Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Merry Christmas from the DR Congo!

Night was falling as we hoped onto the motorbike. While we were not really supposed to go out at night this was a special occasion and we were just going 15 min away to the church. As we would up a small dirt road lined with pine trees we could hear a chorus of children’s voices singing. As we parked the bike and walked towards the brick church the chorus was almost a roar. As we walked through the wooden doors we were surrounded by about a thousand jubilant voices. In the midst of singing and dancing children were immediately taken aback and delighted as we made our way to an open pew. As we joined in with the singing and clapping we were surrounded by hundreds of children gazing at the Muzugus dancing and some pulling at our clothes. We were immediately the main attraction and as the majority of the congregation turned away from the priest ending the Christmas Eve mass we felt badly that we were the distraction. As the service ended there was no end in sight for us we were still on full display. At least next time we know to walk into the front of the church so that people look at the priest too!

When we were finally able to make our way outside we went to greet the priest a friend of Amy’s. We were invited back to their quarters to have a beer with the priests and the nuns. As we entered the sitting room we sat on chairs covered in green and white doilies like my grandmother used to make. The fireplace was adorned by a huge pine wreath and four banana plants. As, we sat back and shared a “Primus” (the local beer) with the priest I figured he must not be to upset with our distraction at the end of mass.

We spent a while speaking with the nuns and the brothers. They were joking about their students at the school. They told us there was a children’s services and that we should come back in the morning. Really? Don’t you care that we are distracting them? “No it is great it makes them excited for you to come sing and dance”. We agreed and bid them a goodnight.

Christmas morning we were greeted with wonderful omelets and I treated myself to some of my Starbucks reserves (yes I am drinking coffee again). This time we sat off on foot for the church 20 min away. Along the path everyone was dressed in his or her Sunday best. Boys in oversized silver suits and girls in beautiful dresses. Children gawked and laughed with glee when we yelled local greetings. At the church our plan was for Amy to go into the front and for me to slip quietly into the back to film. The two hour mass was still going strong and we could hear the voices singing at the top of their lungs as we entered. The plan did not go quite as expected and before I could even set up my gear I had become the main attraction at the back of the church. As nuns shooed the children and pulled them back to their benches one of the sisters we had met the night before pleaded with me to go to the front of the church to film. That way the children would look at the priest! I obliged her and set up my gear at the front of the church. It was another hour of a very kind and humorous priest serving communion to hordes of children as alter boys and girls danced. It was the most fun and dynamic church function I had ever been to. Children of all ages with almost no adults. Five year olds with infants strapped to their back. Crying three year olds being comforted by only slightly older children and a few teenagers for good measure.

Filming in the middle of the isle I turned around unexpectedly found myself in the middle of the alter kids dancing on either side of me as they headed up the isle back to the alter. Unsure what was really going on one of the nuns headed over to the manger flanked with banana trees and lifted something into her arms. Instantaneously, a few hundred children ran to the front of the church to catch a glimpse of the baby Jesus she was cradling in her arms and the other 700 continued to just stare at us. After about 20 min I made it out of the church to find Amy surrounded by ½ of the congregation. She was leading them in a round of “We wish you a Merry Christmas”. They thing I love about the kids in Congo is that they are so thirsty to interact with people from another place so curious about your skin, your voice, your hair, and what you may pull out of your bag. It is probably how wild apes feel when tourists take their binoculars and cameras to just go stare at them. Temped to pull out the Aerobie I feared a stampede. We settled on trying to form a circle to do a round of the Hokey Poky. Organizing the children turned out to be impossible with out the help of the nuns. We abandoned the Hokey Pokey plan and someone pulled out a drum. Two older girls stepped forward and began to drum as the children sang. They were performing for us! We stayed for 20 more min to listen to the drumming and singing before we decided it was time to head home.

As we passed “the monument” we were greeted by our friend John de Noel – Johnny Christmas- dressed head to toe in his boy scout uniform and ranger hat! He had just opened up a restaurant and wanted to invite us for a Coca Cola. His restaurant consisted of one wall of about 20 – 14’ high poles, draped with a white tarp the read “UNHCR Refugee” for the roof. As we sat at the plastic table and chairs (undoubtedly from china) children gathered to stare from all directions. I felt terrible drinking a Coke in front of them, but I am sure if we offered to buy them one we would end up paying for about 1,000 Cokes! We stayed and chatted with Johnny, stared at the kids, played some Aerobie, and were ushered home by a little parade of children. We bid them a safe journey home when we reached the path to our cabin and headed home to feed the baby monkey.

As night is falling again in the Congo, echoes of children’s laughter and the singing from another church service are drifting into my room. The Congo is such a different place than I expected. While I miss my family I am so happy to have experienced Christmas here. In the midst of a civil war, starvation, a corrupt and crumbling government, multiple rebel armies, and a no mans land where men can do whatever they like with no repercussions there is an almost overwhelming amount of joy and lust for life. The people of the DR Congo have greeted me with open arms, laughed with us, boldly show me the good and bad of their country, and it has been a pleasure and honor to share Christmas with them in this small mountain village.


The next morning after some Wheatabix and coffee we head off on foot to go meet with a group of rape survivors. Unsure what to expect, I was very worried that we were clear I was only there to photograph if they wanted. As we walked to the traffic circle in the middle of the village to “the monument” we were greeted by a jubilantly plump African woman draped in a colorful pagne, her name is Mama Marceline. After Amy established that I am an American who does not speak French we walked further down the road to a mud brick hut. She showed inside the thatched roof hut.

I ducked as I entered the wooden doorway. Inside there was a small sitting area with a mud floor, directly to the right half the space was taking for a fire and cooking. And to the left and elevated shelf covered in thin sticks for firewood with a sleeping area below. The air inside was heavy with the sent of damp earth and smell of the black soot from cooking fires that covered the walls. We crouched on four wooden stools as our eyes adjusted from the daylight to the dark of the hut. I could just make out the outline Amy and Mama Marceline faces from the bright daylight that poured through the small doorway. After some time, Amy explained that we were going to be meeting with 18 survivors and their children who were born as a result of the rape. Without asking I pondered how 18 people were going to fit inside the space already filled by six of us. But after seeing how many people they could fit into a Dalla-Dalla (refer to older post) I knew anything was possible.

As the women arrived Amy and Mama Marceline went outside the hut to greet them and give then an overview of what was going to happen. Essentially, they said we are here today to meet with you to hear your story and we cannot guarantee help, but we will try. Then for a reason lost on Mama Marie, we let them know that it was their choice to be photographed and that it was in no way related to them receiving assistance. Mama Marie told them that I was a journalist (well kind of) from the United States and that I was here to learn about what was going on in the Congo. She asked the women if they agreed to be photographed and a chorus of voices firmly agreed. They wanted to be photographed and taped. Then Mama Marie turned to me and Amy translated, “Please you must promise to return home and do something with these photos so that people know the problems we have in Congo”.

