Follow me!

twitter icons
For corresponding blog photos, please visit my website:

Post to Twitter

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ode to the Michaels

The next day, we woke early to meet Michael Terrien, a contact sent my way through an old HarperCollins author named Michael Sanders.  Terrien had assisted Sanders on his wine books, and was a man with his Napa Valley hands full.  Little did we know that by the end of the day, we would find ourselves equally blessed by Terrien’s hand.

Terrien made his own wines under a company called Tricycle Wine Company.  Three wines coming out of the Carneros region that were bottled under the labels Molnar Family, Kasmer & Blaise, and Obsidian Ridge, they had a cult-like following and we were advised not to miss them.  Then, there was Terrien’s highly touted project with Kenzo Tsujimoto, the Japanese businessman responsible for such gaming phenomena as Street Fighter and Resident Evil.  Mention Kenzo and his company, CAPCOM, to my girlfriends and there was no recognition.  Mention Kenzo to any of my male friends and their eyes lit up.  “Street Fighter, duh!  I used to play that for days on end when I was a kid.”  You learn something new every day…

Tricycle operates out of Domaine Carneros, a sand colored, regal property in Carneros.  There on a barrel, amid winemaking staff tending to vats of grapes, Terrien had displayed all of his wines, including the new Half Mile, a Cabernet in its first vintage that I loved.  In contrast, the Kenzo estate is far up in the hills of Mt. George.  When you’re buzzed onto the property—a whopping 4,000 acres—it takes another ten minutes to reach the main winery.  Everything is lush at Kenzo; the grounds are meticulously manicured, the tasting room is impeccable, and of course, visits to Kenzo are by appointment only.  There, we were introduced to another fabled name that would come to resonate over the next 24 hours: Thomas Keller.

Power attracts power, so it follows that Keller’s Bouchon Bakery would supply the bites for Kenzo Estate.  Paired with our $150 Ai Cabernet and $75 Rindo were $10 Bouchon sandwiches.  $60 for the whole tasting/sandwich she-bang.  But it works.  The wines were spectacular (Yes, I bought a couple of bottles; No, I don’t know who I think I am), and the experience fulfilling.  Plus, I was experiencing it before most of the public.  (Yes, really.  No, I don’t know who I think I am).  When our time at Kenzo was finished, I was loath to leave.  When would I ever get to casually sip me some Kenzo again?  I’m just a writer, after all.

Our last night in wine country called for something big and since it’s impossible to get into French Laundry on short notice (sorry, at all…) if you’re not Gael Greene, we decided to hit Ad Hoc, Keller’s highly praised price-fixe joint.  As we sidled up to the bar, we were immediately identified as bait for Chris, an Usher-type in a newsboy cap (30-something tip: the kids are calling this a “newsie”) with a penchant for saying things like “Oh my God, who are you?” or “You are so amazing, I have to know you” in full seriousness.  Did this kind of crap work in the Napa Valley?  Really, Chris…come on!

Turns out, Chris was a food runner at French Laundry who, like most things associated with Keller, elicits a certain confidence.  Ignoring our cues, Chris sent over wine after wine for us to try, while the bar staff served us course after delectable course (cucumber salad, tenderloin with Brussels sprouts, cheese).  Nick, the super-sweet manager of Ad Hoc, finally caught on and befriended us in Chris-less safety.

Re-enter Michael Terrien.

When Nick heard about our day with Michael Terrien and our time at Kenzo, he assumed us more knowledgeable (and privileged) than we actually were.  He disappeared into the back room and, when he returned, it was with a bottle of, gasp, the Kenzo Rindo.  Was Nick kidding?  Did Keller restaurants often open bottles of $75 wine for neophytes?  (Yes, really.  Again.  No, I don’t know who I think I am).  So there, with the staff of Ad Hoc, under the steady gaze of Chris the food runner who continued to spoil us with Billecart Salmon champagne, we dined like Napa Valley queens, once again proving Napa to be a place of generosity and kindness if you just allow yourself to scratch the surface.

After a new morning spent with Bruce Neyers, another Michael Sanders connection, Nick met us at Keller’s Bouchon, a posh (and delicious) French bistro down the road from Ad Hoc.  There, I wound up in screaming cell phone match with my father, which proved to be very un-Napa-like not to mention very unladylike.  Five days in the country had taken its toll and my internal temper was begging for a bit of some hot city action. 

Bidding Nick adieu three cases, 10 vineyards, and countless tastes after we entered wine country, we crossed the Bay Bridge back into San Francisco and checked into the Clift Hotel.  But what a hell of a finish! 

Thank you, all!  
(But especially the Michaels…)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Kindness of (Most) Napa Strangers

A stop at the annual Food & Wine party on our second night made me realize that regardless of the open-armed, accessible experiences in Sonoma, the snooty wine mentality still exists in some circles.  A nameless editrix bedecked in ill-chosen animal print boots shook my hand with, gasp, two fingers when introduced through a mutual friend.  Wow.  As if full contact might have sullied her bony, manicured hand.  Maybe she’s a germ-a-phobe and I’m speaking out of turn, I thought to myself as I sized her up.  Then, I snapped out of making excuses, and went back for more free cheese in consolation.

Though the party was stuffy, the location was divine.  Held at the absolutely stunning Carneros Inn, the night was my intro to the fabled terrain of Napa Valley.  First stop the next morning: Robert Sinskey Vineyard.  An organic and biodynamic operation, Sinskey works with nature to create their wine, employing solar panels, trucks and tractors on biodiesel, and an electric ATV to get around the property.  An organic grower since 1991, Sinskey isn’t the usual stop on the Napa circuit, and I was thrilled that I heeded the repeated recommendation to make the stop.

At Sinskey, we participated in the Farm to Table pairing, a concept developed by Maria Sinskey—part of the husband (winemaker) and wife (chef) team that makes up this innovative label.  The Sinskeys emphasize the interaction between food and wine, preferring to focus on the enjoyment of both, rather than the commercialization of their brand.  In literature that accompanies each wine, Maria offers food pairings (and corresponding recipes) for each label.  At the Farm to Table flight, we popped some of those very recipes: tomato and basil, zucchini and Parmesan tartlets, herbed almonds, and soft cheese crostinis.  The very receptive Kaine, who took us on a tour of the property—a beautiful spot off Silverado Trail—furthered our education by letting us sample each and every wine that Sinskey bottles.  By noon, having not mastered the art of spitting, I admit that I was thoroughly (and happily) blitzed.  Kristen, thankfully a more conscientious spitter, drove.

