Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Foreign Language: Getting Lost in Translation

I came across this posting from the Language Log and thought about one of the main minefields of foreign travel, foreign language (though I guess some travels actually involve real minefields, I'll stick with the metaphor). In the post, the author describes being duped in Taiwan into thinking that a certain expression meant "thank you." Later, he learned he was inadvertently flirting with everyone around him.

Megan and I had a similar experience at the fish market in Zanzibar. A kind man decided to coach us on the way people shake hands in Tanzania and Zanzibar. They lock hands and place thumbs together. Slowly, they slide the thumbs past each other and then release the handshake. Then they make a fist and knock knuckles. This man added an additional step: after the handshake, he suggested we should pound our chest and raise our fist in the air. No problem. We had fun making the handshake, and we felt like we were learning some inside information.

Later, we encountered some tour guides in a local bar near our hotel. We chatted with the guides for a while before displaying our new handshake. The guides erupted into laughter. Apparently we had learned the "pot smoker" handshake.

Megan tells a similar story from her time in Spain. A Danish friend taught her an expression that supposedly meant "hurry up, let's go." When she tried the word out to her other Danish companions, she soon learned that she had been tricked into announcing her overwhelming, passionate desire for the other members of the group.

Megan tells another great story from Spain, suggesting that the confusion can be mutual. She arrived home from a day at school to find the mother of her host family fairly distraught. The mother began telling a story of her friend who had just died. Megan, still working on her language proficiency, thought the mother was telling the story of a dead chicken, and replied, oh-so-sensitively, in Spanish, "That's a good thing. It will taste better that way." Cannibal.

Point being, people like to abuse the naivete and excitement of travelers. The author of the Language Log suggests avoiding using language you don't understand. I take a different approach. I say use it and be fooled--those bits of entertainment to your local hosts may compensate for other goofs that might not be so funny.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tibet: The Utopia That Quite Possibly Never Was

Recently, a friend sent me a provocative article from the travel section of the New York Times called "Tibet, Now." Early on, the article notes some interesting travel statistics for Tibet. Specifically, estimates show that Tibet received approximately 1.2 million visitors in 2004 with estimates of 10 million visitors annually by 2020. The article noted that Westerners would be likely to rush to Tibet as soon as possible to see the country before it loses the mystical quality that will apparently be lost by an onslaught of visitors. Overall, the author seems underwhelmed. While he finds the beauty and magic of Tibet, he seems to find a Tibet that does not match his expectations--Shangri-La, it seems, will remain elusive.

But the article made me wonder: at any point could anyone have found that Tibet? The Tibet of our collective imagination? Can anyone travel to Tibet Michael Crichton-style? Time to back up . . .

Soaring Expectations

The article really got me thinking about my own visit to Tibet and my own reactions that constantly vacillated between awe and disappointment. For me, maybe more than most, Tibet had a magnetic effect on my imagination. As an environmentalist with generally left-leaning political orientation (I can visualize readers boycotting my blog forever: those readers can go back to their Glenn Beck soon), Tibet represented a culture of peace and simplicity that I had admired throughout college. More importantly, as a devoted wannabe mountaineer from an excessively early age, Tibet was the place. After growing up on the stories of Jack London, I had drooled through Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet and Reinhold Messner's The Crystal Horizon about his stunning ascent of Mount Everest from the Tibet side (by the way, Messner made that ascent in the monsoon season, meaning lots of extra snow . . . oh yeah . . . and since that might be too easy anyway, he climbed completely alone . . . and without oxygen). Tibet was a beacon on a really enormous hill, and finally, in the summer of 2005, I had my chance to go.

I traveled to Tibet with Clayton Brown, a good friend from the legendary Amarillo days (okay, maybe not "legendary," but we can pretend). Together we had a short stack of books that we savored like rare treasures in the face of frequent flight delays. One such book was Michael Crichton's Travels, which stands out as one of the most bizarre and generally mind-bending (and spoon-bending) travel books I've read.

In Travels, Crichton describes trips so remote and inaccessible that it created an entirely new baseline for adventure in my mind. His trips to Hunza and New Guinea remain far off dreams for me--heck, Hunza, as such, does not even exist anymore. He trotted around the globe on journeys that had to be outrageous logistical nightmares, code for excellent, unspoiled fun. After Clayton and I had finished the book, we had a new phrase for serious travel: "Crichton travel." After visiting Africa, I would call Crichton travel a modern version of traveling like David Livingstone except that Crichton travel, because his trips were so recent, teases us with the thought that a journey like that might still be possible.

Finding Tibet

Tibet was to be a real shot at Crichton travel. I had watched Kundun and prepared myself for the land of Lamas and altitude, religious pilgrims and yak butter tea, sounds of chants and the sour taste of chang, a Tibetan barley beer. And I got exactly that. While the Dalai Lama is in exile, I visited many monasteries and even got to spend the night in one featured below . . . at the foot of Everest no less!

