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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?


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