Friday, February 26, 2010

Service Disruption

Bad news, folks. Halfling, my trusty netbook from New Zealand, has
spontaneously and mysteriously lost the use of its keyboard. This will
affect the blog, as internet and computer use in this region is
generally charged per minute. I'm trying a homebrew fix involving a
washbasin, dish washing detergent, and a ziploc bag of rice, but so
far results haven't been good. Such is troubleshooting hardware issues in
Malawi. Next few posts might be short and without photos. Or I might
get lucky. Hoping for the best...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

This Week in Zanzibar

This week was indulgence week. Joel takes a break and goes to a(nother) tropical island paradise. A Swahili music festival's finale, swimming, fresh fish and octopus, street-side mangoes, and sugarcane juice with ginger and lime were all on the menu. I even got a few precious minutes with a piano, behind a 3rd floor balcony overlooking a gorgeous sunset view. Welcome to Zanzibar.

It's a strange place, truth be told. As you can probably tell, I had a pretty good time. But not all is perfect for all. Since around Christmas, electricity was cut off from the mainland. This doesn't mean there is no electricity, it just means that there are hundreds and hundreds of generators loudly growling and belching diesel into the 300 year old facades and intricately carved wooden doors of Stone Town, as well as every other settlement on the island. It's a real problem for the residents, many of whom have no running water without electric pumps. Those who could afford generators also needed to buy lots of diesel. A lot of Mzungus and other tourists shook their heads and said how the lack of solar power and presence of the fume belching generators just went to show how the local population only thinks in the short term. I think a lot of us forget how thinking in the long term costs more money than some of these people have.

It's something I've run up against in every tourist spot. It seems like a parallel world between the lives of locals struggling to get running water in town and the tourists sipping Evian in the restaurants. As a backpacker, you end up in some weird middle ground, eating with the locals because it's far cheaper, and then spending far more than they earn per month on things like scuba diving or a boat tour. It makes the two sides hard to ignore, even if you wanted to. Life on the edge of the bubble-- It's good to pop it when you can.

We spent time in three towns: Stone Town, the biggest and oldest settlement on the island, Jambiani, a south-eastern local shallow beach with a couple resorts lining the small village, and Nungwe, a better beach up north with a lot more tourists to show for it. To give you an idea, we were first persuaded to stay in Jambiani by the reaction of two Swiss guys we shared a taxi with from Stone Town. They took one look and said they were leaving to go back north to Nungwe because Jambiani looked boring.

"I mean," one of them said, "there are people reading here." I couldn't tell from his tone if he saw this as more comparable to scratching tally marks in the side of a prison cell or to eating babies, but we got the gist and decided parting ways would make everyone happier.

We did later join them at the party beach, for Friday night (good dance party-- turns out it's a lot easier to do the moonwalk when you're standing on loose sand. Who knew?) But before that, the rest of us got to sit back, play cards and eat free fish curry by candlelight while we swapped stories. Some of the most interesting came from a Zambian guy who had taken up adventure racing, dodging venomous snakes, strict fundamentalist christian schoolmasters, and other assorted wildlife. Then later I would be sitting around the fire, chatting with volunteer nurses and medical students while some of the guys living there played bogo and djembe drums, singing, and dancing. That's when I'd start to wonder, when did this kind of thing stop becoming an exotic cultural experience and start becoming my social life?

And what happens when I come home?

I still don't have an exact end date, but the range is narrowing. I'm sitting on a plane ticket from Johannesburg to Casablanca at the beginning of April. It's the first one that's unquestionably pointed homewards. I do want to spend some time in Morocco before heading up into Spain and Portugal, but after that, if all goes to plan, my next move is across the Atlantic. Another run through Europe, maybe the British Isles, is sorely tempting, but I have been multiple times, and if there's one set of countries I can come back to later in life, it's Ireland and the UK. So that leaves one of the very few regions I haven't seen since September of 2008: the one stamped on the cover of my passport.

