Thursday, April 24, 2008


Getting off the plane, Uganda was immediately a pleasant change from Dar es Salaam. The land was green, Lake Victoria was huge, and the air was refreshing. We came to hang out with Megan, a friend who I grew up with and is now halfway through her Peace Corps stint.

Taxi drivers seemed super friendly and we later found out why. Coming from airports, all the taxi drivers have a small monopoly going, so they are pleased to take you for 2-3 times what it should cost. Once we started hanging around Megan things changed a bit because she had a better idea of non-Muzungu prices. "I take you for 4000." "We go for one five. That is fair price." (1500 shillings = $.80) "Ok 3000 and we go." "No, you know that is not fair price and we find someone else." After Megan's take-it-or-leave-it bargaining, taxi drivers would often seem on the verge of tears, mumbling about high gas prices and hungry families. Same went with the drivers of the 14-person vans (aka matatus); Megan has reportedly had screaming matches over 500 shillings ($.30). It’s the principle of it – the injustice of two sets of prices. But many Africans feel entitled to charge white people more nonetheless, and they feel cheated when they can't.

Megan's village was a 15 minute drive from the nearest town, Lugazi. The village is set between sugar cane fields and a dense forest. We would arrive there either in a taxi or on the back of a motorcycle (boda), and the vehicles would slip and slide in the thick, sticky mud that was inevitable after big rains. On sunny days, the red, empty dirt roads were idyllic enough to make any runner or cyclist salivate.

Most of the houses in the village were mud huts, but Megan's and a few others’ were brick and concrete. Arriving, we knew we were in Africa: a dozen women were outside her house singing with some boys drumming, and little piglets were running around the yard. Kids ran up to us: “Muzungu! (white person) How are you?” The kids who didn’t know that much English were satisfied with just pointing and yelling “Muzungu!” until you couldn’t help but laugh.

Megan's main activities on rainy days: cook, clean, read, and sleep. We welcomed this relaxing routine and tried our best to follow Megan's protocols. Shampoo here, silverware here, these tubs for washing dishes, these tubs for bucket baths. She had a newly made couch that was perfect for reading, and the interior decoration was definitely Megan-esque with kitchen items placed neatly, photos of friends arranged perfectly, and small stars painted on the bookshelves. It’s always a nice surprise to step out of the African village and into her little two room apartment; the stark contrast with its surroundings is immediately apparent and you almost feel guilty for living in America again.

The corrugated metal roof was so loud during rain storms that it would wake us up, and we would have to yell to communicate. A few times we couldn't help but think it was about to fall down on us. But Megan's stocked up on some great goodies, some sent from America, some brought by visitors and some left by people heading home. We ate Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, we ate by candlelight, we had sweet chili sauce and parmesan cheese, made bean dip, guacamole with $.10 avocados, homemade chapattis, movie nights with the laptop, and warm bucket baths whenever. Not a rough life by any stretch of the imagination.

I took bodas to the village to get internet and get some work done. One time I bought a 135 liter plastic water tank and a few metal gutters and brought them back to Megan’s place. We had the local carpenter help us install the gutter for 3000 shillings (he had a ladder and a hammer). The new rain collection system got a good workout during a few storms while we were there and should get plenty of use by Megan and her neighbor in the months to come.

Megan's front yard has a small garden surrounded by two buildings for the local preschool. The kids usually assemble around 7:30am to start banging on the car hub that hangs from a stick placed in the middle of the yard. Megan usually gets out of bed by 8am to tell them to be quiet, occasionally putting a few in timeout, which sometimes works. By 9am about 150 kids are receiving lackluster education from 2 teachers (mostly rote memorization). This usually resembled chanting repetitively or copying from a single blackboard. On their way to the bathroom, they would pause and stare at us until one of us waved. They shyly wave back, then scream and laugh as they run away. At 11am, Megan hosts an hour of “art,” where 5 kids shyly enter her room, sit on the concrete floor, and draw on printer paper with crayons. Emma and I helped them build stuff with Megan’s Jenga blocks.

Their creativity, Megan says, has been beaten out of them. We tried providing positive reinforcement to those who finally drew things that hadn’t been featured on the blackboard every day.

Three other Peace Corps volunteers came for a weekend to help out with a soccer camp for the ladies in the village. Megan bought the ladies soccer shorts, and they were clearly embarrassed to put them on, but loved the chance to learn soccer skills and play an hour long game. A few dozen men sat watching from the shade and got drunk from plastic bags of the local moonshine.

