musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ding dong, Kim Jong Il is dead... now what?

At long last, our favorite megalomaniac (street justice got Gaddafi, all but Rick Perry's hair has faded from the spotlight and, despite my dislike of him in general, Erdogan isn't quite at Kim's level... yet) has passed on to another world. So, in pursuit of North Korea's Next Top Dictator (to be aired in early 2012 on Fox DPRK), Chris Blattman and Josh Keating have inspired me to read more about the Kim heir apparent: Kim Jong Un.


politicalgraffiti.wordpress.com
Lil' Kim remains an enigma to most (likely including our beloved western intelligence agencies), much as his father and father's father have been for decades. The most important information I was able to find about him is that he likes basketball, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and drawing cartoons. Oh, and he looks like his dad. I like him already.

So what's next for the budding dictator? In addition to consolidating his power, beefing up his military street cred and planning his next however-old-he-is birthday party, I hope Jr. Comrade Kim adds a little bit of this, a dash of them, and a generous helping of these to his reign at the helm of... well... quite a royal mess.

As an aside, it has always been a bit sad to me that DPRK and RK share so much in common yet have gone down such different paths. After starting on a level playing field less than a century ago, one is now a global ICT and economic powerhouse; the other perpetually on the verge of famine. Le sigh.

As an aside to the aside, I also like that the most 'credible' information we have about the Kim family (and potentially DPRK itself) is from Jong Il's former sushi chef. Awesome.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Just don't be that guy...

I can picture it now: seasoned expat aid worker decides he has had enough. It's time to donate all his clothes to the trendiest overly-supported local orphanage and burn the pieces even they won't touch. He charges his MacBook Pro, iPad, iPod, and Galaxy S (the last of which was purchased to prove to the world that he did not drink all the Apple juice...) one last time before the oh-so-annoying-yet-infinitely-re-countable journey half way across the world. He throws on his North Face backpack one last time, preparing himself for his re-entry into 'the real world'. As soon as he lands in [insert western city here], it all seems like a dream. Or the last chapter of a book that only grandma would pretend to like.

That's when it starts...

At the taxi driver from the airport: "You think the traffic is bad here? At least you don't have to fight humongous cows and their self-righteous tribal owners for the road every day!"

Over the phone to a friend in Alabama: "You think it's hot there? Try adding to the equation walls of dust coming at you daily and living in an unsealed tent during a year-long drought. Now that's hot my friend!"

To the homeless guy on 14th Street: "You think you got it rough here man? You should be lucky you don't have to contend with black mambas and lions. It could be a lot worse!"

The temptation will be there. It will no doubt be incredibly easy to 'one up' just about everyone in every bar conversation from here until you're sporting the latest model scooter in the old folks home. We get it. You're awesome. You lived in [insert war-ravaged post apocalyptic country here] for 19 years. You are infinitely better than the rest of us in every single way imaginable...

Just don't be that guy. Or girl. Please.

We've all seen them and, not surprisingly, probably didn't ever want to see them again after hearing how our last minute, non-stop road trip from Austin to Greeneville was nothing compared to how she crossed the Sahara last July with nothing more than a camel and a leatherman.

Humility can be tough when awesomeness, along with mysterious other things picked up in [insert remote village in war-ravaged post apocalyptic country here], just oozes out of your skin. But remember, if you're truly cool (and if you want to have actual friends who don't roll their eyes every time you open your mouth), you don't have to always 'win' with the better story. Sometimes it's worth it in the long-run to offer sincere congratulations to your friend who got married at 21 when they tell you that the highlight of their week was catching the final day of the underwear sale at Macy's.

For the benefit of non former expat aid workers everywhere... please... don't be that guy.

This message has been brought to you in cooperation with Michael Jackson.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Need For Long-Term Solutions in the Horn of Africa

People must be able to access what they need through the market rather than indefinite quantities of international humanitarian aid.

Read more here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Just another trek with mountain gorillas in Uganda

In case you're only interested in the photos and not my (admittedly long) description below, they can be found here.

Several months ago a friend mentioned that he wanted to see the famous mountain gorillas in Uganda. If I remember correctly it was one of those conversations that we tend to have in Juba after a particularly grueling day of beating ones head against a wall. He could've asked me if I wanted to bungee jump off a sidewalk and I would've signed up.

So there we were just this last weekend, 4 of us from Juba wheels down at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda, ready for a guy's weekend with our large, hairy friends.

Mike met us at the airport. "Born and bred" in Uganda, Mike was to be our driver, guide, comedian, and all around good sport for the next 3 days. He put up with our bad jokes, incessant American chatter, diverse musical choices and post-trekking stench like a champ. Travelust African Safaris - you've got a keeper in Mike.

After settling our outstanding debts and loading the Land Cruiser with water, we set off in an air of excitement and anticipation, heading southwest towards Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to some of the only ~700 mountain gorillas left in the wild. That was around 2:30pm.

By 5pm we were starting to calm down a bit. iPod earphones were thoroughly implanted in several ears and a failed attempt to get a cold beverage at a 'gas station' had left us starting to wonder when we'd get there.

"Oh, it will be another 6 hours at least," consoled Mike with perhaps a hint of a chuckle.