But in the meantime, I've got a lot of ground to cover, After long drives across gorgeous Tanzanian countryside (including a lot of giraffes and zebras), a bit of ugali and xima, and me getting crushed at checkers (I was never any good when flying kings were legal), I'm writing this far from Zanzibar on a completely different beach. A small black kitten is curled up, purring between me and my computer as I type. She lives a pretty nice life here on the shores of Lake Malawi. The length spans a big chunk of the country and its full of fish. Dinner time is soon, perhaps I should do something about those facts.

PS. just want to tell people that I'm sorry I haven't been responding to comments as usual-- internet out here in Sub-Aaharan Africa is finicky at best. Thanks for leaving the messages, and know that even if I'm not responding to all of them, I am reading them all.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Development after Death

I knew that smell, I thought. I remember that smell. I don't like it. The last time I smelled it, it was a few minutes after walking away from a tower of human skulls. It was closest I'd ever seen to evil. This must be what we smell like when we're killed and buried in crowds.

The atmosphere was entirely different this time. Instead of bones sticking up from the ground, with simple stark signs of fates being left over, I was looking at a beautiful, well manicured garden, and listening to a hand-held audio guide. At first it was only the smell and the things the guide were saying that made this different from any other garden. Perhaps a few of the unmarked slabs a couple meters square were a bit out of place as well. Until I found one with a sign saying something I'd seen before, all those months ago: 'Please don't step on the mass grave.'

Sitting in the center of one of the biggest continents on earth, Rwanda barely measures up to half to size of Scotland. Mention other countries like this to the average non-African, maybe Lesotho, Burundi, or Djibouti, and you won't see much recognition. Mention Rwanda, and you get one. An atrocity put this little land-locked dot of a country on the map.

In 1994, a population found itself divided by tribal lines highly exaggerated if not totally made up by colonial powers who had left decades ago. One side began to systematically exterminate the other. It was one of, if not the most efficient killing machines in history, slaughtering over 1 million Rwandans who either happened to have the word "Tutsi" on an ID card, or didn't but helped another Rwandan who did.

As I made my way through the memorial with the largely superfluous audio guide to my ear, I took in the story. It was not a new story for me. I'd studied this event in both high school, to learn it had happened, and college, to figure out how and why. The colonial division by the Germans and Belgians of those who owned more than this many cattle to the ruling minority, everyone else but the Twa, or pygmies, to the other. ID cards. Enforced rule of the minority over the majority. The last minute switch of power before independence. The first blood a few years later. The warning signs so blatant they couldn't really be called signs but announcements. The UN commander asking for troops and being rejected. Then the start in earnest of torture, murder, and rape on a scale only known to crimes against humanity. I could go on, but you might not forgive me.

My point was to pay my respects. See how they handled the tragedy sixteen years later. This, the main, (though by no means only) memorial pays compact and fitting homage not only to the Rwandan genocide, but a few of the other genocides in world, including the Holocaust, the Armenians, the wars of the Balkans, one I'd never heard of before in Namibia, and the one whose memorial I'd been so strongly reminded of before, Cambodia.

I studied international politics in college, hoping to make this planet a better place in a big way. I know lots of people like me from all over. We had our training, We want a better, more peaceful world. Now there I was getting a briefing on our enemy. This is genocide. This is what we're up against.

But looking around, I remembered something else I wasn't seeing in this memorial. It was back in Chicago, Pick hall, bottom floor lecture hall, Professor Stephen Wilkinson and spring quarter's course, Ethnic Conflict. We'd just put down our copies of "We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With our Families" and listened to the latest reiteration of the phrase "never again." The professor looked at his students with a pause, until one of us finally said what everyone was thinking: Darfur.

