Let’s Go Safari!

You knew this post was coming. Probably the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Africa (or at least African tourism) is a safari. But while we all have a good idea of what these excursions are like, I think you’ll be surprised (as was I) by seeing what a safari is actually like.

I was blessed to able to go on one in June.  

***

We set off in morning darkness in the SUV. I got along great with these girls—part of the reason I came along this day, changing my plans for the opportunity to safari with the enjoyable (and economical) company of friends. They were three young female volunteers, two from eastern (got to stress the eastern, they’d be quick to remind me) Oregonians and an Austrian all working at the same school in southern Tanzania. I met them during the spring as they happened to stay at the same guesthouse in Iringa as I on a coupe of occasions.

Heading out to Ruaha National Park, 75 miles west of Iringa, blacktop quickly turns to dirt. And soon we were able to see the terrain we traversed as the sun began to peek over the horizon as 6:30 rolled around. Small villages went by here and there, as well, and soon we were told that we had just passed the last little community before reaching the park.

From my middle row seat (the Austrian and I sharing this row and the Oregonians in the back), I asked our guide, Fanuel, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, about the threat of big game for these villagers close to the park. Do they attack? I asked.

“It happens,” said Fanuel. Indeed, it is the main reason why lions are hunted–protection and retribution. But he also said animal attacks aren’t too common.

Soon I could understand why.

“This is tha buffa zone”, said Fanuel looking out his window as we drive through a long stretch of nothing but brush and trees to our right and left for as far as one can see. Ruaha doesn’t have a fence, they have this thick ring of land separating man and the beasts within. Driving us was Fanuel’s wife, Kathy–a middle-aged American with thick, straight, shoulder-length black hair–who came out to Tanzania some years back and fell in love with this man whom she first met on a safari of her own.

Past the buffer zone Kathy rolls our safari SUV (ubiquitous vehicles in this corner of the world) up to the park entrance. “The entrance.” I thought to myself. “Will there be lions and giraffes right away on the other side of it?” We stopped to pay entrance fees and to use the bathroom—important, so nature didn’t interrupt herself on the meandering dirt trails ahead.

Exiting the men’s room, I walked out to see that Fanuel had raised the top of the SUV, allowing us riders the ability to stand for an elevated, clear 360 degree view of the park. But before getting back in, we stood outside of the truck for a picture.

Sarah, Jessica, Simone, myself, and our guide, Fanuel

Alright, let’s go safari!

Past the reception building, we were now officially in the park.

(“Okay, where are the elephants!?”)

Of course, it’s not what you think of when you hear the word “park”. Certainly it’s not the manicured, terrain-changing definitiveness of a city or even a Minnesota state park. This land simply remained that flat, thin brush/tree blend with some hills off in the distance that defined the buffer zone.

The rainy season ended in May. It was now June 6th. There hadn’t been but a sprinkle or two in last three weeks, and already the land was showing less green and “compensating” with more dust caking the already-yellowing foliage. Not picturesque, but we had hoped this would offer the best of both worlds—rather than the worst which would be no beautiful plant life, but still enough dry leaves and grass camouflaging the wildlife.

***

One comes to Africa and hopes to set their eyes on the “Big Five.” This is what a safari-experienced friend once said to me, anyway.

Can you guess which animals are included in the “Big Five?”

I guessed these:

-Elephant

-Giraffe

-Lion

-Hippopotamus

-Rhinoceros

I guessed wrong.

They are, in fact:

-Elephant

-Leopard

-Lion

-Cape Buffalo

-Rhinoceros

But who’s to say what the Big Five are supposed to be? If you prefer, substitute zebra or one of the many deer species one might see or a cheetah or put giraffe and hippo back in. Those things are huge (I’d soon see). Or what about the ostrich? Or a crocodile? Why not just hearken to your American Midwest collegiate sports fandom and make it the “Big 10” instead?

In Ruaha, though, one will not see the official Big Five, because there are no rhinos. And actually, one isn’t guaranteed to see any animals, though I don’t think getting “skunked”—as we say when going out angling and not catching a single fish—has ever happened. Regardless, it’s important to keep in mind, Kathy reminds us, that this isn’t a zoo. And this differentiates a safari in a few ways: what you will see, how the animals can and will act, and the voyeur’s approach–we’re in their world on this side of the entrance (not that animals really care about artificial, unfenced borders.)

***

Trekking along now in the park, we passengers all stand up to see the animals. Unlike a zoo, this can take work. Our heads stick out of the roof and we scan.

Or pose:

And indeed, like they did know the boundary themselves, right away there were some guinea fowl head-bobbing in the brush near the road.

Ha! Not skunked.

We stop for a couple shots and then continue to roll when no more than a kilometer later, Jessica spots another animal. “Hey stop!” she says firmly. Kathy does so, and I can see the movement of a mid-sized creature to our left. Kathy puts the truck in reverse and we roll back past a large bush to reveal a dog. A wild dog. A jackal.

“It’s rare to see these dogs here,” Fanuel says (which makes the find suddenly and magically that much cooler.) But it was cool, rare or not. I’d never seen a wild dog. We photograph it, soaking in every pose and angle as Kathy drives up just a few feet to give us another viewing lane.

In those first minutes and first sightings, you really want to milk the experience and capture it all. By the end of the safari, you admittedly ignore that which you had recently been so excited to see. Like drinking water, quench is quick.

We move on and come to the first major terrain—a slow descent curving to the right and met at the bottom by breathtaking sight of inanimate beauty: a wide, jogging, shallow river over a rocky shoreline featuring tall palms and other trees and brush.

We stopped a the riverside rest stop for morning tea and coffee. I wanted a closer look the river and hopped over the bluff fence in the picture above. Fanuel came right over to tell me to stay on this side. I listen—kind of.

I didn’t hop over the division again, but I did walk along the river until the fence ended and went around. While the rest had tea and coffee, I found my way down to the river’s edge.

As well, I checked out a bird giving the U.S. feathered symbol a run for its money.

I walked back up and joined the ladies for tea. While sipping on some lemon grass blend, Fanuel walked up from seemingly out of nowhere and said, “There’s a crocodile!” (Even when out of car, he continued as our guide.) My friends and I all responded physically with a jerk and vocally with “whoas” and “reallys?”.

He took us back to the bluff and pointed out a croc straight below us in the river’s edge (and right near where I was going to descend before Fanuel’s protestations.) The croc just sat there in the water. Not strange. What was, though, at least for someone unfamiliar with croc behavior, was that it had its mouth open in a small current. Was it trying to eat, drink, or clean it’s teeth? We didn’t know, and it remained in that position the whole time watched it.

In our “need to milk” mode, we all made sure to get several angles.

With plenty of pics, and seasoned safari guides reminding us that we haven’t really even scratched the surface of the park, we hopped back into the truck and rode across the river valley bridge.

Now is when the fun really began.

This natural border felt like the entrance within the entrance. A hillier terrain waited on the other side, cuing us to stand back up, eyes peeled for the Big Five, Ten, Fifteen, whatever.

Things just felt more wild on this side.

Soon, Jessica (it was always Jessica) said “Hey!” as she spotted—way out in a distance meadow—a large animal. Indeed, it was as large as they come.

A real live wild elephant. Holy cow!

Kathy backed us up passed a couple bushes to give us a space to see this (these!) animals a good three hundred yards away. Good thing they’re big.

We also spotted, way back there near the elephants, the other giants of the Tanzanian terrain–giraffes; the tall, graceful walkers; their stick necks in the distance gliding along upright. Both of these novel monster species were what I came for. My body indicated this with that feeling that brings to mind the notion of seeing something in real life that you had ever only seen before on television. Celebrity perhaps. And I was a bit star struck seeing these creatures lumber in the hilly distance.