A bit surprised by the unanimous consent, but I was happy to offer a tool the women of DRC to make sure thier voice is heard by those around the world. Overwhelmed with the responsibility that had just been placed on me the interviews began. For four hours one woman after another entered the small hut in groups of three with their children. As Amy interviewed each survivor and Mama Marie translated I snapped photos, recorded audio, and collected video. After a few hours instead of the line of women and children crowding the doorway appeared to be growing not shrinking. In and our of the hut taping and shooting stills. I could not keep up with the train of women. They all wanted to be photographed and waited insistently until I had taken their photo after the interview. If I stayed inside to tape the women all would clarify with Mama Marie please I want her to come outside and take my photo too. When I would finally emerge from taping testimony inside, there was one woman who pointed out all of the women waiting to be photographed. I think it was their chance to finally tell someone they felt may be able to make a difference. Two Muzugus from America. As I met the women some of them posed defiantly, some of them offered a shy smile, and some of them still had a vacant look in their eyes as if it was less painful to just check out from reality for a time. But all of them smiled and laughed when they saw their image on the review screen of my camera. I was proud that I could offer them some kind of voice and only hope that I can help do them justice when I return to the states.

Since the interview was conducted in French and translated into Kinande (the local language) Amy debriefed me afterwards. The oldest survivor was 75, one young woman had been raped by 10 soldiers, another had TB, and the ones who had been married no longer had husbands because they had abandoned them after the rape. While many of them did not know their rapist they could easily guess which military they were from because they remembered the language the rapist had been speaking. The stories of tragedy went on and on, but what I cannot forget was the joy, friendship, and laughter I witnessed amongst the women. After all they had been through it is readily apparent they still have a joy for the future.

Unfortunately, the future does not look so bright. There is no end in sight for their problems or their daughters. Every time they go to the fields they risk being raped, but they must feed their children. Any man (civilian or soldier) can escape the consequences of being a rapist if he just pays the mayor a few dollars. Until the women of the DR Congo are heard and supported by the rest of the world this will go on.

It is so important for the world to take note of what is happening to the women of Congo, to collect evidence for these crimes against humanity, but as of now NO ONE is listening.

The Democratic Republic of Congo

Up early the next morning I thought I would have ample time to make it to my meeting across town. However, I had not counted on the extra time it would take to go in a car. It really sucks to show up to a business meeting with what are for all practical purposes temporarily all my worldly possessions (on my back), but I did not have much choice since I was really going to be pushing it to get to the airport on time. Frantically looking for a car a “private hire taxi” said sure I can take you now for $20,000 shilling. You have to be joking me, but yet again I was in a pinch and the classic Mzungu squeeze took a few more dollars from my shrinking coffer. By the time I arrived to the building for my meeting I was officially 20 min late…good think I am in Africa where things seem to run on a much looser timetable. What I did not expect was to get a full bomb check of both of my bags, I guess as a result of the bomb that had gone off the day before on a bus.

Luckily, when I greeted the secretary she let me know the guy I was meeting was still in another meeting. As I put down my enormous bags I tried to somewhat compose myself as I prepared to enter a business meeting in traveling clothes, flip flops, and no makeup. At least I had brushed my hair for the occasion! The meeting went amazingly well, but by the time we were done I was an hour past schedule for being at the airport.

I still had not purchased my ticket because the counter is only open at 10am the day the plane actually fly’s and I still had a minimum 45 min drive in front of me to get there. When we got to the airport I had to get out and be inspected at two check points (the bomb scare again) and then the taxi could only take me to the furthest general parking area because no cars were allowed to drive next to the entrance. After dashing across the parking lot with my pounds of gear and up two flights of stairs I finally spotted the TKM office. As I approached the desk I was scolded for showing up so late as the man (again upset I did not speak French) wrote out my ticket. When the money was due it turned out the ticket price had doubled from what I had been told and it was only ONE WAY! Yikes. No other choice I dolled out some more money and he took and extra $10 for helping me out. But really none of this dampened the high I was on. I have wanted to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo for such a long time and after years of thinking about it I was finally going.

Now I know there are a lot of people who just cannot fathom why I would want to go to such a place. I have thought long and hard about this myself. I guess it comes down to this. I personally cannot fathom what is happening to the women and people for the DRC. Since 1998 an estimated 5.4 million people have died here as a result of war (and the chaos it causes) and over 1,000 women a month are raped (and those are only the ones who actually come forward). On a human level I struggle to understand why this is all happening. Is it just a struggle for power or greed or minerals or total decay of humanity? That said, it is also a bit of a personal challenge. I have journeyed almost to the end of the earth, but never anyplace like the DRC, an active war zone for all practical purposes. The only thing I can compare it to is someone wanting to climb Everest or someone wanting to become a big wave surfer. I would say the only difference is not solely for personal edification; I also want to see firsthand and try to tell the story of what is here. The trick with riding any big wave is to have a plan, be confident, wax your board well, relax, and know that ultimately I am not in control.

To me the challenge of traveling to the DRC and trying to work here is my first attempt at riding a 50-foot wave.

But as I boarded the flight and I watched as we crossed the lake that separates Uganda and the DR Congo I felt like a kid in a candy store. As we flew over the vast green rolling hills and then jungle I saw jagged green mountains and plunging waterfalls. I felt like I have stumbled onto a lost Eden. Pretty soon I could see rural villages connected by a road, but houses separated by miles of fields. I was beginning to get a glimpse at why it is so hard to secure the DRC. Vast swaths of untamed jungle, rural villages dotting the hillside, and everyone in a while a larger “town” with red dirt roads that snaked across the landscape lined by shacks with corrugated tin roofs for miles. This was the Africa I had dreamed of not the tourist lined streets of Zanzibar. I could not believe my fortune that my friend Jamie’s husband’s cousin (still with me?) happened to be working in a remote village in N. Kivu and after several discussions she had agreed to help me get a letter of invitation. This is where I am meant to be I can feel it. And even before the plane landed on the first red dirt runway so we could change to a smaller plane I pondered how I could extend my visa.

At the first stop I had to go through immigration. A small room that had definitely not been updated since the 40’s two workers feverishly hand wrote on printer paper names and passport numbers. Both papers looked illegible. The woman was writing on her paper vertically and the man horizontally. The information was completely disorganized and I would assume useless. I could not help but imagine what the room full with stacks of this paper, that some bureaucratic must have decided was a good idea, must look like. I doled out another passport photo and $20 more dollars hoping I was about done paying for my visa!

I boarded a smaller “bush plane” with a pretty salty Canadian pilot and a young American co-pilot. After they made a few jokes about how I will not need my motorcycle helmet for the flight the older pilot handed his business card. He was sure to let me know he was going to be visiting Butterbur within the next few weeks and that I should call him. Quite sure I was not going to take him up on his offer to have a drink, I did stash his business card in a safe place. I figure it cannot hurt to have the direct email to a bush pilot in the DR Congo.

As the plane hit the ground in Butterbur animals and I am sure people had to clear the path. Surprisingly the runway was lined with a series of lean-to houses and people were laying on the grass outside of their homes 10 feet from the runway. As I disembarked the cool air filled my lungs and a man ran to greet me. He had a sign that said, “Sarah Fretwell Bon Vien COPERMA”. Apparently a foreigner at this airport is quite a rare site and the entire airport was waiting for me asking if I was the American coming to work. I was escorted to immigration (again) and after the gruff man scolded me for coming to his country and not speaking French he stamped my passport and bid me a good stay.

The young very excited and friendly man who greeted me was named, “Hagni”. Immediately inundating me with questions French, he seemed downtrodden when I told him I did not understand. He changed to English and told me this was a big problem I needed to learn French pronto and that he would teach me. As we walked to the COPERMA car he began spouting multiple line sentences in very fast French and then would stop and stare waiting for me to repeat them. This went on for 5 minutes before he got the drift that he may need to use shorter sentences. Wanting to take in the scene around me it was all I could do to grasp what he was saying and attempt to repeat it since he was so eager to teach. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw the red dirt roads, burned tires, cement buildings and corrugated tin shacks, garbage filled gutters, and people everywhere.