6pm - arrival at the equator. A few quick pictures. A few cold beers. Off again in a flash.

8pm - Thanksgiving dinner at a gas station quick-e-mart type place. Stale crackers, salty chips, more beer.

10:30pm - are we there yet?

11:45pm - zzzzzzzzzz... (except for Chris who valiantly kept Mike awake)

12:30am - we finally arrive at Gorilla Resort and have some more food... none of us really remember much about those few minutes. Although we do seem to recall that the food was pretty good.

So, after some much needed few hours of sleep, we were up at dawn (woken up in our fancy tent with coffee and muffins) and ready to see some gorillas! Our fearless trip organizer's parents had wisely recommended that we plan for two days of trekking. The likelihood of finding the gorillas is indeed quite high (we were told that there hadn't been a refund in over 5 years), but with a second day to come we weren't too disappointed when we found out that our day 1 visit would be to a family of only 6 adults (my goal of cuddling with a baby gorilla would have to wait at least another day).

In what can only be described as breathtaking (both in terms of the scenery and what it did to me physically), our hike lasted a little over 2 hours. Advance trekkers leave early in the morning to try and find the habituated families based on their previous day's location and mad trekking skills. No GPS ankle bracelets here people, this is done old school using tracks, poop, and who-knows-what else. There are many other wild mountain gorillas that are not used to human contact not to mention highly aggressive mountain elephants... these tend to be avoided and were the official reason why we had two guys with AK47s with us the whole time. Apparently it takes quite some time to habituate a gorilla 'family' to us homo sapiens, essentially giving them time to know that we're just silly tourists and not poachers wanting to cause them harm.

I don't think I will ever forget first seeing one of these big boys in the wild. A bit shy with massive bellies and deep red eyes, they were magnificent, each unique in his or her own way. It's hard to describe what it feels like to have such an amazing creature look you right in the eyes. In this instance, a picture can indeed speak much louder than words.

We had exactly one hour with the gorillas before our guide ushered us away. Rightly so, they want the gorillas to be comfortable, but not too comfortable, with humans.

Did you know that gorillas are 98.4% biologically identical to humans? Kinda makes you wonder about that evolution vs. creationism thing a bit...

Day 2 of project 'let's see some primates' commenced at a chilly 4:30am with yet another pot of coffee and muffins. I must say, the Gorilla Resort was quite nice and Fred, the manager, took care of us well. The food was excellent, beds comfortable, showers hot, and view stunning. The rooms (well, they're tents actually) reminded me of something straight from Out of Africa, although instead of Meryl Streep to snuggle with I was stuck with Greg...
By 5:30am we had bid our adieu to our luxury in the jungle and were on our way to a different side of the park. After waiting a few minutes for our fellow trackers (this time a friendly group of four British women), we received a similar briefing from the ranger guide fellow, advising us not to get within 7 meters of the animals, etc. (By no fault of our own, we certainly did not follow the 7 meter rule... what can you do when you step past a bush and there's a gorilla right next to you?!?!)

The hike on day 2 was, in my humble opinion, a bit more strenuous than the previous day. More machete hacking, more mud, and more thorny bushes. Maybe this is a good time to mention that gorilla trekking, while an undeniably amazing experience, is best suited for those that are in decent (preferably good) shape. That having been said, Greg's parents (60+ years young) did a similar trek in February and passed with flying colors. For the less mobile, apparently there is a '991 Program' (I kept wondering if they meant to be saying 911 as a joke but no, it's 991 for some reason) whereby you can be carried by 4-8 people (depending on how many big macs you've eaten in the past 6 months) in a stretcher to see the gorillas... no thanks.

On the flip side, if you are a serious or semi-serious hiker (David brought his own hiking poles...), this is your Mecca. Next year, instead of going back to Yosemite, go to Bwindi.

Needless to say, I was hurting at points. I'd like to blame it on the water and camera equipment in my backpack, but it really comes down to me just being out of shape. But, like any guy with his man card on the line, I kept on trudging. And man was I happy I did!

If day 1 was awesome, day 2 was absolutely unbelievable. We first stumbled upon two silverbacks napping right next to each other. 'Silverback' describes the color of the hair on the back of most full grown males. This particular family had multiple grown males with the salt and pepper thing going on, but as is the case in all gorilla 'families', there was only one dominant male silverback in charge of protecting the group.

Next we got the rare chance to see a mother with two young children (is children the right word here...? cub? pup? toddler? no idea...); the mama even decided to carry the 9-month-old on her back at one point!

At several points during the two days I felt as if I was delicately dancing with delirium (not to mention more than a little soreness), but each time all I had to do was look around me to gain more energy. Having lived primarily in cities for my entire life, it was difficult for me to fathom the remoteness of Bwindi Impenetrable even while hiking right in the middle of it. The air was filled with sounds of grasshoppers (yes, we ate some during the trip - they kinda tasted like beer nuts), exotic birds, gorillas growling in greeting to the muzungus (foreigners), and periodic utter stillness.