The altitude was stunning. We had crash acclimatization by landing in Lhasa at over 12,000 feet. A week later, we had adjusted and raced, without being winded, from the monastery to Everest Base Camp, which sits at over 17,000 feet. The religious pilgrims were an inspiration, prostrating themselves across the crowded market streets in pursuit of the Jhokang Temple.

The yak butter tea tasted foul, but I will never forget the enchanting scent of yak butter candles burning below a Buddha sculpture that rose 20 meters above our heads. The chants were beautiful, and, while it tasted of lemons and smelled of rotting eggs, I consumed my fair share of chang. Namdrok Lake (first photo below) was a stunning turquoise, and, after seeing Chomolungma (the more accurate, original name for Everest meaning "Goddess Mother of the World"), I understand why so many are drawn to its summit.

That said, every moment that fulfilled my every wish on that visit was countered by one that left me disappointed and concerned. The end of Kundun, the film that fueled many of my romantic notions of Tibet, documents the events responsible for much of my current disappointment: the Chinese take-over. Now, Lhasa has more ethnic Chinese than Tibetans. Across the street, literally across the street, from the Potala Palace, seen at the top of this post, sits a "monument to the liberation" of Tibet that pierces the surroundings with its grotesque modernism: the phallic shape seems to add violence the otherwise religious milieu. Tibetan passersby cringe at the sight of Chinese tourists having their photo taken in front of the monument. The scene is heart-breaking. We later saw Tibetans cringe more violently as they labored for long days in the mud while hauling rocks to create massive highways . . . highways designed to achieve those 10 million annual visitors.

The Potala Palace itself is a model of absurd revisionism. The Chinese curators have attempted to erase any acknowledgment of the fact that a Dalai Lama still exists and that he once lived in the Palace. Instead, the 14th has been erased, and the history of the building ceases suddenly with his predecessor. Similarly, the labels throughout the Palace try to invent a Chinese history that is likely unwarranted. The New York Times article mentioned the room of 1,000 Buddha figures: the label in that room notes, annoyingly, that over 100 of the figures were casted in China. Similarly, early Dalai Lamas are noted only by the fact that they had visited some Chinese emperor or another. The labels struggle with belabored prose that fails to establish any meaningful connection, and the visitor is left wondering why red flags fly all over town.

The air in Lhasa is pierced by cell phone rings and traffic, commerce and industry. European and US tourists are relatively few compared to the larger number of Korean tourists and Chinese tourists, but all tourist numbers are growing. Even our attempts to escape Lhasa, while offering more of the "pure" Tibet, still brought us reminders of the "Tibet, now." As mentioned earlier, we ended up crashing on the floor of a prayer room in a monastery at the foot of Everest. Next to the monastery, a Chinese government-run hotel offered plenty of rooms. Like most tourists, we decided to choose the floor of a sooty prayer room to avoid benefiting the government. Anyway, as I dozed off in the room with the scent of decades of yak butter candles feeding my reverie, a cell phone shattered the peace. Two sleeping bags over, a half-hour long conversation began, and I wondered if I could ever find my Tibet.

But, as I noted in an earlier posting about a visit to a Maasai village in Tanzania, while tourists wish some sort of pure travel experience, their own arrival and ability to arrive suggests that such experiences are unattainable.

I entered Lhasa and immediately checked into a gem of a hotel: the Yak Hotel. The place had Western toilets, comfortable beds, and excellent Internet connections. More importantly, the restaurant at the Yak Hotel, the Dunya Restaurant, offered some of the best meals we had in Tibet. Run by some Dutch and US expats, the Dunya restaurants is a model of fusion: we devoured yak-meat enchiladas and Indonesia fried rice with stir-fried yak. It was a delight. Just as we criticized the touristy atmosphere of Lhasa, we indulged in its comforts. The photos below feature respectively the comfortable beds of the Yak Hotel and the patio at Dunya Restaurant where we enjoyed the occasional Lhasa Beer and peaceful time with our journals.

Later, on the long trip back to Lhasa from Everest base camp, I sought some much needed digestive relief in a Chinese military outhouse . . . while the Chinese government certainly did not benefit by that visit, I was definitely, at least for a brief moment, quite thankful for that particular facility.

We also have to wonder how great a place pre-Chinese Tibet was. This thought probably has now left me losing both my Glenn Beck readership as well as my liberal fans, but hang on--throughout the country we saw few signs of hygiene or sanitation. Senseless death at young ages by easily preventable and treatable disease is quite common and, presumably, was much worse before Chinese hospitals could be built in the area. It's easy to reflect on a romantic history of a country as though the history is on film, sanitized and scripted: reality could have been harsh, excruciating, and brutal. But the trade-off for modern comfort is a certain sanctity and sense of autonomy, and, based on the devotion of the Tibetans, I imagine the modern comforts are not worth that price.