Yet they were far away, so we continued with the hopes of seeing better views ahead. Our hopes would not be let down…

til next week, when I offer the lion’s share of our safari,

-Brandon  

Portraits of Tanzanian Villagers

In Tanzania, there’s more to camera & firearm comparisons than the verb used to describe using them and the fact that I wear mine on my belt.

Here, people react to a photographer by putting their arms and hands in front of their face in a blocking maneuver. Some turn away or use the nearby tree for defense. Some might take an offensive tact and get angry at the attack. “No picha!” Or, “Give money!”

And this has all happened to me when picturing public scenes like a market or soccer game.

But this just exemplifies a general trend—not every individual. I’ve also snapped many shots of people who were perfectly willing to have (and then see) their images taken on my camera. Seeing themselves. That, along with a familiarity with the picture taker, has been the route to open up the Tanzanian’s willingness to say “Cheese”—that is, if they choose to smile.

This post is about breaking through my village’s collective camera resistance shell, becoming their portrait photographer, and showing you the results.

It all started when I took my camera to the village center one day. I had wanted to photograph it for some time. The village itself is scene after scene decorated with red-tinted mud/brick structures, bright green crops in people’s yards (in the rainy season), chickens pecking and darting along, the occasional dog trotting by, and people always seemingly in one of these fashions: rugged, raggedy, worn work-wear or somehow-spotless suits and shoes for the men, and brightly multicolored wrap–around skirts, blouses, and headwraps on the women.

The village square is all of this concentrated, along with the addition of colorful produce and raw meat for sale and an air of social jollity in the after-work congregation. Walking along the village toward the townsquare this day, I reached this central cluster of wood, concrete, or brick structures with either metal, wood, or even straw roofs–a three little pigs offering. And in the center of this is an opening of a quarter-sized, dirt football field.

Entering this arena from a narrow break in the buildings, I took care to not photograph the activity, but rather the buildings and other less-controversial sights. At some point, though, one eager man wanted his picture taken. This happens every so often—an individual more allured than averse to the technology and wanting to see themselves on camera.

So I took the shot:

Then I thought to do something that some faculty I photographed at my school had requested and get him a hard copy. I told him this, and he was delighted. I then took the momentum and asked a couple willing women if I could take theirs.

People nearby huddled around me and pointed & laughed at themselves or their friends when seeing the results on the back of my camera. After these shots, I bought some peanuts from an outhouse-sized store and headed back to my school.

A week or so later, and having developed the pictures in the nearby city, Iringa, over the weekend, I returned to the village square. I approached a cluster of people around the produce stand, took out the photos, and asked where the people in them were. The ladies there crowded to see the images. If they had enjoyed seeing themselves or their friends on the camera, they really got a kick out of seeing them on a photograph…

…and now some wanted one for themselves.

I first reunited with a man I had met a time before whose first name I can’t recall, so will call him Grandpa Ndambo. He’s the father of the village chief executive, dresses like a common man, and knows a bit of English. After being asked for a photo by three women, I asked Grandpa Ndambo to translate that I’d need 500 shillings for the pictures–about 30 cents. Fine by them. One said she couldn’t pay me until the following day. Fine by me. “You pay when I bring the picture,” I said.

So I took theirs.

Others approached and asked about getting theirs done, and another villager nearby eagerly informed them, “Mia tano.” Five hundred. (Well, literally “hundred five.”) This information would most often then be followed up with an immediate nod and pose, which, despite the impression given by the ladies above, most often did not involve a smile. So I told them to do so by pointing to my own over-doing-it smile (with mixed results) as I readied to shoot. Then I’d count down from three and press the shutter. Finally, I’d show them (or they’d reach out to see) the results on the back of my camera, sometimes requiring me to grip it well lest they rip it from my hands to see these shots:

He came up with this pose on his own.

In all, I took about twenty-five portraits this time around, developed them in Iringa, and came back in two weeks with the results.

“Wiki mbili,” I said. Two weeks. Or literally, “week two.”

Coming back as promised, I returned to the square at the usual late afternoon hour with a brown paper packet waving in my hand. This time I found a vacant booth next to the produce ladies and laid the 25 pictures out on the uneven wooden surface. Villagers gathered, looked, and laughed as they passed them around. I wondered/worried if I might never see some of the pictures again. But they all made their way back to me, and then, to the people in them.

I collected some money, kept the pictures of those not present, and announced I could take more. And I did.

brother and sister

I collected another 20 shots, and as I did the time before, said “Wiki mbili,” and headed back to Iringa the following day.

Finally came Tuesday, July 15th, my most recent visit to the village square. This time, after laying out this week’s pictures on the wood bench, I asked Grandpa Ndambo to come by to translate. I had an announcement to make. Through him, I asked the villager’s permission to use their photos for my writing.

I worried about this hurdle, but what had been a whole country of picture-rigid folks had now become a village warmed to their photographer’s efforts. In exchange for their permission, I gave the pictures away—including refunds to previous recipients. This added up. Plus, now more people than ever lined up for free photographs taken just this last Tuesday.

***

After each session, I have walked away thinking how special an experience this is—that I get to see these people so genuinely, get to capture and share the images of this expression, and most of all, get to bring joy to people doing something I consider so simple. I wouldn’t cut it as a photographer in the U.S., but here I’m a pro. I realize one has more to offer the world than they think, and I’m seeing how offering what I have can enhance the lives of those about me.

This fall I will return to the U.S. and put all these portraits into a section of my book that I’ll be writing about life and the lessons learned living here. In the meantime, I offer you some of the results of the service I’ve been able to offer the people of my village: Magulilwa, Tanzania, East Africa.

I cap off this post with a video. This is footage of the town square, the villagers’ reactions to the photos, and this picture-taking process.

The Other White People in the Middle of Tanzania

When I told my mother about going to Africa, she said, “Brandon! They do voodoo over there!”

I had to show her some videos of the school where I’d be teaching so she could realize that things weren’t as dramatic as the stereotypes she created from movies, The Discovery Channel, and National Geographic.

Another common belief, one that I held before coming here, was that I’d be the only foreigner around. That idea turned out to be as wrong as my mom’s voodoo belief (actually more wrong as I recently found out there is a thread of voodoo to the spiritual beliefs here. Never doubt Mom.)

This post is about the fellow foreigners I’ve met over my time here who’ve come all this way to explore, lend a hand, and get to know their world. Together, they reveal that coming here isn’t as crazy an idea as one might think–rather, it’s a darn good one.

Leah is my fellow foreign teacher at our village school. She’s also a fellow American—a Coloradan who came out here by herself 18 months ago for another opportunity working with wildlife, and when that work ended, came back out after discovering our school. She teaches biology and physics and started a tree-planting initiative on school grounds.

Leah

In the village, Leah and I are indeed the only outsiders–something never to be forgotten when walking around the dirt streets and hearing “Mzungu!” (white person) from the kids (and sometimes from the adults.) But 20 miles away in the regional hub, Iringa, I have discovered many others Westerners–some of whom are on vacation, others who are here for a temporary project, and others who’ve made this their home.

My second weekend in Iringa, I was at Neema Crafts, a restaurant/gift shop run by the Anglican mission and one of the more comfortable places in town. There, I met a young, blonde Englishwoman named Laura who was here in Iringa as a volunteer at the restaurant. She had plans that day for a weekly volleyball game that many of the local mission workers attend. She asked me to come along.

As soon as we left the restaurant I met Andy, a 50-something Englishman also here for mission work through the Anglican church. He was driving us to the game.

Andy shared that his work here centers around helping villages collect and access water.

He was also the first of a handful of foreigners I’ve met who are so settled that they purchased an automobile. I had questions about auto maintenance and repairs in this city. Turns out he does a lot of the work himself. (Another day I’d see him biking along one of Iringa’s dirt roads holding a drive shaft in his hand.)