It wasn't until I was sitting in a coffee shop with an experienced photojournalist and human rights activist that I got any mention out of it. It's a situation so many people know the name of yet don't know the story. To oversimplify, the ruler of Sudan, wanted for war crimes, is backing Arab Muslim militias that are systematically killing black Muslim villages. The Rwandan genocide lasted a few months. This has been going since 2003. And once again the UN and UN Security council is hamstrung from acting. Two of its most powerful members, China and Russia, refuse to recognize the situation as genocide. Entirely coincidentally, these two also receive a massive amount of oil from Sudan.

As one of my friend's old history professors likes to say: "Remember class, history has absolutely nothing practical to teach us."

It makes me think about the places on this map of Africa that are no go zones for me. Sudan, Somalia, northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I know people who've been to all of them, the "safe parts" of them, but what they have to say is either entirely about being a tourist or isn't too encouraging. The stories out of the Congo are so horrific I don't feel comfortable repeating them here. I've never heard of a human doing anything like that to another human in real life or fiction.

But equally remarkable is how Rwanda isn't one of these places. Sixteen years after the chaos, and this ambitious little place is the most developed country I've been to in a full month. In a region where traffic police expect $2 bribes and issue tickets when they don't get them, and trash is thrown out the window anywhere you go, Rwanda is an amazingly clean and corruption-free place. The Kigali taxi-motorcycle drivers not only all have helmets, but they carry spares for their riders. Plastic bags are outlawed because of their environmental impact. I've never seen either of those things anywhere else in the world. I had one Swedish foreign service officer tell me the place is so ambitious that they keep having to be told to slow down or they'll miss steps.

And as for tribal divisions, I won't say there aren't any, but there is a very big movement to forget them. If you ask people who they are, they don't tell you Hutu or Tutsi. They tell you Rwandan. In other countries, when asked in a registration book at a hotel or border what tribe they belong to, I've seen all Rwandans put an emphatic slash through the space. They're done with the distinction.

I used to divide countries into the categories of "developed" and "developing." But I've definitely noticed that some of the latter deserve the title more than others. From my brief stay there, I'd say Rwanda deserves it fully, it's not sitting there undeveloped, it is actively developing. This will be a place to watch in the years to come, when hopefully it will be known by its successes rather than its tragic past. And maybe someday we can expect the same from some of its neighbors.

In the meantime, I've hitchhiked my way to a very different place. I wrote most of this entry sitting in the passenger seat of a 2100kg gas tanker (that's the weight when it's empty). Now I'm I'm going to the coast, and then a little bit further. At noon today, a boat sails for a place you can't say without thinking of adventure: Zanzibar.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Inside a Small Ugandan Home

I've seen some good views in my time. But this one was very good. As usual, the photo doesn't do it justice, but it gives you an idea. This is Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda. Almost on the border of Rwanda. This was the last stop of a week in the country.

This view wasn't the viewpoint the Dutch acrobat and I were headed for, but the loud, dark clouds were coming in fast behind us. So we spent a few minutes just enjoying the scene from where we were, then heading back down.

We'd been warned that the path would be slippery if it got wet. With the leaves and smooth ground, it was already pretty slippery when dry. We picked our way downhill, passing men with machetes and women with boxes and baskets on their heads going up, going home. I almost took a picture of one of the many cows I'd seen with horns big enough to pick up a small car, but the herder decided he'd want 2000 shillings. I knew I could get a better picture for free later, so I skipped it.

We passed a small family, a man with a cowboy hat, a small boy, and a tiny little girl. I complimented the man on his hat, and we each answered the same question from the little boy that all little boys and girls ask in Uganda: “How are YOU?” The only understandable answer is “fine.” We kept going, both kids watching us. The boy waved a bit and said “bye.” We smiled and said “bye” before moving on. We passed behind some trees and heard the boy yell something in Luganda or whichever local tribal language was more popular in the area (I have so much trouble keeping them all straight). A moment later, he nailed my friend's backpack with a small rock. Two or three more rocks followed, to the embarrassment and surprise of the next set of Ugandan adults we met coming up the hill.

