TIA: This is Africa

Long bus rides may not be the most pleasant experience, but it’s usually not difficult to merely buy a bus ticket, right? Well, not everywhere. As Leonardo DiCaprio says in Blood Diamond, “TIA, right mate? This is Africa.”

Chris and I arrived in Johannesburg on a November Sunday around one in the afternoon. We took the metro to Hatfield, a student-centered suburb of Pretoria, and opened our Coast to Coast backpacking book, a pocket-sized, pink- and purple-striped guide to hostels in SA, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, and Lesotho. There was one hostel listed in Pretoria, on Arcadia Street. We asked the first guy we saw, a young, long-haired and bearded backpacker type, where it was. He said it was near but he wasn’t sure where. Then, he did something strange.

He fixed us with a steely gaze and said, “You should take a cab. I wouldn’t walk around with backpacks like that, looking like tourists. I wouldn’t really walk anywhere, actually. Welcome to South AfricaThis is South Africa. You’ll be mugged.”  Sufficiently scared out of our wits, we said thanks, and walked across the street to ask a taxi driver to take us to the address, and he said it would be 50 rand (about $7). Now, in the US, seven bucks for a cab ride is chump change. But in South Africa, you never accept the first price.  We said we’d pay him 30, but he refused.  We walked away in hopes he’d call us back, falling over himself apologizing and offering us a ride for 35 or 40 rand. But he let us walk.

Just then, a car pulled up beside us. We backed away. Cars pulling up beside you near Johannesburg is the kind of thing you read in newspaper stories under headlines like “American Backpackers Still Missing.”  The window opened, and the shaggy-haired guy we saw before stuck his head out. His dad, driving the car, had a classical guitar performance at three, and it was currently 2:15, so he had just enough time to drop us off.

We arrived at the hostel, and were greeted by the lovely Yzelle and Maj (pron. Mae), who generously offered us the private room for the same price as the dorm, because they had had their first theft at the hostel a week before and feared for people’s safety. This was the second robbery comment in the past 15 minutes, and Chris and I began to seriously doubt what we were doing hanging around there.

But, when in Africa, as in life, you can’t just shy away from challenges. And anyway, we wanted to book a bus to Nelspruit, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe gateway to Kruger National Park, home to the largest concentration of safari wildlife on the planet. Yzelle and Maj told us that, since it was Sunday, the ticket office was closed, but that we could still buy the tickets on Computicket.com, a third-party site like Ticketmaster.

We found a bus leaving Pretoria at 7:15 the next morning, and booked it using my credit card. The fine print at the end of the confirmation page read, “Please pick up tickets using the credit card of purchase and a photo ID at any supermarket counter, as tickets purchased on Computicket cannot be picked up at the bus station.” Chris and I looked at each other, stunned.

I called Computicket to explain the situation, hoping they’d come riding in on their silver stallions to save the day, just like any respectable American business would do.  The recorded voice answered the phone.

“Our offices are open from Monday to Saturday, and are closed on Sunday.”

TIA, mate.

We asked Yzelle and Maj if we could just pick the tickets up at the station if we explained what happened. They shook their heads. “If you had bought the ticket on the bus company’s website, you could have picked it up at the station.”

We started. Why did they tell us to book the ticket on Computicket, then?

To further the problem, in South Africa, bus tickets are commonly sold at the lotto ticket counter in supermarkets, as the recorded voice had said. Why? TIA. The only solution now was to get to the supermarket. We asked Yzelle and Maj where the nearest supermarket was.

“They’re all closed, I think. It’s three forty-five, and they all close at three on Sundays.”

By now, we were fuming mad. We thought that picking up the tickets the next morning was our only option. The metro opened at 5 AM. Good. But the supermarkets opened at 8. There was no way we would be able to pick up our tickets in time to catch the 7:15 bus.

“Except…” Yzelle began, “there IS a Shop Rite that’s open until 8 today down at the Menlyn Mall. You could try there.”

“Great, where’s that?” I asked.

“About 12 kilometers down the road.”

I stood with my mouth agape. I checked the map. There was Menlyn mall, all the way in the bottom right-hand corner of the map.  A taxi ride would have cost 70 Rand (9 bucks) each way, or we could walk the 8 miles, or we could try to hitchhike. Chris was steaming, slamming his hands on the bed in our room, furious that the good deal we got on the room was now ruined by heinous bureaucracy. There had to be another way.

I asked Maj if there was a bike I could borrow. She took one out, a small mountain bike built more like a tank, with a seat and handlebars meant for someone six inches shorter than me, and an old enough model that you needed a screwdriver to adjust the bars or seat, provided you could even turn it through the rusty metal caked to the columns.

I looked at this sad excuse for a bike, its chain hanging limp from the gears.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

I fixed the chain, tested the brakes (the rear brake was almost nonexistent, the front one strong – not the combination you want), and set out to bike it. 8 miles was nothing. I’d done forty before, plenty of times. I wrapped my credit card in two bills – a fifty and a ten – and, remembering what the shaggy haired guy said about not going anywhere for fear of being mugged, stuck it in my underwear.

The first danger I encountered was that in South Africa, they drive on the left. Obviously, this also means that you ride your bike on the left, and use your right hand to signal. This was a test of my concentration and balance, especially since the rear, safer brake was still located by my right hand. I navigated the first few turns on side streets near the hostel until I felt comfortable making tight left turns and wide, sweeping rights. It was weird, but I got the hang of it. Eventually, though, I had to turn onto the main road.

