it in the front seat. "This is not a metered cab," he said, as we watched him remove the sign. "But," we began to protest, "your sign says 'metered'?"

"Not anymore," he said unsympathetically. "I can take you to your hotel for 200 rand," which was four times the price for the same distance we'd traveled just a few hours earlier.

Frustrated, we began to walk. Not sure where we were going and deeply cognizant of the Lonely Planet warning that "You'd have to be crazy to walk in Joburg at night," we asked directions from someone who looked official and less menacing than the men who'd approached us asking to party.

"Jump over the robot," said the woman from whom I'd asked directions. She pointed in the direction of my hotel, and repeated, perhaps to benefit my blank stare: "Jump over the robot."

"Umm," I inquired, "what is a robot and how do I jump it?" She looked at me like the men with dilated eyes looking to party had just looked at me. She repeated again, at which point I thanked her and made way for the "robot". As I began to cross the intersection, cars slowed down and passengers stared. Perhaps I am imagining this, but I took their slow-to-a-crawl-and-staring to mean that I was doing something unusual. Like walking at night, which I've mentioned I was told to never, never do.

To be continued...have a visitor here from New York!!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Not an hour into arriving in South Africa and some enterprising chaps smashed the window of our caravan truck, attempting to libertate my low-hanging fruit from its window seat (also known as a brand new camera). They didn't succeed. In lieu of a post, remember those photos I posted to the bungy blog? Click on them. Trust me on this. Thanks, Steph, for pointing that out.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

"Grace Under Pressure...Sort Of"

I'm standing on a tiny metal platform, facing the majestic impossibly roaring loud Victoria Falls in front of me, and looking down at the falls pool below me. A video camera is recording my every move, every muttered prayer and curse. I am about to bungy jump 333 feet into the Victoria Falls Gorge. I have never been so scared in my entire life. My ankles are wrapped tightly together in thick towels and braces; I am harnessed to a series of iron clips and straps. I stand on the edge of the platform, trying to look at the Falls instead of the 333 feet below me. I am too scared to cry, but will later watch another bungy jumper's face crumple into tears as she says goodbye to her nervously sweating father watching her prepare for her own bungy jump.

As I stand on the edge of the platform, my toes inched over the edge of the bridge that connects Zimbabwe to Zambia, one of the African attendants of the Zambezi Adrenalin Company says to me, laughing, "Patricia, today is a good day to die! Do you have any last words for your family and friends?" He points the video camera at me, "Carpe Diem?" I say meekly, trying to hold down what might be my breakfast rising in my throat.

I am white-knuckle clutching the handlebars to save myself from the jump. The African bungy guides are used to this. They remove my clawed hands from the safety bars and shout in unison, "Five! Four! Three! Two! Bungyyyy!" And with that, they push me over the edge. I spend four seconds in freefall, falling at approximately 60 miles per hour for 333 feet into the 720-foot wide Victoria Falls gorge. I dive into and bounce in a rainbow, which is cutting across from the raging falls to the bridge from which I've jumped. I think this is the most exhilirating moment of my life. I'm wrong. That moment is about to come.

The attendants slowly hoist me back up the bridge, crank by crank. I am cradled by two large black men, yanking me quickly from the harness to the underbelly of the bridge. "What's your name? Where are you from?" I am asked over and over again, presumably to check if I have a concussion or brain injury. One of the men attaches a dog leash to my waist and slowly guides me back to the platform where I'm about to do my second jump. On my right is a railing, which I'm tightly holding. On my left is an unsecured drop-off of 333 feet. After bungy-jumping, I can't believe how afraid I am, still, of the raging rapids below me. "Insult to injury," I mutter nervously to myself as I look down to my left.

Barefoot, I cross the train tracks that run between the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. Women carrying huge sacks of grain on their heads pass me. They are carrying back food from tumultuous Zimbabwe to their homes and workplaces in Zambia. I feel frivolous spending the equivalent of several months' wages for four seconds of terror. But that won't stop me from jumping a second time. The women ignore me and go about their food-transporting business. The men high-five me, "Crazy girl, how was the jump?" they ask, smiling and congratulating me.
I walk back to the platform for what I think will be a piece of cake. I'd been told the night before by some bungy veterans that the so-called Gorge Swing is infinitely more terrifying than the bungy jump. "Doubt it," I thought. After all, what can be scarier than jumping the first time? Well, as I'm about to find out, what is scarier than the bungy is the swing. Rather than dive straight down, the swing is essentially a bungy jump, but you jump OUT rather than down, and are therefore airborne for an extended period of time. And, this is the worst part: you face your demise. The falls, the rapids, the cascading trees, and that glowing rainbow; they're all coming toward you at 60 miles per hours. And you feel as though you're attached to nothing at all. You freefall diagnonally across a 20,000 year-old crater.