After lunch in Napa town at ZuZu, a tapas joint that Kaine recommended, we arrived for our blending seminar at the mighty Franciscan.  Here, we would get the chance to play winemaker.  A choose-your-own-Bordeaux-varietal experiment—and a very cool wine activity—we mixed and matched Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc in an attempt to replicate Francisan’s marquee label: Magnificat.  Bottom line: my blend sucked.  Literally, it tasted like dirt juice, which seriously bummed me out.  I had made such wine strides over the past few days, but clearly, winemaking was not my second calling.  Our very serious wine educator tried to make me feel better with lame jokes, but as I saw Darryl struggling to keep her bloodshot eyes open, I knew we had hit our wall.  I finally understood why we were advised to stick to two wine stops per day.  And, I now concur.

Kristen left us to our own devices in our little cottage at Franciscan.  Bigger than my apartment by hundreds of square feet, we needed a nap.  Three days of being winos-in-training had begun to take its toll.   But when, at 9 PM, our internal body clocks woke us up for another drink, we obliged and headed up the road to Farmstead for dinner, wondering just how many alcoholics resided in the Napa Valley.  For the week, we upped that number by two.

Napa is glossy and polished compared to Healdsburg but we soon learned that all you have to do is scratch the surface, and the rest will fall into place.  Sitting at the Farmstead bar—the restaurant associated with Long Meadow Ranch—Doreen the bartender chatted us up.  Dotted around the bar were a bunch of folks drinking from the same bottle: Wicker Vineyards Cabernet.  “Tell us about Wicker,” we prodded Doreen.  “Well, Ron could probably do better than me,” Doreen said as she pointed across the bar to an older gentleman with soft features and bright eyes.  “That there’s Ron Wicker himself” 

Next thing you know, we’re knee deep in a conversation with Mr. Wicker—the man on the label.  Retailing for about $150, Wicker was wickedly out of our price range, but we tasted this glorious wine and got his story during some complimentary tastes from his bottle.  Ron had been in the wine business for 40 years, growing and delivering fruit to other vineyards.  The culmination of a career, in 2001, he debuted his own Cab to stellar reception.   A mailing list only distribution, Wicker was already sold out of the upcoming vintage.  Ron Wicker embodied the persona of the types we had come to Napa to meet.  A true gentleman, he invited us to his home for lunch in the coming days to sample a Chardonnay he and his wife had been saving for “just the right occasion.”  As we closed down Farmstead, we promised we would try to fit in the stop.

Two-fingered handshakes?  Animal print boots?  Puh-lease.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ooooh, Luuuuuccccy!

Ever wake up on a vineyard?  Me neither.  Well, until a couple of weeks ago.  I won’t lie; it didn’t suck.  Sleep in my eyes, my country house bed was super-duper-comfortable, but I just couldn’t linger in quilts and sheets when the clock struck 8.  My usual wake-up ritual (snoozing 6-10 times) didn’t stand up in wine country.  Sunlight shimmered on the rows and rows of vines outside my dew-laced window.  Hanging gently, waiting to picked off for a bit part in some winemaker’s divine inspiration, fields of cabernet called my name.  In flip-flops, pajama bottoms, and a sweatshirt, messy bun high atop my head, I cupped my mug of Joe and headed out to wake myself up…Sonoma style.

 I didn’t want to leave the cozy of the vineyardan abandoned farm off in the distance begged exploration, the tractor looked lonelybut discovery waited patiently for us at Ravenswood.  Day Two would include a quarry visit to the Ravenswood cellars, followed by a lunch pairing and tasting with “Godfather of Zin” Joel Peterson.  Joel was a legend in the industry, revolutionizing the cultivation and sale of Zinfandel in California.  His son Morgan has since followed in his footsteps, playing chemist to his own crops of grapes.  The Petersons were a bonafide wine family and I couldn’t wait to meet them.  Kristen and Joel went back, but Joel and I had our own connection: Dan Halpern, Ecco’s front man, and one of my biggest publishing heyday supporters.  The two shared memories during San Fran’s literary prime, and once I met Joel, with his shock of white hair and easy confidence, it made sense that he and Dan were buddies.  As a result, I knew my day would be a blast.

 After tasting from the barrels while simultaneously ogling all the young Ravenswood boys on harvest internships making their rounds, Joel whisked Darryl off in his Tesla (color: British Racing Car Green) to meet Kristen and I at the Ravenswood winery.  We would be guests of Joel’s for lunch, a pairing that would include Ravenswood’s many Zins, as well as other winery-only offerings. 

After a lively discussion about rosés, and an attempted conversion with a tasting of a dry Ravenswood sampling—no dice, I still dislike rosé—we began a three-hour feast set against the backdrop of the Mayacamas mountain range.  Again my palate had a mind of its own, reacting strongly (and positively) to the buttery San Jacomo 2008 Chardonnay.  I knew I would fall in deep, passionate love with the 1993 Belloni Zinfandel (of which I purchased the 2007 vintage), and the Icon 2007, a mixed black varietal that did somersaults on my tongue.  We finished with a 2009 Moscato, and as with the rosé, I couldn’t be swayed.  But if you think Ravenswood is just a house of Zinfandel, think again.

Circa 3 PM, we headed to Kutch Wines where a steel tank of pinot noir waited on our arrival.  It was stomping time—to my surprise not just a funny scene in an old “I Love Lucy” episode!   Huge steel bins loomed large, and after a quick change into jean shorts and tanks, up onto the boards we went.  Yes, yes…alcohol was used to clean our bare feet before entry, but once we sank down into layers of fermenting pinot noir, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself.  Stems tickled my toes, full fruit squished under my body’s weight, and slowly, I stomped.  It’s harder than it looks, and the sloshing liquid seeping towards my gams, surrounding my calves, knees, and ankles was freezing.  Within a couple of weeks, the activity from the grapes would naturally heat up the tank, but we got there early, so we got the ice-cold stomp.  Figures…

Stomping was followed by tasting from Kutch’s barrels.  Using a thief—which looks a little like a turkey baster—Jamie stole a bit from this barrel and a bit from that one, mixing into our glasses what would ultimately become bottled Kutch wine.  The fruits of one barrel might be from one farm, whereas the grapes from another barrel were from a different region, he explained.  Blending the barrels took patience and savvy.  We were amazed watching Jamie.  All I kept thinking was: how do you know what you’re doing?   See, Jamie was once a finance guy!  Your typical run-of-the-mill Merrill Lynch suit.  Then, he gave it all up for a dose of the good life out in Cali.  He posted his plans on Robert Parker’s chat room board, and the rest is history.  His first vintage got 93 points from Wine Spectator!  He’s become quite a Sonoma star.  Watching him was like watching a great chef at work.  Only his dish is liquid.