I rode along in the left hand lane, a bizarre feeling if I’ve ever had one, and got buzzed by two successive cars, each one passing within six inches of me. It dawned on me that mugging might not be the only unsafe thing about South Africa. Also, I wasn’t wearing a helmet, a big no-no. I immediately moved up to the curb, and, in poor cyclist etiquette, rode past pedestrians on the sidewalk the rest of the way.

Forty-five minutes later, I locked my bike up at the Menlyn Park mall and walked in to “Entrance 7.” There was no giant “Directory” sign like you see in the US, and the information booth was empty. With at least seven entrances, it was going to take me hours to find the Shop Rite. I stopped a young couple and asked where the supermarket was. They pointed over my shoulder.

“Right there!” the guy said, with a laugh.

I smacked my palm to my forehead, said thanks, and headed over to a supermarket called Checker. It wasn’t Shop Rite, but I had picked up bus tickets at Checkers before, so I knew it would be ok.

Twelve glass doors stared at me, spanning the front of the store under the enormous sign. The eleven on the right were closed, and a middle aged lady in an official Checker uniform was ushering a long line of shoppers out of the door on the far left. I walked up.

“The store’s closed,” she said.

No. No! It couldn’t be closed! This was our only way to get the tickets.  I told her I was just picking up tickets, that I had bought them already and just needed five minutes. She said sorry, the store was closed and I’d have to come back tomorrow. I started to launch into my story of the early bus and the supermarkets not being open in time, but she just shook her head and pointed for me to leave.

Disgusted, I knew I had to think fast. I found a security guard and asked where the Shop Rite was. Yzelle and Maj said it was open until 8.

“There’s no Shop Rite here. Only Checker.”

I gritted my teeth, thanked the man, and marched back to the far left door of Checker, determined to talk my way into this or die trying. As an English teacher, I have faith in my ability to talk my way into and out of just about anything. I’m good at persuasive arguments and Socrates’ rhetorical appeals of ethos, logos, and pathos. If ever there was a time to pull out all the stops, this was it.

Once again, I pleaded with her. It would take two minutes, but I HAD to get those tickets. It was of the utmost importance for national security and the stability of the space-time continuum, or something. I don’t really recall what I said, but I do remember that she frowned at me.

“Go quickly,” she said, pointing to her left. “The counter’s over there.”

I ran across forty checkout lines until I arrived at the lotto counter. I asked for my tickets, and slapped my credit card down on the desk.

“Photo ID?” the woman asked.

I stuck my hand into my, well, the side of my underwear, and pulled out the fifty and the ten. No license. No passport.

“I don’t have my photo ID,” I said, letting the sweaty, crumpled bills fall lazily on the counter.

The woman looked at the money. “No photo ID, no ticket.” I died a little inside. I fished around in my mind for what to do. And then I remembered: TIA. A little bribe never hurt anybody. I had heard a story that morning from a guy who had given us a lift to Pretoria that he had gotten stopped by a cop for driving without a license, a serious offense with a penalty of 1,000 rand ($133) among other things. He had slipped seven rand (a buck) out of his pocket, handed it to the cop, and the cop said, “Have a nice day,” got in his squad car, and drove away.

Pushing the money across the counter, I pleaded my case. I could tell her the names and birthdays of both passengers, the route, and the departure and arrival times of the bus, even sign my signature to match it to my credit card, but I HAD to get those tickets.

She considered it for a moment. “I have to ask my supervisor.”

She said something in Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, a mix between Dutch, German, English, and French, and the supervisor turned to me.

“Sir, are you telling me that I have to lose my job just so you can have two bus tickets?”

“No, no,” I said, explaining the situation once again.

“There’s a lot of credit card fraud in this country, sir. I can’t let you do that.”

I pleaded, glancing at the soggy sixty rand still sitting on the counter. It looked less like a good bribe now than when I had pulled it out.

She narrowed her eyes and asked me where I was from. “The USA,” I said.

“I can tell from your accent.”

She proceeded to ask me what I was doing in South Africa, how I liked it, how long I had been here and when I was going home, no doubt checking my story for legitimacy, to see if I had to fish around for details or if I would slip up and not be able to answer the questions. They came a mile a minute, but I stayed cool under pressure and answered every one.  “Travelling, great and beautiful country, about two weeks, and unsure, because heading to Mozambique and Malawi soon.”

She still wasn’t convinced. “I promise you,” I said, “the bus leaves Pretoria at 7:15 tomorrow and arrives in Nelspruit at 12:55 in the afternoon.”

“I’ll have to check that the bus leaves when you say it leaves,” she said.

Finally, a break.

The supervisor typed something into a computer, and saw that, indeed, the bus would leave at 7:15 and arrive at 12:55.

She looked at me. The supervisor looked at me. I looked at the soggy underwear cash on the counter.

She held my credit card up to her face with one hand and handed me a blank slip of paper with the other. “Sign here,” she said.

I did so, my looping, sweeping signature exactly matching what I knew was on the back of my card.

She considered the two, and spouted a long string of Afrikaans to the lady behind the counter, the only word of which I caught was one that sounded like “Forge.”

“Yeah,” I said, smiling. “You can’t forge that signature.”