I step to the edge of the platform for the second time and think I've braced myself. I haven't. I look over the edge and wimper, "Please, I don't want to go." And again, with that, two men push me over the edge. I can't remember if they counted down or not (I'll try to post the video on youtube.com or here, as soon as I get a reliable internet connection). I fall, and fall, and fall. I kick and scream, and even try to swim in the air, so desperate am I to control my movements that my mind translates air for water. Finally, a jolt, and I am staring at the rapids below me. I hear cheers above me, locals and tourists alike, high-fives in the air. The exhiliration is heady, palpable, and entirely unforgettable.
My right arm is tattooed in bright blue ink with my jumper's ID number, so I am now identifiable as someone that's jumped. Noticing my arm, an older Australian man walks over to me, nervously sweating, "I don't want to lose two daughters in one day," he says emotionally. His girls are busy getting harnessed and strapped in. "Don't worry," I say, "they'll be just fine."

More later on my flight over Victoria Falls in a tw0-seater open-air lawnmower with wings!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Abseiling in Africa (Sans Instructions)

"Just lean backwards, and walk very slowly down the rock." Right, I thought, one foot behind the other. Only my legs wouldn't go backward, my knees wouldn't bend, and my feet wouldn't move from their landing strip. I was glued to my rock. My rock was a 100-foot boulder on top of a lion's den called "Escort Park". It was so named a couple of decades ago for the necessity to take along a local guide to avoid deadly mambo snake and lion predators. The last person to ignore this rule was a young man on a motorbike in the late 80's (or so I'm told) who drove his whirring noisy bike into Escort Park and was summarily escorted out by a lion's teeth. Only his whirring bike motor and his head were left as evidence of his demise.

"Patreesha," Yami and Patrick, my Malawian guides, said in unison, "just...walk...backwards." I steeled myself, gritted my teeth (again), and leaned back against what felt like a very loose cable attached to my waist. I'd never abseiled before, and now was the time for explicit instructions. Instead of instructions at all, I was told to simply lean back and walk against the grain of my best intentions. Inch by inch, I gained confidence. Patrick explained to me that the knots around my waist were a combination of crotch pinchers (I'm sure I heard this wrong) and figure eight's (pretty sure I heard this right). I would have struggled to care less; I just wanted to know that all the knots were tight and secure.

As I picked up a little bit of speed (from wheelchair to crutch speed), the gravel started to shower beneath my step. Scary and invigorating. I sampled a jump and catapulted no more than a few inches from the rock face. I was far too timid to have sailed outward from my safety, which was the rock itself. Finally, I landed on the floor of the Escort Park, not particularly caring what combination there was of lions and/or deadly mambo snakes. I was just glad to be perpendicular and alive.

Heady with the rush of adrenaline from doing stupid things without waiver forms, I asked Yami and Patrick to join me in purchasing mushrooms from the roadside markets. We drove off from our abseiling boulders, and headed for the mushroom markets. We didn't bother haggling with the local family for the bright technicolor orange mushrooms; they were just $1.

Back at our lodge, we sipped Malawian brews, and ate African (for the first time in weeks): roasted meat in a light curry sauce, chick pea stew, and braised cabbage with peanut butter. The chill in the air was surprisingly crisp, so we lit a fire and warmed our feet and wool socks around the flames. I retired early, only to find a mouse on my nightstand, munching on a hard-boiled egg. It barely fazed me. Little does, after the spiders.

More later...

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


This post is dedicated to the memory of my teeth.

After a hearty dinner of grilled pork chops, boiled potatoes, and mushroom soup, six of us in our group headed for the bar of the Kande Beach lodge huts, situated on the western shore of Lake Malawi. We ordered Scotch, which we're using as an internal antiseptic, and played pool while listening to classic American rock. Just one Scotch and a slice of chocolate cake for me, and I was nodding off at the bar.