Being a small label, Kutch Wines are only available by mailing list.  Normally, Kutch sells out quickly, mere days after going on sale, but you can access it here and pre-order now.  The wines in the barrels (and in the steel tank) will be bottled in February, and I’m already on the list for a good sampling, including the limited edition Marie/Darryl Pinot blend!   

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hello, Wine Country!

California Wine Country.  Those three little words have been elusive for decades.  Well, the two decades during which I’ve been legal.  Once I ditched my dream of moving to San Francisco post-college, I never looked back.  And when I took off for worldly pastures, there was always a snazzier, more exotic, international destination calling my name.  Wine country, the American edition, always wound up overshadowed by wine country, the global edition.  Stories began to accumulate; there was Hunter Valley hide and seek in Australia with Sarah, Sally, and Tim.  There was the unfortunate car accident after a day of solo tasting in Marlborough, New Zealand.  There was the letdown of Concha y Toro in Chile’s Pirque, and the failed trip through Argentina’s Mendoza.  Wine country wasn’t of my countryit became part of the folly of other countries.  Until earlier this month…

My friend Kristen, an old Harper colleague, broke from publishing the same year I did (2005).  She and her (now) husband shucked their New York coats for greener, wide-open spaces…and grapes.  He decided to become a winemaker; she went along for the ride.  Cut to 2010, their sixth vintage, Kristen and Jamie have made a beautiful life for themselves on the left coast.   On her last trip to New York, Kristen convinced me to head west for a vacation, and a proper vineyard education.  I love wine, especially California reds.  Harvest was upon us.  Kristen reasoned it was high time for a visit.  I reasoned that Kristen was right.

Enlisting Darryl, my trusty travel sidekick of late, wine country awaited exploration.  Of course, I had preconceived notions of what I expected, wondering if everyone swirled the glass pretentiously in Napa, or if they sucked air through their teeth before a swallow in Sonoma.  I imagined the residents of these places spoke in varietals and vintages only privy to savvy insiders, and mocked silly people like New Yorkers who bought bottles based on menu pricing.  Turns out, my trip changed every single of one of those ideas.  Implicitly.  I guess I should have expected that it would.

It all started at 6 AM on an October Monday when, sitting in the Admirals Club at JFK, I got the call that Darryl missed her flight.  Sure, we had a wild Saturday prior, but C’mon D!  Get it to-freakin-gether!  Six hours and one screaming baby later, I arrived solo at SFO to find Kristen, a rental car, and a big smile in welcome.  Kristen and Jamie were privileged insiders to wine country and they would be my able guides.

First stop was Healdsburg, a quaint little town in the northern reaches of Sonoma County.  Ask anyone who’s passed through Healdsburg about a favorite wine country spot, and Healdsburg itself is the answer.  Now, mine included.  Off a vibrant main square, cafes and restaurants abound—Scopa for pizza, Healdsburg Bar & Grill for burgers and Bovolo for to-go breakfast and lunch sandwiches.  Freshly ground coffee beans come from The Flying Goat and accompanying reading material from Copperfield’s.  The three stories of the Healdsburg Hotel beckoned with its ivy-covered trellis, while down the road, its sister property the new h2hotel makes headlines.  Healdsburg is also home to renowned restaurants Cyrus and Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen.  The pool in the back garden of the Healdsburg Hotel was equally enticing, but as we whizzed through the square, further discovery would have to wait, for we were onto our first tasting and pairing.  At Simi.

Simi holds a special place in my heart.  Almost half a lifetime ago, I got my first promotion to a publicist position at Avon Books.  It was a happy day, for I got business cards and my own office…and a subscription to California’s Cab of the Month Club from my San Fran-living friend, Todd.  In that first package of Cabs was a bottle of Simi.  Love at first taste, it was fitting that I was standing on Simi ground popping my wine country cherry.

The winery itself is a gorgeous example of architecture and sustainability.  Built in 1890 by brothers Guiseppe and Pietro Simi, the facility was Healdsburg’s first winemaking property, and has withstood many massive earthquakes.  Tours of Simi, which take place twice daily, are followed by tastings and pairings.  Let me tell you, I couldn’t have been more overjoyed about my plans.  Chef Eric Lee is the food force at Simi, and he’s churning out some amazing pairings for guests of the property.  I indulged in fried greed tomatoes with Dungeness crab (with the RRV Chardonnay), and simple wood-oven grilled pizzas (with the Sauvignon Blanc), a duck breast over creamed spinach (with the Alexander Valley Cabernet and the Landslide), and a black and tan crème brulee for dessert.

Met by Steve Reeder and winemaking power women Susan Lueker and Megan Schofield, the first thing I learned at Simi was to trust my palate.  This wine mantra would hold up over and over again.  Trust.  Your.  Palate.  Yes, it’s that simple.  I entered Simi certain it would only deliver on reds and, man, was I wrong.  I left Simi delighted by whites, especially their Pinot Gris.  Repertoire expanded, I wondered how deep my revised wine lists would run after a week in Bay Area vines.

When I Kristen and I retired to our borrowed Healdsburg vineyard house for the night, we couldn’t help but open some more Simi to pair with a baguette and some cheese.  We stood in the kitchen, sipping our wine, and caught up like the old friends we were.  We were significantly buzzed when Darryl arrived fresh from layovers in Charlotte and Chicago, then a bus ride to Sonoma Airport, and a taxi to the house.  It took me a trip around the world to get to Sonoma; she merely grazed a couple of states, but I could already tell that both of our trips were going to be well worth the prolonged wait.

If you’re interested in Sonoma or Simi, please check out my latest posts on the Huffington Post about Wine Country for a First-Timer and Simi's Landslide Terazzo Pizza Café.

Monday, October 18, 2010

FIFA on the FDR

A wonderful thing happened on the way up the FDR…

Once upon a sleep evading night circa 2 or 3 AM, I made a whole bunch of workout mixes on my iPod.  Thing is, I usually don’t make it down to Dance Mix 5 or Dance Mix 6 during my workouts (as marathons also evade me lately) but on today’s run, I skipped right down to Dance Mix 5 and hit play.  The first song was “Wavin’ Flag” and there, amidst the commuter traffic and smog on the FDR, I was back in the rolling hills of East Africa during the frenzy of World Cup.

I returned from Africa three months ago and I can recall it vividly, but whenever I come back from a big trip, the pace of New York City grabs a hold of my bra straps and woos me with new cultural offerings at the MoMA and the Whitney, a slew of marquee names appearing on Broadway, the best chefs in the world opening signature restaurants, a host of my favorite authors passing through for talks, Central Park runs as the leaves turn, and my darling nephew on the cusp of actually, gulp, walking.  Oh, and there’s that small burden of trying to make a living.