The lady smiled. “No, you certainly can’t.  Here are your tickets.”

She printed them out, wished me a nice trip, and like a miracle, we were on our way. Anything was possible now.


A Bollywood Blunder for the Ages

I went to the cinema tonight to watch my second Bollywood film at the theater. It was showing at the beautiful Raj Mandir in Jaipur, a “heritage” theater that simultaneously looked like an old classic opera house and a giant pink birthday cake.

The movie (there’s only one) was Department, a Bollywood take on an action film about a police department fighting crime in the most completely implausible ways.

Bad guys were getting kicked twenty feet through the air, smashing through brick walls, and then conveniently landing on the upturned spikes of a pitchfork. When punched, they would inevitably defy gravity (and physics) and fly into a wooden or glass table with theatrically appropriate (read: poor) structural integrity.

Add to this the hackneyed cliches of the bad guys (toting automatic weapons that fire a jillion rounds per second) who couldn’t hit the ocean if they fired at the waves, and the one-shot-with-a-pistol-while-
flying-through-the-air sharpshooting of the cops, and you have yourself a “drama” completely devoid of it, as the cops are never seriously challenged, and merely respond to every crisis by rolling in and instantly kicking ass, leaving scores of bloodied baddies in their wake.

Not that I’m complaining, however. With Hindi dialogue and no subtitles, I had plenty of attention to spare to watch the incredible atmosphere going on around me. It’s a heck of an experience to be there in the theater with Indian people who let out a raucous cheer any time that:

1) A famous actor makes a cameo (which, in Bollywood movies, is constantly)

2) A woman’s lips/legs/stomach are shown in close up

3) Someone kicks someone else’s ass

4) An actor, during an action scene, performs a death-defying feat like jumping over a moving car or sliding across a floor under a hail of bullets to punch someone in the stomach (and then naturally through a glass table)

As if the horrendous plot and rowdy fans weren’t enough, there are the camera angles. The movie is filmed from a variety of perspectives, designed specifically to prevent you from having any idea of what’s actually going on.

Characters are filmed rom under a glass table (that will inevitably be smashed), from the hand of someone carrying a mug of tea or some important document, from a bird’s eye view, from across a room and through the wine glass held by another character, from a super close up showing only eyes or lips (eliciting a cheer if this is of a female), from far away before a dramatic zoom in, rotation, and then zoom out, all in freeze-frame, punctuate the suspenseful parts, since, as we already know the outcome will be a flawless ass-kicking by the good guys, camera tricks must be employed to fool the audience into enjoying the movie.

My favorite camera angle, though, was the fish-eye lens that filmed a five-minute-long normal conversation between the main character and his girlfriend, and all the while spun around them at high speed, dizzying even the most iron-stomached viewers.

And of course, no Bollywood film would be complete without the ridiculously long song and dance scenes. If you thought these were just for comedies, think again. Even when characters are getting bottles broken over their heads, they still must take time out to shake their booties in a club with impossibly scantily-clad women, men in far too many bright neon colors, and all in the rain because somehow it rains indoors inside a club but only the women get wet. I guess the guys need to stay dry for the post-song ass-kicking session.

This all added up to an incredible movie-going experience. The 60 cent popcorn didn’t hurt, either. One thing is for sure: if a Hollywood director ever tried to make a movie like this, he’d be fired by the studio immediately. Or maybe he’d be chucked through a glass table.

Incredible, Indelible India

Today marks a month since I’ve entered India. It’s a long time, to be sure, but as most western travelers say when I tell them, “Really? Only a month?” Apparently, the “thing to do” is to get a six month visa and spend the entirety of it traveling around this huge, varied country. And with so many different places to go, different culture, food, even languages, it’s something I’d love to do. But for now, I’ll be content with my six weeks. Even in that amount of time, India has already left a unique mark on me.

Not a day goes by in India without three distinct things happening: 1) Almost getting killed by crazy drivers, 2) Seeing an Indian wobble his head, 3) Having someone ask you if you’re married. Let me explain.

The stereotypes we maintain in the west about crazy taxi drivers really snaps itself into focus after you come here. I can’t speak for the crazy taxi drivers from the middle east, but for Indians, as it was for the Chinese when I visited a few years back, the lines in the road are merely suggestions. The normal way to make a turn is to drive heedlessly into the path of oncoming traffic while honking your horn incessantly. These other drivers, rather than getting mad like their western counterparts undoubtedly would, merely swerve around you on either side, those who can make it in front of you going in front, those who you’re likely to cut off going behind, like water parting around a rock. There might be seven or eight vehicles (rickshaws, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, cars, trucks, pedestrians, elephant riders, and horsemen) facing different directions in any one intersection, all weaving around one another and the crowd of cows grazing on rotten fruit. Hardly anyone stops and there are almost no accidents and no gridlock. Somehow, the chaos works. And New York City traffic just got a whole lot clearer.

The head-wobble is a distinctly Indian movement. The nonverbal communication here is unique and varied, and it takes a while to get used to. A sharp, diagonal nod of the head means “yes”, and it’s sometimes given with the word “yes” and sometimes without. A shaking of the head side to side (a Western “no”) can mean either yes or no, depending on their facial expression. Many times, if I’m asking someone about the rules of cricket (which I do often, since there are so many and I’m still learning how it all works), they’ll shake their head throughout my explanation. When I finish, they don’t say anything. This invariably leads me to ask, “So, is that right?” Then I’ll get a diagonal nod, like “Duh, didn’t you see me agreeing with you?”