I returned to my beach hut, pulled the dirty blue mosquito netting over the damp and stained prison-issue sheets and thin pillow. Just as I was fumbling around in the dim light for my toothbrush, I noticed a pair of eyes watching me. Or several pairs, as it were. "Jesus," I breathed irreverently, "a tarantula." I'd known this moment would come, but in booking my trip to the Land Of All Things Big, I hadn't anticipated just how pronounced my arachnophobia would be. Eyes locked on eachother, I slowly reached onto the bed to retrieve my industrial strength bug spray. Feet frozen to the floor, I slowly bent forward and sprayed him. And the entire doorframe and wall.

He must have died instantly, because a dozen or so of his friends came to his funeral right away. They rallied around his corpse, lots and lots of them. Feet still glued to the floor, I felt my intestines tighten and I started to cry. I bent forward again and unlatched the lock on the door, shut my eyes, and sprinted out. I found George the guide in the bar, and asked him what I should do. Masking mockery with concern, he offered me a night alone in the unused tent. Unused because of the rain and flooding in the area. Meaning, it was either the spiders or I'd sleep in a puddle. I chose the latter.

I unzipped the door to the tent, climbed inside, and unwrapped my brand-new "800g-lightweight-woman" sleeping bag which is lightweight perhaps because it comes without the comfort of any interior cloth. I tucked myself into my plastic wrap bedding and shut my eyes. I slowly drifted off to sleep only to wake up an hour or so later to thunder and lightning. I gritted my teeth and shut my eyes, willing myself back to sleep. At dawn I woke up to puddles all around me in my tent, and a film of sweat inside my plastic wrap. I'd been dreaming of creatures, and grinding my teeth all night.

I packed my gear, and headed in the rain for the shower. A gecko eyed me nervously. "Where were YOU last night when I needed you?" I said out loud to the spider-eating lizard. He sauntered off. At breakfast, I recounted my story to the group, telling them in great detail how my hatred for spiders was on a clinical level. Moose, our African cook, admonished me, "You should never hate any creature. Never."

And that was that...

Apologies for the lack of editing...I have only 15 minutes to write today...more later

Friday, February 01, 2008

I Tell Myself Lies, Lies, and More Lies

Have you ever tried to imagine the color of a smell? If you've watched that movie about the life of Helen Keller (a better writer would be looking up the name of the movie, but I'm on an abacus of a computer), you'll remember that scene where Keller's teacher puts a burning hot pan on her hand very briefly and explains that that sensation is the color red. In Africa, it's not sensations that describes colors, but powerful smells.

As we drove from Tanzania over the Malawi border, we crossed lush tea plantations, leaves heavy with rain, mist rising from the craggy and moody hillsides. It smelled dark green. Young boys and women on rickety bikes pedaled up the hillside with long reeds of straw strapped across the back of their bikes. "Hello, muzungu!" shouted the children by the roadside, greeting the "ghosts" as we waved from the bus. They ran from their thatched mud houses and smoldering smoky fires that they were attending. The smell was all dark brown and shades of grey.

Our caravan stopped for lunch on the side of the road next to one of the tea plantations. A tiny dirt road led from the main road to a village school. A sign advertising the school urged anyone who could read to "Fight Ignorance!" Four little local boys watched us eat our lunch of olive-flavored bologna, stale bread, and salad and laughed as we offered them the salad. Apparently they, too, know what dangers fresh vegetables bring.

"I think I've caught your diarrhea bug," George the guide said to the group. I pondered the nature of the word "caught" which specifically indicated to me that George the guide was abdicating any responsibility for the source of the illness, namely the food, and was instead suggesting that there was a flu going around. Never mind no one had a fever, and the one person who hadn't eaten vegetables was fine (me!). One of the Australians in our group offered the little local boys a tiny stuffed koala. She taught them how to pronounce it, "Kohh-ahhh-lahhh," and they erupted in shrieks of laughter. We packed our lunch dishes just as it began to heavily rain, and made our way for the Malawi border crossing.

Although we were instructed to not take any photos at the border, a friendly hello from a blonde woman seemed to get me what I wanted, which was a picture of the "Welcome to Malawi" traffic sign. As I returned to our truck to meet the group, a young boy selling soda, about 12 or 13 years old, was sobbing. His boss or father was ridiculing him for crying. I felt so sad looking at him that I bought him an orange Fanta, and he stopped crying immediately. A woman (his mother? boss?) praised him, making me wonder if I'd been set up. But just to see him stop crying was relief enough. His father tried to sell us more bootlegged cold drinks, but was caught by a border guard who chased him off attempting to beat him with a large wooden stick. The guard missed his backside with the stick, but did manage to steal the case of orange Fanta. The guard helped himself to a cold soda and smirked at the father and son who now had nothing to sell. At least the little boy finally did have something to cry about.