On the way back to the vehicle with sweat running down my face, legs laboring to keep moving, blisters forming, clothes ripped, I couldn't help but have one thought:

I love my life.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The capital moving saga continues in South Sudan

For those that are unaware, the Government of South Sudan recently resolved to move the capital city from Juba to a place in the middle of... well... nowhere called Ramciel. There is much speculation as to the motives for the move and, to try and remain as objective as possible, I won't go there.

There are plenty of examples of newly formed countries (or overflowing ones like Nigeria) successfully moving the capital. It's a statement, an emphatic proclamation of independence. I get that. Turkey did it after the fall of the Ottoman Empire/end of the WW I, moving from the historical capital of Constantinople/Istanbul to Ankara. No problemo in my book... in theory.

The official reason (I dare say the main one of many) for the move of the South Sudanese capital is that access to land in and around Juba is becoming increasingly difficult. The tribal owners of the land are frequently not willing to provide land (even by lease) to the government, other citizens, businesses, NGOs, etc., essentially stifling the physical expansion of a city that must be on track to be the fastest developing place in Africa. Without proper access to land there is literally no where to go.

Solution? Move the capital to a place where there is more available land. Never mind the fact that Ramciel, the anointed spot, is today essentially pasture without any existing infrastructure, little access to water, soil that is (according to an engineer friend) not conducive to large-scale construction, etc. etc. etc. Never mind that South Sudan has a million other things (border conflict with Sudan, a large food insecure population, 70% annual inflation, the list goes on and on and on) to worry about. Never mind all that. Access to land is a key issue and without it Juba (with it's already skyrocketing real estate prices) will indeed suffocate.

In other words, while I didn't necessarily agree with the decision, at least I could understand it from the land access point of view. Until now.

PaanLuel Wël, one of South Sudan's most prolific bloggers, posted this open letter to the President of South Sudan. The letter (which should also be viewed with an air of suspicion if not simply caution) essentially says that the Aliab-Dinka tribe - owners of the land around Ramciel and represented in the letter by their diaspora community - were not consulted before the decision was made to move the capital there. Translation: there very well might be similar land disputes to those occurring in Juba today when/if the capital moves.
Deep sigh...

Monday, November 7, 2011

That was Juba Good!

In Manhattan, Zagat decides how up to snuff restaurants are. Rankings and recommendations are based on exhaustive taste tests (how do I get that job?), restaurant decor, service, cost, etc. as identified by discerning customers and other foodies.

In Juba, the capital of the world's newest country, we have a similar rating system. However, like most things in a place where dodging cows on the drive to work and contracting typhoid from bottled water are routine occurrences, the system here is a little more 'shoot from the hip' than the science with which high brow midtown yuppies decide which pizza place is the most authentically Genovese.

Here we have a rather simple ranking system (from worst to... well... not worst) that can be broken down as follows:

"You went where for lunch?" - This lowest of the low ranking is typically reserved for the place just around the corner that you had recently mistaken for a brothel (or maybe you weren't mistaken after all...). If there are tables, they are crudely constructed from recycled toilet seat covers. Animal bones lashed together with a thin layer of goat hide on top serve as seating apparatuses. Order a water, a coke or a tea, and they'll be the same color. Only the most extreme (or delusional) aid workers are brave enough to eat what appears to be pieces of rat droppings mixed in with what was probably, at some point in the production cycle, rice.

"Meh" - 'Meh' is one of my favorite descriptions as it's pound for pound impact is impressive. You might be surprised how telling those three letters can be. Usually a step or two above 'you went where for lunch?',  'meh' denotes the place that is sufficiently local for you to feel like you're living the hard life while still not likely to result in a medical evacuation. A restaurant or activity gets a 'meh' rating generally if it is something that you normally wouldn't do even if someone paid you to, but given the limited options for emotional and gastronomical entertainment available in a place like Juba... sure, why not?

"Juba Good" - Finally we have arrived at the reason I thought of this post in the first place. In short, 'Juba Good' denotes something that would normally be bad to mediocre in the 'real world' but is considered wholly acceptable under the circumstances. Undoubtedly there are many global variations on this; for example, an urban legend in Iraq tells of a clever (or, as my mother would say 'smart aleck') pilot who congratulates the women on board for no longer being 'Baghdad Beautiful' upon arrival in Dubai. A very useful description, people to whom you give such a review will automatically know exactly how to temper their expectations to avoid disappointment. "Juba Good" covers a decent range of options, from places that offer more than just fried goat on the menu, to places that actually have a menu, to the Chinese food place in a shipping container that is really not that bad. Wholly acceptable. Really not that bad. 'Juba Good'.

"Legitimate" - The holy grail of reviews for Juba (or Monrovia. or Gode. or Norman). If something is described as 'legitimate' the music stops and everyone pays attention. We all want to know what, if anything, is being described as legitimately entertaining or legitimately tasty. A place on par with a Subway or Chipotle (mmm Chipotle...) would get such a rating in Juba. To qualify, the place would need real wooden tables (plastic fraternity chairs are an instant disqualifier), some sort of planned (i.e. not dirt) flooring, prompt/effective service (although this is usually one that can be overlooked if the food/atmosphere are 'Juba really good'), and fine cuisine that makes you immediately text all of your friends bragging about how you just had the Best. Nile perch. Ever.

