Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Slices of Life in Africa

What do you do when you didn't take many photos during three week in Africa and the experiences are too jumbled for a complete, crafted and cogent narrative?    One writes snapshots...   
Welcome to Africa 
I'm heading up the stairs to the airport train shuttle with my duffel bag. Months of anticipation are escalating into anxiety generated by the imminent red-eye departure and compounded by rumors of lengthy immigration lines.  I know I'm at the right check in when there are no signs for Ethiopian Air and a lengthy line of African people each with a luggage cart loaded with huge, colorful cargo bags and at least one large screen LCD TV set in the bunch.  The agents finally show up an hour before the plane is due to depart and begin the check-in.  A few people  are testy and argumentative; the single African manager is scrambling to deal with a form, using carbon paper to create a duplicate,  that authorizes my credit card to be used for the ticket in addition to dealing with the overloaded and pushy people trying to get their way.    On the plane, I'm searching for a place to put my one piece of carry-on luggage amidst the stuffed bins and starting to lose patience.   The tall, ample and  imposing dada (sister) dressed in a vibrant yellow batik patterned dress with matching head scarf takes charge.  She looks in both directions for the flight attendant, puts her finders to her lips to quell any protest, and stuffs my bag into the luggage compartment in first class.  Then she asks to have my seat next to the window.

Swimming in Champagne
A dhow- photo and quote from a museum: "triangular lateen sails slung obliquely."
A dhow- photo and quote from a museum:
 "triangular lateen sails slung obliquely."
Carrie and I ventured out to Mbudya Nature Preserve for the day,  an island just off the coast from Dar es Salaam.  We take turns swimming as the tide comes in in heat of the mid-afternoon.  I'm floating in the Indian ocean, impressed by the warmth of the water as it hits the hot sand. The dhows sail offshore and the sky is punctuated by the huge cumulus clouds in a crystal blue sky.

  As I reach the shore,  a sensation emerges.  Bubbles breaking from the sand below in rows of tiny  straight lines of air fighting gravity reach the surface.  Who knows  if they are just pockets or the outgoing breath of sea creatures, but they are delicious light caresses of delight.   I have to take a few minutes to flip myself around in a rotisserie of this marine bubbly. Yippee! 

The Baobab and the Spigot 
The "hello song" in process
The "hello song" in process
We have time for a walk before our snorkeling trip on the northern coast between Tanga and Pangani, so we venture down the road for a walk to the village close to Peponi Resort where we're staying.  As we meander past goats on the porches and the mud and stick houses, a posse of pre-schoolers accompanies us to the sea. The girls are wearing faded yet colorful dresses, tattered with time and re-use.  In the center of town there is a huge Baobab tree with a single water pipe and valve underneath, the water  supply for the entire community.  The children chant "sunglasses, sunglasses" over and over again.    I try to show a high-five to the oldest girl and she cringes thinking that I'm going to hit her. I demonstrate with Carrie and then they are eager to share our enthusiasm, but shortly after become a bit annoying in their requests for pens, money and candy.
There's a dugout canoe in process, overturned just near the shore.  The boat  is built from large sections of a mango tree; the hull has graceful curves of sections fitted together and the bow is formed in a petal-like arc from wood, tools and time.  Carrie confers with the babu (grandfather) about the safety of walking from the beach back to our resort and we move on to disturb a few hermitages of ghost crabs scuttling along the way. 

The bus from Tanga to Moshi seems to stop every 15 minutes to pick up another person, but we have the premier #1 and #2  seats just behind the front door because we bought our ticket before we headed south to the resort two days ago.  Before long, Carrie has a Maasai teenager's skinny butt resting on her shoulder and there is a Mama and her three year old son sitting on a half bag of rice in the aisle next to our seats.  The boy is dressed in a matching button down shirt and shorts of shiny gold fabric. He soon gets perched on someone else's lap across the aisle and keenly looks out the front window, but as the afternoon progresses his eyelids begin to fall.  He ends up stretched across our laps, sleeping soundly. We approach Moshi and the boy awakes.  His eyes open and there's a momentary flash of shock, disbelief and wonder over these two mzungo smiling at him.  Without a peep and with visible relief, he's passed back to his rightful place and later looks at us again over his mother's shoulder.  Like many of the Tanzanian people, his face remains a mystery to me. I find myself unsure of people's reactions. Smiles don't emerge easily. 