Chitimba Camp in the Chitimba Village is owned by a Dutch couple who emigrated from Holland to Malawi in January. They are renowned for their not-warm beer and their generator which works every afternoon. As I unpacked in my wooden hut, I noticed an absolutely enormous blue and red centipede on my porch. My throat went dry, my intestines tightened. "It's just a sweet little caterpillar," said I to my intestines. Having overcome that mental hurdle, I made straight for the bar where I ordered a not-warm local beer called Kuche Kuche, which has a hint of maple flavor and is "likable enough", in the words of Barack Obama. I sipped it, contemplating how much bigger everything else could be if a centipede was the size of my hand. I'd soon find out.

"And the parasite swam up into his willy, attached its claws to the sides if his urethra, and ix-ploded!" I'd walked into a conversation I wished I hadn't. "The doctors had to slice his penis open and remove the leetle feller." I wanted to walk out of the conversation that I'd walked into. But I was hungry and dinner was being served. I poured myself a bowl of delicious beef stew and tried to concentrate on eating while the group discussed the various types of parasites one can catch while traveling.

I made my excuses and headed off to the bar for a shot of coconut rum before bed. I needed to actually sedate myself in preparation for sharing my room with countless local creatures. At the bar, a couple of local Malawians were discussing in English the ubiquitous presence of snakes. In fact, they marveled, they'd just caught a pair of deadly mambo snakes!

"What," I quavered as I asked, "does one do when one wakes up and is staring at a mambo snake in one of these huts?"

"Well," the local man said, "Ask him to pay the bill for your room."

I unraveled my mosquito net, sprayed the exterior with industrial strength DEET, and gingerly stepped inside. As I peered out of my cocoon with my flashlight, an enormous bulbous cockroach ambled by. "No no that's not a cockroach I told myself, it's just an exotic beetle." Somehow beetles were better than cockroaches, and caterpillars were more palatable than centipedes. I laid down, slept a fitful sweaty sleep, dreamed of tarantulas, and woke up at 4am. I gave up on getting any more rest, crawled out of my bed, turned on my flashlight, and promptly dropped and broke it. I was now alone in the pitch black with all the local creatures in the heart of darkness.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my adventures with the fishermen, with a couple of woodcarvers and a farmer named "Richard Nixon, Mr Sweet Tokka, and Vin D Zo". And I discover the color red in a very unexpected way...

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

(First, thanks to all of you who've commented on the blog via this website or via hotmail. It's great to get your comments, so thanks for keeping in touch.)

Lazy Boys

I said goodbye to Dar Es Salaam with a fine Italian meal of roasted garlic, freshly baked bread, minestrone, and a glass of potent grappa, compliments of the chef. I didn't sleep much the night before I was to join the camping tour. The group I'd meet was heading down from the famous Ngorongoro Crater, where zoo-like animals live in a large fishbowl existence. These animals never leave their crater; they mate and dine with eachother their entire lives. Just like the island of Manhattan.

The following morning, at dawn, I raced through my breakfast of bran and coffee. Before hopping in a taxi to the place where I'd meet my tour group, the Tanzanian hotel manager bade me farewell, apologizing for the transgressions of the wayward youth who'd made off with my phone, "Sister, you are very lucky! They took my phone from me. And they beat me in the face to get it." I waited the requisite five seconds or so to see if she was joking. She wasn't. With that, I left Dar Es Salaam for (literally) greener pastures.

If you've ever fought in one of the world wars that gripped the first few decades of the 20th century, you'll be familiar with the bus that was hired to transport ten of us for three weeks from Tanzania to South Africa. This bus rattles, shakes, occasionally groans, and has only ever heard of or seen the concept of "shocks" if it passed a shock shop somewhere along the road. In short, it's one of Dante's rings of hell. Especially when the roads are bumpy. And since we ain't traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike, I can assure you that sitting on this bus for ten hours a day is trying for anyone's constitution.