Sadly, the longer one spends in a place like Juba and as former standards of restaurant cleanliness, resentment of bugs on/in the food, etc. declines, the more things get categorized as 'legitimate'. These are also the people that are most likely to experience culture shock when entering the Cheesecake Factory for the first time after months in Juba. 

So beware, newcomers, of sliding standards amongst veterans. And, when you squeal like a 9 year old girl the first time you see a rat the size of your head crawling across the kitchen, remember that you're living a life that's about as 'Juba Good' as it gets!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Honking Demystified

As a general rule, I like driving. If there's an option that involves me at the helm of a motor vehicle, that is most likely the option that I'll take.

Over the years I have driven in a few countries and come to realize that Lady Roadrage tends to take on different personalities based on where she's located. Nothing showcases her personality dysfunctions quite like the rampant use of the car horn.

As I was driving home from our Addis office today I was struck by the sheer amount of times that I either 1. honked or 2. was honked at. What does all this honking mean? And how does the definition change from place to place?

Look no further. Never fear. Geographically appropriate definitions of honking are right here.

Middle America i.e. Minnesota or Kansas: "Excuse me sir, but my automobile just happens to be situated in the general vicinity of your automobile and, if you don't mind me saying so, I'm not sure if you even realize I'm here! Sorry to bother you and have a great day!"
(Alternately: "C'mon honey, stop curling your bangs. It's bowling night!")

Washington, DC:  "Dear Mr. Taxi Cab - just because you drive like a dog in heat in Eritrea doesn't make it ok to drive like that in the district. Please don't hit me."

Texas: does the theme song to Dukes of Hazard even count as a horn?

Ankara, Turkey: "My bumper is clearly in front of yours and my car is faster than yours anyways (not to mention bright yellow), so I'm pretty sure I have the legal right of way in this situation."

Istanbul, Turkey: See "Ankara" above, with the following addition. "I may also be honking at you to make way for my Hummer on this thousand-year-old cobblestone street made for horses."

Baghdad, Iraq: "I am in an up-armored vehicle and get very anxious when sitting in traffic. So kindly move or I will give you a dirty look or, depending on how much coffee I had this morning, shoot my AK in your general direction."

London, England: Well, I haven't actually driven in London but I've been honked at plenty for failing to read the sign on the crosswalk that tells idiot non-Brits like me to look to the right for oncoming traffic. So the meaning is probably something to the affect of "Get yur bloody Yank ars out of me way! Blimey!!"
(full disclosure - I have no idea what blimey means and refuse to look it up)

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: "I'm not stopping either because 1. I'm a jerk and don't want to miss Baywatch or 2. the breaks on my 1978 Lada haven't worked for 6 months. In any case, it would thus be wise not to pull out in front of me."

Juba, South Sudan: "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Very Large Cow, I have now been sitting here for 10 minutes watching you chew. Would you kindly mind stepping to the side so I can pull into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a meeting? Thank you."
(Alternately: "No, turning on the lights of your motorbike does not make your fuel go down faster so please turn on your friggin' lights before I sit you down and make you listen to Bangs' new album.)

Nairobi, Kenya: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh"
(Also relevant for Cairo)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

This is simply too good not to link to...

Well done Bored in Post Conflict. Well done.

For all you music lovers out there, keep an eye out for Bangs and other up and coming South Sudanese superstars...

http://boredinpostconflict.blogspot.com/2011/10/south-sudanese-musicbrrraaaappp.html

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Just a regular 'ol Friday night in South Sudan


If there were a list of 101 things for which a sarong is useful, ‘holding in place the fuel tank of a Toyota Land Cruiser’ should definitely be one of them.

Let me explain.

On Thursday afternoon I was asked if I’d like to go to one of our field offices about two hours from Juba to meet some new staff and monitor some payments that were being made. I don’t get out nearly enough to the field, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Payments were interesting but largely uneventful, with the most unique part being the man who showed up to our vocational training session for electricians mind-blowingly drunk at 11am. No, sir, you cannot participate in the training.

Staff meetings were quite useful, though again, nothing extraordinary. It was shaping up to be a very worthwhile, and altogether routine, visit. I had made plans for the evening and was looking forward to having a nice, easy Friday evening.

That's when the fun started.

But first a bit about our vehicles. As seems to be the case with many NGOs, we have several vehicles that, under normal circumstances, would be considered good only for a demolition derby. South Sudan tends to destroy even the meanest of vehicles, reducing them to cannon fodder in 2, 3 years tops. When I arrived we had 6 vehicles broken and unused with one and a half in the rotation. I’m not joking.

One of the ones resurrected from the dead was affectionately named Mortimer (Morty for short), in honor of his sorcerer-like qualities. Periodic ticking noises from the glove box are mixed with regular whirring of the tires, topped off by eerily flickering lights that are usually reserved to creepy haunted houses on my least favorite day of the year. He’s a great car – tough, plenty of personality, and surprisingly reliable. Until Friday that is.