Utopia Means "No Place:" Go See Tibet

Tibet is an amazing place. After all of my debating back and forth, I still recommend visiting at some point . . . soon. Moreover, visit and hang onto those romantic notions because you will find exactly what you are looking for. The faith of the Tibetan people has remained steadfast through decades of occupation. The countryside is stark, stunning, but harsh. I admire the ability of the Tibetan population to make such a rich existence out of the arid landscape. You will find tourists and tourist accommodations, but, all in all, when it comes time to hit the sack, you'll be happy those exist. The Chinese presence may feel oppressive at times, but, even if they have shirked the responsibility, they are really the only ones that can safeguard a fragile environment. Regardless, go see Tibet, but do not expect to find a traveler's utopia.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Egg Man Makes The Travel Net

Once again, one of our posts has been picked up by The Travel Net. I knew the Egg Man photo was a hit.

We are still in the process of acquiring hard drive space to allow video editing. While we will probably stay out of the film festival circuit, at least for this year, we should be able to put together some short and entertaining clips including a montage of intense off-roading experiences and footage of Megan displaying her amazing knowledge of the local wildlife.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


As mentioned in a previous post, Megan and I met a New York Times photographer for West Africa while in Cape Town. We had a brief breakfast with him at the Hemingway House before we headed out to Stellenbosch.

Thanks to Megan's sleuthing, we realized that the photographer is Jehad Nga. He has recently taken amazing photographs in Chad, Sudan and throughout West Africa.

Megan discovered a slideshow of his photographs from Ethiopia. The photos are amazing. Not only does he work the light to create stunning images that defy the two-dimensional medium, but he chooses unique subjects. Many photographs from Ethiopia focus on huddled masses and portray those masses as something more animal that human. His photographs reveal the dignity that those other photos tend to deny.

After seeing these images, we wish we could return to that breakfast and ask a different set of questions. I might begin with asking something practical: film or digital?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Cape Travels: Good Hope, Stinky Penguins, Sauvignon Blanc

On our first rainy day in Cape Town, Megan and I headed out on a tour of the Cape. The tour began as a means to an end: we wanted to avoid renting a car, but we needed transportation to many of the places we wanted to see. The tour ended up providing much more as we learned interesting facts in a very peculiar application of the English language.

Initially, the driver acquainted us with the general geography of the area. The Cape is bordered to the west, south, and east by the Atlantic Ocean. The waters on the west coast are fed by a very cold current running up from Antarctica. Because of the cold water temperatures, most people on the western beaches tend to sit around "exposing their bodies," to quote our guide. The eastern coast is warmer due to a current coming in from the Indian Ocean, so people are more likely to swim on that coast (though, presumably, they "expose their bodies" over there as well).

With that in mind, we headed south down the Cape on a beautiful highway. The highway dropped off to the ocean, and, while fog shrouded our view for a while, the scene was beautiful.

Eventually, we arrived in Hout Bay, pictured below, to take a boat to a colony of seals. We were told we would take a quick ferry ride on smooth seas out to an island where the seals like to play and then return to the dock. What the guide omitted was the fact that the "smooth seas" were actually rough seas that day. In fact, neither of us had ever experienced rougher waters. The boat tossed and turned as our captain threaded the craft through a maze of massive boulders. The pitch of the ship was shocking, and the motion meant that the seals slid in and out of view. I concentrated on holding on while Megan concentrated on not getting sick. Apparently we captured video of the experience, but I can only imagine the nausea that video would invoke in the viewer.

Oh yeah, we saw seals.

Anyway, then it was off to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. The Cape of Good Hope received that name after it revealed a nautical route from Portugal to the spices of India. I imagine the name relates the fact that anyone who rounded the turn from the East and pointed the ship north stood to make a vast fortune. The photos below show us happily posed at these baboon-riddled landmarks.

The history of the area is closely linked to the history of the spice trade. Cape Town was created as a refreshment station: a place where ships could stop for a resupply of food and drink before rounding the turn toward the Indian Ocean.

Given the traffic and heavy winds, the area also became a perfect place for ships to wreck. In an interesting quirk of geography, the bay to the east of Cape Point became known as "False Bay." Imagine the southwestern coast of the African continent as a coastline with two long fingers jutting out. The western finger consists of Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Upon seeing this, a ship could turn north and head toward Europe. Further east another finger sticks out, this one known as Cape Hangklip. This is more easily pictured through the map below. While unlabeled, the right, or east, side of the image features Cape Hangklip. The west side features Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. The central bay is known as False Bay.