By the time we made it to the COPERMA office he was determined to help me learn the entire French language that day. And then about an hour before I was able to convince him to write down a few words and only speak in phrases. And so my French lessons continued for a few hours. Just about fried from the language lesson I pulled out a photo from SB of Michael and myself and my Godchildren. Now I am sure that people here have Godchildren, but attempting to explain in English that no I am not married and I did not actually give birth to these kids and the guy in the photo is my boyfriend not my husband seemed to baffle Hangi.

The young woman I was meeting in the DR Congo, Amy Ernst, was still at a village taking supplies to a group of women who had recently been raped. As I checked the time and noticed the sun going down her words from a recent email rang in my ears,
“promise we will never be in Butterbur or anywhere close after 6pm”. The thing about the DR Congo is that during the day it seems like a typical third world town. People hawking their goods, tending to their fields, and cars running pedestrians off the pothole laden road. But from dusk till the early morning hours when it is dark outside, that is when the DRC becomes dangerous. Totally off the grid with only some generators soldiers and armed militias are able to move easily under the cover of night. When they have not been paid or when they are drunken robbing houses, raping women, and killing whoever gets in their way. Not really sure how far away we were staying from Butterbur or how late it was safe to stay I felt calm, but hoped that Amy was back in cell reception soon so we could figure out a plan.

With 15 min to spare the entire COPERMA team that had been in the village entered the room and jubilantly greeted me. Amy had given me the heads up that they were so excited to have a visitor they had been taking about my arrival for weeks and practicing their English greetings in the car. Finally at 6:15pm we headed out of town and bumped down the red dirt road into the forest. Amy lives with the Crosiers (Priests and Brothers from the Catholic Church) in a smaller village ½ hour up the road. Quite a lucky and somewhat exclusive location they have their own property with three night watchmen and the protection of being with the Catholic Church. As we drove down the pine tree lined driveway and over a small rock bridge I felt more like I was going to a summer camp in the hills of Holland than the Congo. Complete with three meals a day, hot running water, a cabin like wood lined room with a desk, and an excellent wireless internet connection (thanks to the electricity from a private hydroelectric plant) this was the most koosh place I have stayed yet! All in the Jungle of the DRC for only $7 a day. Maybe this will help make up for all those bribes I had to pay.

Tired from the few days of travel, but happy to be here Amy gave me the lay of the land and introduced me to all of the Brothers. They live a quiet life teaching classes in the community, preaching, and a lot of time praying. While they have welcomed us to their house nothing is expected of us we do not have to wake up to pray at 6am and joining the family style dinners is optional. I could go on about the combination of brothers for a few pages. Old ones, young ones, tall, short, pudgy, black, and white. Let’s just say they are a mishmash of cultures and personalities all living in one small community. The two find the most humorous is Father Jon. He is 82 and from Holland. He has quite a sense of humor and always pretends to trip whenever he serves me at dinner like he is going to spill it on me. He also forgets mid sentence that I do not speak French and will switch from telling me a story in English and end it in French. I think I catch the drift most of the time. The other is a very sweet Congolese brother from Kinshasa. He is just good natured and easy to talk to. The first dinner with them was quite entertaining and by the time I had a beer I was ready to retire for the evening. Now you may think that I would be nervous my first night in the DR Congo, but knowing that there were two guard dogs, three night watchmen, and the power of the pope on our side I slept like a baby. Until the sheep started bleeding for its babies outside of my window at 4am!

The first morning in the crisp mountain air was a refreshing change from sweating my everything off in Tanzania. At 10am we set off for our first of may motorbike rides on the bumpy red dirt roads and headed to Butterbur ½ hour away. It was a market day and the road was lined with hundreds upon hundreds of people carrying their goods and pushing heavily burdened bicycles loaded with every from a stack of plantains 12 feet tall to goats strapped to the tops of bundles of firewood. Amy was the lead motorcycle on her dirt bike and I followed behind with my trusty moto driver and helmet! The hands down best part of the ride was watching people reactions when they saw Amy a white woman with blonde hair zoom past on her dirt bike. Needless to say women do not drive bikes here and as you have guessed by now we are the only Americans for miles. Talk about rubbernecking. Adults and children caught off guard at the site of a Mzungu speeding past and driving her own bike was enough to turn some peoples heads 180 degrees. The look of shock and the stares were priceless. Pretty soon we began to pass school children in uniforms and in unison little voices would give a cheer. I wanted to keep the red dirt out of my mouth, but the whole scene was so funny I could not help but laugh out loud for most of the trip.

Watching Amy bounce down the road on her motorbike made me realize what a stunningly humble one woman power house she is. After seeing Eve Ensler’s Virginia Monologues and seeing a piece on the Congo she decided she wanted to work in the DR Congo. Her godmother connected her to the Crosiers, she found a place to stay, quite her job, and came to the Congo. She learned French, some of the local dialects, she listens to stories of Rape for hour on end and in all of her interactions greetings people with sincere friendship, humor, a listening ear, and compassion. For her it is all just a typical day.

At COPERMA they had a business day of catching up and taking notes. Amy took me on a tour of the town. She showed me the medical facility where they take survivors for exams, blood testing, the morning after pill, and whatever else they need. As we entered it was obvious that some of the girls in the waiting area were survivors. There is this look on their face and in their eyes that is quite haunting. Their eyes have such depth, but the look is quite hollow like things are too painful so they have checked out. We gave a local greeting to them which made them laugh and we headed up to meet the psychologist who works at the hospital.

Back outside the streets were bustling with vendors selling everything form plastic toys made in china, to your dads ski jacket that he donated to goodwill in the 80’s. People were surprised to see up walking around what when we yelled “Wahey” the local what’s up they would erupt with laughter and see us as a little more legit. After getting lost for a bit Amy took me to another medical facility that was the opposite end of the spectrum. A treatment facility for the mentally ill which is sometime the only option for women who are so traumatized from the rape that they cannot return home and function in everyday life.

The cement building looked as if it had been painted once years ago and never cleaned. There were people everywhere crowded into miserable rooms with people on beds close enough that if you rolled over you would hit the other person. People so Thorzined out that they could barely speak or were just rocking in place. It was a tragic place that you can only take for a few minutes because every ounce of you being just wants to leave. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to live there. We went back to COPERMA to discuss what projects I could see and help work on while I am here. We agree that I should see all of the project sites: Child soldier rehabilitation, the girl mothers (girls who have been raped and have a child), survivors of sexual violence, and the communities that are serving as their foster communities. They think it is important for me to see everything and photograph it all. “We want you to take pictures and show people in your country so they will know the problems and great need we have here”.

This small organization is made up of such amazing local people spearheaded by Mama Marie. Most of the people there have already told me they love their job. They are the bright and driven younger generation who want to effect the future of their country. Every time I walk in the room they like to practice the bit of English they know and then erupt in laughter at each other. Everyone keeps saying I am so happy to meet you I am so happy you are here.