No doubt wanting to get home before dark, our driver decided to push Morty that little bit harder on the way home. This was met with regular requests to slow down by those of us whose lives were in his hands. Nonetheless, about half way into our journey, his exuberance was rewarded with a sound akin to ceramic plates shattering right underneath our feet (think Jewish wedding). Full on blowout – Morty’s back right tire didn’t even wait for us to pull off the side of the dirt patch some call a road before completely deflating. Problem #1 of the afternoon.

Luckily changing a tire was second nature to our driver and something I had quickly learned how to do as a freshman in college when a friend and I came upon a very attractive/distressed young lady with a flat on the side of the road. Problem #1 of the afternoon solved.

With the tire in place it was time to hit the road again. “Not so fast” purred Morty as we attempted to start him up to no avail. Problem #2 of the afternoon.

After trying unsuccessfully to jump start him using techniques well-honed by car burglars worldwide, we finally succeeded after a gaggle of Kenyans hanging off the side of a truck (they’re called ‘lorries’ here) stopped and pushed us out of the ditch in which we had successfully lodged ourselves. This earned them a smile from a now impressively dirty white guy and ~$5 from our senior finance officer. Problem #2 of the afternoon solved.

At this point there are two thoughts going through my head. 1. Perhaps Morty is actually female… I don’t know any men who are as temperamental as this. I wasn’t giving him/her enough positive reinforcement and encouragement - I know that's it. It was my fault. And 2. nothing  else can possibly go wrong now, I have dinner plans!

Wrong again.

In what turned out to be my favorite noise of the day, less than 5km from the site of the first problem we heard what can only be described as a wrench thrown into a hack saw. Upon further inspection it wasn’t a wrench, but rather a fallen fuel tank dragging along the ground underneath our vehicle that was making the God-awful noise. Problem #3 of the afternoon (now evening).

Hmmm. So the fuel tank – situated underneath the car towards the middle of the chassis – had fallen after some of the steel brackets meant to hold it in place had broken. Ok. New one on me. Didn't even know that was possible.

With night fully upon us and not another vehicle (nor sound for that matter) anywhere near, the search for a solution began in earnest. Our driver quickly gathered the jack from the back of the vehicle, pumping the tank back into place. But, unfortunately, that didn’t solve the issue of keeping it in place so that we could continue on what by then had already stretched into a memorable journey.

Approximate inventory of items in the vehicle at the time:
  • Two tires (one of which had an inner tube recently blown to pieces)
  • A one meter rubber string
  • Jack
  • A short canvas rope
  • 3 tired expats and a still-giggling driver
  • Discarded banana peals
  • One uneaten egg sandwich with fries (or chips if you're a non-American)
  • A sarong
(Cue MacGyver music)

The driver on his back underneath the vehicle and me on my hands and knees holding the flashlight/miscellaneous car fixing materials, we managed to 'secure' the gas tank in place with, you guessed it, the sarong. The canvas rope was used for additional support, but it was the colorful red, purple and blue bit of fabric that ultimately saved the day. 

Problem #3 of the afternoon/evening owned.

After that I drove, not wanting the driver to reach 4 strikes. I drove slowly. Very slowly... in first/second gear in fact because the car would die if I let my foot off the accelerator (I'm no mechanic but that was probably related to the gas tank coming dislodged). Avoiding pot holes like the plague. But alas... successfully. 

So yes, we finally limped back to Juba, only to have Morty finally give his last breath as I removed my foot from the accelerator and onto the brake in front of our compound. 

That was 2100 on Friday night. By 2130 I had already finished my first beer.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Notes from the Somali Border

Actually I was actually about 100km from the border in the Somali Region of Ethiopia, but I got your attention didn't I?

By way of background, my NGO has been doing an assessment of people's needs in the Horn of Africa. If you haven't heard that there's a drought in that part of the world, turn off CNN and switch to Al Jazeera. Trust me, you won't go back.

Needless to say, people in the Somali region are hurting. It hasn't rained at all in over a year and their already precarious pastoralist lifestyle gets more difficult each day rain doesn't come. They need water, food, money, access to healthcare, etc. You name it, they probably need it. Well, maybe not an xbox 360. They don't need that. 

But enough serious stuff. We'll be compiling a snazzy needs assessment document; in case anyone is interested just let me know.

Instead of writing a summary of my trip which might or might not bore you to tears (if you're a tree-hugging bleeding heart expat humanitarian aid worker you... well... you probably cry about everything anyways so no harm done), I've broken the trip down into special little quips that will hopefully elucidate some of the ridiculousness that essentially sums up 'normal' life for me right now.

On time
Apparently the Somalis closely follow the Ethiopian clock which I sadly didn't even know existed because most 'highlanders' (i.e. folks from Addis Ababa and other non-desert areas of Ethiopia) in Addis have mostly adjusted to the western clock. Not so with our Somali friends. So here's how it works: Our 7am is their 1am. Their day starts at 1am. So our today is still their yesterday until the minute after 6:59am our time. Got it?

On marriage
"What, you're not married? Ok. When you go home you have to make a plan for marriage." - the driver

On Islam & marriage
"Oh, your father is Muslim? Does he have 4 wives?" - same driver who, as an aside, is waiting for us to get another project so that he can 'take' another wife. He apparently only has one so far. As an aside to the aside, in retrospect I should've told him that my mother is the only woman my dad can handle or, depending on who you talk to, is the only woman who can handle my dad.