''Everyone, this is Patricia, or Patty," said George, the South African guide. "Patty, this is everyone." Grimacing at his choice of nomenclature, I greeted everyone, who from then on, rather oddly apparently decided I looked like a "Trish" and called me by my name, without any prompting on my part.

The weather went from hot and sticky Dar to cool and humid countryside. Nature was sprawling and chaotic: leafy, green, verdant, abundant. Rows of corn grew alongside a shop selling cement bricks. A woman in turban and sashes of color bathed her naked boy while schoolchildren in uniform shouted "Hello, how are you doing?" It's customary in most parts of Africa to inquire about someone's health as well as their family before asking whatever it is you really want to ask, such as "I have a deadly snake bite." There is no such thing as an emergency here, only if you don't ask about someone's family.

The last remnants of villages gave way to pure countryside, not without a few laughs, though. In the midst of probably a dozen red La-Z Boy chairs lined up outside a bar, two idle men sat sipping something in a bottle (it was only 9am, I could hardly imagine what they were drinking was alcoholic). They sat in front of a sign that said "The Waste Time Bar". Indeed. Ironically, they relaxed comfortably in their La-Z Boys as two women about their age went about attempting to sell the fruits they'd collected by carrying their wares on their heads in impossibly huge heaps.

"Has anyone here gotten ill yet?" I asked.

"No!" and "Yes!" I heard in unison. Apparently the guide leader and one of the members of the group were in total disagreement. "Oh," said our guide, "I didn't know everyone was sick." That's right, every person in our group had diarrhea. I put down the tomato I had prepared to put on my sandwich of greasy salami and dried bread. I even washed my hands after touching said tomato. I made the mistake of making light of the diarrhea versus vomiting conundrum (which would you rather have?) and got angry glares from several members of the group. "It's painful cramping diarrhea," I was corrected after cheerfully offering my preference of it over vomiting.

Ten hours of driving later and we arrived at a tiny campsite in south-central Tanzania. The camp was actually the base for safari camps, so the accommodations were quite nice, if you had booked accommodation. In order to save money, three members of the group had asked to camp for the entire three weeks. I did not make that request. I spent my first night in the African bush in a honeymoon suite, complete with jacuzzi, king-sized bed, and two personal guards. I was feeling pretty smug until I tried to draw a bath in the jacuzzi and the water ran red.

"Jambo, sir, why do you carry that spear?" I asked my personal guard, dressed in a red flannel sash and thick ankle beads why he was carrying a spear, a DIRTY spear. "Dirty", as in "been used". He laughed and continued walking in front of me, leading to my group's campfire where we were all meeting to make dinner. Just then, I saw half a dozen English people tucking into a low doorway, remarking upon their hunger. "Restaurant!" thought I, and tucked myself into the doorway. "Have you a booking?" asked the Englishwoman who seemed to be running the show. "If you'd like to make a booking for dinner tonight, we have space. We are serving a three-course meal of freshly-made soup, grilled meats, and tea and cake."

"Oh," I said, "I am with the camping group. We are cooking for ourselves tonight." In my mind's eye, I envisioned boiled salami, boiled tomatoes, and stale bread renamed "croutons".

"I am afraid on my first night with this group that I cannot break rank and order my own dinner," I said to the English manager, although I was literally salivating to do so. I sauntered to the group, pulled up a chair and actually ate quite well. Our local cook, nicknamed "Moose" had made beef chili and spaghetti. After dinner, we all sprinted in pouring rain to the campsite's bar, where we ate homemade brownies and drank whiskey in ketchup packets. In case your mind was wandering when you read that last description, I'd like you to picture it: whiskey in ketchup packets (tear open and drink!) accompanied by freshly-baked brownies, all in the African bush. That's what traveling is all about.

Stay tuned tomorrow where even the guide gets diarrhea, our caravan crosses the border into Malawi, and we set up camp in Chitimba Village, where the giant mambo snake lives and has been recently spotted in PAIRS...

Monday, January 28, 2008

"Dr. Zhivago, I presume?"

After a nano-second of consideration, I decided to skip the torture of spending the day with the bureacratic officials who had yesterday urged me to "proceed with action" against the wayward youth who had relieved me of my brand-new shiny red Blackberry. I imagined him feasting on the proceeds of the sale of his booty, roasted goat (popular here in Tanzania) and a cold Kiliminjaro beer. I almost wanted to share the meal with him, if only to break the beer bottle over his little head.