We made it out to the game which took place at an impressive property with blossoming trees, landscaped grounds, meadows, and thin woods. It was owned by an English couple in their 50s-60s. Walking up to the scene, a tall, thinly bearded younger man in summerwear approached and shook my hand with a big grin–and said hello with a big southern accent. This South Carolinian was here with his wife and three small children for their church’s mission work.

“You brought your kids to Tanzania?”, I thought.

Yep, he and some others.

Laura with a backpack, the South Carolinian, the kids playing soccer, and the volleyball way back there.

It felt like a world away from the littered, dusty, ramshackle Iringa outskirts, which were just a few miles away.

While there, I also met these four American university students studying abroad for a term in Iringa:

This weekend set the stage for a half-year of introductions to the many foreigners who find their way to this part of the world.

Back at Neema Crafts the following weekend, I met these fine young folks:

They were Italian volunteers courtesy of an organization sending helpers to centers around Iringa housing disabled people and others with orphans. These volunteers come for about six weeks at a time, and I’ve met probably twenty of them by now.

Volunteers through the American program, the Peace Corps, stay a little longer, and I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know them as fellow common-culture individuals. Here’s one from Minnesota:

Megan from Forest Lake

She’s holding her new water filtration device. The Peace Corps volunteers are troopers. They stay two years often in conditions without running water and electricity. Clean water is enough to make them happy.

Here’s another Peace Corps volunteer I met this year named Ben:

The Michigander came out here and really took the rhinoceros by the horn. More than just his science teaching to adolescents at his village school, he started a tribal language dictionary so future volunteers can learn the local language spoken around Iringa. Now in his final stretch (two months to go) he’s overseeing a water pipeline project linking the well-supplied school to the not-so-well-watered local hospital.

In all, I’ve met probably 20 Peace Corp volunteers as well.

It’s not just Peace Corps, either. Here are Sarah and Jessica from eastern Oregon and Simone from Austria who volunteer through another organization in the south of Tanzania:

Sarah, Jessica, Simone, myself, and our guide, Fanuel on safari

It often seems people coming here for service work do so pre or post career. This older gent has honored me with several great conversations about life here and life back in America. It’s Louisiana John:

The retired electrician does mission work around Iringa and lives at the property behind him in the picture. Though uncertain about his decision to come out here early on (he told me he went online to buy a plane ticket to go home about two months in) he has since gotten used to things and even embraced the way of life here.

“I used to work all night in my dreams and wake up exhausted,” he said. Then added, “I sleep good now!–under my mosquito net.”

He credit the “pace” in Iringa, then capped it off with, “I like it here.”

I’ve also met a few post-career Minnesotans doing volunteer work through the Lutheran Church. Early in my stay, I got an email from a woman in Minnesota who had read this blog. She told me about a man, Randy, she knew living in Iringa doing mission work.

I met up with Randy–clean shaven, medium build, a good sense of humor, a youthful retiree–while he was dining with five of his peers who’ve all come to Iringa to be of service. One couple worked with getting technology to rural schools. Having been in the agriculture industry, Randy came out here to help local farmers with crop management.

After we ate, I walked with him back to his a three bedroom suite in a complex representative of the slow but steady development happening in Iringa. He was just a couple weeks away from going back to Minnesota. In the dark of night, but the warm, dry air of Iringa in February, he expressed his desire to come back.

I’ve always stayed at a guesthouse on my weekends in Iringa. This, not surprising, has been a revolving door of outsiders visiting. Recently I met Keld and Beathe, a Danish couple living in central Sweden.

When I say “central Sweden”, keep in mind that Sweden stretches well north of the continental U.S. These two live in the land of 24 hour summer sun. Some years back, they moved from Denmark to their small, mountain village during spring.

“We didn’t by a lamp until September,” Beathe told me. They didn’t need a light til then.

They were in Iringa because they work with an orphanage and a sister school of the school Beathe teaches at back home. Keld is a dog sledder–probably the last profession I thought I’d discuss in Africa. But we all had a lot to talk about: teaching, cold weather, living in a small town, activities in the snow, and Sven, Ole, and Lina jokes.

(By the way, Keld extends an invite to Sweden for any outdoor adventurer who wants to give dog sledding in Sweden a try! Here’s his email: keld.legind@ottsjo.com)

***

I could go on: Sean the lion conservation worker from Ireland; Sarah, the wildlife conservation worker from Colorado. Kathy is a retired gal from the U.S. who found love in Tanzania and now lives with her Tanzanian husband. I met a younger German woman who, too, married a Tanzanian. And together, they made this lovely girl:

This isn’t common. Most mixed race children here have curly, dark hair. Mom is proud of her special little girl whose two older siblings don’t sport the light locks either.

There’s Hessen, the development researcher from Holland; Ray, the English researcher; nursing students from Sweden; a host of medical students from the U.S. and England; teachers from Greece; and escaping the Western world, there have been the volunteers here from Japan and Korea.

You get the idea.

All these people indicate the interconnectedness of the world today, how even in this relatively unknown city in the middle of this East African nation, there’s a strong foreign presence.

Ultimately, this is about how anyone can pick up, explore, fall in love, live, and be of service in a number of arenas, capacities, and locations all over the world.

What’s your destination?  :)

 

A Hospital in Africa, A Toddler’s Life

A Tanzanian friend of mine had a sick niece in the hospital. I got to know this little child.

One of my favorite places to get a meal in Iringa is an old, log cabin-like structure squeezed amidst a few buildings lining the rough-trodden tar street. Walk through the worn wooden threshold and you enter into a dim room with concrete floor and some plastic chairs and tables. In the back are the young guys frying up the chipsi mayai, a dish of potato wedges and fried eggs.

Once while ordering, a young woman stood halfway through the doorway to the back area where the guys were cooking. She was tall—I’m guessing 5’10”—and athletic, a lighter-complexioned 20-year-old Tanzanian whose full lips and round cheeks complemented her frame. She stood there tall and proud talking with the guys and said hello to me. Her English decent, we said a few words including each other’s names. Hers was Salma.

From then on, I’d occasionally catch Salma walking about town, each time saying hello, how are you, and what’s new. This led one day to her updating me that she was headed to the hospital to visit her aunt. Her aunt’s daughter was sick, Salma’s little niece. This was just over a month ago–June 6th.

“Want to join me?” she asked.

The Iringa Regional Hospital is a complex of probably ten office and medical buildings—all of them white, some with brick at their base. They sit on either side of a neighborhood street with plenty of foot traffic crossing as a result. We had met this day just a few yards away from the entrance and headed into the west side of the complex by way of a sidewalk leading to a chinsy, black gate with a guard manning it. Salma explained our purpose for being there, and he let us in.

We entered and turned right along the concrete walkway through the plain and basic, but also neat and formal campus with groomed or mid-landscaped grounds, well-constructed buildings, and the occasional nurse in scrubs or doctor with white lab coat walking by. We made our way the length of the football-field sized campus and walked into a last building—a two-story pediatric ward. The concrete transitioned to tiles upon crossing the threshold. The entryway was abundant in sterile whites. Salma led me to the right to a door behind which was her aunt and niece. Did I need permission or a face mask? What would the scene be like inside?

Salma opened the door to a quiet, open room with 12 shiny metal-framed beds on wheels. Each had a mattress with blue sheet. Like the outside aspects of the hospital, things in here were plain, but clean. Only five of the beds were occupied. In them, small children lay with a woman sitting bedside. I assumed these women in everyday-wear to be their mothers.