But the head wobble is the best of all. Side to side, up and down, and around in a circle all at the same time, it’s the same motion that a bobble-head doll makes when you flick it in its oversized noggin. People have explained to me that this means, “I understand,” or “ok,” or that they agree with you. Sometimes I say agreeable things just to watch them do it. It’s fascinating.

If countries had national questions, India would have two. The first would be, “Which country?” This heinous fragment tacitly passes as a sentence in India, and is usually asked after some typical intrusive Indian activities like:

A) Five minutes of staring at you

B) Holding their camera up to take pictures of you from six feet away and then actually posing when you do the same to try to make them uneasy. Everyone ends up smiling.

C) Sending each member of a 25-member family up to your side to take the same picture of you with every single person in the family in front of either a blank wall or the Taj Mahal or a pile of samosas.

D) Staring over your shoulder as you read a book, check your email, eat a mango, or the most interesting activity of all, look around at stuff.

E) Giving you directions like “straight” even if they have no idea where the hotel/restaurant/river/tea stall you inquired about is located. Indians are so polite, that rather than saying, “I don’t know,” they’ll send you all over town looking for a hotel that is twenty feet around the corner from the shop they’ve owned for thirty-five years, but still don’t know about.

The second, and I think, most popular question in India is, “Are you married?” When I answer that no, I’m not married, and furthermore I’m 28 and don’t have a girlfriend either, they look at me with what can only be described as something akin to anaphylactic shock.

Marriage is a serious business in India, with the newspaper the Hindustan Times even containing a “Matrimonials” section that looks like any old Classified section that you’ve ever seen. Ads run like “23 yr f, pretty, dark eyes, thin, Brahmin, Hindu, working for computer company Mumbai, seeks man from good family with steady job in business/law.” The stranger thing? Far more arranged marriages end up working out than “love marriages.” Many Indians I’ve talked to, even young, English-speaking, western-dressed ones, say that they want to have an arranged marriage. Many others say they want a love marriage, of course, but I’ve heard so many times that they trust their parents, that their older sibling had a love marriage end in divorce, that they just don’t want to deal with the hassle and uncertainty, so they’ll get an arranged marriage and it will work out.

They are even more mystified by the fact that men and women can live together without being married. This is a big no-no in India, despite being a near requirement of western couples to see if things can work out. In India, they say they just learn to adjust and it will work out in the end. And for the most part, they’re right.

I could go on and on about India – I’ve had so many interesting encounters here. I’ve met a gypsy musician, a three-toed, blind sadhu, a fifteen-year-old savant tabla player, a Kashmiri horseman, an overweight man who owns a bakery (but apparently not shoes) that only makes gulab jamun, and countless others whose lives differ in so many ways from our own.

This trip has been solely in northern India: Kashmir, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh. Someday, I definitely am coming back to the south. And sure, India is exactly as you think it will be: dirty, crowded, hot, chaotic, dazzlingly colorful, naturally beautiful, kind, religious, traditional with modern western influence, culturally diverse, and delicious. In short, it’s just too interesting a place not to.

Things I Miss

Africa has been full of incredible new experiences, but of course, four months on the road in a completely different place away from the comforts of home will make you nostalgic for things you’re used to. Here, then, is a list I made the other day of things that I miss, listed in the order that they came to me.

1) Toilet seats
2) Not having to bring your own toilet paper to the bathroom 3) Walking on the street in peace
4) Being treated fairly
5) Prices listed and set
6) Soy/Tamari sauce
7) Dark chocolate
8) Pasta
9) Spices other than salt and chili pepper
10) Clothes other than the six or seven items I have
11) Hot water available on demand
12) Not always being covered in a layer of dust
13) Pavement
14) Asparagus
15) Broccoli
16) Ham and pork
17) Olive Oil
18) Washing machines
19) Being able to blend in if I want
20) NPR
21) Wireless Internet
22) Not dial-up speeds
23) Pizza
24) Cheese
25) Red wine
26) Dark beer
27) Cereal
28) Not having to carry soap into public bathrooms
29) Any sauce not made with tomatoes
30) ACTUAL Italian tomato sauce
31) Pancakes, waffles, and french toast
32) Cooking
33) Teaching
34) Coaching basketball
35) Not having to argue for 20 minutes about the price of absolutely everything 36) Clean bathrooms
37) Ultimate Frisbee
38) Baseball
39) A youth scene that doesn’t revolve around pool tables
40) Bell peppers
41) Sandwiches
42) Brown rice
43) Cities
44) Riding a bicycle
45) Toast
46) Baked…anything. Ovens, really.
47) Dessert that’s not dry cake or a commercial chocolate bar

Not Just Racist, but Dehumanizing

February 27th marks an all-time low. THE worst, most racist, base, inhumane thing I have ever seen or experienced. The low, disgusting transgression of human decency was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever witnessed.

Chris and I were waiting in Debark, Ethiopia, for a bus to Shire (Shee-ray, not like where the Hobbits live), and then on to Aksum. Consultation with guidebooks and ticket operators placed the value of the ticket between 95 Birr (about $6) and 125 Birr (about $7.50).