Ships, headed from India, would frequently mistake Cape Hangklip for the Cape of Good Hope. They would then head north at Cape Hangklip and find themselves in a bay. Unfortunately for these sailors, the prevailing winds in that particular part of the world blow, and blow very hard, from the south. The currents also work their mischief and effectively would hold ships in False Bay beyond hope of extrication. The ships would eventually wreck, and thus, the name "False Bay," while probably an understatement, seemed appropriate.


After our history lesson at the southwest corner of the African continent, we made our way back north along more scenic highway to the colony of African penguins at Boulder's Beach near Simon's Town. Previously known as "jackass penguins" due to their call (which closely resembles the noise of a donkey), the African penguin smells really bad. I know the reader probably expected more scientific information, but, aside from a quick and repulsive observation of the mating rituals of the African penguin, we learned little more than the fact that they smell awful. Really awful. The whole beach smelled bad. The wind, which changed directions, constantly filled our nostrils with stench, and, frankly, we came, saw, and departed before bothering to read any of the labels. Below you'll at least find deceptively cute pictures of the malodorous creatures.


Cecil Rhodes, diamond mogul and namesake of the Rhodes Scholarship, once owned a large part of the land around Cape Town. When he died in 1902, he left a large portion of his land for the public benefit. His land provided the grounds for a major hospital, a hospital which became the site of the first heart transplant. Another part of his property became the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, an amazing set of gardens along Table Mountain.

The gardens are separated into themes from endangered plants to medicinal plants, desert environment to forest environment, plants that smell great to plants that smell nasty (but not as nasty as the penguins). We enjoyed our hour walking through the vast property where we often found ourselves completely alone.


Finally, we get to our last morning in Cape Town, a trip to the vineyards. We left early on Sunday morning toward Zevenwacht, a vineyard whose name means the "Seven Expectations." I have no clue what "Seven Expectations" refers to because we were told this fact as we concentrated our sensory efforts on teasing out the subtleties of a pinotage, a wine created from a breeding of two different grape varieties in a South African laboratory. We swirled our glass, smelled, and paid close attention as the wine touched various portions of the tongue. Then we waited to tease out the subtle aftertastes. Megan determined the wine was "tasty," and I decided it was "very tasty" with slight hints of "red wine goodness." We have a gift for this sort of thing.

Through our time at Zevenwacht, we learned a bit about the South African wine industry. Pinotage is the only purely South African grape, but the bulk of wine production in the area consists of sauvignon blanc. Probably because the sauvignon blanc is really, really delicious (more technical wine-tasting vocabulary).

The wine industry in the area was initiated by the Dutch. Later, French Huguenots, who immigrated to the Cape in search of religious freedom, contributed to the growth of the wine industry. They brought with them a great deal of wine knowledge. They also brought oak trees for creating oak barrels for aging wine. In a climactic misjudgment, the oak tended to grow far too fast. While it never became a pest that crowded out other species, the oak grew so quickly that the wood is porous and ineffective for aging wine. Thus, most vineyards use either French or American oak depending on the preferred flavor (so apparently French oak trees and American oak trees taste differently . . . having never done a taste test myself, I had no idea).

After receiving all of this knowledge, we simply had to try more wine. We ended up at Neethlingshof Vineyard, home of the tastiest white wine I've ever tried, the Neethlingshof sauvignon blanc. Neethlingshof stood in a beautiful setting with nearby mountains and lush plant life.

After leaving the vineyard, we made a quick drive through the town of Stellenbosch on our way back to Cape Town. Stellenbosch is a beautiful place with more examples of the Cape Dutch architecture visible in the photos above. The photo below features a Dutch Reform church in Stellenbosch.

To the Airport

We left Stellenbosch reluctantly. While anyone would be reluctant to leave a vineyard in the middle of beautiful landscape, we were more reluctant since our departure meant time for a very, very long flight.

We had an amazing time in Cape Town. While the flight is brutal, we look forward to returning someday . . . but we might visit the great white sharks instead of the penguins next time around.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Cape Town: Merry Minstrels, Great Food, and a Really Huge Hat

Cape Town is an amazing city. We found its citizens friendly, its architecture colorful, and the food noteworthy. Above, Megan poses with one of Cape Town's more famous residents, the Egg Man. The Egg Man tends to hang around the local markets, but we caught him alongside a parade of Merry Minstrels, a parade captured in the first image below. The Egg Man aspires to create the tallest hat in Africa, and he tends to improvise songs about the continent as he wanders through the city ("Africa! Africa! I love Africa! Oh, Africa! Africa!," etc.).

Food, Drink, Merriment

In Cape Town, we stayed at two different smaller hotels, the Atlanticview in Camp's Bay and the Hemingway House near the city center.