Salma’s aunt and niece were the first bed to the right. Salma greeted her aunt, Josephine, a woman of maybe 30, shorter than Salma, but with a similar face. Next to them, a little girl sat up in bed. Though she was up, the eighteen month old sat hunched over and supported in a pile of blankets. The temperature in the room was comfortable, yet she wore a cap down to her eyes which themselves wore a tired expression. A ten-inch tube coming out of her nose decorated her thin face that moaned a constant, dull ache. It dug into me in its consistency and signal that she wasn’t just uncomfortable, but in pain, tired of it, but sadly also kind of used to it and too weak to fully express it. Her mom sat next to her in silence. She looked tired, too.

“What does she have?” I asked Salma.

“Karen has pneumonia, oh and malaria.” she responded almost casually.

I looked down the row to the mothers and their children. Things in the room were dispirited.

I didn’t have much to say. Little Karen wasn’t people-friendly, and despite no real  indication, I wondered about Josephine’s thoughts of me being there, as well. I did give modest greetings to a couple of the other mothers. But I didn’t stay too long.

I was interested in seeing Karen again, though. So after we left, I asked Salma if it would be okay for me to return. Salma said absolutely.

We met again the morning of the 8th. Entering the room, little Karen was laying down and still moaning. Had she been in pain for 48 straight hours? Josephine held her daughter with the same bland expression. I asked Josephine through Salma how she herself was doing. Josephine said she was tired.

“Where do you sleep?”

One the bed with Karen, she responded.

“You need to be healthy for your daughter,” I said. But Josephine just offered an obligatory response, mouthing without expression what amounted to, “yeah, I know.”

Salma took Karen from her mom. The little peanut buried her head into Salma’s chest, tube still coming out of her nose and curving around the side of her head.

I looked around at the other children and got to meet Jeff two beds down. The toddler was thin-faced and, like Karen, wore a pained expression more often than not. The woman with him was his grandmother. She liked me from the start with a big, tooth-missing grin and an introduction to her little man. Now I wanted to return to see how Jeff was holding up.

I went back to Karen, who again wasn’t in much of a mood for strangers. I thought next time to bring her something to help make her stay here a little more pleasant.

I returned a few days later with a stuffed animal monkey that I bought from a street vendor. Walking in and handing it to Karen, she let out a moan and crunched up her face to begin to cry when I placed it in front of her.

Maybe next time I’ll try a teddy bear.

Karen’s best reaction to me this day came when I simply gave her my finger to grab and then used my others to stroke her little hand.

I looked down the row to Jeff. His grandmother had just finished bathing him. Waiting to be dressed, he lay there with arms and legs spread, a skeleton of loose skin and a contorted pained expression. Grandmother, apparently used to this, readied him as if nothing was the matter. In fact, once dressed, grandmother actually welcomed a picture.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t a blurt of expression on Jeff’s part, but a consistent face.

But other kids in the room—a couple patients and their siblings—were up and about. One school-aged girl worked on math problems with a slide rule on her lap. A couple of younger ones ran around after a ball. The mood had become chipper.

I went back to Karen where mom was feeding her—formula injected through the nose. I thought such a consumption would surely make Karen cry. But she was good. Maybe the vibe in the room was contagious.

Mom Josephine feeding Karen with monkey on the bed

And Salma had gone and returned with food—I assumed food for mom. But she took out a bag of chipsi mayai and mishkaki (skewers of beef) and started to break it apart for Karen. Karen contently took a potato wedge and ate it.

Then Salma upped the ante and handed little Karen a piece of beef. An amusing sight, Karen just held the little grease ball in her hand. I wondered if this was okay to give to a sick toddler. But more than anything, I was just pleasantly surprised to see Karen eat so well and took her appetite as a positive sign. We left the food and said goodbye.

Three days later, I received a text message from Salma. Karen was back at home.

“Terrific!” I thought. She has been discharged, and now this poor girl who had been through such an ordeal, can go back to being a happy little toddler like she ought to. So I assumed. I made plans to visit her at their home in the outskirts of Iringa.

On June 20th, tar road and larger buildings gave way to bumpy dirt roads, dusty air, and wood and mud/bricks structures of Mtwivila. Sitting in the cramped van/bus, we eventually got to a stop in the neighborhood where Salma told me to get off. We disembarked along a downward-sloping road staring at a valley of this rolling, green-yellow terrain dotted with small homes. Some such residences lined the road where we were along with a shoddy, wooden vendor stall selling tomatoes and cucumbers.

Walking 50 feet downhill, we made a left along what looked half road/half trail heading between a couple cabin-sized homes. Small children played in the dirt nearby. Behind these roadside residences were more bunched together. Winding around a couple of them, we came to Salma’s grandmother’s home, where Josephine stayed with Karen.

It was a small mud/brick building, comprising a bedroom on each end and small living space in between. Walking into the curtain front door, we entered a dim, concrete-floored room with couches up against near and far walls. Sitting on a couch,Josephine held Karen who disappointingly looked as sick as she did before. This being my fourth time seeing her, I was used to seeing Karen like this and had a tough time imagining this little girl as anything other than a weakened, diseased child.

But Salma came out with some pictures of Karen from just a couple months prior.

Here was her this day:

Grandma, thin and short, walked into the room and lit up a smile at my presence. Speaking what little Swahili I knew with her, I shared the food I liked here in Tanzania. Out she came with some sweet potatoes. I ate a couple. But I brought Karen a chocolate, and all she could do is hold it with her frail hand. As I left, I wondered how long it would be until she was able to enjoy it.

On the 23rd, I got another text from Salma: “My niece she’s much better now.”

The roller coaster continued.

“Finally,” I thought, and I imagined her as I saw her in her photo. I arranged to see her again.

On June 25th, we returned to their home. As I sat on the couch, Josephine came out from her bedroom with Karen in her arms. I looked at a girl who was sicker than I had yet seen her. Josephine sat down, and Karen just lay against her mom’s chest with same thin face and almost non-existent expression. Her mom’s healthy face did an unfortunately good job of mimicking her daughter’s expression with somberness.

I gave Josephine a little squishy green ball I had bought for Karen. Karen could hardly hold it.

Sitting back down, I turned to Salma to my right and said quietly but firmly, “You said Karen was getting better.”

“She was. Now she’s worse.”

I questioned whether she was ever really better, whether she ever should have left the hospital.

“She can’t see,” Salma said to me.

I asked what she meant, and Salma responded that Karen’s eye is causing problems. I stood back up, made a couple steps toward Karen and mom, and leaned in to see that Karen’s right eye—which had been lazy—was now more a slit with a hazy gloss over it.

I sat, and we talked about something else: conversation about Salma’s college courses or what the family does for work. But it didn’t last long before I asked out loud,

“Shouldn’t we take her back to the hospital?”

Salma translated and Josephine responded that the doctor said “two weeks.” From what I gathered, this meant to give Karen two weeks before coming back. I think they took this as an order more than a suggestion with room for exception.

“Her eye is making her worse,” said Salma.

“No, Salma. Her eye is a symptom. Her eye is bad because of something else.”

“Do you think so?” she asked.

I thought about saying, “Let’s go!” and leading Karen back to the hospital. But thoughts of me rushing in were tempered by my realization that I didn’t want to be a know-it-all outsider unnecessarily causing a ruckus.

We continued to visit.

A hen with chicks came right into the living room from the outside through the fabric doorway. The mother clucks were the bass line for the soprano melody of the chicks’ chirps and peeps. The unorganized fowl familial parade went into Grandma’s bedroom where they found corn to nibble on in the corner.

Josephine decided to wrap Karen around her back with a piece of thin cloth in the style mothers do here and go out for a walk. She came back in a couple of minutes saying Karen was cold. Soon Karen fell asleep against her mother’s back. As Josephine sat sideways on the couch. I set my hand lightly on the mound of thin fabric under which was Karen’s head and said goodbye to Karen and mom.