We split up just as the rain started to come down. She'd ordered a pasta dinner at our place as a treat, having spent the last five weeks eating Ugandan food where she'd been volunteering. I ducked under a roof where I saw people with half-liter sized mugs, figuring I could get my own meal for cheap. I asked what I could get. The answer was 'porridge.' I ordered one and sat down on one of the wood benches. I answered the obligatory how are you with the obligatory fine, and talked a little more extensively with the one man there who knew some English.

Soon I had my own mug. Inside the mug was a milky brown liquid. I gingerly took a sip. The closest thing I'd ever tasted was sour mare's milk, a Mongolian specialty. Remembering what a bowl of that had done to my insides in Ulan Bataar, I put down my mug.

“Is good?” One of them asked.

“Yeah. Good.” I said. “Different.” I said.

“Different from what?” He asked, “you had porridge before?”

“Not like this.” I said.

“Ah yes. This porridge, sits four days now. You can get drunk from this porridge.”

Right. I took another couple sips to be polite, cracked a few jokes about not making it back to my place, then decided to give the mug to the man to my right, who would probably enjoy it a lot more than I would. I paid on my way out.

The rain was getting harder, cutting channels in the dirt road. I considered a shop advertising chapati from behind chicken wire and wood, then spotted some smoke coming from a nearby wooden house. It was yet another roasting pot of beans, potatoes, and plantains (known here as matoke). I asked about meat, then looked closer and realized the meat being served was either tripe or some other inner organ I didn't recognize. I asked for the basic vegetarian special. The pot was on a patch of dirt covered by a tin roof. I was invited to sit in an unlit cement and mud room next to it about the size of my closet back home.

It was dark inside, but, stepping over the pile of potatoes in the doorway, I could see a woman in an elaborate wrap and headscarf with her small boy sitting on a makeshift bench. There was a small table, and a pile of corn husks in the corner. I sat down next to the woman, nodded and said hello.

The food was heaped into the bowl, just the right amount of beans and sauce to matoke and potatoes, and was just the right temperature. The boy was finishing his portion and watched me curiously as I dug into mine. He first moved away from me, then to the side, then came to sit next to me and look up at my face. At one point, overcome by curiosity, he grabbed my calf with both hands, just below the knee, where my shorts ended. I remembered being told that people wouldn't take you seriously if you wore shorts here because no Ugandan adult would wear them.

I like kids. I always have, and I like to think I can get most kids to like me. You don't need a common language to do this, you just need to know how to play. So when he started waving his hand left and right, I mirrored him carefully, waiting for him to catch on. As soon as he did, he started giggling.

I showed him the way I could give a low whistle with my hands. He was a little young to understand when I tried to show him how to do it. So I settled for how to make the little popping noise with my middle finger and cheek my dad use to entertain me with when I was his age.

His father walked in. He saw me and said hello. His breath smelled like the porridge stuff I'd just been drinking. Turned out he knew a bit of English. It is the national language, something I'm still getting used to. He introduced himself as David and his son as Joshua, his firstborn. His wife was never mentioned or introduced, even though she was sitting less than a foot away.

I'd finished my food, and something in David's look told me he was going to ask me for money, just like so many others before him had over the past week. So I thanked him, and made to leave. But he said, no please stay, let us talk. I didn't feel I could turn that down, and anyway the rain was really going at this point.

Conversation was halting and laborious, but questions and statements came from David in slow spurts. He had six children. His youngest was named Joel, like me. This little room was his house. What did I think of his house?

I knocked a fist on the walls.

“Strong.” I said. I tried telling him about some of the mud huts with grass roofs I'd seen in Ethiopia and how here in Uganda the brick and mixed mud and cement structures with wooden reinforcement was much more durable. I don't know how much I got across.

Joshua coughed. He picked something in the back of his mouth. He coughed again, this time the something landed in his mouth. It was red liquid. Blood? His father looked a bit disgusted, and sent Joshua away.

An ear of roast corn appeared. He split it in half and gave me half. Joshua reappeared and sat down next to me, hugging my leg. After a couple bites, David split his half of corn in half and gave a piece to Joshua.