Not to be deterred from exploring the unknown, that night I treated myself to a cold Kiliminjaro at the Movenpick hotel bar, ordered a Tanzanian version of an Indian sandwich (contents unknown, but it tasted like chicken), and made my way to the nearest taxi stand. Given the time of day and the lack of streetlights even in central Dar, I decided now would be the right time to hail a cab rather than walk.

"I'd like to gamble. Can you take me to a casino?" Mussa, my amicable taxi driver took me to The Las Vegas Casino where I wiled away no more than 15 minutes and just 7000 "tush", which is the way the locals pronounce Tanzanian shilling. I'd hoped to join the craps table but the regulars already seated there didn't look too welcoming of the overly-excited blonde American who just wanted to gamble to say she'd done it. Instead, I purposefully (and quickly) lost my $7 minimum bet.

I invited Mussa for a beer, as long as he promised to take me to a very local pub. I figured I would be safer with a local, and I'd get the added bonus of seeing where and how they hang out. Mussa ordered us a couple of beers and told me all about his four children and numerous grandchildren. We watched with interest as an old fat married white man propositioned the hostess who was wearing almost nothing accompanied but a pair of clear plastic stilettos. I asked Mussa what he thought of Americans, the USS Cole bombing, and Chinese construction projects in Tanzania. The only topic on which he had any firm opinion was the Chinese, "They are not good people the Chinese. They don't mix with our people. They stay by themselves."

Mussa's lack of opinion and my jet-lag were causing the rims of my eyelids to stick to eachother like glue. Twice as he was talking I found myself falling asleep. "You are very tired, no?" he asked as he ordered himself another beer. I replied that I was, and he poured the rest of my beer into his, presumably to relieve me of the effort of drinking it. After he finished his beer and mine, he drove me back to the hotel.

"Mussa, how much should I pay you for taking me around the city tonight? I am not sure how much to pay," I said honestly.

"You pay me nothing. We are friends. You buy the beers for us, for friends."

"Okay," I said, still unsure, "what if I give you 5000 tush?"

"Give me 6000," he said firmly. I handed him 6000. "Thanks, Mussa," I called out to the driver as I walked into the hotel.

"That's Mister Mussa," said the concierge, correcting me.

I fell fast asleep and woke up 13 hours later, interrupted only by a very welcome call from my mother telling me she'd cancelled my mobile phone account.

The following morning, I drank six cups of weak coffee and read the local paper. Two articles in the National section called for sinners to repent to God. Somewhat disturbed by the religious bent, I read on to find that one of the government ministers had recently hopped a plane to London, gone straight to a Range Rover dealership, and bought a new model, in cash. He paid extra, a lot extra, for the car to be airlifted to Tanzania. The editorialist writing in the local paper worried this purchase came from government coffers, and therefore from foreign aid. It was interesting to me to see this sort of criticism being published.

I took a malaria pill on an empty stomach (a mistake) and walked into a local bookshop. Bill Clinton's recently-published "Giving" was prominently displayed. A nearby food court offered chicken lollipops, an assortment of Indian food, Chinese food, and American burgers. I ordered chicken tikka and sat down next to a group of three Chinese men, eating noodles and drinking Pepsi.

"My sister, that you have fun!" a bony black woman called out to me. Grateful for the encouragement, I smiled back a surprisingly emotional thanks. Hot, dusty, windy, and so humid I felt like I'd been walking with a wool blanket covering me, I paid a taxi driver to take me to the Village Museum, a museum entirely devoid of tourists, aside from me. As I walked to his car, I noticed the hood was open and another man was banging on the engine with a rock. "Broken car?" I asked. No no, he assured me.

The Village Musuem features replications of Tanzanian houses: mud huts, straw huts, thatched wooden huts. There are captions beside each of the huts. One of the captions beneath a hut used for iron-smelting haughtily noted that, "Despite the westerners' belief that the Africans were neither capable of using machinery nor of being sophisticated, this iron ore smelter proves that the Africans are neither incapable nor lacking sophistication." One of the houses on the museum grounds appeared to be lived in, and I found myself stepping into someone's home, complete with a fire burning and rice on the stove. There were signs above each doorway, indicating the sleeping quarters of the "Senior Wife" and the "Junior Wife". The latter, if you have to ask, was smaller. Outside the museum homes, a group of locals was dancing to music that they were playing on a set of wooden drums. I sat and listened for a while, then made my way back to the Movenpick.