The next day I had to go back to my village school for a night. Sitting in the bus mid-afternoon, and about ready to roll out, Salma texted me:

“My cousin she sick very sick my aunt cal me and tel me but am at to university”

I thought about getting off the bus, heading to their home, and taking Karen to the hospital. But this was the only day for me to go to the school to do the work I needed to do before students all went home for break.

I texted back: “tell your aunt to take Karen to the hospital”

Salma replied: “They take karen to my grandpa at to the village.”

I thought to myself, “Tomorrow morning when I return I’ll see how Karen is doing.”

An hour-and-a-half later, the bus stopped at my school. As I got up to gather my bag and disembark, I got a phone call—a rarity in this text-friendly culture.

“Hello?” I said as I got out of the bus and walked around it toward the school.

“She dead. Karen dead,” an exasperated Salma said to me.

I didn’t say anything but just felt the weight–that the life I saw just the day before was now out of that little body. And what do I even say?

“Brandon?” Salma asked to see if I was there.

“Yeah,” I said back.

Then the phone cut out. Bad reception.

Salma texted me: “Karen shes dies now.”

I replied: ”I heard you. I’m surprised and sad. And I am very sorry.” Then a few minutes later I added: “Would you like me to visit tomorrow?”

Salma texted back: “Okay.”

I went to my room and set my bags down, carrying on with adjusting to being back in the village and having a job to do with the surrealization of what just happened to Karen.

The next day I returned to Iringa. They were burying Karen in a nearby village where the maternal grandparents live. I didn’t attend as Salma didn’t either. Her family insisted she stay back to take two exams she had that day for her college courses.

So on the 28th of June, Salma picked me up to head back out to Mtwivila and see Josephine. I asked in a couple of ways while we walked to the bus, and then on it, why they didn’t take Karen to the hospital as she got worse. Salma said they took her to their grandma’s. But why not the hospital? “The doctor said two weeks’” she said.

I was surprised by how many people were at Grandma’s home as we walked up. I had imagined me coming to see just Josephine. But like a funeral back home, the family used this out front. I was nervous about getting the attention of an outsider at this intimate event. Mostly women, with one man, the first person Salma introduced me to was the older gentleman, the grandfather (Grandma’s husband) wearing an old but proper hat with suit. Along with Grandpa were Josephine’s sisters (including Salma’s mother) and some ladies from the neighborhood.

The mood wasn’t festive, but it wasn’t heavy, either. The conversation and camaraderie was lighter than I expected given this death was such an untimely one. It was so light, in fact, that I felt compelled to take pictures, which the family welcomed. I didn’t bring my camera, so I used my phone.

Josephine was inside.

Sandals and flip-flops were piled outside the curtain doorway. I went to remove my shoes, but Salma and her mother said I didn’t have to. I walked into the dim space with the couches now gone but their cushions on the floor atop a reed-sewn mat large enough to almost reach wall to wall and providing a softer, cleaner surface than the cool concrete beneath.

There was only Josephine sitting quietly against the far wall on one of the cushions and another woman to her right. I sat down to her left and put my arm around her and held her side to side. My elbow at her right shoulder, my hand rest in her nest of long African hair. I did so for only a few seconds not knowing the custom or Josephine’s permission for physical contact.

I said pole sana (very sorry), and she mouthed a grateful, if perhaps rudimentary, response to something she had probably heard 100 times by now.

After I sat down, others came in, too. Two of Josephine’s sisters, a neighbor, and Salma and I were now inside. Salma’s mother offered me tea and bread. I sat comfortably as the women chatted. A couple had toddlers. Josephine held one contently—a sad scene knowing the circumstances.

There were some pictures of Karen being sent around—the ones I had seen on a previous visit here.

Later the mood lightened when another aunt arrived. This heavier set woman with more expressive face entered the room with a pitcher of booze—a thick, creamy, tan liquid

I got up and walked outside to take a break from the family conversation. I wandered near the outhouse whose stench revealed its identity. A pot of water boiled unattended in the kitchen hut. Boys nearby played a kickboxing spar. I wished I had my camera for that, too.

By then, many of the family had made their way back outside, and I was readying to leave. I said my farewells to Josephine, Grandpa and Grandma, aunts, neighbors, and Salma’s mom. Salma waited with me by the road until the bus came.

***

Salma and I still text. Her aunt is doing better, she says. I have no idea how little Jeff is doing. He has since been discharged as well.

Until, Karen died, I hadn’t yet felt or seen the real disadvantages of living in an undeveloped country. (I know you might be thinking, “What?!”)

Yes, life here lacks fast Internet and air-conditioning and most miss out on refrigeration and hot water. But seen in the residents here and—you’d be surprised—in the foreigners who come live and adjust to these conditions, I’ve learned poverty does not equal a lack of happiness or even health. (Think of camping.) As long as basics are met, things are fine, and the people here are as happy as I’ve seen them anywhere else. Though I prefer a more technological lifestyle, I learned that developed/undeveloped isn’t so much about better and worse, as it is about alternative ways of living.

But then I met Karen. Medical care is a true disadvantage here.

The Results Are In And These Are The Pictures I Submitted To The National Geographic Photo Contest

125 votes may not be enough to decide the president, but it’s good enough to help me decide which pictures to submit to the annual National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest.

Based on readers’ suggestions on last week’s blog‘s comments and also on my Facebook profile–results charted below–I decided to splurge and send in three entries. (If I don’t win, I’ll just chalk it up as a donation to Nat Geo. Not a bad cause–and perhaps a tax write-off.)

So which ones did I pick?

Well, one was the overall #1 vote-getter.

With 26 total votes, and finishing strong on both Facebook (top vote-getter) and my blog (second place) with people indicating it as their (or one of their) favorite, we have…..

Boy on Side of Corn Truck

Here’s what I wrote about this photo for the contest: “In my village, Magulilwa, Tanzania, corn harvest was in full swing. Here, a boy hangs on the side of a truck bed filled to the top.”

 

Next, I went with the most popular portrait. And here the voting started to get a little more interesting. Much more popular with the Facebook crowd, I submitted what I called…

Stately Tanzanian Woman

“In my village, people are normally quite camera shy, but after I delivered a hard copy to one man who wanted his photograph taken, others got on board–including this stately senior woman.”

 

Finally, I chose a wildcard. One of my favorites and one that was much more popular with the website voters, we have…

Young Tanzanian Boy Kicking Back

“Walking along my village, this little man stopped me in my tracks. He just sat there holding his drink in a way that looks almost like a hobo. But he also held my eye contact, and I got the feeling there was something deeper going on behind his young gaze.”

 

You can check out these entries on the Photo Contest site and see the other submissions while you’re at it.

And I want to thank you again for your feedback on these pictures. I was thrilled to see the response and to be able to share my journey through Tanzania via these pictures.

Oh, and don’t worry. I’ll let you know if I win.

***

Now lets get heady and analytical.

In this age of Big Data, I thought I’d take the time to aggregate the votes and chart them for a visual aid indicating voting patterns for each photo and method for voting. As stated above, there were some discrepancies, and one can theorize a million reasons why: the kinds of people who prefer Facebook over blog commenting, the demographic of my Facebook friends, or the even the way Facebook has you comment after you see other comments.

Or maybe you just want to know how many others voted like you. Or you want to know how the other photos did. OR you want to see which picture was the only one to not get a single vote.  :(

Whatever your fancy, here you go:

Got any ideas on why you think so many blog commentors and so few Facebookers voted for #1? Any other thoughts?

Thanks again.

 

National Geographic Photo Contest: Will You Help Me Choose Which Picture to Send?

National Geographic Traveler Magazine is holding their annual photo contest. Anyone (for a fee of $15) can submit a shot for a shot at some prizes. Given all the pictures I’ve taken since coming to Tanzania, I thought I’d give it a whirl this year…and I was hoping anyone reading this could help me decide which one to send.