After a week in the village we went to Jinja, a town next to the source of the Nile. From there we visited the Hairy Lemon, a small kayaker hangout on an island. Very laidback and picturesque. We also went to another hostel/hotel/campsite/restaurant/rafting-outfitter/British ex-pat hangout called Nile River Explorers. The place has been battered by its fair share of parties, many of them led by rafting guides and kayak bums. The single TV was only allowed to play big rugby games. There was a well stocked bar and a wooden deck looking West over the Nile.

Rafting was a highlight of the trip. With a handful of Category 5 rapids, it was a heart pounding day and we fell out of the raft a few times. Emma was on the lookout for crocodiles but only saw a water snake. I was preoccupied with the fact the river seemed to simply end where the next huge set of rapids began. The waves were huge and the current was fast, and we caught air when the raft got tossed by a monster rapid.

I took a kayaking lesson; it’s way harder than it looks. With the massive amount of water flowing, there are countless different current happening simultaneously, with boils coming from nowhere and threatening to tip your kayak, and the instability on the edges of huge eddies caught me off guard a ton. Even in the Category 1’s and 2’s it was a challenge to stay upright, but it was super exciting and I could see how people get addicted to this sport. They taught me how to roll the kayak and I almost did it, but unfortunately I’ll have to try another day.

As for food, it was great to be able to cook for ourselves again. The best local food I found was called Chicamandos: warm, greasy chapattis with beans dumped on top. It’s a street vendor thing, and it was AWESOME. With some fresh avocados and tomatoes, all served up in a small clear plastic bag. Pure greatness.

It was fun to be here. I won’t miss all the stares we get. I also won’t miss the ever present annoyances: inefficiency, inconsistency, and incompetency. Those things are to be expected while traveling, but it’s one of the things that makes America great.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Goodbye Zanzibar.

On our last day in Zanzibar we finally organized a snorkeling trip. We listened to rain all night hoping we would wake up in the morning to a clear blue sky. We didn't quite get our wish, but the sky did clear enough for us to be able to begin our trip in the sunshine. The snorkeling tour took us to four different islands off the western coast in a narrow wooden boat with a small motor. Luckily it had a covered area which provided some protection from first the sun and then the rain. The first island, which turned out to be the best snorkeling, was actually a small sand bar. Clear white sand covered with tiny sand piles about a foot tall. Upon investigation we found these sand piles were made by crabs and spent a few minutes trying to coax one from its layer. They dig spiraling tunnels under the sand.

The water was filled with tiny colorful fish, my favorite being the mini bright purple and the all yellow ones. There were tiny lumps of coral and lots of black sea urchins, some had spikes over 6 inches long. On our way to the second island the dark clouds rolled through giving us a downpour of cold rain – lovely. The sea turned a darker green and there were even a few white caps, very pretty if a bit uncomfortable. We tried to snorkel in the deeper water off this island were the coral was more dense, but the water was filled with tiny octopus particles. Boy do they hurt. It felt like lots of tiny pinprick all over your body. Ouch. So we decided to Here we had our lunch of tomato sandwiches, oranges and coconuts.

A couple of the local fishermen were hauling in their catches of the day while we were eating. Not only did they bring in a variety of fish, but also octopuses and eels that were almost three feet long! I was sure glad I was seeing all of this after I got out of the water. After lunch we went to the last two islands, where the main attraction was the land animals - tortoises and birds. Some of the tortoises were over 100 years old and did they chomp down on the greens we were allowed to feed them. It was rainy again on the boat ride back to Stone Town, but overall is was a great day.

That night we purchased three bottles of wine, brought travel Scrabble and cards to a restaurant and had a awesome three hour meal. It might have been our best meal so far...swordfish, red snapper, chicken burger with guacamole, prawns, and some delicious sticky date pudding for dessert. It was the prefect way to top off our week before heading to Dar es Salaam, that is before our walk home. The rainy season is approaching rapidly and of course it immediately started to rain as we left the restaurant to walk back to our hotel. The walk couldn't have been more then 10 minutes long but within two we were soaked to the bone. Laughing, we ducked into the alley that led to our hotel when all of a sudden we heard Claire screaming. It took us a second to realize it wasn't the result of the waterfall we had just run under, before we turned and ran to find out what was going on. Back on the main street Claire and Corey were yelling thief at some guy and standing up from being on the ground. Not a good situation. What had happened? How did we go from laughing to stunned and scared in the matter of minutes? We found out later that some guy had tried to grab Claire's purse, ended up dragging her backwards down the alley. Corey turned around to see what was going on and jumped the guy until he finally let go. Fuck. But why was he still standing there? Why did we drag her into the most public stop on the street? How could two incidents happen to us two days in a row? Back as the hotel the mood was somber....what a way to end what had been an extremely fun week. Sometimes traveling sucks.