Lately, I’ve been in a vortex of travel pieces, travel blogs, travel pitches, travel itself, and when time permits, the occasional dinner with friends.  Africa became a thing of a distant past.  Which.  Really.  Sucks.  On each return, I promise myself that I will reflect on the life-changing nature of my nomadic life in regular interval; I will stay in close touch with my new travel friends; I will keep the countries I love as close to my heart as I keep the people I love.  And I try.  I really do.

Enter today’s run. 

“Wavin’ Flag” was just the tip of the iceberg, recalling the regularly scheduled Coca-Cola commercials that ran to the World Cup’s anthem—commercials that I grew to love.  “Game On” sent me down a dreamlike road of memories and songs and I found myself back in Tanzania watching Ghana beat the United States (what a fucking game!) and the Zanzibar lounge where the guy next to us rooting for Ghana in the next round was from Astoria!  The aroma of the East River began to melt away, replaced by the salty ocean air outside Forty Thieves, the dive beach bar in Mombasa where Darryl and I watched the Netherlands rock Uruguay and Spain crush Germany with a few really dull Swedes. 

Lyrics to the songs that I knew just three months ago returned, and had I more confidence in my singing ability, I might’ve belted out a little “Waka Waka” right there as I hit the dog park.  With Shakira my running partner, my pace had picked up and I recalled my urgency about catching the finals in the very swanky bar of Nairobi’s Stanley Hotel with new Kenyan friend Brian Jones.  Surrounded by world citizens of all walks, rather than Giants fans of one state, I watched Spain coast to victory while text messaging with Edu and Chris, Barcelona-living friends who sent along pictures of the dancing going on in their streets. 

Talk about one world and one culture—summer of 2010 was all about identifying with those things.  South Africa set the globe afire a few short months ago, and I’ve been so busy trying to make a living, thinking about things like fall boots and maintenance on my apartment, that I clearly needed a reminder about global citizenship, the astonishing beauty of Africa’s open meadows, and the friendship of the people we met along the way. 

If just for 45 minutes on the FDR this morning, I was back in East Africa, living the dream, playing out my role of world citizen dutifully.  Then, Lady Gaga popped my bubble as a garbage truck honked in passing.  But for a moment, it was all about the waving world flag. 

Check it out:
The Official FIFA World Cup 2010 Album:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Meet, Plan, Go!

When I first met with Sherry Ott and Michaela Potter of Briefcase to Backpack earlier this year, they were toying with the idea of hosting a night in San Francisco and New York that explored career breaks and travel sabbaticals for the masses.  The events would be open to the public and the discussion would attempt to answer the burning questions of regular folks who were contemplating travel breaks of their own.  They would rely on those that had made similar travel choices in their lives to fill out the panels, hoping to put sabbaticals on target for national discussion.  A former publicist, the idea started my PR juices flowing.  “It’s going to be huge,” I told the ladies.

Fast forward.  Present day.  Clearly, there’s a growing travel momentum out there.  The population is restless; a listless economy has left people unmotivated.  I understand the feeling.  I struggled with it for a long time, and when I finally left to travel in 2005, I got more than a few wayward glances.  Questions were hurled at me with amazing speed.  “You’re leaving your job?”  “What will you do with your apartment?”  “Who are you going to hang out with in Asia?”  “Aren’t you scared to be alone?”  My friends and family were both excited and curious, but they were also nervous for me.  I was doing something they would never do.

Nowadays, many of my friends have since left their corporate jobs – whether by choice or by economy – to answer the call I heard in 2005.  Get out of here!  Hit the road!  Explore the world!  Take some time off!  And the best part is, they’re heeding it.  Because of such widespread interest, Meet, Plan, Go mushroomed into a 13-city event, including 1400+ people across the country.  The dialogue took place in public spaces, on Facebook, on Twitter, and continues today. 

I was part of the New York City panel, a diverse group of seven travel soldiers.  One lost his job due to the economy; another traveled with her two girlfriends, another with her husband.  One of our panelists made a documentary about the art of backpacking, all of the panelists have travel blogs; I sell my travel stories as a freelance travel journalist.

I had never been on a panel before, but as I quickly realized, Meet, Plan, Go was an apt introduction.  Our panel was talking about our passion – travel – and how to help others join our nomadic team.  Dream material, I tell ya.  For two nights, Professor Thom’s, a sports bar in the East Village, was 100 people deep in travel contemplation until sometime after 10 PM.  Everyone stuck around past the requisite Q&A, peppering our experts with questions and considerations.  At the end of each night, I was on a travel high.  “You have to do it again,” I told Sherry and Michaela at the end of night two.  I truly hope we get the opportunity.

Since, I’ve received many emails from those in attendance, and those who have found me online.  Their gratitude for Meet, Plan, Go is bountiful, and their fascination with our travel choices resonates deeply.  I’ve tried to answer all their emails, hoping to inspire another courageous soul to take the leap.  As we said over and over again at Meet, Plan, Go…there’s no such thing as travel regret.

*For more information about Meet, Plan, Go (and their Travel Boot Camp which begins in January) visit the website at  To learn more about career sabbaticals and travel breaks, visit Briefcase to Backpack at or Three Month Visa at

Monday, September 13, 2010

East Africa: The Q&A

I wasn’t sure what to expect before I left for Africa in June.  It was the only continent I hadn’t visited, and the one I was most eager to go to.  Now, having spent 5+ weeks in Kenya and Tanzania, I’ve processed and reflected and can easily say that it one of the best periods of my life.  I wasn’t sure how to tackle this blog post; everyone has so many questions (and preconceived notions) about Africa.  For that reason, I decided to do it as a straight-up Q&A.  If you have more questions, post them in comments and I’ll update my post with answers to them.

Were you sooo hot in Africa this summer?

It makes the best sense to start here, because it’s the most commonly questioned misperception about the African subcontinent.  And the accented sooooo hot is always the same, no matter the inquisitor.  It’s actually quite chilly in Kenya and Tanzania, and that’s because of altitude.  From when we arrived in Njabini, at Flying Kites, through Kilimanjaro (obviously…), and even on safari, we wore long sleeves every day.  Jeans.  Socks.  Closed-toe shoes.  I was underprepared for this climate aspect, lugging around floor-length sundresses and strappy sandals like it was my job.  I was expecting to come back bronzed and beautiful.  Sadly, it wasn’t until Zanzibar that my forearms arms saw the light of day.  Then, I made up for lost time.

What did you eat in Africa?  Is the food good?

