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Posts from — May 2008

Wrong Turn

I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Africa before arriving, but I did know a few things. For example, there are lions-bad ace cats that fear nothing and eat everything. In addition, you’ll find other animals with large teeth, tusks and razor sharp claws, such as rhinos, elephants, leopards, etc. At home we like to say things like, “Their more afraid of you than you are of them.” Well that doesn’t quite work in Africa. Here the animals are quite happy to see you. To see and eat you.

The plan was to visit a wildlife reserve and I was ready to see first hand some Discovery Channel action. The problem was we kind of got a late start. Not rare for Africa, but not exactly beneficial for visiting wildlife reserves. From the backseat, I watched as a different world went by. Baobab trees sat like overweight giants in the on the side of the road. Acacias stretched their flat thorny arms over flowing khaki grass. Mothers with baskets balanced on their heads. Men with machetes swinging at their sides.

The car slowed. Now one might think that three years in Africa would be enough to know your way around, and I probably shouldn’t judge, but the sun was slowly falling. Merin rolled down the window offered a Swahili greeting and asked one man on his bike if this direction were correct. Repeating a couple key words he nodded and pointed down the road. Pavement became dirt and the further we drove the more I saw the real Africa. Mud huts covered with thatch. Sugarcane walled the road. The clothes got dirtier. The staring got longer.

This was the Africa I wanted to know. The villages. The people. The goats and cattle migrating through the streets. I was happy to see it but there were more things to see. Things that could, say eat you. I don’t know if it was from the road getting less and less drivable or the more and more villagers that stared, but somehow I knew we were in the wrong place. Merin soon agreed and we retraced the mismanaged road as villagers got to observe the strange visitors one more time. The sun grew larger as it continued to fall. After two or three more u-turns we found a sign. Then as the sun shed its final light we arrived.

With a peanut butter and jelly bribe we convinced the guard to open the gates that closed at sundown. “You just missed the giraffes, they were here in the road 15 minutes ago.” Now that’s what I’m talking about! Goats in the road are cool. Giraffes are friggin’ awesome. I scanned the bush ready for the lion that was sure to be feasting at its fresh kill. I scanned, and scanned…and scanned. At last we saw a couple zebras, but I’m afraid that as close as we’d get to a giraffe or blood stained lion. Finally we dropped our guard and guide at the fence and turned home… or not.

Another thing I learned is how different Africa looks at night. “Isn’t that road we came down?” asked Mandi as we worked our way through a maze of sugarcane, each road looking terribly similar. “Uhm…I don’t think so,” answered Merin. “But I think there’s lots of roads out.” “I don’t think” and “I think” are not exactly terms of confidence. I can tell you what I thought—“Sure would be nice if someone their way out of this place.” Whether we saw them or not there had to be were lions out here. At the very least I saw an awful lot of sharp machetes swinging.

Out of the darkness, a man appeared. We slowed. Merin rolled down the window and offered the same Swahili greeting as before. Then asked which direction the main road was. Only this time, the man who at first looked confused, proceeded to tell us of his work. Clear we were miscommunicating, Merin thanked the man and left. At first I tried to remember which direction the sun had set, knowing that was the direction of the road. Then I began to scan the cane fields for a place to pull off and camouflage our car until the safety of the sun returned. Then finally hope. Taillights.

We all naively agreed they were probably headed toward the main road and followed. Eventually I recognized a familiar turn- probably the one we originally took. The at last we hit pavement. An hour later we reached home. Nothing terrible happened-no lions, no machetes. Just a couple of wrong turns. Some more promising than others.

May 29, 2008   No Comments

First Impressions

My Malawi experience actually began with a play in some little theatre-which sounds like it should be an entry unto itself… and maybe it could have, but to be honest it would be hard to give a fair review of this Shakespeare gone Malawi production based on the short snippets I saw every time I woke from a dramatic head bob. (I blame it more on jet lag than the acting.) So I’m going to jump forward to the next day after a good full night’s rest.

The next day we had all planned out, and by we I mean Merin, the three year Malawi resident who we were staying with. It would begin with the market.

We arrived Malawi on a Friday, that’s good timing if you intend to visit the Saturday market. The market actually happens every day, but on Saturday it comes to life. I sat in the back seat with the wicker basket as we pulled into the dusty dirt parking lot lined with shacks. 

I was staring at the row of tin covered booths when-Smack, smack, smack! Off to the left a young boy started hitting the window. “See me fist! Mista, see me fist!” Within moments there were 10 more doing the same. The car stopped. I grabbed the basket and pried my door open to get out. Each small hand grabbed at the basket.

“Move Away!” Merin says firmly, then turns to me and ask which boy I saw first. The light went on-See me first, Mister. The boys were all anxious to earn a small wage by carrying our basket. Unsure, Merin selected one lucky boy and we walked towards the vendors.