On telecommunication
If you want to truly travel to the end of the telecommunications universe, I recommend travel to the middle of the Pacific Ocean or the WFP compound in Gode. You can expect similar levels of connectivity to the outside world in either instance.

On light
Always bring a flashlight (or a torch as the Brits would say) to a place where electricity comes on for 4 hours each day. Doh.

On dinner
I was fortunate enough to have several amazing meals with our staff, each one more decadent than the last. 3 things struck me: 1. this is a ton of food, hopefully they're giving the leftovers to the whole neighborhood (turns out they were), 2. it's definitely more uncomfortable when the women who prepared the feast can't enjoy it with you, and 2. goat can be prepared in quite a few different ways.

On divorce
"I don't get you Americans. When you divorce the woman gets half." Yes, that is the common practice in our society. "That's dumb, she didn't earn the money so why should she get it if I divorce her?" - random staff member who apparently looks a lot like some rapper I've never heard of called Big Show; which is quite amusing because according to my cursory google search just now, Big Show is an overweight Caucasian WWE wrestler who has dabbled in rap. I tried to argue with him about this one then finally gave up when I started getting a headache.

On diplomacy
"Didn't you know, Israel is funding al Shabab so that Somalia can be destabilized?" - also Big Show. To which I responded... huh? Don't worry, he couldn't even remotely back that one up.

On camel milk
Yes. I had some. Yes, it was warm. No, it did not have a lasting effect on my digestive system (as was promised by our local staff).

On pastoralism
"Do you have pastoralists in America?" - another staff member. They're quite vocal those Somalis. Yes, I replied, but where I come from we call them cowboys.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Paradise Found


So, for those of you who were unaware, I now live in Africa. It’s a bit weird to say you live on an entire continent, but since arriving in the cradle of civilization I’ve been in Madagascar once, Ethiopia and Kenya twice and Sudan thrice. So yes, kids, I live in Africa. Facebook and my landlord think I live in Ethiopia, so I guess that’s technically ‘home,’ so if it makes you sleep better at night you can go with that instead.

Despite this being one of the most exciting times – personally and professionally – in my life, I’ve woefully neglected ‘Traveling Turkey;’ I would say that hopefully that’ll change but I know myself better than that.

For now though, I thought I would tell you a little story about a guy and his girlfriend who took a trip to… wait for it… Madagascar!

The story begins with our heroes (or at least heroin and her sidekick i.e. me) getting on a Kenya Airways flight to Antananarivo, the capital city of the edge of the earth. Honestly, Madagascar may be the closest thing to truly, 100% exotic these two nomads have ever done.

After reading a New York Times article on the awesomeness that is Madagascar, we (and by ‘we’ I mean it was Lauren’s idea) had decided to try our luck at tropical paradise. As the plane approached Tana’s (Antananarivo is 1. difficult to spell and 2. the cool people call it Tana) Ivato International Airport, I couldn’t help but wonder – as I had many years ago when I first flew into Asuncion, Paraguay – who had stolen all of the asphalt? Moreso than the lack of paved roads though, I was immediately struck by the immense amounts of green everywhere. Grass. Trees. More grass. More trees.

Normally I plan trips out very well, trying to make sure that there’s a loose plan that builds in enough possibility for flexibility. This time; however, Lauren and I were so busy (her with Sudan’s historic referendum and me with starting a new job) that neither of us had really looked into what to expect in Madagascar at all.

Here’s essentially the extent of what I knew when we landed:
We were going to be staying in a place called Doany Beach somewhere in NW Madagascar (when Alix would ask me later how I found Doany I couldn’t even remember – I think it was probably Trip Advisor but I can’t be sure);
Lauren had taken care of our layover arrangements in Tana;
I was hungry.

I’m assuming Lauren knew more than me, but I’m willing to bet not a whole lot more. Needless to say, not the best planning job on our part. Luckily we’re both pretty laid back, which turned out to be a very good character trait in a place where… well, you’ll just have to read on to find out.

Miraculously, we were met at the Tana airport by a short Malagasy – what native Madagascar-ans and their language(s) are called – man with a handwritten sign that even spelled Lauren’s name correctly. A step in the right direction!

Arriving at La Varangue in ‘downtown’ Tana some 45 minutes later after a ride that caused me make sure my seatbelt was fastened on more than one occasion, I couldn’t help but feel that we had stepped into a 1960s French colonial dream. You see, Madagascar was colonized by the French (and to a lesser extent British missionaries) and, to be honest, it didn’t seem like much had changed. The collection of antique (yet at the same time incredibly appropriate) phonographs, lamps, record players and phones immediately awakened my long lost (ok – maybe it was never really there) French, which rolled off my tongue about like this:
Me: Good day!
Woman behind the bar/check-in desk: Good day.
Me: It’s good?
Woman: It’s good. Welcome.
Me: Thank you.
Woman: [something in rapid-fire French]
[awkward silence when she realized I had no clue what she said]
Me: Room? Reservation. Lauren Abel. It’s good?
Woman: Oui. It’s good. Here’s your key.