A scam was circulating in Debark in which locals would tell you that since Debark was such a small place (basically a supply town acting as the gateway to the Simien Mountains), you couldn’t get a ticket to Shire or Aksum from there; you had to go back three and a half hours south to Gonder (where we just were) to buy an onward ticket from there. It was really a shame that no one in Gonder was nice enough to tell you this. You’re going to have to go back. Unless, of course, I go for you. You see, while you’re in the mountains, I’ll go down to Gonder, buy your ticket for you, and when you get back, you can pay me a 150 Birr ($9) fee for my service.

Anyone with any experience at all knows that there is no such thing as a full bus in Africa. People could be sitting on the floor, on top of other people, even on the roof of the bus – but it was never full. If you stood on the side of the road, waved your arms at the bus, and had money, there would be room.

Chris and I declined this stupid offer multiple times, and after our Simien Mountain trek, waited in the morning for a ride. A minibus pulled up, and we went to get on after confirming it was going to Aksum.

“One thousand Birr,” the money man said.

We laughed. “That’s not even close to true,” I said.

“Fine. Five hundred Birr.”

“Still wrong. It’s 125,” I said, stepping onto the bus.

“No!” he said, shoving me back.

I had had this type of argument countless times in Africa, but had never been physically restrained from entering a bus.

“Yes!” I said, with a touch of sarcasm. “These people are not paying five hundred.” I motioned to the robed conglomeration of peasant-like people, to whom five hundred Birr would be a gift not worth spending on one measly bus ticket. I stepped back onto the bus.

“No! Five hundred!” he shouted, shoving me backward again.

“Just say ok, and we’ll pay him what everyone else pays,” Chris said, in what has to be the best strategy of bus-getting-on in the entire African continent.

“Okay, five hundred,” I said, and was begrudgingly allowed access to the bus.

We took our seats, the bus filled with an assortment of old men, women with children, and barefoot shepherds, and we took off. Within moments, the money man began collecting fares. As experienced travelers, we watched, hawk-like, to see how much money was being handed over. As usual, the money man put his body between us and his hands, and handled the money as a blackjack dealer does cards, trying to erase any opportunity we might have to gather information about the true fare. I saw, though, on multiple occasions, people handing over the fare I expected: 125 Birr.

When he turned to us, he gave us the usual treatment.

“Five hundred!” he shouted, slapping the wad of bills against his palm.

“No, everyone else JUST paid 125. It’s obviously 125.” I handed him 125, but he wouldn’t take it.

He repeated his demand, and when we laughed at his ridiculousness, he shouted something in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, to the driver. The bus immediately pulled to the side of the road. The driver got up and marched back through the bus with a look of disgust on his face, waving his hands as if dismissing us.

We didn’t understand what he was saying, but everyone began, one by one, to get up and file off the bus, until only Chris and I remained.

“Let’s go!” yelled the incorrigible money man.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“He is not going to Aksum anymore.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Are you going to refund everyone’s money?”

“Of course.”

“This is really stupid. All because we won’t pay five hundred, which is clearly not the price?”

“No, he is rich man. He’s not going. Get off.”

Chris and I then made our one fatal mistake that led to the most degrading, humiliating treatment of other people I’ve ever seen: we got off the bus.

We knew we shouldn’t have – knew he was lying, but standoffs like this with incorrigible bus money men and their God Complexes can last an almost interminable amount of time. It’s not uncommon for a money man to argue with you for fifteen to twenty minutes, while the bus idles and upwards of fifty passengers grow impatient, in order to resolve some trivial, invented point, like why you’re not paying the extra two dollars for the “traffic fee” that, mysteriously, no one else has to pay, or that you are sitting in someone’s assigned seat,w hen there are no seat numbers and someone just got on the bus carrying an actual live goat and is sitting on top of the gear shift lever anyway.

So, weary of this trite game, we got off the bus. Then, evil reared its ugly head.

The bus promptly sped away, coming to rest around a bend about one hundred yards off. The money man and his cronies then began to yell at the other passengers, angry like the Gestapo. Suddenly, with eyes wide with fright, old men with canes, robed shepherds with bare feet, women carrying children, and frail old women hardly able to walk took off at a dead spring, hustling up the dry, dirt road in the direction of the bus, while the money man ran behind them, hollering and swiping at them like a jockey to a horse.

Believing it beneath our dignity to chase after a bus we had just been on, Chris and I walked on, behind the hustling crowd, even though only a minimal amount of effort would have carried us past the horde to arrive first at the bus.

The scrambling mass whooped and hollered as the people variously staggered and hobbled toward the bus. They eventually arrived, and climbed on like their life depended on it. The last passenger boarded, and then the money man, when I was about twenty yards away.

The side door slammed shut as the engine revved and the tires squealed. The bus sped away around the bend, leaving the two white people literally in the dust.

There went our ride north.

I was furious – beyond furious that, not only would they refuse to take us for the actual price, or anything less than extortionary rates, but that they invented a ruse to kick us off the bus that involved inconveniencing and torturing their own people. Who makes a woman with an infant or an old man with a cane dash a hundred yards up a dirt road at high speed? Who is heartless enough to make the frail, needy, and elderly suffer just so that two foreigners can be eliminated?

I seethed with rage. I wanted nothing more than to put a rock through the back windshield of the bus as it drove away, just for the injustice of it all, but I knew that would only hurt the passengers more, and get me either beat up, arrested, or both.