Kampala, Uganda

Red dust covered my cheeks as the “private hire” taxi zoomed down the road. On the radio was the Christmas classic “Hark the Herald Angles Sing” recomposed into any easy listening version with synthesizers. Compared to the repressed feeling I had in Tanzania this was a relief. Women wearing tank tops and girls wearing the latest fashions revealing their knees. Cement shops and outdoor clothing stalls lined the street. The outside of the store looked as if it had been purchased by a specific company for advertising. One shop was entirely banana yellow and had the Bic Razor label. Another a powder blue with bubbles was for a washing detergent called “Omo”. Yes, advertising and consumerism seemed alive and well. The atmosphere was one of thriving progress. So many locals and expats everywhere walking to the markets and shops. The main roads are paved, but the sidewalk is dirt. There is meat to sell, but the butcher shop is in a wooden shack. Cars clogged the paved streets and motorcycles whizzed by on any free inch of flat land. Billboards for home loans, holidays to the Seychelles’s, and birth control lined the streets. Any free space in the median or on telephone poles was taken by the cell phone companies lifestyle campaigns proclaiming they have the best coverage and service for your life. Through my western filter I could already see the humor mixed with advertising slogans written in very literal English. One restaurant was called, “Good Restaurant & Bar” and another “Normal Food”. I could not help, but smile…it is kind of fun to be in another country where people speak English and have a rough idea of what is going on for a change.

Eventually I got to my hostel, the Red Chilli. It was your standard semi-clean backpacker hostel with travelers from around the world. On the first night after the Sunday BBQ the hip-hop and reggae thumped you could have mistaken it for a house party in Sacramento. So many Americans and Europeans it was like I had stumbled onto the mzunugu trail with one exception; most of them were doing really cool work. A group of dental students from New Jersey pulling teeth in rural villages, a young woman from Vancouver working as a teacher, two engineers from Vancouver Island building wells, and the list goes on. I was surprised to be in a hostel where at least ½ the people were doing some kind of long-term job or volunteer work. I met people while sharing community dinners. I had a fun time listening to their projects and where they had been. I put off saying much about what I was doing. At some point a person from their group would always ask. I would casually say, “I am going to the DR Congo” then would follow a long pause and awkward silence, “well good luck with that”. Others would immediately indicate a level of respect like wow you are going there you must be an old pro at this aid work stuff. All the time I was not really sure what to think. Do I really have any idea what I am getting myself into? No. Hope I make it.

I had come to Kampala with the lofty goal of attaining my visa for the DR Congo in less than 24 hrs, securing a plane ticket for the small bi-weekly commuter flight into Butemebo (Congo), try to find a hard drive to replace the one that had crashed, and squeeze in a business meeting with a non-profit I hope to do a job for. Lofty goals I tell you when you are trying to figure out where everything is and understand an entirely new place, luckily I was in a predominately English speaking country.

At 9am the next morning against my better judgment I climbed on back of a motor taxi (it was ½ the price of a car and 2x’s as fast) and headed to the Democratic Republic of Congo consulate. Worried the visa process may be hard I tried to have all of my ducks in a row. Passport, check. Letter of invitation, check. Money, check. Two passport photos, check. As I walked into the cement building with glassless windows I felt as if I had walked into a building in Africa in the 1940’s. A quick trip to the toilet revealed no electricity, no running water, a crumbling toilet, and of course no T.P. Wow if this was any indication of what the DR Congo was like I was in for a Haiti repeat. As I stepped to the up to the counter I was greeted in French. When I replied in English that I did not speak French and that I needed a visa they were quite skeptical. I tried the old I am from “Obama Land” joke and that seemed to entertain them.

After a few minutes of no one really telling me what the heck was going on they gave me a slip and told me to go to the bank and pay, meaning I had to go to the bank and directly deposit the cash into their account before I could begin the process. I said ok, but you have not told me anything about the visa. How much does it cost and how long is it for? I guess the idiotic and helpless American they told me like I should already have telepathically known that information and escorted me to another mototaxi who knew where the bank was. After 45 minutes at the bank I returned. I showed them the slip and asked to complete the paperwork. They told me to wait. Then when they asked for the photos I realized I had forgotten them at the hostel. It was already eleven and the woman told me you need this the same day? You have to be back before noon with the photos and you need to pay us $50 for helping you get your visa by the end of today. I asked if I could fill out the papers and they could start working on it while I got the photos. No. That is not possible. “Can you show me where it says I need to pay $50”, I asked? She said, “No it is just for us in the office for helping you out”. I said, “Well my boss will not let me pay for anything unless I can see it on paper and get a receipt”. She said, “That is not possible. We are helping you get your visa today for your flight tomorrow”. Ok, “I need a receipt or I cannot pay, my boss will think you are bribing me”. Try as I might there was no way around it. If I wanted on the bi-weekly flight that left the next morning, I had to pay. They knew they had me. The classic Mzungu squeeze. Slightly pissed off I left again to retrace my steps go get my photos and find some more money for the bribe. As I left the security guard who was also named Sarah scolded me for not bringing her sweets after my last return and to be sure I brought something for her this time.

And so the day progressed. By the end of the day I had spent $30 USD on motor taxis (a pretty penny in Kampala), shockingly I had found a Western Digital 1 terabyte HD (to replace the one that had crashed), kind of secured my plane ticket for the next day, purchased a motorcycle helmet for the DR Congo, and rescheduled my meeting with the non-profit for early the next morning.

After eating dinner and frantically separating out my gear (what I would leave in Kampala and what I would take) I could not wait to crawl under my mosquito net in my tent with a full on twin bed on a wooden frame inside. Without enough energy to even worry about what may lay ahead I drifted off to sleep with a smile on my face knowing I was setting out for a real adventure.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

“You Like Have Baby [On] Pemba?”

Excited to have found such an unblemished (by tourism) little island we were very happy with our time on Pemba. Now versed in the craziness of the ferry we arrived to the port early and took two command posts. One of us was in charge of getting good seats and the other of putting the bags onto the luggage area. As a waited next to a huge bunch of bananas, sacks of cloves, and some industrial wheel barrels I was surrounded by young men. Now everyone is friendly and you are obliged to go through the whole Jambo mambo jumbo, but a lot of times the younger guys just use it as an excuse to hit on you. Not wanting to be rude I replied with the usual singsong conversation…

Me - “Hello. How are you? …yes your island is lovely…you are very fortunate to live here it is such a nice place”.

Guy - “Where you come from?”

Me - “I am from Obama Land (what we have began to call the USA).”

Guy – “Oh haha Obama Land very good we are friends. [Pause] So you like have baby Pemba?”

Me – [Excuse me] “What?”

Guy - “You like have Baby Pemba?”

All I could think was God NO I do not want to have a baby on Pemba and especially not with you! But instead I ended the conversation with a stink eyed “Umm…No Thanks”.

Pleased to have gotten off the beaten track things had suddenly just got a little too local. I bid my suitor a good day. Threw my bags on board and pushed my way through the hoards of people to find Jamie sweating in line.

As we left the dock I was happy that I was leaving Pemba with nothing more than some great photos and a few mosquito bites.

Off the Beaten Track


After 19 days we have wondered into a place where babies stare at you and little kids cry in fright or delight at the sight of you. Mzungu, Mzungu (white, white) it is easy to tell when people are talking about you, but not exactly what they are saying. As we walk down the road around dusk a chorus of little kids voices yell “Jambo” until we are out of sight. A three hour ferry ride from Zanzibar, Pemba is a world away. The island itself if a tropical combination of the lush greens of Bali, the vistas of Italy or Greece, and it’s own special kind of Sunni Muslim Africa. The landscape is dotted with ancient baobab trees, enormous mango, jackfruit, papaya, palm, clove bushes and almost any other tropical vegetation you can think of. While people here may be economically poor, you can tell the red earth and their lives are rich. Surrounded by the bounty of the sea and the land people work hard, but live well. As proud young fathers hold their babies in the evenings and parade them down the streets you can see the pride of family.