More halting conversation. David offered me porridge. I thanked him but told him I'd had some already. He talked more while I ate corn, wondering who I could split my half in half for. I ended up finishing it on my own. David then tried to get me to eat the rest of his. I insisted that he finish it himself.

He asked where I was from. I told him. And he slowly pulled out a piece of paper. I wrote my name and my home town. He looked at it and asked for a number. I gave him my voice mail number in the US. Then he asked if a letter would reach me there. He thought I'd just given a mailing address. I pulled out a notebook and asked him to give me his address instead.

He wrote down his name, David Baine, and then C/o Richard with a completely illegible last name, and then a Ugandan phone number, missing a digit. He explained that Richard was doctor in a nearby town, and that the phone number was his, not David's. He tried to explain something about “grafts” on “papyrus” and lake water that I didn't understand. He asked a neighbor who had just stopped by for a translation. Instead, the neighbor told me about his job before he left.

The rain had slowed to a trickle. David looked out and then at me.

“I live here.” He said. “This my house. I have six sons.”

“Six boys?”

“ehm. Four girls, two boys.”

“I see. Good house, good kids.” Josh was still hugging my knee and trying to make the popping noise with his finger and mouth.

“So you see.” David said. “I am not happy.”

He just looked at me, hunched over in his tiny place outside a mud road. He lived just off the shore of a beautiful lake. He was literate, but with six little mouths to feed. And the 'porridge' was talking to him.

I nodded slowly, looking at the scene. Before, I'd thought more than once that I'd wanted a picture of the perfect lighting on the potatoes and plantains on the dirt floor, but didn't feel comfortable asking for a picture. But the man's face was one of the many moments I never would have dared photograph yet wanted to keep an image of much more than some nicely lit food. Not for the beauty, but for the reminder that there are people who wear this expression every day. It's not sadness or hopelessness. It's just a blank. I am not happy. That's how my life is.

When I crashed at an aid worker's place in Ethiopia, I pulled a book of the shelf by Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank. It was about how we can eradicate poverty. One of the last chapters was all about the museums that we would create to show kids what poverty was like after we'd eradicated it. When it would be history, something our kids would never know. The picture I never took of David's face would have been just the exhibit Yunnus had in mind. Maybe if we all work hard at this, someday that's the only place we'll ever see that expression again.

But in the meantime, when I got up to pay and leave, and he asked me if I'd send something to his impossible mailing address. I didn't know what to say. I still don't.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Travel Tip: Clean Drinking Water, Anywhere

I thought about contacting the company and asking for a sponsorship deal before I posted this one, but I didn't. This is not a paid advertisement, I am under no obligation to tell you anything but the truth.

With that out of the way, I am here to recommend one of the cooler travel gadgets I've been using this trip. It's called a Steripen. It makes just about any water safe to drink, one liter at a time.

When I first heard about it, I was skeptical. But, before leaving, I asked one of the doctors in my travel clinic about it. She had nothing but good things to say. So, I found one on sale at REI (they're not paying me to write this either), four rechargeable AA batteries with a little solar charger, and I was good to go.

The Steripen looks like a plastic stick with a long lightbulb sticking out of it. The way you use it is to fill up a water bottle with a liter of water, press the button on the Steripen, wait for a flashing green LED light, and then stir it around in your water. The bulb end will light up. After you stir for a couple minutes, the bulb turns off, and the LED flashes green. The water is now safe to drink.

The way it works is that the bulb is a UV bulb. The UV radiation destroys any parasites, bacteria and viruses swimming around the water. It's the biological equivalent of boiling the water for a few minutes, only you don't have to wait for it to cool down after. The water must be clear (no dirt) for the thing to work, and you need to keep it in and stirring the for full period of time or it won't do the job. If you pull it out too early, you'll get an angry little red LED flashing and have to start over.

