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.