Genitalia: the crash course
Day one of safari in the custom Landcruiser with our guide Sam,  with my mom, sister, nephew and Carrie.  On the highway, we pass a few Maasai boys dressed in black shukas and ostrich feather headdresses.  They have large circles of white paint on their cheeks.  Sam explains that they are in the circumcision ceremony, which is only held every few years for a large group of boys from the surrounding villages. They hang out close to the road to score some money from tourist photographers.   After the ceremony and the ongoing healing process, they will assume a warrior status in their tribe.  We make our way into Lake Manyara for the afternoon.  Shortly after, we encounter an large troop of baboons (not troupe ;)  and Sam points out the young male with a wound between his legs. "This is all about the battle for the dominant male position in the troop. If the younger males make a challenge and loses, the winner will rip out his testicles."  We are silent in the car, contemplating the realities of ecosystems and culture.  

The Baboons of Ngorogoro
We pull up to the retro cement archway at the visitor center of the Ngorogoro Crater, one of northern Tanzania's most frequented wildlife viewing destinations and protected status since 1959.   There's another troop of baboons in the parking lot, keeping to the sidelines amid scads of groups, vehicles and guides paying admission to the park.  On a quick visit to the restroom, I'm a bit chagrined to find western seated toilets, each clogged with toilet paper.  I'm not sure whether this is evidence of an inability to use the persnickety African toilets or the baboons having a field day.  The exhibits in the Visitor Center are tattered, old photos connected to torn paper captions by strings re-glued to the poster board multiple times. The diorama exhibit of the crater has paint worn off from where the hand carved wooden pointer shows the descending road into the crater.   As we enter the park, Barb asks, How much was the admission fee Sam?"   "It costs $560." He says, resignedly.  I do some quick math from the parking lost estimates and admit that the annual revenue to the country would be staggering.  "The guides had a strike last year because the Conservation Authority wouldn't fix the road. It was dangerous and we had to do something. He elaborates over the next while  giving us an animated briefing on Tanzania's political history and current system.  Managed under Socialist principles under the leadership of Julius Nyerere's (whose image is in nearly every establishment) until the mid-80s,  Tanzanian government has since become far less egalitarian.  Those in power, elected wearing uniforms or conducting desk jobs, will often line their pockets to "facilitate" the process.

"Holy Mother of God", 
Sam exclaims as the Landcruiser glides to a gentle halt in the middle of the Serengeti grasslands.   We all look to the large acacia  tree on the right and start counting the brown shapes on the way up to 12.  "I've never seen anything like this before" Sam says, "The Serengeti lions aren't supposed to climb trees."  But here they are, with a young male perched on the lowest crook of the tree trying to get comfortable.  He ends up with his hindquarters higher than his head and we are giggling in the truck as he shifts from his obviously uncomfortable position and nearly loses his balance.  This is the joy of wild places, listening to the crickets, the breeze and the birds.

Where am I?
I'm taking over for my sister for the night shift around 9pm.  My 77 year old mother has an unexplained high fever, escalated in a mere two hours.  Sweaty and delirious,  she wakes every ten minutes with the same five questions: Where am I, Where's George?  Where's everyone else?  How long have I been like this?  How did I get here?  
Gong rock. Maasai people used this as a call to gather for regional meetings.
Gong rock. Maasai people used this as a
call to gather for regional meetings.

In the long tropical night on the shores of Lake Natron on the Kenya border where there are no maps that show the roads and many kilometers from any professional medical help,  I am wracked with questions about our futures.  I pour cool water on a towel and place it on her forehead. After another dose of Tylenol, she finally sleeps in the wee hours. 

In the morning, the fever has broken but as we get dressed she doesn't recognize her eyeglasses as her own. Barb and I confer, pack her up, get some breakfast and Sam make tracks back to Arusha.  Mom's relieved we're on schedule and assumes the position in the co-pilot's seat, but the drive back around the last part of the loop is like beginning the trip all over again as her memory of the entire safari seems to have dissipated overnight.  By the next day, she's able to make the 36 hour flight back to the states with Barb and I holding our breath that the long journey doesn't create any complications. (Incidentally, all is well now. We'll never know what happened internally.)