YES.  (Capital.  Bold.  Italics.)  First of all, I don’t know what they do to their eggs over there, and maybe it’s because they’re laid and brought fresh to table, no refrigeration or pasteurization but…Africa corners the market on great omelets.  Breakfasts were all included and at a premium.  Even the fried-eggs-over-toast-at-the-very-base Gimwa Hotel were worth seconds (or thirds).  Also at breakfast was tons of fresh fruit – mangoes, papaya, pineapple, and watermelon, served at the beginning of breakfast, rather than the end. 

In the coffee, the milk is hot.  Which makes such better sense.  Why do we serve ours cold, again?  Forget coffee, though, the Kenyan tea rocks.  It’s a chai variety, thick and savory with a bit of spice.  The milk develops a skin on the top as it cools, but eventually that becomes endearing not skeevy.  Okay, maybe a little skeevy…

The soups are to-die for.  Who teaches soup-making as hobby over there, because I must learn.  Again, going back to question number 1, nobody expects soup in Africa because it’s sooo hot, right?  Pleasant surprise.  Cream-based, lentil based, curry flavorings. 

Inland, we ate a lot of lentils, beans, potatoes, and rice.  On the coast, it’s like the lobster lottery.  Lobster (or crab) at every meal.  In salads, soups, raviolis, grilled or broiled as main course.  And these aren’t little ratty lobsters, but meaty portions of tails and claws.  In addition, there were fresh vegetables of all sorts grown in local village gardens.  Venture into the villages and you can eat like a king for pennies from a menu of fritters and broths, as well as vegetables and fruit.

A tip or two about eating out:  Leave plenty of time.  It takes twenty minutes to get salt and pepper, let alone a piece of toast.  Guard your plate.  Once you look finished or have a lull in fork-to-mouth movement, your plate will be taken from you.  Hot sauce goes well with EVERYTHING in Africa.

Tanzania vs. Kenya?

Though they’re so close, sharing mountain ranges and borders, these countries are wildly different. 

When I first arrived in Kenya, I felt like I had a sign on my head that said “I’ve never been to Africa before, so please ignore me.”  Because that’s what they did.  Though after 3 weeks in Tanzania, returning to Kenya felt like homecoming.  I think the Kenyans are less trusting, less apt to open their arms in welcome because of a spotty colonial history and turbulent political system.  That said, since I’ve been in Kenya, the new constitution was approved by a 70% margin, and the future looks a little brighter.

On our first days in Tanzania, we felt a much more welcoming vibe.  Possibly that’s because we had acclimated a bit, and our first glimpse of Tanzania was through the eyes of the hired company taking us up Mount Kilimanjaro.  But that’s just a maybe.  Tanzania was better organized, and my take is that it goes back to the Nyerere presidency from the 60’s to the 80’s.  He unified the Zanzibar islands with the mainland Tanganyika to become Tanzania and, it seems, still has a profound effect on the democracy that exists today.

Gun to my head…Tanzania.  But it’s very close…

What are some little things, possibly indigenous to East Africa, possibly indigenous to travelers in East Africa that you noticed?

Many Africans get confused and say “you’re welcome” instead of “thank you.”  They use phrases like “Obey Your Thirst “and “Just Do It” in everyday context.  Like, on safari, my guide Rajai was always asking “Marie, did you obey your thirst today?” in an effort to make sure that I was drinking enough water.  The fact that this line of questioning took the form of Gatorade’s tagline (and that’s where he likely picked it up) was lost on him. 

Coca-Cola signs are everywhere.  All the bars, the stores in the mud-based villages, the billboards, even the ONE refreshment hut (and I do mean hut) coming down Kilimanjaro have Coke signs to announce them.  Usually the signs feature a woman with an Afro tilting her head back in drink.  Kiosks are even shaped like massive Coke bottles with cutouts for the counters—phallic American symbols of big business.  I wonder when exactly Coca-Cola came into Africa so aggressively; it’s very disturbing. 

I was always dirty.  And I don’t mean use-a-little-hand-sanitizer dirty.  Dirty in breadth and scope.  My eye socket corners, the soles of my feet, under the nails, in my ears, and as a film on my arms.  My hair was sand-colored and un-brushable most of the time.  Anything white is off-limits.  It’ll be beige in no time at all.  My shoes were coated in grime.  Their shoes, the shoes of the Kenyan and Tanzania people, however, were always clean.  People wear lace-up leather shoes, shined to the hilt, as if they just came from a shoe shine…clean.  How?  It was utterly amazing.

When you’re driving through the countryside, there are fields upon fields of flowers.  All kinds—sunflowers, calla lilies, orchids—and thousands of them.  I thought about the florist expenditure that we must spend, be it for weddings, funerals, or other affairs on such flowers.  Yet, there were thousands of them in sun-shining splendor along Africa’s back roads and it made me smile every time.

Speaking of roads.  All are bumpy and unpaved roads.  You’re holding on for dear life through most of your car-time in Africa.  I think I mentioned this in an earlier blog: sports bras on safari – an absolute must, so I reiterate.

Speaking of cars, Kenyans and Tanzanians put baby amounts of gas in their cars at the stations.  For a 90-minute drive, they would get a ¼ tank.  They won’t fill up, because they don’t believe in waste; use as you need it, pay for only what you need.  Forget gas, nothing goes to waste.  Everything gets recycled from the banana leaves to the broken down 1970’s radios and carburetors.  The sides of the streets are littered with men fixing bicycles, refrigerators, lamps, patching tires, reselling furniture.  If it can be reused, there’s a corner on which some weathered man is recycling it.

At lodges and hotels, the staff greets you with passion fruit juice and hand towels (to clean off the dust).  Hotel room mints come in the form of mosquito and roach spray.  Bugs here are as big as your fist.  Mosquitoes are like nowhere I’ve ever been.  In Zanzibar, on the coast, you can barely breathe without catching a few in your lungs, and by morning, your sheets are polka-dotted with blood from rolling over feeding mosquitoes during REM.  Yes, you actually get used to it.

Most of the towns smell like fire.  Much of this is attributed to the fact that refuse is burned for fuel, or because there’s a lack of garbage collection.  New houses within these communities are made of cinder block, though I prefer the mud-dried houses built on a frame of logs and sticks and accented with thatched banana or coco palm leaf roof.

Everyone needs to know a time for everything.  Breakfast, lunch, or dinner primarily, but also if you merely mention you MIGHT go to the market in passing.  Ok, what time?  Might want to take a walk later.  Ok, what time?  Returning to the airport?  When, what time?  When you give a roundabout answer, you then have someone waiting for you at that exact time guilting you into something you only said you might actually do.  It’s a vicious cycle.

Everyone has biblical names.  Little girls named Ruth and Miriam, little boys named Joseph and Jacob.  If it’s not biblical, it a descriptive noun:  Happiness, Mercy, Destiny, Patience, and the like. 