We were greeted at the airport by a driver who happened to be a bona fide movie star. He had starred in three films including the recent film, Blood Diamond. We learned that he was an extra in one scene shot while Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't even in the country, but, hey, we were excited with our brush with a brush with fame.

Upon arrival, Atlanticview staff greeted us with sparkling passion fruit juice and led us past our infinity pool and to our room. We turned on the television, not out of a hunger for multimedia, but because the TV usually plays classical music: when the music switches to jazz, the guests are invited to a kitchen near a pool to enjoy South African wines and hors d'oeuvres while watching the sunset. It didn't take long to realize that our trip was about to take a drastic turn toward comfort as we enjoyed views of the sea, beach, and the Lion's Head.

Over the next nights, we stopped by the wine event at the guesthouse on our way out to terrific dinners. The first night, the Atlanticview staff found us a tough-to-get reservation at Aubergine. A few nights later, we also enjoyed a local fish, kingklip, at Baia. Baia also had a dessert made from a rich truffle mix with melted Lindt chocolates in the center. The dessert was then doused in a butterscotch sauce. Very nice.

In Camp's Bay itself, we had a nice lunch at the beachfront restaurant, Blues. On our final night with Atlanticview, we headed to Paranga where we devoured a massive platter of seafood and received our introduction to the amazing liqueur, Amarula. For those who planned to taste some of the Amarula we brought home, you better hurry: the sweet concoction tends to find itself splashed into coffee and glasses of ice almost beyond our control (almost).

Then we moved over to Hemingway House, featured in the photos below. Hemingway House was remarkable for its funky design and excellent location. The extraordinary manager, Dale, also connected us with excellent restaurants. We enjoyed 95 Keerom, known for handmade pastas and various types of meat carpaccio. For our final evening, we had the most tender steaks of our lives at Savoy Cabbage. All in all, South Africa was a culinary treat.

Adventures in Mountaineering

After leading the last stretch of the journey, I jabbed my ice ax into the glacier as a make-shift anchor before shouting "off belay" to Megan who had been climbing the last vertical icefall with only one crampon and a nose slightly blackened by frostbite. Our last bivouac had seen the end of our water supplies. From now on, we were persevering on grit determination and the knowledge that we would become legends in our own time. Below is snapshot Megan took of me at the summit.

Okay, okay, so the summit of Lion's Head sits at 669 meters, but that does not make the hike easy. On the contrary, the bulk of the hike involves a near-vertical scramble over loose rock with the aid of the occasional length of chain or ladder. While the sunburns resulting from this outing are still peeling today, the experience was gorgeous, the views stunning, and the Lion's Head remains one of my favorite memories of our time there. The pictures below were taken from the summit. The backgrounds are central Cape Town, Table Mountain, and the beaches of Camp's Bay. Table Mountain is draped in a thick cloud referred to by locals as the "table cloth" for its tendency to ooze over the precipice without actually covering other parts of town. It's a stunning sight.

A few days later, we headed to the summit of Table Mountain (approximately 1,000 meters) . . . this time we traveled by cable car. We arrived at the line for the cable car and thought we'd inadvertently ended up at an amusement park. A long hour of waiting with exposed sunburns found us ready to board the cable car. After arriving at the top, we faced huge disappointment. Why the long line hadn't clued us in, I don't know, but we were actually surprised to find hundreds of people crowding across the surface of the mountain. The views were fine when not clogged by other tourists. Overall, anyone who plans to visit Cape Town during the busy tourist season should climb Lion's Head . . . the reward is greater. On that note, we've stuck in a couple more Lion's Head shots.

Historical Notes

Walking through the V&A Waterfront, we finally had the chance of a lifetime as Megan ran into Mandela, Desmond Tutu and F.W. de Klerk.

Seriously, Cape Town offered a rich introduction to the local history. While the names mentioned above won their Nobel Prizes in the aftermath of apartheid, the years of apartheid are commemorated in a number of monuments and museums. While Robben Island, the place where Mandela was imprisoned, was inaccessible due to broken ferries (a long story), we managed great encounters with South Africa's recent history. Notably, Megan and I headed to the District Six museum, considered a "must see" by our guidebook. While the website better organizes the information than the actual museum, we found the labels throughout the museum to be extremely well-written. The chaotic organization, while frustrating at first, made the visit feel like unraveling a puzzle.

District Six was a part of Cape Town mainly occupied by blacks. It was a tightly-knit community known for vibrant churches and treasured local business. To the apartheid government, District Six was seen as a breeding ground for crime, disease and political resistance. While most of the accusations constituted political scape-goating, the Group Area Act was passed and required various relocations. In effect, while the US was ending segregation in the wake of Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, South Africa was ramping it up by moving blacks out of their community and bulldozing homes. Only the churches were left standing. Today, a large effort is underway to allow reclamation of the District Six property by those who were forcibly moved: the process has been slow. The museum stands as a reminder of those terrible policies and does a great job portraying the dehumanization of the apartheid era.