I listened Musak at the hotel, which has been playing the theme song to Dr Zhivago since I arrived. I leafed through a local recipe book compiled by a westerner, who oddly states in the introduction to her book that, "Only a few African recipes are used." I noticed what seemed to be just one truly African recipe; the rest were instructions on how to make apple crisp and English sweets.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

"Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?"

(With time off from my new jobs at CBS Evening News and Drax, I head to Africa to do some writing, interviewing, and adrenaline-adventuring!)

"Patricia Sexton, I presume?" I giggled to myself as I stepped from the plane onto the tarmac of the Dar Es Salaam International Airport. I'd been to Africa before, but not "the real Africa" that is written about by the Theroux's and Conrad's of the world. The thick smell of tropical musky humidity hit me first, then the familiar chaos of being somewhere new. I expected a long wait for a port-of-entry visa, but instead was greeted by a stocky black man with a coy grin who processed my visa before all the others who had been waiting in line in front of me. I was one of a few blonde women to get their visas before anyone else. After finding my bags, I eagerly searched the arrivals hall for my taxi transfer to the hotel. After waiting long enough to know that my taxi wasn't coming, I decided to bargain with one of the locals.

"20,000 sister! I take you wherever you want to go!"

"No, thank you," I said, pointing to my Lonely Planet, "I think a taxi to the city costs about 8000 shillings."

"10,000 my sister?" he offered.

"Done." I said and hopped into his cab, dodging a loud and rowdy parade which was apparently celebrating the homecoming of the Tanzanian president from an official visit to Nairobi. Once we settled in, my taxi driver introduced himself as "Godlove" and showed me his identification card when I expressed curiosity about his name (namely, that it was actually "Godlove"). Godlove and I drove the ten or so kilometers to the Sleep Inn Hotel, where I was due to spend the following two evenings before my departure on a month-long driving tour of East and Southern Africa. Within just 15 minutes, I both checked in and checked out of Sleep Inn Hotel.

"Mahm, you are not happy with our hotel?" the manager asked me with a mostly bored stare.

"No, it's not that, it's that I received a phone call and I realized I am at the wrong hotel," I lied.

"Oh, this happens a lot. Must be a lot of mistakes," she said, with apparent surprise. I stifled a chuckle as I walked out, escaping the misery of a room with a door that didn't lock, a sign insisting guests leave all their valuables with the front desk, and two dank and stained twin beds. I figured I'd splurge for the relative comfort and safety of the "poshest hotel in central Dar", the Swiss Movenpick. Money has never been more well-spent.

I took a bath, washed my clothes in the sink, and sipped a cucumber-lime-honey smoothie, breaking the first two rules I'd been warned to not break: Don't eat ice and don't eat vegetables, no matter how posh the hotel. Later, I'd break another rule for which I'd been repeatedly cautioned, and I'd be sorry for doing so.

I relaxed in my big spacious room, packed and unpacked, the sort of thing I do when I'm in a new city and a little apprehensive about leaving the comfort and safety of my hotel room. Finally, I hoisted my backpack onto my back, donned my sunglasses and mosquito spray and left the hotel.

"Where are you going?" asked the concierge as I left. I replied that I was headed to "Kariakoo", an open-air market whose name is derived from the Carrier Corps that paid visits there in the early 20th century.

"You must be very careful madam," he warned me, "your mobile phone will be stolen if you are not careful." I thought it odd that he singled out my phone, but in the end he would be right. My phone was tightly (I mean, Houdini-tightly) tucked into a very small elastic pocket on the bag I was carrying. I left the phone in its tight pouch, scoffing at the notion that This Traveler would be relieved of any of her possessions.

I carefully followed my map of the city, walking southeast from the hotel into the city center. I passed a lot of friendly people, mostly men, who simply greeted me with "Hello, sister" and let me on my way when I politely bade them farewell. Occasionally, someone would try to sell me a taxi ride or a painting. Tired of walking after a steamy mile or so, I hopped on a local bus, asking only for "Kariakoo". I was surprised when the driver readily agreed, as if he were my personal chaffeur. I double-checked the price, to make sure that he wasn't re-routing his other passengers so that he could make a few extra shillings for transporting the tourist to her destination. Except there weren't any other passengers. Other than the driver, the only other person on the bus was the man with whom I'd negotiated my fare. He'd hopped on behind me, and he and the driver laughed nervously while eyeing me shiftily. As they started to ask me questions in local Swahili, I got the cold sick sense that I was being set up for a robbery or worse. I rarely get that tingly sensation over the back of my neck, but when I do, I know it's time to act. At the next traffic light, I paid the bus driver the agreed-upon fare, and jumped out.