What about the African men?

One thing everyone should know about African men:  most cheat.  My Kilimanjaro guide, Richard, asked me to be his African girlfriend.  “We will email once you leave,” he says to me as we bound down the mountain on Day 7.  “Marie, I love you.”  “Yeah right,” I say, mildly amused.  I mean, who doesn’t want a good 50-something African man with seven children to love her?  “What does your wife think of that?” I ask.  “She knows that I cannot be with one women, it is not natural.”  And so it went…  Biondi, our drive in Zanzibar, brought his on-the-side bird into Stonetown with us.  They canoodled in the back of the van while we caroused until all hours.  I had to knock on the window to get his, ahem, attention to drive us home.  Our driver to Mombasa’s wife was headed to Zaire for temporary work.  He was on the prowl for a replacement.  

So, besides the fact that the African guy isn’t my guy to begin with… well, there’s the cheating.

How was it traveling with someone?  Specifically with Darryl?

Short answer: It was amazing. 

Long answer: I admit I was nervous to travel with someone.  I’ve spent the better part of the last four years traveling on my own.  I tend to be a little anal; I unpack as soon as I check in, I make lists of restaurants and local foods to try from my notes, I like to wrap the blanket between my legs so that my knees don’t touch.  Would I snore?  Would we get on each other’s nerves?  Was she too much of a hippie to my fancy?  When should I tell her I’d never been camping?

Slowly, I realized she was the perfect travel partner.  Where I’m uptight, she’s laid-back.  When she’s travel nervous, I’m calm.  We both like to get our hands dirty and engage in the culture in which we’re traveling and we both like nice sheets when the day is over.  (I admit, I was surprised by this.  She’s a bit of a Jungle Jap, if I’m spilling the beans…) 

Soon, we’d developed into a rhythm.  She always took the bed (or the side of the bed) closest to the bathroom.  I took up more room in the closet.  I expressed displeasure to any staff/clerk/tour guide that displeased me; she benefitted.  She let me try to do things my way only to be wrong.  Then, having patiently waited, we would do it her (right) way.  The best part?  She never said, “I told you so.”   She turns the AC off before we go to sleep; I turn it back on sometime during the night.  My luggage started off heavier.  Hers finished heavier.  So, there.

A kind person, Darryl always wants to give something back to anyone who, like, waves or smiles at her.  Shirts, food, money – she’s always searching her bag for a gift, to show “they mean something to her.”  It comes from a beautiful place, but in my opinion, exacerbates the problem.  “Can’t someone just do something nice for you without you feeling guilty?” I would ask her.  And she would smile sheepishly, and say something like “But the kid outside our room was so cute and I just found this $1 dollar bill from this Rabbi I used to know who told me to pass it onto something worthwhile, and I thought that the kid would be a good person to pass it onto.”  I wouldn’t disagree with her logic, but then I would say something like, “Okay, but do you have $100 dollar bills from the Rabbi for the line of children that have now gathered outside the property fence?” 

Me?  I haggle.  I refuse to be taken for a ride because I’m a tourist.  Sorry, a traveler.  I can’t give to everyone, so I give to very few.  Forget Africa being poor, traveling through poverty with Darryl, I’m now poor.  That being the worst of it, I think Darryl and I are headed for quite a few other adventures.

What was your favorite part?

Spending time the kids at Flying Kites.  Hands down, this was the best experience to bottle and take home from Africa.  It’s a special feeling, impacting the lives of others in a profound way, and ever since I involved myself with Flying Kites and their cause, I’ve felt deeply affected by Africa in a way that’s markedly different from the other continents I’ve visited.  Children, of any age, have always had the ability to inspire me to do great things.  The children of Flying Kites inspired me tenfold.

Would you go back?


Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Word About the Constitution

 When I arrived at the Nairobi International Airport in early June, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  A travel writer, I’d seen the likes of five continents, but this was my first trip to Africa and I was trying to withhold expectations.  My goal was to merely absorb what I experienced and process later.  Little did I know my time in Kenya would come full circle two months later on a Montauk, New York beach.

I was in Africa on a charity missionclimbing Kilimanjaro for an orphanage called Flying Kites.  Located in a small town about ninety minutes north of Nairobi, Njabini was my first prolonged stop on a whirlwind East African tour.  I came to find that Njabini was representative of the millions of tiny Kenyan towns that dot the landscape of this beautiful country.  Deeply colored dirt roads meandered off the main drag, a street littered with roadside shops advertising beauty parlor services, internet and fax facilities, and every kind of odd and end under the Kenyan sun—recycled transistor radios, patched tires, mismatched flatware, and mended children’s clothing. 

Hailing from New York City, Njabini was refreshing.  The mountains stretched in every direction, the foliage shimmered bright green in the heat of the sun and fields of calla lilies and sunflowers grew in abundance.  Each morning, as I made my way down from my room at the bare bones Gimwa Guesthouse, the townsfolk were walking the streets—children in school uniform, gentlemen in heavily used suits, and women with tall fruit piles atop their heads.  As they passed, the Njabini people would wave at the crazy mzungus—white peopleen route to Kilimanjaro who had overrun their town.  They didn’t know what to make of us, but their spirits were so open and curious, it was hard to resist their charm.

On morning three in the Gimwa café, a dusty breakfast room with a snowy one-channel television, posters of Jesus Christ, and an unwritten menu of eggs and toast, I noticed a large, thick booklet on one of the tables.  Curious, I picked one up.  “The Proposed Constitution of Kenya.  6th May 2010.”  I looked around sheepishly.  Did someone drop their…Kenyan Constitution?  Had I just become embroiled in an East African version of The Pelican Brief?  Then, I noticed that all of the Gimwa tables were sporting the same booklets. 

Francis, an upstanding Njabini citizen affiliated with Flying Kites, read the confusion on my face.  “We will vote soon on a new constitution that will bring us closer to a true democracy.  In it, there will be less presidential power and better oversight.  There will be needed reform.”  It was 1963 when Kenya’s last constitution was drafted under a colonialist model.  The dissemination of this new legislation was intended to help the country unite in understanding of the document’s goals.  Concern was understandable; previous votes, like the presidential election of 2007, created devastating aftermath.  Over 1,000 people were killed in riots and massacres, and hundreds of thousands more were displaced.  The majority of the atrocities took place right near Njabini’s Rift Valley.  I glanced around.  Here?  Massacres?