The fact that the money man turned down 250 Birr from us that he would inevitably collect from people they picked up along the way anyway just goes to show that they would rather make white people’s lives difficult unless they paid a clearly exorbitant fee. If they don’t fall for the trick, screw ’em, make ’em and everyone else suffer rather than treat them fairly.

This was low even for a money man. I can handle racism and
discrimination, although it’s difficult and stings all too often, but seeing all those people struggle to run up the road just because the money man knew we were right and he had no right to physically remove us from the bus was too much to bear.

In the end, we stomped back to town and got a public bus to Shire. Long story short, we argued for an hour with THOSE money men, one of whom tried to throw our bags off the bus and almost punched Chris, while a passenger, a middle-aged man, fed up with the stalled bus wasting everyone’s time, had to be physically restrained by other passengers from trying to punch me, all because we wouldn’t pay the extra thirty Birr ($1.75) for a leg of the trip that we weren’t taking and nobody else was paying either, but that nevertheless the hubris-filled money man with the God-Complex stopped the bus to insist we pay anyway because we were white and he said we had to.

When we finally arrived in Aksum nine hours later, we checked into a hotel and collapsed on the bed, utterly emotionally spent from yet another day in Africa.

Top 5 Travel Essentials – A Look Back

At the beginning of my trip, I wrote a blog post about every item that I was bringing with me. Now, after 80 days in Africa, I want to take a look at the Top Five items that I’ve brought, judging by how much I’ve used them and how important they have been in what otherwise would have been sticky situations.

5. Emergency Sewing Kit – Traveling can sometimes be a test of upkeep. Tiny little niggling misfortunes creep up day after day: a hole in my backpack, a tear in my shoulder bag, a rip in my shorts, dirt all over my clothes, and on and on and on. There are a ton of miniature items of maintenance that you have to attend to day after day and fix before they become big, unsolvable problems. The ability to have a needle and thread at my disposal whenever I need it, the moment a tear comes up, has been an incredible stroke of good planning. You wouldn’t believe how many jagged metal edges exist on the undersides of seats of minibuses, and how pushy the operators can be at shoving you into one, throwing your bag around, and forcing things into spaces that can’t fit them, all with the aim of “going faster”, when in reality, getting them stuck and ripping fabric takes more time for them and more repair time for me. It’s a pain, but the fact that I can repair my things myself is a comfort, and a good way to pass the time on slower days.

4. Duct Tape – I’ve used it to put on heels to prevent blisters, to close holes in shady mosquito nets, to patch up my shoelaces the time that guy tried to (and succeeded) cut them off my pack, to strengthen the mended holes in both my shoulder bag and backpack, and more. The inside of the duct tape roll also makes a perfect holding place for a rolled up belt, and saves you just a little bit, but a good amount, of space in your pack.

3. Stuff Sacks – By stuff sacks I don’t mean the $20, synthetic mesh kind you can probably buy at Patagonia to show how rugged and outdoorsy you are, but any old bag you have lying around the house. A Crown Royal drawstring bag works perfectly, as does anything that clasps at the top. Instead of having to dig through my pack to find that one last pair of clean underwear or the bottle of doxycycline pills, I can just identify the bag that I know it’s in, open it, and extract the needed item. By this point in the trip I can even do it blind – without unpacking, by reaching under the items in my bag and finding the item by feel. Incredible time-saver.

2. Headlamp – Many hostels, campsites, and even guest houses we’ve stayed at have had either no electricity, sparse electricity, or good electricity, but for some reason, the power had been cut and would come back on “in one hour or so”, which means, of course, sometime around 3 AM. The ability to have a light to search through your pack, determine areas of un-level ground so you don’t trip and fall into lord-knows-what, or figure out what you’re doing in the bathroom has been a life-saver. So simple, yet so effective. Even though moths fly into your face when you put it on your head, the convenience of not tip-toeing through the dark has been worth it.

1. Emergency Toilet Paper – Wow, I can’t even begin to tell you how few bathrooms contain toilet paper and just assume that you will either bring your own or become an olfactory menace. This
easy-to-overlook item has saved both of us a number of times, and has also been useful to absorb blood and stop bleeding when one of us has cut a toe or a finger while out on the street. It may not look like much on the surface, but its practical application has been
immeasurable. Thanks again to my dad for teaching me about this best travel item years and years ago.

Note that none of the above items is a piece of clothing. This is because clothing, while important, is the single most overpacked item on any trip, and the easiest thing to cut down on if you really know what you’re doing. I’ve actually lost BOTH my fleeces and a hat so far on this trip, and I’ve moved on and found ways to keep going without losing stride. But if I were to lose any of the items up above, I’d have to replace it immediately, to keep up the comfort and rhythm I’ve established on my trip.

Thoughts on Racism – Mzungu Style

You learn many things while traveling, but perhaps the most valuable lesson of all is about what it’s like to live from another’s perspective. “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes” is a mantra we all learn from our earliest years. The more kind-hearted of us can do just that from an early age, but for many people, it takes actually living the experience to fully comprehend what that means.

After spending over two months traveling in Africa, I’ve gained some pretty interesting insight into human behavior that I most certainly didn’t have before.