Some people here speak English, but most speak Swahili. When we ask directions if people are afraid we do not understand all kinds of friendly helpers emerge to guide us to our next destination. When they have guided us there they ask for nothing in return, make sure we know where we are headed to next, and bid us a good day. It has been a pleasure and a relief to connect with locals at last on such a genuine level. It seems every one knows each other and who owns which fruit tree (and you never pick it without permission, but fruit on the ground is fair game)!

Today we decided to visit a local island so we caught a “dala dala” (a covered pick-up truck bed with benches in back). Now the thing to know about “dala dala” is that they seat anywhere from 10 to 50 people along with their buckets of sugar and plastic bags of fish. It all depends on how full they fare collector thinks he can fill it before the traffic cop will object. Most of the time you are comfortably packed in and it seems there is no space left and by the time you actually leave the number of people inside has at least doubled. People, chickens, mangos, and babies all stuffed like sardines into the back, not to mention all of the goods on top of the truck. The aroma of body odor and gasoline exhaust is truly unforgettable. Today we were luck and scored the seats in the cab next to the driver. He dropped us off at literally the end of the road and after we clarified with some locals where we were trying to go a few children emerged to lead the way. The path to the mangrove where the fishermen store their boats wound past the front doors of mud brick and stick huts. Women cooking, gardening, washing, breast-feeding babies, all somewhat surprised to see us walking past their house. The typical reactions frightened children, cheers of glee, and women double-checking to make sure their headscarfs were properly in place.

Pretty soon we found the mangrove full of Dhow’s (small wooden canoes with amas on both sides). After some group negotiation with the fishermen in mostly Swahili and some English we agreed on a price. As my feet squished through the mud I tried to forget about all of the tropical worms and parasites that thrive in stagnant water. “Where ever we end up….this is going to be an adventure!”, we told one another. In the boat that looked big enough for two we had the captain, two crew, and us the two Mzungus. As they rowed out of the mangrove swimming children dived underwater or ran into the bushes at the sight of us. We raised our tattered white sail attached to a bamboo mast and began out regatta with a fleet of about 5 other Dhows. It felt so good to be on the water surrounded by a kaleidoscope of turquoise blue. In an attempt to lighten our loads neither of us had brought our drybags and we soon realized that may have been a mistake. The captain wanted to sail and at times the two helpers were both on the amas wrangling the boat as the sail full of wind pulled us up on one ama. But at the last minute he would avoid a sure water entry by using the ”brake” and letting the sail loft.

In shorter time than expected we reached what looked like a pretty scraggly little island. As we disembarked an older women emerged from the banana grove with a bunch of bananas on top of her head. I suddenly realized where the idea of the Chiquita banana lady came from years ago. She looked stunning draped in her sari and head wrap with the about 20 bananas and stock on top of her head carrying bags with her hands.

Uncertain we were really headed to our desired destination we followed the kind captain as he signaled for us to go ashore. But wait we wanted to go to the beach does this lead to the beach? They assured us yes this is where you want to go. We set off down a dry rocky path in the middle of a young banana grove with different shades of lush yellows and greens filtering through the trees. Along the way our captain pointed out plans we should not touch and said danger. Pretty soon we could hear the familiar roar of the ocean and could see glimpses of azure turquoise water and powder white sand. We had come to a sort of eco lodge on the ocean with hammocks! Eager to jump in to the water after a few days of having an amazing view, but not being able to swim we were disheartened at the gaggle of men waiting to catch a glimpse of us in our bathing costumes. On second thought, wading sounds just as refreshing and much less revealing! We pulled out our lunch and snacked on our egg sandwich - which was literally two very small slices of baguette with an entire boiled egg in between.

After relaxing for a few hours we headed back to the boat for our sail home. As we boarded the tiny canoe the wind had picked up a lot and we knew we were going to be in for an adventurous ride home. For the next ½ hour we alternately raised our cameras in the air of reach of the waves splashing over the side as we leaned as far as we could across the ama to keep the boat with it’s sail full of wind from tipping too far to one side. After a close call that put the boat at about a 60 degree angle with one side of the boat fully emerged in the water the two crew men climbed onto the amas opposite of the sail and held on with ropes. They looked like water cowboys atop a bronking bull gracefully holding the rope to the sail with one hand as they leaned as far back as they could to keep the boat upright.

Pondering how long I could potentially hold my camera above my head and tread water we resolved ourselves to the fact we may be going swimming on this boat ride.

Suddenly the wind subsided and we were back in the protection of the mangrove. As they pulled out the oars to begin the rest of the paddle home, I tried to convince them that I know how to paddle an outrigger, but they wouldn’t have it. They just laughed and took the paddle from me. I am sure the thought of a women especially a mzungu doing a mans work was unfathomable! As we reached shore the tide had gone out and all of the wooden boats were resting in the sludgy brown mud as children jumped into the murky puddles. We trudged through the mud as a tribe of children greeted us to lead the way back through the village to the main road.

Unable to say much more than hello what is your name I pulled out my secret weapon. The Aerobe! It is essentially a really flat Frisbee with a hole in the middle. It usually goes something like this. The kids have not idea what it is or what it does. The first time you throw it they all stare in shock and confusion and it falls flat on the ground. Next, one young brave athletic boy picks it up and tries to throw it. It usually goes vertically into the air or nearly misses someone’s head and everyone erupts in laughter. Then as it is about to hit the ground again children emerge from every tree, house, and mangrove to catch a glimpse of that is going on and join in. For me the Aerobe has become the universal communicator…you can always play a game and laugh together. So we played a mean game of aerobe on the side of the road until the last dalla dalla of the day arrived. As drove past palm trees and the mud brick houses bathed in the afternoon glow of the sun we waived and yelled “Jambo” to all of the families sitting outside of their homes. Exhilarated at the fact we had finally gotten off the beaten track and really connected with this little piece of paradise. We bounced down the road wondering what our next adventure would hold…

Physics of a Dalla Dalla

Safely off the peer we found a Dalla Dalla headed to the very northern point of the island. This is where we learned about the unique physics of these covered pick-up truck beds. In the bed of the truck there are wooden benches sometime with a thin padding on top. The “roof” always elaborately wallpapered with a pattern it looks like your grandma picked out in the early 80’s. If you are lucky (or under 5'7") the roof is just high enough to sit up straight all the way. Then between the “roof” and the edge of the pick-up bed there are steel bars with “windows”. Most of the time you can catch glimpses of the passing world and scenery through them.

The pickup beds look like they can fit about 20 people max, but they actually have the ability (depending on the fare collector) to fit about double that in addition to some children, babies, and chickens. Legs. Arms. Heads. Everything everywhere. Stranger sitting on your lap. Holding someone elses baby. A fully shrouded muslim women resting her head on some strangers upper thigh. Anything goes as long as you can make it past the traffic cop. All the while packed so tightly you literally cannot move.

We sat like this for two hours taking in the lush vegetation and the pace of live on this tiny island. Drenched in sweat and covered in dust we reached the end of the road where we would need to find another form of transport to our final destination. We ended up on a dusty street corner in a one road town and the phone number we had for transport did not work. Everyone in the town had bikes, not cars. Soon local men and boys laughing at our huge bags (at some point Jamie’s very tall pack was named the giraffe bag) helped us devise a plan. Mostly Swahili speaking the older men called over some teenage boys to translate. In need of a toilet one boy led me down a dirt path past small houses built with mud bricks, sticks, and thatched roofs. The one I went with a toilet inside was a cinderblock and cement house with corrugated tin roof. As I entered through the gate there were about 12 children gathered around a television set and about a dozen other people sewing and cleaning very surprised to see a sweaty Mzungu standing in their courtyard.