There are four categories to the contest:

1.) Travel Portraits

2.) Outdoor Scenes

3.) Spontaneous Moments

-taking a picture at just the right time

4.) Sense of Place

-pictures that capture the essence of where they were taken

Beings that I’m not a professional photographer, and that many other participants will at least be using professional equipment, I’m leaning toward using my strength of capturing people and submitting under the Travel Portraits category. But I’ll let you judge for yourself.

I sifted through all my pictures since January and came up with, and fine-tuned, twenty photos. Let me know which one(s) you think are the best by leaving a comment at the bottom. The contest end June 30th. I’ll submit by this Tuesday the 24th. And I’ll let you know next week which shot we chose.

 

Spontaneous Moments:

#1

There’s a “bridge” near my village that is actually an old, tipped-over radio tower. People here use it even though it’s not the most convenient–especially with a bundle of firewood atop one’s head.

 

#2

Once a month, mothers with children gather at the government building for a weigh-in.

 

#3

Students line up for morning assembly. One finds something funny.

 

#4

Girls during chores, digging a pit for garbage

 

#5

A campaign rally in my village.

 

#6

A church service in the nearby city, Iringa

 

#7

Down near the village well, boys are having a ball.

 

#8

A boy climbs alongside a truck filled to the brim with harvested corn.

 

 

Outdoor Scenes:

#9

Monster ants on a path at my school

 

#10

Dawn along the road toward Iringa

 

 

Sense of Place:

#11

On the northern coast of Zanzibar, these cows walked by at 8 a.m. every morning.

 

#12

In Iringa, some light shines into a bunker with about 20 little places to eat.

 

#13

Near my school, I pose with a chameleon.

 

 

Travel Portraits

All these faces courtesy of my school or village: 

#14

 

#15

 

#16

 

#17

 

#18

 

#19

 

#20

 

So there you have it.

Let me know which one(s) you like best.

Tough decision? I hope so: )

-Brandon

Zanzibar Culture: Religion, Politics, and a Big Dance Party

Last week was the natural. This week is the cultural. But it’s not all churches and museums. Culture can be a late night, hip-hop African dance party, too. 

***

My second day in the Stone Town section of Zanzibar City was spent solo while the European girls went off to do some swimming with dolphins. I almost went with, but obeyed my truer calling to soak in the lifestyles of this novel, renowned part of the human world. Indeed, Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so honored for being the political and religious heart of Zanzibar, and as such, boasts the architectural, cultural, and historical markers of various peoples past and present.

Zanzibar Island may be small, but it has a big history as a port of choice for traders meeting from Arab, Indian, Persian, and Western cultures. Though power volleyed between groups–most recently made independent from the British Empire in 1961–the dominate culture has maintained as Arab. Thus, Muslims of Middle Eastern and African descent make up 99% of the population.

I, along with a couple other travelers, was staying in the home of an expat living as a local in the heart of the Stone Town. Hers was one of countless squeezed into narrow units within the old school narrow alleyways that I stepped outside this day to see.

The doors of Stone Town are of specific intrigue to visitors:

Only three years after independence in 1961, Zanzibar joined the nation of Tanganyika, turning the name of the nation into TanZANia. But many would prefer to take the ZAN back out. Despite the autonomous standing of the island–with its own parliament and president–many want to loosen more so ties with the mainland.

This morning I encountered an alley intersection that opened to a house-sized square. Within were 100 men sitting and watching the one flatscreen televising debate on the floor of the Tanzanian parliament in Dodoma.

I was told the politicians were discussing a revised constitution–perhaps one with more autonomy for Zanzibar. You knew when a politician indicated this because that’s when the crowd of men would cheer.

After this, I exited the alleys for the coastal road where your more typical tourist attractions stood.

I wandered into the old fort and theater:

Built in the 1600s by the Middle Eastern Omanis. Today, it comes with souvenir vendors

I then took in a museum:

So did a class of local primary students.

To the left of this interior design exhibit was the museum balcony. Looking out, one doesn’t forget what made all this civilization possible–the ocean, and this location as trade hub of yesteryear, particularly in spices and slaves.

Leaving the historic, I then transitioned to the everyday.

Hospital

Locals boys at a video game center

Dates for sale

By midafternoon, I took off my observer hat and jumped into the local life by going to a neighborhood gym.

As I was doing deadlifts, the owner came and stood by me with encouraging words for each up and down I did. “One!…Two!…Three!…Ndio! (yes) Ndio! (yes)”

***

While this whole day was unfolding, and the girls were out being one with the dolphins, I had also been taking the liberty to plan an event for the night–one that would unknowingly lead to a final, loud example of local culture.

Urska, the Slovenian flight attendant who stayed in the same place as I, had shared the day before that she was turning 30 on this day. I remember turning 30. I was in China and invited all my Chinese and Western friends out for a dinner. Assuming I’d be treated, I ordered a generous entree and even a dessert. As the meal was winding down, a few Chinese friends left, and I noticed it strange how the server hadn’t come by to settle their bill. Later, the server approached and handed me the tab with everyone’s orders. In China, the birthday boy/girl is honored to treat their friends.

Financial cultural differences aside, it was memorable evening, and one that I thought I should help Urska enjoy. I talked to Giovanni, the Brazilian fellow also staying with us and who worked around town as a cook. He set up a reservation at a restaurant where he used to work and ordered a cake. I bought some party favors at a small stationary store and prepared a gift from Lauren and I.

When the girls returned, we all readied to go out. Urska knew about the dinner, but not about the cake or the party hat!

She dove right into the birthday princess role.

We got to the restaurant, the third floor of an old building in the hotel section of Stone Town. We took the wooden staircase up the outside of the building, then stayed outside for dinner on the balcony.

Abdi, our spice tour guide, honored his invitation.

Lauren and Abdi

Then, so did Giovanni with a birthday cake. He also brought along a couple gal friends from Germany. Them three thirty-somethings liked to drink, smoke, and party. Lastly, there were a couple uninvited, but welcome, local guys who stood around and mingled and shared in the cake.

After dinner, it was time for gifts:

Lauren and I gave Urska a framed picture of us on our spice tour.

Fun was had by all.

Giovanni next to me. You’ll see more of him in a minute.

Contrary to our plans, the night wasn’t over. Giovanni and his party girls told us to jump in a taxi and follow his car to a big dance party.

Though I was skeptical whether I’d enjoy this loud, crowded, alcohol-induced, late-hour event for local Zanzibarian youth, Giovanni was persistent, and the decision was Urska’s.

Off we went.

Our taxi followed Giovanni block after block until buildings ended and forests began. Where were we going? On the way, some Bob Marley played in the cab. Nice touch as I looked out at the starlit night. I wanted to keep this mood going.

But soon we slowed down as we saw cars parked along the rural road in the 11pm darkness. Men in military fatigues guiding our car where to go. (We had heard it had something to do with he military, which made me wonder. Turns out they were there just for security, I believe.)

We parked next to Giovanni and then approached the club with a couple dozen people standing outside.

 

Here’s a summary of our night thus far courtesy of myself with birthday girl as camerawoman:

We walked to the entrance, paid the three dollar cover charge, and entered a large, dark room with a recessed dance floor. The others jumped in right away. I waited alongside the “pool” like an apprehensive swimmer. When I hopped down into the floor to give it a chance, though, I really began to enjoy the dancing and the music.

Of course, so did the others:

Party girls in their element. Giovanni found it favorable to go shirtless–told ya you’d see more of him. (Not sure why the darkness and my camera flash produced these spots.)

As the night went on, the floor got more crowded.

Who made all these people move about so?

Back outside, people were scattered in groups of twos, threes, and tens. Those of us coming from the dance floor made for these guys across the way who set up a fruit stand.

And after a welcome, middle-of-the-night refreshment, we found a taxi to bring us back. I didn’t put my head down on my pillow until 2-something. (Late for me, anyway.)