Let me just say, straight off, that I am in no way comparing my experiences while in Africa to the injustices suffered by African Americans during the 1960s and before. Those were undoubtedly more harrowing, illegal, and debasing experiences than anyone should ever have to undergo. What I am trying to do, however, is shed some light on what it is like to live as a minority, and to be treated as such, in as accurate a way as I can, considering I’ve moved through many different countries, cultures, and regions on my trip.

I want to start with the pan-African word “mzungu”, and its plural, “wazungu”, Swahili words co-opted into every African language to mean “whitey.” It’s not uncommon, and in fact, it’s an everyday
occurrence, to be walking down a street in a city, or a dirt path in a village, and hear people mutter “blah blah blah mzungu blah blah” as you pass. Or to walk into a bar or a shop to buy something, and have the other patrons say “mzungu” to each other as you’re standing there. Or to have children shout at you, running down their lawns and waving, shouting, “Wazungu! Wazungu! Good morning, wazungu!”

This last example you might say is cute; little kids running to greet you. But when you consider that children, from an early age, know to shout “mzungu” at a white person, you know that they’re learning to identify you as someone different, and to label you as such. Imagine if white American children shouted the n-word, or even, “Blackie!” at any passing African American.

Another thing that irks me to no end is that the children often follow up their shouts of “mzungu!” with “give me money.” What could be seen as a child’s innocence (what American child doesn’t relish a single dollar bill given by an uncle or a grandparent?) takes on a whole different feeling when legions of children ignore dozens of adults that pass them by, but then key in on a white person and demand money. White people are not made of money, but unfortunately, that’s how we are seen and treated. As a giant, fat wallet just waiting to be opened. It’s the reason you can’t walk down the street without taxis and motorcycles honking at you, touts for hotels or businesses surrounding you, or complete strangers continually approaching you with, “My friend! How are you?”

Mind you, there are plenty of Africans (and I use the term loosely, as these people span multiple countries, cultures, and languages) who have been warm and kind, more than I would expect from even an American friend of mine. And the majority of people will walk past you on the street without even a word, or perhaps with just a greeting. But the constant stream of harassment from people who want your money makes it difficult to befriend people. More times than I can count, people have walked up to me, chatted amiably about any subject, accompanied me along the route I was already going, without trying to lead me anywhere in particular, and then getting angry and demanding when I wouldn’t give them money for being a “guide.” This is often followed up with “help me.” I’m sorry – why let dozens of people walk past you and then focus on the white people, only seeing them as a source of money?

Another Rosa Parks-like injustice is when stepping onto buses or minibus taxis. These things are often over-packed with people, several standing. In the rare cases in which I’ve gotten an actual seat, the money-collector (always separate from the driver, who never interacts with passengers) will usually point at me and aggressively gesture to the back of the bus, demanding that I move to the back to clear space. I’ve been adamant in saying “No, I prefer to sit here. People can walk past me if they want.” Sometimes, though, the driver won’t drive, and you’ll be shuffled along to the back of the bus, bumpy and
uncomfortable, as other passengers fill the front seats.

Again, I realize that having white skin and dressing the way we do will generally mean you come from a wealthier, western country. People don’t know I’m from the USA at a glance, but I’d guess that it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s either the USA, Australia, England, or somewhere in Europe. I also realize that even poor people in those countries tend to have more money on an absolute scale than many people in the countries I’ve been visiting, and that the western world is seen as a ticket to opportunity. But when you are called “mzungu” without being asked your name, hassled with claims of “give me money” multiple times per day, and stared at unashamedly while being shunted to the back of the bus, you begin to feel like an object. A white object that is the same as all the other white objects, and not a person with a personality, feelings, hopes, dreams, desires, a history, a family, a life. You become a ghost that floats through this world you’re walking in, and people see right through you to what they want to see, without noticing the details.

This must definitely only scratch the surface of the racism that some people experience. I haven’t been beaten, harmed, subjugated, or jailed. I HAVE, however, been charged exorbitant fees, not just by market vendors, which is expected, but by official transportation company offices and grocers, been forced to show my ID papers and empty my backpack on the street to ensure I didn’t carry contraband, and treated with a smile one minute and a scowl the next, after it was made clear I was not handing over whatever money was desired.

These thoughts have been building for a while, and it’s by no means an exhaustive account of what I’ve been feeling, nor is it an edited treatise (although I plan to make it so). It’s a top-of-the-head, stream-of-consciousness recounting of how I feel about this issue, without going back to check anything. It’s interesting, to say the least, to live as a minority here, and all I can say is that it’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. You’re constantly aware of your outsider status, and at the moments at which you might forget it and relax, someone will shout “mzungu” at you and bring it right back into focus.

I don’t know if anyone who reads this has had a similar experience living as a minority anywhere, be it Africa, Asia, the USA, or even in a smaller community, but this is an issue I’ve always thought that I understood. I’ve lived my life well, treated people equally, respected differences, and lived as though everyone wanted the same things out of life – to be happy, loved, and peaceful. But never have I fully UNDERSTOOD the trials of living this way. I’m curious to know if anything I’ve been experiencing is on par with how other people have felt under similar circumstances. If so, I’m terribly sorry. It’s a brand new experience to me, and one that I feel that everyone should undergo. As well as I feel I’ve been taught about equal treatment and unfair objectifying of “others,” it’s been a true shock to my system to actually have been here and have lived through what is undoubtedly a minor version, although a no less powerful one, of racism.