Back at the street corner a man “helped” find a taxi for us. It was ridiculously priced considering it was 10 x’s what it had just cost to drive across the entire island, but given the choice between being the evening entertainment in this dusty one road town or heading to the beach we decided to dole out the shillings.

As we drove through and around mud puddles in the dense tropical jungle we could not wait to see this epic beach. Visions of rinsing off the heat of the day in the tropical water danced in our heads. As we saw the sign, “Virani Beach” we were thrilled. It had been a long day. As we pulled onto the property is looked more like we had come to someone’s muddy cow pasture on the edge of the ocean. As we stepped out of the taxi the flies buzzed around our head and we inspected the “Eco” huts. Well make that used to be Eco huts and now more like crumbling bug filled huts. The only hut left was a “double bed”. Like other furniture here the bed with a traditional frame had a sort of hammock frame made from twine. With two people it was sort of like sleeping in a giant pita that you could not avoid falling into the middle of no matter how hard you tried. But that prospect looked better than camping in the cow pasture so we took it. Ok let’s just go to the beach and rinse off. “So sir, can you tell us where is the best place to swim right now? Oh actually you cannot swim right now. The tide is out and the ocean floor is covered in sea urchins. The best time to swim is tomorrow morning”. Our heats sank. We should have known when you think you are going to paradise life plays tricks on you!

How to kick a coffee habit in 30 seconds

How to kick a coffee habit in 30 seconds

After being stranded at the private beach house for two more days due to a missed taxi (rough life I know) we made it back to Stonetown for one night to catch our ferry to Pemba Island the next day. Craving a real cup of coffee instead of the muddy instant “Africafe” we headed to our favorite Zanzibar Coffee House. We sat at our large wooden table and watched the world go by on the narrow winding street. Women in headscarfs and beautiful wraps, children on bikes, and the local fisherman holding his basket of the catch of the day all walking by as we sipped our iced coffee.

Happily caffeinated we set off to run the errands that we could only do in “town” before we headed to the backwaters of Pemba. Fast forward 5hrs. After hours of waiting on hold with the airlines I felt exhausted and hot. The next thing I knew I was stumbling down the stairs to the bathroom. I closed the door in the nick of time before the coffee projected across the room. I couldn’t help but think it is going to be a long time before coffee sounds good again. Delirious and crippled from the sudden onset of food poisoning I somehow managed to find my way back to the Flamingo Hotel and crawled under my mosquito net. As I drifted in and out of consciousness I could only hope I felt better by 9am for the three-hour ferry ride.

I made it to the ferry the next morning without further incident, but still feeling queasy and weak. Definitely not as nice as our luxury ferry from Dar Es Salaam the week before, we scored some good seats in the shade on the back deck of the ferry. As the ferry left the dock we were engulfed in a plume of diesel fumes. Hoping the wind would carry it the other direction once we got underway, it was soon apparent the fumes were due to the location of our seat. With no other choice here we were stuck here for three hours. Surrounded by a family with 4 or 5 kids an attendant came over and passed out black plastic bags with large white stenciled letters that stated “Sick Bag”. As the kids accepted the bags the little boy across from us put the handles around his ears and promptly began puking. He set off a chain reaction and all of the kids surrounding us began to fully utilize their bags as well.

Choking on the fumes and surrounded by puking children we settled in for what was going to be a quite long ride. In and out of consciousness from my lack of sleep the night before my early 90’s era gold Nokia cell phone suddenly rang. It was my boyfriend Michael! I couldn’t help but think how amazing to be in the middle of the Indian ocean on a ferry and be able to talk to my boyfriend standing in his kitchen in Santa Barbara. A welcome distraction from the discomforts of the ferry ride, I heard all of the news from home and caught him up on where we had been and where we were going. After the call, I dosed in and out of consciousness for another few hours until my friend Jamie (in misery next to me) exclaimed, “I see land". Thank God! Five more minutes of the overpowering fumes and I would have grabbed my black plastic bag and joined the kids.

As we approached the enormous cement pier we were shocked by the lush vegetation and the crystal clear water of the port! I have been to a lot of ports on islands and beaches around the world…none of them have ever had water that I even think about wanting to touch let a lone swim in! However, the water here was stunningly clear and clean. None of the floating plastic or sheen of boat fuel that is usually in the water. If the port looked this good we could only imagine what the rest of the island had in store. Now we did not know at the time, but the people of Pemba are even more relaxed and friendly than the people of Zanzibar. The only exception is when it comes to getting on and off of the ferries.

The scene as we approached the pier - with a sheer 15-foot drop into the water- was utter chaos. People pushing and shouting all crowded to the precarious edge of the pier. As families excitedly waved to their loved ones on board and in hopes of making a few shilling porters clamored for a better position to jump aboard to help unload the luggage. As the crowd pulsed and prodded one poor man was suddenly sent flying off of the pier fully clothed in to the water below. As he struggled to stay a float and recollect his belongings floating around him the crowd on the pier jeered and laughed.

We were still on the top deck of the ferry and our jaws dropped as the scene unfurled before us. Shit. If they do that to the locals I can only imagine how harassed we are going to be. We quickly devised a strategy. Stay away from the edge of the pier, elbows allowed and no holds barred for making it through the ridiculous mob of people, and have a quick ejection plan from our very heavy backpacks should we suddenly find our selves plunging over the edge into the sea.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Queens of Seaweed

It turns our there is another secret below the turquoise blue water in front of our beach house. It is full of seaweed gardens that are only revealed at low tide. Years ago people from the Philippines came here to teach the women how to plant seaweed and prepare it for export. Now each family has underwater seaweed “farm”. Each day as the tide begins to recede little sticks begin to appear and pretty soon women fully clothed in their brightly colored sari like wraps and head dress walk into the water to tend their crops. For hours they sit in the water harvesting and retying their seaweed in neat little rows. The sand is so white and midday sun is so bright it feels like the glare of intense sun on snow.

The children that are not in school frolic and swim in little tide pools next to their mothers farm or race their exquisitely crafted toy Dau ‘s (a miniature version of their fathers real fishing boat). Their laughter and calls to each other echo across the shallow water. By the time the tide has ebbed little gardens are fully revealed and hundreds of women (as far as you can see) are chatting and singing as they then their crops.

When the seaweed is ready to harvest they the little clump from the string it is attached to and collect it in an old rice bag. Once the bag is full the women wade ashore with the bursting bag on top of their head and take it to dry on the ground outside of their home.

I am not sure what the queens of seaweed think of their work as I could not find anyone who spoke English, but I think it is one of the most facinating farms I have ever seen.

Walking Cash Machine

Did you know that I am actually an ATM? I am full of money and it never runs out. I actually have never realized it before, but clearly because I am of European dissent I am rich and everyone is going to try to get a part of it. You say hello to kids at the beach they say, “You give me a dollar”, you go to the market to buy anything and your price is 3- 10x’s the normal cost. This is a frustrating thing to me about travel that I have tried to reconcile over the years. I am fortunate to live in the US and to have been born in a country with opportunity, infrastructure, and a somewhat functioning government. I do want to help other people. I think everyone should be able to feel their family, but clearly (to me) I cannot provide the funds for everyone. Now how do I convince the locals of that?