I’ve been to my fair share of cultural markets, but I have to say there was something special about this one. As you would expect, the white guy with back pack and basket drew plenty of looks. Each vendor invited me to “just look”, as he or she described the produce that sat clearly in front of me. But the invitations were not overwhelming. The vendors respected one another, and each waited to describe their product until we had walked away from their neighbor.

It was organized and presentable. Booth by booth, vegetables were arranged in perfect pyramids. Bananas, potatoes, lettuce. Colorful arrangements of every spice imaginable laid out for the picking. I walked with the boy holding the basket as Merin did the negotiating.

We walked from produce to spices. Spices to bean. Bean to meat, where people picked the healthiest looking chicken from those on display. We moved on, probably fortunate before I got the cultural experience of actually seeing the fate of the chosen chick.

Then up a set of crumbling cement stairs, we stepped into another section. Interesting, I don’t even recall what was for sale in this section. I was distracted. No sooner had we entered when the colorfully adorned African women erupted into song. Loud. Confident. Beautiful.

I asked the boy what they were singing. He politely misunderstood and sang the song to me. When asked again what the meaning was, he didn’t know the English. All the better. There are some things you don’t need to know. In some ways it’s better not to.

Once we had our week’s supply, we paid our little friend before leaving the shade of the tin cover so as not to start any fights with his other friends. I smiled as on our way out we spotted a couple other assumed tourists on their way in, knowing the treat they were in for.

Merin then drove us to the other “market”, ShopRite. It was night and day. Black and white in more ways than one. This was the money market. With all the comforts of a Safeway, or any other standard grocery store in the States. It had a guard at the entrance to the parking lot and while not filled with pale skin, the percentage was noticeably high.

It was comfortable. There was air conditioning, and refrigeration. Prices were “as marked.” But one thing is for sure… there was no one erupting in song here. No, I’m afraid you’ll have to go somewhere else for that.

Welcome to Africa.

May 25, 2008   No Comments

The Friendliest People on Earth

Ah so much to write about, such little Internet access… One of the great challenges of travel blogging is narrowing. To which you would sarcastically reply, “We know, we’ve seen the length of your blogs!” To which I would reply, “One, stop shouting. And two, I know… it’s a problem but we all have problems.” And now I’ve noticed in my attempts to be witty, I have added yet another unnecessary paragraph for you to read. I’ll move on.

The list of things to report about goes on and on. The lifestyle. The people. Cultural and human observations. Personal struggles. Humanitarian works. Etcetera. From the moment you step off the plane you notice things are different. Mostly you. I have never been such the minority. Perhaps in China, but even then, you put a hat on, sunglasses, and walk on your knees to account for that extra 12 inches of height and you might blend in.

Not in Africa. No you are different here and there’s no hiding it. But that’s ok. I think it’s good for a person to be completely removed from their comfort zone. To stick out on occasion. To be the minority. It will help a person recognize when they are not outstanding, those around who may be. Unfortunately, in Africa being “the white guy” carries with it certain stereotypes. Mostly, having money. Which when compared to a culture where a person often makes on average a dollar a day, is basically true. Still when stereotyped and standing out, it’s good to be prepared, to be approached, harassed and ready to barter for reasonable prices.

Mandi and I first arrived Nairobi in the evening. Our introduction to Africa was from the back of a minibus taxi. The streets were slightly less hectic the chaotic streets in India. Similar though minus cows and scooters. They are lined with people. Some walking with bikes loaded with supplies like scrap metal, wood, charcoal. Those not fortunate enough to have a bike use their heads, carefully balancing similar supplies. Meanwhile man, woman and child file between cars. Each offering similar products. Each hoping by some fate to be chosen over the others.

We only stayed one night in Nairobi. The sleep was restless. It was just warm enough to be uncomfortable and all night the mosquitoes serenaded with subtle songs that hinted of malaria. Early the next morning we rose and caught the same overpriced taxi to the airport, where we stood by the ticket counter of Air Malawi until 30 minutes before the only flight to Blantyre waiting for someone to figure out how to sell us a ticket. We were escorted with bags to the door of the plane. Then we were off to Malawi.

I am often asked, “In all of your travels, who is the friendliest people?” That’s tough as you’d imagine, in every culture there are some really wonderful people. However, there are a few groups that stand out.

Two weeks ago, I would have answered the Thai. Known as “the smiling people”, I found them extremely pleasant. But after some time in Malawi, Africa… I might have to change my answer. Brilliant smiles offer broken greetings everywhere you go. Even walking down the street, a simple “Muli Bwangi (Malawi greeting-spelt phonetically)” will draw out a beautiful white smile and an almost bubbling response. They are lovely.