This was the end of Stone Town for me—a fitting end as I came to Zanzibar with images of quiet, relaxing beaches dancing in my head. And since I was heading to them the next day, best to end this bustling part of the island on a bang.

Next we go to the white sand beaches of the northern Zanzibar coast.

 

Zanzibar: Stone Town and Spice Tour with Mr. Coconut, Mr. Natural, and Two Beautiful Europeans

Last week, I trudged through rain, traffic, and the girl’s bathroom to get to Zanzibar. Today I get rewarded with sun, nature, and entertaining company.

***

I exited Zanzibar customs to bright skies and the old architecture of Stone Town.

For my first nights’ lodging, I used a website that locates hosts letting you stay with them for next to nothing. I found a woman from Europe who said she simply liked the company and the chance to meet new people from around the world. The downsides of this arrangement would balance the upside.

She was a middle-aged Slovenian woman named Katerina and was trying to make a life for herself in Zanzibar. She was off to a good start, getting a hotel job and sharing a place with her Zanzibar boyfriend smack dab in the middle of the intimate alleys of Stone Town.

Her tall, thin, quiet, feminine-faced professional dancing boyfriend named Fee met me right outside customs and walked me to their place. You can see him in the left in the white headband in the picture above.

Stone Town is a section of Zanzibar Town, the island’s main urban center. Stone Town is also the island’s most famous neighborhood, well known historically, culturally, and architecturally. (We’ll get to that later.)

Fee walked me along the coastal road a few blocks before turning inland, and before I knew it, we were within the maze of narrow alleyways as much a novelty and thrill to navigate as they were an annoyance when lost and startling when mopeds zoomed by at speeds I considered way too fast for the conditions.

After a few minutes, Fee stopped to unlock the ridiculously thick, ornate door which isn’t ridiculous at all here where all the doors are like this. I walked inside and greeted my inn.

My generously dusty mattress is on the floor to the left.

I wasn’t the only guest here. Upstairs was another Slovenian, a female flight attendant named Urska here on vacation, and then there was Giovanni from Brazil who worked in Zanzibar as a cook. He was usually gone, but I met Urska this first evening, a lovely, tall brunette who expressed interest in doing one of the spice tours this island is famous for. Fee’s friend, Abdi, who had toured Urska around before, was more than happy to show her around again. I guess I got to take advantage of his interest like a pilot fish swimming along with a shark: efficient transport to sought after places.

Later this evening, I wanted to hop online so walked to the community wifi hotspot: the steps outside the Zanzibar mobile communications company. Me and probably seven other young locals sat out there in the relative openness of an alley intersection. Guards stood there not caring that people gathered. Most of the boys and young men seemed interested in playing video games. I wanted to get on Facebook. And so did another Westerner who approached, a pretty blonde from the Netherlands named Laura.

She boldly traveled solo, but was interested in teaming up for the spice tour I told her about. So the next morning, Urska and I met with Laura.

Laura, Urska

And Abdi met us to take us away.

Fee (not pictured) guided us along with Abdi (left). The young man to the right was another friend who didn’t come along.

From the narrow alleys, we walked back to the open, coastal road and to the bus stand where we hopped in a van and headed out of town. Along a few miles and after a few stops, we found the highway rising up thinly forested hills. Then we stopped seemingly in the middle of nowhere, hopped out, and walked along the dirt shoulder of the tar for a hundred yards before hanging a right down a dirt driveway. We were soon met by a young, hefty man in a blue T shirt and jeans who would be our guide.

His services included walking us along the trails; pointing out the plants, trees, and other natural things of note; and taking large leaves, slicing them with his knife, and then braiding them together into all sorts of fashion accessories.

We proceeded on the tour:

Abdi now had two girls he wanted to impress. He actually tried to do so by climbing a tree:

He did it again later to gather some fruit.

When climbing trees didn’t work, Abdi tried to make himself up when we encountered a plant used for pigment in clothing.

 

In between stops to show us plants and demonstrate his sense of humor by tricking me into tasting aloe flesh (super bitter and long lasting), our guide quietly carried on weaving leaves. His first creations shaped into hats, and even before he was done, our eagerness to handle and try on his creations overcame us.

“I don’t know what it is, Laura. I just think we make a good match.”

We would come to another guy along our tour who apparently specialized in coconuts. After our introduction, he took his cue not just to gather some from atop the tree, but to put on a show by climbing in rhythm to a happy-go-lucky Swahili tune.

“Jambo,

Jambo Bwana!”

He sang as he mildly rocked up and down while taking steps up to heights that looked intimating from the ground, so you know were head-spinningly scary from the tops of the thin branchless tree. When he reached the top, he hacked the coconuts off to a crashing thud to the earth forty feet below.

Then he came back down in song and hacked away once more–opening them for our consumption.

Laura dubbed him: Mr. Coconut.

As we drank the sour milk and nibbled on the wet coconut flesh, our guide was finishing with his new line of Zanzibar spice tour spring wear. Soon he finished, and we gathered for a group shot:

And because of his way and wisdom with the environment, Laura called our blue-shirted fashion designer/guide, Mr. Natural.

Here’s a video of the day:

To finish the tour, we all sat down to enjoy more foods these forests produce.

And then we ended at a spice table. I didn’t mention this, but we saw many plants from which spices are derived. And I’ll just go ahead and spoil the surprise by admitting I purchased some for family back home.

Then we packed it up to go back to Stone Town. We said goodbye to Mr. Coconut, Mr. Natural, the spice salesmen, and these guys below that I end this post on because A. it’s the last shot I took in the forest and B. I just like the picture:

Next week we tackle cultural Zanzibar–history, modern politics and religion, and a huge dance party I somehow got invited to.

til then,

-Brandon

I’m Searching for Someone to Come Teach in Tanzania: Know Anyone?

As many of you know, I come home to Minnesota in August–August 2nd to be exact.

What many of you probably hadn’t thought is that once I leave, there’ll be a void (opportunity) here at the school.

Finally, even fewer of you have likely given serious thought to having yourself (or someone you know) making a life-changing move to East Africa.

But that’s exactly what this post is about.

I’m searching for someone to come to my village school (pictured above) in Tanzania to continue the computer program.

The program is new with the first hands-on computer classes starting in February of this year. The adolescent students have come a long ways over these few months as many hadn’t used a computer before. Because of this, we started–and have continued along–with the basics of computer use and word processing (pictured below).

The person who comes to take over does not have to be an computer whiz. I’m not. You just need to have a solid know how of Windows computers and then communicate that knowledge to the students.

More crucial, the person should take ownership and be creative to move the program forward. (For example, I discovered and helped implement a new education software. And I started the email pen pal program between students here and peers in Minnesota.)

And remember this is rural Tanzania, so the right person will also be open to new experiences, curious about new cultures, and embody a spirit of adventure/service.

Mama Diana preparing food for teachers

Village children getting water

Hilltop a few miles from the school

It is a volunteer position that offers room and board as well as a monthly stipend for spending money.

If you know anyone (or are such a person!) or know of a resource I could tap into to find someone, please let me know by emailing me at brandon@theperiphery.com

I hope you’re well this fine June day.

from Tanzania,

-Brandon

Arrival to Zanzibar: Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire…and the Girls Bathroom

Over our school’s Easter break, I had planned on visiting a few rugged areas of southwest Tanzania—a huge lake, another city, and a colleague’s home village even more basic in luxury than Magulilwa. But by April, and following a stretch of electrical outages and days of rainy slop, I changed my mind.

“That’s it.” I remember thinking eating dinner in the sudden darkness. “I need a change of scenery.”

Perhaps the beaches of Zanzibar would do the trick.

I left Magulilwa with visions of fast Internet, white noise waves, cawing gulls, and an ice-cold drink spurring on some relaxation and writing.