Our trusty NYT author had put us on to La Varangue because of its reputation as having Tana’s best restaurant. Praise like that is not something that Lauren and I regularly ignore. But before dinner it was time to explore the city.

Situated just down the hill from the Presidential Palace, our hotel was perfectly located for a stroll through Tana’s ‘downtown.’ Honestly, it wasn’t very impressive. We did get lucky enough to only get caught in the rain on our way back to La Varangue (which naturally necessitated a cappuccino detour to another hotel); January/February is the rainy season in Madagascar and it did not disappoint. Much like Houston, the humidity seems to build up during the morning and, when the clouds can no longer hold it in, buckets unleash on the masses. 

After a stroll through a shady park, several exercises in dodging 1960s Renault taxis and the aforementioned cappuccinos, we were none to happy to return to cozy La Varangue for a much-needed afternoon nap. Our room had a beautiful high ceiling and an even better balcony, on which we enjoyed a pre-dinner carafe of nameless, yet yummy, red wine.

Lauren and I like food. Good food. A lot. As often as possible. Which isn’t very often considering we have recently spent so much time in places like Iraq and Sudan.

Without a doubt, La Varangue’s restaurant was one of the best meals we’ve ever – and I repeat ever – had the pleasure of enjoying. Succulent meats were paired with perfectly seasoned potatoes, vegetables, and purees, all followed by a desert that can only be described as ‘chocolate death.’ In other words, Lauren was in heaven when the circular hard shell of local chocolate (in addition to other things like vanilla and perfume flowers, Madagascar is known for its amazing chocolate) about the size of my fist was melted at our table by our grinning waiter pouring molten chocolate all over it, revealing ice cream and God-knows-what-else inside. Wow.

The next morning we flew Air Madagascar to Nosy Be, an island just off the coast of Madagascar, lucky enough to be given stand-by seats on the 7am flight on which we already had tickets… don’t ask, we didn’t really understand either.

Alix, the owner/manager/star of Doany Beach met us at the ‘airport’ in Nosy Be which was essentially a bit of tarmac dug into the rain forest just off the coast, part of which was undoubtedly under water during high tide (luckily not when we arrived).

Alix was accompanied by Marna, his beautiful and friendly Malagasy fiancée. Unfortunately for us and her, her English was about as good as my French, so we relied heavily on Alix who, fortuitously, spoke flawless English. This bit of fortune cannot be underestimated as it seems Madagascar is not very high up on the list of anglo-friendly tourist destinations i.e. no one spoke English.

After bumping along for about 30 minutes in Alix’s 4x4 (a pickup truck - not the 4-wheeler Lauren was hoping for), we arrived in Hell-Ville, the capital of Nosy Be. Now, although an incredibly hot/humid town with only 2 public toilets could potentially be described as ‘hell,’ this particular town was in fact named after a Mr. Hell, some French guy who came to Nosy Be, fell in love with a woman/the island and never left. I actually just made that up – see the link for his real story.

In Hell-Ville (apparently now officially called Andoany although I’m pretty sure even the locals don’t know that) we were taken to the port, at which we took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our pants, and hopped in the wooden boat - appropriately named Alix - that would finally take us to our destination. That’s right, Doany Beach aka ‘heaven’ is only reachable by boat. No road. No cell phone service. No internet.

I had originally thought that Doany Beach was its own island, off an island (Nosy Be), off another island (Madagascar), which goes to show how little preparation I had done before this trip. Turns out Doany Beach is actually on Nosy Be, just on an incredibly remote part flanked by a small Malagasy village and a seemingly endless, unoccupied, stunningly beautiful beach. We might as well have been on our own private island.

We were greeted by the lovely female staff at Doany and spent our entire first day lounging on the beach, in the gazebo right off the beach or the hammock right next to the beach. With no air conditioning and Houston-like humidity, one had little to do but lounge around and periodically lower one’s body temperature through a dip in the Indian Ocean.

Another thing that I didn’t realize (or had forgotten having probably been told this by Alix in an email) until we got there was that Lauren and I had the entire Doany Beach facility to ourselves. The cook, cleaners, guards, boat captain/excursion coordinator and Alix were all working to make sure that our holiday was perfect. Now I’m not one that generally enjoys being the center of attention, but I have to admit that was very nice.

Although I’m sure Lauren would have been perfectly content to relax on the beach and read all day every day (we did plenty of this, don’t worry), I was ecstatic to hear that we would be going on daily excursions to close by places of interest! In case you haven't noticed, just sitting on a beach is not my idea of a vacation.

Monday was lemur day. If you’ve seen the movie Madagascar (which I haven’t coincidentally) you know that there are these funny, monkey-looking animals that have really long tails that are only found in Madagascar. Well, turns out there are 77 different kinds of lemurs in Madagascar and on Monday we went to go see some of them in their natural habitat on Nosy Komba – the island right next door to Doany Beach.

As I mentioned, we went during the rainy season, so there was plenty of activity in the sky. Fortunately for us, it never really impacted our ability to move around or enjoy the magnificence of Doany and environs; what it did do was create a stunning palate for my photographs which I greatly appreciated. On the morning of our trip to Nosy Komba, a full rainbow pointed us in the right direction, stretching practically from the shores of Nosy Be to our destination. One word: beautiful.