Needless to say Chris and I were a bit depressed when we arrived in Dar. We holed up in our room and a day and just listened to the rain and traffic. We ventured out only to visit the Subway the girls has told us was only a block away. Delicious! Just like in the U.S., we ate Spicy Italian subs for the next two days straight and loved it. We eventually walked around, found a nice bakery with hummus and spent some time at the five star hotel using the wireless internet. We bought tickets to Uganda to visit Chris's friend, Megan, who is in the Peace Corp just outside of Kampala. But we never ventured out after dark.

We are posting this from Uganda - it's awesome - more to come soon. Sorry for the delay in posts, internet is a little hard to come by out here. Miss you all!



Saturday, April 5, 2008

Dude, where's my swimsuit?

I could not find my bathing suit bottoms anywhere. The top was hanging next to the window where I’d left it after my shower but the bottom was nowhere in sight. I searched all over our tiny thatched banda – in the bed, hanging in the bathroom, in my clothes bag – nothing. How could I have lost my bathing suit? We even looked outside in the sand around the bungalow in case it had fallen out or someone had reached in to grab it, creepy but maybe. Remembering the sounds that startled us from our sleep last night, maybe some animal took it. There is was, wedged into the tiny crack between in the two halves of the thatched roof, a tiny bit of light blue fabric hanging from the ceiling. We both stared then broke out laughing. Seriously, my bathing suit was stolen by some animal during the night. Needless to say we had to get the management, who also started laughing when I told them about it, to retrieve it.

We thoroughly enjoyed our last few days at the beach and met up with three of Chris’s friends from high school, Claire, Corey and Laura, who just happened to be in Zanzibar – great coincidence. It was great to have new people to hang out with! We exchanged stories, played cards, read on the beach, and even snuck in a few games of Scrabble.

One of our goals for being in Zanzibar was to go snorkeling, which we had yet to accomplish. We decided to take a trip to four of the islands south of Stone Town back on the west side of the island since it was cheaper and we were all leaving for Dar in a few days. Of course, after a week of total relaxation and zero stress, we had to run into problems at the last possible moment, with the shared taxi ride back to town. None of us where really sure what happened, but what was supposed to be a simple 60 min ride back to town turned into a trip to them local police station.

After talking to a travel agent in town we had arranged to be picked up by a shared taxi for the trip back. Claire, Corey and Laura were picked up first and arrived at our hotel promptly at 11:00 am as planned. Then we realized there were two taxis. A private one for us and a different shared one. Realizing our mistake, the girls started to switch taxis but were prevented by the angry driver of their previous van. Out of nowhere he snatched Claire’s sunglasses off her face. Next thing we knew, one of the other passengers, a testosterone filled guy from the UK was yelling at the guy to give back the glasses. Then punches are flying, everyone is trying to restrain the crazy driver. The guy picks up a rock about the size of a football and starts threatening the dude from the UK. By this time people are coming to watch, hotel workers, locals, there must have been 20 people just standing around watching the commotion. One of the security guards at our hotel called the police and locked the entry gate. Luckily, the fighting calmed down – no one was going anywhere, we all had to wait until the police arrived.

Dealing with police in countries where corruption is commonplace and many times expected is not advisable. Well, we all took a trip over to the local police station hoping that what was a simple misunderstanding wouldn’t become anything more. As the various parties crammed into the small one room station, Laura and I decided to wait outside. The taxi driver immediately started telling his version of the story, at which point it was very fortunate that both Claire and Corey speak Swahili.

Since most of the argument was about the money the taxi driver was losing with less passengers (mind you it was money it didn’t have to begin with because we hadn’t scheduled our ride with him), they explained that we never intended to pay any drivers – we would only pay the travel agent in Stone Town, which both drivers worked for. Luckily they accepted this explanation and we were able to get back into our rightful taxi for the trip back to town. The guy from the UK and his girlfriend joined us, everyone feeling bad for the rando girl by herself who was still riding with the crazy driver.

It was quite the morning. We were all feeling fortunate and a bit emotional exhausted by the time we reached town. But we found a great lunch place, one of three we actually liked in Stone Town, and had lunch before wandering around the streets and browsing shops until dinner. Good food makes up for everything.