I have been using this device in seven continents for over a year, and I have not once gotten sick from the water it treated. I trust it with just about any tap water in the world. I will say that it doesn't make the water taste any better, but as long as the water is clear, it can treat it and drink it, (unless it's from one particular cheap hostel in Siam Reap, Cambodia, because that water tastes foul enough to make your stomach turn, even when sterilized).

Bear in mind that this doesn't do anything for water with nasty metals like lead or mercury in it. This is very rare, I've yet to run into it. More common is a few cities where they just dump too many chemicals like chlorine into the water for it to be drinkable in large quantities (so far the only ones I have had this problem with are Moscow, Istanbul, and Damascus) If you're in doubt, ask if the water would be safe to drink after boiling for a few minutes. If so, you can use a Steripen.

The only problems I've run into are with the button itself. After several months in my backpack, the button sometimes doesn't respond to the first press. I often have to try pressing it several times or pressing it very hard in just the right direction to start the thing up. But I just put that down to normal wear and tear, given what it has to go through inside my bag.

This is my answer to the problem of drinking water. The traditional method to this problem is to buy bottled water wherever you go. If you're keeping yourself properly hydrated (which you should be), this causes a huge amount of waste in plastic bottles (most of the developing world, where you'll use them most, can't recycle them). You also have to start getting paranoid about seals and whether bottles you're buying are really just old bottles being re-filled with tap water by local entrepreneurs. Finally, last, and in many ways least, while water is very cheap in places where tap water is undrinkable, it's still an expense that's nice to cut out.

So, my advice? Get a sturdy, 1-liter water bottle, and then go get yourself a Steripen. Now anywhere you have tap water, you'll have safe drinking water.

I'll use this opportunity to point out a little something on the site I'm trying out. I've labeled it (are you ready for the cheesy cheesiness?) the JTrek Store. I quietly put it up months ago on the right sidebar, but never explained it. Here's my explanation:

If you click the link to the store, you'll find a few things, including several models of Steripens. These are things that either I carry or are a lot like things I carry (smaller sizes or womens' versions for example).

You can buy them there. If you want. A very small portion of the price (1% on most items) goes to my trip. The rest goes to and their affiliates. I encourage you to use the store mostly as a reference list-- if you think you can get a better deal somewhere else, go for it. Check your local outdoor and travel stores as well as the internet.

One other thing, I can add anything you can buy on to the JTrek Store. So if, for example, there's something I've talked about that you don't see on there, feel free to suggest it, and I might add it later.

Or, if you want to buy something crazy like a Segway or a car on Amazon and feel like donating 1% of the price tag to my trip, let me know, and we'll get it on the store for you in time for purchase. I kid. Mostly.

Anyway, that's the deal behind the store. I hope it's useful to you and your adventures!

Monday, February 1, 2010


The first movie I ever saw multiple times in theaters was The Lion King. I've had the soundtrack running through my head for about a week.

When I was about the same age, maybe a few years younger, my grandparents gave me a subscription to Ranger Rick magazine, a magazine for kids devoted to nature and wildlife. Back when I was first dreaming about this trip, the main thing I wanted to see more than anything else was the different animals all around the world.

I was one of those kids that always figured there was a secret alliance between kids and animals, and that if I tried hard enough, I'd be able to talk to them. I had all these elaborate fantasies about the adventures I'd go on, talking to them all. Mostly starting with our cat, Charlotte. Charlotte never seemed very impressed by my attempts, or by my corralling her in with my stuffed tiger, Mark, who I was also sure I'd be able to talk to.

I never pulled off the Doctor Dolittle thing, but my grandmother (among others) would remark that I seemed to have a way with animals, especially cats and dogs. I can read them fairly well, and I still get made fun of by some friends for finding just about any animal kind of adorable.

So you might understand why a three-day safari in the Kenyan side of the Serengeti, the Masai Mara national park, might be kind of a big deal for me.

I won't write too much, I written a lot lately without giving too many pictures. But now that I've got a good camera again, I'm going to let the pictures do most of the talking. Enjoy!

Check out this entry's Photos.