After years of travel around the world I know a pen or a dollar here and there is not the kind of change that is needed to make a difference. It may make the donor feel good temporarily, but I have seen these dollars go to soda pops and the pens disgaurded in the gutter.

On a more philosophical level, I also think it creates a strange power dynamic that plays into the old colonial paradigm of the white man having more and being superior to an African. If you beg and receive on some level of your psyche you cannot ever see you self as the equal to the person who is giving to you. I seems to break the cycle of poverty and the dominant psyche of fatalism the last thing I should do is reinforce it by dolling out dollars to the children. So I have started this game called, “You give me dollar”. Every time the kids say, “you give me dollar” or “school pen”, I say, “No, you give me dollar”. They all look a bit perplexed as they try to explain no you are supposed to give the dollar to me. They still don’t see the humor in the whole thing, but at least I am beginning to laugh at the fact that I am now an ATM.

Almost Paradise?

It seems life has played a trick on me. For most of my life I have been searching for the most perfect pristine stretch of beach I could find. I have been looking for one with white power soft sand, clear blue water with every shade of turquoise, palm fringed beaches, and a great place to view it from. Well one of the last things I remember telling my friend Liz before I left was, “I am only going to take one swim suit and no cute clothes. This is not going to be a fun trip this is going to be hardcore Africa”. Well guess what. Yesterday based on a trip from another traveler, we arrived at a private house on the most beautiful beach I have ever had the pleasure of laying my eyes on. Funny how when you stop looking for something it seems to appear! The only other thing we could ask for? Some surfable waves in this 87+ degree water!

Rerouted to Zanzibar...

Stonetown, Zanzibar

Relieved to get away from the oppressive heat and pollution of Dar es Salaam we went to the ferry terminal an hour early to wait in the air conditioning. There we were greeted with free lunch, wireless Internet, and a beautiful new ferry with beanbag chairs on the upper deck. After the dirt, busses, and all around slumming it of the past few days we felt quite privileged to have these luxuries.

We set off across the Indian Ocean warm salt-water breeze and the air began to smell like air instead of car exhaust and diesel fumes. We arrived to Stone town as it was bathed in the afternoon glow of the sun. As we docked you could hear the laughter of children as they splashed in the ocean and rinsed off the heat of the day. Right when we stepped off the ferry you could just feel the all around good vibes of Zanzibar. Something about islands that just mellow people out.

We found a taxi that took us through the narrow winding streets past crumbling buildings that are an exotic mix of Arabic, Indian, European, and African style. With all the character of each country fluidly colliding with each other. It is the most beautiful combination of color, shape, textures, people, religions, and lifestyles living in what appears to be seamless harmony. The Rastafarians hanging out with their Muslim brothers and sisters and the Muslim girls impeccably draped in colored scarves next to the modern girls who wear short shorts and tank tops. Christians celebrating Ramadan and Muslims celebrating Christmas. They live and celebrate side-by-side appreciating each others cultures and embracing it. I have really never been somewhere like this… It is a beautiful mix of so many cultures and traditions. Too bad more of the world cannot be this way loving and embracing of others traditions and beliefs.

When we arrived at our hotel I took again for the 9th day in a row the best shower of my life! We headed out to check out the town. It was Saturday night and down at the main garden along the ocean was bustling with people and about 40 vendors selling local delights. Zanzibar pizza home made soup, fresh fruit, and sugarcane juice squeezed in front of your eyes. But most impressive were the enormous tables of BBQ kabobs (of every meat and fish imaginable), Naan, yams, and banana. We ate our way around the park and stuffed ourselves for $5 USD. As we sat along the waterfront we met several people.

The thing about Tanzania is the people are so friendly you cannot walk more than a few steps without someone calling out “Jambo” (How are you) and no matter who you must slow down and reply and acknowledge there greeting. It means you talk to a lot of people in one day even if you are in a hurry or you don’t really feel like talking. But the people are so friendly and welcoming. Well ok some of the men probably just like talking to two western girls. But mostly everyone is extremely helpful and welcoming.

We have also come to realize that the “Rastas” are always a safe bet as far as people to become friends with. They believe love conquers all, they are mellow, they seem to have our back and look out for us (not that we need it here), and they make the most interesting conversations. So what do you know we met some Rastas that told us there was a “Bongo Flavor” (a style of hip hop concert) going on in the old fort. So Jamie and I headed over to the Old Fort…literally the inside of an old fort now converted to a large outdoor venue and bar. It was super fun and immediately we had an inside perspective as to nightlife in Zanzibar. Girls covered head to toe in stylish wraps and headscarves watching as scantily clad girls (even by California standards sang on stage…yet another beautiful contradiction. We listened and watched as the men danced, but as soon as I was solicited for a “love affair” we decided it was time to take off.

The next morning we wandered the winding streets with only pedestrians, petal bikes, and motorbikes. You can never get too lost because eventually a road will lead to the sea and you can find your way home. Whenever you ask for directions people raise their hand in the air (and point it in front of them even if you are headed in the opposite direction) and say oh is it 5 minutes walking and make a series of left, right, and straight forward pointing motions supposedly leading the way to your destination. We say “Ashanti San” and head the first three ways they initially pointed and then ask again. It is a community effort to get us where we are going, but always an adventure. We ended up in many old hotels with amazing woodwork. They are all mazes with beautiful shapes and staircases. It seems nothing is symmetrical and a bit haphazard, but it ends up creating a beautiful building that eventually leads to an extraordinary rooftop overlooking Stonetown. In the afternoon we heard music and joyful shouts by our hotel and wondered into the doorway community center. Outside were a group of young Muslim men dressed in their white robes caps. They excitedly told us their brother was getting married today. They said you are most welcome. Come inside and feel like it is your home. We were escorted inside to a room full of boisterous discussion, singing, and dancing. Beautiful Muslim women draped in their most colorful and finest headscarfs and rich flowing material. At least 100 were sitting on mats on the floor talking and eating while a group of young men and women were in the front singing and dancing what was apparently a traditional routine. At first we got a few stares, but then people began introducing themselves saying, “You are most welcome. What is your name? Please eat and feel like this is your home. We are happy you are here.” As we sat in the back of the room and talked to people and made faces as curious children we were handed bottles of water, gum, flavored popsicles, and kabobs. We stayed for an hour and still never saw the bride. The men left to go pray and the women stayed at the party. All I could think was wow if only this is the image of Islam more people could see. While I reject the predominate stereotype of Islam portrayed in the American media, I suddenly realized I do have an impression of Muslim believers that is dead wrong. In the back of my mind I have bought into a belief structure that Muslims are serious, oppressed, have no fun, and do not like me because I am American. And really, nothing could have been further from the truth. I only wished at that moment I could record the wedding to broadcast on Fox News or CNN and say wait America watch this. These people are joyful, embracing, accepting, and living their lives in peace. If only everyone reading this could have been there to experience it with us.

On Safari

In Moshi we hooked up with a guide and found a tour that two Belgium guys had already booked. There was extra room so we joined the “Budget Safari Tour”. The highlight of the trip was Ngorongo Crater National Park. Once in the park we popped the top off of our Safari jeep and stood to watch out the roof as our car bumped along the dirt paths. As you enter the park you start at the rim of the volcano crater and drive down into the flat bottom. At the top were Massai children dressed in their traditional clothing peddling all kinds of good jewelry, swords, and photos (if you wanted to pay). It was a bit shocking, as I did not realize how commercialized/exploited the Massai have become. Since they have lost so much of their land and the dollar is king many children and adults (in addition to tending their cattle) pedal Massai goods as well as selling their face for a photo. I can’t say I blame them, I understand the reasoning it is just unfortunate this is what it has come to.