After several days of traveling, I was tired, but anxious. Anxious to meet these friendly people. Anxious for culture. Anxious for Africa.

May 16, 2008   1 Comment

Prince, Pauper, and Apprentice

With a pocket full of Malarone (anti-malaria pills), I boarded the red eye flight from Newark to Zurich. Remember how I mentioned the life lesson concerning knowing a flight attendant, well it was proving all too true. It seems there was an opening in business class and as a standby passenger I just happened to be eligible. In case you need clarification, “business class” is the area where the seats more closely resemble thrones. It’s the leather armchair section of a plane where traffic always slows as passengers pause to dream like Charlie in a chocolate factory before being shooed back to their rightful seats in “coach.”

Well today instead of just passing through I actually stopped, sat and sank in to the pillowy body chair. I did as every true “business” passenger would do, opened my NY Times, educated myself, and tried not to notice the envy of those passing by. When I bored of the news I opened the menu and studied my gourmet options over a glass of sparkling wine. Then just as I was narrowing my dinner choices I noticed a man in a devil red coat standing over me,  “Excuse me sire…I’m afraid you’re not dressed appropriately for this class. You’ll have to take a seat in the back…”

So from prince to pauper, I tucked my tail and walked to 24-A looking only at the floor or seat numbers so as not to catch the judgmental eyes of those who moments ago seemed SO inferior. I was at least lucky enough to spend the next 7 hours with the seat next to me empty. Also fortunate is the fact that I’ve never had any problem sleeping on a plane so at least I could dream about those seats up front until I arrived to Switzerland.

24 hours is not much of a layover but it’s plenty of time to meet some characters. After dropping the bags off at a hotel, flight attendant friend-Mandi and I decided we would catch a bus down to the lake in search of a nice European park. As the say, great minds think alike. We hadn’t been in Europe more than 4 hours before I found my next blog entry, or should I say before he found me.

Olive skin, beard, beret , and a barely used walker. He approached Mandi and I. I couldn’t help but make eye contact and smile. “We are such beautiful people…So beautiful…” He said directly to me (Mandi staring forward). I couldn’t agree more, so I smile and nod. “We ought to live on Mars, we are much too beautiful for this world. This world is so ugly, we don’t belong here.” No, no we don’t-I agreed, speechless.

The bus approached and we all piled on. “Where should we sit?” he asked. “Over here,” I lead to three open seats. He continued. “The bus is having babies,” he said under his breath as a mere observation. This was getting good. I glance back, “Yes it is.” I smile. “We should go to an island, me, my wife, you, your friend…I will be the guru. We will live beautifully.” That’s where I had to object. “You will be guru? Why can’t I be the guru, I’m a smart guy?” “No, no. I must be guru. You will be my apprentice until I pass and then you will become the guru.”

We continued all the way to the lake, much to the amusement of Swiss surrounding us. Unfortunately, I had to graciously decline his offer to visit his house, considering our time schedule. Instead we bid him farewell and continued to that grassy bank on a Swiss lake where I slept to the sounds of birds and German accents. Not much to report on really, in a 24-hour layover. A slight stroll, few hours rest, and back to the airport where my Kenya bound coach awaited.

No worries, this time I knew right where I belonged. Once my ticket was scanned I headed right for the back of the plane. Although it was only a matter of minutes at the start of my previous flight, it was enough to know the mind. To connect. So I started a conversation with a man and woman in colorful headdress on my through. Barack had just defeated Hilary. Assuming they were from Kenya I mentioned the fact that Barack won and sought verification that Barack’s father was from Kenya.

Long story short, not only had I made a couple of friends by the time I reached my “coach” seat, I also had the business card “His Worship the Mayor-Sam Okello”. A card and I had an appointment, with my new friend the Mayor of Kisumu-a town I will be visiting later in my trip. Africa…here I come.

May 12, 2008   No Comments

Sea to Safari

I want to tell you everything but as of right now it’s 9:30 am, I leave this evening for Zurich and I still have to get my malaria prescription filled and buy a new Nikon (that is of course unless my friends at Nikon decide the sponsorship is a go). I’m sitting in a cafe in New York surrounded by two backpacks well over packed. I know that raises a lot of questions when I am “sailing around the world.” So here’s a quick update:

Dan and I were working with US Virgin Island Echo Tours, and while rewarding it’s not exactly lucrative. Ultima Noche (the boat) was in a good position to cross the Atlantic and the window (May-August) was approaching. Meanwhile, Dan kept getting emails from the boys in Alaska asking him if he wanted to work. After weighing his options of making money and still being able to sail, it seemed working in Alaska for a bit made the most sense. So that takes care of the boat and Dan–the boat still in St. Thomas and Dan headed for Alsaka, but where does Africa come in.