"Sister, where are you going?" asked another bus fare negotiator. I replied again that I was going to Kariakoo, refusing to give in to my internal pressure urging me to catch a taxi. "Taxi?" he suggested, as if reading my mind.

"No," I said firmly, "daladala," or "local bus". I checked my bus schedule and asked him where I might find the Number Two bus.

"Num-BAH two!" he shouted to a crowd of onlookers. The crowd began to giggle. "NUM-bah...two!" he shouted again. His fellow bus-fare-negotiator colleagues began to parrot him, and soon both the crowd and I were laughing. "Number two," I'd say, and the negotiators would shout, "Num-bah two!" Soon everyone was either shouting "Number two" or laughing at me, the negotiators, or all of us.

Just as I was about to hop on any crowded bus at all, a rotund young woman dressed in traditional bright colors and bandana-cap approached me. She was selling water, and was headed to Kariakoo. She offered to take me. We both tried our best to communciate, sharing at first our names, and then mostly giving up for my lack of knowledge of even basic Swahili. She spoke at some length about I-don't-know-what, but it was pleasant and very comforting to be escorted by a woman and chatted to like an old friend. While I admired her clothing: red sashes and banana-leaf green prints, I heard someone shout at me. Just as I turned around, a young boy darted off into the crowd grasping my mobile phone in his hands. How he managed to release it from its snug little coffin, I don't know. But I was angry, and only at myself.

I said goodbye to Loffwasa the water seller woman, and headed to the police station to file the report that I would need to show to the insurance company to reimburse me for the loss of my phone. As I entered, I passed half a dozen plainclothes police officers who wore rifles slung around their necks. I waited in a short line for the next available agent.

"Name-religion-caste-nationality," the officer fired off in quick succession. She was filing my report and taking down information. I wrote down my name and "American" and "New York". I thought by "religion" she'd asked for my "region". A friendly man next to me corrected me, "In order to file a police report, the officer needs to know your religion and your caste. "Oh, umm Christian," I said.

"What caste? CASTE?" the officer repeated somewhat less patiently than the first time.

"Catholic?" I replied meekly, not at all sure what sort of specifics she was after in trying to ascertain my "caste".

Without any irony whatsoever, the officer asked me for a description of the thief. Had I seen him?

"Well," I said, pausing without the slightest hint of irony, "he was about twelve years old, high cheek bones," and I paused here wondering what sort of racial tension there was in a country where white was the minority, "he was black." The discomfort was mine and mine alone, because she nodded, and went about her note-taking. She handed me a copy of the police report, which was a tiny scrap of paper torn out of a notebook with numbers and dashes on it. "Come back tomorrow at 8am to proceed with action."

I imagined myself seeking out this wayward youth, accompanied by the plainclothes agents with rifles slung over their shoulders. Instead, I asked the officer where I could buy a stolen phone. Unamused at my entirely serious question, she insisted I come back to "proceed with action". I'd hoped to buy my stolen phone off a shop that sells stuff back to its rightful owners. Instead, I left the police station and made a futile attempt to look around the Kariakoo grounds for my phone or its liberator. To no avail. Instead, hot with irritation at myself, I climbed into a car and headed back to the comfort of my hotel.

"Lock the doors. Put your backpack on the ground. Do not pick it up to look into it while the car is moving, and definitely do not do so while the car is stopped at a red light. This," he said, "is how we prevent theft here." I obliged while silently chastising myself. Hadn't I heard all this before? And why hadn't I heeded the warnings? In any case, this kind man refused payment of any kind for the ride from the market to my hotel. He even offered to give me his own mobile phone to make up for the fact that I'd lost mine to a thief in his country. I politely declined, humbled by his generosity.

Stay tuned for Monday's adventures where I'll go with rifle-toting officers to find the mobile-phone-liberator (we'll see how humble I'm feeling then!).

Wednesday, January 02, 2008


If I receive but one confirmation that somebody out there is reading this, I'll post some New Year's photos and a story about the predictably irritating evening.