Hitting the Road

Some of our favorite adventures during our time in Cape Town actually occurred outside of town. We took trips to the Cape of Good Hope, down to Simon's Town to visit a colony of African penguins, to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and up to Stellenbosch for vineyard visits. That will all come in the next posting. For now, how about another look at the Egg Man . . . we really liked that guy.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Arriving in Cape Town

The journey from Nairobi to Cape Town was a long one. But we were thankful for that journey. After all we had experienced, walking into our room at the Camp's Bay guesthouse and finding the above view was tremendous relief. Before talking about the joys of our new environment, one last story from our time in East Africa will help explain our feelings about finally reaching Cape Town.

Prelude to Breakfast in Bed

We woke the first morning of the trip delirious from a few hours sleep on the heels of a really long series of flights. A quick peek out the window revealed our hotel's large private security force in the middle of the morning briefing. While the security force ostensibly exists to put the guests at ease, they seemed to be well-armed and highly trained; in fact, I have no doubt that the Intercontinental Hotel of Nairobi could stage a coup at a moments' notice. Given our great experience at the hotel, I suspect they could even govern effectively.

The next night, Christmas Eve, really introduced us to the joys of African travel. The morning began with our guide informing us of bus hijackings and, more immediately disconcerting, of the fact that no one had booked accommodation for Megan and me. The guide assured us that we would fine a room "probably," and we shouldn't worry. Hakuna matata.

Too tired to remain concerned and preoccupied by the various additional fees we had been surprised with, we pushed aside our worries and enjoyed the trip. Late in the evening, we pulled into the parking lot at Miserani Oasis, the guesthouse associated with the campsite where the bulk of our group would be staying, the Miserani Snake Ranch. Now, initially, the "Oasis" seemed very nice. It had large patio spaces draped in advertisements for Kilimanjaro beer, and the property was dotted with colorful trees and bushes. We were instructed to drop our bags in "Little Rhino," their equivalent of the penthouse suite: it actually had its own bathroom and a floor fan that once-upon-a-time actually stirred the dank air. Beautiful. At this point, a bed seemed lovely. We dropped our bags and headed toward the Snake Ranch for dinner and instructions on the next day's trip to Serengeti.

After a few hours at the Snake Ranch, we were dropped back at Oasis for the night. We slowly entered our room and turned on the light, which is something we instantly regretted. The light revealed some insects. And by "some insects," I really mean swarms of insects. Piles of insects. Loads of insects. I use "insects" because the numbers precluded classification. Walking around the room, I soon realized that the bugs had various degrees of crunchiness, suggesting some beetle-ish creatures. Noting the buzzing near my backside in the bathroom allowed me to classify some of them as mosquitoes. But really, the moving black carpet of creepies on the walls remains a vague frustration in my memory.

Megan, who usually panics at the thought of insects in her living space, switched into comforting rationality. While I panicked at the thought of waking to a face swollen with insect bites followed shortly by malaria and imminent death, Megan hatched a scheme. Maybe we could turn off the bedroom lights, leave on the bathroom light, and let the insects move to the bathroom while we sleep peacefully in the dark. The plan made sense except for the population we were dealing with: I doubted the doorway to the bathroom had enough space to allow this migration to occur.

Peeved, I headed to the shower to wash off the day's DEET and very quickly reapply. Initially, I noted a shower the likes of which I hadn't seen outside Honduras: a shower head with an electric heater attached to instantly heat the cold trickle while hopefully not causing instant electrocution. I didn't have long to worry about electrocution since the shower head didn't work. I did manage to get a trickle from a spigot down the wall, but even this drip quit shortly after I was completely soaked. Nice.

At this point, we realized a room change was necessary. Insects, whatever. No shower, whatever. No shower or working toilet and a plague of creatures reaching Biblical (and I mean Old Testament) proportions . . . this we could not tolerate.

So we found our innkeeper sitting in a dark restaurant. He entered the room and looked surprised. Speaking only limited and very broken English, he stated "It rained a lot." Yes, we realized the wet season allows insects an ideal breeding ground to unleash their campaign of terror. We know that. But the question to our kindly host was can we get another room. Rephrase, we knew we could get another room, how about one with some netting?

And he lead us to the Pitaya Suite, a tiny room with a mosquito net and running water in the bathroom down the hallway. Beautiful. Megan took this picture of that mosquito net . . . such was our relief.