As for me, I had a different opportunity knock. Africa has always been a dream. After my last round the world adventure, it jumped right to the top of the list of “must sees”. However, in case you haven’t looked at a map recently, Africa is pretty far away and not quite as easy to get to as some places. Which brings me to Life Lesson #4.

I mentioned Lessons 1-3 in my last entry, but 4 is also very valuable. It is as follows: When choosing friends in life make sure one of those friends is or has the potential of working for an airline. It also helps if that friend shares an interest in Africa, and has contacts in the continent.

My schedule is still fairly up in the air but as of right now it looks like I’ll be spending the next 3-4 weeks in Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi. But here’s the best part, that whole “see the world, change the world” idea is still alive and kicking. I will definitely be visiting at least one orphanage, probably more. I also just met someone last night who has a contact doing a prison educational program and another friend of mine will be visiting schools in the villages. Lots of exciting options.

For those of you who are interested in or have been donating, thank you. I wish I had specific plan and goal we could shoot for, but a lot of this has happened quickly and I haven’t had time to formulate much. Once I get to Africa, I’ll take a look at what we have and what the need is and I’ll keep you posted. Otherwise stay tuned and if there is another way to help I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, I have some anti-skeeto pills. Talk to you soon.

May 6, 2008   3 Comments

Life as I see it…

It’s hard to save the world when you can feel your family falling apart. I wrote recently of the “burden of love”. Of helping carry the burdens of those closest to you. Sometimes in love there is no burden at all. Sometimes love carries your burdens. Those are the times poets dream about. The glow of love. When life is full and beautiful. When you wake up smiling for no specific reason. But there is another side to love. The side that says no matter how dark it gets, “I’m here.” The side that says, “Yeah, this is ugly… but we’re gonna get through it.”

I don’t have a wife. I have no kids. Not even a girlfriend. So the most I know of love is my family. But I have one heck of a family. A sister, brother in law, niece on the way. Some of the finest grandparents to walk the face. A mother, I would give the world for. So for me, there is a moment when a personal adventure needs to be placed on hold, and family difficulties given proper attention. That’s where I’ve been (off and on) for the past couple weeks-with family. Which is why I haven’t been writing much. Frankly my creative well has been running low. But it’s good. It’s hard, but it’s right. And already things are little better.

I’m not the kind of guy that can sit back at a distance and watch things happen. I have to do something. And in the end, even if that something did very little, I can at least rest in the fact I tried. That I did in fact try to make a difference. Now without sharing details, I can say I breath a little easier. Things are not right but better. Even if I had to take a break from the “adventure”, when it comes to my family… it’s worth it.

The good news is life can offer as many lessons in the walls of your home as it can in the middle of the ocean on the other side of the world. What’s interesting is they are similar lessons. Here’s a few I’ve been reminded of:

Lesson #1: Communicate. It is the key to life. If you ask someone for salt and they give you pepper, it can mean one of two things. Either A. The person is an abhorrent jerk without a soul. (Which is what we often assume.) Or B. The person simply misunderstood, either what you asked for or what salt is. (Which is often the case.) Our assumption will determine our reaction. Our reaction will spur on their reaction. And the cycle begins. In short, assume nothing. Step back and try to understand just what it is the other person is thinking. This is a lesson I think will go a long way whether we are asking for a roll at the dinner table or a baguette in Parisian bakery.

Lesson #2 (or #1 in importance): Live without regret. There’s a lot involved in this one. Priorities. Dreams. Action. Passion. It applies to every part of our lives. What is important in your life? Is it love? Is it adventure? Is it achievement? Is it family? …Is it obvious? Your dreams will never go away. They may subside, but they will return whispering “what if” for the rest of your life. And when they do you will forever question yourself and your decisions in life.

Lesson #3 (which is really more of a footnote to 2): Do the right thing. I know that’s a loaded statement, and there are many who would counter there is no “right” or “wrong”. So if it’s the term that holds you up, maybe we can at least agree on “appropriate”. Sometimes it’s not easy to know. Sometimes it can mean two opposite things depending on the context of the situation. But it is an important lesson and closely connected to living without regret.

You see there is chance when in life you do follow that “dream” and it’s not quite the dream you thought it was. The reality is not quite as colorful as the postcard. The stage is not big. The lights not as bright. The guy not as charming, the girl as sweet. The fairytale becomes human… but here’s the catch, you’ll never know unless try. But when you try,  when you set off down that road, don’t burn you bridges as go, because there’s a chance you’ll want to go home when it’s all said and done.

And that is life as I see it. It’s been an emotional couple of weeks, but not without lesson or reward. When I look back at the end, I’ll be happy I came home. But I also think I’ll be happy I went to Africa… which is where I will be in 3 days! Oh yes, life is changing. The adventure must go on! I have got some explaining to do, but I’ll save that for my next entry…

May 4, 2008   3 Comments