So as we descended to the crater floor and we were greeted by every kind of African animal imaginable. And more animals than I have every seen in one place at one time anywhere. It was strikingly beautiful as we were surrounded by herds of wildebeest, gazelle, zebras, and giraffes grazing in sunlit green fields, with the crater wall covered in vegetation, and the sky darkened by an approaching storm behind. We were fortunate enough to find some lions asleep on the grass right beside the dirt road. We watched them sleep and wake up from about a foot away. At one point standing looking out the roof realizing we had not closed the side window to the back seat. One of the Dutch guys dove into the car to close the window as the female lion got up to stretch and look around!

Moshi & my “new” gold cell phone

The next morning we woke up at 4am with the call to prayer. Jamie and I were both trying to sleep, but when the singer went terribly off key and his voice cracked over the megaphone it was all we could do to contain our laughter. We wondered aloud do they even require that you can sing or offer any kind of lessons before you can sing into this megaphone that is broadcast across the entire town? As his belted it out louder hoping it would help him hit the ascending notes we got our answer. No you do not have to know how to sing in order to lead the call to prayer! We spent the day walking around the town enjoying the cooler mountain air and arranging out Safari for the next few days. Originally scheduled to spend the following days after the Safari shooting for an NGO we got an email the plan had changed. So we decided to make the best of our location and head to some National Parks. Before we left town I had to purchase a used Gold Nokia cell phone (old school) to replace my sciphone whose screen is shattered beyond repair during the bus ride. So now I am local. I have a Tanzanian phone number and I am rocking a gold phone if anyone wants to call my new number is 0764656744 (you will need to add the country code of Tanzania).

Dar Es Salaam

Well the beginning of my trip has been quite fast paced. I met my good friend Jamie in Dar es Salaam. My plane was delayed and after essentially flying for 26 hours I got to my hotel at 5am right in time for the sunrise and call to prayer from the local mosque just down the road. The next morning we tried to sleep to give ourselves a few hours of sleep not sitting in a chair, but the heat and noises of the city would not let us. The first day was getting our bearings and making a game plan. We explored a little of Dar and decided there was not much to see. We made out plan to take the bus to a place in the North of Tanzania called Moshi, which is one of the bases for climbing Kilimanjaro. The next morning we arrived promptly for our 6am bus and at about 6:45am our “Luxury” air conditioned (the windows opened) bus arrived. We set out for what I can firmly say was one of the longest and most miserable bus rides of my life. The long and short of it. Totally jetlagged we boarded the bus to get out of the city. By 9am we were covered in sweat and soot…inside the bus. Moments after barreling down a hill and breakneck speed we pulled off to the side of the road to drop someone off. As we pulled back onto the road there was a horrible crunching noise and thud. We thought we had run over one of the fruit vendors who had been running along side the bus. After a few moments of confusion we peered under the bus and saw the entire drive shaft leading to the back tires on the ground. So grateful it had happened on the side of the road and not barreling down the road moments before where we surely would have flipped the next question was how do we get out of here. Before we knew what was really going on a local welder came to access the situation. He drove away with the drive shaft. After two miserable hours languishing in the heat of the day he returned and attached it to the bus. The rest of the ride alongside dramatic mountains that shoot out of the ground covered in vegetation was a blur. Unable to keep my eyes open I dozed in and out of lucidity. Finally at 7pm 12 hours after we started we ended up in Moshi our destination that supposedly took 7 hrs to get to. I arrived at my hotel and took one of the best showers of my life!

So what are you doing in Africa? The AirBus...

The AirBus

10:24. The white truck screeched to a halt in front of the passenger bus. The bus driver flew his hands in the air and glared at me through the window. I am pretty sure he would have flipped me off if he wasn’t at work. As my belongings spilled out of the truck door on to the pavement, I hurriedly explained that I already had reservations. Umm yes, I know they were for five minutes ago, but I am here now I can I get on? The passengers glared.

I thought shit I hope this is not going to be how I come off in Africa…a disheveled white girl creating a scene everywhere. Embarrassed I thought man I can’t even get it together to catch the bus in SB how am I going to make it in Africa?

Then at the back of the bus someone called my name. “Sarah”? Surprised. No relieved. No Grateful. It was my friend Thomas who was headed to Africa as well for work. A friendly and caring soul with 20 + years working and living in Africa, in recent weeks he and his wife (Linda) have talked to me about everything from business meetings to malaria medicine to personal safety. I have dubbed them my “Africa parents”. I actually had been so busy packing and moving I had not really had time to “”freak out” about my trip. But like so many other things that have already serendipitously aligned for this trip I knew it was a great sign that we were beginning this journey together.

I would say in my younger years I attributed a lot of things to luck and chance, but as I have become older I see how everything is connected and nothing happens by chance.

Difficult to explain fully to even myself, the purpose of this journey has apparently been lost on most others. There has been a lot of conversation around my trip. People curious, others worried for me, people who told me I shouldn’t go, complete strangers calling me out of the blue to offer ominous warnings, and my ever loving and supportive (but freaked out parents) cautiously inquiring about a rough gamelan the night before my departure.

The truth is this calling to go to Africa has been plaguing me for over 10 years. This last year the calling was so strong that I felt if I ignored it any longer I would be wasting my life…not doing this thing I was supposed to go do. I am not sure what I am supposed to discover or do there, but all I can say with unwavering resolve is that I am supposed to go and it is a part of my life purpose.

By force the wheels were set in motion 3 months ago. My good friend from College had agreed to meet in Tanzania, but we had to pull the trigger of she was out. Buy the ticket and commit to a date or it is not happening. Ever since I did that little Internet transaction my life has been turned upside down. Glistening daydreams and sweating dark nightmare I have been enveloped with Africa. Trying to participate in everyday life, my boyfriend complained it is like you are in your own world. The fact is I have been. I have been perplexed with this divine purpose. At times wondering why do I want to do this again? Putting all my savings and might toward doing something I cannot really fully explain to anyone. Is it practical? No. Is it going to be profitable? Probably not in a dollars kind of way. Is it going to be life changing? Yes, but I just cannot say how.

What I do know is that the “signs” have all been there. From meeting my “Africa parents” (and all of the wonderful connections they have offered me), to an energy worker telling me my spirit guides are showing her volumes of my (yet to be published) photo stories from this trip, to by chance coming across a party for the Congo in a New York penthouse (when I was really there to go to a portfolio review on the 11th floor). Everything has aligned.

Since that time connections have been made all around Africa with NGO’s (3 of them based in Santa Barbara), some businesses, magazines, and even a friends cousin working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So I have come to work on some photography and multi media projects in an effort to provide non-profits with the material they need to promote their programs and fundraise. And I myself will try to begin a few documentary projects. If all goes well (and I find $7,000 in funding) my friend in the DR Congo (who is writing for Nikolas Kristoff's NYTimes blog) and I want to have a show about the women of the DR Congo at the United Nations in New York. Really I am not sure what I am going to walk away from Africa with or what I will leave there. But I trust it will be more than me leaving with some exotic parasites and Africa keeping my dollars.

As I sit on the bus in the basking in the warm glow of the California winter sun all I can think is of course Thomas (my Africa dad) is on the bus with me.

And I will take it as yet another “sign” that I am journeying down the right path.