Jambo, Rafiki

This is one of many greetings you’ll hear on the streets of Zanzibar, or any Swahili-speaking place for that matter. It means, “hello, friend.”

It is customary here for a business owner or worker and a customer to greet each other two to four times before entering into business. A Soup Nazi environment, this is not.

Other greetings include “Mambo, vipi” (how’s it going?) and “karibu/karibune” (welcome), to which you’d answer “poa” (good) and “Asante” (thank you), respectively.

Swahili is a really interesting language. My knowledge of Swahili before coming to Tanzania was limited to the same basic knowledge that most Americans have: it’s the most foreign-sounding, strange language spoken somewhere in Africa. What I didn’t know was that it spans several countries (Tanzania, Kenya, and Mozambique at the very least), and is a mix of Bantu, Arabic, English, and German.

It’s not all that difficult either, at least in theory, and I’m possessed with a desire to learn at least a beginner’s level of Swahili. And, I bet you didn’t know it, but each of you speaks a little bit of Swahili already. At least, you do if you’ve seen The Lion King.

“Rafiki” is Swahili for friend, and “Simba” means lion.

Zanzibar’s Secret Soup

Zanzibar, besides being the exotic name that enchants our ears, is a major tourist destination where locals continuously offer you tours and “good price” on any number of items. But strip away the “mzungu” (whitey, aka gringo) side of the island and Zanzibar truly lives up to its name as the spice island.

Coriander, cardamom, pepper, vanilla, cinnamon, various blends of masala, and turmeric infuse every bite of food with unparalleled bursts of flavor far better than anything we’ve eaten so far in Africa.

This is partially due to its history and blen of cultures, from Swahili and Masai to Arab and Indian, all of which are present on a daily basis.

By far the best thing I’ve eaten here, though, is a local soup called “urojo”, which has, in the span of only two days, distinguished itself as my favorite soup in the entire world. A spicy mix of falafel, spiced potato, crunchy noodles, hard-boiled egg, beef skewers, salad, and chili sauce, urojo is more a meal than a soup, and its blend of flavors swirls around the mouth even when you’re not eating it, enticing you to buy more. And at 60 cents per bowl, I’ve done just that.

I tried five bowls yesterday, all from different vendors, and three the day before that. It’s a staple of my diet here, and I’ve finally found the best bowl in town, which I’m on my way to eat right now.


Quick update from Tanzania: at the border with Malawi, I pulled out the stack of US dollar bills I had been saving just for this occasion. The visa is an annoying $100, and out of my money belt I pulled… $77.

Why I was carrying such an odd number, I had no idea. I don’t know where the other $23 went, or even if it ever existed, but I was short, and they would not let me into Tanzania without it. They also accept only US Dollars and Euros, and not the equivalent amount in any other currency, even their own, Tanzanian Shillings. So, I had to get a special police escort back into Malawi just to use the ATM, since I had technically left Malawi and didn’t want to re-enter ten minutes later.

I took out 5,000 Malawian Kwacha, enough for 23 US Dollars and a bit more, in case I needed to bribe anyone. I went back into the between border region to the Foreign Exchange office and asked to exchange my Kwacha for US Dollars.

The guy told me they only had Kwacha. They accepted other currency, but could only give out Kwacha. I said that they probably had whatever currency people had turned in that day in order to receive Kwacha, so he could give me whatever that was. He said no, they only had Kwacha.

The problem is that the president of Malawi and other corrupt government officials have created a fuel crisis that have pushed prices to $12/gallon, and food prices through the roof as well. Consequently, nobody wants Malawian Kwacha. The currency has almost no value, and this guy at the window was not going to give me any foreign currency, no matter what it was.

So I crossed to the Tanzanian side to use their ForEx, but it was closed. I related my story to the immigration officials, and asked them what I could do. One of them got on his cell phone and told me that a guy was coming to help me.

Soon, a guy in a polo shirt and jeans walked in, and we were both escorted to a back room, where I made a decided effort to take the chair nearest the door. He told me that the rate was 280 Malawian Kwacha for every US Dollar, so I’d need 6,400 Kwacha for 23 dollars. I told him that that was the black market rate (it is), and that the official rate that you can check anywhere (government, banks, xe.com, etc.) is 161 Kwacha to the dollar, which is around 3,700 Kwacha for 23 dollars. I told him I’d give him 4,000, so a little extra (two bucks), just to get the deal done.

I pulled the 4,000 out of my wallet, keeping the other 1,000 hidden in another pocket, and told the guy that this was all I had, since I had done the conversion myself before going to the ATM, and knew I needed 3,700.

We argued without getting anywhere for about five minutes, when the immigration officer walked in, asking what was taking so long. We each explained the situation in our own language, and the officer pretended to consider it for a moment.

“It’s ok,” he said, “four thousand is fine. Pay him.” I asked for the US Dollars first, and the officer said “it’s ok, you can trust him.” I told him that that was really great and wonderful that he was such a trustworthy guy, but I’d really rather have the US dollars before I handed over the Kwacha. The guy reluctantly agreed, left the office, and came back five minutes later. He slapped 23 rolled US dollars into my hand, I gave him my “only” 4,000 Kwacha, and I got my passport stamped.

Now I’m in Tanzania with 1,000 leftover Kwacha that apparently has no value. Maybe I’ll meet another traveler who’s going to Malawi for whom it WILL have value. Otherwise, does anyone want a paper souvenir?