The room was situated in a short hallway. Our window was barred, and the building could only be entered through two doors. Interestingly enough, the innkeeper, eternally vigilant, had protected us by locking both doors in such a way that neither door could be opened from the inside.

While Megan had remained calm through the great insect assault of '07, she was not so happy about our current predicament. See, Megan works in the field of emergency preparedness. She spends her days creating plans for mass casualty incidents, inventing ways to save lives from imminent destruction. One important part of preparing for an emergency is being able to exit a building in the midst of the disaster. Our current building with its thick iron bars on the windows and thicker iron doors evaded escape. Her concern, in the nature of marriage, quickly became my concern.

So, I surveyed my options. We had no phone in the building, and the innkeeper had probably retreated far away to the Oasis restaurant. I then crafted a genius solution. I walked into the bathroom which had an open window with a screen on it, and I began shouting: "Help! We need a key! We are locked in!" Then I remembered that our host spoke little English and probably would assume English being spoken was just between Megan and me. So, I tossed in the only Swahili I knew, "Jambo," or "hello." So, I began yelling loudly, "Jambo? Help? Jambo! Help? Help? Jambo!"

At this point, you might imagine, Megan was laughing at me . . . and laughing a lot. There I was in the damp bathroom, standing on the toilet, hoping for our jailer to return and give us a key for our eventual release. And Megan was not the only one laughing. By time our host returned, he could barely breathe with laughter. Asanti-sana (thank you very much) for the keys, good sir: please tell no one of this experience.

Now, insect free and having a means of escape, we could try to rest as the mother of all rain storms moved into the area . . . it was a long night. The picture below, although taken on our return to Miserani Oasis after the safari, really captures our mental attitude about the place.

And Then To Paradise

The above anecdote, along with stories from previous postings, reveals that the early part of our trip was fairly rough. That first night at Miserani Oasis was followed by the night Megan made her daring wilderness bathroom journey. Thereafter, we found ourselves on a dangerous overland trip to Dar es Salaam. While Zanzibar was glorious, in our first eight days of travel, we had crashed in eight different beds. We had packed and unpacked every day, and, with one day's exception, we spent over six hours in transport every day of the trip. We were tired . . . more than tired . . . we were zombies. New Year's Eve in Dar es Salaam, despite a massive party a few floors up, Megan and I headed to sleep around 8 o'clock. The way we figured it, we would be awake and heading to an airport by time the ball dropped in New York City: we'd celebrate New Year's then.

With this on our minds, Cape Town was amazing . . . more than amazing . . . at Cape Town, we found a restful paradise, a paradise made sweeter by the long road we had traveled to get there.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Zanzibar: Wanderings, History, Spices

We arrived in Zanzibar after a week of various (mis)adventures, and we were ready to enjoy the little island paradise. Limited on the amount of time we could spend (we had two nights), we never had a chance to make it to any of the more remote beach resorts or dive locations. Instead, we were thrilled to spend our days wandering around the narrow alleys of Stone Town, also known as Zanzibar Town.

Our last morning in Cape Town, we had breakfast with a New York Times' photographer for West Africa. Upon hearing about our stay in Zanzibar, he commented slowly and mysteriously, "Zanzibar (deep breath). I would have to spend weeks there. (long pause, then spoken slowly like a kung fu master from a bad movie) So much light and shadow." While we instantly realized why he makes his living taking photographs and we do not, he has a great point. Stone Town is full of interesting architectural details and fascinating spaces. The influence of the Arab Sultans that ruled Zanzibar appears throughout the city, reminding Megan of the Moorish architecture in Granada, Spain.

Zanzibar also continues the fine culture of hilarious-looking beauty salon signs. In a previous post, I mentioned the G. Unit Hair Salons in Tanzania. Camera ready, we managed to document some similar establishments on Zanzibar. It was all Megan could do to resist a makeover, East Africa-style.

We also spent plenty of time on beachfront restaurants and bars with our eyes to the sea. From the boat below, bidding us "Jambo," to the sunsets at the Sunset Bar at the Africa House Hotel, we always associated the sea with relaxation. Quick note: in the second photo, I am not dying from a long-term struggle with some serious ailment, I'm just sweaty . . . . really sweaty . . . Zanzibar during the summer rainy season is humid and hot . . . really hot.

Our final favorite part of Zanzibar was the nightly fish market along the sea. Vendors would wander in with the day's catch and craft delicious skewers of spicy seafood. Others would provide dessert by frying up chocolate-banana crepes or fresh lemonade made with pure sugar cane. Our favorite fisherman, also Zanzibar's most devoted 50 Cent fan, Captain Salem, is featured in the photo below boasting about his product with kabobs of barracuda in one hand and a $4 lobster in the other. As Captain Salem would say: "Delicious is here!"