Was it like that?

Not really.

My time in Zanzibar was more noteworthy than that. Over the two week break, I bused, boated, taxied, walked, and snorkeled all the way to, and on, the island.

These next three articles will the most fast-paced, vacation-y of all my posts, taking you along to interesting places doing interesting things with a host of interesting characters.

Interested?

Let’s go.

***

The first thing I had to do was get to Dar es Salaam.

First, from my school, I took the usual bus to Iringa, and then I left early the next morning (Saturday, April 12th) on the nine hour ride for the coast.

We headed out at 6:30 a.m. It would have been a fine ride except that my knees were pressed up against the seat in front of me. Otherwise, the seats themselves were cozy, and the service provided a bottle of water and entertained us riders with Tanzanian rap videos on the little television up front.

The videos were remarkably similar to hip hop videos in the U.S. But in Tanzania you got to adjust. So instead of the baller riding with his girl in a Bentley, the gold chain-wearing guy rolled along in his pimped-out Pontiac Grand Prix.

I talked with a few adolescent siblings sitting nearby on their way home to their parents in Dar. The oldest—a fifteen year old girl—self-proclaimed themselves as “cappuccino kids” after learning their parents are a mixed race couple. I found it more interesting when the  golden-skinned, brown curly-haired sister told me they are referred to by Tanzanians by the same term Tanzanians refer to me and all the other white foreigners:  “mzungu”.

Eventually, rap videos turned into Tanzanian films—home video-looking with over-dramatic acting and American film scores playing in the background. But nevermind copyright. I wanted to see the director’s artistic license. A scene of a mother driving her daughter to primary school does not require the battle score from The Last of the Mohicans.

We pulled into the bus station in the outskirts of Dar es Salaam during, but also ahead of the worst of, a rainstorm.

So bad it got, that the following day’s bus to from Iringa to Dar es Salaam had to turn around because the road was flooded.

Cracking the tinted window to see a flooded yard

Looks like in my attempt to escape the wet weather of Iringa, I jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. I crossed my fingers that Zanzibar would be better.

Soon after getting to the outskirts, the bus pulled into the large Ubungo Bus Station, a huge parking lot with buses and taxis coming and going from all sorts of places. I got off the bus and welcomed the rain with a grateful stretch. Then I hopped in a taxi to Dar es Salaam’s downtown YMCA for the night’s lodging.

Dar es Salaam is by far the largest city in the country–Tanzania’s center for business, entertainment, and travel in and out of the country. With that, comes traffic.

The cabbie dropped me off after a stop and go commute, and I wheeled my suitcase into the plain, white-painted concrete building of the YMCA. The receptionist charged me double what my guide book quoted. I always get suspicious when this kind of thing happens.

“Did the price really go up that much since my guidebook was written—2010? I think to myself.  ”Or are you just charging me more because I’m white?” But what was I going to do? Walk out into the rain with my luggage? Pay for another taxi to take me to another place that might even be more expensive?

Ah well. At least the Y had this awesome basketball court:

I put my things in my plain jane room. I wondered if they’d be bringing a blanket for the barren bed. Then I went right back outside wrapped in my raincoat headed for the coast and the ferry port. I had to get my ticket for the following day’s boat ride to Zanzibar.

This part of Dar es Salaam would have been lovely if not for the weather. Tall shopping centers, an upscale Holiday Inn, and business towers lined this main street to the coast.

After a few rainy blocks, I reached the ocean:

And one or two blocks further south, I came to the ferry terminal and bought my ride to Zanzibar for the following day. ($35 in case you’re curious.)

By the time I got back to my hotel, I was soaked. My pants started as navy blue and ended jet black with brown-red accents at the bottom. My shoes were even filthier as I tried to walk across a construction site to save a few yards only to have my second step sink ankle deep into brown-red gravel-mud.

I wasn’t too miserable, however, to go out of my way for my first food splurge of this trip:

Subway: Tanzania’s only Western food chain. (Edit: I later found out KFC was now in Dar as well.)

With my sandwich in hand, I walked back to the Y, up the two flights to my room, and got ready to endure what I had just escaped—a cold shower. The one outside dirtied me up; this one was to clean me up. (I also brought my shoes and pants to rinse the dirt off them as well.)

Bathrooms were shared by the whole floor. I was thrown when a young Asian woman entered to shower in the shower stall next to mine. We’re a little cozy in this YMCA I see.

Getting back to my room, I placed my wet pants and shoes out on the little balcony to dry off. I never did find a blanket, and the cool, wet night forced me to find  way to stay warm. So I snuck down to the laundry room on the first floor and grabbed a few extra sheets to drape over me.

Here’s some video of my arrival to Dar and views from my room:

***

I awoke relieved that the rain had stopped. I walked out on the balcony to retrieve my still damp clothes and took a few shots out my window.

I walked back in to the bathroom only to bump into the same Asian woman and offer a pleasant but awkward hello. Things got more awkward. As I left this time, I looked closer at the always propped-open door to notice a black paint silhouette of a female figure. As I pointed at it with my mouth agape, the Asian girl just giggled at my shock to see that I’d been toileting and showering in the ladies room.

I got downstairs with all my things. The Y did serve a continental breakfast, but were out of milk. Then I dropped a piece of precious egg on the ground to see a crow come swoop it up. Not five minutes later, the same Asian girl came down to eat. I sat next to her. Her name was Yuki and came from Japan. She had been in Tanzania for college a few years prior and enjoyed herself. Now she returned to explore more of the country. Coincidentally, she was going to explore Zanzibar—this morning as well and on the same ferry and me.

So we decided to walk to the port together.

We might as well share the ride. We already shared the bathroom.

Nearing the ferry port and ignoring the calls out from the aggressive salesmen trying to get us to buy a ferry ticket through them, we entered the port lounge to discover it as upscale as any I’d expect to find back in the U.S. with cozy seating, air conditioning, a soccer game on the flatscreen on the wall. In minutes we boarded the ferry, where I’d find a similar level of technological modernity for this route:

From point A to B

My fellow Far Eastern friend and I, though, didn’t care too much about thy boat. Unlike some of the other riders, this wasn’t a normal commute. We wanted to catch as much of the action going on outside as possible, and from the exposed seats in the rear and front of the vessel, we took in the wind, ocean smells, and views such as these:

Cloudy but not rainy over Dar es Salaam, the weather was starting to turn in my favor.

After about an hour, a ferry employee pointed out Zanzibar Island in the distance.

And after 90 minutes, we neared the Zanzibar port.

This is Zanzibar Town. Specifically, its most famous and historic area called Stone Town. I’d be staying here the next few days before being beach bound.

After docking, we grabbed our luggage, got off the boat, and had to go through customs. The whole rigmarole of ferry and passport check reminded me of going to Hong Kong from mainland China. Here though, I’m a little confused by all the formality because Zanzibar is Tanzania—has been since 1964. And unlike Hong Kong, Zanzibar even uses the same money as the mainland. Nonetheless, we had to do with the process which included searching our bags.

Through the lines and shuffle, Yuki and I got separated.  Out the other side of the security check scramble, with exit door and sunny Zanzibar in sight, Yuki and I reconvened–but just to say thanks and goodbye. By now she had arranged her friend to get her, and I had my contact already waiting outside for me.

We had our moments, Yuki. We had the bathroom, breakfast, and the boat ride. But now is where we go our separate ways.

That’s life on the road: bumping into adventurous, spontaneous people; connecting with someone from a place so far from your own as two individuals in a mutually exclusive part of the world; but then having the encounter be as brief as it is enjoyable.

Here’s footage of the ferry ride:

Next week I show you Stone Town—and the Slovenians, Dutch girl, and locals I toured the island and even partied with.

 

til then,

-Brandon

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