Back in Dar es Salaam, the bajaj driver called at 8:40 am to say that he picked up another fare and was on his way elsewhere, even though Carrie had arranged it with him just 45 minutes ago.  Ever the prepared, she whips out her phone and calls young Chuto to give me a ride in his three wheeled cab to the ferry terminal for Zanzibar.  The traffic is heavy, my throat begins to constrict with the exhaust and I'm worried about making the boat.  With no time to spare, we pull into the dock area and are immediately surrounded by a mob of predatory touts, each eager to sell me a ticket. 

Chuto looks at me with horror and both of us have our palms faced outward, trying to quell the ruckus of demanding shouts; neither one of us anticipated this.  He picks a guy,  walks me to their door and I thank him as he makes his way back to his vehicle.  Then the tall ticket seller kicks into gear.    There's two old people  seated in the office, a single metal desk with only a calculator.  "Madam, the ticket is  75,000 shillings."  "No, it's not. I should be 55,000." and we discuss back and forth for a while.  "Port fees Madam."  And as I reach for my phone to demonstrate the conversion in a last ditch effort to win, I realize I've been scammed and I cave, a better alternative to returning back out into that human maelstrom and finding the ferry's official ticket office on my own.    He finally brings the printed ticket, escorts me to the dock gate carrying my luggage and asks for a tip for the service.  Disgruntled, I leave him on the other side of the gate and make my way to the deck, happy to be sailing off to Zanzibar.  The ocean breeze and crystal blue sky are a great buffer against those who try to exploit.

At the Zanzibar Museum.
At the Zanzibar Museum
We arrive and the  departure from the boat was smooth and welcoming.  I explore this ancient trading city, take in the museum and go for a walk.  Over the remainder of the afternoon, I'm invited, beseech-ed, shown artwork, chatted up,  and misled until just after sunset, where I watch the boys diving off the seafront park walls.  In the encroaching darkness, I find my way back through Stonetown.  The walls are high, a labyrinth of "streets" that feel like alleys.  In my alone state, it feels dark and somewhat menacing.  I find the hotel, stumble my way through the front door and up the stairs to the breezy rooftop deck to settle down.  I find myself crying a bit, overwhelmed and a little confused, weeping into a hanky that's already damp from mopping up the day's perspiration.  Simultaneously in the next few moments, the lights all flicker on and children's shouts arise from the streets below.  With the understanding that I wasn't completely nuts,  I giggle to myself in the absurdity of my overactive mind trying to comprehend a complex environment..

Way Stations 
Carrie fixes me a wonderful lunch of chewy mshkaki in curry sauce and some sauteed greens after I'm showered, packed and waiting for the driver to take me to the airport.

This simple meal, so similar to one I would prepare for myself, is rich and meaningful after three weeks of restaurant food.  Carrie and I reminisce about the "Tin Casa", her mobile home in Boulder where I spent man a night in my travels.  We've seen each other through many life stages over the past 20 years.   Throughout all of my travels, Carrie's home (wherever she is) has been a place to get grounded, resupplied and renewed for the next adventure.  Our friendship is a deep well of strength, affinity and giggly humor.
The Serengeti.
The Serengeti.

As I headed to the hostel on the  arctic-cool subway in Bangkok, I felt a tangible sense of relief after leaving Africa. While Carrie's translation abilities and extroverted nature were a conduit for cultural understanding and  facilitating transit and my family's participation reassuring, I felt the constant presence of an internal discomfort over the month.  My blood sugar remained high despite taking measures to correct it.  The heat, safety issues and logistics prohibited much physical activity.  The moments of relaxation and peace were rare: my senses, intellect and emotional self were flexed on many levels.   Many of my assumptions about community development, social structures and human nature were tested;  I lost my naivete in the realities of poverty, aggressive commerce (a glance at an item would engage a transaction) and the realities of my wealth.   Yet. the incredible process of how all creatures evolve to their environment and continue to adapt for survival is awesome.  On one day in Ngorogoro, we watched the dung beetle roll its dung-wrapped bundle of eggs across the road.  Pushing its progeny with its hind legs, the bettle takes incremental steps to secure the its future with the providence of luck against many mighty forces. 
Team Tanzania (L-R). Sam, Mom, Me, sister Barb, nephew Drew and Carrie.
Team Tanzania (L-R). Sam, Mom, Me, sister Barb, nephew Drew and Carrie.

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