As I sipped some Kenyan tea, I skimmed the 47-page document.  “Did you see the environmental legislation?  Page 12,” said Thomas, one of our fellow Kilimanjaro climbers.  “What about the parts on the limits of presidential power?” remarked my friend, Darryl.  I had never turned the pages of my own country’s constitution, yet here I was in rural Kenya, turning the pages of theirs.  It was a pretty incredible moment, Njabini locals and American adventurers talking about Kenya’s proposed constitution—the introduction of a Senate, a qualifying system for those who wanted to hold office.   Humbled, I was reminded of the bounty of my own civil rights.

As I made my way through Nairobi and Mombasa, I continued to see the booklets on park benches, on restaurant tables, and in hotel lobbies.  Each time, it gave me pause.  I wondered what would happen in August.

Last week, as I perused the papers at a local Montauk beach café, I was overcome with emotion reading the headlines.  By a margin of 69%, The Proposed Constitution of Keyna, 6th May 2010, passed.  Without violence or contest.  I raced home to the pile of travel notes and research I had accumulated during my five weeks in East Africa and pulled out my own large, thick booklet.  Then, I set aside my newspapers, conjured the smiles of the wonderful people I met in Kenya, and began to read.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"We Love You So So Much"

Four days on a beach in Mombasa leads back to Njabini and Flying Kites.  Only this time, we’re prepared for the Gimwa, our home away from home.  We’re not surprised when it takes two hours to check in, or when the shower drips on our head in the middle of the night while using the toilet.  The very damp towels we’re supposed to use to dry off no longer annoy us and we anticipate the cacophony of early morning roosters and wild dogs.  We even look forward to the curdled skin floating on the chai tea in the café; we know the line dancing music videos that repeat on the one snowy Gimwa television channel, and we’ve come to terms with the fact that Ruth and Mary, the Gimwa servers, aren’t at all happy to see us. 

But the children are.  And that’s all that matters.  They clamor for our attention as soon as we arrive back on site.  Some remember us, some don’t, but they love us just the same.  Before long, we’re trading stories about the mountain, playing nail salon or kicking soccer goals in tribute to the ongoing World Cup.  Ah, welcome back!

There’s a different vibe on this visit.  All of the Kilimanjaro climbers have gone home, a number of volunteers have completed their stays, and Kites founders Leila and Justine have made their way back to Newport.  Even the in-country directors are off-site, pushing forward with a local program called Oasis in Nairobi to unite the surrounding orphanages in practice and standards.  I imagine this is what regular days feel like at Flying Kites.  Lazy, organized, quiet.  The eighteen boarders have all of our attention today—Sunday.  They come out to greet us one by one—Rahab, Moses, James, John, Mary, Benson, Joseph, Sara, Lucy, Lucy Obama, Miriam, Hannah, Ann, Alex, Isaac, Daniel, Rose, and the newest alum, Eve*.

In the month since we’ve been away, a lot has happened.  Eve is now in temporary Kites custody.  The chief of Njabini stepped in on her behalf; her family didn’t put up a fight.  It took a little getting used to, seeing Eve in clean jeans and a baby blue fleece.  No more filthy school uniform, no more cowering in corners along the main Njabini road.  Her smile spoke volumes but it was plain to see that life, albeit a past life, had taken its toll.  In the period of an hour, Eve could go through any range of emotions, usually unprovoked.  She might be happy and giddy, then argumentative and belligerent.  She pushes and she yells.  Then, she cries.  There’s a lot of distrust in Eve’s eyes, but she’s figuring out how to get along with the others.  You can see that she wants to learn; her English is fantastic.  Thinking about how little language she had when we met her in Njabini speaks to her desire to fit in, to learn, and to grow.  I shudder to think of what would’ve happened to Eve had Darryl and I not come to Kenya.  It gets me every time.

As we’re laying on blankets in the sun after lunch Ann, a stunning beauty of eleven years old who has been braiding my hair turns to me and says:

“What did you do to your legs?”
I look down at my legs, unsure of Ann’s meaning.
“My legs?  Why?”
“They don’t look like regular mzungu (white person) legs.”
Bashfully, she gestures to the fair-skinned Bethany.  Then, her gaze turns to Darryl.  I laugh.  
“I went in the sun and I got a tan at the beach.”
“Oh,” she says but she looks confused. 
“What’s tan?” she asks.
I realize she’s never seen a beach and I feel guilty.

When she sees me writing the conversation down, she asks if I’m writing what she said to remember her.  Yes, I say.  I want to remember you forever.  Slowly, she takes my pen and asks to write in my book.  Then, she proceeds to write the rest of our conversation.

“What’s your favorite colour?”
“My favorite colour is red,” I reply.
“What’s your favorite color, Ann?”
“I said magenta,” she writes.
“I want to remember you forever, too.”
I turn away because there are tears in my eyes and I don’t want to have to explain.

Seeing Ann write in my notebook prompts Lucy Obama to beg a turn with my pen.  Daniel has my camera, Eve has my sunglasses, Alex has my sneakers, and now Lucy has my notebook.  It’s hard to keep track.  After scribbling behind the shield of her elbow, Lucy’s head pops back up.

“I wrote you a letter, do you want to hear it?”
“Yes, of course, Lucy Obama!”

She reads:
“Dear Marie and Aunty (I assume this is Darryl)
My name is Lucy.  I live in Flying Kites.  I love you so much.
Baboons.  Warthogs.  Giraffes. 
Dik dik.  Cheetah.  Elephant.  Impala.  Zebras.”

Huh?  Confused, I take my book back.  Lucy is giggling uncontrollably.  She has written on a page opposite my safari notes.  She’s copied all the animals, and all my notes, into her “letter.”  Then, she grabs the book back.  “I love you,” she writes again.  As Rahab takes a turn in my notebook, Daniel shows me the 100 photographs he’s taken during our writing session.  Daniel might have a career as a photographer; his montage of a Flying Kites Sunday evokes the freedom and playfulness of being a kid.  So many years past my own childhood, it was wonderful to see myself through childhood’s lens.  Especially the lens of these children: the beautiful children of Flying Kites.

Rabab keeps it simple.

My name is Rahab.
I am seven years old.

I don’t want to leave. 

We may have been prepared for the Gimwa, but saying goodbye to these sweet, little faces isn’t something I’m ready to face.  “It’s so sad, when everyone leaves,” says Ann, eyes turned toward the ground.  Rose is hysterical, Daniel won’t meet my eye; Eve is visibly upset.  The children who have spent more time at Kites seem used to the transition, but it doesn’t make it easier on Darryl and me.  “We love you so so much, we love you so so much!” sing their little voices in song as we pull away in the Flying Kites vehicle. 

I only hope they know how much we love them in return.