Alix had strategically planned each excursion of the week so that we would hardly ever see any other tourists. Nosy Komba was no exception. We felt like we were the only vazahas there and proceeded to have a private tour of the rain forest just beyond the tiny village next to which we came ashore. With our guide coaxing timid lemurs down from their tree perches with bananas and chants of ‘maki maki maki,’ we didn’t have to wait long for us to have our first of two encounters with these fuzzy creatures. Apparently after their initial reluctance, lemurs are actually quite friendly! In what can only be described as a ‘nature walk in the jungle,’ we continued on a path and were fortunate enough to play with a boa constrictor, gigantic turtles, and even a neon green cameleon!

Tuesday’s plans ended up a bit delayed (Alix likes to get things going early in the morning to miss the rest of the tourists – great plan if you ask me) because yours truly was a bit under the weather. But by early afternoon I had rallied and we were off to Nosy Tanikely. (If you haven’t figured it out by now, ‘Nosy’ means island – ‘Nosy Be,’ for example, means ‘Big Island.’) Nosy Tanikely is famous for two things: 1. one of only a handful of lighthouses (none operational of course) in existence in Madagascar and 2. the amazing coral reef right off the beach. Well, in short, we hiked up to the lighthouse and snorkeled. Not only were we the only foreigners on the island, other than our guide and the random guy who ‘watches over’ the island, we were the only ones there, period. The. Only. Ones. Ridiculous – where were all the people? This was paradise, yet no one was there?!

Perhaps this is a good time to discuss paradise; or more specifically what paradise means to those of you who haven’t been to one of the tropical persuasion. Paradise means unbelievable vistas, white sandy beaches, amazingly fresh food, relaxing, swimming in crystal clear water, smiling white people jogging on a beach, etc.

What most – those of you who only see those white people jogging on the beach in commercials – don’t realize is that paradise also means heat, humidity, bugs (and the accompanying copious amounts of bug spray), electricity from 6pm-11pm only, sunburns, tropical diseases, lack of medical infrastructure, etc.

Alix was telling us that during colonial times many a European died of exhaustion and disease after only a few short years in Madagascar. In his opinion, they came with the same work ethic and general life expectations that they had in Europe. Unfortunately for them, life in paradise is not as conducive to the 9-5 as in the north. Long story short - lots of lounging, very little physical activity. Especially during the heat of the day.

Wednesday’s excursion took us back to Hell-Ville and off on a tour of the Nosy Be island in Alix’s 4x4. After dropping Marna off to do some shopping and touring a factory where Madagascar’s famous perfume base is produced (there was also a mini animal park with lots of fun lemurs, crocodiles, etc.), we ventured off to a remote oasis atop a hill, approximately 27 minutes from absolutely nowhere. Here we found a watering hole – again we were the only ones there – with a magnificent waterfall i.e. a perfect spot to play with my waterproof camera!

Lunch at the peak of another one of Nosy Be’s hills (they called them mountains – I’m not quite so liberal with my topographical interpretations) came in the form of a picnic in a random house near the summit where we were serenaded by Celine Dion's greatest hits. Coincidentally, Africans love Celine Dion. Who knew?

On the way back to the boat, we were granted the rare (and I’m still not sure 100% desirable) pleasure of visiting Nosy Be’s only penitentiary. After exchanging pleasantries with the commissar, we were shown into an open area where male prisoners of all shapes and sizes stared at us (or, more accurately, at Lauren) to a degree to which only celebrities must be accustomed. After paying a brief visit to the incarcerated women – who were kept separately for obvious reasons – the guards asked us for money, showed us how they kept track of time served using chalk on a chalk board, and asked us again for money again before we bid our adieus, happily walking back into freedom – and as far away from the Malagasy jail as possible.

On Thursday we arose extra early to head off to Nosy Iranja, an island approximately really far from Doany Beach that, in my now expert opinion, was probably the closest thing to tropical paradise this world can get. Picture two small islands separated by an incredibly white sand bar that vanished completely during high tide. Now picture perhaps 50 natives total on the islands, with two intrepid paradise hunters fearlessly swimming in the unbelievably clear water, only pausing to dine on delicious grilled calamari and climb to the top of another non-functioning lighthouse with breathtaking views of the surrounding land and sea. Ok, you can wake up now if you like.

Friday was our last day at Doany Beach, so much of it was spent soaking in the last bits of what had turned out to be an amazing and unbelievably relaxing vacation. We took a hike around the surrounding beaches and up into a bit of the dense rainforest dominating nearly everything non-beach in that remote part of Nosy Be. It was here that Madagascar made its most lasting (physical) impression on me in the form of a large cut on my shin, gifted to me after a clumsy attempt to jump from one slippery rock to the next as Lauren and our guide had so gracefully done just moments before. Just when I thought I had grown out of my awkward stage…

Finally, after 5+ days in paradise, it was time to call it quits on Saturday and return to life in S. Sudan. Madagascar, you were beautiful, challenging, invigorating, wonderful, and… well… simply amazing.