David Livingstone Returns

The modern tourist inevitably makes it to the above location: the birthplace of the lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury. That was exciting. But, given my particular obsessions, we were more excited when David Livingstone entered the scene again.

Leading up to Livingstone's arrival sometime near 1870, Zanzibar was ruled by Arab sultans who lived in utter luxury. The above photo features the ruins of a palace kept for the Sultan's 99 women. After maintaining a steady diet of ginger (Zanzibar's chief aphrodisiac), the sultan would request three different women a day to come over to his palace to satisfy his various pleasures. If a woman became pregnant, she was driven to the market, released, and another woman was selected to fill her place.

The sultans funded this lifestyle through the sale of spices and slaves. In fact, Zanzibar sat as a center of the slave trade throughout the region, a brutal trade remembered in this monument.

A staunch opponent to slavery, David Livingstone arrived in Zanzibar to try to single-handedly persuade the sultan to discontinue the slave trade. He moved into the house below and began his work. By the way, since our driver decided Livingstone's house was not worth slowing down for, I ended up a bit crooked in snapping this shot: the structure of the house is just fine.

Livingstone began his work upon arrival, and, after three years of heavy lobbying, he succeeded. After his success, Livingstone returned to Zambia where he died. His heart was buried under a tree in Zambia, and his body was returned to Westminster Abbey.

Thanks to Livingstone, the old slave market was demolished. In its place, an Anglican Church was built and stands today as a monument to the end of that particular oppression. In the corner of the church sits a small cross carved from the wood from the Zambian tree under which Livingstone's heart was buried: the plaque commemorates Livingstone's contribution to the freedom of slaves in Zanzibar. In the first photo, Megan peeks her head around the door of the church. In the second, the Anglican Church stands in the foreground with a minaret from a mosque in the background. In Zanzibar, Christians and Muslims have coexisted peacefully for centuries.

Initially, I had pictured Livingstone entering Africa with pith helmet and machete: the conqueror from Britain, ready to introduce the world to the glory of Empire. And, for all I know, Livingstone may have left for Africa with such intentions . . . but he certainly did not finish his time that way. Livingstone fell in love with the continent and spent his life working for the benefit of the people he admired. While we lost Livingstone's trail at the church, we hope to pick it up again in future journeys.


From the moment we knew we would be visiting Zanzibar, Megan became excited about the prospect of a spice tour. On the tour, we wandered through a government spice farm smelling leaves and roots and bark to guess what spice had been handed our way. Above, Megan enjoys the potent aroma of the bark from a cinnamon plant.

While we were satisfied with the idea of simply wandering around smelling leaves and licking roots, the tour just got better and better. A young man who worked on the spice farm would disappear from time to time and return with crafts he had made out of leaves. Below, Megan models a necklace, a small, green frog crafted from a leaf. Then you'll find me wearing an ever-so-stylish "King of the Spice Farm" hat.

Thus attired (okay, so the hat got itchy . . . ), we headed to a clearing for lemongrass tea made from lemongrass grown on the farm. The hot tea, made tastier with a drop of local vanilla extract, was accompanied by fruit. And not just any fruit but really, really delicious fruit. The fruit below is called jeck fruit, and while it looks like the flayed carcass of a sea urchin, the fruit tastes like some brilliant mating between a pineapple and a banana. And we liked it . . . a lot.

The trip was a feast for our senses and a feast in its own right. We had filled our noses with a wide array of spices before diving into the fruit. The concluding touch was a taste of rice palau, a rice dish cooked with many of the Zanzibar spices. So, we savored the dish while trying to sort between flavors of cardamom, cinnamon, clove, black pepper, green pepper, red pepper, and the Sultan's ginger. Then Megan visited the spice market for some goodies, and we were off for our last evening in Zanzibar.

Farewell to Zanzibar

Our last night in Zanzibar was bittersweet. We had barely tasted the island (rephrase, we had tasted plenty but barely seen). We found scuba and snorkel maps noting shipwrecks and large reefs, but we never got the chance to explore these treasures. We had wandered through the alley markets and still only seen a fraction of the small shops with the fascinating crafts and occasional prize antique. We had dined on seafood but hardly begun to make our way through the broad list of creatures enjoyed by the locals.

At the same time, Zanzibar kept us in mosquito netting and on malaria medication. Likewise, we had to continue applying the sweet honeymoon perfume: that magical combination of 100% DEET, sunscreen and sweat.

We spent our last evening at the Sunset Bar at the Africa House before wandering down to the fish market where Captain Salem stood, more subdued this night in a solid-black New York Yankees cap. Reluctantly, we strolled back up to the Zanzibar Hotel to rest up before two days of travel toward Cape Town. We wrapped the bed in mosquito netting for the last time and slept beautifully.

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