*Name has been changed.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sun, Sand, Israelis

A rainbow of bluesmarine, turquoise, sea foam, sky, and royalundulate gently to meet the reef.  Defunct rowboats idle along shore.  A concentration of tin-roofed houses opens onto vibrant jungle as you fly north.  From air, Zanzibar’s electric blue border evokes memories of my favorite island: Bora Bora.  I take that as a very good sign.

Haji, our hotel’s driver, meets us at Zanzibar’s small, tropical airstrip.  He’s reminiscent of Popeye, albeit with crystal blue eyes and curious shocks of wiry blond hair crawling up his arms.  After a 35-minute drive through poverty stricken city limit cum lush countryside, Haji turns abruptly onto a dirt road that seems arbitrary.  Next Paradise, an intimate boutique hotel filled with oceanfront palm gardens, oversized pillow chairs, and open-air common spaces, beckons.  As we assess our oceanfront digs, it appears Darryl and I have entered the honeymoon phase of our trip.

Darryl: “You’re going to flip when you meet our new neighbors.”
Me: “Why?”
Darryl: “Um…they have a baby.”

Anyone who has listened to my trials of living next door to a rowdy French family in New York can appreciate this wicked twist of international fate.  On their 10th anniversary, Jagger (from Bethesda, MD of all places) has surprised Melissa (and their 1-year old) with a trip to Zanzibar.  Two nights with earplugs spent praying for a new-neighbor-miracle elicits response.  Allah, it seems, has answered my Muslim SOS.  In the Jagger family’s stead, he sends Daniel and Shira, an Israeli couple celebrating their five-year anniversary.  He surprised her, too.  Are you sensing a pattern?  Only this time, there’s no child, lots of laughs, and lots of, ahem, “cigarettes.”  Shira and Daniel know how to kick back.  The perfect yin and yang, Daniel is the mayor of Zanzibaralways talking to someone, shaking down facts, compiling relevant informationShira, on the other hand, just wants to be still or dance to Darryl’s iPod.  By the second day, we’re not only sharing a porch with the Israelis, we’re sharing our trip.

“People must think we’re gay,” we muse openly to Shira and Daniel.
“Well, for a minute,” says Shira. 
“But then I watch you and…no.  Not gay.  I know this.” 
She states this so matter-of-factly that we can’t help but laugh.

Like Zanzibar, Daniel and Shira are easy-going and full of life.  We love their relationship: they ride each other gently; they’re affectionate at the right times without being over-the-top. Darryl and I hope to emulate what they have in our own lives.  Only separately.  With men.  Good-looking, smart, funny men.

Relaxation is at a premium at Next Paradise.  Our days consist of lying out, reading, and taking runs on the beaches to the delight of the local boys.  They tail us and push us harder, giggling in Swahili when we speak to them in English.  After the safari downtime, it feels good to get moving, even if it’s only for daily runs. 

For lunch, we venture into the surrounding village, a simple collection of mud houses.  A Muslim society, men greet us while women workcleaning, cooking, building houses, and childrearing.  From the village’s only kiosk we dine on 30¢ cassava (yucca) and fritters, doused in a simmered chili sauce.  We’re given the one china bowl (everyone else eats out of plastic tubs) and a rickety bench is hauled out of a corner and dusted off.  “Sit, sit,” our vendor gestures.  We’ve been invited to join the group…a true compliment.  Ducks and dogs roam freely around us, begging scraps.  Men in prayer shawls and Muslim caps chat us up politely.  We look at each other and smile before we buy some papaya and bananas for the road.  Nothing beats this.  Nothing.

Our nights are filled with amazing seafood dinnerslobster, shrimp, fresh crab, and octopushouse made lasagna, and fresh coconut ice cream.  After World Cup, we head back to the communal porch for capfuls of duty-free Finlandia, “smokes,” and good conversation.  Darryl and I realize we’ve made our first travel friends, and damn, we’ve done good…

If I had issues on mountain high, Darryl has the issues at sea level.  The mosquitoes on the coast are insatiable.  Malaria looms large.  I’ve become virtual insect food; my body is alive with hives.  And if I have it bad, Darryl awoke to an Independence Day like no other.  It was my turn to warn her off facing her mirror image.  Her face is awash in red dots, ala Strawberry Shortcake.  Mosquito bites on steroids.  Everyone from our scuba instructor to our server asked what happened.  When she stepped on a sea urchin later that day, we had to throw up our hands in surrender.  In Africa, Mother Nature has proven herself one vicious broad.  “A lo-pard,” as our safari guide, Rajai would say.  Women, especially the vindictive kind, are called leopards in Tanzania.  And the hookers, you ask? Mosquitos.  Quite appropriately.

Zanzibar is best known for its abundance of spices, hence the popularity of the Spice Tour.  Assuming this would be a wasted hour, the spice tour turned into something of a highlight.  From cloves to cinnamon, nutmeg to turmeric, pepper to vanilla, we played a game of what’s what with the plants, stopping for the requisite haggle and purchase of indigenous spices at the end of the ride.  I have the makings of a mean curry on my return.  My place, bring wine, who’s in? 

Onto Stone Town, a small city that looks like my imagined version of Morocco: white-washed buildings, stained glass detailing, elaborate wooden doors and archways.  Against the sterile background Stone Town was a kaleidoscope of color.  Even the women got in on the action, covering their bodies in silk shocks of bright colored robes and scarves: chartreuse, fuschia, tangerine orange, and banana yellow. 

Haji drops us at the food market, a bazaar of vendors selling one of three productsassorted seafood, vegetarian patties, cakes, and breads, or sugar cane juice.  After Darryl gets ripped off by 500% for a sugar cane juice, I get myself into deeper trouble.  In Africa, they take you at your word.  So when I tell a food vendor his seafood is “making me hungry,” he proceeds to follow me around the market yelling when don’t buy anything.  His deep-set eyes are menacing, and he hits me repeatedly with the paper plate that was supposed to hold my food selection.  “You say you are hungry.  You lie to me.  I am not a player boy.  Fuck you, lady,” he rants.  He hits me again with the plate.  When he pushes my shoulder, I find my voice.  We’re now exchanging “compliments,” garnering the eyes of passerby, and when I am able to slip away, it’s with the raised middle finger of an angry vendor following.  An hour later, I see him having the same tantrum with someone else, and can’t help but feel slightly relieved.  We haven’t encountered any ill will on our travels and I would hate for this jackass to muck up our karma.

As we gather ourselves on our final morning in Zanzibar, we’re sad to go.  Like Bora Bora, there’s an idyllic quality to this place.  Zanzibar’s people have a friendly spirit; the island exudes a gentle loveliness that is hard to come by.  Had we known, we might have extended our time to match the Israelis who have another five days to enjoy.

Alas, onward. 
To Mombasa, Kenya. 
Which, all things considered, ain’t too shabby …